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January 10, 2014

Book Notes - Kirstin Chen "Soy Sauce for Beginners"

Soy Sauce for Beginners

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.

Kirstin Chen's Soy Sauce for Beginners is an assuredly told and engaging debut novel.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Gretchen's journey of self-discovery forms the backbone of this story about family, tradition, and honor. Foodies will appreciate the behind-the-scenes look at the world of artisanal soy sauce, while others will enjoy Chen's tribute to her native Singapore"

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Kirstin Chen's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners:


I require absolute silence when I write. Not just an absence of music, but no background conversations, no lawnmower whirring in the adjacent backyard, no vacuum cleaner running in the upstairs neighbors' apartment. My husband once bought me a pair of noise-canceling earmuffs as a birthday present—not headphones, earmuffs, like the kind airport workers wear on the runway.

That being said, I love listening to music when I'm not writing. And in 2008, when I was deep into the first draft of Soy Sauce for Beginners, I listened incessantly to Carla Bruni's album, No Promises. I adored her raspy, barely there voice, her folk- and blues-inspired arrangements, her lightly accented English. I even adored the way she just missed hitting her high notes. Some critics ridiculed Bruni's audacity. How could this supermodel-socialite dare to set the verses of Yeats, Auden, Dickinson and other canonical poets to her own music? But—no surprises here—I adored that, too. In my mind, the simple, often breezy, feel-good melodies perfectly complemented the 19th- and 20th-century poems, allowing me to hear and feel the familiar lines in new ways. Besides—as Carla Bruni herself put it—the poems made better lyrics than anything she could have written.

Indeed, what draws me the most to Carla Bruni's music is its confidence and lack of apology. She was no doubt aware of the criticism she was courting with this album, but instead of shying away, she doubled down and enlisted the aid of Marianne Faithful and Lou Reed. Perhaps then, as I was deep in the midst of drafting my novel, what I wanted was a little bit of Carla Bruni's insouciance. I wanted to focus on telling my story without having to worry about whether my workshop peers and professors would approve and whether I'd ever find an agent, sign a book deal, be read. Perhaps, these days, as I await the launch of my novel and reviews roll in, I could use a little bit of that insouciance right now. Perhaps all of us writers could.

And so, in the spirit of unleashing our inner French supermodel-socialites, I recommend listening to the entire album and, in particular, to the songs I highlight below.

(Still need convincing of Carla Bruni's charm? Check out this Youtube video, which never fails to make me smile: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUx8hVdDaPg)


"Those Dancing Days Are Gone"

When asked about writing this irresistibly catchy song, Bruni says she felt “a bit guilty” altering Yeats's poem by repeating the last line, even though it made musical sense. She ultimately kept the repetition, speculating that “maybe, if I sang this song to Yeats, he wouldn't mind.” Watch her recount this anecdote in the video embedded above. I am absolutely certain that Yeats would have let her alter his poem however she chose!

"Lady Weeping at the Crossroads"

This song quite simply embodies longing. Listen to that spare, almost prayerful opening and be convinced that gorgeous women experience loss and regret just like you and I.

"Promises Like Pie Crust"

The title No Promises was taken from this song, which I do think encapsulates the willful, irreverent spirit of the entire album. I love the playful, seductive maracas; I also love the repeating guitar scale with that single bluesy chromatic penultimate note.

"If You Were Coming In The Fall"

This might be my favorite track on the album. From the upbeat, jaunty tempo to the wonky, amateurish vocal percussion to the Motown-style piano and guitars, everything just works.


Kirstin Chen and Soy Sauce for Beginners links:

the author's website

Metro review
Publishers Weekly review

WriteByNight interview with the author
Writer's Digest essay by 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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