March 14, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
With her second novel Arcadia, Lauren Groff firmly entrenches herself as one of America's finest writers. Vividly told and ambitious in scale, this is one of the best novels I have read in a very long time.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"The effective juxtaposition of past and future and Groff's (Delicate Edible Birds) beautiful prose make this an unforgettable read."
1. Arcadia began in late 2007 when I was pregnant with my first son and waiting for my first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, to be published. I have melancholic tendencies in general, but the hormones sent me spinning deeper and darker. I became panicked that the world would end before either of those longed-for events would come to pass: I had nightmares of nuclear apocalypse, the sun swallowing the earth, swift and silent airborne events. Nothing helped until I began reading about philosophical models of utopias, then intentional communities themselves. The beauty of these visions, their clear, vigorous meliorative force, slowly pulled me out of my sadness. I visited the ruins of past intentional communities and began to dream about a group of people in the late sixties who create their own community. There was a sad mother and a boy like the one slowly building in my belly who would turn out to be Bit, the center of my story.
My novel Arcadia is separated into four parts, each part arising at a different time in Bit's life. The first is when he is very little and his community of Arcadia is just creating itself. I listened to many singer-songwriters while I wrote this book, and owe them all. But Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger are the unseen spirits of this novel, and the first part of which was written under the spell of the miraculous Seeger: I imagined him when I wrote Handy, the leader of Arcadia. Nobody sings more sadly and powerfully than Odetta, and I prefer her version of Seeger's "One Grain of Sand." Bob Dylan's "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" is a glorious disaster. And Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" is an extremely political song that, on first glance, doesn't seem as political as it is.
"One Grain of Sand" by Odetta (written by Pete Seeger)
"Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" by Bob Dylan
"Where Have All The Flowers Gone" by Pete Seeger
2. Hark! The world didn't end. My book emerged at last; my son was born a few months later. I could have been made of meringue, I was so light. The last time I was as giddy was when I was fourteen and the summer rolled out endlessly before me and there was a lake in my backyard and I had a startling new body and there was a beautiful boy hanging around and everyone, it seemed, was gentle and kind. Bit is fourteen in the second part of Arcadia, but his community is suffering. There's a kind of tenderness at that age that is immensely complex: one is young enough to be hopeful but already wise enough to know that good things hold in themselves the seeds of their own decline. These songs strike exactly that note of vulnerability.
"Thirteen" by Elliott Smith
"16, Maybe Less" by Calexico & Iron & Wine
"Lovin's For Fools" by Sarah Siskind (of Bon Iver and the Bowerbirds; there's no studio version of this song and you have to listen on YouTube, but I love their stone cold stunning voices)
3. Eras repeat: there's a furor of utopianist activity, as in the mid-nineteenth century in upstate New York and New England, and then a subsequent lapse into a period of relative calm. Lives are cyclical, too. I should have been happy, but when a writer is deep in the meat of a book, all can seem bleak. I wrote this section over a three-week span at an artists' residency in Chicago. There was a ghost in my room, and icy cold outside, and my very little son was so furious with me that he wouldn't look at me when we Skyped in the morning. My heart hurt. Bit is forty, a photographer in the world beyond Arcadia, and his wife is gone. These songs have a subtle underbite of apocalypse to them.
"Hell Is Around the Corner" by Tricky
"Joga" by Björk
"Track 4" from () by Sigur Rós
4. I wrote Arcadia in part to answer my most terrifying questions about the ethics of bringing children into a world with a future that seems increasingly uncertain. But for every question I hurled at it, I ended up with a handful of other questions. I am overrun with questions. I am overrun with sons, now that I have two. I am overrun with hope, because I have to be, because the fact of having children requires it of me. I love more than my heart can hold, and these songs share an element of overflowing. Arvo Pärt is a distant never-to-be-met soulmate of mine: he is what I listen to when I need to be unshelled enough to write something that will wreck me. In place of a tempo marking for this song, Pärt writes, 'Ruhig, erhaben, in sich hineinhorchend', which Wikipedia says roughly translates to 'peacefully, in an exalted and introspective manner'. This is how I wish people would read this final part of this book. Leonard Cohen haunts this last part of my book; I first heard Antony sing this song in the documentary on Cohen called "I'm Your Man." There's a slightly awkward bit halfway through in which Cohen speaks over the music, but I love what he says then, about when he wrote this song: “I prayed to have some response to the things that were so clearly beautiful to me," he says. "And they were alive.” And they are. The world is full of miracles.
"Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
"Für Alina" by Arvo Pärt
"If It Be Your Will" by Antony (written by Leonard Cohen)
Lauren Groff and Arcadia links:
Boston Globe review
Entertainment Weekly review
Kirkus Reviews review
Miami Herald review
New York Daily News review
Publishers Weekly review
Tampa Bay Times review
Wall Street Journal review
Washington Post review
The Book Case interview with the author
Interview Magazine interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist essay by the author for Delicate Edible Birds
Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist essay by the author for The Monsters of Templeton
New York Observer profile of the author
Other People interview with the author
South Florida Sun Sentinel profile of the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
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)
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