May 12, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Meghan O'Rourke's new book The Long Goodbye is much more than a memoir about her mother's death and how it affected her. O'Rourke clearly and honestly portrays her mother's illness, death, and its emotional aftermath, but also examines how our society deals with grief.
The Long Goodbye rings true to anyone who has dealt with the terminal illness or death of a parent, but more importantly helps us understand the bereavement process as well as our own selves.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"While the death of O’Rourke’s mother takes place midway through the book, her presence lingers. The author provides many seemingly insignificant details that provide a much-needed humanizing effect, sparing the victim from functioning as little more than a stand-in for her illness. Equally successful is O’Rourke’s ability to navigate beyond the realm of sentimentality, much preferring to render the drama with firm-lipped frankness. An unflinching, cathartic memoir."
I usually don’t listen to music while I write: after 30 my brain became just too distractible. But music is a silent presence in my book The Long Goodbye, which is about mourning my mother, and the shadowy, intense world that grief drags you into. In my mother’s final months of life—she died in 2008 at the age of 55—I drove back and forth from my home in Brooklyn to hers in Connecticut, and then from her home to the hospital, listening to music – either my iPod or the "Fairfield Fox" radio station, as I think it was called. And so my grief came to have a kind of soundtrack. Some of the songs were a little cheesy and old, others were songs on albums just coming out, such as Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Mostly it was while listening to music driving alone at night through the wintry New York streets or through the dry desert in Texas that I connected to the sublimity of loss – its largeness, the way it can bring us face to face with our deeper human condition. Our lives are so minute and our love so monumental (to each of us, at least). Songs were one of the ways I could experience both beauty and anguish at the same time, and in that way they helped me find a path through sorrow.
"Only the Good Die Young," Billy Joel. My mother grew up in an Irish Catholic family but was herself a lapsed Catholic. As I recall, she sometimes made jokes about this song. My parents gave each other a Billy Joel album for Christmas when I was a kid, in the early 1980s. I remember thinking it was hilarious that they had each bought the same present for each other. "Only the Good Die Young" would come on the radio as I was driving to the hospital and it made me nostalgic for my childhood and young, sly, healthy mother.
"Atlantic City," Bruce Springsteen. My mother grew up on the Jersey Shore and her whole family seemed to have had beers with Springsteen at one point or another. He’d apparently played at one of my mom’s school dances before he became Bruce Springsteen. This song is just crazily gorgeous and full of longing. "Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/ But maybe everything that dies one day comes back. / Put your makeup on, do your hair up pretty/ and meet me tonight in Atlantic City." God. It captures the fleeting sense of time and loss so plainly, and again, it helped me imagine my young mother. She seemed young when she was dying, like it wasn’t just her adult self but her girlish self that was passing on.
"Pots and Pans," Les Savy Fav. A friend made me a mix after my mother died and this was on it. I listened to it obsessively because of its a joyous, driving guitar and drums, which reminded me of the possibility of delighting in the world. "There was a band/ called the Pots and Pans. / They made this noise / that people couldn’t stand" are the opening lines. I kind of cornily thought of my grief as being like that "noise" that no one could stand (including myself), and yet it was also the noise of love. Somehow the song’s playful energy captured this paradox for me – that sadness was made of the same coin as joy.
"Kettering," The Antlers. I think this is a heart-rending song that captures what it feels like to be in a hospital with someone. It has a beautiful and eerie and devastating majesty. Of course, the relationship described in the song is nothing like a mother-daughter relationship but that hardly matters – what does is that sense of a wall standing between the dying and the living. Or the illusion that the wall exists.
"Metal Heart," Cat Power. Another beautiful song. I mostly listened to songs that were both agonizing and beautiful, because that was what I was experiencing: every piece of time – sitting in room watching the trees move in the breeze – was both agonizing and exquisite. In some ways that was what I was trying to capture in my book: the complex intensity of loss. looking at the list I realize they are almost all singer-songwriter songs, which makes a kind of sense.
"Skinny Love," Bon Iver. His album For Emma, Forever Ago was released right when my mother died and it became part of the soundtrack of those first months. Something about his own anguish and loss helped me live with mine.
"The Stars," XX. As I was starting to come out of the first intense year, I was slogging through Philippe Aries’ magisterial, immense history The Hour of Our Death and I listened to this album on repeat. I don’t normally listen to music while I read but this album seemed part of my mood; it was snowing a lot – this was February of 2009 – and I’d put the album on repeat. The songs seemed like the snow, and the world became witchy and lyrical.
"Leaving on a Jet Plane," John Denver. One thing I felt, watching a person struggle with illness, was that all the old words that had once seemed trivialized or bankrupt or empty – words like "love" and "heart" – suddenly had this extraordinary power and meaning. This song, which had always seemed corny or just old-fashioned, suddenly made me weak-kneed with sorrow. Sorrow can simplify your vocabulary or at least make it less ironic. In my case, I felt distanced from the old ironies or evasiveness that had once pleased me (bands like Pavement suddenly just felt worlds away).
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's amazing cover of the Judy Garland classic. Need I say more? It cut to the bone, and evoked my childhood. One of the strange parts of losing a parent is that it’s the child in you mourning as well as the adult. But that child doesn’t get to have a voice in everyday life. This song seemed to give that self its voice. I put it on only when I needed to cry.
Meghan O'Rourke and The Long Goodbye links:
Avid Word review
Boston Globe review
Globe and Mail review
Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Times review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Magazine review
New York Observer review
New York Review of Books review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
The Second Pass review
Washington Post review
Winnipeg Free Press review
Irish Voice profile of the author
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
New Yorker interview with the author
Newark Star-Ledger interview with the author
Paris Review interview with the author
Smith Magazine interview with the author
Speakeasy 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)
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