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June 18, 2014

Book Notes - Susan Choi "My Education"

My Education

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.

Susan Choi's novel My Education is a masterfully told coming-of-age story.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"With a sharp eye and piercing insights, Choi captures the heady romanticism that infuses a youthful love affair before the responsibilities and realities of adulthood set in. This is a masterful coming-of-age novel."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Susan Choi's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, My Education:

The vast majority of My Education takes place between the late summer of 1992 and the early summer of 1994 in a northeastern college town in the middle of nowhere. This list is made up of songs that are on all the time, in the main character's head, and in her crappy little apartment, playing out of her crappy little boom box; they're the songs that are playing while she drinks and sleeps and cries and cooks herself meals on the very rare occasions that she does, and that are on while she sleeps with her lover and fights with her lover and does whatever else she does, whether it's on the page or not - these songs are less a soundtrack than an alternate form of the weather, although to be honest the weather gets more mentions in the actual book. I recall this music with such immediacy from my own experience of the early 90s - loving some of it, shrugging at some of it, hardly even hearing some of it but knowing it as well as anything I know - that just to torture myself I'm listing these songs by release date, for the sake of the repeated shock that they're almost all either twenty, or more than twenty, years old. Being middle aged is so disorienting sometimes there's nothing to do but lean into it as hard as you can. On that note, enjoy this time capsule.

Radiohead, "Creep", Sept. 21 1992 (single), Pablo Honey, Feb. 22 1993

I probably didn't hear 'Creep' until its re-release in 1993, but gazing back through the spyglass of memory, or I guess I should say something like listening back through the - ear horn? - of memory, this song seems as ubiquitous as 'Loser,' with which it shares a niche in my brain for the obvious reasons. I neither loved nor hated it although I found it funny, later, to hear that Radiohead in their amazing self-seriousness had forsworn performing it for their cretinous fans, as if it were their 'Free Bird.'

Pavement, "Here", Slanted and Enchanted, April 20, 1992

Years after I first acquired my cassette copy of this album I was rafting on the Delaware River with a bunch of people including New Yorker music writer Alex Ross and a woman I'll call Tammy, which is not her real name. People kept rearranging themselves and the coolers of beer in the rafts as we floated along and at some point me and Alex and Tammy were all in the same raft, and Tammy, having no idea who Alex was, asked him what he did to make money. "Right now I'm writing about Pavement," he told her. "Oh! That's fascinating!" Tammy cried, and for several minutes Tammy rhapsodized about what an interesting, unexplored subject he'd found in those unsung slabs of concrete, sometimes studded with crushed glass such that they glittered, sometimes consisting of actual quarried stone, etc etc etc. When she was finished Alex said, "Actually, I'm writing about a band called Pavement." This same difficulty arises now if you Google 'pavement': for me today, at least, a paid ad by local paving contractors comes up first. But, Pavement the band comes up second.

REM, "Everybody Hurts," Automatic for the People, Oct. 5, 1992

This is a dreadfully sappy song and for years I couldn't stand to hear it, but like a lot of songs by REM, and really like REM in general, it suffered, for me, from total overexposure which sanded it down to banality, which means reversing the process is possible. Every once in a while a strange, alienated mood strikes me, as if I'd just dropped onto the planet from outer space, and had never heard any of our music before, and then a lot of REM returns to me in its piercing sweetness. Even then I still cringe when the violins start in the background of this song.

Beck, "Loser," March 8, 1993 (12 inch)

I'm pretty sure this is the only song on this list that actually gets a mention in my book, not because it's particularly important but because the characters are driving, and for a while, every time I drove a country road it seemed as if this song was playing on the radio, or that it should have been playing on the radio. As mentioned above, this song, 'Creep,' and 'Low' (see below) form a sort of aural octopus of sameness in my brain.

Liz Phair, 6'1'', Exile in Guyville, June 22, 1993

Choosing the opening track of Exile in Guyville is completely random; for me this album sounds exactly the same from beginning to end and I love every minute of it. I can't help it; it hit me where it counts at the optimal moment. A woman I knew at the time once said, of this record, "It sounds like the inside of my head," and for better or worse I felt exactly the same way. I've heard people say there are Liz Phair people and PJ Harvey people, in the same way that everyone is either Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. If this is true, it's clear which side I'm on. I can't stand PJ Harvey, never could. I'm just not cool enough, or I'm too girly, which might two ways of saying the same thing.

The Breeders, "Cannonball," Last Splash August 9, 1993

And the hits keep coming. Writing liner notes, or whatever you call these, is truly exhausting. I've always liked music because it seemed as though you didn't have to talk about it!

Cracker, "Low," Kerosene Hat, August 24, 1993

See above, re 'Creep' and 'Loser'. Is it snobbish to say that 'Kerosene Hat' is a terrible title for anything? I never knew, having never actually owned this song in any form, the title of the album until now. It's as inexplicable as 'Pablo Honey' and shares some other qualities with that enigmatic phrase, none of them the qualities that I look for in a title. But I'm not claiming any great title-bestowing skills; there was a time that I wanted to call My Education 'Coup de Foudre' which is hard to say, being French, and pretentious to boot. Happily I was dissuaded.

Mazzy Star, "She's My Baby," So Tonight That I Might See, October 5, 1993

This gorgeous song may be the most connected in my mind with the muzzy, lusty, melancholic atmosphere of certain parts of the book; this is another album that exists for me as a totality and so it seems not just random but oddly crass to single out one track. We used to listen to whole albums, kids - though we did have to stand up, cross the room, and flip them over at the mid point. I know: grandma's so full of tales.

Nirvana, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" MTV Unplugged, aired Nov. 18, 1993; released Nov. 1 1994

I too watched the unplugged performance re-aired on MTV after Kurt's death perhaps a thousand times. It's interestingly and inevitably and horribly bound up in my mind with OJ Simpson and the white bronco, and all the other gory, sad details of that other marriage of the 90s that ended in catastrophe. It interested me to learn, later, that Kurt refused to perform an encore the night of the unplugged concert because he didn't think he could top his performance of this song. He was right.

Luna, "Tiger Lily," Bewitched, Feb. 15, 1994

Despite its winter release, the perfect song for croquet and mint juleps. Luna is sort of the white wine and soft cheese of music; they go with everything. I don't mean that in a bad way.

Courtney Love, "Violet," Live Through This, April 4, 1994

Wow, remember? It beggared belief that this album should leap out of the bushes, kicking and clawing our eyes out, just days after Kurt Cobain killed himself. A few years later I met my future husband, who'd spent some of his youthful period of employment fact-checking the famous Lynn Hirschberg evisceration of Courtney Love that ran on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Courtney called Lynn after the story came out, and left the world's longest, most profane and unintentionally funny and at times actually psychotically endearing message on Hirschberg's answering machine. My new boyfriend, in that way of copying cool stuff onto cassettes that we had in those days, copied the message and played it for me one riveting afternoon the first year we were dating.

Matthew Sweet, "Sick of Myself," 100% Fun, March 14, 1995

An anthem - who won't sing along?

Susan Choi and My Education links:

the author's website

All Things Considered review
Los Angeles Times review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

Speakeasy profile of the author
Village Voice interview with the author
Weekend Edition 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

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)
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

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