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April 28, 2011

Book Notes - Paul Lisicky ("The Burning House")

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

In his new novel The Burning House, Paul Lisicky skillfully exposes the vulnerability and tangled web of our closest relationships with subtle prose and a strong narrative.

Robert Olen Butler wrote of the book:

"The Burning House is an achingly lovely novel about the things that bind us together in this life and the things that pull us apart. Paul Lisicky has an extraordinary gift for exploring emotional nuance and the rhythms of desire. With this book he yet again asserts himself as one of the select writers who continues to teach me about the complexities of the human heart."


In his own words, here is Paul Lisicky's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Burning House:


We Turn the Light on Your Lonely Home
On The Burning House by Paul Lisicky


The Burning House is many things: it's a book about a long-term relationship, a book about trying to protect community, a book about wildness.  It's also a book about music--or at least it has music is in its DNA.  The narrator's wife is former singer, and at the start of the novel he’s confused by the fact that she's stopped making music.  I was a songwriter before I turned to writing, and I wanted to write a compressed novel that shape-shifted like an extended song--or a string of songs.  Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Bjork: I hope they’re present in these sentences as much as the writers who mean the most to me.


1. "Stones" (Sonic Youth)

I always sit up whenever I hear this song.  I guess that's true of all the songs on this list--I can't look at the Twitter feed or sweep the floor when they're on.  Instantly you're in an idiosyncratic harmonic landscape, which gives you a sense of emotions in collision.  It seems right for the tone of the book.  The characters in the book are haunted by the recent death of the narrator's mother-in-law in ways they can't even see.  And how could you resist lines like these? "We’re not gonna run away/ We’re not gonna leave you, stranger / We turn the light on your lonely home"


2. "Born to Run: Acoustic Version" (Bruce Springsteen)


Early in the book, a minor character jokes with Isidore, the narrator, telling him he's always singing "Born to Run."  Isidore is not pleased: who wants to be the object of someone else's projection?  And yet the heightened romanticism of this song does seem to be in sync with Isidore's character; maybe it’s an aspect of himself that makes him uncomfortable.  I could have gone with the studio recording, but this chastened, more melancholy version makes me think of him.


3. "The Guests" (Leonard Cohen)

Desire gets these characters into trouble, but it would be simplistic not to point to how it feeds us too.  I love the mystery of this song, the climbing background vocals, the emotive violin against Leonard Cohen's husky drone, the attempt to represent love as something akin to a communion banquet.  


4. "Banquet" (Joni Mitchell)

How is it possible to settle on any one Joni song?  I could have picked "Blue."  I could have picked "A Case of You,” “Black Crow,” “Two Gray Rooms,” “Last Chance Lost.”  Community life is central to this novel, and this song is a meditation on inequality: the tension between those who have and those who don't.  The song keeps reinventing itself as it moves through its sequence of key changes.  And I'm stirred by the atmosphere of tides, seagulls, waterskiers--even the plastic detergent bottles floating on the water.  Water is central to this novel, and its rhythms effect these characters’ interior lives.


5. "Timer" (Laura Nyro)

At one point, Isidore remembers seeing his wife for the first time.  She's young; she's singing this on stage, and that's it: he's swept.  Structurally, the song is a collage, a jigsaw puzzle--there's even an explicit nod to the jigsaw late in the game.  A little swing, a little Motown, gospel, a little Broadway.  I love the way it manages to be sexy, playful, holy, dark, and hopeful all at the same time.  It probably embodies all the disparate qualities Isidore once saw in his wife, whose name is--you might have guessed--Laura.


6. "Walk on By" (Burt Bacharach, as sung by Dionne Warwick)

A Burt Bacharach song wants to be on this list, and Dionne Warwick's take is stylish and offhand in a prototypical mid-1960s way.  I can just imagine the Laura of the book singing something like this to herself, as Isidore spends more and more time with her sister, Joan, who's moved into the family house.  It's hard not to be struck by the restraint of this performance--the force of feeling held back by the singer.  And I could never tire of the Gershwinesque piano patterns of the refrain.  


7. "Mercy Mercy Me: The Ecology" (Marvin Gaye) 

Joan gets involved with a group that attempts to stop a nearby townhouse development.  That project is planned for a fragile island, home to a population of endangered shore birds.  Joan's love for wild creatures captivates Isidore--or that's how he explains his attraction to himself.   This is probably my favorite song of environmental concern.  I think it keeps from being too message-y through the tension between form and content.  Marvin Gaye sounds as if he's singing the sweetest, most heartbroken love song as he lists one environmental crime after another.  It shouldn't work, but it does.  


8. "Jigsaw Falling Into Place" (Radiohead)

I don't think we need to know what this song is about in order to understand it.  It's certainly brings to mind untrapped feeling, anarchic energy.  It builds, releases itself, morphs and grows, a facsimile of Isidore's inner life as things get out of hand.


9. "Grace" (Jeff Buckley)

Another song of untrapped emotion.   A love song and a prayer, pulled along by an awareness of impending death.  A hybrid of a song.  It lives somewhere between Tim Buckley and Led Zeppelin.  And harmonically, it never moves predictably.  The speaker says, "I'm not afraid to die."  And for the duration of the song, we're almost convinced.


10.  "Southern Point" (Grizzly Bear)

There's something pretty spectacular about the expansiveness enacted here.  The slam of percussion, the brisk chord changes on the guitar, the soaring vocals.  You can’t help but smell the ocean and see the point it wants to conjure up.  It's a dark song ("you'll never find me me now") but it also suggests optimism.  There is a moment of great optimism in the book, when it seems like the impossible--perfection--might be so close that it could almost be touched.


11. "All We Are" (Dirty Projectors and Bjork)

One thing we humans tend to do is fall for an idealized version of our partners, and we can hold fast to that image over time.  Isidore is still haunted by a romanticized version of his wife.  I wonder whether his fixation on his sister-in-law is an unconscious attempt to get to know his wife again, as she is right now.  According to David Longstreth, the man behind Dirty Projectors, this song was inspired by a moment when Amber Coffman, a member of the band, watched whales in the Pacific.  She believes she saw the whale and the whale saw her back.  We've all had those experiences when we're able to see through our projections to what's truly there.  I'm always touched by the way the final duet of the song respects awkwardness and imperfection.  Both Bjork and David seem to be listening to one another and singing back.  That seems true to what Isidore hopes for in the final sentences of the book.


Paul Lisicky and The Burning House links:

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

Publishers Weekly review

Bindu Wiles interview with the author
Encore profile of the author
Lambda Literary interview with the author
Philadelphia Stories interview with the author
Used Furniture Review 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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