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March 18, 2011

Book Notes - Cara Hoffman ("So Much Pretty")

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

Cara Hoffman's debut novel So Much Pretty is a literary thriller in the finest sense. Her characters and rural New York setting are not observed by the reader but inhabited, and her skillful prose from multiple perspectives brings this truly horrific story to life.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"For all the passion in this intense narrative, Hoffman writes with a restraint that makes poetry of pain. She also shows a mastery of her craft by developing the story over 17 years and narrating it from multiple perspectives. While each has a different take on the horrific events that no one saw coming, the people who live in this insular place remain willfully blind to their own contributions to the deeper causes that made this tragedy almost inevitable."

In her own words, here is Cara Hoffman's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, So Much Pretty:

These are songs that either appear in So Much Pretty or that I was listening to while I was writing it. I find them really moving, and many of them, funny. Several songs on this list have at one time or another made me laugh out loud. They embody a lot of love and rage and release. And those things were important when I was writing the book, which has a lot of upsetting real world details. These days I am writing a new novel and I've put a lot of my old school punk back in the closet. Now I'm mostly listening to classical vocal stuff by Estonian composer, Arvo Part.

"A Suckers Evening," "I Gave You" - Palace/Bonnie Prince Billy

Both of these songs are written and performed by Will Oldham. His voice is one I most associate with writing So Much Pretty. If I had a long writing day—twelve or fifteen hours—which I generally did a few times a week, I would have his music playing quietly the entire time. "A Sucker's Evening" is a frightening restrained masterpiece of a song, a Grimm's fairytale. "I Gave You" has a folky timeless melody with words that could also be part of some Appalachian tradition, but were written by the artist. I love the simple stripped down way he sings, and I think of his music as a kind of literature. Perfect, surprising, and eloquent lyrics. I also deeply admire his creative work ethic.

"The Hunger," "Hall of Mirrors" – The Distillers

Brody Dale has a gorgeous voice and a kind of power that is completely shocking the first time you hear her and then overwhelmingly satisfying thereafter. She has vastly more than rage in her voice. Singing, whispering or screaming there's an utterly self-possessed muscular quality to everything she does. She's a force.

"Call Me Animal" - MC5

MC5 is one of the bands the character Claire Piper routinely plays on her little turntable in So Much Pretty. I like the MC5, but imagined Claire as one of those girls who really loved them. She could relate to their kind of drive and escape into their sound.

"This is Radio Clash," "The Call Up" – The Clash

More favorites of Claire Piper. These are classics and Joe Strummer was a hero.

"Metal Heart" – Cat Power

The way she croons lines from "Amazing Grace," a song written by a slave trader in the middle of this lost love song is insane. So powerful and heartbreaking.

"Henry Lee" - Nick Cave and PJ Harvey

This is a murder ballad which switches the traditional gender roles for a jealous killing. Their voices are beautiful together but the video for this is essential viewing because of the choreography and genuine chemistry between them. I "La-la-la-la-la-ed" through the chorus of this pretty song over and over one graduate school residency while walking around drinking Budweiser in the Vermont snow, with my Goddard brothers, setting off fireworks and not writing.

"Add it Up" – The Violent Femmes

This is one of my favorite songs. I've been waiting to grow out of it for twenty years and it hasn't happened. Over time the meaning has changed for me. I can't really explain how much I love this song. "words all fail the magic prize…"

"O Children" – Nick Cave

Gorgeous harmonies. Nick Cave is one of my favorite performers and lyricists ever. Again, he's funny and dark and his songs are pastorals and fairy tales filled with intelligence and rage. I think his voice is phenomenal and like Will Oldham, Nick Cave has a kind of otherworldly creative output. These guys are certainly writers as much as musicians.

"TV Eye" – The Stooges

This is one of the all time greats, though I love the entire Funhouse album. It's hard to pick just one song by Iggy—but he is so emblematically sexy and unhinged on "TV Eye" I think this is the one.

"Creator"- Santigold

Santigold provided anthems for finishing this book. Songs like "Unstoppable" and "Creator" made it possible for me to keep my chin up while I was waiting to move to Manhattan. She's all drive and style.

"Rock Salt and Nails" - The Hot Mud Family

Originally written by Utah Phillips this celebration of misogyny has some of the most beautiful harmonies sung by a man and a woman. The Hot Mud Family is a bluegrass/old time country string band from Ohio who played in the 70s and early 80s. Somebody had the presence of mind to release a compilation of all their recordings recently. When I think about what is played at The Rooster and The Alibi, in So Much Pretty this is what I hear.

"Insomniac" -The Motivators

This list would not be complete, nor remotely accurate, without including the music of the kids who were practicing in my attic while I was writing. The Motivators are the hybrid punk/metal/surf endeavor of three high school honor students who occasionally cross dress on stage. They make a cameo in the book at ABC No Rio. "Insomniac" and "Give It" are my two favorites—"Give It" has an intro that I could do without but is just so viciously, elegantly upbeat. It was a song that always made me happy to hear because it was irrefutable evidence that the kids are alright.

"There's a Better World A Coming," "Two Good Men" - Woody Guthrie

The character Alice Piper sings Woody Guthrie songs, which become significant later in the book. "Two Good Men," which is about Sacco and Vanzetti, often makes me cry. I like "Better World A Coming" very much, it's another anthem that gets stuck in my head for weeks at time. I love songs of solidarity. And I consider everything on this list in some way a song of solidarity.

Cara Hoffman and So Much Pretty links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpts from the book (prologue and chapter one)
excerpt from the book (audio of the prologue)

Head Butler review
In the Next Room review
January Magazine review
Kirkus Reviews review
Lonely Friday review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
NPR review
Publishers Weekly review
The Short List review

Goddard College MFA in Creative Writing Program interview with the author
Huffington Post interview with the author
Queen of Happy Endings 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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