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January 16, 2014

Book Notes - Adam Sternbergh "Shovel Ready"

Shovel Ready

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.

Adam Sternbergh's Shovel Ready is a stunning debut novel, a striking work of postmodern dystopian noir with an unforgettable antihero.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Spademan is an unlikely yet tragic hero, and it takes a talented author to make a reader root for such a damaged and ruthless man. . . . This is a gripping genre mash-up and a stunning debut."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Adam Sternbergh's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Shovel Ready:


I've always been jealous of writers who can write while listening to music; who concoct elaborate playlists for each character or devise soundtracks to accompany scenes that they're still in the process of writing.

I can't do any of that — I write in silence. I don't quite need a Franzen-esque self-imposed isolation chamber, with the lights out and a blindfold on, but I do write in the early morning while wearing a pair of firing-range earmuffs I bought off Amazon for $15 (a brilliant and useful recommendation shared with me by Jonathan Mahler, who wrote, among others, The Bronx is Burning).

But that's not to say that music didn't play a role in the writing of Shovel Ready. Or that I haven't spent many hours concocting an imaginary soundtrack to the book. In fact, one of my favorite moments in any really great movie is waiting to hear what song will play over the final credits: the Sid Vicious cover of Sinatra's "My Way," which jumpstarts the end credits of GoodFellas, stands out to me as a particularly inspired choice.

So here are 7 songs that I might choose for the end credits, so to speak, of my own novel. Some are more suited to accompany specific scenes in the book (no spoilers!) and others simply rattled around in my head for years and, in one way or another, inspired the writing.

Okay, cue the tape:

"Destroy Everything You Touch," Ladytron
If you know this song, you'll know it starts with a simple beat, then kicks in with a rush like a booster rocket about four bars in. (Or thereabouts; I'm a novelist, not a musicologist.) I've listened to this song roughly 800,000 times while riding my bike around the loop in Prospect Park; it's always struck me as the perfect theme for the End of the World, should it ever be televised, like the Olympics.

"High Plains Drifter," the Beastie Boys/"Chinese New Year," Clipse
The language in Shovel Ready is very spare and, at times, intentionally playful, which I attribute in many ways to hip-hop, which seems to me like a natural successor to the clipped and rhythmic hardboiled writing of yesteryear. "High Plains Drifter" has maybe my favorite shameless-linguistic-interplay line ever: "I'm charming/I'm dashing/I'm rental-car-crashing/I'm phony-paper-passing at Nix Check Cashing." The internal rhymes, the puns, the colliding, competing rhythms: There's more fun to be had in that one line than in an entire book of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry. (NOTE: The official lyric is "rental-car-bashing," but I've always heard it as crashing and, frankly, like it better that way.) The same is true of this (fairly randomly selected) line from Clipse: "Let's play cops and robbers/And watch Heckler & Koch/turn cops to martyrs." I don't endorse the sentiment but, boy, does that line sound fun rattling around in your ear like click-clacking marbles.

"New York, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down," LCD Soundsystem
If you live in New York long enough, this becomes not only a persistent refrain but a kind of unofficial civic anthem. And if you live in New York long enough, you know why.

"I Love New York," written by Steve Karmen
Let's pair that last selection with this one — because I thought about these goofy TV commercials a lot while writing "Shovel Ready. They were garish, late 70s-era ads that tried to lure tourists to New York City, which, at the time, was widely regarded elsewhere as a crime-ridden wasteland. So famed ad-man and jingle-meister Steve Karmen concocted this ditty, which sounds like "New York, New York" but drained of all blood, pumped full of saccharine, and sent on an ocean cruise. The cloying desperation of the song is perfectly reminiscent of a time when New York basically had to beg people to come and visit—a time that, in today's tourist-clogged city, feels so long passed as to be almost unimaginable, but that I drew on repeatedly in crafting the dystopic future New York of Shovel Ready. And speaking of dystopias…

"Here's Your Future," The Thermals
I could pick nearly any song from this 2006 concept album, The Body, the Blood, the Machine, from the excellent Oregon-based punk trio, fronted by Hutch Harris. The album loosely chronicles what the band describes as "a terrifying tale of a young couple fleeing a fascist faux-Christian USA." Given the themes of warped and corrupted religious faith that run through Shovel Ready, there's no way these boiling songs weren't percolating somewhere in my brain. This album-opening track recasts the story of Noah as the ultimate apocalyptic epic: "God reached his hand down from the sky / He flooded the land then he set it on fire." It's like the first scene in a scripturally accurate Michael Bay movie set to a soundtrack of ferocious three-chord punk.

"Broadway, Here I Come," written by Joe Iconis
That's right: A song from the TV show Smash. Iconis (who's been praised by none other than Stephen Sondheim) actually wrote it a while ago, but I'll confess I stumbled on the song while trying to watch (and enjoy) this show. That effort failed, but I had no trouble whatsoever falling in love with this song. (It's been sung by many singers, most memorably on the show by Jeremy Jordan.) "Broadway, Here I Come" serves brilliantly as a song-length double entendre: in part, it's an homage to the classic, rousing, watch-out-New York-here-I-come showstopper, and in part it's a pitch-black joke about someone throwing himself off a roof. (Repeat the title to yourself.) In total, it's a super-sharp dissection of the double-edge of New York ambition, which can both drive you and destroy you, as well as the catchiest suicide note you'll ever hear.


Adam Sternbergh and Shovel Ready links:

the author's website
the book's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book (at Boing Boing)
excerpt from the book (at Criminal Element)

Booklist review
Entertainment Weekly review
Kirkus review
Macleans.ca review
Time Out New York review

Flavorwire interview with the author
Jacket Copy interview with the author
Slate 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

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists
2013 Year-End Online Music Lists

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)
musician/author interviews
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


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