May 6, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Leslie Parry's debut novel Church of Marvels brings turn-of-the-century New York to life in this beautifully written literary mystery.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Parry's writing is smooth and descriptive, and she imbues these misfit characters and shabby, sometimes horrifying settings with energy and depth. Beautifully written, Parry’s imaginative novel is most successful when exploring the limitations and complexities of gender and sexuality during its historical period."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
These songs are drawn from records I listened to while I was writing the book (or at least during epic, inspired spells of procrastination). I generally worked in a quiet room, without music, without distractions, but when I needed a break I'd listen to a mishmash of albums – to set the tone for a scene I was working on, to ruffle my spirit, open my ears. Sometimes I took long walks around the city (whether in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles) – listening to the wind and birds, the clang of the pedicabs, the glug-glug of a garden hose, the crinkle of my neighbor's cellophane babushka. I had played music for a long time as a kid (earnestly, poorly), grown up in a family that valued music and performance and sent many scions to the stage, and perhaps I channeled all of that unfulfilled longing into my writing. Even though the book takes place in 1895, these songs helped to create a world that felt very real and immediate to me. (Not included here: me trying to play the entire Newsies soundtrack on a broken ukulele.)
"Shape Shifter," Laura Veirs
In the novel, Isabelle (a contortionist and sword-swallower) goes by the name of the Shape Shifter onstage. While she's winsome, pretty and adored, she also has her secrets. There's something homespun and gently eerie about this song; I think of a bright day with an incongruous chill. It evokes a sense of mystery – melodic but unsettling, like church bells tolling just before a storm.
"The Old Black Hen," Songs: Ohia
I owe a lot of inspiration to Jason Molina's songwriting, especially the world he created with this album – forlorn, folkloric, yet quietly affirming. This song, "the bad luck lullaby" (with Lawrence Peters' rich, mournful voice – that rolling dark sea of a chorus) fells me every time: "Tell them that every day I lived I was trying to sing the blues the way I find them."
Sempre libera, from La Traviata, Verdi
I first saw La Traviata in eighth grade. I was a very sophisticated 13-year-old, of course – I think I wore my headgear to the opera house. My aunt took me when we were in Central City, Colorado. (I will forever remember the confluence of highbrow European culture and the rugged sweep of Gold Rush country.) I'd never been to an opera before, and I was both curious and overwhelmed. This aria (which is mentioned in the novel) is lush and twirling, almost cyclonic in its power. Despite the bright, vivacious quality – Violetta declares that hers is a life of pleasure, free from the bonds of bourgeois love – there is something that pulls at her, haunts her: Alfredo's voice, lifting passionately from the shadows, which compels her to sing louder, higher (as if to drown him out, along with her own doubt and vulnerability). I love the recording by Anna Netrebko.
"Walking Far From Home," Iron & Wine
I love the surreal, almost psychedelic nature of this song – a radiant dirge, all rhapsody and decay. It reminds me of seeing, very clearly (as one character describes it in the book) "the sublime in the mundane."
"Tall Tall Shadow," Basia Bulat
Oh, Basia! Thank you for writing this album, which articulates so much of what I've felt but didn't know how to say. "You can't run away when the shadow is yours."
"Hypericum," Gem Club
This was the score for many of Alphie's scenes – all the haunted beauty of unrequited love.
"I'm Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill," Grouper
An underwater dream. The fizzle of sea-wash, the tremor of the bass, the spectral vocals – an atmosphere I found myself returning to again and again.
"Fish and Bird," Tom Waits
My uncle died while I was writing this book. So young and vital. A brain tumor. He first noticed something was wrong when he had trouble making out the grocery list. Coffee filter became "Get Kilter" (a mordant bit of humor we turned to when things were tough). He was my father's best friend in theater school, and then he married my free-spirited aunt. A big, handsome, laughing, Paul Bunyan kind of dude. After he died I signed up for a fundraising race, and my aunt gave me this song to listen to, by his cousin Tom Waits. I think of running by the zoo, by Lake Michigan, laughing and crying while people turned their heads. I felt staggeringly homesick (literally staggering, I guess, since I nearly did a face-plant by the ice cream wagon). But I got kilter, man. I finished.
"Coney Island Baby," Lou Reed
I had a Lou Reed cassette when I first moved to New York. It's all I listened to my first few months there, boggled, alone, upside-down. Long, long walks across Manhattan, "something like a circus or a sewer." Even listening to it now, all those old senses of wonder and fear come back to me. When you've hit the bottom, when you've been betrayed, when you're on your own, it's not over. The Coney Island reference is a fitting touch, but ultimately this: the glory of love. It just might see you through.
"Rarebit Fiends," Weird Mob
Gee, how about an up-tune? Here's a great one – something that captures the whimsy and arcade-game nostalgia of my own childhood by the sea (scampering around the Santa Monica pier in a Smurfette bathing suit, playing Skee-ball until I had a ticket-strand long enough to make a boa). The song's name is taken from a surrealist comic strip by Winsor McCay, which debuted in newspapers just a few years after the events in this book. But beneath this high-spirited whirligig of a pop song, there's a thread of something otherworldly, hinting at the artifice behind the cheer: all the rarebit fiends are lost inside a dream.
"The Swimming Song," Loudon Wainwright III
A song I've come to associate with the character of Sylvan. A song I would put on whenever I felt frustrated or turned around, when I needed some levity and swing, a little ballyhoo for perseverance. And being a California girl myself, a born fish, there's something about it that evokes a sense of belonging, of home.
"Hymn to Freedom," Oscar Peterson
Oh, man. This whole album, Night Train, was essential to the writing of the book. I listened to this particular song when I first began putting words on paper. And it's the song I played (alone in my apartment, at full volume) when I finished. Wise, rambling, full-blooded. Exquisite.
Leslie Parry and Church of Marvels links:
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)
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)