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April 26, 2013

Book Notes - Laura Lee Smith "Heart of Palm"

Heart of Palm

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.

Laura Lee Smith's debut novel Heart of Palm is the smart and heartfelt story of a dysfunctional small town Florida family, whose authenticity is equaled by Smith's pitch perfect sense of place.

Kirkus Reviews review:

"In a slowly, gently unfolding comedy of manners, Smith skillfully sets multiple stories in motion, most, it seems, designed to showcase the vanity of human wishes. Smith is a kind and understanding creator, and even the most venal of her characters, we see, is just trying to get by—and usually not succeeding. In the end, Smith overlaps territory John Sayles explored in Sunshine State, but with a more generous sense of our foibles. It's a promising start—and a lot of fun."

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 Laura Lee Smith's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Heart of Palm:

My novel, Heart of Palm, is about a family in Northeast Florida trying to hold itself together against decades of grief. But it's not entirely grim; I like to think that the people I wrote about, the Bravos, embody a certain scrappy, brazen, and sometimes funny emotional tenacity. These people are going to survive in spite of themselves. The playlist that follows provides a pretty good snapshot of the emotional pitches that they—and I—weathered throughout the novel.

"What'll I Do," Irving Berlin

In an early chapter, this is the Berlin standard that matriarch Arla Bravo plays on her moldering Steinway piano. If you YouTube it, look for the Judy Garland version, which captures the over-the-top sentimentality of the composition as well as the pure, beautiful tragedy of it. I imagine Arla is thinking of more than one person when she warbles, "what'll I doooo, when yoooou are far away?"

"Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," Burt Bacharach

OK, so first of all, I have to confess that this song was a bit of a running gag to my two brothers and me when I was a kid. Something about the lyrics, the rhythm, the slapstick violence of those fat, slapping raindrops hitting some poor buster on his head. Like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed. Priceless! But also, the song resonates for me in its stubborn optimism ("the blues they send to meet me won't defeat me"). Bacharach's lyrics and his dopey, folksy melody capture the irrepressible optimism of Arla and, to some extent, all the Bravos. You just keep on going. You just keep on.

"Fling Thing," AC/DC

Greatest rock and roll band in the history of the universe; I can't get enough. "Fling Thing" takes the traditional Scottish song "The Bonnie Banks O' Loch Lomond" and—in the words of the great Nigel Tufnel—turns it up to eleven. There's a nod to my Scottish roots in Heart of Palm, both in Dean's whimsical labeling of the family home as "Aberdeen" and in the old Scottish song Will plays for Arla. So to honor these moments, and to tip the hat to my Glaswegian heroes Malcolm and Angus Young (as well as my son Iain), this one's for you. You take the high road. I'll take the low road. (And if you YouTube this one, look for the live version filmed in 1978 after Scotland played for the World Cup in Argentina, when the boys take the stage in Scotland's kit colors. Epic.)

"Lust for Life," Iggy Pop

When the young Bravo brothers pull off a teenage prank involving a police cruiser, a ladder, and a live alligator, they flee from the scene gleeful, drunk, and filthy. This is the song that, in my mind, provided the backdrop for that scene (yes, like the Trainspotting trailer, but not as depressing). As they race through the woods of Utina and plunge into the Intracoastal behind the family home, I imagine "Lust for Life"—and especially those bellowing intro drums—playing as a soundtrack. Loud.

"Lose Yourself," Eminem

This one is about tenacity, discipline, ambition, confidence, and desperation—all of which are needed in large quantities to write a novel, and all of which I found myself searching for every day as I was writing the book. A little dose of Marshall Mathers helped me pick it up and get back on track. "F-you!" you say to the manuscript. And then: "You can do anything you set your mind to, man."

"Three Little Birds," Bob Marley

I actually hate this song. I recognize that Bob Marley is a legend and all, but personally I find this song cloying and stupid. Three little birds?? A melody pure and true?? Everything little thing gonna be all right?? Oh, my god. But in Heart of Palm, this is the type of music that plays every night on the back deck of Uncle Henry's Bar and Grill as the drunks bemoan last call and start their sloppy exodus to the parking lot. It's one of the songs Sofia Bravo overhears as she's swimming in the Intracoastal behind her house. The irony is not lost on her. So much is not going to be all right. Watching Sofia respond to this song made me see how beautifully sarcastic and smart she can be. She started to come alive for me when this song played.

"Jolene," Ray LaMontagne

There's just something about the mood here. It's a song about addiction, which certainly figures into the novel. But in addition to that, "Jolene" asks the right questions about love, loyalty, and loss. In many ways it echoes Frank's state of mind throughout the story. Frank is a smart guy, but he's vulnerable to emotional entanglements, bouts of guilt, and the pain of unrequited love. "Held you in my arms one time, lost you just the same," LaMontagne laments. I think Frank knows how that feels.

"Love is All Around (Mary Tyler Moore Show Theme)," Sonny Curtis

There's an odd faith-based "family channel" that our cable TV service picks up, and for some reason it plays reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show every night. My daughter Gemma is hooked, so this song is ringing through the house on any given evening. At some point, I think some of the sweetness and optimism of that brilliant TV program was seeping into my subconscious as I was working on the novel. The characters on MTM operate under the basic assumption that people are good, and that we're all capable of helping each other out. There are characters in Heart of Palm – say Mac Weeden, say Morgan Moore, say An-Needa Lovett—who operate under that same assumption. So yes, this is an incredibly hokey and corny song (so corny that it probably draws my indictment of Bob Marley's ditty, above, into question). And I can listen to it over and over and over. Who couldn't?

"4th of July, Asbury Park," Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Bruuuuuuuuuce. I'm from New Jersey (not far from Asbury Park, in fact) so of course The Boss has had some pretty powerful influence on me over the years. Heart of Palm (prologue notwithstanding) begins on 4th of July, and each of the characters is searching for independence of a different sort. For Frank, especially, the carny atmosphere of Utina and its sometimes clown-like populous is holding less and less charm. "For me this boardwalk life's through, baby. You ought to quit this scene too."

"Ophelia," Natalie Merchant

This is a great song, and it focuses on an image that preoccupies Sofia throughout much of the novel. Shakespeare's Ophelia comes to represent—for Sofia—the ever-present danger of succumbing to your own pain. Ophelia couldn't make it—she fell apart and gave in to despair. Sofia struggles to stay on track, and the mental image of Shakespeare's doomed young maid is a reminder to her that she has other options, frightening as they may be.

"Free Bird," Lynyrd Skynyrd

Oh, my god. The quintessential Southern rock anthem, and home-grown right here in North Florida, as well. Nothing captures the timbre of Heart of Palm quite like this song. "If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?" To some people in my neck of the woods, "Free Bird," is as close to the voice of God as you are likely to get. I'm not kidding—it's absolutely sacred here, and I can appreciate why. Four and a half minutes in, when you hit the change and the riffs speed up, I defy you not to get caught up in the power and glory of this song. It channels Carson's desperation, Sofia's loneliness, Frank's discontent, and Arla's grief. And in some ways, it's Dean Bravo's requiem. "Lord knows I can't change," wails Van Zant. Indeed.

"You Can't Always Get What You Want," The Rolling Stones

Enough said.

Laura Lee Smith and Heart of Palm links:

the author's website
the author's blog

Book Reporter review
Florida Book Review review
Kirkus Reviews review
Library Journal review
Shelf Awareness review
Tampa Bay Times review

Book Reporter 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
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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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