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January 10, 2012

Book Notes - Jessica Keener "Night Swim"

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.

Jessica Keener's debut novel Night Swim is a masterfully told tale. Dysfunctional family dynamics are revealed in language evocative and honest, and her characters so well-drawn they could be our own kin.

The emotional depth of this novel has me constantly recommending it to friends in book clubs.

Jennifer Egan wrote of the book:

"Jessica Keener steps boldly into the terrain of Eugene O'Neill, conjuring up the pathologies and quirks of a besieged Boston family in stark, quivering detail that never entirely distracts us from the looming sense of crisis. This gripping first novel announces the arrival of a strong, distinct and fully evolved new voice."

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


In her own words, here is Jessica Keener's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Night Swim:


Is it strange that I didn't listen to records or radios or iPods while writing a novel with so much music in it? I don't know. Instead, I channeled songs from memory—melodies I knew so well from Woodstock's splendid era—to help shape my story set in 1970 about a family that is falling apart. My main character, Sarah Kunitz, is a gifted singer whose life is saturated with music of that time.

In Sarah's world, it was the female confessional singer/songwriter that ruled and wore out the diamond needle on her brother's record player—singers like Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. They filled Sarah's head, meaning they filled mine, too. These confessional singers rode on bluesy undercurrents of R&B, rock, gospel and pop beats. Broadway musicals reflected the same (Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair). The folk music of Peter, Paul & Mary got electrified. Passionate, self-disclosing rock poetry burst out of Dylan and Hendrix and vibrated in Sarah's private universe. Her gift of song helped her stay connected to her core self—a gift so necessary to her, she says: "I sang to the moon, the hall light, and my memory of the honey summer light when the low sun slunk into my room in warm weather. I hummed. I changed my notes from high to low. I rolled them on my tongue. Singing was like eating. It filled a hungry feeling."

Here's my playlist culled from scenes in Night Swim.


Laura Nyro - "Time and Love"

"Time and Love" is about life cycles, about light after darkness, which is appropriate to the entire story of Night Swim. Plus, Nyro is one of my all-time, personal favorites. A giant, musical soul who died too young of ovarian cancer (1947-97), Nyro is finally getting inducted into R&R's Hall of Fame in 2012. Any songwriter making music today recognizes or has been influenced by her lyrical genius, piano and vocal mastery. Her melodies embrace the heart's whole experience of love and life.

Joni Mitchell - "A Case of You" and "Blue"

Sarah and her brother listen to these soulful, dreamy melodies about depression, loneliness, rejection, and aching for something better—all states of being that permeate the Kunitz household.


Judy Garland - "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"

Judy Garland's signature song (orig. published in 1939) is a super early portent, a gateway melody to Sarah's era that is filled with musical self-portraiture and examination. (Why, oh why can't I?) Sarah hears this song in her head while retrieving a book on Shakespeare that her father (the professor) wants the family to read at the dining room table. It's a perfect escape song.


Peter, Paul & Mary - "If I Had a Hammer"

After another bout of her parents' craziness, Sarah and her brother retreat to her brother's bedroom closet to sing this folk classic (orig. by Pete Seeger). Sitting beneath Peter's dangling shirtsleeves, brother and sister harmonize as Peter teaches Sarah where to position her fingers on the guitar frets.


Bob Dylan - "Corinna, Corinna"

Sarah hears her brother and cousin singing this beautiful, wistful tune in an upstairs bedroom at her uncle's house. The song calls her far away from her uncle, who has just asked her to pose nude for him for his next clay sculpture.


Dylan again - "Times They Are A-changin'"

Written in 1964. Relevant in 1970. And still relevant in 2012 as our culture continues its uncertain ebbs and flows.


Jimi Hendrix - "Crosstown Traffic"

A fusion of inner and outer cacophony, Hendrix punctures invisible layers of consciousness that separate us from each other and from ourselves. Sarah's brother is smitten by this song and introduces it to her one day—repeatedly lifting and placing the diamond needle back on the same vinyl groove as a way to learn Hendrix's fabulous phrasings and rhythms.

The Rolling Stones - pick any tune

Peter gets so pumped during his band's practice session (his band is called The Symbols) he jumps off a chair and injures his ankle. Rock performance 101.


Man of La Mancha - "The Impossible Dream"

Sarah sings this song with her school choir. The song insists that dreaming and our hearts' desires have no barriers, something that Sarah is trying to figure out.


Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical - "Aquarius"

"Aquarius" celebrates it all: our universe, social consciousness, unorthodoxy, planets, suns and stars. Hair debuted off Broadway in 1967 and is on tour today.


The Fifth Dimension - "Up Up and Away"

Sarah hears this on the radio while lying in bed recovering from an unfortunate event. This song is densely harmonic, upbeat, childlike; rising on chords of wonderment that Sarah desperately wants to recapture in herself.


Jessica Keener and Night Swim links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book

Beth Fish Reads review
Books Like Breathing review
Ovations review

BU Today interview with the author
Huffington Post essays by the author
The Nervous Breakdown interview with the author
Psychology Today interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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

List of Online "Best Books of 2011" Lists
List of 2011 Year-End Online Music 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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