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July 23, 2012

Book Notes - Pauline Chen "The Red Chamber"

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.

Pauline Chen's The Red Chamber is a vivid reimagining of the classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, one that brings 18th century China alive in this clever work of historical fiction.

The Daily Beast wrote of the book:

"The excesses of Imperial China frame this elegant story of shifting fortunes, power struggles, palace intrigue, betrayal, and love…The Red Chamber takes a long hard look at the complex interconnected desires, ambitions, and conventions that can bind a family together—or tear it apart."

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 Pauline Chen's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Red Chamber:


One of the reasons that writing The Red Chamber was so much fun was that I was able to unite beloved elements from a wide variety of sources; for instance, while The Red Chamber is based on the classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, it also incorporates allusions to many of my favorite western classics: Dickens' Great Expectations, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. The music that I listened to while writing Red Chamber was likewise eclectic, reflecting the influences of places I have lived and people I have been close to: growing up on Long Island during the golden age of disco; time spent in Taiwan in the late ‘80's; living with my Belgian roommate and her Colombian boyfriend in grad school.


1. Scheherazade, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

I love the lushness, romance, and drama of this music, and tried to evoke similar qualities in The Red Chamber. Just as Scheherazade saved herself from the murderous designs of her husband by entrapping him within the web of her storytelling, I wanted to carry my reader into the world of eighteenth-century Beijing and to draw her irresistibly into the secret workings and inner lives of the Jia family. Finally, like many symphonic pieces, Scheherazade features the slow development, intertwinement, and recurrence of complex themes, a technique that inspired the structure of the The Red Chamber.


2. "A Fond Farewell," Ari Hest

There is one verse in this song ("I heard their reservations/Read their bitter words./I shined a light on their wisdom/No matter how absurd./ It broke my heart to pieces/I questioned my own beliefs...") that reminds me of a time in my academic career when my work was subjected to scathing criticism and I lost confidence in myself. Harsh criticism and rejection are also inevitable in writing fiction, and I am still in the process of learning to filter useful comments from destructive ones, while holding true to my personal vision.


3. "Asi, No, Papa," Mario Bauza and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra

There is something deeply satisfying to me about the rhythmic complexity of Latin music, and I fantasize about going to Colombia to learn how to dance one day. In this song I love how the propulsive percussion is overlaid by the horns, which then provides a counterpoint to the flirtatious vocals by Graciela, aka "La Gorda."


4. "Danshui Muse" [Dusk at Danshui]," Feng Feifei

When I was a child, my parents always reverted from English or Mandarin Chinese to Taiwanese at times of emotional intensity, whether in the heat of battle or moments of intimacy. Because Taiwanese had been suppressed by the Kuomingtang, or Nationalist Party, when my parents were growing up in Taiwan, the dialect had become associated with home and private spaces. Later, I lived in Taiwan during the time the Kuomingtang lifted the thirty-eight-year span of martial law it had imposed on the Taiwanese, releasing an explosion of Taiwanese music and literature. A reissue from the 1950's, this song conjures up an idyllic vision of a Taiwanese harbor town where the villagers gather at sunset to await the return of the fishing boats, yet is undercut by a vein of wistfulness. The imagery ("In a peach-colored tower, with the window half-open/A zither tells of its sorrow..."), recalls the canonical Chinese poem, "In the Northwest There is a Tall Tower," written almost two thousand years ago. As a lover of classical Chinese poetry (I translated the six ancient poems that appear in The Red Chamber), I am always delighted when I catch echoes of classical works in modern contexts, for instance in the Chinese-American writer Ha Jin's books.


5. "The Lady is a Tramp," Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald's voice has a buoyant, effervescent quality that imbues all of her songs with an easy elegance and sheen. As a single mom trying to make a living by writing, I've watched my college and law school classmates move into well-appointed mansions, while living and working out of a small apartment with furniture salvaged from deceased neighbors (our apartment building is disproportionately populated by senior citizens.) This song always reminds me of the pleasures of a Bohemian lifestyle.


6. "It Matters to Me," Sandy Lam

Unknown in the west, Sandy Lam, aka Lin Yilian, is a mega-star in much of East and Southeast Asia, releasing albums in Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and Japanese, and is my all-time favorite pop singer. Like all pop singers, her subject is love, but I find that her lyrics explore the dynamics of relationships more poignantly and intimately than American pop lyrics. This song unfolds from the point of view of a woman who feels forced to leave her lover because of his emotional distance, but the lyrics capture not just her despair but her defiance: "I no longer seek anyone with whom to experience that burning grief/No matter how coldly you treat me, I still have my moments of warmth." While a forsaken woman pining away hopelessly is one of the central tropes of Chinese literature, in The Red Chamber I try to portray more complex reactions to abandonment by a lover.


Pauline Chen and The Red Chamber links:

the author's website

Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Columbus Dispatch review
Daily Beast review
The Washington Independent Review of Books review

Elyria Chronicle-Telegram profile of the author
Tribute Books guest post by the author
Weekend Edition 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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