February 21, 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.
Joshua Max Feldman's debut novel The Book of Jonah is a powerful contemporary retelling of the story of Jonah, both elegantly told and imaginative.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:
"The Book of Jonah is a debut that heralds great promise. With shrewd allusion, finely wrought characters and a pulsing, page-turning narrative, Feldman works new and inventive wonders from an ancient template."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Someone asked me recently what I would do if I couldn't be a writer, and I answered without hesitation that I would want to be a musician. Specifically, I would want to be a jazz pianist, but it's a moot point, because my lack of musical talent means my musical aspirations are likely to remain aspirations.
It's not so much the similarities between the jobs of writer and musician that appeal to me as it is their differences. As a writer, it can be years between the time I write a sentence and the moment anyone reads it, and even then, I'm unlikely to be in the room when it happens. Musicians play live, the feedback they get is immediate, their connection with their audience far more intimate than that between writer and reader. It's also natural for musicians to collaborate, but for a writer, there's no equivalent of playing in a band. Screenwriting partnerships notwithstanding, artistic creation for writers is in most cases a solo performance. Plus, musicians are cool. There's a video game called Rock Band, after all; there certainly isn't one called Novelist.
Ultimately, though, the source of my musician-envy relates to how quickly musicians can accomplish their aesthetic miracles. I'm not saying it doesn't take years of work to write and perform a great song; I know that it does. But those great songs can be five, three, even two minutes long! Now that is artistic alchemy anyone would be envious of: Creating the aesthetic ache or thrill in a listener in two minutes a novelist may require twenty or thirty hours to elicit from a reader. There's probably no fair way to judge the relative merits of great music and great writing, but I think we can all agree that generally speaking, the music gets where it's going faster.
Below is a list of songs that for me pack an aesthetic wallop similar to what I've found in reading. With each song, I offer a literary counterpoint—a written work that shares some of the song's qualities: its themes, its style, its mood, or the mood it evokes. My modest hope is that the experience of the written work may enrich the experience of the song, and vice versa.
"The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" – The Mountain Goats
A quiet epic in under three minutes about the tragic rise and fall of a high school metal band. Also, the song features surely the most wistful use of the lyrics "Hail, Satan!" in rock history.
Literary Counterpoint: Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson
"Your Little Hoodrat Friend" – The Hold Steady
I've always admired The Hold Steady for the way their lyrics make use of the cadences of ordinary speech ("I'm kinda saving myself for the scene," for example). Also, and in this song in particular, I love the way the musical noise—guitars and organ and drums—bursts over those lyrics.
Literary Counterpoint: Ray by Barry Hannah
"Sometimes at Night" – Jessica Lea Mayfield
The official soundtrack of morning-after whiskey and cigarettes. This song hauntingly evokes both the mystery of overwhelming love, and its lurking sadness.
Literary Counterpoint: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
"More Gangsta Music" – Cam'ron & Juelz Santana
I tend to like rap that has some narrative coherence in the lyrics—Kendrick Lamar, say—but this song always convinces me of the glory of free associative anarchy. And in the Cam verse, at least, there's more method than madness: His color catalog ("purple in the air/green in his pocket," and so on) is a tour de force of improvisation on a theme.
Literary Counterpoint: The poetry of John Ashbery
"Abigail, Belle of Kilronan" – The Magnetic Fields
Stephen Merritt—the man behind every Magnetic Fields song—seems capable of creating music in virtually any genre. This is his take on an Irish off-to-war ballad. Here, as in many of his songs, there's a certain tension between formal chill and irony on the one hand, and genuine sentiment on the other. You could say the song is proof the two aren't mutually exclusive.
Literary Counterpoint: Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
"Sara" - Bob Dylan
Is it blasphemy to have a favorite Dylan song? Or not to have one? In any event, this is my favorite: Plaintive and melancholy and soulful, a tribute to the grandeur of love in retrospect.
Literary Counterpoint: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
"This Is My Story, This Is My Song" – Thelonius Monk
So precise and restrained and yet so potent with feeling, it is downright heartbreaking. Really, I don't know how Monk communicates so much with seemingly so little: It's like every note trembles with emotion.
Literary Counterpoint: The poetry of Emily Dickinson
Joshua Max Feldman and The Book of Jonah 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)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists