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September 15, 2011

Book Notes - Jillian Lauren ("Pretty")

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

Jillian Lauren's Pretty is an impressive debut novel from the author of the memoir Some Girls. Lauren skillfully explores big issues like addiction and identity through her complex characters.

The Nervous Breakdown wrote of the book:

"Jillian Lauren has written an incredibly relatable journey of re-discovery and re-definition with a grace and sense of humor I wish every writer had. One day you're something, the next day you're different. Who are you now? Who is Bebe if she isn't the pretty girl? Who is Bebe in those doctor's notes? Who is Bebe if she isn't Christian? These are the questions she has to answer. Jillian Lauren's writing reflects the voice inside Bebe's head, inside of our heads—sometimes critical, sometimes harsh, sometimes scattered and unsure and scared, sometimes even dishonest, but always, always sincere."

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

In her own words, here is Jillian Lauren's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Pretty:

If I listed all the songs that appear in Pretty, it would be five pages long. Music is so central to the narrative that it's practically a character. Bebe Baker, the book's narrator, is a young woman haunted by the ghosts of two dead jazz musicians- her father and her boyfriend. Her notions of escape and salvation have been dashed against the rocks so many times that she's forced to radically reexamine her ideas about both.

Bebe is a self-described ex-everything: ex-Christian, ex-stripper, ex-drug addict, ex-pretty girl. A year after surviving a horrific car accident that killed her boyfriend, she serves out a self-imposed sentence at a halfway house, while attempting to complete her last two weeks of vocational-rehab cosmetology school. Set in Los Angeles, Pretty is about somehow trying to find faith amidst rampant diagnoses, over-medication, compulsive eating, and acrylic nails.

1. "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen

I'm not sure there's a more perfect expression of surrender as a sacred action. Grief as a sacred emotion. The epigraph of Pretty is from "Hallelujah".

2. "Shook Me All Night Long" by ACDC

Pretty begins with a bad night- a ruinously bad night, during the early part of which our heroine does a spontaneous dance on a pool table. She considers it her imperative to dance when "Shook Me All Night Long" comes on the jukebox because, as she says, it's a universal law that all strippers must dance whenever that song comes on- no matter where they are.

3. "Dream a Little Dream" by Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald

Bebe was working as a bartender at a jazz bar in Toledo called Rusty's when, one humid Thursday in July, a trumpet player named Aaron walked in. When his band left in the morning for the West Coast, Bebe climbed on the bus.
"Dream a Little Dream" was the song the band played at sound check.

It's a song that's very much entwined in Bebe's journey. In context, it's also prescient, in that it's a song about absence- about the gap between our dreams and our reality.

Sweet dreams 'til sunbeams find you

Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you

But in your dreams whatever they be

Dream a little dream of me

4. "Mojo Pin" by Jeff Buckley

For me, the first plaintive notes Jeff Buckley sings in "Mojo Pin" epitomize longing. Love and addiction and longing. Above all, Pretty is a book about longing.
Bebe says about herself, "I am hungry all the fucking time. All I ever am is hungry."
Drugs play a role in the book, certainly, but I think that addiction is a theme that reaches farther than just the chemicals in question. Addiction is a heightened expression of desire. It can apply to anything.

Don't wanna weep for you,
I don't wanna know 
I'm blind and tortured, the white horses flow

The memories fire, the rhythms fall slow
Black beauty I love you so

5. "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore" by PJ Harvey

I listened to this album constantly when I was writing Pretty and I think it's pretty close to perfect. PJ Harvey is a muse of mine. Every day that I sit down to write, I try to invoke her willingness to be un-pretty in service of being true.

This song is violent and deeply compassionate at the same time. It strikes the perfect balance of exploring both the ugliness and the profound humanity of insatiable need.

This isn't the first time I've asked for money or love

Heaven and earth don't ever mean enough

Speak to me of heroin and speed

Just give me something I can believe

5. "Mr. Siegal" by Tom Waits

Francesca, the woman who helps Bebe get her first stripping job, schools her over late night gin and tonics on a balcony in Koreatown.

"You have to pretend like your true love is in the audience…Just to the left of the stage and slightly out of the light so you can't see him. Imagine like he's watching and dance for him. It'll soften you up. It'll make you care. You'll do a better show."

Francesca's true love? Tom Waits, of course.

I think Tom Waits actually wrote "Mr. Siegal" so that the soulful strippers of the world would have something to dance to late on a weeknight or early during the afternoon shift. The kind of times that you toss out the crowd pleasers and just hand the DJ something that will keep you company up there.

Fuck the two lonely, no-tipping motherfuckers leering stageside. Put on some Tom Waits and just dance for him instead. Somewhere out there, he feels you, ladies. This song proves it.

Tell me, brave captain,
Why are the wicked so strong?
How do the angels get to sleep
When the Devil leaves his porch light on?

6. "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane

This one is my father-in-law's choice. He's a jazz musician in Toledo, as is Bebe's dead father in Pretty. It was my father-in-law's stories about the now-defunct Rusty's that inspired my use of it as the setting of Bebe and Aaron's first meeting. My husband is from Toledo. We've visited several times and I've always been touched by it. There's something sad and sweet about it being the place he left behind.

When Bebe leaves Toledo with Aaron, he promises her that they're heading to San Francisco. Bebe and Aaron consider the existence of The Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco to be a sign that they're meant to go there. They get waylaid in Los Angeles and never do make it. At least not together.

6. "Beauty School Dropout" by Frankie Avalon

I'd be spoiling it if I tell you whether or not Bebe manages to graduate from beauty school, but either way this song is pretty irresistible.

Now your bangs are curled, your lashes whirled, but still the world is cruel.
Wipe off that angel face and go back to high school!

If only it were that easy.

7. "Fat Bottomed Girls" by Queen

One of the many indignities Bebe suffers during her final hours in beauty school is an odious guest speaker. He forces the students to engage in a self-esteem building exercise in which they write either a personal mantra or an inspirational song on a sticker and stick it to the front of their smocks.

As our heroine is no petite lass, she chooses "Fat Bottomed Girls" as her inspirational song.

Oh, you gonna take me home tonight

Oh, down beside that red firelight

Oh, you gonna let it all hang out

Fat bottomed girls you make the rockin' world go round.

8. "California Dreaming" by The Mamas and the Papas

Bebe is a California dreamer, who's forced to reconsider the dream when California doesn't deliver. Here's what she has to say about it.

When you're from somewhere else, you think there's a promise to California. I don't know if it's some cellular thing - like your ancestors in the wagon train only made it as far as Ohio and you're completing the journey - or if it's the Beach Boys or the Beat poets or Baywatch. You get in that car pointing west and you think the answer is at the end of the road. You really do. But here I am at the continent's edge, jagged and final, and there is no West left to go to and I still don't have what I want.

9. "Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes

We who live in Los Angeles know the importance of the music we play in our cars. It becomes the soundtrack of our lives, so we have to choose wisely.

"Seven Nation Army" is playing in the car during the lead-up to Bebe's most desperate moment in the book. It's about the torment of memory, the fantasy of escape.

And I'm talking to myself at night
Because I can't forget

Back and forth through my mind

Behind a cigarette

And the message coming from my eyes

Says leave it alone

10. "Personal Jesus" by Johnny Cash

I love Johnny Cash's cover of this Depeche Mode song. It's simple and elegant and it turns the original on its head, which is what a great cover should do.

Bebe is a young woman with a deeply religious impulse, who has lost the religious structure that once anchored her. Jesus comes up throughout the narrative in a few different ways. Not only is Bebe a former evangelical Christian, she's also dating a schizophrenic with an intermittent Christ complex. And most importantly, she's letting go of the idea that anyone is going to come save her.

Her primary struggle throughout the narrative is to define a new faith that's relevant to the person she is in the present moment. Maybe when she does, it'll sound something like "Personal Jesus."

Jillian Lauren and Pretty links:

the author's website

Book Fetish review
The Nervous Breakdown review
New York Journal of Books review

Fathermucker essay by the author
LA Magazine profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Some Girls

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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