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April 4, 2013

Book Notes - A. L. Kennedy "The Blue Book"

The Blue Book

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.

A.L. Kennedy's novel The Blue Book is a brilliantly told love story, one filled with riddles, deception, and razor sharp prose.

The Times wrote of the book:

"This is a masterful novel, imaginatively crafted, shaped by big, precisely articulated emotion. Not always easy reading, it must have been demanding to write: she dares to express the ineffable — hearts too full for words. It contains some of the angriest, purest stream-of-consciousness depictions of love and sex I've read. The imagery is stripped, the language often unlovely but perfectly tuned. Its parts — hidden and apparent — form an enigmatic whole."

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 A. L. Kennedy's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Blue Book:

I first began writing to music very early on in my career – I'm not too sure why, but the apparently never-ending arguments of my neighbours through the tenement wall may have had something to do with it. First they would shout, then they would shout more, then they would (this is exactly how it sounded) empty large boxes of shoes at each other onto the floor. It was bizarre and negative and unhappy and so music was my happy way to paper over it all. The habit then stuck as something good to do. My last novel was the 13th book, so by this point I have probably played far too many of my favourite songs on a loop and therefore ruined them for all time. The Blue Book is a love story, so many of these will be love songs – it's not as if love songs are in short supply. It's also a book about obsession and desire and loss and death – all the fun stuff.

"I Want You" – Elvis Costello

While I was planning the novel, someone played this on a radio request show and reminded me of its absolutely perfect evocation of twisted devotion. Apart from being very lovely, it seemed at the time to be a way into the Arthur character in the novel. I don't think he could play it without going crazy, but it's maybe playing in him without his consent.

"A Well-Respected Man" – The Kinks

Beth in The Blue Book is in love with a man who has the forward drive of this great track, shares this same vaguely insane energy, this sense of respectability with undercurrents brewing. I couldn’t love Ray Davies's work more without getting light-headed: the perfect lyrics, the broad musical grasp, the deep Englishness of a type that's delightful and rarely celebrated amid the jingoism and dreams of empire. (And it's exotic for a Scot like me.) Beth shares my devotion to the music of the 60's. And I worry for anyone who doesn't, frankly.

"Help !" –The Beatles

I know, I know, I have been reliably informed by those who were there that the '60's were largely no fun at all and the big gig on the Isle of White was dreadful when you were actually at it and only groovy in retrospect…. I did dance naked in the park in 1968 – because when you're a toddler you're allowed to – but it wasn't the same. This is a blindingly obvious song to pick, but it has real feeling under it and apparently was a way of Lennon addressing the pressures produced by even positive changes. As I trot off into writing, I play this rather often. I need help, I need to know someone else needed help. I also add in "All You Need Is Love" – this being true also. Many of my characters are trying to square the circle around self-restraint and the desire for parks and dancing.

"Dodo Blues" – C.W. Stoneking

While I was writing the novel I went through the beginning, middle and end of having a stomach ulcer. I bade farewell to the ulcer very early one morning with a biopsy and endoscopy. I don't take well to sedatives and so had to undergo the whole thing without them. Before I went in to the hospital, I walked round and round the still dark street looping this track on my MP3 player – it truly cheered me up and gave me courage. And all went well and was well and I was up and about and jolly soon after – so this song reminds me of feeling better. Stoneking is a kind of wonderful homage/throwback/celebration of old Blues and I feel that both my protagonists would appreciate it's sad/funny qualities. If you're truly sad and can produce Blues – it's a kick in the head for sadness, really. Like writing. And it's beautiful, too. Like writing.

"Stuck Inside of Mobile" – Bob Dylan

I have a friend who listens to Dylan every day and I can see why. He's good company and leaves you enough room to interject your own thoughts. (I have a theory that Dylan is the musical grandfather of Costello – they have a family resemblance.) I love the weird melancholy of this, the unhinged lyrics and the glorious, glorious keyboard stylings of Al Kooper – amazing touch he has. This always cheers me and also breaks my heart. I listen to it a lot on the road and I wrote a lot of this book on the road.

"Purple Haze" – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Very few things can truly handle having "experience" placed at the end of their title, but anything from Jimi will always carry it off. From those first chords on… and after the entrance of that astonishing guitar – wonderful. I played this every morning while writing the first two thirds of the novel in a cabin I was loaned in the woods. And if you've never danced in a cabin at midnight while a thunder storms kick off and Jimi roars above it on a borrow stereo then you have missed something. Dancing outside in the rain seemed optional, too and I took the option.

"The Engine Driver" – The Decembrists

I completed the first draft of the book in an Amtrak roomette, working overnight. I then didn't sleep and, in fact, couldn’t sleep as the dawn came up along the Columbia River Gorge. It was misty, still and all in monochrome shades as we shook along towards Oregon where I was going to stay with friends. The sudden burst of passion in the refrain, where the writer sings about writing, always catches me in the heart a little, but it really hit me that morning. And I missed my gentleman of choice and wished he was there and not across the Atlantic. Picaresque is, in general, a great album. And if you're sitting on a train and watching the world go by and tired – ideal.

"Couldn’t Call It Unexpected" – Elvis Costello

I've been listening to Elvis Costello’s music since I was at school – I could have filled this playlist simply with Costello. I relish his anger, his ferocious colours of love, his ballads, his crazed lyrics sung in a voice so strong and yet apparently fractured that he can get away with contemplating murder and I love his more carnival offerings like this one. I have no idea what it means and yet I know exactly what it means. I rediscovered it on a CD in an apartment in Santa Fe loaned to me by the Lannan Foundation and sang along repeatedly between bouts of rewriting the first draft and trying to boil high altitude water for tea.

"Bach Violin Partita in D Minor" – Bela Fleck

The banjo is a much-maligned instrument, but if you know how to handle it you can allow it to sound extraordinary. If I hadn't become a typist, I would have kept on practicing the banjo and by now I would be mediocre but able to rattle out a few tunes. I couldn't do this. I don't have to. Bela Fleck does this. I love the cognitive dissonance in this – it's a banjo, but it's playing Bach, but it's working, but it's ringing… I love that about art – it can join anything to anything if it's fuelled with enough skill.

"Bible And Gun" – Jason Ringenberg and Steve Earle

But this is more what you'd expect from a banjo. And more the area I tried to play in. I play track this a great deal when I'm starting out on a book, it has that doggedness about it, that sense of necessary justice and self-harm which is probably good to hold on to going forward – and the drive to a certain type of truth. Beginning a novel always reminds me of Captain Ahab and his whale – the way he drags a whole ship and crew into nowhere with him by force of will. It's kind of required in a novel at some level, I feel. And meanwhile, here are two wonderful musicians doing something that might sound simple but it's really, really not.

"People Are Strange" - The Doors

The whole gothic parade of this is marvellous. It never fails to perk me up and it recalls that occasionally uncomfortable sensation of being the writer in the room, or the observer. And it's a good reminder that if you're not careful a good deal of the "insight" you think you're gathering is actually just dripping out of your own head. My protagonists are, of course, professional observers and wouldn’t make that mistake. They experience the intoxication of the strangeness of others.

"I’ll See You In My Dreams" – Joe Brown

This song played a bit part in my previous novel, but it's stayed with me, as has the period it celebrated – the 1940's. It’s a great, clean arrangement, relies on its own simplicity and is full of our need to be near those we love, even when that's impossible. There are times when we would do anything even to find a dream of those lost to us. This version was sung at the end of a concert to celebrate George Harrison's life, so it’s the use of a love song to describe a wider type of love which is a great choice. It's a kind of request for the miracle we don’t get – no one comes back – and an acknowledgement of that truth. It's a sweet and a human way to end.

A. L. Kennedy and The Blue Book links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Guardian review
Herald Scotland review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Times review
New Yorker review
Open Letters Monthly review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Telegraph review

ArtsBeat interview with the author
Fleeting interview with the author
Guardian 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)
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musician/author interviews
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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weekly music & DVD release lists

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