July 13, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Justin Kramon's debut novel Finny has been listed on several summer reading lists, and for good reason. This smartly written coming of age tale can be appreciated by everyone from young adults to senior citizens. Kramon crafts a world that is instantly relatable yet fascinating in this always clever book. As Finny transitions from childhood into adulthood, her character remains genuine and mesmerizing.
Justin Kramon also writes a blog, which covers writing and publishing this debut novel, and aims to help authors find agents and publish their short stories and books.
The Baltimore Sun wrote of the book:
"[C]ombining the human panoply of David Copperfield with the cutting colloquial wisdom of The Catcher in the Rye...Finny is the rare authentic coming-of-age novel. The protagonist matures without losing her sparkle. Her view of people changes as she adds new facets to the prism of her consciousness. The supporting characters also grow in unlikely and often heartening ways."
I want to start by apologizing. Looking over my playlist, I realize I'm a depressing person. I guess there were always hints. Other kids played outside; I preferred watching them play, through a window. Other kids begged their parents to take them to Disney World; I thought it wasn't worth the lines. Other kids enjoyed candy; I enjoyed telling them what it would eventually do to their teeth.
So I want to apologize in advance. I can take a perfectly upbeat playlist and turn it into The Funeral March. Give me Britney Spears; I'll give you divorce papers and a shaved noggin. That's how I am. I'm sorry. God, am I sorry.
But the purpose of this piece is to show something about myself and what I was trying to do in my book. So I have to be honest. People have talked about how cheerful and optimistic and funny my novel is, but I need to tell you that the author of the book is none of these things. The author doesn't like crowds or sun or children. The author doesn't stand up when the song "Like a Prayer" comes on. The author doesn't enjoy board games, doesn't see the point, doesn't care who wins, and usually ends up blurting out that we all die anyway. The author likes quiet time and senior citizens and Ingmar Bergman.
So this is my playlist. It's music that's moved me, music that's made me want to write, music that's driven me to try to capture the feeling I got from listening. If you want to enjoy yourself, please listen to these songs. If you want to mope around your apartment and complain that you think you're getting sick, please read on. (I know what I would do.)
"Waltz for Debby" – Bill Evans Trio
I think my listening of this song is biased, both by what I know about Bill Evans's life and my unadulterated love of all his music. There are times when I turn on this track and my eyes fill up in the first seconds, at the sound of the glasses clinking in the background of the club. Evans led one of the most influential jazz trios in history, which broke up when his close friend and bassist, Scott LaFaro, died in a car crash at age 25. Most of Evans's career was marked by heroin and cocaine addictions, hepatitis, and some of the most compelling, innovative, and emotional music I've heard. But what strikes me about this track – which was recorded with LaFaro, before all the tragedies – is the joyfulness of it. I think that's what's so moving about it to me, knowing the sadness Evans had in him and ahead of him, and hearing at the same time the brightness of his music. It's exactly the effect I strived for in my novel: to make the language a sparkling surface, like sun on water, only hinting at the depths below.
"I Remember" – Yeasayer
This is the kind of love song I would want to sing, if my singing voice weren't a cross between Kermit the Frog and Bobcat Goldthwait. "I Remember" is both a beautiful love ballad, employing comforting romantic clichés, and a bitter denouncement of love. The lyrics are all sugar, memories of "fresh cut grass" and "bright golden hearts," but when Chris Keating drops from falsetto into full voice, you can hear the anger and yearning behind the sweetness. My novel is a love story and coming-of-age tale, and I wanted it to have all the excitement and emotion of the big old romantic adventures, but at the same time question the idea of love. This song captures the mood I hoped to create in my book: both ironic and deeply earnest, whimsical and emotional, questioning and ultimately affirming.
"Hey Ya" – Andre 3000 (OutKast)
Is this the most cynical Billboard-topping pop song ever? It's a courtship song, but the method of courting is basically to tell the love interest how foolish her idea of love is. It's all about sex, the song says, but underneath that comment (and maybe I'm pushing this a little far) it seems there's a real regret about the loss of love. The lyrics talk about how people don't cheat only because they're afraid of getting dumped, about how people in love are unhappy and end up with "nothing at all," but at the same time Andre 3000 "Thank[s] God for Mom and Dad/For sticking through together/Because we don't know how." All the while dancing and having a good time. Does he wish he could have what his parents had? Probably not. But I wanted my protagonist, Finny, to struggle with these same issues, to bring these old ideas and questions about love into the confusing modern world.
"Waltz #2" – Elliott Smith
The main love story in my book is between Finny and a man named Earl, but there's a period when Finny and Earl are separated. During that time, a guy named Brad takes Finny out for a nice dinner, and a lot of wine, and they end up tumbling into bed together in Finny's apartment. To keep the neighbors from hearing, Finny puts on an Elliott Smith CD. At the end of a long drunken evening with Brad, which ends up very differently from the way Finny imagined, she turns on her computer and sees an email from Earl, who lives across an ocean from her, and she knows just where Earl is at that moment, sitting at the breakfast table in his Paris apartment, sun streaming through the high windows. Does anyone speak better than Elliott Smith about the way Finny feels at that moment?
"My Tears Dry on Their Own" – Amy Winehouse
Thankfully, there are not many ways in which Finny resembles Amy Winehouse, but I think this song captures one similarity. Listening to Winehouse's music, I always feel like she's singing up through a sea of pain and loneliness and regret. This is music for people who have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. But it's rallying music. This song, in particular, strikes a chord of self-reliance, which is something Finny has to find when friends and loved ones disappoint her. Regardless of the wreck Amy Winehouse makes of her own life, there's a strength in her music, even a self-awareness. Isn't music supposed to give us what we can't get in our real lives?
"St. James Infirmary" – Cassandra Wilson
The first time I heard this track, I hated it. The song is a jazz standard, adapted from an English folk tune, about a man going down to the hospital and finding his lover there, "stretched out on a long white table." It's a slow, plodding minor-key tune, and I knew the Louis Armstrong version, which gives the song the melancholy feeling of a funeral dirge. Cassandra Wilson's version, in contrast, is raucous, bluesy, hand-clapping music. It didn't fit.
Then, a few months ago, I was driving to a hospital where my mother was going through a bad illness. I was in her car, and she had the Cassandra Wilson CD – which I'd given her – in the player. I almost turned it off. But I didn't want to take the trouble to change it, and I didn't feel like sitting in silence. So I listened. And something happened. Something stopped in me, the way it does when I'm reading a great story, and life seems to calm for a moment and spread out in front of me. The music made sense, how you could sing a song like that. It wasn't a celebration of death, but a celebration in the face of death, and the joy was actually a kind of resilience. Which is what music is, I think, what art really is: a way to turn pain into a kind of joy.
More than anything, that's what I hoped to do in my book. It's the reason I get up in the morning and write.
Justin Kramon and Finny links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists