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November 13, 2012

Book Notes - Marie-Helene Bertino "Safe as Houses"

Safe as Houses

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.

The Iowa Short Fiction Award has introduced me to many talented short story writers over the years, and one of the most impressive is Marie-Helene Bertino. Her debut collection Safe as Houses is brilliantly inventive and surreal, with each of its stories original and filled with dark humor.

The Rumpus wrote of the book:

"In each of her stories, Bertino seems to tweak some grand cosmological constant and set the universe askew, as if for a handful of pages she’d changed the laws of gravity."

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 Marie-Helene Bertino's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection, Safe as Houses:

I grew up singing in Church, later in musicals.  For three years I was a music writer in New York City for The Deli Magazine. However, I can't have any noise when I write because it wrecks my concentration.

My collection Safe as Houses, which just came out, references music directly and indirectly, making for a full-hearted, albeit lopsided, playlist. Here are some of the stories, with their "musical influences..."

1.) Iron & Wine and "A Love Supreme," John Coltrane

From the story, "THE IDEA OF MARCEL"

"He wore jeans and an Iron & Wine t-shirt.  He had always listened to the music of a more sensitive man.  She had let several relationship cruelties slide because of it."

Poor Iron & Wine, I really did use them as the "sensitive man band" here.  The quietest I've ever heard a New York audience was at one of their concerts.  Sam Beam was a film professor -- his lyrics are just so good.  

"I'll walk you home," he said.  "I'll follow you upstairs to your immaculate and tasteful apartment. We'll play jazz LPs and say our opinions about them.  Let's start now.  John Coltrane versus Miles Davis: go."

"Come off it," she said.  "You hate jazz."

"A Love Supreme," John Coltrane

My father was a jazz lover, my uncle a jazz musician.  John Coltrane lived and studied in Philadelphia, where I am from. One night I took a ride with a good friend through Philly's battered streets while listening to "A Love Supreme" in its entirety. The only line in Safe as Houses that goes anywhere near jazz however is this offhanded, silly one I gave to The Idea of Marcel. My relationship with jazz, I figured, is a story for a different campfire.    

2.) Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963, care of Woody Guthrie)

From the story, "NORTH OF"

"There are American flags on school windows, on cars, on porch swings. It is the year I bring Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving."

"North Of" is a story in which a girl brings Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving. I find myself thinking, if Bob Dylan went back home, he would probably bring Woody Guthrie.  

3.) R.E.M.

"Sweetness Follows" (Automatic for the People, 1992)
"Wolves, Lower" (Dead Letter Office, 1987)
"Perfect Circle" (Murmur, 1983)

Bob Dylan, "Corrina, Corrina." (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963)

From the story, "GREAT, WONDROUS"

"Corrina wore her blue star sweatshirt that hung low over one shoulder. This is devastatingly boring, she said.  She was a girl who existed in extremes.  Vanilla wasn't dull, it was mind-shatteringly pedestrian.  The album ‘Murmur' wasn't great, it was wondrous."

"Great, Wondrous" is a story about a group of friends who have magical powers. It is meant to show how it feels when you find a new, perfect group of friends. When I was 13 the band's first album "Murmur," and its brooding, enigmatic cover, located me. Apparently, Michael Stipe forced the band to pull over so he could snap a picture of the Georgian underbrush.  So magical and dark and Southern. In R.E.M.'s Behind The Music, Kate Pierson of the B52s calls Michael Stipe, "the patron saint of college poets."  He certainly was mine. It was natural then to have the group of friends in "Great, Wondrous" love R.E.M., too.  

"Sweetness Follows" was the song I thought would play as "the camera" panned up from Corrina, Marigold, Ian and Van to "show" the Church that they had just disappeared.

"Wolves, Lower," from the band's eternally under-appreciated album "Dead Letter Office" is quoted as the group decides how to get back at Lacrosse bullies Chris and Dan. ("Michael Stipe tells us to suspicion ourselves, and not get caught.")

"Perfect Circle," one of the prettiest songs ever written, represents the group of friends itself.  

"Corrina, Corrina" is one of my favorite Dylan songs, and the girl who can make things disappear takes her name from its mournful refrain.  

4.) "He Woke Me Up Again," Sufjan Stevens (Seven Swans, 2004)


"Since Miss Ruby was in charge of placing the rainbow stickers on the bookmarks, today everyone gets one.

Today, everyone is lucky."

While the Sisters of Saint Joseph dance to ELO, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, my biggest musical help came from an unreferenced source. The story stops right before the scene where every child in Sunday School class turns over their bookmarks to find rainbow stickers. I have imagined that scene, and the chaos it would likely cause, countless times.  

"He Woke Me Up Again" by Sufjan Stevens, specifically when the chorus breaks into those pretty "Halleuiahs" is what I think would be playing. Halleuiah to civil disobedience!  Since I placed that story last in the collection, the collection itself ends in anticipation of Ruby's joyful act of rebellion.  I liked that.

Marie-Helene Bertino and Safe as Houses links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book (the author reading)
video trailer for the book

Book Riot review
New York Journal of Books review
The Rumpus review

Canteen interview with the author
Fiction Addiction interview with the author
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
Interview Magazine interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown self-interview with the author
Recommended Reading contribution by the author
Rob McClennan interview with the author review

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

The list of online "best of 2012" book lists

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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