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February 3, 2014

Book Notes - Andrew Ladd "What Ends"

What Ends

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.

Andrew Ladd's What Ends is a quietly profound debut novel that eloquently depicts landscapes both physical and personal.

Claire Vaye Watkins wrote of the book:

"What Ends is an exquisitely conjured eulogy for a vanishing way of life. Andrew Ladd's wise and vital voice is descended from Flaubert by way of William Trevor. His sentences mesmerize, beckon as if from another time. This is no debut but a masterwork, an absorbing micro-saga whose completion we mourn. What Ends reminds us of all a novel can be."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Andrew Ladd's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, What Ends:


When I was writing the first two drafts of my novel, I lived on my own; during the third I was living with my girlfriend (now wife), but still had my own little study. In both places I was able to sit and write in silence, which was lucky for me, because I was always one of those people who said I couldn't write with distractions. Or, at least, that I couldn't write with words around, whether from the TV, roommates talking, smokers outside my window, song lyrics… Put speech in my ears and I lost all ability to write a pretty sentence, or even, often, a functional one. Heck, a song with a strong beat was sometimes enough to throw me off.

I had to confront my delicate writerly sensibilities, though, when we moved from Somerville to Brooklyn, and the amount of space we could afford contracted like a punch in the gut. All of a sudden my desk shared a room—the only room, really, in our long, French-doored railroad—with the TV and the phone and everything else. My wife was understanding to a point, bless her—but when the Celtics were playing or the football was on, so was the TV, and I'm not the type to throw a tantrum about that sort of thing so that I can "concentrate on my art."

Instead, I put together a long playlist of all the lyric-less, gentle music in my collection, called it "Writing," and then, when the TV was on while I wanted to work on my fourth and fifth drafts, I plugged in my headphones and cranked the volume to a Goldilocks-like "just right": loud enough to drown out the commentary from the TV, but not so loud that it rattled the sentences out of me. As a result, the songs on that playlist are some of the most played songs in my iTunes, these days, and I can't help but wonder, given how often I listened to them while working on What Ends, how they might have informed my mood while revising it. So for this playlist, I went through the Writing list again, and tried to pick out a few songs that match particularly well with specific scenes as I imagine them now.

There are no huge spoilers, here—but if you don't like knowing what's coming, you might want to read the book first.

"Iron Man," by Four Tet

All the characters in What Ends struggle with their relationship to their Scottish island home: To follow tradition or aspiration? To put family first, or themselves? To stay or to go? But one character in particular, George McCloud, the patriarch of the family at the book's heart, has an another struggle layered on top of that: should he try to make his children stay, or should he let them go? His choice is made particularly stark when his daughter, Flora, starts agitating to go to art school. The day she asks him about it, he spends his afternoon constitutional turning over her request in his head. The result, a bittersweet acceptance that she might have outgrown the island, seems perfectly captured by the peaks and valleys of this long, picturesque song.

"What Games Shall We Play Today?" by Gary Burton with Chick Corea

Okay, I confess: the book has a lot of gloomy parts, like the mysterious plague of rats that appears, a few years after the birth of the McClouds' youngest child, and begins destroying crops, muscling out birds, and generally making life on the island even more precarious than it was before. But it's not all grim literary fiction desolation, I promise. In fact, when a team of rat catchers is brought in to deal with the problem, that same youngest child, Trevor, delights in the novelty of their presence, tailing them at a distance and weaving them into his own, imaginary worlds. It's that carefree exuberance of youth that I think is expressed in this song, which has long been one of my favorites.

"Gammelpop," by Barbara Morgenstern and Robert Lippok

Island life, for all the book's characters, is based overwhelmingly in routine; this is both its greatest appeal and its most damning weakness. The characters' routines are often threatened, though, by the outside world—like Flora's sudden desire to go to art school, or a London businessman offering to help the family's guesthouse. While those threats are often unsettling, there's also a palpable sense of hope (I hope) in these intrusions from the outside. It's a similar sense of hope—of seeing new potential in the everyday—that builds with this song's slow, sweet crescendo.

"This Is How We Walk On The Moon," by the Memory Band

Routine itself can be good or bad too, of course, but sometimes it's neither; it's just there, a blurry backdrop as you muddle through your days and weeks and months. When I listen to this song I can't help but picture one character in particular—Maureen, George's wife—as she walks endlessly back and forth between her own kitchen, where she prepares weeks' worth of food in advance, to the chest freezer in an outbuilding where she stores it all. Even the title of this song seems to capture the airless, floating sensation that comes with a well-worn daily agenda. (Plus it has lots of folksy fiddles that conjure the Scottish countryside, so double whammy.)

"Cinematic," by Jaga Jazzist

One of the saddest parts of the book, for me, is when the McClouds' eldest son, Barry, goes off to boarding school on the mainland—and is instantly pounced upon by bullies. The line that really epitomizes his experience, I think—or anyone's experience of bullying—is this: "His body felt like a shell, and he a tiny, diminishing light inside." The soft, lonely piano riff that pins this song together is the musical expression of that same feeling.

"Hey Lisa," by David Holmes

Barry isn't the only one who gets to leave the island during the novel; most of the characters, in fact, get to spend some time on the mainland. And on one of her trips, Flora takes a train ride that mirrors one I took while researching the book, "all the way down through the glens and lochs and barren hills of the west coast." In some ways the landscape there is bleak; Mars-like, even. But in others it's hauntingly pretty, and it's those hills and glens zipping by—Flora's reflection in the window—that I imagine when I hear the warm, loopy strings on this track.

"Deo," by Amon Tobin

I said there'd be no huge spoilers, and I'm sticking to that promise. But the dread in this song, the intangible unease behind its every measure, the unsettling sparks and clangs in the background, the urgency, the feeling that you've lost control: trust me. This song is the last chapter.


Andrew Ladd and What Ends links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book

Annie Cardi review

Necessary Fiction essay by the author
Ploughshares 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)
weekly music release lists


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