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August 5, 2014

Book Notes - Marie-Helene Bertino "2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas"

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas

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.

Marie-Helene Bertino's debut novel 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas introduces us to nine year old Madeleine Altimari, one of the most endearing child characters I have encountered in years. Assuredly written, funny, and often surprising, this book captures the spirit of Philadelphia as well as its ensemble cast and the music that holds it together.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"The purely original construction of an irresistible story… Readers will fall in love…This assured, moving, brilliantly funny tale of music, mourning, and off-kilter romance entrances with its extraordinarily inventive language. Be prepared for a quick reread of this novel to try to answer the question: How did Bertino do that?"

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Marie-Helene Bertino's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas:


Music composes the fabric of 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas, my novel that takes place in Philadelphia, over the course of one day. Madeleine Altimari, the nine-year-old singing prodigy at the heart of the story, is desperate to follow her voice like a guiding star out of her neighborhood. Music has ruled and possibly destroyed the life of Jack Lorca, self-defeating owner of the fictional club The Cat's Pajamas. Even our star-crossed old friends, Sarina and Ben, weave in and out of the streets of Philadelphia to end up at the mercy of music.

I spent twelve years returning again and again to the same twenty-four hours. The following songs were my guiding stars. It is no coincidence that so many of them are about waiting a long time for reward. How long, how long? Joe Turner agonizes. How long? I'd wonder, until these words become more than a Word document?

For now, the work is done. It's time to sing.


"I Hear Music," Billie Holiday

Once upon a time I managed a coffee shop in San Francisco. In the morning I'd uncover the machines and listen to KCSM, SF's jazz radio station. At 5 a.m. sharp they'd play this song, and I'd be right there with them, brewing coffee and singing along. In his autobiography, Hampton Hawes described Lady Day as "a rowdy, soulful, bighearted woman: carried around a pair of those little dogs you put sweaters on." I love that.

"Blossom's Blues," Blossom Dearie

There's so much tenderness, brattiness, and moxie in the voice of Blossom Dearie. She can be brassy and funny in songs like "I'm Hip," then turn around and break your heart in "A Fine Spring Morning." When we first meet our little girl hero Madeleine Altimari, she is practicing "Blossom's Blues" in her bedroom before school. Later, this song comes back around, a reprise if you will, at a pivotal moment in her life AND IN THE LIFE OF THE NOVEL.

"Brown Eyed Handsome Man," Nina Simone

This song charms me to no end. It provides a moment of tenderness between Madeleine and her troubled father. I love the line, "She fought and won herself a brown-eyed handsome man." What is it about brown eyes that cause such mayhem?

"Troublant Bolero," Django Reinhardt

A picture of Django Reinhardt launched the whole carnival ride I like to call the writing of The Cat's Pajamas. His music has always evoked a particular sense of nostalgia in me. A few years ago I discovered I have an intensely meaningful connection to his music, meaningful and private, that I'm afraid is going to stay that way.

"How Long Blues," Joe Turner

This is the version from his album "Nobody in Mind," which is my favorite. You know that saying, I hate to say goodbye to you, but I love to watch you leave? The few measures of swing before Joe Turner's voice comes booming in is what club owner Jack Lorca hears when he watches his girlfriend Melissa walk away.

"Candela," Buena Vista Social Club

The novel's fictional, troublemaking band The Cubanistas were inspired by this song. On days when every earthly presence seemed to stand between me and this novel becoming more than a Word document, I would strap my sneakers and headphones on and listen to this song on repeat while running. It is no less than the novel's lifeblood. Plus, it's really fun to dance to.

"The More I See You," Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald's thoughtful, meandering live version of this jazz standard is the theme song of Ben and Sarina, walking around Philadelphia, catching up after many years. Is there anything more poetic than longing?

"Won't Be Long," Aretha Franklin

What is the childhood of a prodigy like? This question sparked the creation of Madeleine's character. I deliberately chose "Won't Be Long" as Madeleine's swan song because you can hear how young Aretha is in the recording, and because it actually will be a long, long time before Madeleine gets to where she's going.


To listen to these songs, plus the complete "soundtrack," please visit mariehelenebertino's playlist on Spotify, "Music From The Cat's Pajamas."


Marie-Helene Bertino and 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Bookreporter review
NPR Books review

Brooklyn Daily Eagle interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Safe as Houses
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore 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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