January 25, 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.
Todd Hasak-Lowy's novel 33 Minutes is an impressive middle-grade debut, a heartfelt book that depicts the end of a friendship with poignancy and humor.
Time Out Chicago wrote of the book:
"While the book may be for the middle-school crowd, Hasak-Lowy's eye for character and the acute emotions of those years lends a funny book great depth."
The Ironic Majesty of Bossa Nova
Or How Ike Quebec Helped Me Write a Novel for Children
I started writing my first novel for children knee-deep in trepidation. Didn't think I wanted to do it, didn't know how to do it, didn't believe I could do it without cheapening myself, my writing, and, worst of all, those traumatic, distant, pre-pubescent memories I intended to dredge up as the foundation for the whole foolish project. The initial plan was to dive down deep into the largely repressed muck of seventh grade, which, thirty years later, is still enjoying its 1500th straight week at the #1 on The Shittiest Time Of My Life chart. I knew there was something of value down there worth hauling back up to the surface, some dense and unstable raw material I could run through some narrative machine it was my task to build. But that was pretty much all I knew.
So, as soon as I started writing, I began searching for my soundtrack. All new projects start with a similar search, since the right musical accompaniment serves as coach, beacon, crutch, friend, and/or fuel. But this search was unusually desperate. During the previous ten years, writing exclusively for grown-ups, I drew heavily from a large, loyal storehouse: Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Philip Glass, Max Richter, etc. Mostly piano, mostly lyrical, mostly trance-inducing. Music for focusing, music that at this point simply tells my brain: Okay, Bub, time to write. Only in this case, focus—or the same old focus—wouldn't do. I need a new musical lens, music that my eyes and ears (it's a mixed metaphor, I know) would have to adjust to so I might see and hear and say differently. So I searched—going through thousands of neglected "items” on my hard drive, files I copied off my brother's massive digital library in a single giddy afternoon six months earlier—for music that would somehow feel like the world of this still untold story. I needed music that would help me translate vague memories into, well, literature.
The hero that came to my rescue? From among all that heedlessly acquired music? Ike Quebec's Bossa Nova Soul Samba. I already had, before that external hard drive dump, plenty of jazz. So I knew who Ike Quebec was, but other than his name (arguably the best in all of jazz, better than Duke Ellington, Philly Joe Jones, and even Bix Beiderbecke) I didn't think much of him. A little too bluesy for me, a little too much honk in his tenor. I'd always been partial to the trumpet and the more distinguished pedigree of its smoother, cleaner, brighter tone. Before musicians like Coleman Hawkins came along, the saxophone, or so I've been told, was right at home in the circus sideshow and the vaudeville stage. Listening to Ike Quebec, this kind of disparaging claim struck me as perfectly plausible.
But somehow Quebec's Bossa Nova Soul Samba did the trick. At the time, I didn't bother to ask why, but I think I now know. I was writing about middle school and the pain of losing my best friend for the first time. At its core, this was a purely sad story: the first person I ever chose (he was a friend after all, not a relative) to matter that much to me was moving on. But for some reason, from the opening scene, my narrator/protagonist—an anxious, helpless, undersized smart aleck—wouldn't stop cracking jokes. He was telling his story of loss, but seemed equally intent on portraying the indignity of the cafeteria, the absurdity of early adolescence, that outrageous farce called seventh grade. My narrator was trapped in a tragedy his schoolmates were certain was pure comedy, and this was horribly hilarious to him. His voice forced his story to be told against its own grain. It had to be funny and sad, goofy and serious, zany, and (dare I say it) poignant.
Bossa Nova Soul Samba provides this kind of tension by the truckload. It's a lovely album, an often beautiful album, but it's a silly album, too. The long, warm, breathy lines of Quebec's massive tenor, set against those delicate, nimble, propulsive bossa rhythms (especially the light, sandy "cha-cha-cha” of the chekere), it's a nearly absurd combination. Quebec does this thing over and over on the album, where he holds a relatively high note at the end of a wonderfully long improvisation, which sounds to me like the musical equivalent of a raising a self-deprecating eyebrow right after making an otherwise intelligent observation. Bossa Nova Soul Samba is the soundtrack for very serious slapstick, for a most misfortunate comedy, for everyone else thinking it's hysterical your muscle-bound ex-best friend is presently kicking your undersized ass.
My response to this album, I suppose, stems from knowing how the bossa nova trend was one of the ways white listeners (e.g. my dad) domesticated black jazz for themselves. Whenever I listen to bossa nova, including even masterpieces like Getz and Gilberto's "Desafinado," there's a part of me (at least in the privacy of my living room) that can't help but get up and do a rather ridiculous, intentionally unhip interpretive dance of my father's generation's attempt at being hip. Bossa nova is wonderful and wonderfully ironic music, and all that tragedy as comedy stuff is nothing if not ironic. I listened to Bossa Nova Soul Samba so steadily while writing what eventually became the book called 33 Minutes that I heard it filling up the hallways of Wagner Middle School. I had become addicted, in 2012, to drawing on the sounds of 1962 in order to get 1982 just right, an unlikely musical detour that nevertheless made perfect sense to me.
What I still don't know what to do with is this: Bossa Nova Soul Samba was Ike Quebec's last record. He died less than four months after recording it, only three years into his so-called comeback, after spending most of the fifties battling drug addiction and his own marginalization following the decline of big band. In the end, he died of lung cancer. Did he know, on that October day in 1962, that this would be his final statement? Did he care that he was playing Bossa Nova because the Blue Note label knew it would appeal to a larger (i.e. whiter) audience? And what would he have said, had some visitor from the future whispered in his ear, while Quebec adjusted his reed before laying down his very final track, that one day this music would help some suburban white guy work through his childhood misery? I like to think he would have laughed, but not because it was funny.
Todd Hasak-Lowy and 33 Minutes links:
Get Kids to Read review
January Magazine review
Kirkus Reviews review
Librarian of Snark review
Metapsychology Online Reviews review
Milk and Cookies review
No More Grumpy Bookseller review
Publishers Weekly review
Shannon Messenger review
Whatchamacallit Reviews review
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