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July 11, 2013

Book Notes - Veronica Gonzalez Peña "The Sad Passions"

The Sad Passions

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.

I felt that Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s debut Twin Time portended a great future for her fiction,, and she has fulfilled that promise with her second novel The Sad Passions. Masterfully told in five voices, this is a powerfully told story of family, loss, and love, and one of the year's most striking works of fiction.

The Los Angeles Review of Books wrote of the book:

"The Sad Passions, Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s extraordinary novel of desire, loss, and matrilineal history, explodes the teenage pregnancy script through its unflinching plumbing of the bond between mother and daughter. The Sad Passions begins with a story we think we know, and then shows us how little any of us understand: about our ancestors, our parents, ourselves."

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 Veronica Gonzalez Peña's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Sad Passions:

The Sad Passions is told in 5 first person narrations, a manic depressive mother and her four daughters each telling their own stories in their own distinct chapters; though I separate the voices there is an overlay and intertwining that builds as the book goes on, sometimes with different versions of the same story being told from these various points of view so that it all becomes cacophonous, or trance-like by the end. The book is largely about voice, and the way in which voices move in and out of people and spaces, giving shape to those people and places; it is about the way we hold those voices inside us too; and the writing is quite rhythmic, so it is appropriate to be thinking about it all in terms of music...

These women, beginning with the boundaryless mother, all seep into each other, and so something that permeates space in that way would have to be a running theme, a constant background in terms of sound that we return to in between chapters, a sort of respite from these women's voices which is not silence, but is instead somehow synonymous with them, something like Brian Eno, or Carl Stone, especially if we can image his music as being recorded on the streets of Mexico City instead of Tokyo. Or something like the Cocteau Twins, or My Bloody Valentine, or This Mortal Coil which is about crying out for something that isn't there, a loss or maybe more of a longing because perhaps it was never there to begin with.

In 1964, Claudia, the mother in the book, elopes and runs off to Kansas City, with her question mark of a husband, M. She loses her mind for the first time during this trip and we would have to hear Muddy Waters doing Kansas City during this part of the book: Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come… they got some crazy little women there…. Also we'd have to hear James Brown doing, I'll Go Crazy:

If you quit me, I'll go crazy
If you forget me, I'll go crazy
'Cause I love you, love you
Oh, I love you too much….

This is such a great song for Claudia. And Elvis, Are You Lonesome Tonight, while M is out for days on end, leaving Claudia alone in a hotel room night after night. When things are good, M plays the guitar and loves to sing and he would play American pop, The Beatles, of course, and loads of Elvis, or boleros, those emotional ballads, signing loud and playful, or slow and mournful, and though Claudia tells us he is not a great singer, he is beautiful and full of charm and strangers like him.

Music gets directly mentioned in other parts of the book, especially when Julia, who is sent away to be brought up by an uncle in the US, comes back to Mexico City for summer visits. She plays music for her little sister, Sandra, poppy things she thinks Sandra will like, like The B52s of Planet Claire and Dance This Mess Around, and The Talking Heads, but also the David Bowie of Ziggy Stardust. Sandra uses these lyrics - yelling them out with her sister as they dance around the house - to learn English when Julia is gone. Sandra adores her missing sister Julia, and at some deep unknowable level she even believes she is her, somehow, and so she learns English fast, listening to Julia's music in her absence.

In another Julia chapter, Julia, hopeful about her relationship with Claudia, talks about loving the same things as her mother, even though she has not grown up with her; Julia tells us: our favorite band, The Beatles, though I was listening to other things then, David Bowie and Iggy Pop and X and The Fall; she said she wanted me to listen to Sylvio Rodriguez and Joan Manuel Serrat, socialists both; we had not ever lived together, really, and look at all we had in common!

Still, Julia always has to leave, and even though she knows it, after each of her summer visits, Sandra still can't believe her sister is actually going again; she is floored anew by this fact each time, and her song here would be Jeanette's Por Que te Vas? (Why Do You Go?) One of my favorite scenes in cinema (I am quite obsessed with children in film) is in Cría Cuervos, the two sisters dancing to this song… that could be Julia and Sandra dancing; only it would break our hearts to see them in the midst of that dance…

Marta is so tough… she just does not give a shit, and her music would be sassier, harder chick music, The Runaways, or The Slits… there is nothing hard about Su Tissue singing janitor/genitals but it would be good here too; and Helium: this one is scrawny and looks like me, 'cause it's dirty, and I'm so dirty too… a tear for every grain of sand...

While flirting in a park, the young mathematician/poet, Pablo, gets angry with Julia for talking about punk, dislikes the way bands toss political terms around; but she defends herself. She listens to The Germs, and Gang of Four and would love The Tronics and The Buzzcocks and The Raincoats and The Young Marble Giants too, though over and over again she'd go back to Bowie and the Iggy Pop of The Stooges and Lust for Life.

Sandra has a sort of breakdown toward the middle of the book and she begins seeing herself everywhere, especially while driving the freeways of Los Angeles. At this point she truly begins to believe she is a version of her missing sister, Julia. Kristin Hersh, Your Ghost seems written for this part of the book I think last night, You were driving circles around me, I think last night, You were driving circles around me…. This repeated over and over again as Sandra sees versions of herself/her sister all over LA.

That and the songs that follow were suggested for The Sad Passions by my dear friend (and publisher) Hedi El Kholti:

1) The Apartments: Mr Somewhere:

or the cover from This Mortal Coil:

2) This club track in Spanish could be fun:

3) Kristin Hersh: Your Ghost

Always loved that song.

4) The Stranglers: Strange Little Girl

5) Kate Bush: A Coral Room

Strange Little Girl would be good for either Julia or Marta. Kate Bush could permeate them all, the entire space, as The Cocteau Twins doing Song to the Siren, or Brian Eno, or Carl Stone might…. The end of the book is very trance-like… the rhythm really takes over… I love that, when language becomes so fluid it is musical… liquid, dream-like…

6) Porque Te Vas in Carlos Saura's Cría Cuervos:

Veronica Gonzalez Peña and The Sad Passions links:

California Literary Review review
Los Angeles Review of Books review review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Twin Time: or, How Death Befell Me

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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weekly music & DVD release lists

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