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March 7, 2012

Book Notes - Peter Behrens - "The O'Briens"

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.

Peter Behrens' novel The O'Briens is truly an epic, tracing one family through sixty years, two world wars, the depression, and two countries.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Moments of grace and romance are rocked by cruel words and violence in this epic, a piece of rough beauty itself."

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 Peter Behrens' Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The O'Briens:


The O'Briens is a novel about a North American family. They live in the 20th century and are very prosperous but their lives are shaped and haunted by the mostly unvoiced experience of Irish sorrow. For a family with an Irish background, the O'Briens have a difficult & sometimes tortured relationship to music. There is a lot of silence. The patriarch Joe O'Brien's nasty stepfather, the lecherous Mick Heaney, was a wondrous fiddler in the Canadian lumber camps, where the story starts around the turn of the (last) century. Mick played logging camp tunes like Cheticamp Jig, and The Road to Fort Coulonge. He'd start playing at a wedding then go on for days. He couldn't stop fiddling. And his oldest stepson, Joe, learned to hate the sound of a fiddle. But I don't. Joe Cormier a Cape Breton fiddler does a great version of "Cheticamp Jig", in his own Cape Breton style. And Reg Hill was a wonderful eastern Ontario fiddler.

"Cheticamp Jig" (trad.) by Joe Cormier and "The Road to Fort Coulonge (trad.)" by Reg Hill

When I was writing the novel, music kept me going through the impossible-to-write parts. When I was really feeling trapped I'd go out running or biking, while listening to Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, especially this track from their album The Mountain:

Steve Earle & Del McCoury Band, "Pilgrim"

"I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys" the first line of that song, about sums up how I felt while on the journey of writing the novel: no end in sight, lots of distractions and temptations along the way, sometimes nothing but a kind of blind faith to keep me going.

Abby Newton's "Catskill Mountain Air" has a kind of grace that speaks to me of a life in layers: the past as part of the present, inescapable.

And when I need to remind myself of the power of a lyric I usually find my way back to Mr Dylan. What was I listening to during The O'Briens? I remember long drives playing the "Restless Farewell" that Dylan delivered to Mr Frank Sinatra at Sinatra's last public appearance.

Bob Dylan "Restless Farewell"

In the evenings Alfred Brendel playing Schubert sonatas put me back in touch with the, yes, magical hallucinatory power of a piece of art: the structure of Schubert's music and the delicacy and power of Brendel's playing.

Alfred Brendel, Schubert Piano Sonatas

And when I wanted to break down or break out my instinct for lyrical, and get into something spiky, I listened to Jenny Lewis, "Rabbit Fur Coat"

Or, always, Jolie Holland, especially "I Wanna Die"

"Long As I Can See the Light" by Creedence Clearwater Revival is a song that kept me going. Writing a novel is like going on a long, long trip. Sometimes you wish you'd never left home. You can't speak the language, and the food is just terrible. Other times, it's wonderful--startling-- you feel yourself being pulled way past where you thought you wanted to go. Where you thought you wanted to go was, it turns out, just the beginning of the trip.

"Long Time Traveller", The Wailin' Jennys. I guess it's becoming pretty obvious, to you and to me, that traveling is my not-particularly-original metaphor for writing books. This is another great song for when you're feeling in lost-pilgrim mode.

Chapters of the novel are set in my native Montreal during WWII and I listened to a lot of Oscar Peterson, the great jazz pianist, who was a Montreal teenager in those days playing in a bunch of different jazz groups around town.

Oscar Peterson playing Ellington's ("Happy-go-lucky Local"; a k a "Night Train") on Peterson's Night Train album.

Also lots of nights working late and listening to maybe my favourite jazz album, the pianist Horace Parlan's LP, The Maestro


Peter Behrens and The O'Briens links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Globe and Mail review
KevinfromCanada review
Kirkus Reviews review
National Post review
Publishers Weekly review
Serendipitous Readings review
The Winnipeg Review review

Globe and Mail profile of the author
KevinfromCanada guest post by the author
National Post profile of the author
New York Times profile of the author
Toronto Star profile of the author
Zoomer 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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