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August 24, 2012

Book Notes - Matthew Batt "Sugarhouse"

Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home

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.

Matthew Batt's Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home is a compelling and humorous memoir that tackles house renovation and dysfunctional families.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Batt makes the story feel fresh through a combination of lively storytelling, some very funny misadventures, and a goodly portion of real human drama, for the decision to buy a house wasn’t a whim, being prompted by some pretty dire circumstances. A thoroughly enjoyable variation on a venerable theme."

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 Matthew Batt's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home:

The Replacements, "Within Your Reach"

Before I met my wife in graduate school in Boston (no, I'm not being obnoxious by trying to find a fay way around saying "Harvard." We decidedly did not get in to Harvard. We couldn't even get a parking ticket at Harvard. And that's saying something.) there was just this gulf in my life—a longing and a lack I could neither name nor diagnose. Not, that is, until I met Jenae. "Within Your Reach" may as well have been the soundtrack to the entire pre-Jenae time of my life. And now that we live in The Replacements' home turf of the Twin Cities, it feels all the more apt a way to begin a soundtrack to Sugarhouse, my book about how we fixed up a Salt Lake City crack house and our lives along with it.

Fugazi, "Waiting Room"

When we met, both Jenae and I were in other relationships. Scurrilously, that didn't stop either of us. We spent our days waiting tables and going to classes, our evenings shopping for records or books, followed by root beer floats with her goofy but sweet roommates or pints of Guinness at the Brendan Behan, a very Irish-appearing bar in a mostly Dominican neighborhood where we hung out with friends, argued about poetry, and listened to the bartender blast 7 Seconds, Black Flag, and, a sweet carry-over from my skate grommet childhood, Fugazi. "Waiting Room" felt like precisely where we were—agitated, in love and in trouble, and, above all, inexplicably unstoppable.

Billy Bragg, "She's Got a New Spell"

On one of our first excursions to Tower Records (which seemed less monolithic back then) I spent every dime I made bussing tables one day at the restaurant on a Billy Bragg Peel Sessions album. It immediately became the default soundtrack to our relationship, no song more than "She's Got a New Spell." (In fact, one of the early chapters of the book is named for a line from this song: "The Scene and The Scenery." I don't think anybody's caught it yet.) And please, if you're listening to the Spotify soundtrack, do yourself the infinite favor of tracking down—in an actual freaking record store, preferably along with a sweet, pretty girl sidekick—the Peel Session with Billy Bragg. The studio take just doesn't do it justice.

Iron and Wine, "Passing Afternoon"

Like most of Sam Beam's songs and pretty much all of Our Endless Numbered Days album, "Passing Afternoon" is about loss and what's left afterward and, at least as important, the stories and songs we tell and sing to each other to help ourselves through it. And other than Elvis Costello's "Veronica," I can't think of any song worth its salt told from and/or about a grandmother. And here, with the wooden spoons stirring the bougainvillea blooms . . . it just immediately takes me back to the precious and precarious last days of my grandmother's life. When she died, all bets were really off.

Wilco, "Kingpin"

I was from, more or less, Wisconsin. But one of the first places I took Jenae when we got together was my grandparents' home just outside Pekin, Illinois, immortalized, of course, by Jeff Tweedy in "Kingpin." The irony of song, of course, and probably the biggest subtext of Sugarhouse, was the role my grandfather played. He was the proverbial big fish in a little pond—a physician and pseudo bon vivant and—we would soon learn—actual philandering son of a bitch. But, we couldn't possibly have made the next step without our kingpin living in Pekin. (Side note: Pekin is the self-proclaimed sister city to Peking, China. In a sweet and supremely racist gesture to celebrate that bond, the mascot of the Pekin High School up until very recently was the Pekin Chink. Honest to God.)

Elvis Presley, "Baby, Let's Play House"

Jenae and I had been married for some time, but things had gone, as they do in most marriages, somewhat soft and sour for a while around that six or seven year stretch. Moreover, all of our best couple friends were either moving away, having babies, and/or getting divorced, leaving me and Jenae to fend for ourselves. But when she weathered me through the storm of ludicrous loss of that year, I wanted to do her right in as palpable a way as possible. A house seemed like the very thing. Add to the mix the fact that most of our then Utah friends had already owned or were also in the process of buying a house . . . it just seemed like the thing we had to do.

Mike Doughty, "White Lexus"

No realty experience can go without a tassle-loafered, green-coated, white freaking Lexus driving realtor. And while I'm pretty sure Mike Doughty's song is about addiction and treatment, nothing seems more apt given the actual white (third-hand) Lexus our realtor drove to deliver us to what would become our home. The worst house in the best neighborhood we could afford. A crack house, turns out. Go figure. Boy were we in for it.

Ralph Stanley, "Clinch Mountain Backstep"

Suffice it to say, we had a lot of work to do and not a lot of resources—physical, monetary, emotional, intellectual—upon which we could draw. Neither did we have iPods or CD players with more than single-disc playability. And given all the limitless other concerns that came with buying and fixing up a former crack house, we didn't have a lot of time to worry about the fact that we listened to the seven or eight CDs we just happened to have in my old Land Cruiser. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys live at McCabe's Guitar Shop was one of them. Because who doesn't need a nice instrumental bluegrass interlude whilst cutting through several thousand pounds of slate floor tiles?

The Gourds, "Gin and Juice"

We were—what can I say?—kind of in an Americana state of mind those days, music-wise. But what less/more literal bluegrass classic is there than The Gourds' sensitive, pensive update of Snoop Dee-Oh-Double-Gee's "Gin and Juice"? In the interest of full disclosure, it is worth mentioning that getting through our first couple of years of home ownership/life in beautiful-but-odd Utah required beaucoup de gin. Less so the bubonic chronic.

Bob Schneider, "Best Laid Plans"

Another album we serially listened to was a mix tape made by our friend, Steve Almond. It was actually a mix tape/recording of his old Tufts University radio show he dedicated to us for letting him flop at our apartment while he was on his first book tour with My Life in Heavy Metal. Among other hot tips, the searingly best for our tastes was the another Austin, TX, export: Bob Schneider. And though "Best Laid Plans" came on a later album, it was, like us and our predicament, a perfect blend of inappropriate genres (funk, hip hop, country), and it absolutely hit home the first and last message any DIYer would-be needs to hear: "We can fuck this up, I know we can. You know what they say about the best laid plans. Ain't no need to reason why. We can make this right." Both fatalistic and optimistic at the same time. Just. Like. Us. As with the Billy Bragg, you can't Spotify this song, but you can get at least this one track on iTunes. Do it. Meanwhile, you could listen to "Batman." Why not? The transformation happening in us and in our house made us feel like superheroes. There's the name thing, too, of course. Perhaps the less said about that the better.

The Avett Brothers, "In the Curve"

As we were in over our heads with home renovation, all hell broke loose back in Wisconsin with my mom and grandfather. It all came to a head one ugly, ugly summer night when my mom and I were supposed to have a nice respite from my grandfather on a road trip to Door County—the thumb of the mitten that is Wisconsin. But, his hooker/girlfriend had plans with her ex/husband and so he insisted on coming along. Suffice it to say, the ditches of Door County had a lot of suicidal magnetism on that nasty trip. Nobody got hurt, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. I only wish we had been driving a '63 Ford and not my mom's Hyundai (Korean for abject horror of a vehicle made from poorly recycled Trapper Keepers).

Father John Misty, "Only Son of the Ladies Man"

Well, as entropy will have its wont and way, not long after that nasty weekend, my mom found my grandfather not on another sordid trip to Las Vegas where he had proposed a prank marriage just to piss us off or to a specious plastic surgeon to buy his new lover's DAUGHTER a set of fake boobs, but unconscious on the floor of his condo after he had a stroke. He was laid low in a nursing home for a couple months and add to the batter the fact that he had already been basically bilked out of the money that made him attractive to anybody not related to him and that pretty much spelled the last days of the ladies man.

The Head and the Heart, "Lost in my Mind"

And with the end of that chapter and the end of my graduate school days in Utah, back on the road it was with my sweetie. We didn't know where home would be next—if it was Texas for which we were headed or Minnesota as we would soon then be bound—but we knew, as is sung here, "you're already home if you feel loved . . . there are stars up above, we can start moving forward." And so we were and so we did. All that was left was the next big/little thing a couple can court . . . .

Rilo Kiley, "A Better Son/Daughter"

As an epilogue must follow any tale so tidily told, the real lesson of the whole experience/book/soundtrack was the fact that I least wanted to discover or realize. That without my grandfather's help and my mother's indefatigable support and Jenae's bottomless love, I would never had a marriage, a home, or a family. And yet, as any who's had one or more of the above, you know it takes not pluck or luck but a shitload of hard fucking work. And, you know what? It's worth it. More than anything. Listen to the most reverend Jenny Lewis in her semi-pre-apocalyptic self-help anthem: "You'll fight and make it through, you'll fake it if you have to, and you'll show up for work with a smile. And you'll be better, you'll be smarter, more grown up, a better daughter—or son—and a real good friend. And you'll be awake and you'll be alert. You'll be positive, though it hurts . . . You'll be honest you'll be brave. You'll be handsome. You'll be beautiful. You'll be happy." And we are.

Matthew Batt and Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Boston Globe review
Deseret News review
Diane Prokop review
Kirkus Reviews review
Oregonian review

Minnesota Reads interview with the author
New York Times interview with the author
Salt Lake City Weekly profile of the author
Show and Tell interview with 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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