November 9, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Betsy Carter's novel The Puzzle King offers a unique depiction of life as a Jew in both the United States and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Based on Carter's own family history, this is a page-turner that both enlightens and entertains with its well-drawn characters, an admirable work of historical fiction.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Drawing on family legends (no one could invent a story line like this one), Carter deftly paints a panoramic portrait of life during the turbulent 1930s. The pieces of her gripping story fit together so neatly that they cannot easily be torn apart. Highly recommended."
The Puzzle King takes place between 1892 and 1936 in New York City and a small town in Germany. Anti-Semitism is burgeoning on both sides of the ocean and all of the characters are affected by Hitler's ascent: some in tragic ways others, heroic. At the core of the novel is a great love story and the heartbreak and turbulence of those years. Needless to say, there was no shortage of music to go with it.
One of the first songs I listened to over and over again was Fred Astaire's 1936 version of "The Way You Look Tonight." My hero, Simon Phelps, and his wife, Flora, dance to that melody during an ocean crossing late that same year. Simon is a small, not particularly handsome man who can never get over his good fortune in marrying beautiful Flora. The way Astaire sings, "Oh, but you're lovely…" inspired the vision of her still taking his breath away and making him trip over his words. Also, this particular version has a lilt that made it easy to imagine a couple swaying as they danced on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic.
Frankly, I've never gotten it about opera. But one of my key characters, a German journalist, Karl Emmerling, is a real buff and takes his lover to the opera in what I hope is a sexy and romantic scene. So I got a bunch of CD's and found some gorgeous arias, which made me fall in love with Karl Emmerling and opera. I defy you to listen to: Bizet's "Au Fond du temple saint" from The Pearl Fishers, or Puccini's "Nessun dorma" from Turandot without tearing up.
Marlene Dietrich makes a guest appearance in The Puzzle King when Karl Emmerling interviews her. For that cameo, I played her recording of "Falling in Love Again," sung in German. It's a defiant and smoky song, exactly how I pictured her to be.
Nobody sings about heartbreak and longing like Jimmie Dale Gilmore. With his wispy voice, always on the verge of tears, and his killer lyrics: "You found me when my wings were broken and I was crying to the sky/And with your words unspoken, you made me whole and taught me how to fly," "I'm Gonna Love You," became, for me, Flora and Simon's theme song.
I have the complete collection of "Cirque du Soleil" soundtracks. I know how dorky this sounds, but they're great background music with their made-up language and musical acrobatics. These were particularly useful when writing about the lower east side in the late eighteen hundreds and helped me imagine the chaos and kinetic energy in those streets at that time.
For no reason other than that I find their songwriting astonishing, I listened to anything by Neil Young, Richard Thompson or Steve Earle. When their words distracted me from mine, and I wanted to get as far away as possible from Hitler and wartime, I Pandora'd into Fado or Flamenco guitar music and went wherever that took me.
My next-door neighbor is Robert Mann, founder of the Julliard String Quartet. Every morning he practices his violin. Several times a week, he teaches and is accompanied by piano and more violins. So everything from Haydn String quartets to contemporary pieces with their plunky dissonance was always playing in the background while I was writing The Puzzle King. Sometimes his students accidentally walked into my apartment (yes, I leave my door unlocked) and I would have to whisk them and their violin cases next door-- back into the twenty-first century.
Betsy Carter and The Puzzle King links:
At Home With Books review
Bookfoolery and Babble review
Boston Bibliophile review
Brizmus Blogs Books
Brooklyn Rail review
Jew Wishes review
Library Journal review
Los Angeles Times review
Mobile Press-Register review
New York Times review
A Reader's Respite review
Reading Recommendations from the Northwoods review
She Is Too Fond of Books review
We Be Reading review
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