June 16, 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.
Violet Kupersmith's short story collection The Frangipani Hotel expertly weaves the dead and the living, the past and present, into a haunting and exquisitely nuanced debut.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"What is most haunting in Kupersmith's nine multilayered pieces are not the specters, whose tales are revealed as stories within stories, but the lingering loss and disconnect endured by the still living. . . . [A] mature-beyond-her-years debut."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
All of the characters in The Frangipani Hotel, be they Vietnamese, American, or in the precarious position of trying to be both, are plagued by a variety of ghosts, spirits, and shape-shifters. There are men who turn into snakes, disembodied voices from bamboo groves, dead men who walk on top of the sea, and a lake-woman who exacts dangerous promises. These supernatural creatures come from old folktales that my Vietnamese grandmother liked to scare me with, and from the stories that I gathered over the course of a year spent teaching English in the Mekong Delta after college. This is the music that we should imagine playing in the background as Violet, age 22, drifts in and out of half-nightmares, asleep beneath a mosquito net in Vietnam, grappling subconsciously with her identity issues and writer's block and intestinal worms.
"Lullaby," The Cure
We should start with something shivery. This song is its own little ghost story, and I hear it in the book in the titular piece, where we encounter a creature in Hanoi's Frangipani Hotel who is, just as the lyrics warn, "Stealing past the windows of the blissfully dead / Looking for the victim shivering in bed" and on the prowl for someone to make her dinner. It's an impeccably creepy bit of music, and those pizzicato strings throughout are like raindrops beating against the corrugated tin rooftops of the ancient Vietnamese city.
"Đập Vỡ Cây Đàn," Quang Lê
I loved living in my Mekong Delta swamp town, but every so often I would need to escape to Saigon and surround myself with other Westerners and eat cheeseburgers etc. Getting to the city on these occasions required a five-hour bus ride during which, without fail, the driver would blast this particular song on repeat as he sped down skinny dirt roads through the paddy fields. In my mind this song and the long, dusty drive back and forth from Saigon are inseparable, so the entire time that I was writing "Little Brother," which is about a truck driver on his way home through the South Vietnamese provinces (with a sinister passenger in tow), it was stuck in my head. The lyrics are about a spurned lover smashing his guitar and it's what the unnamed narrator would sing to himself, off-key, at the top of his lungs while driving.
"Zombie," The Cranberries
The Vietnam War, or at least its memory, is the biggest and scariest ghost in all of the stories. This is a song about a different country and a different war, but Dolores O'Riorden's caterwauling, the tanks and bombs and bombs and guns, the theme of violence and recurrence, are as Vietnam as anything. Also, the book has a zombie of its own, though it is less of a metaphor and more of an actual reanimated corpse…
And now for something peppy, but a bit manic and creepy-perky to follow The Cranberries. I don't know what this Korean pop song is actually about, but it infected the Vietnamese youth and was played on loop everywhere, for months. There was a dance that went along with it; groups of students would go out and practice the moves in the halls during study breaks, and I would spazzily imitate it in my pajamas late at night instead of lesson planning. I'm including the song for the character Thuy, the unlucky chubster with a sandwich addiction from the story "Skin and Bones" who gets sent by her mother to Vietnam to lose weight and become less roly-poly (the character that I identify with most in the collection).
"National Anthem," Lana Del Rey
For Mia, the protagonist of "Guests." Mia is a prickly one—she's an American working at the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, filing visas for Amerasians, and leading an expatriate life that feels like a farce. She is neurotic, imperious but cracking. The song carries takes us through the whole story—it starts with the distant crackling of fireworks of the Lunar New Year celebration where Mia meets her boyfriend for the first time, the bridge is the sloppy, gin-soaked scene that takes place in a bar called the Tiger Cage, and there's that line that's just too perfect: "… you have landed / Babe, in the land of / Sweetness and danger / Queen of Saigon." It's music for riding on the back of a motorbike, for sweating in mascara-melting heat, and for being far from home.
"Delilah," Tom Jones
When I lived in my swamp town I had an American friend, a fellow teacher, and whenever we went to karaoke with our Vietnamese colleagues he would break out this song. Even more than the actual lyrics (which describe a homicide), what I find truly creepy is their juxtaposition with the cheerful, Mariachi-carousel quality of the music. And our Vietnamese friends, unable to understand the English, found this song to be absolutely delightful. They would clap along and join in on the "Whyyyy, whyyy, whyyyyyyyy, Delilah”s, totally unaware of the subject matter. The whole ordeal, whenever it took place, always left me with an icky feeling that was hard to shake, and I try and produce that same unpleasant emotion in my writing. Because they share the crucial narrative elements of a) a crazy man, b) banging on a door, and c) a big knife, I am pairing this song with the story "One-Finger."
"Dệt Tầm Gai," Đại Lâm Linh
This is an experimental band from Hanoi that uses traditional Vietnamese instruments to create a kind of contemporary folklore sound. And by that I mean this is what you would find a group of witches dancing to in a forest. They're so scary and cool and their live performances involve lots of writhing around. The title of this song translates to "Weaving Nettles," which makes me think of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale "The Wild Swans." There's something hypnotic about it—I love how all the chanting and the dissonance and the twanging builds up to a screaming climactic section that manages to be both beautiful and unbearable at the same time, and then drops without warning back to whispers. It gives me goose bumps. The lyrics are abstract and my Vietnamese comprehension skills are shoddy, but I understand the song as being about pain and possession, inheritance and repetition, eternal repetition.
"Friends in Low Places," Garth Brooks
A little Country is necessary because the collection's American stories all take place in Texas. At the end of "Turning Back," when the main character Phuong and her brother Tommy are driving aimlessly around the Houston highways, I'm sure that this song would come on the radio. And the title just tickles me because in the story Phuong has an encounter with a very large, creepy-crawly creature, the kind of scaly friend who very literally slithers around in low places…
"Sni Bong," Dengue Fever
The playlist should close with this dizzy, psychedelic rock number sung in Khmer. My mother grew up in the port of Da Nang in the sixties and sold popsicles to the American GIs after school every day—this is the kind of music they would have been sitting around listening to on their radios. Listening is like falling into a hole.
Violet Kupersmith and The Frangipani Hotel links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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weekly music release lists