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January 5, 2015

Book Notes - Meghan Daum "The Unspeakable"

The Unspeakable

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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

The essays in Meghan Daum's collection The Unspeakable are insightful, sharp, and relatable.

Roxane Gay wrote of the book in the New York Times:

"[The Unspeakable] is formidable, lucid and persuasive. Daum writes with confidence and an elegant defiance of expectation . . . There is no doubt Daum is a brilliant, incisive essayist. I would follow her words anywhere."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Meghan Daum's Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection The Unspeakable:

I've always thought that collections of essays or short stories have a lot in common with record albums—and by that I mean albums. By that I mean what we used to call Album Oriented Rock, a genre in which cover art and liner notes and the order of the tracks was not just a big deal but, for some, a religious matter. All of that is now more or less an antediluvian concept, of course, since popular songs are marketed and sold as singles and there's no physical entity, no actual record, to provide a canvas for visual artwork or a someone's best Lester Bang imitation printed on the jacket sleeve.

Because in my alternate (i.e. non-existent) life I am a singer songwriter, I tend to think of my books – and books in general – as non-musical versions of musical compositions. A novel might be like an opera. A memoir might be like a classical concerto for one particular instrument. And a collection of essays, especially one like The Unspeakable, in which the pieces were written specifically for the book and intended to be read either individually or as a cohesive enterprise, feels a lot like the work of a 1970s-style singer-songwriter. In other words, an old-fashioned album.

The Unspeakable, and, indeed, just about every serious piece of writing I've ever undertaken, owes a lot to Joni Mitchell. In the essay, The Joni Mitchell Problem, I talk not only about the idiosyncrasies of my particular taste in her work but also the larger creative and existential problem of being appreciated for the wrong things. Joni's most popular songs are, arguably, her least interesting. "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Chelsea Morning" may be catchy and tenacious, but they capture just a sliver of the of artist's talent, ambition, sophistication and depth. As I write in the book, I've always thought of Joni not just as a songwriter but as a kind of divine essayist. So in honor of some of Joni's finer, lesser known works (and a few rightfully famous ones), this playlist assigns each essay in The Unspeakable its own Joni Mitchell track.

"Matricide"/"Blue" (Blue 1971)
This essay is brutal, ruthless and uncompromisingly honest – some would say to a fault. Though I judiciously chose every detail in the piece and (as I was writing, I deleted about three sentences for every once sentence I wrote) some readers are still going to see as startlingly revealing. No doubt Kris Kristofferson would. When Joni Mitchell first played "Blue" for Kristofferson, he famously told her it was too revealing. He said to her, "save something for yourself." He missed the point entirely. "Blue" is not a confession. It's an offering. And what it being offered has been distilled to its purest, most essential form.

"The Best Possible Experience"/"Same Situation" (Court and Spark, 1973)
This is an essay about dating and the ephemeral, confounding nature of the very notion of romance. It's about finding yourself in relationships with unlikely partners because you're drawn the experience they offer rather than the people themselves. In "Same Situation," Joni sings of the collision between her "struggle for higher achievement" and her "search for love" but ultimately concludes that she just wants "somebody who's strong, and somewhat sincere." There's something terribly sad about this but also totally hilarious and, above all, utterly relatable.

"Not What It Used To Be"/"Chinese Café" (Wild Things Run Fast, 1982)
In this essay about nostalgia and its discontents, I ask "how did I get to be old without growing up?" In "Chinese Café," Joni describes visiting childhood friends in her hometown at Christmastime and observing that their kids are nearly grown and gone. "We look like our mothers did, now, when we were those kids' age," she sings. Who over 40 hasn't made that same startling observation when seeing old friends? It's like you can suddenly feel the earth spinning on its access, unspooling the years. It's dizzying.

"Honorary Dyke"/"Yvette in English" (Turbulent Indigo, 1994)
My paean (a little tongue-in-cheek, a lot outrageous) to the essence of "real womanhood" and the magic of female love and friendship. Joni co-wrote this song with David Crosby (who has been credited with "discovering" her and was once her lover, naturally.) It tells the story of a foreign man struggling to communicate with a beautiful French woman in a Paris bistro. "A loud is mouth stricken deaf and dumb" as he searches for "new thrills, new chills for the old uphill battle." The song bears no direct relationship to my essay, but somehow it captures a little bit of its essence. (For the song that presents the paradigm of the absolute opposite of the "Honorary Dyke" ethos, see "Shades of Scarlett Conquering" from The Hissing of Summer Lawns.)

"Difference Maker"/"Cherokee Louise" (Night Ride Home, 1991)
This is the most literal essay/song pairing on this list. "Difference Maker" is about my experience volunteering in the foster care system, as well my own coming to terms with not wanting to be a mother myself. "Cherokee Louise" is about Joni's childhood friend, an indigenous girl who's living with an abusive foster father. It's an accessible and relatively simple song with the kind of classic chord changes and guitar voicings that countless singer-songwriters have copied from Joni.

"The Joni Mitchell Problem"/"Paprika Plains" (Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, 1977)
In this essay, I recount the time I met Joni and asked her, among about 500 other things, about the unusual time signature changes in "Paprika Plains," a 16 minute opus with piano and full orchestra that took up the whole second side of the first record of this double album. My line of questioning was pretentious, esoteric and, ultimately, totally dorky, but she loved it and I've felt both proud and embarrassed ever since.

"The Dog Exception"/"Two Grey Rooms" (Night Ride Home, 1991)
This essay is about how the one exception to my aversion to sentimentality is my love of (most) dogs. I loved my dog, Rex, so deeply it was sometimes excruciating. I love "Two Grey Rooms" with a similar kind of ache. Musically it's gorgeous and lyrically it's sad and haunting and more minimalist than a lot of Joni's lyrics. It's about a woman watching from her window as an old lover – or some representation thereof – passes below every morning. It kind of reminds me of the way dogs sit by the window waiting for their owners to come home. Although of course Rex was above such things.

"On Not Being a Foodie"/"The Hissing of Summer Lawns" (The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975)
On its face, this essay is about being having trashy culinary taste in a world of artisinal pickles and farm-to-table self-righteousness. At its root, though, it's about the underratedness of staying in your comfort zone and the great power than can be mined by tapping into your strengths and not bothering with your weaknesses. The title track from "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" is actually about the perils of being too entrenched in the comfort zone. It's about suburban anomie and stupor born of materialism. But this is such an important album that I'd be remiss not to include it. And a lyric like "she put up a barbed wire fence to keep out the unknown" could just as well apply to preferring Smucker's strawberry jam to quince paste.

"Invisible City"/"The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey" (Mingus, 1979)
"Invisible City" is an ode to Los Angeles and its subtle, often counterintuitive mysteries. "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey" is a strange, dissonant, decidedly non user-friendly Joni track that's also one of my all time favorites. The wolf in question "raids and runs through the hills of Hollywood and the downtown slums." It tells of "the stab and glare and buckshot of the heavy, heavy snow." That line takes my breath away every time – kind of like the nighttime view of the city from Mulholland Drive.

"Diary of a Coma"/"Shadows and Light" (Shadows and Light, 1980)
This song appears on The Hissing of Summer Lawns but the version I'm talking about here is the one that became the title track of this 1980 live double album. It's a kind of Gregorian chant that represents one of Joni's more minimalist veins. That vein feels appropriate for this essay, which takes place during a five day period when I was in a medically-induced coma and explores the expectations and anxieties of those who witnessed the "miracle" of my survival. Here, Joni sings of "The perils of benefactors" and "the blessings of parasites" – not to mention the degree to which we are "compelled by prescribed standards or some ideals we fight." And, actually, when I think about it, that's pretty much what my entire book is about.

So, thanks, Joni. Thanks again and again. For everything.

Meghan Daum and The Unspeakable links:

the author's website

Chicago Tribune review
Entertainment Weekly review
Los Angeles Times review
The Millions review
New York Times review
New York Times review
NPR Books review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Seattle Times review
Slate review
Toronto Star review

The 6th Floor interview with the author
Bustle interview with the author
The Cut interview with the author
The Daily Beast interview with the author
New Yorker interview with the author
The Stranger profile of the author
UNO Writers Workshop interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists
Essential and Interesting 2014 Year-End Music Lists

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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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