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September 16, 2011

Book Notes - Bonnie Nadzam ("Lamb")

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

Bonnie Nadzam's stunning novel Lamb is the story of one man's obsession with and psychological manipulation of a young girl.

Critical comparisons to Nabokov's Lolita are both plentiful and well-deserved. As beautifully written as it is disturbing, Lamb is the most unsettling book I have read since Emma Donoghue's Room.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote of the book:

"The novel will be compared to "Lolita," which it resembles in story and some themes: Humbert Humbert's and David Lamb's obsession with pre-pubescent girls, their self-delusions and narcissism, and the damage they cause.

But in the end, they are very different books. "Lamb" is a more distant, clinical view of seduction and self-seduction, and is all the more frightening and heartbreaking because of it."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, request an invitation.

In her own words, here is Bonnie Nadzam's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Lamb:

I am not a musician myself, so the best way I could approach this "assignment" was to think of Lamb as a book with a sound track. It's no accident that many of the songs that come to mind are very old and/or remakes of old classics, for if ever there was a man who turned himself into a pastiche, it's David Lamb—and he seems to do it for reasons of psychological survival. His head is totally buried in the sand of some never-never-land American West—a timeless one, a transcendent age of mid-nineteenth-century gold rush, early twentieth-century cattle drive, and 1950s imperialism governed by an aging Ronald Reagan. Linnie (Lamb's lover) is guilty of the same pattern of delusion, and, I think, in the most reproachful way of anyone in the novel. Tommie alone has her feet planted firmly in the twenty-first century—even though it is hardly, for her, a comfortable place to be.

"You Belong to Me," Bob Dylan

The version of this song David Lamb would have known best would be The Duprees'—not a song he heard as a teen himself, but as a child in his mother's kitchen. She'd have the radio on as she washed dishes, baked David's favorite cookies, smoked cigarettes. Bob Dylan's version is more appropriate for Lamb, though—it doesn't come across sweet, the way The Duprees' or even Dean Martin's can (though even the latter version is a bit creepy…)

"I Almost Lost My Mind," Ivory Joe Hunter

Early in the book Lamb and his father "share" a conversation in which each is talking to himself about his own grief. Both David Lamb and his father lost their wives, and in this scene I hope what comes across is how hurt and rattled each of them has been by the loss. For David Lamb, it's double, because he's lost both his mother and his wife.

"Have Gun, Will Travel," Johnny Western

It's the old Paladin ballad, stuck in Lamb's head as he wanders around Chicago after his father's funeral. "Have Gun, Will Travel reads the card of a man/a knight without armor in a savage land." There's some irony in it, yes, but not in that postmodern, self-aware way—rather, in the way that sometimes, with a broken heart, we'll revert in our minds to a song or place or meal that boosts our sense of well-being. Lamb is hardly "ready for anything" as the old slogan "have gun, will travel" was meant to imply. But this is a song he would have known from TV in his childhood, and that he would have associated with an impossible version of heroism and masculinity he is far, far from attaining himself.

"Alina!," Arvo Pärt

This is the song for the scene in which Tommie approaches David Lamb for the first time, in the parking lot outside the dollar store, asking him for a cigarette on a dare from her bullying friends. The music has to be more contemporary now (1999) because, after all, this isn't the 1950s or ̕60s. I'm not sure how much it comes across in the scene itself (this was the chapter published in Harper's as "The Losing End"), but a bit of this hesitant piano melody—if you could hear it when reading—might steer you a bit toward sympathy for both the man and the girl. It is indeed a sad, desperate moment they are trapped in together, and they're each just trying to reach out and make contact.

"I Follow Rivers," Lykke Li

This is Tommie's first song—she's falling for Lamb as a stand-in father, stand-in boyfriend, stand-in God. He is offering her all of these things, and she is a needy, lonely kid. More than Lamb with his Paladin theme song, Tommie really is ready for anything. "Oh I beg you, can I follow? Oh I ask you, why not always? Be the ocean, where I unravel, be my only, be the water where I'm wading."

"Call of the Canyon," The Ranch Boys

As soon as Lamb and Tommie hit the road, heading west, they actively begin their confused and nostalgic search for an America that no longer exists, and, indeed, probably never did. Listen to this version, on YouTube. The recording itself is so old, so faraway. It gives me chills and, truth be told, wakes up in me a bit of that odd nostalgia for a make-believe country.

"Jubilee," Jean Ritchie

This is the song for arrival at the Old El Rancho Road, where Lamb is king of his dilapidated castle. It's a lighthearted folk tune "from" the Appalachian folk singer Jean Ritchie, but most of the folk songs she performed are folk songs in the real sense—compilations of scores of ancient songs about romance, crime, jealousy, celebration, sorrow… I'm not sure if Lamb and Tommie are archetypal, as characters, but when they arrive at El Rancho Road, they see themselves as such. It's part of the role they convince themselves they're playing in this deluded narrative they take turns telling each other.

"I Fall to Pieces," LeeAnn Rimes

I think Linnie would like the Patsy Cline version of the song, but would be too sexy-and-in-her-twenties-with-her-Ivy-League-undergrad-degree to really rock out to Patsy. I can picture her singing along to this one, convinced she's the star of the movie, not unlike Lamb himself, though her own movie is something more of a terrible chic flick rather than a western.

"Keep Your Garden Clean," Jean Ritchie

Lamb tells Linnie a story about a dead girl haunting the old cabin and ranch grounds. This is the song for that story, and in many ways, it's the old folksong into which Lamb initiates Tommie. "Come all you pretty fair maids who flourish in your prime…be sure to keep your garden clean…let no one take your time…" You really have to hear Jean Ritchie sing it to appreciate the odd innocence and very grave adult message. If the song were a magic spell, Lamb would use it to freeze Tommie in her youth and girlhood forever.

"The Longest Night," Tin Hat Trio

This is an eerie, beautiful melody—like a slightly technologized Celtic lullaby, with harmonica. I don't want to say too much about the drive back east, so as not to spoil the storyline for anyone who might read the book…

"The Breathing Machine," Greenhorse

If this list were the soundtrack to a movie, I would feel like it was my duty as an artist to bring the audience back to the present moment at the end—to shatter the delusion into which Lamb (and perhaps the author/narrator) have drawn the audience. Greenhorse's "The Breathing Machine" is meant to do that. It's gritty. The sound itself is like a hard, whispering echo, but not of a deluded person, rather, of a person waking up. That seems about right to me.

Bonnie Nadzam and Lamb links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

BookPeople's Blog review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Kirkus Reviews review
Library Journal review
The Outlet review
Publishers Weekly review
Twenty-five Cent Stories

Harper's essay by the author
Interview magazine 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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