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March 21, 2013

Book Notes - Leigh Newman "Still Points North"

Still Points North

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.

Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home is a remarkable memoir by Leigh Newman, covering her childhood in Alaska and parents' divorce as honestly as her adult travels around the world, and the resulting book is a vivid testimony to resiliency.

Karen Russell wrote of the book:

"Leigh Newman writes so lucidly about bewilderment, so honestly about self-deception, so courageously about fear, so compassionately about insensitivity, so hilariously about suffering and loss. Still Points North is a remarkable book: a travel memoir of the mapless, dangerous seas and territories between childhood and adulthood."

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 Leigh Newman's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir, Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home:

Memoirs can be about all kind of things. Still Points North is about growing up in Alaska, hunting for caribou and fishing for king salmon and flying around with my Dad in our single-prop floatplane. It's also about watching my parents' marriage fall apart—and much later, watching mine veer towards the same fate. Somehow this all became a love story—a convoluted, improbable one, about falling for your own family.

The book is divided into two very different parts: my childhood in the wilderness and my adulthood living all over the world. The two parts are intimated related the way any two time periods are; they created each other. Writing the book I saw this interplay of past and past, but it was really surprising and fun see how much more clearly and radically this played out via songs. The story was there in music, down to the epilogue.

Part I

(Note: All these songs I own in record form, which I played on my Technics SL-DL, a sleek silver turntable my dad purchased circa 1981 also known as Shirley. Twenty-three years later, I wrapped her in several thick sweaters, tossed her in my duffle bag and checked her as baggage for the 5,000 mile flight from Anchorage to New York City. She made it in perfect health and played on until three months ago when she was assaulted by a three year old. The service will be held next week in Brooklyn. )

"Four Strong Winds" by Neil Young

Comes a Time was an album we listened to over and over and over, so much so that Dad kept having to buy new ones, which he dated with ballpoint in the upper left corner. This song seems particularly relevant due to a powerful updraft that he and I ran into the Cesena 185, which lifted us up to a technically impossible 20,000 feet. Our lips turned blue and, due to the lack of oxygen, all I could do was giggle. But we didn't fall out of the sky, as is supposed to happen at that altitude. We lived. Here is what it felt like: a white moth blown across the room by a window fan.

"Rainbow Trout" by Gordon Lightfoot

This song about a fish “who's swimming up upstream in the world” was the closest we ever got to national family anthem when I was little. At the time, we mostly fished for salmon: kings, silvers, reds, pinks, humpies, jacks, dog. We used spin rods and big clumsy pixie lures (I won't deny it; I still love a pixie). But we longed for the elegance of fly-fishing, as well as the classy bamboo rods. When I was about 14, Dad went cold turkey on salmon and switched obsessively to the pursuit of rainbows, and reoriented our whole to this pursuit. His record was a 33-incher. It's fish so big it's pretty much a fresh water tuna.

"The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers

This album cost $8 and it was the first thing I ever bought with my own money. To purchase it, I put on my cowboy hat and climbed on my pink Schwinn and peddled down to the Boniface Mall in suburban Anchorage, which, for me in 1978 was basically the Champs-Élysées. I memorized the whole album and was known to sing it start to finish while fishing in my underwear in Beluga River.

Madame Butterfly Act 1, 2, 3 by Puccini

When I was a young kid, Mom loved to listen to opera while cleaned the house and I love to watch her. As she dusted with lemon polish and waltzed around the living room, she would tell me the story of Cio-Cio-San and her lover Pinkerton. At the end of act three, when Cico-Cio San discovered that Pinkerton has married a nice white American, Mom would dramatically commit harikari with a broom handle. The opera had a lot of subtext that I didn't understand at the time about the state of my family—but it was yet another indicator that Mom wasn't as at home in Alaska as Dad and I.

"I'm Going To Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" from South Pacific

This quickly replaced Madame Butterfly when Mom left Alaska and took me with her. We sang it a lot after dinner while dancing around the living room in our new brick house in Baltimore. Again, the subtext eluded me.

"Sultans of Swing " by Dire Straits

From the age of 8 on, every four months, I flew between my parents and had to stop to change planes at various cites. Sometime, on the Seattle route, my uncle Dick would stop an meet me. He lived on a sailboat and was the funk, cool uncle who had done everything like take acid and cook in a real French restaurant. He gave me the CD and the CD player that came with it. Once in Alaska, I listened to it religiously, usually in our plane, which at that time was a 6-man Helio. There is no music in a small cockpit except for some really crackled country that fizzes through in bits. It felt very majestic, listening to the Sultans, soaring between mountains on the way to Homer, a nice counterpoint to the miserable human being I was during this time.

Part II

"Jesus Etc." by Wilco

I wish I'd picked a more original song, but I didn't. For most of my adulthood, I was a travel writer and out of American culture in a many, many ways. I didn't find out about so-called alt-country or any of its subsets and musical sequels until this song. For a few dark adult years, I drove around like a teenager listening to this song over and over, as if the sound of it would manifest the all-forgiving guy mentioned in the title.


"The Mysterious Fox of Hollow" by Tom T. Hall

The mysterious fox of Fox Hollow hides in the forest behind a big rock and sniffs with his nose in the wind. Sometimes he goes out a night to steal chickens. And though he is a fox, he had the personality of my stinky misbehaving street dog, Leonard, which even my son recognized at age 1. My father gave me this album when I was about 3. It's now my son's favorite song.

Leigh Newman and Still Points North links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

BookPage review
Los Angeles Review of Books interview with the author
New York Daily News review

Huffington Post interview with the author

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

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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