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January 6, 2012

Book Notes - Kevin Grange "Beneath Blossom Rain"

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.

Kevin Grange's Beneath Blossom Rain is both a travelogue and memoir. The book is an engaging account that chronicles the author's physical and spiritual journey while undertaking the toughest hike in the world, the Snowman Trek.

Rain Taxi wrote of the book

"In this remarkable debut, Grange merges the myth of the Yeti and the tangible Himalayan mountains into a tension-filled journey through Bhutan."

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 Kevin Grange's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World:

As a writer, I use music during every step of the creative process. Music is playing as I sit down at my desk, while I'm writing and throughout the rest of the day as I'm driving, working out or cooking dinner. For me, to write without music is the literary equivalent of trying to paddle a boat onshore. Not only can music keep you company during the long, solitary endeavor of writing a book, but a good song can also prepare you emotionally to write a scene, lend your words rhythm and pacing, as well as help narrate its theme. I believe the highest expression of literature is to attain a kind of music and, the highest expression of music, is to reach a kind of literary state. A poem by Ezra Pound has all the propulsive quality of a White Stripes song and the lyrics of Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen can easily match Mary Oliver on the page. As a writer, I am always asking myself what is the song for this scene? What song captures either the scene's rhythm, theme, dialogue or—ideally—all three. If I can't find a song, there is a good chance the scene is flimsy and needs to be rewritten. Other times, I'll hear a great song and know that a similar scene must be written. Lastly, I try to find a soundtrack for my story, some great album like Radiohead's OK Computer, Arcade Fire's Funeral or U2's The Joshua Tree whose conceptual sweep might match my book.

As I wrote Beneath Blossom Rain about a trek I completed in the country of Bhutan—a country which governs by a policy of Gross National Happiness—I wanted it to be a new kind of travel memoir. Or rather, I wanted my memoir to return to a form oft-forgotten in this age of extreme sports where the writer never explores the intention behind their journey and then gives only a physical description of the experience. Rather, like two of my favorite memoirs—Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard and Antoine de St. Exupery's aviation memoir, Wind, Sand & Stars—I wanted to explore my experience in Bhutan physically, culturally, emotionally and spiritually. Indeed, to not explore these aspects in the Himalayas—the "abode of the gods"—would be like walking in Fenway Park and not mentioning baseball. While writing the book, I second-guessed the honest tone of the book once or twice. But then I just remembered Cameron Crowe's epic film, "Almost Famous," and the Lester Bangs character who declared, "The only currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." With that mantra taped to my wall, with an eclectic assortment of music on my ipod and a cup of strong coffee, I sat down and started punching computer keys.

So here's my soundtrack for Beneath Blossom Rain. My hope is it will introduce you to some new artists, reacquaint you with older ones, as well as give a short glimpse into Bhutan and Buddhism.

Eddie Vedder – "Setting Forth"

This jangly, rootsy song perfectly captures that feeling of excitement and liftoff that accompanies the beginning of a trip—that wonderful moment when you turn onto the interstate and see your routine life fade away in the rearview mirror and know a much larger self awaits. "Be it no concern, Point of no return, Go forward in reverse," Eddie Vedder growls triumphantly, "This I will recall, Every time I fall. I keep…setting forth in the universe." When Vedder sings "I k-e-e-e-e-p," it sounds a lot like the "Wheeeee" you might hear a child shout as they go down a playground slide and there is that same sense of joy and freedom. Traveling to Bhutan, that moment comes when your flight departs from Bangkok. Bhutan has one airport that is serviced by one airline which makes one of the most difficult landings in the world in the middle of 16,000 foot peaks. The flight can be a bit unnerving but, the moment you descend through the clouds and see prayer flags, monasteries and snow-capped peaks, all fear immediately disappears and you're smiling ear-to-ear. I listened to "Setting Forth" every morning before I wrote and its momentum and sense of possibility would carry me all day. Plus, my trekking companion Ryan Goebel, a major character in my book, loves Pearl Jam. Listening to Eddie Vedder put me in touch with Ryan's spirit and helped me capture his voice.

Patti Smith – "Spell (Footnote to Howl)"

"Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!...Everything is holy! Everybody's holy! Everywhere is holy! Everyday is an eternity! Everyman's an Angel!" sings Patti Smith over a shaman's drum beat, reciting the footnote to Allen Ginsberg's classic poem "Howl". This poem and notion that everything in the phenomenonal world is holy would be well received in Bhutan where its unique form of Tibetan Buddhism preaches that all aspects of our lives can be directed towards spiritual ends. "Everything that arises is the Path of Release," declares one of Bhutan's most famous saints, Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman. I tried to keep this "holy" idea in mind as I contended with the low temps, rain, snow and slogging over eleven Himalayan passes, including seven over 16,000 feet. Fellow Beatnik, Jack Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums was also a big influence. I wanted to make the Lunana Valley in Bhutan a character in my book in the same way Kerouac made Desolation Peak a character in his. In addition, like Kerouac, many scenes in my book echo the teacher-student "dharma dialogues" of classic texts like The Upanishads or Bhagavad Gita and, as I learn something from one of my Bhutanese guides in a scene, the reader learns likewise. Patti Smith's rendition of this poem and the "Holy!" mantra reminds me that, when you look at everything as a gift, you realize that whatever is holding you down can also be the staircase for your ascent.

Arcade Fire – "Wake Up"

In this classic Arcade Fire song, I hear the struggle between innocence and experience. What happens when childhood vitality, a connection to the natural world and sense of infinite possibility is lost to adult rationalism? "Now that I'm older, My heart's colder," sings Win Butler over churning guitars which rise like the advancing tide of age, "And I can see that it's a lie." I experienced this tension between innocence and age numerous times on the Snowman Trek. I'd ascend to a mountain pass, see a panorama of pristine peaks and have feelings of immortality and infinite potential. But then I'd descend into the valley and these feelings would lose their energy and disappear. Feeling both "Paradise" and "The Fall," I felt as if I'd been plunged into a John Milton epic poem. The experience made me ask myself: is it possible to reclaim that sense of wonder as an adult? When Butler sings, "Children, don't grow up. Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up?" the answer seems to be definitely not. But then something amazing happens around the four minute mark of the tune—the churning guitars stop and the song kicks into a clapping, dance section with playground bells, accented by Regine Chassagne's beautiful, lullaby voice. At the last pass of the Snowman Trek, I found myself with a similar feeling of lightness. I realized it is possible to reclaim innocence, while keeping an adult sense of responsibility, if we keep an open heart, find divinity in the details and spend time in nature.

The Alarm - "Rain in the Summertime"

The Bhutanese are very superstitious and believe deities live in mountains, trees, rocks and rivers and that cloud formations can predict your future. These beliefs where inherited from Bon, an animistic/shamanistic religion that predated Buddhism in the Himalayas. However, the superstition that most fascinated me was metok-chharp, or blossom rain. When it is raining and sunny at the same time, it is considered very auspicious in Bhutan. Over the course of my trek, I wanted to know why blossom rain was auspicious and, more importantly, what it meant. However, my Bhutanese guides offered only elusive answers. Such demonstrations are not uncommon in Buddhism. When asked what the meaning of Buddhism was, the Buddha simply held up a flower as his answer. The message, of course, was that the experience of the flower was more important than some intellectual meaning. Bad hair and big sunglasses aside, Australia's new wave band, The Alarm's song "Rain in the Summertime" is one of the great anthems from the eighties. "I love to feel the rain in the summertime," belts Mike Peters in a euphoric wail. "I love to feel the rain on my face!" I knew that, like enlightenment, discovering the meaning behind blossom rain couldn't be forced—all I could do was surround myself in the conditions during which it might arise. With that faith, I followed a winding trail into Bhutan's misty mountains.

Sa Ding Ding – "Alive"

Take the shape-shifting aspect of Lady Gaga, the eclectic musical style of Bjork and ethereal, witchy presence of Florence and the Machine and you have Sa Ding Ding, an immensely talented musician from Han/Mongolian ancestry who sings in Tibetan, Sanskrit, Mandarin and her own self-invented language, while occasionally playing a horse-head fiddle over electronic dance music. I hadn't heard of Sa Ding Ding at the time I hiked the Snowman Trek but, when I was writing in the months that followed, her song "Alive," transported me back to the mysticism and spirituality of the region. In addition, the monasteries in her music video reminded me of Bhutan's Taktsang Monastery, which clings to a craggy cliff 2,500 feet above the valley floor and, on foggy days, appears to be floating midair. According to legend, Guru Rinpoche—the saint who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas—flew to Taktsang Monastery on the back of a winged tigress in 746 AD. Simply amazing!

U2 – "Where the Streets Have No Name"

The great mythologist and writer, Joseph Campbell described art as "the clothing of a revelation." I love this notion, that some revelatory idea is "clothed" within a song, book, movie or picture frame. At the top of most every pass on the Snowman Trek, as I gazed out at infinite mountains, U2's classic song, "Where the Streets Have No Name," would always play in my head. "I want to run, I want to hide, I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside, I want to reach out and touch the flame, Where the streets have no name." Wow! Who doesn't want to touch the flame—that leaps forth from the fire of life—and go to a place where all divisions and categories like street names disappear? Like The Joshua Tree album, I wanted my writing to be cinematic and have a strong sense of place, elevation and, ideally, transcendence. In addition, the cover of Beneath Blossom Rain reminds me a lot of the cover for The Joshua Tree album. Only instead of Anton Corbijn's classic image of Bono, Edge, Larry and Adam standing in the stark desert, there is Pete McBride's picture of me trekking atop a solitary plateau. The message is the same—we are all pilgrims on a quest, spiritually thirsty and all searching for the promised land.

Ryan Adams – "Peaceful Valley"

In the Himalayas, there is the belief in beyuls, or sacred hidden valleys that were empowered by Guru Rinpoche. During times of war and strife, people would retreat to these Shangri-La's, or earthly paradises to stay safe and deepen their spiritual practice. "Lord take me home, To the peaceful valley," sings Ryan Adams in this alt-country tune, "Down the winding river, to your city your soul. I've grown so tired, and my hearts grown heavy, To walk any longer to your cities of gold." With a 216 mile trek, I could certainly relate to feeling too tired to walk, however, I was encouraged to continue because the Snowman Trek travels to Laya and Lunana, two sacred valleys that the Bhutanese believe are beyuls. Lunana, in particular, held a special place in the hearts of the Bhutanese. Bookended by 16,000 foot passes and sealed off by snow for over four months a year, the Lunana Valley is one of the highest and most remote human settlements on Earth. Lunana really was the goal of the Snowman Trek. But according to scripture, people either died trying to reach beyuls or, once there, were so entranced that they never left. I always felt that, if I did make it to the Lunana Valley, there was a strong chance I may not come back.

The Postal Service – "Such Great Heights"

At the highest pass on the Snowman Trek—the 17,750 foot Rinchen Zoe La—I had an insight into the Buddhist teaching of The Middle Way and a feeling that "Earth is Amazing" and "Anything is possible." However, the motif in many fairytales and myths is that gold often turns to dust when descending down from a mountain. Is it possible to keep the high altitude, inspirations from our adventure travel trips when we return home? The Postal Service, an American electronic indie pop group composed of Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and producer Jimmy Tamborello, captures both the exultation and tension wonderfully. "They will see us waving from such great heights, ‘Come down now,' they'll say. But everything looks perfect from far away. ‘Come down now,' but we'll stay..." I love the elevation in this song and the idea that a part of your spirit can stay on top of the mountain even as the rest of you descends. The song is defiant in its optimism. Iron & Wine also does a nice rendition of this song but, to me, it feels as if it's sung from the runway after having landed. I prefer The Postal Service version where there is that joy of full flight.

Tupac - "California Love (featuring Dr. Dre)"

I'm continually impressed by the reach of American music. While in Bhutan, I met a monk in a cranberry-colored robe who loved The Eagles and a horseman who rapped Nelly's "Hot in Herre" to me as we hiked through a moss-dripping forest. However, arriving at a graduation party in Thimphu, Bhutan's capital city, after the trek and seeing hundreds of people dancing to Tupac's "California Love" was truly epic. "California…knows how to party. California…knows how to party. In the citaay of L.A., In the citaay of good ol' Watts, In the citaay…city of Compton. We keep it rockin! We keep it rockin!" It was a perfect representation of Bhutan at that exact moment in time. There was the daytime feeling of Buddhist tradition and Bhutanese culture. And yet, with much of the population under the age of 25, there was also this nighttime modernity of youthful energy, music and fashion. All you could do was raise a glass and toast it all. Needless to say, my trekking mates and I eagerly joined the party where we discovered there should probably be a law against middle-aged, white guys in thick, lug-soled hiking boots attempting to dance to rap music!

Lisa Gerrard – "Elysium"

Most people were introduced to Australian singer/composer Lisa Gerrard by the work she did with composer Hans Zimmer on the Gladiator soundtrack, yet I've been a fan since her days with Brendan Perry in the alternative band, Dead Can Dance. Like Sa Ding Ding, Gerrard often sings in her own idiosyncratic language and, though I don't know the words to "Elysium," the feeling of the song hits you like a ton of bricks. "Art is harmony parallel with nature," said the great painter, Paul Cezanne and, in "Elysium," you can literally feel the elements changing. There is that sense of the clouds parting, the dawn of a new day and the sun pouring through the misting rain. I can't give away the ending to my book and tell you what that moment of liquid sunshine means. But I will say that, if you stand beneath blossom rain, your life will change forever!

Kevin Grange and Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Kirkus Reviews review
Lonely Planet review
Monsters and Critics review
Outdoors review
A Progressive on the Prairie review
Rain Taxi review
Seattle University review
Wall Street Journal review
Wanderlust and Lipstick review
Woods Monkey review

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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