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November 3, 2010

Book Notes - Anne Trubek ("A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses")

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

Anne Trubek's new book, A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses, examines the value of literary pilgrimages to famous American writers' houses.

Trubek may be a skeptical pilgrim, but she shares always thoughtful insights, peppered with personal revelations and a marvelous sense of humor, as she visits these literary museums across the country. Her openness not only with the landmark experiences, but also herself, is what makes this book so special.

Brock Clarke wrote of the book:

"A remarkable book: part travelogue, part rant, part memoir, part literary analysis and urban history, it is like nothing else I've ever read. In wondering why we look to writers' houses for inspiration when we could be looking to the writers' work, Trubek has—with humor, with self-deprecation, even with occasional anger and sadness—reminded us why we need literature in the first place."

In her own words, here is Anne Trubek's Book Notes music playlist for her book, A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses:

I am honored to be asked to contribute to this series, but also embarrassed. Why? Because of my lame knowledge of music. I love music; I listen to it; I think it soothes the savage etc. I just don't know how to talk about it very well.

With that caveat in mind, here are my Book Notes:


Paul Simon's "Graceland"

For the longest time I could not express what I was trying to get at in my book, A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses. I would try to explain to people who asked what my book was about that I was not doing a coffee table book, or a travel guide, but instead trying to get at the reason people are so drawn to these sites, whereas I am not. I wanted to explain my disillusionment with what I had been doing before (academic studies of literature) too. It was not until the book was almost done, and I was driving in my car listening to the radio, when I had a clichéd eureka moment. I could just use Paul Simon's "Graceland" to explain my book.

It captures the American road trip/history of the nation aspect of my book:

The Mississippi delta was shining
Like a national guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war

It gets at the pilgrimage aspect of visiting writers' houses:

I'm going to Graceland
Poorboys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland

It gets the memoir aspect of the book, too, almost eerily well. I took my son with me on some trips, and on the trip south to Hannibal, Missouri, to the Mark Twain house, Simon was nine. I went through a very tough divorce when Simon was two, and many of the years I worked on this book were grim. Writing the book was, for me, about rebuilding my life and finding meaning:

My traveling companion is nine years old
He is the child of my first marriage
But I've reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland

And then the key lines:

For reasons I cannot explain
There's some part of me wants to see

Because I too was unable to explain why I wanted to go these houses, and many who visit could not quite explain why they were there, and that uncertainty I had to learn how to simply sit with, rather than explain, analyze or answer.


These are albums and songs that I played while drafting, sometime obsessively, for reasons I cannot explain. If anyone reading this can explain why, somatically, they made sense to listen to while writing about writers' houses, I'd love to hear about it.

The National: Boxer

Especially "Fake Empire." Especially "We're half awake in a fake empire."

Ben Sollee: Learning To Bend

How cool the cello can be.

Operas: Magic Flute, Don Giovanni; Barber of Seville; Carmen

I have tried to teach myself how to understand opera in the past few years. I have started attending operas, delighted and enthralled. I listened to podcasts that explained how opera works. I listened to "10 lectures in the history of opera" on CD during my commute. I still don't understand opera, nor do I ever think I shall. But I sure do love listening to it. I'm a beginner, though, so I've been listening to the hit parade of operas.

Leonard Cohen

One needn't explain, need one?

The awesome Leonard Cohen covers album

Rufus Wainwright at the Chelsea Hotel makes me tear up every time.


I'm kinda addicted to this band. Ethereal female voices do it to me, and she's got that in spades. The melodies are so gorgeous, the lyrics scan, and their albums, now that I check, are tops in my iTunes most played list.



Kinda sad, kinda longing, lots of yearning, the present defined by the past, playing with a received tradition and seeking new audiences. Steve Earle, Old 97s, Gillian Welch, Roseanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, etc.


My book is organized around authors—each chapter focuses on one author and one house. So I challenged myself to a quick fire round to match musician with author/chapter:

Walt Whitman. That's easy. Bob Dylan

Mark Twain. Bruce Springsteen is too obvious. He's close, but in this chapter I talk about problems with authenticity, small towns, and American clichés. So I'm going to say Aaron Copeland.

Hemingway. I'm going to go with Neil Young here, because that chapter is on the many different Hemingways (and Hemingway houses), and how one can gauge much about American politics via the Hemingway houses. Like the many periods/genres/poses/politics of Neil Young.

Louisa May Alcott. My chapter on Concord discusses many writers, but ends with a paean to Alcott, who is complicated, fascinating, feminist. If you heard Patti Smith in your head whenever you thought of Louisa May Alcott (instead of sentimental images of girls in crinoline), I would be thrilled.

Thomas Wolfe. We have forgotten him! Pick your favorite underknown, overlooked-by-history musician for this chapter. Even if said musician deserves his or her downfall.

Jack London This chapter is on depression, the vanity of human wishes, and mortality. It's a real downer, but also maybe my favorite. It's a Joni Mitchell.

Paul Laurence Dunbar I'll have to go with Gil Scot Heron here, because Dunbar played with language, led a tragic life and is lesser known than he should be.

Langston Hughes/Charles Chesnutt and Cleveland. The last chapter takes place where I live, Cleveland (home of rock and roll, right?), and discusses two writers who don't have houses. I'm going to give this to Lucinda Williams, because she knows how to be angry and hurt all at once.

Anne Trubek and A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses links:

the author's website

Boston Globe review
The Fine Books Blog review
Salon review

The American Prospect essay by the author
Isak interview with the author
New York Times essay by the author
Oxford American essay by the author (on Thomas Wolfe's home)

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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