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July 23, 2014

Book Notes - Susan Scarf Merrell "Shirley"


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 Scarf Merrell's Shirley is a brilliant homage to both the life and works of author Shirley Jackson, a psychological literary thriller as captivating as it is fascinating.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Jackson has always been one of the more intriguing and misunderstood writers of her generation, a woman writer at the cusp of feminism's second wave who nevertheless was erroneously dismissed for writing mere 'domestic fiction.' Merrell brings this complicated and compelling woman to life through the kind of taut and intimate thriller Jackson herself would have been proud to call her own."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Susan Scarf Merrell's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Shirley:

Shirley Jackson was very musical, and loved just about all of it—from classical to piano jazz to bullfighting music. Her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman was a fan of jazz and blues and folk, and the record player in their house was in constant use. I myself have the kind of singing voice that sounds like a sick cat, and an appropriately tin ear (I sound okay to ME). But ever since I was a child, I've loved the music of poetry as much as I love prose—one of the first "songs" I remember hearing was my mother reading Poe's Annabel Lee out loud. So the pieces here are selected on the basis of story for the most part. If the music pleases you, it's because I'm lucky enough to live in a household of musical people, who mostly prevent me from ever hearing the bad stuff.

Shirley is Rose Nemser's book. It's driven by her vision and what her past brings to the world of the story: the impoverished nature of her childhood, her yearning for love without really understanding what it is, her need for someone to care for and to care for her, her need for a maternal figure on which to model herself. So when I think about music to enhance the way one reads Shirley it's in terms of Rose. Romantic and sentimental, but a little bit cursed at the same time.

1. There's only one song that matters within the novel, a folk song called "The House Carpenter" (sometimes "The Demon Lover"). "Well met, well met, my own true love/Long time I have been seeking thee/ I am lately come from the salt sea/And all for the sake, love, of thee." The version here, from the Library of Congress' Archive of Folk Culture (Anglo-American Ballads, Vol. 1), is hoarsely beautiful, so scratchy and idiosyncratic that the listener's brain immediately provides a whole life story for the distinctly unpolished singer.

2. A poetry anthology my English class studied in the 8th grade included the text of Paul Simon's song "Dangling Conversation." It was the first time I intellectually understood the link between musical lyric and poetry, and I often think about the pure simplicity of these verses and the haunting ambivalence of Simon's storytelling.

3. Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love," because how could you be 19-year-old Rose in 1964 and not love this song?

4. And Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose," because not only would Rose adore the song for its wistful yearning, but she'd also adore its Gallic sophistication.

5. There's one spontaneous after-dinner dancing scene in the novel, and it's most definitely NOT to The Magnetic Fields' "Nothing Matters When We're Dancing," but the movie romance of the dance floor is so inherent to this song, and movie romance so much a part of learning what one believes love is, that it begs to be here.

6. Vetiver's "Houses." Because houses. Jackson. You know. "I could never make it in your house/You could never make it in mine."

7. Wilco's dreamy, haunting "Reservations" saturates your ears, so that you almost don't realize how creepy and sad it is. It's the same way Shirley Jackson's writing prickles the reader—you are amused and entertained but creeped out as well, in a most delicious way.

8. I had to add Lena Horne's version of "Someone to Watch Over Me." Rose would find Horne's version mesmerizing, and the song itself is the essence of what Rose wants for her own life.

9. Hearing Bombadil's "Honeymoon" for the first time, my initial thoughts were about how nothing ever really changes—"honey if you took back all the promises and rings/and little things and when he sings/ would you still know/what lies behind that honeymoon."

Relationship IS danger, as much as it is safety and home. The other is never completely known…There's something so eternal about this song; I would have wanted to hear it decades ago as much as I like to listen to it now.

10. The Traveling Wilburys' "End of the Line": Shirley has been called brooding and dark, but I don't think it is. Accepting that love is complicated—that there's romance in surviving and compromising and living with and next to the other—is, to me, perhaps the most ridiculously wonderful notion there is. "Well it's all right/ the best you can do is forgive."

11. Porches' "Good Book." Maybe it's not about love, and yet of course it is. Like every song ever written. "baby I'm just a good book/that you pick up when you want to/and put it down when you are tired/but fold the page when I knew you/and you knew me/it's a good one"

Susan Scarf Merrell and Shirley links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Independent review
Kirkus review
LitReactor review
Washington Post review

The Daily Beast profile of 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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