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November 10, 2011

Book Notes - Ben Ehrenreich ("Ether")

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

The Los Angeles Times called Ben Ehrenreich's Ether "biblical noir," and I have to agree. The author's second novel is an unforgettable dark and complex examination of faith and forgiveness.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Throughout a roving narrative filled with luminous yet often disturbing imagery, Ehrenreich freely interjects his own voice and ambivalent musings about his characters' fates and motivations . . . Ehrenreich's fans will be delighted"

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Ben Ehrenreich's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Ether:

1. Gang of Four, "Ether"

This one may seem obvious, but it's not just the title that gets it on the list—it's that screaming bass and the song's furious insistence on the "dirt behind the daydream," counterposing "the happy ever after" with "H-block torture" and "each day more deaths." Fantasies of transcendence smash up against very human nastiness. What to do but spit and shake and bang your head, maybe write a novel?

2. 50 Cent, "U Not Like Me"

In an earlier draft I used two verses from this track as an epigraph. They made it as far as the galleys: "Mama said everything happened to us was part of God's plan/So at night when I talk to him I got a gun in my hand..." The line still makes me smile, but in the end I decided that it might incite too literal a reading of the book, which features a god-like character treated with considerable suspicion and hostility by an author-like character. I switched it out for a snippet of Mahmoud Darwish's poem "Mural," which, because it is more oblique seemed far more direct. Nonetheless.

3. Nico, "Little Sister"

Early in the novel, a deaf-mute woman who lives alone in a shack above the railroad tracks rescues an injured hummingbird from a dumpster and does her best to nurse the bird to health. It doesn't work out. In the animated version (I'm working on it, but I draw very slowly), she dances through an empty warehouse district in the hours before dawn, skipping through the potholed streets, the bird in her palm, her skirts rising as she spins and sings along with Nico: "Turn to fly, go away/Little bird, please don't stay."

4. Mickey Newbury, "Sunshine"

That chapter ends with the sun rising, painting the world in gold. Sadness can be beautiful, and often is. This song begins with a solid 15 seconds of bird-chirp sound effects, then Mickey's Newbury's mournful voice: "Sunshine, you might find my window, but you won't find me." Never has despair been so welcoming, so gorgeous: "Sunshine, as far as you're concerned, don't be concerned for me."

5. Hank Williams, "Cool Water"

Oh, Hank. Most of the characters in this novel—even and perhaps especially its putative author, by which I don't mean myself but the character who plays that role on the page—are searching for something, trying to somehow bring sense to the world, to their suffering and aloneness. This song captures that search and the thirst that spurs it better than any other I know. "All day I face the barren wastes without the taste of water." Tell 'em, Hank. "The nights are cool and I'm a fool,/each star's a pool of water."

6. Joy Division, "Disorder"

I don't know if I could have made it through high school without this. When I was 19, I lost most of my favorite tapes, including Unknown Pleasures, in a fire. I gave the album a well-earned rest for about a decade, have rediscovered it every couple of years since. It more than holds up. That first line ("I've been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand.") could belong to more than a few of the characters in Ether. So could the song's breakneck race towards total collapse.

7. The Stooges, "L.A. Blues"

Ether is not set in any actual city, but its setting inevitably draws on my experience of Los Angeles, where I've lived for 14 years. Most people who don't know L.A. have funny ideas about the place. Ideas involving movie stars and other dull urban animals. Iggy Pop knew better. No lyrics but screams here, guitars like cats fighting, drums to break your spine with. Home.

8. The Buzzcocks, "I Believe"

I want to release a musical edition of Ether that works like those birthday cards that play a song when you open them, except my version would play this song only while you're actively turning the pages and maybe also when you put down the book to get a drink of water or wine or to pee or do whatever it is you're doing, but the song will only play once you're already in the other room and barely can make it out. What if I just quote the first line? "In these times of contention it's not my intention to make things plain."

9. Amen Corner, "If Paradise Is Half as Nice"

A long-haired teenaged girl finds herself in love with her best friend, a short-haired teenaged girl. In between kisses, they hear this song: "If paradise is half as nice as the heaven that you take me to, who needs paradise? I'd rather have you."

10. Pere Ubu, "Final Solution"

My best friend in high school broke into some poor bastard's car, stole the guy's entire tape collection and gave me the too-weird discards, which included a fair amount of Pere Ubu. I still feel a little bad about it, but mainly grateful. Those tapes eventually led me to Alfred Jarry's door, and thence to a whole new world. That's how things worked in the crappy suburbs in the days before the internet. You wanted culture, you had to steal it. Or make it yourself. Anyway: the yearning. Wipe the world clear to the horizon. "Don't want a cure, I want a final solution." Noise noise. The short-haired girl bugs out, tells the long-haired girl she can't see her anymore. If the long-haired girl's car had a tape deck, it would be blasting this song, over and over again. Except that some fucker stole her tapes. And her radio.

11. Bauhaus, "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything"

The long-haired girl falls in with a crew of pilgrims: a stuttering sidewalk preacher, an ill-kempt man in a sweater knit with reindeers, twins in wheelchairs, an old man, a silent prostitute, a cockatiel. They march in ever-widening circles through alleys and convenience store parking lots, empty fields, suburban boulevards. This song plays. Is everything too much to ask for? Or too little?

12. Lucinda Williams, "World Without Tears"

"How would bruises find a face to lie upon?" Lucinda drawls, all lazy-like, slurring it out almost spitefully. "How would broken find the bones?" What would country singers do without tears? What would writers do? Unemployment's bad enough already. At least leave us our misery.

13. Nina Simone, "Sinnerman"

More running, more wandering. Everyone's running in this book, even when they're sitting still. Not just in this book perhaps. Running to or running from? No rock to hide you and when the river's not bleeding it's boiling. Same goes for the sea. Keep running, sinnerman. I'll meet you there.

14. Fol Chen, "In Ruins"

Department of alternate endings. I'll try not to give too much away: if things had worked out differently and the stranger and the deaf-mute had hit it off a little better and pranced out into the burning night, this would be their soundtrack.

15. John Cale, "Big White Cloud"

If I succeeded in squeezing into Ether even a microgram of the longing, joy and melancholy beauty that burst out of every measure of this song, I will die content. "Oh I love it/Yes I love it/Oh I love it so ..."

Ben Ehrenreich and Ether links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Los Angeles Times review
ZYZZYVA review

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2011" Online Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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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