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March 29, 2013

Book Notes - M. Henderson Ellis "Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe"

Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe

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.

In this debut novel, M. Henderson Ellis creates a vivid picture of early 1990s Prague and the expatriates who flocked to the country post-communism. Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe is both charming and absurd in all the best ways.

The Winnipeg Free Press wrote of the book:

"Difficult to put down, unsettling yet addictive, the novel is a must-read for anyone who dares to peek behind the postcard image of a famously beautiful centre of European civilization."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.


In his own words, here is M. Henderson Ellis's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe:


My debut novel, Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe, features an off balance pill-popping young American on a mission to brand just-democratized 1990s Prague with high-end coffee culture. Taking a cue from certain coffee powerhouses that only allow music approved from their corporate offices to be broadcast in their stores, I hereby enclose a playlist for the book's protagonist - John Shirting - and his own private café of the mind. Below we have music inspired by Prague, nostalgia, and a pervasive but ebullient feeling of melancholy.


Linda Ronstadt's cover of Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou"

Pop-minded youth in the 1970s had Linda Ronstadt on their radar. The music is sweet, unchallenging, comforting. Kind of like a pumpkin spice latte. One of the few pop-culture references in the book is to Shirting's love of Ronstadt, when he finds one of her albums on vinyl in the apartment of a prostitute he is trying to recruit to work behind the bar of his café franchise.


Frank Zappa, "Joe's Garage"

No Prague playlist is complete without a song by official cultural ambassador to former Czechoslovakia, Frank Zappa. The highly sing-able "Joe's Garage" is perfect for lip-syncing while prepping the espresso bar. It is worth adding that Joe's Bar, the first American (well, Canadian) bar to open in Prague, was in part named after the song, and the album Joe's Garage was well known to its regulars and bartenders, including this one.


Nouvelle Vague cover of Josef K's "Sorry for Laughing"

Josef K, hero of Kafka's The Castle, would appreciate this highly listen-to-able song by the band that bears his name. Nouvelle Vague's cover gives the listeners a chance to name check while lulling into some serious bassa nova grooves. Perfect counter-culture punk turned café background music. It's Josef K decaffeinated.


Simon and Garfunkel, "America" (Peruvian pipe band version)

Peruvian pipe circles seemed to materialize on the street corners of every former Soviet-Bloc city after the Berlin Wall fell, disseminating the music of Simon and Garfunkel to the masses. "America": the song is a postcard set to music, inducing a comfortable sort of homesickness. Worth lingering on a windy Prague boulevard as it plays, slightly tipsy and lost, it is a nice reminder of home. But one is cautioned to be on one's way before "El Condor Pasa" kicks in and all is lost.


Tom Waits, "Time"

The new and old converged in a city that was in a mad rush to catch up with Western culture, while simultaneously maintaining (exploiting?) its history and romantically stark image. It was a maddening predicament, if you chose to dwell on it. Or you could just sit in Újezd, a rock bar where Tom Waits was on constant loop, and not think about any of that, happy with a 25-cent pilsner.


Shirley Temple "Animal Crackers" (by Irving Caesar)

Protagonist John Shirting loves Shirley Temple with no trace of irony. And how exquisite is the fact that Shirley Temple was the ambassador to former Czechoslovakia during Shirting's residence there? ‘Animal crackers in one's soup' is a disturbingly cute metaphor for mental illness, delivered by one sinisterly adorable moppet.


Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Though a bit rabble-rousing for any café, this song could be heard from every corner of Prague in the early 90s. Somebody was doing brisk business in counterfeit Nirvana tee shirts, which were omnipresent as propaganda posters were a decade before. Only play this one after hours, when closing.


Buckner & Garcia, "Frogger's Lament"

Video arcades, stand-up game consoles - Frogger in particular - play a huge role in Shirting's personal lore, and on the chaotic streets of Prague, the amphibious hero of that game is constantly brought to mind. It's a novelty song, to accompany people who live novelty lives.


Šum Svitsu, " Zpívaná"

Yes, even the Czechs are allowed to get in on the action once in a while. There was so much Western music and so many bands singing in English it could be easy to forget that you were in a foreign country. Then there is Šum Svitsu. Instead of just importing American pop culture, they imported the world, like a Crate and Barrel of musical dialects, and then made it all seem a bit absurd. Shirting likes the absurdity, and in tribute, concocts a Prague ham martini in their honor, and calls it a day.


M. Henderson Ellis and Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe links:

the author's website
the author's blog

ForeWord Reviews review
Winnipeg Free Press review

CCLaP Podcast interview with the author
Evanston RoundTable profile of 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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