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January 26, 2015

Book Notes - Michael Crummey "Sweetland"


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.

Michael Crummey's Sweetland is a quietly powerful novel where the past and present collide to create an exceptional character-driven book.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"The elimination of an entire community, and what it represents, is deeply felt. Through its crusty protagonist, Crummey's shrewd, absorbing novel tells us how rich a life can be, even when experienced in the narrowest of physical confines."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Michael Crummey's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Sweetland:

There are still pockets of my home province of Newfoundland that exist somewhere on the margins of the 21st century. Tiny island communities accessible only by sea, improbable outports that have clung to rock for a couple of centuries, beyond the reach of most of what "modern life" has to offer. With the total collapse of the cod fishery twenty years ago, though, these places are starting to fade from the world. Some residents are taking a government package to resettle en masse to more central locations, a package that is offered with the condition that everyone has to sign on and leave.

Sweetland is set on the south coast of Newfoundland, in a community of geriatrics and misfits that is slowly fading from the world. Everyone is ready to take the government package, but for one pig-headed holdout. Moses Sweetland won't be moved, whatever his friends and neighbours throw at him. And in the second half of the novel, Sweetland finds himself on his island with only the dead for company. No one knows he's there. And things don't go particularly well for him. The line between the real world and the otherworldly, between life and death, starts to blur and eventually disappears altogether.

Sound like fun?

Well, I had a good time, for what it's worth.

I fell in love with Moses as I wrote the book. I admired him. He was my avatar on a quest to make peace with the apocalyptic loneliness everyone of us can expect to face at some point in our lives. Resettlement is the setup for the novel. But beneath the surface it's a book about mortality, about what how we face our mortality says about us. I hope when my time comes I find some scrap of Sweetland's will, of his dogged insistence on the importance of a life, however marginal and unseen it might be.

Paul Buchanan - "I Remember You"

Former lead singer of indie-darling Scottish band The Blue Nile, Buchanan released his first solo album, Mid Air, in 2012. I went through a serious Blue Nile phase about a decade ago, and Mid Air brought it all back to me. Unlike the synth-soaked near-pop songs of the band though, Buchanan's solo work is a late-night whisper. "Spare" doesn't come close to describing the arrangements. A lonely piano and Buchanan's haunted vocals carry almost the entire record. It's like a soundtrack for a man living alone on an island in the north Atlantic. Melancholy. Exhilarating.

Rush - "La Villa Strangiato"

Thanks to the wonders of Youtube, I went on a long Rush jag while I was writing Sweetland.

I don't know, man. It just kinda happened.

I was a Rush fan in my teens, starting with Moving Pictures and the double-live album Exit, Stage Left. But it had been decades since I'd listened to anything from them when I began streaming records I hadn't bothered with as a kid, Hemispheres and Caress of Steel and 2112. I spent countless unjustifiable hours among the bombast and weird time signatures and faux-profound lyrics.

Jesus, they suck. Jesus, they're fantastic.

Much like life.

Stan Rogers - "Barrett's Privateers"

In 1995 my father and I took the coastal boat down the Labrador as far as Nain, to revisit the places where he had grown up fishing with my grandfather in the 1940s. He brought the crappy little radio/cassette player he carried everywhere. There were no radio signals to be found on the coast of Labrador, but there was a tape in the machine with Leonard Cohen's Greatest Hits on one side and Stan Roger's classic folk album Fogerty's Cove on the other. It was a fifteen day journey. We listened to those two albums a lot. And those songs still bring the trip—and my father—back to me.

After finishing this novel, it struck me that what Sweetland endures in the second half of the book has a lot of parallels to what someone suffering through a terminal illness goes through. And it occurred to me then, as well, that I had pillaged my father's life for details and incidents to insert into Sweetland's history.

Sweetland is a completely different man than my father, of course. But, without being conscious of it, I was obviously writing through the experience of watching Dad die of cancer twelve years ago. And that may explain, to some extent, why I admire Moses as much as I do.

Amelia Curran - "Years"

Listen, there aren't a lot of easy "feel good" moments in this book. I get that. It's funny at times; hell, I think it's hilarious in spots. But pretty fecking dark overall. For Sweetland himself, it's post-apocalypse. He loses just about everything but his will to endure. And still I never for a moment considered I was writing a "depressing" book. Most readers I've encountered come away from it feeling, not uplifted exactly, but subtly encouraged. Braced somehow.

I went to a shit-hole, smoky St. John's bar one Christmas about fifteen years ago to see...well, I can't remember who the headliner was now. But between sets, she invited a friend who was home for the holidays to sing a few songs on a borrowed guitar. That friend was Amelia Curran. She's five albums in now and every record is a gem. I spent a lot of time listening to her 2011 release, Spectators, while I was writing this book. "Years" is my favourite track. The unexpectedly uplifting chorus kills me every time. "We're nowhere near sunset, and baby we've got years yet. Baby, we've got years."

The Weakerthans - "Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call"

Does anyone write better idiosyncratic, nostalgia-soaked, incisive, heartbreaking lyrics than John K Samson? Well, probably. It's a big world out there. But for my money, the Weakerthan's front man is the best at what he does. Which is offering up catchy, off-the-wall but sincere odes to the small and everyday, to the marginal and underrepresented. Prairie curlers, depression-era tuberculosis patients, aging Elks Lodge members. Fleeting, insignificant, beautiful lives.

"Let the toast to absent members push through the ceiling/ before we say goodnight."

Amen, John K. Amen.

Michael Crummey and Sweetland links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Globe and Mail review
Kirkus review review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
National Post review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Galore
Quill and Quire profile of the author
Toronto Star profile of the author
Winnipeg Free Press 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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