February 14, 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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Stephen Elliott has stated "I haven’t read anyone who writes more incisively and provocatively about the way we live now than Michelle Orange," and I agree. This essay collection cuts through cultural preconceptions and offers insight into our changing world with clarity, intelligence, and a truly original voice.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"In the opening essay in this engrossing collection, a book that restores one's hope for the future of intelligent life on earth, Orange introduces 'the theory of receptivity,' a phrase that neatly describes the source of her fathoming inquiries. In this extended thought piece, written, as is every selection, with an ensnaring mix of intense curiosity, personal disclosures, buoyant wit, and harpooning precision, Orange considers the ways technology has altered time and asks why nostalgia is ‘now such an integral part of American culture.'"
There are many things I can only do with music and just a few that I can only do without it. I can't imagine having run a step, for instance, were it not for portable music players. Dancing, obviously. Cooking and cleaning; avoiding either or both. Driving, which I used to do quite a bit but don't at all anymore. Talking on the phone, same. Walking to the bar, weaving home from the bar; getting dressed, getting undressed.
There's only one part of my day that is not improved by music, and that is the time I spend writing. Then any kind of musical accompaniment feels like playing two songs, top volume, at once—irritating, mutually obstructive. I know I'm ready to start working—as opposed to dicking about at my computer—when I want the music off.
I had a thought recently, perhaps not coincidentally after finishing my first book: Creativity is in fact just five percent inspiration, five percent perspiration, and ninety percent shouting "Silver Springs" through a megaphone. So maybe there's music after all, it's the mic space that's limited.
I have a couple of playlists for This Is Running for Your Life. The first is brief and made up of the songs I returned to while running in the mornings—mostly Eminem and other angry types. Below is the longer list, made up of songs that figure in or outside of a few of the ten essays in the book.
No one has ever called Niagara a musical, but the 1953 film includes a party scene in which Marilyn Monroe's crooning threatens to smuggle it across genre lines. The song she is singing, or singing along to, is called "Kiss," and appears to have been written for the film by Haven Gillespie and Lionel Newman. The latter, uncle to Randy, became the musical director of all of Monroe's later musicals, at her insistence, and they make a memorable start in Niagara. In "The Dream (Girl) Is Over" I write a bit about Niagara, and the launching of Marilyn Monroe into the humid upper decks of the public imagination. There's also some stuff in there about the rise, breakdown and strange reconstitution of the feminine ideal on screen, and realism's curbing effect on our ability and inclination to imagine full-blown ideals. But I suspect if you only watched Marilyn Monroe singing "Kiss" for a small and hungry crowd, driving her invalid husband bananas with a few well-chosen lyrics, you'd understand all that and more.
I open "Have A Beautiful Corpse," an essay in which I attempt to dig some meaning out of our culture's fascination with stories of celebrity decline and death, with a story about dancing to "Let Your Backbone Slide" for a high school assembly. God we loved that song. It became the first song by a Canadian rapper to hit the American Top 40, an accomplishment whose many layers of validation can only be fully grasped by other Canadians. You'll find these days that few Canadians want to talk about Snow, he of the droning "Informer" smash, but Maestro Fresh Wes was legit, and we all seemed to feel it instinctively. Any song that got a pair of white girls and a pair of black girls busting tentatively choreographed hip-hop moves for the uniform-clad student body of their Catholic high school has something special going on.
"This is a throwdown, a showdown, hell no I can't slow down, it's gonna go—" the song begins. For a couple of the essays, including this one, it seemed more fun to channel the Maestro in pulling my thoughts on a subject together, put some old-school swagger on it. Maybe more throwback than throwdown, the idea was to have less fear, or at least show less fear, and see where the story took me. I wanted it to be more about the ride than being right, and have the reader feel the same. Because all I know for sure is that you will like this song. It can't really be denied.
Later in life, and to her family's bemusement, my grandmother Rita took a lot of pleasure in country music. Country music and Englebert Humperdinck. It seemed to come on suddenly, in her late seventies, and through Rita's eighties every holiday brought her a new CD from her wish list of favorites. George Jones was her favorite of favorites; she saw him in concert more than once, and lived to write me letters about it. Some of those letters, as I describe in "One Senior, Please," were sent to me during my first couple of years living in New York City in the mid 2000s. She wrote to me about George Jones and the rest of her vigorous late life from her apartment in London, Ontario, where I was born and raised.
Her letters—and the music and much else—stopped when Rita entered a severe depression in 2006, at age 91. She had suffered similar bouts and multiple hospitalizations in decades past, but this was my first encounter with the blackness that dogged her across her life. George Jones lived hard; I think Rita appreciated that. He got born again at some point, and began putting out Christian albums, adding a little gospel to the usual whisky regrets. I know she liked that too, along with sharing in the hope that the hardest living was behind them. They had survived.
"Brimful of Asha," Cornershop
I had one big night out during the 2008 trip to Lebanon I write about in "Beirut Rising." It was January, damp and cold, and the window tiles of the club I had been taken to by some new friends were filling with big steamy smiles. It was a lot of action, all of a sudden, for a trip that lonely. A political crisis had the capital in lockdown, and outside the relative stability that followed the 2006 war with Israel was falling away. A bomb targeting a U.S. Embassy car was detonated in a nearby neighborhood in the following days. But that Friday night, Lebanese, Americans, Lebanese-Americans, Brits, and at least one Canadian crowded together and drank to their mutual health. The music was incredibly loud and people seemed to be drinking it too, radio favorites just dated enough to sound exactly right.
One of the recurring themes in the book is expressed most explicitly in "Do I Know You? And other Impossible Questions," an essay about the phenomenon of being mistaken or not-quite-mistaken for a wide variety of (usually famous) people by a wide variety of (usually not famous) people. "Ieeeeee've a feeling that I know you/tell me, have you ever seen me?" this Small Faces song goes. "Words seem out of place/all my life I've known your face." Then there's some stuff about hearing the breathing of flowers breaking through the concrete, suggesting that perhaps more severe confusions were at hand. But the idea that we are encountering the uncanny—especially in art and in other people—almost constantly is one that interests me very much. They are experiences that seem rooted, like this song, in something to do with love, and longing. In this essay and others I wanted to explore that idea from a bunch of angles, ones that would be as familiar to the reader as the question, "Have we met before?" Do I know you?
In "The San Diego of My Mind," I visit a "neuromarketing" firm in San Diego to learn about the latest evolution of focus group research: putting subjects into fMRI scanners and watching their brains react to products, product marketing, or, in the case of this particular firm, movies. As someone who has to watch a lot of movies (and a lot of bad but financially successful movies), I was intrigued: What does a "good" or "positive" response to a movie look like in the brain? And says who? Where is the line between art and product being drawn today? I wanted to resist going all "Paranoid Android" on the experience; "save that for the playlist," I told myself. So here it is, and here's to all the unborn chicken voices in your head.
What's funny is I fully intended to put Weezer's "Across the Sea" in this spot, where I talk about the road warrior years, and "Ways of Escape," the book's last essay. That's a song I remember from the mix tape years back in the late-90s, before iPods, when you could really only take one tape out on a run, and if you were running as much as I was, that meant you would listen to it three or four times through.
But I still listen to "Across the Sea," Rivers Cuomo's ballad addressed to the Japanese girl who sent a fan letter into the heart of his post-success despondence. It reminds me of that time, but it doesn't haunt me. Whereas last week, while I was doing some research on Dave Grohl's new documentary, on a whim I pulled up "Everlong," a song I hadn't heard in a decade at least, and soon found myself in the midst of confused sobs, as though I'd just taken a few mega-watts to some pressure point I wasn't aware I had.
I'm one of those crabs who resisted the Foo Fighters. I never bought an album, tainted by the vague idea that their fan base was made up of the backward-hats who never liked Nirvana. But they were a radio band and when I got sick of my tapes on the three-hour runs I was taking almost every morning back then, I switched over to FM. And so it was that I came to have a certain Foo Fighters song drilled into my marrow while I was running the other way.
Michelle Orange and This Is Running for Your Life links:
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
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