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June 6, 2013

Book Notes - Masha Hamilton "What Changes Everything"

What Changes Everything

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.

What Changes Everything is a brilliant depiction of the cost of war, and Masha Hamilton once again proves herself a master at creating nuanced characters and gripping narrative.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Hamilton's descriptions are vivid, especially when portraying the tension and uncertainty that families of political prisoners endure. Fans of topical fiction will appreciate this knowledgeable and nuanced view of the Afghan war."

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 Masha Hamilton's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, What Changes Everything:

So, what we already know: novels in the production stage are multi-armed, sprawling—even those that seem so contained and disciplined upon completion. They often take years to write, and the author can spend just as long trying to understand the motivation behind investing so much time in the first place. I've found that the only way to give the narrative a chance to thrill and disappoint me, and then to eventually make my peace with it, is to approach it from every possible angle. Writing in a quiet library or a silent study only goes so far, so I'll try almost anything to help in the long process. I once heard Ken Haruf say he wrote on a computer blindfolded, which worried me—what if his fingers slipped on the keyboard and page after page, hour after hour, of material waiting to be revised was unreadable? Still, I even gave that a shot, briefly. I'm more likely, however, to write in the dark on scraps of paper, or in the sand on the beach, in the corner of a bodega, while riding the subway, on a napkin in a bar, in a war zone before dawn, or at the edge of a kitchen filled with the noise of dinner. And yes, sometimes while listening to music.

I am with my fellow authors who note it is usually hard to listen to the lyrics of others when you are straining to catch those dimly moving through your own head. But I did have music in the background at points while writing What Changes Everything. I focused on the adhan, the evocative Muslim call to prayer. It contributed to the mood of the words; in fact, the first reference to the call to prayer comes in the early pages of the novel, in the viewpoint of an Afghan man named Amin:

Amin spread his rug on the ground behind the office and then parted his lips to inhale fully. A crippled sparrow stood in stingy bush-shade and watched. Smoke and exhaust threaded through Kabul's air, and the city's tensions pressed against the compound walls; nevertheless, nothing matched performing salat under an open sky, even if sometimes the closeness to Allah made him feel that much more ashamed. He raised his hands next to his ears, crossed his arms, paused and then bent at the waist; he straightened, he bowed, he lowered his forehead to the earth in a dance of sacred ritual by now burrowed deep in muscle memory. He had first prayed as a child aside his father, mimicking the traditional movements in time to words of supplication. These days his own son often stood next to him, and so at its best, prayer connected him not only to his God, but to his past, his future, his people.

Calls to prayer, heard five times a day in the Muslim world, are not interchangeable; the quality depends on the skill of the mu'adhin, or caller. Here are some of my favorites from albums:

Footsteps in the Light, 2006
By Yusef Islam, also known as Cat Stevens and before that as Steven Demetre Georgiou. Okay, so there's been some confusion of identity here, but maybe that's what makes this call to prayer so compelling, so otherworldly.

The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, 2005
By Karl Jenkins, a Welsh musician and composer whose father was a chapel organist. This remarkable album, dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo crisis, begins with the sounds of marching feet and a piccolo imitating the flutes of a military band, almost a celebratory descent into conflict. The call to prayer is the second track.

Fire Dance, 1990, and Dance Into Eternity, 2000
By Omar Faruk Tekbilek, a Turkish musician whose style builds on Sufi music. His father used to call out the prayers during mosque services. He moved to the US and worked in a clothing factory in Rochester, NY, until he was "discovered" in 1988 by Brian Keane. This call to prayer feels filled with a sense of timelessness. It is the longest track in my selected four, lasting 5:24.

One, 2005
My all-time No. 1 favorite call to prayer, at least to date, is on this album which includes various artists. The adhan is by the Kominas, a Pakistani-American punk band formed in Lowell, Massachusetts, whose debut album was Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay. Because the call comes from the group and not one voice, it is full of echo and depth.

One more musical reference in What Changes Everything is to Bob Dylan. This paragraph is from the early pages, from the viewpoint of a Brooklyn street artist named Danil:

As he worked, he sang "Mr. Tambourine Man" softly, just loud enough to make the back of his mouth vibrate. Dylan had been Danil's quirky brother Piotr's favorite singer, and just a few weeks ago, Danil had heard that song covered by a gutter punk band whose name he couldn't remember in the Rock Star Bar under the Williamsburg Bridge…That night, the Dylan song was etched onto the night like a Sunday choir's hymn by a rope of a man with tattoos running up both arms. The singer forewent the harmonica and his voice was raspier than Dylan's but it made Danil wish he could call Piotr. And it planted in his brain lyrics perfect for a street artist hoping to be immune to the night.

Later Danil's mother, who writes letters to try to understand a devastating loss, pens one to Dylan that reads in part:

I read an old Playboy interview with you once—I don't subscribe, of course, but I received old issues from an estate sale for my bookstore, Bulgakov's Bookshelf—and in it, you were so sarcastic that I almost stopped reading, but I kept on and I'm glad I did because you said something I still remember: "Art, if there is such a thing, is in the bathrooms; everybody knows that." Even if you meant that to also be sarcastic, I think my son Danil would agree.

If by this, Dylan meant that art is not just what hangs on museum walls or winds up between covers, but is what we do every day in an effort to creatively bridge and share our experiences of what it means to be human, then I agree too.

So, for the last track:

Bringing it All Back Home, 1965
The original version of Mr. Tambourine Man, written, composed and performed by Bob Dylan, appeared on this album.

Masha Hamilton and What Changes Everything links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus Reviews review
Library Journal review

Other People interview with the author
PEN America 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)
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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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