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April 29, 2011

Book Notes - A.J. Somerset ("Combat Camera")

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

Combat Camera is the dark debut novel by A.J. Somerset. Themes of violence and its emotional toll run throughout this gritty story of a war photographer and his friendship with a stripper who changes his life.

The Toronto Star wrote of the book:

"Somerset is a confident, gifted writer, which explains why Combat Camera has already won the Metcalf-Rooke Award. Somerset is able to seamlessly switch between dialogue and Zane’s internal monologue as he darts between grim horror and grim comedy. He also avoids the arid claustrophobia endemic to novels where much of the action takes place within the main character’s mind."

In his own words, here is A.J. Somerset's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Combat Camera:

I am always surprised at writers who say they don't listen to music when they write, or won't listen to music with vocals, as they don't want it to influence or distract them. Me, I won't write without music. Songs often express what we can't, or won't, put into words. We allow songs to be unabashedly sentimental in ways we do not allow to ourselves. The music I listen to when I write defines the internal worlds that characters don't get to express.

Lucas Zane had a career as a war photographer, and threw it away. Now he hopes to redeem himself through a documentary on Melissa, a stripper and porn performer looking for a redemption of her own. Combat Camera is a story about violence and its aftermath, about journalism, flim-flam, pornography, loneliness, the lies we convince ourselves to believe just so we can carry on, and the greatest sentimental lie of all, that you can somehow get a do-over on your life. These are some of the songs I had on heavy rotation while I wrote it.

"Nicotina (She's All That)" by Big Sugar (from Brothers & Sisters, Are You Ready?)

A wail on the high register of the harp, and the voice says "light it up." Gordie Johnson's guitar tone is a match meeting gasoline, the guitar riff crunching over a steady drum line, an insistent pulsing beat. The summer this song was released, I blew the factory speakers clear out of my cheap red hatchback. Loud, sexy, and brash, one hundred and twenty-five decibels of unabashed desire. You can hear Melissa dancing, strutting down that spotlit runway, topless. I'm her silver dollar, she's my, my slot machine.

"You're A Big Girl Now" by Bob Dylan (from Blood on the Tracks)

There is a clueless aspect to this song, an air of bewilderment. The singer has know idea what, if anything, he might do to fix things; he just wants it all not to be. And beneath it is resignation: things can't be fixed. Zane looks on Melissa with mixed feelings, a not untypical masculine reaction to the "fallen woman." I know that I can find you in somebody's room, howls Dylan. It's the price I have to pay; you're a big girl all the way.

"Basement Apartment" by Sarah Harmer (from You Were Here)

No one is watching me slide, below street level, barely alive. Youthful aspirations have collapsed, and life comes down to this. The singer is trapped in a life that she is unable, or simply insufficiently motivated, to escape. The pain she feels whenever she breathes is either the fault of the bleach in the hall, or self-inflicted, from all those bottle tokes. She's unhappy, but not unhappy enough to change. This song reminded me of someone, and a part of Melissa grew out of that.

"Polly Come Home" by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (from Raising Sand)

Polly, come home again; spread your wings to the wind. Robert Plant's spooky, moaning vocal, with a breathy backup by Krauss, is chilling. Gene Clark's song is an answer to "Pretty Polly," a murder ballad: innocent Polly is lured away into the woods by the man she loves, who kills her and dumps her in a shallow grave. But she is transformed into a bird, whose song tells on the murderer. If the wild bird could speak, Plant croons, he'd tell the places you have been. All the old murder ballads are really rape ballads; remember that when you hear the morning birdsong.

"Jesus Was An Only Son" by Bruce Springsteen (from Devils and Dust)

We are all only children as we climb our personal Calvarys. Mary's motherly prayer is that Jesus will sleep tight; in Gethsemane, Jesus prays for the life he never had, for delivery from his ineluctable fate. This is an old story, told ten thousand times, but it remains among our greatest stories because it is ultimately a story about ourselves. Things will be, no matter how we may wish otherwise. And it is only faith that separates wish from prayer.

"Lost Highway" by Hank Williams

I'm a rolling stone, all alone and lost; for a life of sin, I have paid the cost: those lyrics are the sound of Lucas Zane wallowing in self-pity. Hank Williams sounds corny to most listeners today, I suppose, the steady, traditional country boom-chick overlaid by the whine of fiddle and steel guitar. But find yourself alone in a motel room with a bottle of whiskey and a Hank Williams CD for company, and you will understand. If guilt is, as some say, the essence of women's emotional experience, surely the essence of the masculine condition is regret. And Williams has it in spades.

"Not Dark Yet" by Bob Dylan (from Time Out of Mind)

Dylan's voice is otherworldly, a wounded animal that has crawled off to die, a worn and burnished blade. Shadows are fallin', and I been here all day: down by the ocean in a steady drizzle, slow waves rolling in, breaking in time with George Recile's kick drum and cymbal. The light is fading and you've nowhere left to go. Sooner or later everybody runs out of road. The only person you never will outrun is you. Zane knows this; Melissa is just beginning to learn.

"So Hard Done By" by The Tragically Hip (from Day for Night)

Just then the stripper stopped in a coughing fit, said sorry, I can't go on with this. A grinding, pulsing guitar riff overlies a slinky drum line, with Gord Downie's vocal dancing above. A song with a stripper and an Instamatic is a natural fit for Melissa and Zane. Everything here is a tease, the truth of the matter always just out of reach. Bait and switch is the stripper's fundamental modus operandi. You never will know what's behind that smile. Close, but that's not why ... I'm so hard done by.

A.J. Somerset and Combat Camera links:

the author's blog

Advent Book Blog review
CBC News review
Encore Literary Magazine review
Free Range Reading review
Globe and Mail review
Good Reports review
National Post review
Reading for the Joy of It review
The Rover review
Toronto Star review

Enthusiasticast interview with the author
National Post interview with the author
The New Quarterly interview

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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