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July 12, 2012

Book Notes - Kaya Oakes "Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church"

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.

Radical Reinvention is a bold and affecting memoir from Kaya Oakes, a passionate and irreverent account of her return to the Catholic church on her own DIY terms. Informative, irreverent, and often hilarious, Oakes has written one of the most important books about religion of the year.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"This memoir tells the story of this unlikely convert—as she sees herself—in all its gory detail. Oakes doesn't mince words or clean up her language, and doubt, frustration, and anger are frequent companions on her journey. Oakes not only treats readers to gorgeous prose, but manages to provide an overview and history of the best of the Catholic faith, without losing momentum."

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 Kaya Oakes' Book Notes music playlist for her book, Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church:


Telling people you're Catholic in 2012 is like publicly admitting you believe in elves. Only the elves are creepy old guys in robes and red shoes. No matter how many times you try to explain that your Jesus is a brown-skinned radical feminist rabbi who seriously loves and respects everyone, especially marginalized people, no matter how much you try to explain liberation theology or show off photos of your awesome friends who happen to be nuns, the reaction is often a step backwards, as if you suddenly erupted in pustulent sores.

Maybe I've been reading too much Job. But coming out of the DIY/indie/whatever-you-want-to-call it community, my form of Catholicism is DIY. And so is the Catholicism of the majority of believers I meet. Call us cafeteria Catholics, heretics, whatever finger-pointing term comes to mind, but most of us believe in equal rights (and yes, that means legal gay marriage), serving the poor and marginalized, working for a more inclusive sort of church. Oh, and by the way, 98% of us use birth control.

However, there is a huge problem every Sunday. The music in church is not great. After Vatican II changed the language of the Mass from Latin to “the common tongue” in the 60s, liturgical songwriters worked to come up with new hymns, but most of them fall into the folk rock/soft rock idiom of the decade that followed. The rock stars of Catholic songwriting are the Saint Louis Jesuits, four priests who penned such Sunday morning tunes as “Earthen Vessels”, “One Bread, One Body”, “Here I Am Lord” and the one I had to sing at my first communion back in the 70s, with a group of girls dressed in miniature bridal gowns, “Be Not Afraid”. Are they good songs? Objectively, sure. Anybody can sing them. They're catchy. They do the job. But for a person used to cranking Mission of Burma and The Minutemen, not so much.

A funny thing happened on the way toward living my radical Catholic life and writing a book about it over the course of the last three years. In addition to my usual punk/indie/hip hop/country classics soundtrack, I started listening to a lot of classical music. Okay, obsessively listening to classical music. Like the Catholic faith, it's part of my roots: I'm a cellist, raised listening to classical music, who sawed away for decades before arthritis thwarted that routine. But the intricacies of J.S. Bach and Monteverdi are like looking into the mind of God. And so are the lyrics of Nick Cave, and Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, my personal holy trinity of God haunted, cranky, chain smoking guys. I'm not sure if any of them believe in God, but they sure do write some good songs about Her.


Nick Cave, "Into My Arms"

Honestly, any track off of The Boatman's Call could end up on a God haunted playlist, but Nick Cave throws down an opening gambit like nobody else: I don't believe in an interventionist God/ But I know, baby, that you do


Leonard Cohen, "The Stranger Song"

Leonard Cohen's a Buddhist Jew, or a Jewish Buddhist, but he sure does like to write about Catholic imagery. This is one of those obscure-ish Cohen tracks that not a lot of people seem to know, but being buried on his first album, it can seem a little lesser than "Suzanne." It's not. Like any dealer he was watching for the card/That is so high and wild/He'll never need to deal another/ He was just some Joseph looking for a manger


Nick Cave, "Oh My Lord"

This one's a rager. Nick goes full on Job. Just imagine him with his ass parked on an anthill. The ladders of life that we scale merrily/Move mysteriously around/ So that when you think you're climbing up, man/In fact you're climbing down


Bob Dylan, "With God on Our Side"

Dylan's “finger pointing” era produced a lot of stuff that sounds kind of creaky and dated now, but this is just a brilliant skewering of the whole question of who “deserves” God. Through many dark hour/ I've been thinkin' about this/ That Jesus Christ/ Was betrayed by a kiss/ But I can't think for you/ You'll have to decide/ Whether Judas Iscariot/ Had God on his side


Leonard Cohen, "The Window"

The Cloud of Unknowing is a classic of Christian mysticism, written by an anonymous 14th century monk. It's almost an parallel version of Zen in its recommendations that we can find God by filtering our doubts and concerns into the titular cloud, so it makes sense that Cohen would borrow from it. A little plug here: my husband's a member of the Conspiracy of Beards, a 30 man choir that sings Leonard Cohen songs in a capella 4 part harmony. Their version of this song kills. Oh bless the continuous stutter/ Of the word being made into flesh


Monteverdi: Verspro Della Beata Vergine, The English Baroque Soloists, John Gardiner (conductor)

Monteverdi was a Renaissance composer who built the bridge to the Baroque, and the Vespers, written in 1610, roughly parallel some of the later plays of Shakespeare. In the Catholic liturgy of the hours, Vespers are the evening prayer, the hymn to God at the last light of day. Imagine what the soundtrack to the scene in King Lear when he's heaving on the heath might have sounded like and you're right on track.


JS Bach: Mass in B Minor, The English Baroque Soloists and Montevderi Choir, John Gardiner (conductor)

This is it. The mothership. The Holy Shit. The most towering, massive, gorgeous, imperfect, mind bogglingly complex, divinely melodic thing Bach ever wrote (yeah, yeah, the Saint Matthew Passion's got its fans too). Just play the "Agnus Dei." Even if you hate classical music, grouchy old Bach will open your ears.


Kaya Oakes and Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church links:

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

The Existential Porcupine review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture
Red Room posts by 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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