October 23, 2012
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.
Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins is an epic novel of a dysfunctional family, wonderfully complex and always big-hearted. Attenberg has impressed me with each of her previous books, and this is truly her masterpiece (until she writes her next).
Booklist wrote of the book:
"[An] irresistible family portrait with piquant social commentary. Kinetic with hilarity and anguish, romance and fury, Attenberg's rapidly consumed yet nourishing novel anatomizes our insatiable hunger for love, meaning, and hope."
The Middlesteins takes place in the Midwest, in the suburbs of Chicago, in an unnamed town not very different than the one where I was raised, Buffalo Grove. My musical tastes were largely informed by my big brother, Marc, who made me listen to Rush and Judas Priest and Prince, and who would also generously take me to see live shows on occasion, when I was too young to go by myself. He went on to work for his college radio station in Missouri, where he promptly became a music snob, and then later he moved to New York where he worked in the music industry for a long time. He has told me what bands to like forever, and he is never wrong. He continues, to this day, to slip mix CDs in my purse when I'm not looking.
But my tastes were also informed by the radio. We spent a lot of time in cars out there in the suburbs, and the Chicago radio scene has always been lively. When I was growing up, the hometown musical heroes were Styx, who were omnipresent on the radio with the dramatic "Come Sail Away." That song was big when I was in grammar school, and it was definitely something a kid could get behind: a man with a sweet, clear voice singing over a childlike plinking piano, inviting you to go on a trip with him to the sea. He talks about childhood friends and angels, and he even mentions a pot of gold. And then everyone goes away on a starship together at the end, as that bombastic guitar plays. A starship! I wanted to go away on a starship. Who wouldn't? This is a great song for people with an active imagination.
It's also worth mentioning that this was an era where rock stars were still allowed to be ugly, or at least didn't have to be pristine. I'd argue that Tommy Shaw was the heartthrob in that band, and if he didn't look like the guy who rented you shoes at a bowling alley, I don't know who did. And what a hairball Dennis DeYoung was! A short, hairy, Italian guy from Chicago. (Actually, now that I'm describing him, that doesn't sound too bad.) Anyway, even though they sometimes sang about fantastical things, they felt relatable to us Midwesterners; nobody liked anyone too fussy or fake.
Of course Styx went on to tragically make the concept album, Kilroy Was Here, which was obviously as fake as you can get. We were with you until the robots, Styx. The low-budget-seeming "Mr. Roboto" video featured synchronized, half-dancing robots with unmovable faces, and Dennis, by now, graying and clean-shaven, wearing a lavender jumpsuit and turtleneck. There is a sequence where Dennis breaks out of a robot prison by punching a robot in the stomach. And then later, he dresses as a robot in order to escape. Styx did not seem to understand how robots worked. It was all very confusing. But there were even more important questions. Why had Dennis shaved his mustache? Why lavender? Why a turtleneck?
The design of the robots killed everything, I contend. They were just helmets more than anything else, and the faces didn't move, and, overall, they were simply not believable as robots. They were unpleasant to look at, but they weren't scary in the slightest. Plus, the gorgeous and terrifying "Thriller" video came out later the same year: how could they expect to compete with that kind of visual magic? As viewers we were always being trained to expect more. The band broke up after a disastrous tour supporting Kilroy Was Here. It's just really hard to survive a concept album. Ask anyone.
Jami Attenberg and The Middlesteins links:
Everyday eBook interview with the author
Huffington Post interview with the author
Interview Magazine interview with the author
Jewish Daily Forward profile of the author
Kirkus Reviews interview with the author
The L Magazine profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Antiheroines interviews by the author with female cartoonists
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Instant Love
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Kept Man
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Melting Season
Other People interview with the author
Publishers Weekly essay by the author (Attenberg's most dysfunctional families in literature)
The Week essay by the author (Attenberg's favorite books with overweight protagonists)
also at Largehearted Boy:
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)
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