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January 3, 2014

Book Notes - Warren Lehrer "A Life In Books"

A Life In Books

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.

Warren Lehrer's novel A Life In Booksis a masterpiece of visual storytelling, boldly integrating illustration and typography into its engaging story.

Rabih Alameddine wrote of the book:

"In the era of cookie-cutter books and rubber-stamped stories, Warren Lehrer’s A Life In Books is fresh, original, idiosyncratic, beautiful, and important."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Warren Lehrer's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, A Life In Books:


When I was an art student in college I considered my paintings visual music. I would listen to music as I painted, but a lot of times it was the structure of the music—Bach (fugues), minimalist composers (phasings), 70s expressionistic jazz (structured improvisations)—that informed the suites of images I made. I was also a music reviewer for the college newspaper, and wrote poetry and short stories. It didn't take long before words crept into my picture-making (despite the admonitions of my professors), till finally I began writing and "composing" books. I've been writing/designing my own books ever since, and musical influences have always been lurking.

The hardcover edition of my last book, Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America (W.W. Norton), written with Judith Sloan, came with an audio CD, which we referred to as the soundtrack. It includes music from some of the new immigrants and refugees profiled in the book (including the Gypsy, punk, cabaret band Gogol Bordello), as well as music composed by Scott Johnson (of John Somebody fame) and Judith Sloan (my co-author, also a sound artist). Scott and Judith's compositions are crafted around stories and utterances of the very real and very alive subjects documented in the book: www.earsay.org/projects/cds/

We've gotten many comments from fans of the Crossing the BLVD book, and from people who have seen Judith and my live presentations, suggesting that Crossing would make a great movie. We appreciate these comments, but I've often wondered why one of the nicest compliments you can give a book (these days), is that it should be a movie. I sometimes tell people that the book is the movie, replete with images and a soundtrack.

This new book—my first novel—is probably the least overtly musical of any of my previous books. For the first time, instead of referring to the sections as "movements" (as I do in all my other books), I simply call the nine parts of A Life In Books "chapters." And though I was pretty conscious of the rhythms, cadences, and flow of my characters' dialogue and interior narratives as I wrote them, the structure of A Life In Books has more to do with the shape of my protagonist's story than anything else.

That said, the pieces that comes to mind for an A Life In Books soundtrack are mostly symphonic or instrumental works for large ensembles—not surprising (I suppose) for a 380-page novel, which spans a half century and includes several dozen characters, 101 books, and 34 book excerpts within it.

I love well written, beautifully sung and arranged songs, but the movie soundtracks I appreciate most tend to be instrumental, probably because instrumental music has more capacity to coexist with the images, stories, characters, and themes in a film, instead of illustrating or replicating them. (Of course, any soundtrack—even instrumental ones—can over-telegraph, or worse, sledge hammer-you-over-the-head with exactly how you and the characters are supposed to feel.) And it seems to me, book soundtracks could be subject to similar considerations.

In A Life In Books, Bleu Mobley's reluctant memoir is illuminated by a retrospective monograph of his life's work including all 101 of his books, their cover designs, original catalog descriptions, and selected excerpts. Together, the memoir and the monograph paint a prismatic portrait of Bleu Mobley. As such, A Life in Books is a work of contrasts: of interiors and exteriors, of self-reflection and action, of words and images, of humor and drama, of the lone narrator and a multitude of characters that inhabit his life, his books, and the life of his times.

A majority of the musical selections I've listed here are also works of contrast, are panoramic in scope, are made by iconoclasts (mostly American), and share an inclusivity by their composers and performers that says YES to pairing seemingly disparate elements (composition and improvisation, fun and serious, hi and pop culture, the mundane and the exalted).


Nocturne Opus 48, No 1 in C minor by Frederick Chopin

I begin my performance/reading presentations of A Life In Books by projecting a typographic animation of the opening words of the novel. Unable to sleep for the third night in a row, Bleu Mobley begins whispering into a microcassette recorder from the darkness of his prison cell. He's been in a federal detention center for 297 days for refusing to reveal the name of a confidential source for a book he wrote about the 43rd President of the United States. Longing to be home with his family, Bleu decides to break his silence. But it's not as easy as giving up a name. The truth could set him free, but also shame him. He eventually tells the whole story of his life in books, if for no other reason then to puzzle out how a life writes itself without a plan or a map—how a simple compulsion to tell stories turned into something else, twisted this way and that—and lead him to his current circumstances.

The opening notes of Chopin's Nocturne Opus 48 (for solo piano) fall amid spacious rests like thoughts falling into the dark well of an insomniac's uneasy slumber. Chopin's contemplative melody also helps take the edge off the white noise that courses through all of Bleu Mobley's clandestine prison recordings.

Bleu's Opening Narrative from A LIFE IN BOOKS: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley from EarSay Inc on Vimeo.


The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives

Bleu's story of his life in books begins in 1967, in the basement Letterpress shop of the Joan of Arc Junior High, in Queens, NY, where he "composes" his very first book, The Grandest Art Show In The World, about a magical experience he had one day watching the sunset with his manic depressive artist mother at a marshland in New Jersey.

Bleu never had a father, and his mother never told him who he was. But his Aunt Chloe, who had a few too many gin and tonics one night, told Bleu that his father was a very famous man who was madly in love with his mother, but because of his fame and his having a family of his own, had to cut off the relationship. Several years later, Bleu let his fantasies run wild "composing" a series of books he called My Famous Fathers. Each book imagines a different possible famous father, from revolutionaries like Martin Luther King Jr. and Che Guevara, to artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, sport figures like Mickey Mantle, entertainers like Soupy Sales and Charlie Chaplin, writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, and of course a bevy of musicians from James Brown and Elvis Presley to Pete Seeger and Desi Arnaz. With The Grandest Art Show, the 14 year old Bleu reflected the world he knew. With My Famous Fathers, he attempted to fill a gaping hole, letterpressing his fantasies about the great unanswered question of his life.

In his gorgeous and enigmatic Unanswered Question, Charles Ives plunged into the musical unknown (of his day). The polytonal and darkly chromatic composition never resolves in the way American audiences required its music to in the early 1900s. Scored for a string ensemble, a woodwind quartet, and solo trumpet, Ives attempted to make a piece of music that asked "the perennial question of existence." The result is a haunting musical conversation that is at times ethereal, at times agitated, slow, fast, tonal and atonal, and is one of the great early expressions of a modern era that would come to embrace works that were asymmetrical, more searching than declarative, and open to multiple interpretations.


Three Places In New England (Orchestral Set No. 1) by Charles Ives

The night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, nearly everyone at Queensbridge Housing—which was majority African-American by then—spilled onto the streets crying and screaming. Bleu wanted to join the crowd of angry mourners, but Walter Cronkite said that a well-dressed white man was seen running from the site of the shooting in Memphis. For the first time in his life Bleu realized he was a white guy. The following night, feeling somehow responsible for the assassination for having dared write a book suggesting that the civil rights leader could have been his father, Bleu went to a spot under the Triboro Bridge, dumped every copy of his Famous Fathers books into a metal trash can, and burned them.

Charles Ives did have a father who became his muse.

The son of a bandleader in Danbury Connecticut, Ives wrote about sitting in the town square as a child, listening to his father's marching band as other bands performed on other sides of the square. In the second movement of Three Places In New England, we hear what could be seen as a translation of this childhood experience, as popular Civil War marches and patriotic tunes from the day are juxtaposed with (and against) pastoral and exuberant melodies that seem to emerge from a more internal, more unknowable place. The overlapping themes and suddenly changing tempos and melodies evoke a flux of fiery emotions from exhilaration and awe to anxiety and confusion.


Key by Meredith Monk

Bleu double majored in journalism and art in college and got his first jobs as a beat reporter for a New York newspaper and then as a foreign correspondent reporting on undeclared wars in the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean. He quit (before getting fired for non-objective reporting), came back to New York, got a part-time teaching gig, and began working on his first novel about a day on earth when everyone is switched with their number one nemesis.

As a journalist, it was Bleu's job to cover what is. As an ex-journalist, he felt free to imagine what if, to create scenarios, invent characters and explore their inner lives.

Several of Meredith Monk's albums are on my desert island list (Turtle Dreams, Dolmen Music, Impermanence). Her very first album Key (1970) isn't on that list, but its forays into extended vocal techniques, microtonalities, overtone singing and modal harmonies lay the ground for the life's work that would follow. Monk's wordless songs wail, babble, howl, and whisper a wide array of inner truths and states of being.

Trained as a choreographer, Meredith Monk's liner notes for Key describe a revelation she had in 1965, "that the voice could have the same flexibility and range of movement as a spine or a foot, and that one could find and build a personal vocabulary for the voice just as one makes movement based on a particular body."

First records, first films, first novels aren't always the most fully realized works, but when you're looking at the entire body of an artist's work, they can be fascinating to look at (or listen to), and often contain the essential DNA of what's to come.


Entropy Begins At The Office by The Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Tracked as terminally working-class, Bleu was herded into the subterranean shops of his junior high school to learn how to work with his hands. Terrified by the prospect of losing limbs or consciousness, he was drawn to the print shop (otherwise known as Letterpress) where the mild-mannered Mr. Guy Gutiero taught all his print shop geeks—charged with putting out the school newspaper—the secrets of the news trade from picas and points to the tenets of good journalism.

One day Bleu discovered the real power of the letterpress when he forgot to bring in the text of an article he had drafted. He grabbed the composing stick (the rectangular metal tray that you hold in the palm of one hand as you pluck alphanumeric characters from a case of type with the other hand), opened up a drawer of Garamond type, and began plucking letters. Letters formed words, words formed sentences, and by the time the bell rang Bleu had composed a little book. Its facts were scrambled, but the book got at the themes of his article in a more interesting, if not deeper way.

Through the years, Bleu would "compose" books using other writing machines: typewriters, phototypesetters, offset presses, personal computers, writing assistants, crowd-sourcing. . .

In the late 1980's—after his oldest friend dies of AIDS, he's separated from his wife, and his books aren't selling well—Bleu questions the usefulness of being a writer. In a self-published, limited edition scroll titled These Words, a sleep deprived writer sits at a manual typewriter typing nonstop onto a roll of paper that feeds directly into a trash bin on the other side of his desk. Filled with feelings of impotence and self-loathing, the writer rails against the very words he's typing.

The Boston Typewriter Orchestra could hammer out the perfect soundtrack for this period of doubt in Bleu's life and career. The BTO's ten± member collective of professional and amateur musicians engage in "rhythmic typewriter manipulation combined with elements of performance, comedy and satire." Like a lot of scrappy, DIY collectives, they make their art out of cast off technology. They don't take themselves too seriously in their recordings and live performances, which can summon trans-like states of repetitive futility and wonder.


Kujichaglia (composed by Roy Brooks) performed by Max Roach's M'Boom Ensemble

Bleu's mom (Rose Mobley) hung out with jazz musicians in the 40s and 50s when she was still working as a fashion designer. The musicians are never named in A Life In Books, but the lessons of Charles Mingus and Max Roach—about syncopation and the importance of silence—resonated inside her. Bleu describes Rose Mobley's sense of rhythm: "I'll never forget the incredible drum solos she heard in the clanking polyrhythms of the radiator with her eyes closed and her long swirls of hair shaking side to side and her fingers jabbing the air pointing out the off-off versus the off-off-off beats."


Ruby My Dear, Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane

Soon after coming back from his overseas stint as a foreign correspondent, Bleu fell in love with an avant-garde dancer named Aconsha Battacharjee. Having been raised by a single mother, he knew nothing about married-life, so he looked to his neighbors Joey and Francis Jordon for inspiration, and wrote an oral history of their 54-year marriage. Joey and Francis describe the highs, lows, and in-betweens of their relationship, being part of the jazz scenes in New York and Paris, being an interracial couple in both cities, cooking omelets with John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk, and the good old days of smoking doctor-prescribed opium.


A Love Supreme by John Coltrane

When Aconsha told Bleu that she was pregnant, he freaked out that his life was ruined. "One of the reasons I dreaded having a baby—I like people I can talk to. Soon after I agreed to splitting the child-rearing responsibilities fifty-fifty, I made Aconsha a proposition: ‘How about you take the first nine years, and I take the second nine?'" Thankfully for Bleu, his fears had little resemblance to the reality of spending time with his newborn. "To my amazement and delight, Frida and I were having conversations shortly after she was born. She was like the John Coltrane of babies—overflowing with things to say in her own beguiling language."

As a writer of long books and long sentences with many parenthetical tangents, Bleu identified with Coltrane. Authors who are very economical in their writing often look to Miles Davis as a model. In contrast to the flashy, ear-popping ornamentalism of his former bandleader Charlie Parker, Miles' style of playing and composition in the 1950s and 60s grew to be slow and lean, with meticulous phrasings shaped as much by silences as the notes that surround them.

When the young John Coltrane was in Miles' band, Coltrane did his best to fit into his bandleader's modus operandi. But there came a time—as Coltrane was discovering his voice—where it no longer was a good fit. Coltrane took a very long solo one time, departing from the melody altogether, exploring different tangents and emotional textures. Pissed, Miles asked him afterwards, what took him so long. According to saxophonist Cannoball Adderley, Trane shrugged his shoulders and said, "That's how long it took to get it all in."

Of course, very little remains constant in life. Miles Davis eventually came around to hiring players influenced by the spiritual depth and explosive energy of his former hornman. And over time, Bleu migrated away from writing lengthy tomes and extended interior narratives to writing short short stories, three line poems and checkout counter books with pithy sayings to live by.


The Big Gundown, John Zorn

After Bleu's daughter Frida is diagnosed with a rare and potentially deadly blood disease, he will do just about anything to make sure she gets the medical care in the world. Naturally wary of genre-writing, he works on replacing the esoteric writing categories in his mind with more commercially viable ones that correlate to categories that actually exist in book stores. He hires a team of assistants to help him churn out books in a range of genres. His first murder mystery, A Damn Good Plot, is followed by One Good Plot Deserves Another, followed by Plotsville. His first legal thriller, The Boomerang Case, is about a man who is on such a litigation rampage, he finally sued himself. Bleu's singular foray into Pet Lit: Puss Dude: and other curiously adorable and disturbing cat stories. With the help of his writing assistants he comes out with several science fiction titles, food related books, and a slew of self help books under the pseudonym Dr. Sky Jacobs including Yes I Can't: a how not to book marketed as a slackers guide to not achieving your full potential.

Like Bleu, I'm not inclined to write (or design) in the mold of any particular genre, but working on A Life In Books turned out to be a wonderful and fun platform for me to play off of all sorts of genres.

Composer and multi-instrumentalist John Zorn's refusal to commit to a singular genre of music, has led him to create structures/strategies that allow him to combine many styles sometimes within a single work. I've seen Zorn conduct some of his "game pieces" with a stopwatch and whistle, sometimes with flashcards, harnessing improvisers into compositional formats that look and feel like sports events with all their highs and lows and expectations that anything might happen, while also soliciting the emotional impact of great music performed by people who really know how to listen and respond to each other.

The best way to experience John Zorn's music is by seeing him perform live with any of his many ensembles, though the concert recordings rarely live up to the live experience. The Big Gundown, Zorn's big band homage to the music of Ennio Morricone (speaking of soundtracks) captures Zorn's playfulness, masterful musicianship, and uber-wide palette.


Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, Nina Simone

One night, Bleu's younger daughter Ella asks about the death penalty after seeing a TV news report about an upcoming state execution. Bleu wishes there was a book he could turn to help explain what it's all about. To fill that void, he writes his first children's book, How Bad People Go Bye Bye, a pull-out, pop-up book on the history of capital punishment.

Warren Lehrer's A-LIFE-IN-BOOKS — Book 45: How Bad People Go Bye Bye from EarSay Inc on Vimeo.

The book was a flop until the cable news programs turned it into a controversy. Within two months the book was banned in school libraries in every state of the union (except Massachusetts), and it became the top grossing children's book of 1998, and Bleu's first number one bestseller. Bleu looked like a deer in the headlights on the first TV talk shows he appeared on. He was accused of being a pornographer, a propagandist (for both sides of the issue), and a sly manipulator of the media. As more of his books became the subject of controversy, he got better at delivering his points in sound bites and trying to steer the conversation away from personality, back to the issues. Still, he never liked being misunderstood.

Nina Simone's original 1964 recording of Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (as well as subsequent live recordings) captures the pain of being misunderstood, and the bluesy plead for another chance, another read. At the same time, Simone makes you wonder if this refrain is just a tired old saw of someone who is always making excuses for their bad or inappropriate behavior.


Reflektor by Arcade Fire

In Bleu's 2005 novel Semiotic Octopus, a woman wearing headphones walks through an intersection—oblivious to the DON'T WALK sign—checking her email on a hand-held wireless device. A cab almost hits her. The cabbie (unaware of the near accident) talks into a headset to his girlfriend from his home country, while the rider in the backseat types out a blog entry (about the lost art of conversation) on his laptop. On the 23rd floor of the apartment building on the north side of the street, three members of one family, each on their own computer, interact with different global communities. In the apartment next to them, a thirteen-year-old boy is threatening to kill himself if he can't marry an online robot he's been chatting with for the past two years.

Arcade Fire's song and interactive music video Reflektor, has an eerily paradoxical fascination with and distrust of the internet and other digital gismos that claim to bring people together, yet leave us staring into the "darkness of white reflectors."

Now, the signals we send, are deflected again
We're so connected, but are we even friends?
We fell in love when I was nineteen
And now we're staring at a screen

Just a reflection, of a reflection

Of a reflection, of a reflection, of a reflection
Will I see you on the other side? (Just a reflektor)

We all got things to hide (Just a reflektor)

In the video, https://www.justareflektor.com/, created in collaboration with filmmaker Vincent Morisset and a team from Google—each viewer (using Google Chrome, webcam and cell phone) gets to affect the contours of the screen, adjust shadows, and trajectories of light. Eventually, the beautiful but tormented protagonist in the video smashes a light-emitting tablet-like device, frees herself of our control over her, and (joined by others from her community) breaks into a Carnival-like dance of liberation.


Dig Deep for string quartet by Julia Wolfe performed by Ethel

Bleu recounts the words of Darlene, the hospice volunteer, who became the indispensible member of his mother's caretaking team.

"Hold your mother, Bleu. There's nothing to be afraid of. This is the other end of life. A lot of babies come popping out who don't look so great either. The minute a baby comes out of the womb, everybody wants to hold her and cradle her. When she's going out the other way, why don't we do the same thing? She doesn't need to talk back. A baby doesn't talk back. Just say, You did good, Ma."

Bleu fell into a funk after his mother died.

"When I wasn't sleeping or pretend sleeping, I made sure to go into work, show face at least once a day. I showered, brushed my teeth and hair, got dressed as normal, and tried my best not to brood openly in front of the girls who were grieving too. I didn't want to burden Aconsha either with my dyspeptic meditations—the what ifs, and if onlys, the might've, should've beens. . ."

Rooted in minimalism, Julia Wolfe's string quartets are emotionally relentless compositions that evolve from a singular musical idea into varying states of intensity, repose, mutation, and recombination. Like Zorn, Wolfe's music reveals a wide range of influences including rock, West African, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian music. The dirge-like pulsating rhythms of Big Deep, have a brooding urgency that builds in rhythmic intensity, but instead of ascending, the increasingly dissonant chords seem to plunge. The effect is a whirlwind of emotion. It is dark but not despairing. Instead of turning inward and avoiding loss, or wearing a happy face, it digs deeper, racing between motific memories.


Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo by Johann Pachelbel

Bleu has a growing sense that he's living in a world where books are not as central to people's lives as they once were, that reading—deep, long-form, contemplative reading—is very likely an endangered species. He officially quits writing and turns his writing factory into a laboratory for exploring and entrepreneuring the legacy and future of the book. No more content creation, they zero in on the form and end up producing a line of book toys for boys, book clothing and accessories, and a line of book lamps called Illuminated Manuscripts that can light up a living room and give it a warm, literary feeling. Here is a TV spot for these lamps set to what's come to be known as Pachelbel's Canon's. The selection of the accompanying music, like the idea for the book lamps itself, comes by way of tongue pressed into cheek.

ILLUMINATED Manuscripts: Book Lamps (from A Life In Books: The Rise and Fall of Bleu Mobley from EarSay Inc on Vimeo.


Skies of America by Ornette Coleman

After Bleu's mother dies, he goes to the hospital she stayed in close to a dozen times and asks for her medical records. But all records of Rose Mobley were gone—as far as the hospital was concerned, she never existed. Overtaken by a feeling of helplessness that must have only been a sliver of the helplessness his mother experienced, Bleu lies down on a bench across the street from the hospital, looks up at the sky through watery eyes and has a vision of books unraveling: pages peeling free of their bindings, the wind catching each leaf, endowing them with the ability to float, bob, dive, somersault, dance through the domed proscenium. Into a cerulean sky, the idea for The Flying Book Project hatched. By some means, in honor of his mother, Bleu would figure out a way to physically liberate books—setting them in motion across the sky.

"I hurried home and rummaged through boxes of mildewing records till I found Ornette Coleman's 1972 The Skies of America. I dusted off the turntable, placed the needle on the vinyl, settled into my Backsaver chair, closed my eyes and listened to Ornette's soaring alto sax weave in and out of orchestral cloud patterns evoking cries and celebrations of a paradoxical America. When the record was over I called Samir to see if he still had connections to the e-ink engineers at MIT."

Inspired by his mother and Ornette Coleman, Bleu worked with a team of engineers from MIT to construct large-scale books, leaves of text that flew over town and country. They were incredible spectacles that lifted the spirits of people throughout North America, and lost Bleu a ton of money.


Warren Lehrer and A Life In Books links:

the author's website
the book's website

Huffington Post review

The Atlantic profile of the author
The Brian Lehrer Show interview with the author
Print Magazine interview with the author
Studio 360 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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