March 18, 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.
Louis Bayard's novel Roosevelt's Beast is a fictional retelling of the 1914 Amazon expedition of Teddy Roosevelt and his son, Kermit.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Bayard's heart-of-darkness saga is impressive—blood and sacrifice, primitive peoples and Roosevelt courage.... [He] exactingly chronicles the hardships of charting the river, right down to the damp, dangers and drudgery of the Amazonian jungle... [Roosevelt's Beast] is a suspense-filled re-imagining of history deepened by a confrontation with evil's supernatural presence."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
"Anchorage" by Michelle Shocked
"Texas always seemed so big," warbles Shocked, "but you know you're in the largest state of the union when you're anchored down in Anchorage." This unlikely city is where we first meet Kermit Roosevelt. Banished, adrift - but still anchored, yes, by all the memories he's trying to leave behind. I loved the idea of opening a book in World War II - in a place that war is barely touching. By 1943, the Japanese have abandoned any design of invading Alaska, and the men and women stationed there are just waiting for something to happen. For Kermit, it's already happened. "Oh, Anchorage. Anchorage, Alaska."
"Chuncho" by Yma Sumac
And now we travel to South America. Yma Sumac, as it turns out, was born in Peru. She called herself an Incan princess, which is hooey, and her early recordings are swarming with ersatz exotica - the kind of bongo-drum stuff that Max Steiner might have churned out for "King Solomon's Mines." But she had a formidable four-octave voice that ranged from a guttural baritone to a scary condor soprano, and she sings with such power and assurance that she burns away all the kitsch, and something real comes out. Every time I listen to this particular song, I feel like I'm floating helplessly down a dark, uncharted river - much like the one that Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt ventured down - and Yma is every damn animal in the jungle. Shivers.
Bonus? I think of my father, who was completely in awe of Yma Sumac. And if Roosevelt's Beast is about anything, it's about fathers and sons.
"Till We Meet Again" by Rosemary Clooney
When we pick up young Kermit in the Brazilian Amazon, he is pining desperately for his fiancée Belle. The two are to be married in June, but there's some question about whether Kermit will even make it out of the jungle alive. When I thought about his sadness, this was the song that kept playing in my head. "Till We Meet Again" is really a World War I song, written a few years after the Roosevelt expedition, but to me, it captures the melancholy of travelers. And no one mines melancholy better than Rosemary Clooney.
Smile the while you kiss me sad adieu.
When the clouds roll by, I'll come to you.
Then the skies will seem more blue
Down in Lover's Lane, my dearie..
"I Put a Spell on You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins
I love, love, love Nina Simone's cover of this song, but when I listen to her, I hear the most broken human heart that ever lived. When I listen to Screamin' Jay, I hear things that don't belong to this world. His shrieks are exactly what any horror writer would wish to leave reverberating in his reader's spine. (And Kermit Roosevelt spends a fair amount of time under somebody or something's spell.)
I don't care if you don't want me,
I'm yours right now.
I put a spell on you
Because you're mine, mine, mine.
"Far from Any Road" by the Handsome Family
"And when I touched her skin, my fingers ran with blood." This is one of the creepiest songs I've heard in a long while: hypnotic and surreal, with violence above and beneath the skin. Supposedly, the lyrics were inspired by the hallucinogenic effects of jimson weed, but to me, it's about what happens when people leave the known behind and discover what they're capable of. Hint: It's bad. (This is the song that plays over the opening credits of "True Detective," but it works on any continent.)
Symphony No. 9 by Mahler
See, I could have chosen "The End" by the Doors, but Coppola got there first with "Apocalypse Now." (And Conrad got there even earlier with Heart of Darkness.) This massive, unwieldy symphony has pretty much everything that ever crossed Mahler's mind - all the stuff he should have shared with Freud - but there's a chord that happens between the second and third minute of the first movement. It's full of terror, sadness and beauty all at once, and to my ears, it sounds exactly like death. That's the chord Kermit Roosevelt carries out of the jungle.
Louis Bayard and Roosevelt's Beast links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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