January 16, 2014
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.
Grantland wrote of the book:
"Moves quickly and gracefully from moment to moment. A quiet novel, but it's one about quiet pains."
For Today I Am a Boy is the story of four sisters, one born biologically male. To their parents, Chinese immigrants in small-town Ontario, Peter is the exalted only son in a sea of daughters. The four girls grow up in a house of order and obligation, secrets and half-truths, and then run as far as they canscattering to Montreal, California, and Berlin. For Peter, though, escape is not as simple as fleeing his parents' house. He's haunted by his father's dreams of lineage and Western masculinity, and he can't reconcile them with what he knows to be true: that he is a woman.
The novel is named for a song. The rest of the tracks below are sung by women who are iconic in a particular way, and of a particular time: Edith Piaf, Audrey Hepburn, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and Janelle Monáe. Femininity-defining voices. That wasn't intentional, I just picked songs that had a connection or thematic resonance, but it's also not surprising.
"La Vie En Rose" – Edith Piaf / Audrey Hepburn
"Yes! We Have No Bananas" – Billy Jones / Audrey Hepburn
Early in the novel, Peter and his sisters go to see the 1954 Sabrina at an old theater. On the surface, Sabrina is a jaunty rom-com, but the film has some arresting, dreamlike moments, where Audrey Hepburn is almost unbearably lovely. Just the way she walks or turns her head can be hypnotic. In Peter's memory, Hepburn blurs with his beloved eldest sister, Adele; the movie and watching Adele watch the movie melt into a single, formative experience.
The daughter of a chauffeur, Sabrina attempts to kill herself by sealing herself in the garage with all of the cars running. In context, it's supposed to be girlish and impulsive, even silly, but Hepburn sells it as tragic, sliding down the side of a car with a wistful, lovelorn look in her eyes, staring just past the camera. And when she sings! She sounds tender and vulnerable, even in the midst of quick, lighthearted banter, even with a song as ridiculous as "Yes! We Have No Bananas." Her version (of Edith Piaf's version) of "La Vie En Rose" became the signature song of the film, but I remember "Bananas" just as clearly. Hepburn slows it way down, articulating each syllable and releasing it like a tiny, delicate bird: ba-nah-nas.
"Cold War" – Janelle Monáe
There are a lot of pop anthems that affirm and celebrate difference. Katy Perry's "Firework," Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," and Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" come to mind. The only one that hits home for me, though, is Janelle Monáe's "Cold War." It's part prayer, part rallying battle cry, and part dance hit:
Bring wings to the weak and bring grace to the strong
May all evil stumble as it flies in the world
All the tribes come and the mighty will crumble
We must brave this night and have faith in love
Monáe also embodies a way of being a woman and an artist that's inspiring and wholly her own. I'm not sure what to call it. "Casually empowered," maybe. She's not subverting or reacting to sexist expectations, nor trading in "girl power" or diva glamor (all wonderful modes in their own right). Monáe seems beyond sexism, which I'd come to think was impossible. Her artistic persona seems like her creation and her vision and no one else's.
"Paper Moon" – Ella Fitzgerald
According to this song, the whole world is artifice, a fictional construction, without love to reify it. A paper moon, a cardboard sea, a canvas sky. That's an especially painful idea for Peter.
Blanche Dubois sings this song in the bath in A Streetcar Named Desire. Outside the bathroom door, Stanley decides that "reality," the version he sees as hard and immutable, is more important than Blanche's sanity or bodily integrity. Peter encounters more than a few people who feel the same way about him.
"Summertime" – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
"Is That All There Is" – Peggy Lee
For me, the dragging, almost drugged rhythm of Fitzgerald and Armstrong's "Summertime" (other versions, even those by Fitzgerald, tend to be jazzier and more upbeat) evokes a child's sense of time. Childhood seems endless when you're living it. Your real life will happen later, when you're grown up. That's a mood I tried to capture in the early chapters of For Today I Am a Boy, the aimlessness and dreaminess of long afternoons and long summers.
"Is That All There Is," on the other hand, is the perfect song about disillusionment, the other half of childhood. Realizing your heroes are just people, complex and flawed--as Peter does about Adele--and that adulthood won't magically be better. You have to make it better, a journey so fraught it's tempting to sink into apathy instead. For Peter and his sisters, that journey is particularly hard, and particularly rewarding.
"For Today I Am a Boy" – Antony & the Johnsons
Before we sent the manuscript to publishers, my agent gently pointed out that my awful non-title was an awful non-title. My earliest readers made some suggestions, but none of them were quite right. My husband told me the book reminded him of a particular song and sat me down to play it for me. I listened in silence. When it was over, I said, "That's it. That's perfect. That's the title, that's the epigraph. That's everything."
Kim Fu and For Today I Am a Boy links:
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