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September 8, 2010

Book Notes - Annabel Lyon ("The Golden Mean")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Annabel Lyon's gift for storytelling has already earned her comparisons to Alice Munro, and her novel The Golden Mean envelops the reader in the Macedonia of Aristotle and his student, Alexander the Great. Most surprisingly, Lyon's exploration of both the life and mind of Aristotle is the most comprehensive and human a study of the philosopher I have read.

Quill & Quire wrote of the book:

"Lyon's singular gifts for description, character development, and plotting are on full display here, informing her unique and creative story. The novel is deep and rich in thought and accomplishment, yet it reads with the calming ease and influence of a cool summer breeze."

In her own words, here is Annabel Lyon's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Golden Mean:

The Golden Mean chronicles the seven-year relationship between the ancient philosopher Aristotle and his most famous student, the teenage Alexander before he was Great. So that makes me a philosophy geek, an ancient history geek, a historical fiction geek…. Sigh. You'd think the music I listened to during the seven and a half years it took to write the novel would be all lyres and lutes, but I was born in 1971—Generation X, the MTV generation—and the musical tastes I've carried into adulthood run less to pan pipes than to grunge and punk, with a broad streak of Baroque. (I wasted my adolescence studying classical piano, dreaming of a concert career the way a 5'4" teenager might dream of the NBA—sweetly, stupidly). In fact, though, my taste in music—angry, dirty, complex, sad music—probably influenced my characters more than I realized at the time of writing. I came to understand my two main characters through their frailties: Aristotle as bi-polar, Alexander as suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of being trained as a child soldier. They lived in a world constantly at war, a world of slavery and illiteracy and suffering, where every other woman died in childbirth and mental illness was utterly frightening and mysterious. The music I returned to again and again while writing the novel (with one or two blessed exceptions) tended to reflect back the harshness and fear and loneliness I was writing about. Bleak beauty; vibrant darkness. And a bit of Beach Boys.


This Australian group of Mina Kanaridis and Philip South, led by composer and scholar Michael Atherton, performs recreations of ancient Greek music on original instruments. Lutes and lyres and pan-pipes, oh my! In fact, what attracts me to Melismos performances are the profoundly unsettling sounds they produce: the almost Celtic wailing of the singer, the haunting effects on the frame drum, the relentlessly driving rhythms, and the hypnotic quality of the double aulos. You get a glimpse into the music that inspired and fuelled Dionysian revels, the raves of the ancient world.

Arcade Fire, "Intervention"

Can I begin by saying I have no idea what the hell this song is about? But The Arcade Fire make such a great, glorious noise that it doesn't really matter. (I picked "Intervention" more or less randomly; any of their songs would have done). I'm bad at making out the lyrics at the best of times, so the half-phrases I can glean from Funeral and Neon Bible take on profound resonance: "I guess we'll just have to adjust" or "Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart" become as oddly meaningful as the fragments in Anne Carson's stunning translation of Sappho, If Not, Winter. You listen to them and get love, lust, despair, childhood, and loss over an immense musical architecture.

Wilco, "Radio Cure"

"Cheer up, honey, I hope you can / There is something wrong with me / My mind is full of silvery stars." I played this so many times, at home and in the car, wrestling with the feelings of depression and despair that have surfaced periodically throughout my life, that my 18-month-old would start asking for the "cheer-up song." Isn't that cute? Except that I wasn't feeling cute. I was feeling like I would never enjoy anything, or write a decent sentence, or get a good night's sleep ever again. At a certain point I realized that everyone in my novel—Aristotle, Aristotle's wife, their new house slave, Aristotle's friends the theatre director and the general, Alexander, Alexander's mother, everyone, everyone—was depressed. Who in god's name would want to read that? And then my husband and I would have endless arguments about whether Jeff Tweedy was singing "Distance has a way" or "Distance has no way / of making love understandable". We finally agreed for the sake of our marriage that he was singing it differently each time. What brought me back again and again to the song were the glimpses of beauty from the pits. I understood a depressed person having a mind filled with silvery stars; that sounded like the Aristotle I was struggling to capture on the page, that simultaneous beauty and wonder and despair, the gorgeous fragility of the human mind.

The Clash, "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?"

After a fierce argument (I can't remember, but possibly about Jeff Tweedy), my husband surreptitiously loaded this as my cell phone's ring-tone. Funny, funny man. You've got time to play with my phone, how about you go put on a load of laundry? But "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" is my contender for greatest pop song of all time, so I left it where it was. It became the soundtrack of my one workday a week, when my husband on his day off took the toddler and the baby so I could escape to write for a few precious hours at the public library or local coffee-shop. I'd hear that guitar riff, and then Joe Strummer would make that James Brown yelp that starts the song. I'd press the button to hear my husband asking how it was going, and would I be home soon? The weird thing was that the ring-tone didn't kill the song for me; I got the same thrill of pleasure every time I heard that first riff, even when I was up to my knees in Macedonian mud and really, really didn't want to wash it off quite yet.

Beach Boys, "Surfer Girl"

My five-year-old's favourite Beach Boys song; their Greatest Hits CD lives in our car stereo and only occasionally comes out so she can listen to the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" instead. What have the Beach Boys got to do with The Golden Mean? Not much, except that it was undeniably a part of my mental soundtrack while I was working on the book. "I have watched you on the shore / Standing by the ocean's roar / Do you love me?" Aristotle is known from his biological writings to have been a marine biologist and an avid swimmer, collecting fish and shellfish specimens and describing the actions of animals under the water. I included quite a few scenes of him on the shore, standing by the ocean's roar, brooding about this and that. Aristotle and Brian Wilson, together at last!

Yo-Yo Ma, Bach's Solo Cello Suites

Oh, horrid cliché! The fact that everyone loves the Bach cello suites makes me want to hate them, but I can't. I love them too, and if I don't check in with them every so often I get twitchy. You've got your C major for when you're feeling chipper, your D minor for when you can't open the curtains or leave the apartment. They're the perfect musical incarnation of the solitary thinker in all his or her moods, and a reminder of everything human achievement—whether in music or literature or science or philosophy—can be.

Annabel Lyon and The Golden Mean links:

the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry

All Things Considered review review
Financial Times review
Free Range Reading review
Globe and Mail review
Guardian review
A Journey Through Literature review
KevinfromCanada review
Librarians Do It Between the Covers review
The Mookse and the Gripes review
National Post review
A Novelist's Mind review
Read, Play, Blog review
Shelf Awareness review
Vancouver Sun review
Yorkshire Evening Post review

CBC interview with the author
Georgia Straight profile of the author
Quill & Quire review
Rob McLennan's Blog interview with the author
The Tyee profile of the author
The Walrus interview with the author

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)
musician/author interviews
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

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