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September 19, 2014

Book Notes - Ronna Wineberg "On Bittersweet Place"

Mercy 6

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.

Ronna Wineberg's debut novel On Bittersweet Place is an impressive and moving coming of age story.

Anne Korkeakivi wrote of the book:

"Youth is never all sweet, and On Bittersweet Place's Lena, a Russian-born Jewish teenager in 1920s Chicago, certainly has her share of troubles. The sweetness is there, though, in this heartfelt coming-of-age tale–– in the tenderness of Wineberg's beautiful prose and the pluck of its resilient young heroine. A story that stays with you."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Ronna Wineberg's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel On Bittersweet Place:

My first novel, On Bittersweet Place, is the coming-of-age story of Lena Czernitski, a young Russian Jew whose family flees their homeland in the Ukraine after the October Revolution. The story unfolds in Chicago during the Jazz Age of the 1920s, where Lena's impoverished family has settled and where she must traverse the early years of adolescence. Lena's new world is large and full of promise, but it is also cold and unwelcoming and laden with danger. Lena's playlist includes music from the old country and the new world.

"Ochi Chyornye" (Dark Eyes)
Lena listened to this song in Belilovka. The lyrics are based on an Ukrainian poem. Uncle William and Uncle Abie played the piece and classical music on the piano that stood near the kitchen in the house in Belilovka. Lena also listens to Ochi Chyornye in the apartment on Bittersweet Place. Uncle William sings, serenading the family. Lena's mother sings this, too. The brooding music and words are filled with longing and a warning. The song evokes Russia, a past Lena wants to forget. The lyrics seem to foretell William's fate.

Dark eyes, burning eyes
Passionate and splendid eyes
How I love you, how I fear you
Verily I saw you at a sinister hour…

If I hadn't met you, I wouldn't be suffering so
I would have lived my life smiling
You have ruined me, dark eyes
You have taken my happiness away forever…

Although we don't learn this in the book, William also sings some opera. "La Donna e Mobile" from Rigoletto, by Verdi. And a few American songs, such as "California, Here I Come," by Bud DeSylva and Joseph Meyer.

Yiddish Songs
Lena hears Yiddish songs at home. William sings "Rozhinkes mit Mandelen" (Raisins and Almonds) and others. Reesa hums this song.

Patriotic Songs and Christmas Carols
Part of Lena's playlist is imposed: music she must learn and sing at school assemblies. "America the Beautiful", "O'Columbia Gem of the Ocean", "My Country Tis of Thee", and also Scottish and French Ballads. Christmas carols, too, such as "Silent Night" and "O Holy Night". She likes the emotion and hope in the patriotic songs. Though she would never admit this, "Silent Night" speaks to her because of the peacefulness of the melody. Lena considers English words themselves to be like a song.

"Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major", Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Max gives Lena the beginnings of a musical education. He plays Mozart on the piano for her.

"Rhapsody in Blue", George Gershwin
Max and Lena listen to this on Max's Victrola.

"Heebie Jeebies", Boyd Atkins
Max plays this and other Louis Armstrong recordings on the Victrola for Lena. These scenes aren't in the book. Lena loves the exuberance of the sounds, the energy. Also "Sweet Georgia Brown" by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard, and Kenneth Casey. And "Blue Skies" by Irving Berlin. Max plays boogie woogie and jazz on the piano for her, too.

"A Kiss in the Laundry" and "Lena's Bravery on the Roof", Max Sloan
Max composes music and plays this on the piano for Lena. She loves to listen to his compositions. In one, he imagines what will come to pass when he and Lena meet at the laundry. He writes a marching tune about Lena's courage, a pleasing sweet triumphant melody. Some compositions have lyrics, others do not. Some don't have titles.

Lena sometimes listens to the one radio the family owns. The radio sits in the back of the Granville Laundry. She hears opera, hot jazz, ragtime. Hadie likes to listen, too, but she waits until someone in the family turns on the radio. Chaim likes to listen to opera broadcasts or broadcasts of classical music. He especially enjoys the music of Sergei Rachmaninov.

"Beautiful", "So Far Away", and "You've Got a Friend", Carole King
While revising the novel, I saw a preview of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Three songs resonated for me and reflected Lena's sense of displacement and her friendship with Max. "Beautiful": "You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face…" Lena does this despite her challenges. "So Far Away": "Doesn't anyone stay in one place anymore?" People Lena loves move away in the book; life is in flux. "You've Got a Friend": "You just call out my name…and…I'll come running to see you again." The lyrics capture Lena's feelings for Max and the world he's opened up for her.

"Flowers in Your Hair", "Ho Hey", "Flapper Girl", The Lumineers; "I Would Bring You Ireland", "Roseville Fair", "Trouble In the Fields", Nancy Griffith; "From a Distance", Julie Gold
While writing the book, during breaks, I listened to contemporary music that dealt with love, hope, and hard times. I also listened to Garrison Keillor and The Prairie Home Companion because of the music and because I liked to be reminded of the importance of story.

Autumn, George Winston; Koln Concerts, Keith Jarrett; French Impressions, recorded by Jeremy Denk and Joshua Bell; music on KVOD
These albums and the radio broadcasts reminded me of the many moods music captures, the many moods in life.

"Sonata No.2, in G Major, Op.49," Ludwig van Beethoven
During breaks from writing, I sometimes sat at the piano and played my old music from when I took lessons long ago. This was relaxing. I imagined what it was like for Max to play the piano and Lena to sit and listen, the melody rising in the room. Playing piano reminded me of how music can communicate without words and transport both the person who listens and the person who plays the instrument.

Ronna Wineberg and On Bittersweet Place links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Harvard Crimson review
Kirkus review

The Millions 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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