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June 22, 2012

Book Notes - Alexi Zentner "Touch"

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, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Alexi Zentner's novel Touch explores the myths and harsh realities of northern Canadian small-town life over several generations. Both imaginatively and crisply told, this is a splendid debut from a writer with a strong future.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"'Touch' is a lovely debut, at once dreamy and riveting, like a heavy snowfall watched from a vantage point safe indoors, beside a blazing fire. "

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 Alexi Zentner's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Touch:

It was near the beginning of my freshman year in college that one of my roommates, Brett, won the Garth Brooks CD In Pieces. This was 1993, when CDs were still shiny and new an alternative to cassette tapes, and we started playing it as a joke. During the two years right before college I'd been at an evangelical boarding school (long story), where getting caught with my bootleg Walkman meant three days of washing pots and pans on an internal suspension, and to me, the second best thing about graduating high school and going to Grinnell College — the best thing was being able to date girls without being threatened by both damnation and expulsion — was that I was free to listen to music whenever I wanted. I immediately started running the BMG / Columbia House scam, building up my CD collection for the price of shipping and then "moving overseas" so that I didn't have to pay full price for anything. I worked hard at finding new bands, even though my heart was in mainstream alternative groups: Pearl Jam, The Breeders, R.E.M., The Beastie Boys, Nirvana. But whenever Paul and Brett were in the room, despite the fact that between the three of us we had a pretty extensive CD collection, we usually ended up with Garth Brooks on the stereo. At some point, probably by the twentieth time we'd played the album, we'd gone from liking Garth Brooks ironically to liking Garth Brooks earnestly, and by Christmas, we had several Garth Brooks albums to choose from. Now, I'm thirty-eight, and my daughters are ten and eight, and with my fifteen-year college reunion looming (if you do the math, feel free to revisit my earlier note about boarding school being a long story), I'm ashamed to admit that Garth Brooks is still a fixture on my playlists.

I'm making this admission because when I was writing Touch, the music I listened to while I was writing fell into one of two camps: music I like without reservation, and music for which I feel I have to explain myself.

1. The Counting Crows, "Raining In Baltimore"

This is one of the ones for which I feel like I have to explain myself, but the Counting Crows was love at first listen. I stuck with the band well after they became lame — wasn't there a point when the lead singer dated half the cast of Friends? — and I remember sitting around a campfire during a rock climbing road trip and getting booed because I said I'd take the album August and Everything After with me to a desert island. I never got sick of that album and I still haven't, despite starting every day I worked on Touch by listening to it. Sometimes I'd leave the album on repeat and realize I'd had it on for six, seven, eight hours straight. Sometimes I'd only listen to it once before moving on to something else. I've never been able to figure out what it is about that album that makes it so easy for me to slip the skin of daily life, of fatherhood and oil changes, of bills to pay and the sidewalk to shovel, but those twelve seconds of near silence before the ring of the guitar in the first song, "Round Here," the plaintive cry, "I will never be lonely" in "Mr. Jones," never failed me. But the song that I always returned to was "Raining in Baltimore." I'm not even sure what the song is about — other than, apparently, the fact that it's raining in Baltimore — because I'm afraid that to listen to The Counting Crows too closely will strip away the magic for me. I do know that he needs a phone call and that he really, really needs a raincoat, but other than that, I don't know if anything will make the guy happy. A friend of mine, @mikescalise, regularly tweets Counting Crows lyrics, and I always love seeing those tweets, because stripped from the music they feel both profound and silly at the same time.

Sample lyrics: These train conversations are passing me by / and I don't have nothing to say.

2. Tori Amos, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Old school Tori Amos is a little bit like King Midas, except that instead of turning everything to gold, she turns everything into quiet fury. Assuming that her music is semi-autobiographical, I actually have a pretty good understanding of why she's so pissed off, and even if it's not autobiographical, there's the whole patriarchy thing, but in her cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," she's turned Nirvana's high-energy ignition of teen angst into self-immolation. Most of Touch happens in the snow, and Tori Amos gives a cold fury that feels like the kind of blizzards that can come in my first novel: relentless and unstopping. Even though I know it is a cover, it doesn't feel like one. Amos has made the song her own, and I think I might have actually heard it three or four times before I even realized that it was a cover. Good listening for later winter afternoons when the snow is falling.

Sample lyrics: she's overboard / and self-assured

3. U2, "Bad"

It might be an apocryphal tale, but I remember hearing that sometime in the early 1990's, after U2 had used Zooropa to shit all over The Joshua Tree, Bono told The Edge that they should get back to sounding like U2. The Edge responded by saying that since they were U2, whatever they played sounded like U2. To me, "Bad" is exactly what U2 sounds like. The lyrics are hymn to hopelessness, but The Edge's high notes ring along with Bono's voice, Mullen and Clayton a simple drive. This was the song I played when I started to flag, and the story above, true or not, reminds me that as an artist, I'm not interested in playing the same notes over and over again simply because I can or because somebody else thinks I should.

Sample lyrics: to let it go / and so to fade away

4. Enya, "Watermark"

Oh my god. Do I actually have to admit this? Okay, I sort of like Enya. Or, at the very least, Enya does not make me want to stab myself in the eye with a pencil. I'm blaming my children for this one: back when my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, the Lamaze coach suggested bringing some soothing music to help during labor. You know what didn't help during labor? Me looking at the little monitor around my wife's stomach and then, after a contraction, telling her, "that one wasn't so bad." But the truth is that some afternoons, when I was struggling with revisions on Touch, Enya was soothing.

Sample lyrics: da da, da da, da da, da da, da da / sail away, sail away, sail away

5. The Decemberists, "Bridges & Balloons"

The first time I heard this song, a cover of the Joanna Newsom original, was also the first time I heard of The Decemberists. I immediately bought Picaresque, listened to it, and realized that I didn't want an album from The Decemberists. What I really wanted was to just listen to "Bridges & Balloons" on repeat. It's an incredibly simple and clean cover, the guitar rising up a little, falling down a little, ringing and thin, accompanied by Newsom's odd lyrics that, near as I can tell, are an ode to C.S. Lewis' Narnia.

Sample lyrics: But ships are fallible, I say / and the nautical, like all things, fades

6. R.E.M., "Finest Worksong"

I started listening to music seriously when I was in eighth grade, and I came to it by way of my older brother, Ari. His best friend, David, lived six houses away, and because David's parents owned a cottage, it seemed like there was a party down the block at least once a month. My brother always invited me to come to the parties, though I'm not sure in retrospect if that was because he was just incredibly cool to me or because he thought I'd rat him out otherwise, but either way, I got to spend time with tenth, eleventh, twelfth grade women. They were, of course, out of my league, not to mention usually a good six to twelve inches taller than me, but they also loved to dance to the music on the record player (yep. A record player). Other than The Velvet Underground and The Talking Heads, the only band I remember getting frequent spins was R.E.M., and anybody who knows anything knows that Document was their best album.

Sample lyrics: what we want / and what we need / has been confused

7. Neutral Milk Hotel, "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea"

How the hell did I miss the existence of this band? I'd never even head of them until graduate school when I heard four different people talking about them in the same week. Lemming that I am, I bought In the Aeroplane Over the Sea from the independent record store No Radio Records (since deceased) that also hosted the reading series that I was running at the time. I have no clue what the hell any of the songs on the album are about, and only listen to this album sporadically, but it still feels like the piece that I hadn't even realized I was missing in my music collection.

Sample lyrics: What a curious life we have found here tonight / There is music that sounds from the street / There are lights in the clouds

8. The Tragically Hip, "Fireworks"

In the period between college and meeting my wife, I lived in a neighborhood in Chicago that was transitioning from super sketchy (I had my tires slashed a couple of times) to hip beyond belief (no chance I could afford to live in my old place now), and my landlord let me use the attic space above my apartment to build a bouldering cave. I was really into rock climbing, and it seemed like a good idea to spend some of my free weekends drilling holes into plywood and bolting it onto the rafters. I'd just bought Phantom Power, and I was always too tired and too sweaty to bother going downstairs to get another CD for my Discman, so I must have listened to this album fifty or sixty times over the span of a month. The Tragically Hip is a really Canadian band, one that was huge when I was in high school, and never seemed to make it big in the US, and it might be because of lyrics like this.

Sample lyrics: You said you didn't give a fuck about hockey / And I never saw someone say that before

9. Garth Brooks, "Calling Baton Rouge"

Really? You didn't think I was going to end with Garth Brooks? Didn't you read the introduction? Do I even have to say anything other than Garth Brooks is awesome in general? How about this: "Calling Baton Rouge" is awesome in the specific because it's about a guy who has a one-night stand while drunk on sweet red wine, and then, the next day, keeps getting off the highway to call her from pay phones. You know what would make this song even better? If it had been written ten years later and he'd had a cell phone. I love me some Garth Brooks.

Sample lyric: Operator won't you put me on through / I gotta' send my love down to Baton Rouge / Hurry up won't you put her on the line / I gotta' talk to the girl just one more time

Alexi Zentner and Touch links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
video trailer for the book

Adult Books 4 Teens review
Bookslut review
Fiction Writers Review review
Financial Times review
Telegraph review
Time Out Boston review
Time Out Chicago review
Washington Post review

CBC Books interview with the author
CultureMob interview with the author
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
Huffington Post interview with the author
The Millions interview with the author
National Post profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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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