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November 10, 2010

Book Notes - Abby Sher ("Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn't Stop Praying (Among Other Things)")

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

Abby Sher's memoir Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn't Stop Praying (Among Other Things) recounts her life with OCD, which manifested when her father died when she was eleven years old. Sher tells her story with engaging humor and exacting prose, she holds nothing back.

Amen, Amen, Amen is an fascinating, often unsettling, personal history of love, loss, and finding yourself, and puts a rare and important perspective on living with OCD.

The Chicago Tribune wrote of the book:

"Tender yet often amusing story of a young women who has spent her life struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, an affliction that often reared its holy head when it came to Sher's prayer time."

In her own words, here is Abby Sher's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn't Stop Praying (Among Other Things):

Dear Largehearted Boy,

I've been meaning to give you this mix tape for over twenty-five years now. Yes, we haven't known each other that long, and a lot of these songs were written in just the past decade, but I think the notes were there all along, it just took some special ears to see how they fit together.

My memoir, Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn't Stop Praying (Among Other Things) came out last year and just got a fresh paperback cover a few weeks ago. Many of the other things I couldn't stop doing for my 36 years of existence is singing. Lots of the songs are maybe for the older crowd. Like track one. My Aunt Simone was a phenomenal concert pianist and she made me want to live inside her hands as they spun up and down the keys. I also had to repeat a bunch of songs my dad made up. They were about tying your shoes or the George Washington Bridge. My dad and my aunt died when I was very little and I thought if I didn't sing their songs over and over again, they'd be mad or someone else would die too.

I did include some selections for the younger generation. As I got older it was challenging for me to figure out who I was when I wasn't repeating someone else's words. To know how to use my voice even when I was extremely off-key. I hope you feel the urge to boogie or cry at least once while you listen. I think sharing music is one of the most intimate things we can do. Thanks, LHB.


Beethoven's Sonata No. 31, in A flat, Op 110

This piece is my Aunt Simone. Especially the opening movement. I can feel her fingers press into those first chords and see her body undulate as she finds the underbelly of each note. She made me feel naked when she played, laying herself out there for the whole world to see. In between pieces she would talk to her audience about the composer's intentions and vision. She was a performer of the highest form. She convinced me I could be too. We played a duet together once in the quiet of her Connecticut cabin. Then I imagine us eating toasted rice cakes and peanut butter and going swimming in the lake until our skin was slick with algae. I miss her a lot.

"Cement Mixer, Putty Putty" by the Slim Gaillard Trio

Cement mixer, putty putty
Cement mixer, putty putty
Cement mixer, putty putty
Cement mixer, putty putty

This was one of my dad's favorite songs that I had to sing over and over again every time I saw a cement mixer on the street. I actually thought he made it up but when I wanted to include the lyrics in my book I decided I'd better check. Had to negotiate with a lawyer about how many doo bi doo bi's I could write without sending out another permissions check.

"Cheek to Cheek" by Irving Berlin

My grandmother, who by all accounts was a ravishing, extraordinary woman, took my father to fancy salons and galas, waltzing him into the wee hours. She had a set of pipes too. Dad's name was Roger Evan so she easily made this tune about him:

With Roger Evan,
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speeeeak!

This was another song I had to repeat until the words were etched into my tongue. The best version is definitely Ella and Louie, though I still can't hear even a muzak version at the mall without catching my breath.

"Joy to the World" by Hoyt Axton

I'm talking about the Three Dog Night version in The Big Chill. In sixth grade I was in my first big talent show. The Murray Avenue School Sixth Grade Talent Show – maybe you've heard of it? My best friend Ellyn and I wore matching leotards, tights, top hats and canes. We rocked the house. I was sure that with her by my side we could shimmy our way to the silver screen and I would follow the music that was in my blood and live in a trailer that served gummy bears for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then Ellyn dumped me. Instead of trying out to be a Solid Gold dancer, I started going to synagogue with my mom on Friday nights.

"Hello Again" by Neil Diamond

I'm still not sure that Neil didn't write this for me. But in the context of The Jazz Singer (Diamond's 1980 remake of the 1927 classic), he's singing for Molly Bell (played by Lucie Arnaz). Molly is a music agent who thinks Jess (Neil's character) is incredibly talented and destined for greatness. But Jess is torn by his Jewish upbringing and the life he's created as a married cantor according to his father's wishes. He writes the song after Molly the music agent cooks Neil a ham dinner and they make love in a montage. Yes, I was obsessed with this movie. Especially when his dad tears the ribbon of ritual mourning to symbolize that his son (Neil) is dead to him. Oy.

"Something In the Way She Moves" by James Taylor

This one is about my mom. Especially the lines

Every now and then the things I lean on lose their meaning
And I find myself careening
Into places where I should not let me go.
She has the power to go where no one else can find me
And to silently remind me
Of the happiness and the good times that I know…

My mom was my soul confidante for most of my first thirty years. I tried to squeeze these lyrics into the book but it was almost like they didn't do justice to how much I trusted and worshiped her. I've heard from many of her friends since the book's been out saying they had no idea I was struggling and that my mom never breathed a word of my secret life. I know she wasn't perfect, but she was my dearest friend and companion and she did find me, hold me, and gently steer me forward.


Originally from the musical A Chorus Line, lyrics by Edward Kleban, music by Marvin Hamlisch. Of course, I thought it would be hilarious to do a cabaret number about OCD where I'm bedazzled in sequins and a boa and can't make it past the first line. Get it? Counting over and over? It's really not funny to anyone with or without OCD. Never made it to Broadway.

"Swallowed in the Sea" by Coldplay

This is the song my husband Jay used to sing into my voicemail when he was wooing me. I didn't know what to do with his messages. I didn't know what to do with him. When I met Jay I was at the peak of my self-destructive behaviors. His sticking around only made me want to starve and beat myself up more. Then my mom died and it was all so sudden I thought being with Jay had killed her. Real pretty. It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times. But this song, like him, stayed present and steady.

"Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel

Jay wanted our first dance at the wedding to be to "99 Problems (But a Bitch Ain't One)" by Jay-Z. I was pushing for "Celebrate" by Kool and the Gang. We settled on Billy Joel. It was a fairytale sunset and the happy ending everyone wanted. Only there are a bunch more chapters in the book where I unravel because I can't handle someone loving me like that and my newest obsession becomes running away. There are some funny parts though, I promise.

"The Luckiest" by Ben Folds

Told you there was some more recent work on this list. This is the song that I used to woo Jay back with four years after we were married.

"Keep Breathing" by Ingrid Michaelson

I want to change the world
Instead I sleep
I want to believe in more than you and me
But all that I know is I'm breathing
All I can do is keep breathing
All we can do is keep breathing now

I think I first heard this in a yoga class. That's when I really honed my talent for public sobbing. Ingrid gets it, man. Each day I sat down in front of my manuscript I wondered how this book could help anyone besides my OCD self. This song pared my task down to just an inhale and an exhale. I was also pregnant while I wrote most of my first draft and I felt like my daughter was in cahoots with Ingrid, making me slow down and eventually just handing over what I had to my editor before my water broke. I listened to this song during contractions and still have it on one of her sleepytime mixes.

PS - My daughter recommends Amen, Amen, Amen as a dense but spacious coloring book.

Abby Sher and Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn't Stop Praying (Among Other Things) links:

the author's website
video trailer for the paperback edition
excerpt from the book (at the Jewish Daily Forward)

Bibliophile By the Sea review
Chicago Tribune review
Elevate Difference review
It Started Like This review
Oprah review
Pomp and Circumstance review
Satia's Journal review
TC Jewfolk review

Daily Beast profile of the author
The Frisky interview with the author
I Swim for Oceans interview with the author
Jewish Book Council Blog guest post by the author
Jewish Daily Forward interview with the author
Lost Magazine essay by the author
Marie Claire interview with the author
One Writeous Chick interview with the author
Oy!Chicago interview with the author
Psychology Today essay by the author
WGCU interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists

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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