April 29, 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.
Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me is a fascinating and keenly observed novel, as gracefully told as it is powerful.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Readers who reveled in Shipstead's sardonic comedy-of-manners debut will rejoice in the emotionally nuanced tale of barre-crossed lovers and the majestic, mysterious world of professional dance. A supple, daring, and vivid portrait of desire and betrayal"
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
"Summer in the City," The Lovin' Spoonful
Astonish Me opens in New York in 1977. Joan, a dancer in the corps of a major ballet company, watches from the wings as her former lover, the Soviet defector and ballet superstar Arslan Rusakov, dances a pas de deux with his fiancé, a fellow defector. After the performance, wanting to blow off some steam, Joan goes to a party in Greenwich Village with two other ballerinas. It's the kind of sultry summer night where bare legs stick to taxi seats and the city's smells are aggressively pungent and everyone's relieved the heat of the day has passed. This song captures that sizzle.
"Turn the Beat Around," Vicki Sue Robinson
One sequence of the book takes place in a not-quite-officially-open disco in a raw space in definitely-not-yet-gentrified SoHo in 1976. Grooving happens. "Turn the Beat Around" was one of the top dance hits of that year, and I think it's a song Joan would have adopted as a pick-me-up rallying anthem for herself while she was trying to get over Arslan and move on with her life.
"Grand Pas de Deux, from The Nutcracker," Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
I listened to a lot of ballet scores while I was writing, and this piece of music is probably my favorite out of all of them. The way it builds is so beautiful, and though there's sweetness to it, there's also a darkness. The ballets that Tchaikovsky scored—The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty—are massively enriched by his gorgeous, iconic music. The grand romantic swell of his scores strongly influenced the tone of the book.
"Milord," Edith Piaf
I lived in Paris for three months on an artist residency in winter 2012, which was very helpful for writing the two sections of Astonish Me that are set there. If I wanted to describe the view from the Pont des Arts, I could go take a gander and make sure I got it right. Every bridge in Paris has a guy playing "La Vie en rose" on an accordion, but "Milord" is my favorite of Piaf's songs. It's saucy, antic, defiant, and has an irresistible circus-y whirl. That voice! The lyrics are about a girl who feels like a "shadow on the street," unnoticed by the rich old man she pines for. Joan does a lot of pining in Paris; it's a good place for that.
"Petit Battements—Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," Peter Ilyich Tchikovsky
The Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux is a storyless dance choreographed by George Balanchine to an eight-minute scrap of music that was written by Tchaikovsky for Swan Lake but ended up not being included in the original score and was lost for decades. Like a lot of Balanchine, the dance is very quick, which you can hear in this little snippet of it, adapted for piano to be used as accompaniment during a ballet class. When I was in college, I saw two married dancers, Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky, perform the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and they blew my mind. At the end, the man catches the woman in a series of fish dives, supporting her from the side while her body is curved and her feet up in the air. Most ballerinas kind of hop sideways into the dive, but Dvorovenko leapt from really far away. I gasped out loud—there was so much trust between them. The pursuit of a perfect, daring fish dive brings about a major turning point for two characters in Astonish Me.
"Concerto No. 3 in D Minor for Piano and Orchestra, I. Allegro," Sergei Rachmaninoff
There are a lot of Russians in Astonish Me, including more than one who plays the piano. This piece makes the playlist because I love it and listened to it while writing but also as kind of a theme song for Mr. K, the brilliant and complicated choreographer and artistic director of Joan and Arslan's company who has led an epic life.
"Hymn to Red October (Main Title from The Hunt for Red October)," Basil Poledouris
Harry, Joan's son and a gifted dancer, is obsessed with defectors and, when his dad takes him to see The Hunt for Red October when it comes out in 1990, thinks it's the best thing since sliced bread. I have to agree with Harry—I remember seeing it in the theater when I was seven, and it's been one of my favorite movies ever since. The music that plays during the opening credits, a take-off on the Soviet national anthem, is stirring and ominous and exciting and makes me want to text things to my brother like, "Conn, sonar! Crazy Ivan!" He'd get it.
"All Apologies (MTV Unplugged)," Nirvana
As Harry grows up, he and another student of Joan's, Chloe, move to the forefront of the story. In the section that takes place in 1993, the year "All Apologies" was released, they're in high school, and it's definitely different musical times than in Joan's youth. Chloe even lost her virginity to a grunge guy all the girls say looks like Kurt Cobain. A period of pain is looming for her, however, and the raw, weary sound of this version speaks to that. Cobain committed suicide four months after its recording.
"Right Time of the Night," Jennifer Warnes
Nine months after the New York City blackout of 1977 there was, apparently, a bit of a spike in births. Enough said.
"Empire State of Mind," Josh Vietti
Joan returns to New York in 2002 after a long exile and is surprised and a little betrayed by how much it's changed. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' original version is spectacular, but I think violinist Josh Vietti's cover is more appropriate for a retired ballerina like Joan.
"Swan Lake, Act IV: Finale," Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Performances are an important part of the book for how they frame and punctuate the characters' lives. The finale of Swan Lake, which incorporates its famous theme, accompanies (spoiler alert!) the death of Siegfried and Odette and their ascension to heaven. Or at least that's what usually happens—there are different versions. Since Astonish Me is meant to have the feel of a ballet, its final act goes big, and this piece, to me, is the quintessential sound of a ballet's end.
"Stay," Jackson Browne
I like what this song has to say about the reluctance to leave a great show or party or just the company of people you want to be around. There's more to why I'm including it on this playlist . . . but best not to say too much about the end of any book.
Maggie Shipstead and Astonish Me 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