January 11, 2013
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.
Nicholas Montemarano's novel The Book of Why is a poignant exploration of love and loss told through the eyes of a self-help author who tragically loses his wife.
I tend to be moved way more by a song's sound than its lyrics. That may be sacrilegious for a writer to say, but it's true. I can listen to an album over and over for months—Washed Out's Within and Without, for example—and not be able to tell you a single lyric. I listen to music for the same reason I read books: to be moved. Music evokes emotion in me much more immediately and viscerally than most writing is able to. I envy a song's ability to make you feel something deeply in just a few minutes. When I read, and especially when I write, I pay close attention to the music of prose—repeated sounds, the rhythm of sentences, the frequency or infrequency of pauses.
When I was writing my new novel, The Book of Why, I didn't listen to music while I wrote. To me, that would be like listening to music while trying to write music. But most days I listened to music before writing. I would ask myself what emotion I wanted to evoke in the chapter I was writing, then I would listen to music that stirred that emotion in me.
The narrator of The Book of Why, Eric Newborn, is a bestselling self-help author and inspirational speaker. He says things like, "Happiness is an inside job" and "Miracles happen all the time" and "As you think, so shall you be." He preaches self-empowerment and believes that you can cure disease—or dis-ease, as he calls it—with positive thinking. His wife, Cary, a singer-songwriter, doesn't share his beliefs; she's better able to live in the moment and accept whatever happens. When she becomes sick, Eric's beliefs are put to the test: he helped so many people with his books and lectures, yet he feels helpless in the face of his wife's illness.
1. The Beatles, "Help!"
Self-help books are easy targets, and, in truth, many are silly or filled with treacle, but over the course of writing this novel I felt empathy not only for writers of self-help books, many of whom really are trying to help, but also for the millions of people who read them. That self-help books sell so well tells me one thing: there are many, many people out there looking for help. So this first song, which comes to mind whenever I think of The Book of Why, is pretty obvious. I imagine Eric's fans, and Eric himself, crying out, "Help me if you can, I'm feeling down / …Won't you please, please help me, help me, help me, oh."
2. Ingrid Michaelson, "Be OK"
I have a special fondness for Ingrid Michaelson, one of the inspirations for the character of Eric's wife, Cary. Like Michaelson, Cary starts her career by putting out her albums independently and selling them at her shows, and resists signing with a record company. "Be OK" is the song I most associate with Cary, and it also connects with the self-help theme of the novel. As Michaelson puts it, "I just want to be ok, be ok, be ok / I just want to be ok today." We all do—of course. That's one reason why self-help books sell so well.
3. Bruce Springsteen, "If I Should Fall Behind"
Bruce fans may know this track from his album Lucky Town, but it's not one of his better known songs. I think it's one of the best love songs of all time: it's beautiful, sincere, and realistic. It recognizes that two people may love each other, but then life happens, and sometimes we lose our way. My wife and I chose it as our wedding song. The Book of Why, at its core, is a love story. Love found, love lost, love found again—maybe. Cary's best known song is called "Hello Goodbye." As she says, it's the only story we know—we say hello, and eventually we all must say goodbye. Bruce presents hope in the face of this reality: "Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true / But you and I know what this world can do / …I'll wait for you / If I should fall behind / Wait for me."
4. Ray LaMontagne, "Be Here Now"
This is one of the most meditative, peaceful, quietly beautiful songs I've ever heard; it never fails to relax me. A few simple guitar chords, ethereal strings, notes descending on a piano, and LaMontagne almost whispering or breathing rather than singing. The song is like a self-help book; LaMontagne gives all sorts of advice, some of which Eric Newborn might agree with: "Don't let your mind get weary / …Don't let your heart get heavy / …Don't let your soul get lonely / …Don't lose your faith in me / And I will try not to lose faith in you."
5. Wilco, "Either Way"
Eric's journey throughout The Book of Why is from a place where he tries to control the world around him to a place of acceptance that some things are beyond his control. In other words, he becomes more like his wife—after she's gone. The ending of a novel should also be a new beginning; it should invite us to imagine how the story might continue. I like to imagine Eric beyond the final page of The Book of Why, walking alone on a beach on Martha's Vineyard, where he and Cary used to live together, listening to this song, which somehow manages to sound both happy and melancholy—like life: "Maybe the sun will shine today / The clouds will roll away / Maybe I won't be so afraid / I will understand everything has its plan / Either way."
Nicholas Montemarano and The Book of Why links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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