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May 11, 2015

Book Notes - Lauren Acampora "The Wonder Garden"

The Wonder Garden

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Lauren Acampora's's The Wonder Garden is a magnificent debut collection of linked stories about a small suburban town.

Library Journal write of the book:

"The stories in Acampora's first collection are so vivid, tightly plotted, and expertly woven that they make you look forward to reading more by this accomplished author."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Lauren Acampora's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection The Wonder Garden:

The Wonder Garden is a collection of linked stories set in the same affluent Connecticut town. Many of its characters are middle-aged parents, living seemingly ordinary lives while quietly struggling with secret troubles and deviant urges. At first, I didn't think of it as a particularly musical book. Whereas some of my other writing has sprung directly from specific songs, The Wonder Garden is more of a hodge-podge; each story has its own set of inspirations and concerns. Also, I don't listen to music while I write (I'm in awe of writers who can do this; they must have wonderfully evolved brains), and in fact it seems the only time I listen to music at all these days is while driving and cooking. But upon further thought, I realized that there is quite a bit of music in the book, both embedded within the stories and within my own head as I wrote them. What follows is its weird and unique mix tape.

"My Country"

I was listening to Tune-Yards a lot while writing this book. Well, at least while driving from my daughter's preschool to the library or cafe where I did my writing. Merrill Garbus had the rawest, most powerful voice I'd heard in a long time, and her music was the coolest thing I'd heard in years. It's irresistibly catchy, and satisfyingly complicated. I was so curious about where this kick-ass woman came from, that I looked her up online and was shocked to discover that she was raised in the white-bread town right next to my own—very similar to the town of Old Cranbury in the book. Rather than take away from her cred, it made her one of my personal heroes. And, imagining that she'd had a similar view of class concerns in that part of the country, I projected all kinds of things onto the music that I hadn't before.

When they have nothing, why do you have something, when they have nothing.
The worst thing about living a lie is just wondering when they'll find out.

"Suburban Home"
The Descendents

A lot of my suburban friends and I were into The Descendents as teenagers. This is probably their most popular song, and was a kind of sarcastic anthem for us, exactly the opposite of how we felt:

I want to be stereotyped
I want to be classified
I want to be a clone
I want a suburban home

Guess what? I grew up, moved back to the suburbs and have my own suburban home now. The lyrics to this song returned to me while writing The Wonder Garden. The idea of wanting to be classified has actually become really interesting to me as an adult. While writing the stories, I thought a lot about the ways in which the characters want to be seen—and yes, labeled—by their neighbors. The idea of suburbanites as clones is miserably far from the truth, and yet not terribly wrong, either.

"My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free"
Francis Hopkinson

The story "The Virginals" is about a woman whose interest in Revolutionary-era America becomes obsessive. She lives in a historic home and adheres as much as possible to a Colonial lifestyle, including playing music on a reproduction 17th-century virginals. In the story, her husband gives her sheet music for Christmas, and "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free" is one of the songs she tries to play. When researching appropriate music for her, I learned that this is considered the first American song. It was scored in 1759 by Francis Hopkinson, who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a friend of George Washington's. The lyrics, written by Thomas Parnell, struck me as fitting for the story:

My days have been so wondrous free,
the little birds that fly,
with careless ease, from tree to tree,
were but as blest as I

To me, they express the exaggerated sense of freedom that Cheryl claims to experience by living in tune with the past—while the story itself explores the conflict between personal freedom and neighborly encroachment.

Traditional English folk song

When I was a child, I was given a music box that played "Greensleeves" for Christmas, and this has been one of my favorite songs since. It may be the most haunting, beautiful melody I can think of, with its alternating of major and minor keys (to me, the critical trait of any affecting music). And so this seemed the perfect song for Cheryl in "The Virginals" to play on her virginals when summoning the spirits of the house to give her strength.

Brian Eno
"Baby's on Fire"

In the story "Visa," a single mother in the suburbs struggles with her changed identity. She spends a lot of time reflecting on her younger days in the city, and while listening to music from her youth while driving to the supermarket, feels like "a club princess trapped in a Toyota." This particular scene had its source in a trip to Target I took one day while listening to Brian Eno. I was struck by the intense clash between the restless burn of the music inside the car and the orderliness and predictability of the suburban parking lot outside.

"Stars and Midnight Blue"

The story "Moon Roof" is about a woman who becomes emotionally paralyzed while waiting at a stop sign. Hours into her predicament, she reaches for a calming CD to put in the car stereo. The Enya album, "And Winter Came..." is what I imagine she puts in. It has a cover image of a white horse in snow. The track that seems to fit this story best is the meditative "Stars and Midnight Blue." Not that there's any Enya song that's not meditative—but I think this one goes best with the scene, as Lori gazes up throug the car's moon roof as the minutes pass.

Pete Seeger
"Little Boxes"

Here's another commentary on suburban conformity. My daughter and I were both going through a serious Pete Seeger phase while I was writing The Wonder Garden, and she especially loved this song, and asked me to play it over and over on car rides.

Little boxes on the hillside

Little boxes made of ticky tacky

There's a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one

And they're all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same

And the people in the houses all go to the university

And they all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same

And there's doctors and there's lawyers

And business executives

And they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same 

And they all play on the golf course and drink their martini dry

And they all have pretty children and the children go to school

And the children go to summer camp

And then to the university

And they all get put in boxes, and they all come out the same 

Of course this song made me reflect on the suburbs, and the pressure to conform, and the attempt to stand out in acceptable ways (like living in different-colored houses that are otherwise identical). The version we listened to was a live recording, and you could hear the audience laughing at the lyrics. I imagined that some of that laughter was slightly uncomfortable, that some of the audience members might have recognized themselves in the lyrics, and questioned whether they were truly conformists. Perhaps they quietly rankled at the song's condescension. What was so wrong about sending your kid to summer camp and college? And who cared if their houses were all the same? A lot of these same questions were on my characters' minds. The song also, of course, made me think of John Cheever...especially the part about the golf course and the dry martinis.

Neutral Milk Hotel
"In the Aeroplane Over the Sea"

Around the time I was working on "Aether," a story about teenagers who attend an outdoor music festival, my husband and I went to see Neutral Milk Hotel perform. There were no new songs on the tour, but the old songs were even more mesmerizing in person. Afterward, we spent a lot of time listening to different renditions of those songs on YouTube; it turns out there are plenty of amateur musicians playing them out there. As it happened, we came across a video of a young guy playing "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea" at the Electric Forest music festival in Michigan, which was itself an original inspiration for "Aether." The kid is shirtless, with a vest and a little necktie, sitting on the ground with his banjo, just belting it out. At one point the videographer pans around the festival, giving a great view of the tent set-ups and the festival-goers floating from place to place. I thought of this video while writing the section about Rufus and his buddies playing music at their festival campsite.

Luis Pandero Vasquez
Ayahuasca Songs from the Peruvian Amazon

In "Aether," the character Rufus is a protégé of a modern-day shaman who appears earlier in the book. A semi-recovering drug addict, Rufus is drawn to the psychedelic elements of the indigenous healing ceremonies of the Amazon, and takes it upon himself to smuggle the ingredients for ayahuasca (a potent brew) into the music festival. To make the experience more authentic, he plays a recording of healing songs that incorporate a tribal shaking instrument called a chakapa, made of bundled leaves. Ayahuasca Songs from the Peruvian Amazon is an album of such songs, over an hour long. I didn't choose a particular track, since they all sound about the same to me—but this is the album I imagine Rufus choosing to accompany his ceremony.

[Insert Electronic Dance Music artist & track here]
I confess that I'm woefully out of the loop when it comes to current dance music. I haven't been to an outdoor music festival since the first Lolapaloozas in the '90s, or to a techno club (or what we used to call techno clubs) in almost as long. So I had to dig around when writing "Aether," to see what the kids are up to now. I watched videos of young DJs like Skrillex performing at festivals. And what I found is that, really, not much has changed. The music doesn't sound much different from what I remember, and there's the same thrill of laser lights and swelling beats and "hive-mind" dancing that I remember feeling at raves back in the day, and at clubs like Twilo. The DJs all blended together then—Autechre, Squarepusher, Richie Hawtin—and I'd never be able to choose a specific track from the past or present to include here. It's just a particular sensation I was after, like what Bethany feels in the story: "When, at last, the DJ turns a knob that causes the crabby loops to join together in a final, booming tsunami, she feels as if she could lift off the ground."

Lauren Acampora and The Wonder Garden links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book ("The Umbrella Bird")

Boston Globe review
Dallas Morning News review
Kirkus review
LitReactor review
Publishers Weekly review

Darien News 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

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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