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March 10, 2011

Book Notes - Jon Michaud ("When Tito Loved Clara")

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

Jon Michaud's debut novel When Tito Loved Clara affectingly combines the immigrant experience with a love triangle through his convincing characters and astute storytelling.

The New York Journal of Books wrote of the novel:

"This is a hard worked and heartfelt novel, packed with strong characters and vivid scenes, and it foretells of more interesting material sure to come from this debut novelist."

In his own words, here is Jon Michaud's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, When Tito Loved Clara:

My novel, When Tito Loved Clara, is centered around a multi-ethnic love triangle. Clara Lugo, who was brought to New York from the Dominican Republic as a child and raised in less than ideal conditions in northern Manhattan, has, through hard work and perseverance, made a life for herself in suburban New Jersey with her American husband, Thomas. She has a white-collar job as a law librarian and a middle-class life, complete with a young son, but she is unable to fully escape her inner-city childhood and immigrant family. When a former high-school boyfriend named Tito, who still carries a torch for her, reappears in Clara's life, she is forced to reckon with the cost of her assimilation and to finally come to terms with a terrible secret she thought she'd left behind.

The book was inspired by my own marriage to a Dominican woman whose story is not unlike Clara's. My wife and I lived for a number of years in northern Manhattan and music is one of my strongest associations with that neighborhood. I also rely on music for atmosphere, companionship, and inspiration when writing.

"Who Discovered America?" by Ozomatli, from Street Signs

Though not Dominican and not from New York, southern California's Ozomatli represent the kind of multi-ethnic, cross-cultural heterogeneity that is at the heart of my novel. I first discovered the band a decade ago when they appeared on Vin Scelsa's "Idiot's Delight." I love their fusion of rock, rap, and Latin music genres, and I sought to emulate that mix in my book by combining elements of the domestic romance and the thriller. "Who Discovered America?" vividly articulates the draw of the United States for immigrants and also the potential pitfalls immigrants face when deciding to come here. This one couplet says it all: "I never thought she could break my heart / But all her contradictions are tearing me apart."

"City of Immigrants" by Steve Earle from Washington Square Serenade

Inwood, where much of this novel is set, is a wonderful example of the way generations of immigrants from different cultures can leave their mark on a neighborhood. On Broadway, near 204th Street is the Dyckman house, which was built by a Dutch settler in 1784. Down the block are pubs named after rivers and towns in Ireland. A few blocks south, you'll find a synagogue. And all around, you will see Dominican-owned businesses where Spanish is spoken. Meanwhile, because of the express train, the neighborhood has long been a draw for middle-class couples and people working in the theatre and performing arts in Midtown Manhattan. Earle's song celebrates this diversity: "Open my door and the world walks in." It's a kind of answer to Ozomatli's "Who Discovered America?"

"Falso Amor" by Frank Reyes, from Bachata Mania 3

Bachata has always been my favorite of the Latin music styles. I find the balance of sentimental sweetness and melancholy to be a perfect combination—like peanuts and chocolate or strawberries and balsamic vinegar. The desperate, heartbroken titles of bachatas ("Que Pena," "Obsesion," "Triste," "Tu No Me Amas" etc.) perfectly articulate the longing that Tito feels for Clara. His life is one endless bachata. My memories of living in Inwood are always accompanied by a bachata soundtrack. It's what seemed to be playing in every livery cab I got into and what I heard coming out of every apartment window on summer nights as I walked home from the subway.

"Librarian" by My Morning Jacket, from Evil Urges

Two of the three main characters in this book are librarians, so I had to include this song, which is perhaps the greatest ever written about the profession. Though it traffics in the stereotype of the sexy librarian ("take off those glasses and let down your hair for me"), it does so in such a haunting way that I don't mind the cliché. The creepy and stalkerish tone of the song perfectly captures the not-quite-rightness of Tito's infatuation for Clara. The song also highlights the way that technology has changed librarianship—a development that has important ramifications for Thomas, who is laid off when his employers decide that a computer program can do his job.

"Apagame la Vela" ("Put Out My Candle") by Nicola Gutierres, from Raices Latinas: Smithsonian Folkways Latino Roots Collection

This rustic rendering of the merengue standard "Apagame la Vela" is the sort of music Clara would have heard throughout her brief childhood on her maternal grandfather's farm outside Santo Domingo. Clara's father puts out the candle of her youth by abducting her and taking her to live with him and her stepmother in Inwood, setting the book’s plot into motion.

"Troubled Times" by Fountains of Wayne from Utopia Parkway

Novels are about conflicts and problems—troubled times, indeed—and my novel looks at the troubled times faced by Clara and Thomas as they enter the waning days of their youth and deal with the loss of the first bloom of their marriage. Fountains of Wayne, named after a store on Route 46 in northern New Jersey, are the power-pop poets of suburban ennui. If the book were ever filmed, this is the song I'd want playing over the final credits. It strikes just the right chord of regret touched with hope.

"Dear Diary" by Pink from Missundaztood

A significant part of this novel takes place in high school and deals with the secrets that teen-agers keep from their parents and from each other. This is song is about the loneliness of the teen-age years. It is about not having anyone but a diary to confide in. For Clara it is her teacher, Miss Almonte, who becomes both role model and confidant; for Clara's niece, Deysei, it is Clara herself who is the confidant. But neither Clara nor Deysei confides everything—with tragic results.

"Gangsta Zone" by Daddy Yankee, featuring Snoop Dogg, from Barrio Fino (En Directo)

Reggaeton is the soundtrack of the way of life Clara is trying to leave behind. It's what's playing at her house when she returns from a day in the city to find that her sister, Yunis, just back from the Dominican Republic, has thrown an impromptu party and trashed her house. The "Gansta Zone" of the title is also the place where Raul, the closest thing to a villain in the novel, resides.

"Lebanese Blonde" by Thievery Corporation from Mirror Conspiracy

This song has no lyrical, musical, or geographic connection to the novel, but it's here because I listened to "Mirror Conspiracy" almost incessantly while working on When Tito Loved Clara. I wrote the first three-quarters of the book late at night after my son was asleep and this music provided the perfect after-hours ambiance for separating myself from my daily life as I sat in my little basement study, exhausted, but willing myself to keep working. I can't hear this song—or anything by Thievery Corporation—without seeing the screen of my computer and feeling its keys under my fingertips, the darkness outside and everyone else in the house asleep.

"New American Language" by Dan Bern, from New American Language

"New American Language" became an anthem for me while I was pushing myself to finish the book. My wife and I had had our second son around the time I was working on the final chapters of the novel. I found that the only time I had to write was on the New Jersey Transit trains I took to and from Penn Station each morning. For months, I would cue up this song to listen to as I walked from Penn Station to Times Square where my office is located. The song was a reward for having written on the train and it includes a couplet that speaks directly to the novel's concerns: "I have a dream of a new American language / One with a little bit more Spanish."

Jon Michaud and When Tito Loved Clara links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Entertainment Weekly review
Great Thoughts review
Kirkus Reviews review
Nomadreader review

CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Maplewood Patch profile of 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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