May 31, 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.
Themes of family and war span three generations and two continents in Courtney Angela Brkic's compelling novel The First Rule of Swimming.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"In her exquisitely crafted, superbly structured novel, Brkic summons undertones of Greek tragedy to create her arresting characters and their intense emotions and dire secrets. By dramatizing nuanced questions of who is at fault, who can be trusted, and who will sink or swim, Brkic reveals persistent, multigenerational wounds of war, sacrifice, exile, and longing and imagines how healing might commence."
I set The First Rule of Swimming in Croatia and New York City, the two places where I've spent the majority of my adult life. The songs on my playlist are either ones I associate with those geographies or which have thematic parallels to the novel: larger-than-life female characters, conflict, love thwarted by circumstance and hard times. For me, a crucial part of writing takes place when I'm not actually writing: I take walks, or drive around, or stare off into space. And I do a lot of that while listening to music that inevitably influences the time I do spend putting words to paper.
Haustor – "Moja Prva Ljubav" ("My First Love") - Haustor
This ska song came out in Yugoslavia in 1981, at a time when life (for most people) was good. It's playful, easygoing, and still popular today. The wars of the 1990s gave the region a reputation as a "tinderbox" and a "quagmire" (two words which anyone following coverage of the wars grew very tired of hearing). But the truth is that the majority of people had no problems with their neighbors, and – certainly at this point in the early ‘80s – could not imagine the country at war.
Mercedes Sosa – "Alfonsina y el Mar" ("Alfonsina and the Sea") – 30 Años
Sosa sang in a way that has never failed to move me and this song is my favorite. It's about Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, who committed suicide by drowning in 1938. It's the song "that the seashell sings in the murky depths of the sea", a requiem for one "who is not coming back". For me, it's a song about the irrevocable nature of grief, something that underlies much of the novel.
Nina Simone – "Trouble in Mind" – Pastel Blues
I admire Simone's range, the way she made so many musical styles her own. She wasn't the first (or the last) to record this song, but her interpretation is the one that I prefer. The song's lyrics seem to head in two different directions, but it's a contradiction that works. "The sun's going to shine/in my back door one day" and "I'm going to lay my head/on some lonesome railroad line/let the 2:19 train/ease my troubled mind."
Klapa DC - "Jute San Se Zajubija" ("I've fallen in love with you")– Omiš 1967-1995
A musical form from Dalmatia, klapa is sung a capella and usually (but not always) by men. Most towns and villages on the coast have klapa ensembles but it's not unusual to witness spontaneous renditions of klapa songs, as well. This recording is from the big yearly festival in Omiš. It's a favorite in my family, with three lines that are as simple as they are romantic: "I've fallen in love with you./I would not want any others./[Come with me and] you will be a czarina."
Leonard Cohen – "Anthem" – The Future
There's something about these lyrics that gets me every time. Survival depends largely on endurance, on picking up the pieces (insofar as we're able) and going on, and that is as true for me as it is for my characters. I wrote the book over a period of nine years. There were a lot of ups in that time. And a lot of downs.
Oliver – "Dva put san umra" ("I died twice") – Oliver u Areni
Oliver Dragojević, Dalmatia's most beloved musician, has been performing since the 1960's. Personally, I associate his music with my 20's, the Adriatic Sea and good friends (some of whom I've lost contact with over the years). Though I don't mention him in the novel, my characters would know his music very well.
Djordje Balašević – "Samo da rata ne bude" ("Just Let There Be No War") – U tvojim molitvama – Balade (In Your Prayers – Ballads)
Balašević is the Leonard Cohen of the Balkans, with witty, poetic lyrics and songs that set up shop in your head for weeks after hearing them. He released "Samo da rata ne bude"/"Just Let There Be No War" in the late 1980's, when it was growing clear that this was where things were headed. "Let it rain without stopping/let the thunder go wild/Just let there be no war."
Pulp – "Bar Italia" – A Different Class
This song has more to do with process than the novel itself. I wrote many sections of the book in intense, concentrated blocks, coming up for air – it sometimes seemed – after days had passed. When I'm in the groove of writing, I tend to lose the thread of time. Not unlike stumbling out into the early morning after a grueling night of too much fun. (Or, so I am reliably informed.)
Courtney Angela Brkic and The First Rule of Swimming links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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