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August 10, 2015

Book Notes - Jessamyn Hope "Safekeeping"


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.

Spanning seven centuries and three continents, Jessamyn Hope's novel Safekeeping is an ambitious and captivating literary debut.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"Luminous, irreverent, and ambitious....Full of romance, tragedy, betrayal, and the constant reminder that chaos is a driving force in everyone's story, Safekeeping is a wise and memorable debut by a novelist of great talent and originality."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Jessamyn Hope's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Safekeeping:

Safekeeping spans seven centuries and three continents and features an international cast of characters, making this an eclectic playlist. These songs, all alluded to in the novel, include a medieval Gregorian chant, a 2014 hip-hop hit, a swing tune, an alt-rock ballad, a communist anthem, an Arab pop song, a 90s dance number, a classical nocturne, and an Israeli folk dance.

"Children – Dream Version" by Robert Miles

Trance was extremely popular in Israel in 1994, the primary setting for the novel, so electronic beats are referenced a number of times. It was a small cheat to use this "euphoric trance" song because it actually came out in 1995. This song was so loved that year in Israel that DJs would sometimes play it three times in a row. In the following abridged excerpt, which takes place at a rave, the song goes unnamed, because the novel is in close third person and the characters wouldn’t have recognized it.

A manmade thunder rumbled inside the dome, followed by a dreamful piano riff. Everyone burst into hoots and whistles. This had to be the song of the summer, because anyone who wasn’t already dancing abandoned the cement walls and rushed for the dirt dance floor . . . An electronic sequencer built up from a low bass, getting faster and faster, and higher and higher, while everyone swayed in what looked like blissful anticipation, eyes half shut, smiling . . . The sequencer got still faster and higher until it was a solid high-pitched whistle. A distress signal. People stopped swaying and waited, waited—

Boom! The signal exploded. Boom boom boom boom boom.

"After You’ve Gone" by Turner Layton and Henry Creamer, sung by Bing Crosby

This is an important song in the book. It plays when a twenty-six-year-old drug addict from New York City remembers his grandfather, as well as when an 80-year-old kibbutznik remembers the same man back when he was her lover in the forties and an avid swing dancer. To make the recurrence of this song work, I needed a swing song with lyrics in the public domain. This was almost impossible because of the Copyright Term Extension Act, which ruled out any song not written before 1923, that is before swing dancing was even invented. In the end I found "After You’ve Gone," which was written in 1918, but popularized again by Bing Crosby in 1930. Although the crooner altered the lyrics slightly, the novel had to keep to what was written in 1918, so readers who love Bing Crosby might be left wondering why the words aren’t exactly what he sang.

In this excerpt, Franz, the man with feelings for this song, is seen through the eyes of his grandson, Adam. The last few lines were cut from the novel in the last draft, but they say something interesting about our relationship with music as we grow older.

He supposed the old man was napping; otherwise he’d be in the family room, reading a mystery novel or listening to a favorite swing tune. Mostly he listened to the old records sitting on the couch with a faraway look, but once in a while he danced with an imaginary partner, especially to Bing Crosby’s "After You’ve Gone." Swaying, eyes half closed, an invisible woman in his arms, he’d mouth, You’ll feel blue, you’ll feel sad, you’ll miss the bestest pal you’ve ever had. Adam didn’t understand why his grandfather listened to the same song year after year. For the last week his Discman had been set to replay Soul Asylum’s "Runaway Train," but he didn’t plan on listening to it over and over again for the next sixty years. He just didn’t get why people stopped paying attention to the new songs. What precipitated that?

"Runaway Train" by Soul Asylum

The previous expert already touched on this power ballad from 1993, which is referenced again later on in the book. Adam, who has travelled to Israel with the hope of making up for a past crime, is struggling to keep sober, and he relates to this song’s sentiment and lyrics: Promised myself I wouldn't weep. One more promise I couldn't keep. It seems no one can help me now. I'm in too deep, there's no way out. This time I have really led myself astray.

"The Internationale" by Pierre de Geyter and Eugène Pottier, English translation by Charles Hope Kerr

Most of the novel is set on a kibbutz in 1994, but there are flashbacks to the early years of the commune, when this socialist anthem was very popular. In one flashback to the 1930s, Ziva, a young kibbutznik can hear the other members singing the song while she prepares to have sex for the first time with her new husband. In the beginning, the kibbutz could treat sex like an unavoidable but lowly act, and this tension is highlighted in this abridged excerpt by the juxtaposition of the idealistic lyrics and the carnal expectations.

To this day, the smell of kerosene brought Ziva back to that first Shabbat, lying in the darkness [of the tent] after Dov snuffed the lamp. Outside the others sang around a campfire. No more tradition's chains shall bind us. Arise, you slaves, no more in thrall! The earth shall rise on new foundations. We have been naught, we shall be all.

Dov perched on the edge of her cot, carefully, as if he didn’t want to wake her. The awkwardness was upsetting. . . . He turned his back to her and unbuttoned his shirt. "I suppose we should undress."

Ziva unbuttoned her shorts to boisterous singing. We shall not cease, for still our strength is rising higher. For dauntless is our will, and our hearts are on fire! She laid the shorts on the floor and started undoing her shirt. Last she peeled off her underwear.

"Supermodel (You Better Work)" by RuPaul

Ulya is an ambitious émigré from the former Soviet Union determined to have a glamorous life. When the USSR allowed Jews to leave for Israel, she pretended to be one to get an exit visa, but she hopes Israel is just a stepping stone. What she wants more than anything else is to make it to Manhattan.

Ulya hurried to unlock her door. Thankfully, [her roommate] Claudette wasn’t home . . . Finding the room too quiet, she switched on the transistor radio. A crackly dance hit came through the speaker, but the happy party song only made the small sweltering kibbutz dorm seem that much farther away from the discotheques in Manhattan, or even from the one she used to go to in Mazyr.

"Heno" by Moustafa Amar

Ulya is, to put it bluntly, a bigot, and early on in the book she is heard lamenting, "How long was she going to have to live in this dusty corner of the world surrounded by Jews and Arabs?" The problem is she has fallen in love with Farid, one of the kibbutz’s Arab farmhands. In this scene she is walking though his village for the first time, unimpressed by its modest square and what sounds to her like whiny music. When she gets to his family’s house, however, she hates to admit that it's nicer than the two-room apartment in Belarus that she had shared with her parents, brother, and grandmother.

The village’s main plaza amounted to a triangle of cracked cement with two benches and an old man selling pitas from a wooden pushcart. A whiny Arab pop song wafted out of a store, its door propped open by a garbage bin holding plastic brooms. Could she and Farid have grown up in more disparate places? Mazyr’s Lenin Square was an expanse of gray cobblestones surrounded by magnificent buildings: the rose-colored theater with its centuries-old chandeliers glimmering in its windows; the yellow church topped by three golden cupolas, though its doors had been boarded all her life; and the giant gray technical college gridded by hundreds of small square windows. In the middle of the plaza, a statue of Lenin raised a black fist at the overcast sky.

"Dies Irae" by Thomas of Celano or Latino Malabranca Orsini

One chapter in the novel takes place in 1349 in the Holy Roman Empire. Later medieval Catholicism echoes in a scene set in The Cloisters of Manhattan, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to the Middle Ages, which is housed in a building constructed from five medieval abbeys brought over from Europe.

He waited inside the rib-vaulted stone foyer for the woman behind the ticket counter to finish straightening out the brochures. She had gestured at him to hold on a moment, and instead of feeling impatient, he found he was glad to wait. Now that he was here, he didn’t want this experience to pass too quickly. Out of the gift shop floated Gregorian chants, as if a choir of forty men sang among the souvenir spoons and art books. The choral music filled the airy hall, giving it both a sincere and Disneyish quality.

"Hot N*gga" by Bobby Shmurda

The last chapter in the book takes place in the summer of 2014 in New York City. In this excerpt we’re on the A train after waiting with the middle-aged character on a sweltering subway platform.

The woman next to him on the train was playing Candy Crush with the sound on. The boy on his other side listened to hip-hop, a tinny bass escaping his giant headphones. Normally he too would have been looking down at his phone or listening to an NPR podcast, but for once he had no desire. For once he felt present, not happy necessarily, but here in the moment.

"Opus 37" by Frédéric Chopin

One of the novel’s main characters is Ofir, an Israeli teenager whose dreams of becoming a great composer end when his eardrums are ruptured in a bus bombing. In this scene, he is driving Claudette, an older French Canadian woman he has a crush on, through the dark night toward the Sea of Galilee.

After still more silence and yet another cigarette, he reached for the radio and hurriedly turned the knob. A Coca-Cola commercial burst into the car: Can’t beat the real thing! Claudette watched out of the corner of her eye as he turned through the stations. She knew he hadn’t listened to his tapes or the radio since the bombing. He landed on a staticky classical-music station and massaged the knob until the piano came in clear. It was a Chopin Nocturne, one of his favorites. He sat back, clenching the steering wheel.

Despite the hearing aids, the high-pitched tinnitus, the music still translated the night for him. It isolated the moment—he and Claudette driving through this dark valley—and filled him with sad wonder, wonder for how much had to happen for this dark valley to exist and for them to be driving through it. He still felt jealous of Chopin, but he also felt him commiserating with him across the centuries. Was it possible the Nocturne moved him even more now?

"Hora Agadati" by Uriya Boskovitz and Ze’ev Havatselet

The Zionist pioneers often danced the hora, especially on the kibbutz. The circle dance, which was adapted from Romanian folk dances, spun at a much faster rate than the Hava Nagila now danced at Jewish weddings; rather than hold hands, people gripped each others shoulders to keep the circles in tact while spinning so fast feet flew off the ground. The whirlwind dances were meant to show optimism in the face of harsh conditions with lyrics like Away with grief and pain, for hope does sorrow mend. Around and round again, for the hora has no end! The "Hora Agadati," named after its choreographer Baruch Agadati, came out in 1924 and is considered the first Israeli hora. This last excerpt comes from a scene that explores cultural conflict through music, pitting the hora—a communal, asexual, self-sung dance—against a lovesick pop song meant for partner dancing.

"Ziva! Ziva! Your hands!" Dov shouted as he danced past her. She was dancing in the inner circle and had once again failed to clap her hands. She was wretched at the hora. Dov, face illuminated by the campfire, shook his head at her in mock disappointment as the dancing pulled him away.

Round and round—it was dizzying—and when she next had to clap hands, this time with a Hungarian refugee, she failed once more. A strange sound floating over their singing had distracted her. She broke from the hora and stood between the two circles listening for the source of that sound. What was it? Jazz music? Others stopped to listen too, and the hora circles slowed to a halt.

After you've gone and left me crying, after you've gone there's no denying . . .

A wind-up phonograph with a large brass horn sat atop a wooden vegetable cart, Franz grinning beside it. He had regained his health and good looks, and tonight something extra seemed to be back.

"What is this?" Ziva stamped toward him, while everyone else watched.

"It’s 'After You’ve Gone' sung by Bing Crosby. Written by Turner Layton and Henry Creamer."

Ziva marched so forcefully toward the phonograph that Franz jumped in front to protect it. Pointing at the machine behind him, she spat in German, "I mean, this thing!"

Jessamyn Hope and Safekeeping links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Boston Globe review
Globe and Mail review
Shelf Awareness review
Tablet review

Bedford + Bowery profile of the author
BookCulture interview with the author
The Sisterhood interview with the author
Writers' Digest 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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