September 26, 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.
Lauren Grodstein's novel The Explanation for Everything is a thoughtfully told and unforgettable tale of faith and forgiveness.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Grodstein handles everything with a subtle wit, managing to skewer both the ultraconservative and the ultraliberal without making either seem absolutely wrong. Both the tone and the plot of the grieving professor finding answers in science are reminiscent of Carolyn Parkhurst’s Dogs of Babel."
The Explanation for Everything concerns a grief-stricken biology professor and his Creationist student, who, over the course of the novel, wrestle with guilt, justice, and the origins of the universe. Andy, the professor, is an ardent atheist who teaches a course called “There is No God.” Melissa, his student, believes our lives are guided by a supernatural deity. They debate each other, fight with each other, and make out a little – and while they never quite manage to change each other’s minds, they do, in a way, overhaul each other’s spirits.
In considering a playlist for the book, I kept coming back to songs which mention God, and the various scenarios under which God is evoked: “God, I want you so bad,” “Oh my God, what have I done,” “I am a God,” etc. God comes up all the time in pop music (the kind of music I listen to the most, despite the best efforts of my hipster husband and my impatient son). So I thought I’d put together a list of songs that are touched by all things divine - lyrically, if not necessarily musically.
“Jesus Walks,” by Kanye West
My iPod boasts more Kanye West than any other artist, even though I basically concur with President Obama’s assessment that West is a “jackass.” But Kanye’s such a fiercely talented and listenable jackass, and his first album, “The College Dropout,” is so funny, catchy, and wickedly smart. “Jesus Walks,” the third single from the album, features a choir singing the chorus in a sort of staccato while West raps about the fact that secular radio probably won’t play this song. I often listen to it at the gym, and sometimes I like to sing along to the line, “the devil’s trying to break me down!” really loudly. This ensures that everyone else in the weight area gives me lots of room.
“Hallelujah,” by Jeff Buckley
I like Buckley’s version more than the original by Leonard Cohen – it feels more fragile, somehow. I met Buckley once for about five minutes after a show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken in the 90s, back when I was in college. He was handsome and seemed lonely, even though he was surrounded by admirers, and like every other woman in the room (and some of the men) I thought: I’m the one who can fix him. Of course I never saw him again. He sang “Hallelujah,” like he was howling a prayer. He was the first musician I mourned.
“I Say A Little Prayer for You,” by Aretha Franklin
I know this song is about romantic love – “the moment I wake up, before I put on my make up,” – but this song really started to resonate for me after I had my kid, when the general prayer that got me through the day was (and remains) please don’t die - listen, kid, just please don’t die. This sounds hysterical, and maybe it is, but he’s five years old and I still feel like my major job in life is to keep him alive. Every day I say a little prayer for him – “forever, forever, you’ll stay in my heart.” And if I keep praying to the fates or luck or my own best intentions, my son will stay alive (and healthy, and happy).
(I also love the tinkly little Dionne Warwick version of this song – all her Burt Bacharach stuff strikes me as so cheerful, even when it’s trying to be sad).
“Angel,” by Aerosmith
When I pause to look back at my eighth grade dance – which, in the spirit of self-preservation, I rarely do – I remember a few things: a) my date opening the car door for me in the backseat, then heading to the front to sit next to his mother b) the electric blue taffeta bow on my dress falling off right as I was attempting to bust out my first Roger Rabbit and c) slow dancing to Angel with some boy who wasn’t my date, who didn’t notice my missing bow, and who, just as Steven Tyler sang about his “reason to live/ reason to die” told me I looked “really pretty.” I don’t remember much about the boy, but this song remained my favorite well through high school, and whenever I hear it, even now, a little shiver of glee rushes through me.
“Church,” by Lyle Lovett
This song, from Lovett’s wonderful album “Joshua Judges Ruth” (named for three concurrent books of the Bible), tells the story of a preacher who doesn’t know when to shut up. Children weep, old people pass out, but still the old goober drones on. And everyone’s getting hungry! The chorus keeps returning to the theme of cornbread and beans, and even the eternally cool Lovett starts to sound a little desperate. But nothing stops the verbose preacher, not even the appearance of a “great white dove/ from up above.” Mid-sentence, the preacher grabs a fork, stabs the bird, and proceeds to eat it. Then, finally, the sermon is done and everyone else can go get dinner. Triumph all around.
“Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam,” by the Vaselines
Like a lot of people, I came to this song via Nirvana’s cover on its “Unplugged” album, which I listened to in high school and then again, on repeat, after Cobain committed suicide. Like so many songs on that album, “Jesus,” is a little droney, a little sad sack, as though Kurt Cobain truly felt Jesus’s rejection (and for all I know, he did). The Vaselines’s edition of the song is both more chipper and a little bit bratty-sounding; Jesus doesn’t want them, either, but they couldn’t care less.
“Bad Religion,” by Frank Ocean
I came to this song recently, but I’m so taken by its sadness, and, frankly, its bravery, that it’s become one of my all-time favorites. It’s an R&B song about unrequited homosexual love, anchored by the lyrics, “I can never make him love me/ love me/ love me.” It’s spare,touched by desperation, and heartbreaking, especially on the third or fourth listen. Love and faith are conflated – “if it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion,” – but instead of feeling grandiose, the conflation feels entirely true.
Lauren Grodstein and The Explanation for Everything links:
Asbury Park Press profile of the author
CarolineLeavittville profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for A Friend of the Family
Kirkus profile of the author
Rutgers Today profile of the author
Shelfari profile of the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists