April 1, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
With effortless and elegant prose, the fourteen linked essays in Ryan Van Meter's new collection If You Knew Then What I Know Now coalesce into a coming-of-age memoir as well-written, honest, and moving as I have read in years.
Paul Lisicky wrote of the book:
"In a culture hungry for consolation and easy answers, it’s a relief to come across a memoir that’s only hungry for the truth. "So how do we learn to be in love?" asks the speaker of Ryan Van Meter's If You Knew Then What I Know Now. We don’t know, says the soul of his book, which is why I’ll keep coming back to these pure, generous pages again and again."
In middle school, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom listening to the radio, waiting for new favorite songs. With a blank tape loaded in the deck of the machine I called "my ghetto blaster" (though I lived in a suburb and had no idea what a ghetto was) I sat on my carpet with my fingertips poised on the RECORD buttons, at the mercy of the radio station. These eventual tapes were well loved but seriously compromised: songs started several bars in from their actual beginnings; during their choruses, my bedroom doorknob untwisted and my mother's voice yelled "Supper!" or the telephone rang; a DJ talked about traffic and weather before a song's actual end.
None of these tapes survive, but what I still think about is how more than just a series of songs, they were a kind of record of my life in that bedroom in that house in that suburb at that time. Like this playlist for my essay collection, the music on those tapes was the archive of what I listened to but also of whatever else was loud enough in my atmosphere to become part of the songs.
"Forever Young" by Alphaville
There's a lot of music named in my book, and my essay "Cherry Bars" is almost a playlist of its own. Simon and Garfunkel, Pink Floyd, The Carpenters and REO Speedwagon all step on stage for a song or two because that was the music playing during the summer afternoons in the essay, when my best friend and I were driving around, plotting vandalism with desserts. "Forever Young" is a song from the same time that couldn't make its way into the essay because it is so metaphorically perfect that the reader might smirk.
"De Usuahia a la Quiaca" by Gustavo Santaolalla
I often write while listening to film soundtracks, as in the original scores. Because this music is written to play under the activity of the movie scenes, in a good score, I feel as though I can hear the story elements. "The Motorcycle Diaries" film score was one I played on repeat (hundreds of times) while I wrote many of these essays. This particular song's title means something about traveling from Argentina's southernmost point to its northernmost, and the song itself is quietly pretty but has an insistent and repetitive melody, so I imagine a journey that's long but patient.
"My Body is a Cage" by The Arcade Fire
The essay "Specimen" takes place in seventh grade and centers around a suddenly developed fear of being abducted by aliens. I wrote it years before I heard this song, but when I finally did hear it, I felt invaded, as though the lyrics had been taken from inside my brain's most secret room. My essay is a less concise version of the line, "My body is a cage that keeps me from dancing with the one I love, but my mind holds the key." And like this great song, my essay dramatizes how the mind, in a terrible pubescent year, tries to save itself from its own body.
"Hope There's Someone" by Antony and the Johnsons
I have a playlist of sad music called "SAD MUSIC" for those times when I want to wallow. This song is one of the most popular because it's so transparently sad, so aggressively vulnerable. The essay where I think I'm most transparently vulnerable is "Things I Will Want To Tell You On Our First Date But Won't," and it imagines the first date with someone new after the dissolution of an eight-year relationship. The essay's form is a little odd (someone once called it a poem) and I played this song a lot as I was trying to figure out how to write it. The song opposite of this one is Quasi's "Bon Voyage," and I've listened to that one a lot too, but it's not in the SAD folder.
"Lover's Spit" by Broken Social Scene
When asked, I say this is my favorite song. Like film score music, I can play this on repeat while writing without getting bored. But the song itself is about boredom as well as complacency, and telling yourself to just get over it, whatever "it" is. In my book's final essay, "You Can't Turn Off The Snake Light," I worry about and try to get over a few things that might be an "it," including that biggest "it" of all.
"Dragon's Lair" by Sunset Rubdown
I like writing to really long songs because for a song to be successfully long, there has to be a narrative shape to it. Building up and slowing down, ruckus and silence, notes from all over the scale, vocals that move from rousing to whispered and back again. I like thinking that these patterns and rhythms make their way into what I'm writing, if I listen enough. This song is ten and a half minutes long, and it's about stories but it also feels like a story, made up of lines that surprise with their clever turns of phrase.
"April Fools Day" by Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright was the namesake to the goldfish who stars in one of my essays, "The Goldfish History," because for a long time, having a crush on him and his music was more possible than having an actual boyfriend. But besides him and goldfish, the essay thinks over the meaning in coincidence and concurrence, and the inevitability of losing faith in such forces. Or put another way, an ugly brown rock can be an emblem of hope and loss for one person and only a rock for another. So Rufus Wainwright needs to be here, but my book also comes out this year on April Fools Day. That's only a coincidence of course, but still perfect.
Ryan Van Meter and If You Knew Then What I Know Now links:
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)
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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