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May 25, 2011

Book Notes - Melanie Rae Thon ("In This Light: New & Selected Stories")

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

Melanie Rae Thon's In This Light: New & Selected Stories is drawn from her 20+ years of writing. Thon draws gritty portraits of people living on the edge of society, gracefully moving from past to present, and always with glimpses of beauty to balance against the darkness of these tales.

The New York Journal of Books wrote of the book:

"What is most striking about Ms. Thon’s short stories is her voice; her lyrical prose and remarkable ability to capture the voices of others is impressive. Ms. Thon masterfully constructs images that perfectly reflect her different narrators’ language and environments. "


In her own words, here is Melanie Rae Thon's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection, In This Light: New & Selected Stories:


Playlist: "Tu B'Shvat: for the drowned and the saved" from In This Light: New & Selected Stories


I entered "Tu B'Shvat" in February 2001 and emerged in November 2005. The final year of composition was pure rapture, an immersion in the music my people loved.

Seventeen-year-old daughter Davia Betos plays piano, zither, cello—Gipsy love songs, Bob Dylan, Arvo Pärt, Debussy, Beethoven. She plays the songs Dvorák's mother taught him, and yes, a song her mother taught her:


Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah":

I love the way "Hallelujah" moves between major and minor chords, the assertion that a hallelujah can be both "broken" and "holy." This belief evokes Rabbi Luria's glorious description of the beginning of the universe: God's world shattered into tiny pieces because it was too fragile and delicate to contain the intense holiness of God. These sparks of holy light are hidden in everything and everyone, everywhere in our broken world. It is our sacred covenant, our blessing and our joy, to recognize and restore them.

No matter what she plays, Davia's music is restoration and praise, an embrace of the hidden holiness of sound.


Edvard Grieg's "Holberg Suite" in smoke and Johann Sebastian Bach's "Chaconne (from Partita No. 2 in D minor)" playing on barbed wire:

Margalit Betos, forty-four, is the only child of Holocaust survivors. Her father died of a heart attack in 1980. Her mother Éva Spier lived fifty-eight years after the war, twenty-three without her husband. She's been gone only five months. Margalit is submerged in the grief and mystery of her departure:

How someone can survive the worst and still not live forever?

It is amazing to discover there were orchestras in the Nazi death camps. In Birkenau-Auschwitz, the women's orchestra performed as the trains arrived from Hungary. Éva heard them playing Grieg's "Holberg Suite" in the mist and smoke. The tender, lilting sarabande soothed her. The irony of joyful music rising in the night as ash fell from the sky pierces Margalit. Her mother Éva never joined the orchestra. Margalit imagines Bach's haunting "Chaconne" vibrating not through the strings of Éva's violin, but through the barbed wire that surrounds the camp.


Zoltán Kodály's "Dances of Galánta" and "Dances of Marosszék," each one a fusion, a rondo and a rhapsody:

Zoltán Kodály's compositions are marvelous fusions of folk and classical idioms: he absorbed and transformed the Gipsy music he loved. He also devoted himself to the children of his country. He believed every child could sing; he said every child must sing whenever possible. Kodály embraced the passionate work of restoring the world, not only as philosophy, but as daily practice: he made it his mission to visit schools to offer the freedom of song, one's own voice, the greatest joy he could imagine. The famous "do, re, mi" sequence from The Sound of Music is the Kodály method!

Éva remembers Kodály visiting her school. His faith in song, his unmitigated delight, sustains her during her time in the camp. She makes it her own mission to continue his work in the world. At the very moment her husband Leonard dies, Éva is visiting a hospital playing Kodály's rondos and rhapsodies for critically ill children, teaching them to "hum if you don't have breath; let your body feel it."

Margalit says, "My father blazed in the window behind Éva. As light, he fell on bare heads and throats; as light, he warmed naked legs and shoulders; as light, he transfigured all these shattered faces."


Arnold Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night":

There's glorious frisson in this composition, tremendous energy and variation. At the height of its emotional pitch, we share the surprise and thrill of inharmonic change, E flat minor to D major. Schoenberg's work is based on the poem "Verklärte Nacht" by Richard Dehmel, a stunning fin-de-siècle lyric about the endless miracle of transformation. As a woman and the man she loves walk through a grove of trees, she confesses she's carrying the child of another. She expects her love to leave her, but instead he responds: "Let the child you have conceived / be no burden to your soul. . . . / There is a radiance on everything . . . " He believes the warmth that flickers between them will transfigure the other's child and make it their own. "You have brought radiance on me, / you have made me a child myself."

When Margalit hears Davia playing "Transfigured Night" on her cello, moving with grace and speed through those astonishing extremes of pitch and dynamics, she's reminded of her mother's and father's transfiguration, their life of love together after losing their families. The shape and size and vocal range of the cello make it seem almost human. It is the perfect instrument for Schoenberg's transformation of the spoken word into the language of music and spirit.


"Kaddish," prayer for the dead:

Today, this day, the sixth of February, 2004, Margalit is preparing to celebrate Tu B'Shvat with her children and husband. Tu B'Shvat is the new year of the trees, God's Rosh Hashanah, that mysterious turn of the year when sap begins to flow again and new life quickens. In Salt Lake City, six inches of new snow has fallen, but by noon, the sun feels fierce, the blue sky unbearable. Margalit believes, yes: in this rage of light, the Tree of Life, all life, might be reawakening. She tells herself: Rejoice. Whispers: For your mother's sake, be thankful. But she can't help thinking of her beautiful son, eleven-year-old Seth who already knows he wants to be a fireman and a cantor. She hears him singing the "Kaddish," walking into the flames, healing the wailing mothers with a song as he lifts their babies from the embers.


John Tavener's "The Protecting Veil":

The soaring, tender, protective voice of the cello is the voice of the Mother of God: she never stops praising and grieving. Davia listens through her headphones, turning the volume down lower and lower, until sound stops, until she becomes its lingering vibration.

"The Protecting Veil" opens the story to a new world of shared sorrow. The morning of Tu B'Shvat, Margalit witnesses and feels responsible for the drowning of a beautiful young woman in a public pool, a trauma that plunges her into visions of her parents' histories, memories that amplify and expand her imaginative compassion for the family of Helen Kinderman.


"Yaqui Deer Songs":

Jay Kinderman, the brother of the drowned girl, is serving a mission for the Church of Latter Day Saints in Hermosillo, Mexico. He does not know. He cannot imagine a world, a life, a day without his four sisters. He hears Helen's mocking voice above the others, Helen, three years older, calling him Elder Kinderman, and he laughs at himself, at his white shirt, stained with sweat, filthy from dust blowing. He laughs and she's there, watching, his Helen. His companion is sick today, and Jay has left him. He is forbidden to work alone. All day, he has been disobedient. Not one crime, but a crime committed moment by moment, street to street, hour by hour. He believes Helen would approve, that the joy he shares dancing with the Yaqui children is more important. Yes, this is true communion, and he is the one converted. Jay tries to dance as gracefully as they do, tries to enter the mystery of their Deer Songs: "With a cluster of flowers in my antlers I walk; here in the wilderness, I am killed and taken."


"Rain on Water: Improvisation for Piano" by Davia and Seth Betos

In Pig Earth, John Berger says, "All music is about survival, addressed to survivors." I came to believe this as I entered the lives of my people, as I witnessed and shared the power of music to gather the holy sparks, to transfigure and to heal us.

The final music of the piece, an improvisational duet on the piano between Seth and Davia, brings all the strands of the story together, allowing Margalit to embrace the holy and the broken hallelujahs, to forgive herself and accept the gift and transience of life. "Imagine the song you would sing if you loved the mud, the weeds, the rocks rippling you. Imagine your joy if you reflected stars, then swallowed them. Imagine if you had no choice as creeks entered you, if you wound slowly through silent woods, then with delight roared down a narrow canyon—imagine the wonder of it all, how you'd laugh and leap as you ceased to be, as you emptied yourself into the ocean. Never again, never again I, never will I on this world be walking. This was Davia's voice, life beyond hope and fear, proof of love, God unfathomable. Seth brought his fingers to the keys in a jubilation of sound, three times Davia's speed, but with astonishing lightness. Rain, brilliant rain, water bouncing off water."

Melanie Rae Thon and In This Light: New & Selected Stories links:

BrodartVibe's Blog review
ForeWord Reviews review
High Country News review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Journal of Books review
NewWest review
The Rumpus review


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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