September 2, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Stuart Nadler's debut story collection The Book of Life, one of the year's finest, is filled with keen observations of everyday lives, refreshing dark humor, and the struggle between tradition and modern life.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Nadler is a writer’s writer, a fine observer of the nuances and idiosyncrasies of character."
I don't listen to very much music when I write these days. Somewhere along the way I decided I needed something close to total silence in order to get even a passable day's work done. This has proven to be something of a poor decision. Silence, it turns out, is hard to come by. Many of the stories in my first book, though, were written before I made the shift from headphones to earplugs. Looking back on my playlists of the last five years, there are some obvious trends, but none more so than the prevalence of what I like to call the cheater's song. At its core the stories in The Book of Life are about family, about the ways families crack, and the way they try to put themselves back together. I'm coming into my character's lives at some of their worst moments. Often, they're just about to cheat on their wives or their boyfriends, or often they already have, and I've come along as they're trying to pick up the pieces.
Of all the differing shades of pop music, I've always had a soft spot for the cheater's song, with it's recriminations, its bitter doom, its creeping guilt, and its forbidden pleasures. In its way, it's a far more enjoyable form of the heartbreaker than, say, the break-up song, which wallows in its own misery, and is little good to a decently content person unless they suffer from some masochistic need to inflict sadness on themselves. This, of course, is a sickness writers thrive on. But for me, there is a sense of humor in the cheater's song that is difficult to find in your garden variety I-miss-you-come-back-to-me-I'm-lost-without-you weepy. Take, for instance, Beyonce's "Irreplaceable," in which she sings, You must know about me/I can find another you in a minute/matter fact he'll be here in a minute. I, for one, believe her completely. Or take the incomparable Denise LaSalle, whose song "Your Husband is Cheating On Us," is a classic of the genre. (No deep explanation of the song's lyrics seems necessary.) The songs on my list aren't as caustically funny as these. They even may straddle the line between sadness and regret, which is exactly the place my characters seem to find themselves in.
"We'll Sweep Out the Ashes," Gram Parsons
One of the great ripple effects of the alt.country movement in the nineties was, without a doubt, Gram Parsons finding a new, wider, more passionate audience. Dead a month before his 27th birthday, Parsons left behind some terrific songs. This is one my favorites of his, off his beautiful first record GP. Emmy Lou Harris comes on in the third line. Her high, seamless, Appalachian harmony makes this record, and in so many ways, elevated everything Gram Parsons ever recorded with her. She's sung with so many people now, but to my ears, she was at her best with Gram. A great song, with an even greater pedal steel line.
"The Thrill is Gone," BB King
It's easy, I suppose, to forget how terrific a guitarist BB King is, and how influential he's been. Some of this, I'm sure, is part of his ubiquity now: he has his own satellite radio show, a chain of blues bars, and he's often on television raising awareness of Type II diabetes. Released in 1970, "The Thrill is Gone" was BB's biggest hit. There are other versions – but I like the studio take the best, with its hammy string arrangement, and its thumping bass-line. Always a sign of great production, nothing here sounds dated. In fact, it's just the opposite. An ageless song.
"The Other Woman," Nina Simone
Perhaps this is obvious. Written by Jesse Mae Robinson (the first African-American member of ASCAP) and covered by so many people, this version is my favorite. What Nina Simone does so well here is to lay bare the sad anxiety of infidelity, and the inevitable comparison between wife and mistress: the other woman gets her nails done, her hair, her perfume is better, her home has fresh flowers. The real treat here– besides Nina Simone's always expert piano, and her patient, seething voice – is the bitter last verse: you might sleep with him, the singer says, but you'll always be alone. "The other woman will never have his love to keep." Great stuff.
"Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis," Tom Waits
A prostitute figures into the fourth story in my book, Catherine and Henry, so, in a small way, it's fitting that this song popped up on my playlists a few years back. Sometimes I think this song may have the best lyrics of anything Tom Waits has ever done. In the fifth verse, he sings this: and hey Charley I think about you/every time I pass a fillin' station/on account of all the grease/you used to wear in your hair/and I still have that record/of Little Anthony & The Imperials/but someone stole my record player/how do you like that? What else is there to say?
"Running Out of Fools," Aretha Franklin
I love stories that present the conflict right away, and I'm the same way with songs. The first line in this song is this: Sure you haven't got the wrong number/ You sure its me you wanna talk to tonight? In the fifth story in my book, "Our Portion, Our Rock," a jilted husband confronts the man who's slept with his wife. I always imagine this being the flipside of that scenario. I love the fire Aretha brings to this song, the cool confidence. People have tried to cover this song, but as is always the case with Aretha, they fail. They always fail.
"Cecilia," Simon and Garfunkel
Set against such a cheerful, hand-clappy beat, this song takes a surprising turn halfway through. I've always loved the beginning of the third verse, which begins Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia/up in my bedroom. The cheating happens right then. When one of them – let's just say Garfunkel – comes back, Cecilia's taken up with another guy, only to have second thoughts, sparking the jubilation with which the songs ends. Written when these guys were so impossibly young, the song aches from its own immaturity. This is why it's so good, and why, after all this time, it's impossible not to sing along to.
"I've Got Dreams to Remember," Otis Redding
After I graduated at the Writers' Workshop, I went up to Madison, Wisconsin for a year-long fellowship at the University there. I had an apartment in a house right off Lake Monona, which is where Otis Redding's plane crashed in December of 1967, killing him and all but one member of his band The Bar-Kays. I'd never lived anywhere so cold, nor had I ever seen ice grow so thick. Starting in November, the ice-fishers came out and stayed in their little tents until spring. This is my favorite of Otis's songs. Even though he's seen his woman cheating, he still wants her back. Heartbreaking.
Stuart Nadler and The Book of Life 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