July 28, 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.
Nicole C. Kear's memoir Now I See You is more than a book about losing her sight, and is filled with unforgettable wisdom and wit about life, love, and motherhood.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Kear is earthy and daringly frank in this never-boring, unusually illuminating account of living with diminishing sight as she, ultimately, takes a refreshingly glass-half-full approach to life."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I've been losing my vision for a long time, and so far, I haven't developed compensatory superpowers – no Spidey Sense, regrettably -- but I am more sensitive to sound than I used to be. Maybe it's partly because I have three young children, so my life now is full of sound -- loud, frequently grating, incessant sound – and quiet feels like a rare and delicious luxury.
Whatever the reason, I don't listen to music in the same way I used to. It feels more penetrating, less likely to melt, innocuously, into the background - and that's both a good and a bad thing. When I listen, now, to the songs in the playlist below – compiled from various chapters of my life detailed in my memoir – they have a tendency to undo me, like a intense, audible version of Proust's madeline. It's an exercise that's proven two things to me: we really do get sentimental with age, and also, blasts from the pasts can give you whiplash.
"You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morrissette
I was angry in my early twenties. I mean, it's hard to blame me; I'd just found out I was going blind. I, managed, however, to repress my rage, or at least to morph it into an overzealous joie de vivre, as I devoted my energies to Really! Savoring! Every! Moment! On a few occasions, though, I allowed myself a proper fit of fury, and this catharsis usually took the form of putting on "Jagged Little Pill" and rocking the hell out to this song. It suited my purposes because while the lyrics are, theoretically, about a douche bag ex-boyfriend, if you isolate certain clauses, it sounds a lot like it's all about a douche bag, sight-robbing retinal disease: "It was a slap in the face" or "I'm not gonna fade" or (my favorite at the time) "the cross I bear that you gave to me." Scream that while flailing your body around and see if you don't feel a whole lot better.
"Fuck and Run" by Liz Phair
This was my anthem in my early twenties. The whole "Exile in Guyville" album, really, was, but this song, in particular, encompassed the girl I thought myself to be in the years following my diagnosis; I think it's the sadness bubbling up under the surface of bored and resigned acceptance. "What ever happened to a boyfriend? The kind of guy that tries to win you over?" and "I want all that stupid old shit. Like letters and sodas." Hits the nail right on the head.
"Sir Duke" by Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder was the only blind person I knew of when I was diagnosed with my retinal disease. I mean, I knew about Milton too, but somehow, his experience felt pretty remote from mine (have you ever read any Milton? That guy could have seriously benefitted from some anti-depressants). I'd always liked Stevie, but after my diagnosis, I began to feel this secret kinship with him, like we were both members of the same club. I bought all his CDs, and I enjoyed them all but Musiquarium was special to me, and of all those songs, Sir Duke was my favorite. Damned if I know what the song is about, but it doesn't matter; the irrepressible air of celebration is what I love about it. As Stevie sings, "You can feel it all over," and I did, a joyous wakefulness. That's the song I'd listen to when I needed to pick myself up and put myself back together again.
The summer after junior year in college, while living in San Francisco, I took a weekend trip to Los Angeles, where I had cocktails one night at Trader Vic's. There, right in front, waiting for the valet to pull his car around, was Stevie himself. My instinct was to rush up and tell him my sad little tale of woe – and then request a song, possibly Sir Duke, maybe Living For The City. I suppressed that impulse. To be honest, I sort of regret that self–control now.
"Overcome" by Tricky
In my book, I describe a British ex pat boyfriend with whom I enjoy a brief, sizzling love affair while I'm attending circus school in San Francisco. He introduced me to Tricky. It wasn't remotely the kind of music I'd listen to on my own, but discovering new music is half the fun of dating (sometimes more than half, depending on the guy). I found this song alluring, inaccessible, and sexy – pretty much exactly like the beau I know I wouldn't be able to keep.
"Beyond the Sea (La Mer)" by Bobby Darin
You know how certain nights get crystallized into these pure, perfect memory objects? I remember one such a night, just before college graduation, when my best friend Beth and I danced down the dark streets of New Haven, singing this song. Anything was possible. The future beckoned to us, bright, accommodating. I was still going blind, sure, but I'd managed to find the silver lining of my diagnosis and convinced myself it would all be OK. What pierces me about this song, even today, is its sweetness; it's just brimming with promise and hope, so much hope, it damn near breaks your heart.
"I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You" by Tom Waits
Beth had introduced me to Tom Waits (that's half the fun of roommates, too, the other half being unlimited access to a new closet), but I didn't really fall for him until David played "Closing Time" for me. In the movie of my life, this song would be playing in the scene where I go to East Tennessee to star in David's indie movie and end up finally opening myself up, in a real and enduring way, to love.
"Valentine's Day" by Steve Earle
Before I married a Southerner, I'd claimed that the only genre of music I really didn't like was country. David clarified that what I didn't like was country crap. He played me Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch and Steve Earle, and my mind was changed. This is the song that actually plays in the indie movie David and I made together, in the scene where my character realizes her love affair is over. In my real life, it communicated the opposite message; David sang it to me, a cappella, at our wedding.
"Hey Jude" by The Beatles
When my son was born, a little over a year after David and I were married, we started listening to kids' music. I'd dreaded this chapter of my musical life but there was no shortage of good stuff to tune into -- Johnny Cash's kid album, in particular, was killer. As it turned out, though, my son ended up loving grown-up music, pretty much whatever his Daddy liked, with a real soft spot for Dylan and the "Bye Bye Suckers" (more commonly known as the Drive By Truckers). His all-time favorite song, though, was "Hey Dude" (why there's not a Weird Al song of this title, I don't know). We listened to it on repeat play on car rides, sometimes for an hour or more. That's when I realized it might just be the world's most perfect song. I never got sick of it, not even the super long coda. It's another song bursting with hope, and coming through a vessel like McCartney, the hope just explodes like a firework.
"Oh Yoko" by John Lennon
This is a song referenced in my book; I listened to it while getting an electro retinograph (ERG) at my brand-new retinal specialist's office. The ERG is not a fun test. Suffice it to say: it involves attaching electrode contact lenses to your eyes. The first time I took the test, at the time of my diagnosis at nineteen, the whole experience was pretty reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange. When I repeated it, about a decade later, it was a far more humane experience, not because the test had changed (it hadn't) but because the doctor allowed me to listen to music. This is the song that was playing, and in the not-seeing of the test, the awe in Lennon's voice as he forms all those big, open vowels, the joy there in the harmonica, the tenderness of it all just soaked right into me, filling me like water in a sponge.
"Obladi Oblada" by The Beatles
Two years after my son was born, I had a daughter, a golden-haired firecracker of a girl. In addition to being super kinetic, she was also super verbal, and was talking in full sentences by the age of 2 -- which meant she got a vote really early on about music requests. "Lada-leda" was her preferred jam, and again, as with my son, I can't say I minded. It struck me as the perfect encapsulation of our life at the time – ebullient, loud, high-energy, and a little bit all-over-the-place.
"Ne Me Quitte Pas" by Nina Simone
This is another song referenced in my book, in the final chapter. David and I are driving the kids to our annual apple-picking adventure, they both fall asleep in the car and we seize control of the music (by then, their taste had taken a turn for the worse, and included a Backyardigans monomania). We were talking about the possibility of having a third baby; I desperately wanted another child but was scared shitless, and David wasn't sure what to think. Nina's exquisite voice washed over us – so strong and yet so fragile too – and we fell silent. There's no way to talk while listening to Nina sing this. You're too busy trying to hold your heart intact as it explodes into tiny pieces. But we'd have ended up quiet anyway; the decision on the table wasn't one we could make quite yet.
"This Little Light of Mine" by anyone with vocal chords
We decided to have that baby, and I sing this song to her, as I did to my big kids, too, because it's a feel-good song, a galvanizing gospel gem that always does the trick. I've still got plenty of fury and sturm and drang, but not while I'm belting out the words to this baby. This song makes the glass half-full even when it's not even close, even when you're down to the last drops. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Nicole C. Kear and Now I See You links:
Brooklyn Magazine interview with the authors
Fox News profile of the author
Miranda Beverly Whittmore interview with the author
New York Daily News interview with the author
New York Times essay by the author
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