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January 25, 2011

Book Notes - Caroline Leavitt ("Pictures of You")

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

I feel like I have been reading Caroline Leavitt's fiction (and blog) forever, so I was excited to hear about her new novel Pictures of You.

When the book arrived I read it in one sitting, captivated from the first page to the last. Leavitt is a masterful storyteller and unveils her characters through acutely seen details. Pictures of You is a compelling tale of the aftereffects of a tragedy (in this case a car crash), one that richly deserves the rave reviews it has already received.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:

"Complex, contradictory characters. Leavitt's literary touch is so light, her hand so translucent on the page, that only when the mystery is finally solved does the reader realize how taut she's kept the tension all along. Hauntingly compelling."

In her own words, here is Caroline Leavitt's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Pictures of You:

My new novel Pictures of You is about how we can ever really know the ones we love, and about how we can (or whether we should) forgive the unforgivable. About four lives colliding around a mysterious car crash, the novel follows Isabelle, a photographer who becomes obsessed with the survivors; Charlie, the husband desperate to know what his wife and young son were doing with a suitcase three hours away from home; April, a wife fleeing a life she can't understand; and Sam, a young asthmatic with a terrible secret.

I always blast music when I write, both to relax me and because the beat somehow propels me. (I also need chocolate, the darker the better.) My musical taste is all over the place and sometimes embarrassingly so, but I don't really care. My husband is a world music and jazz critic and writer, both kinds of music that I love, but when I write, it's rock and roll, and the more emotionally drenched the better.

"Pictures of You" by The Cure

No one liked the first title of my novel except for me (Traveling Angels) and the second title (Breathe) didn't win any kudos, either, so my brilliant editor came up with Pictures of You, after a song by the band The Cure. I love The Cure, and love the title. The book deals with how we really see what we want to see in people, and how even photographs can lie as easily as people do, so this seems the perfect song to kick off a soundtrack.

"Last Kiss" by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers

Thank God for the sixties because they have a virtual soundtrack of car crash songs for teens. Although Pictures of You begins with an adult car crash, the anguish in this song is so fantastic, and so are the lines (I could never forget the sounds that night), that it's an irresistible choice. Plus, I can't listen to it without getting up and dancing and singing along, giving me a little workout in my writing hours even as it adds some joy.

"There is a Light That Never Goes Out" by the Smiths

One of my favorite songs on the planet because it's a mini-novel in itself, about a lost soul begging for connection. Adding to the car crash theme, this particular song has the narrator yearning for both a double-decker bus and a ten-ton truck crashing into him and his companion (how great are those lines!) followed by another exhilaratingly strange line, "To die by your side-well, the pleasure-the privilege is mine."

"Angels on the Balcony" by Blondie

"Afterglow in a distant world" and memory. Well, now, this is the song Sam would sing, trying to connect to his mother who was killed in a crash, and believing in angels. Plus, I happen to love Blondie. The whole concept of an angel on a balcony, too far away to touch, but close enough to really bother you, is perfect. If a song could be a punch in the heart, it's this one.

"TB Sheets" by Van Morrison

Sam, the boy in my novel, has terrible asthma, much like I did when I was a kid, and like Sam, I hid my inhalers or lost them deliberately, and refused to tell anyone that I had the disease, instead making up stories about going on vacation instead of being in the ER breathing into a machine! "TB Sheets" is about someone who is desperate and uncomfortable in a sick room and is trying to get away from the sick person ("I'll turn the radio on for you"). The song is sort of a microcosm of the worst part of Sam's world, where people don't know how to react to his illness. Plus, it's a great bluesy song and I could listen to Van Morrison forever.

The Piano Has Been Drinking" by Tom Waits

Growled out, this song has Waits blaming his troubles on the piano even as he sinks lower and lower into his own personal abyss. This reminded me of my stubborn protagonist Charlie, who although not a drinker, still refuses to see the truth of what's really there in front of him. Plus you can't help but sympathize with Waits in this song and even want to take him home, clean and sober him up and get him an aspirin.

"Turtle Blues" by Janis Joplin

Do you know how hard it is to find a song about a tortoise? I do, now. Nelson, a handsome, pet-shop rescued tortoise, figures prominently in my novel. He's the one creature who is steadfast and can be counted on in Isabelle's life. I put Nelson in the novel as an homage to my own tortoise, who died very recently after being with me for twenty years. I wanted people to realize that these creatures can be as important in a life as a dog or cat (yes, they can) and show how sublimely fascinating they are, and how they still offer important connection. While this song is more about hiding in a shell when things get tough, I still love Joplin's aching rasp, and truly, anyone who puts a turtle in a song should be celebrated, don't you think?

"Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" by Bruce Springsteen

Part of the novel's set in New York City, and though I adore NYC, I can't stand the usual New York anthems ("New York, New York" is particularly odious and "New York State of Mind" is overplayed to the point of becoming elevator muzak.) I used to live a block away from Tenth Avenue so I particularly love this one. It captures the gritty feverish dream of NYC and why anyone, including Isabelle would want to be there, even though she's alone and on her own at first. Plus, early Bruce, when he really was his street person persona, is a knockout.

"Liar" by Argent

Forget the stupid bubblegummy Three Dog Night version of this great song, and get thee to Argent. Flat-out deception figures prominently in my novel. People lie to each other and to themselves, often with a kind of desperation, which you can feel when you hear Argent belt out the "Liar! Liar!" chorus. I dare you to listen to this and not belt it out, yourself.

"Beautiful Boy" by John Lennon

Sam, the asthmatic ten-year-old with a horrific secret, is the novel's lynchpin, but his father's love for him—and Isabelle's love for him–is palpable and strong. This is such a simple and wonderful song, and somehow, seeing all those photographs over the years of Lennon with his son, makes it all the more evocative. You can hear the "How did I get so lucky?" wonder in Lennon's voice, which is what I hoped to convey in the novel.

"Coming Back to Me" by Jefferson Airplane

This is the most gorgeous song about loss that I've ever heard (I love it so much, I named an old novel after it). Every line is stretched with longing and hope, which is exactly what Isabelle, Charlie and Sam all feel throughout the novel. No one sings ballads like Marty Balin and this particular one seemed to capture so many themes I wanted to write about: the blind hope love can generate, the sense of wonder, the hope against hope that love will sustain.

"Breathe Me" by Sia

Okay, it's from the knockout ending of the television series Six Feet Under, but the feeling—that haunting sense of loss and wanting to belong, to breathe another person in and to be breathed in yourself, well, I hope that's my book all the way, Plus, of course, Sam suffers with asthma, and what could be more appropriate that a song about breath? I loved this song so much, I actually called my novel Breathe initially, in homage to it.

"Time of Your Life" by Green Day

"Time grabs you by the wrist." Another song about photographs and memory and loss, but loss that was worth it all the way, despite the pain. The "fork stuck in the road," the wrong turn, the melancholy—all themes of my novel are all in this song, one I'd use as the end note of the book. Plus, Green Day, despite the Broadway show (I'm one of the few who didn't like it), can't seem to hit a single wrong note, musically and lyrically.

Caroline Leavitt and Pictures of You links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Algonquin Books Blog interview with the author
At Home With Books review
Beth Kephart Books review
BookPage review review
Boston Globe review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Kirkus Reviews review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Once Upon a Book Blog review
Oprah review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Washington Post review

Baggot & Asher & Bode interview with the author
The Divining Wand guest post by the author
The Divining Wand interview with the author
Girlfriends Book Club interview with the author
Mothering interview with the author
My Book The Movie guest post by the author
Paula Whyman curiouswriter guest post by the author
WORD Brooklyn Blog interview with the author
WritersCast 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
Online "Best Music 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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