March 16, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jane Mendelsohn's novel Burning Down the House is a modern Greek tragedy, an epic that poetically spans continents.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"With gorgeous, feverishly imaginative descriptions of her tormented characters' psyches, and settings ranging from Manhattan to Istanbul to Laos, Mendelsohn, oracular, dazzling, and shocking, creates a maelstrom of tragic failings and crimes, exposing the global reach of the violent sex-trafficking underworld, and excoriating those among the 'planetary elite' who allow it to metastasize."
Burning Down the House is the story of a complicated, crazy, 21st century New York family. It's a tale of human vanity and vulnerability, a parable about survival in today's often surreal and overwhelming world. The novel has a heightened, hyper-real atmosphere and the situations and language attempt to reflect that. Each of the characters takes a different approach to life and to navigating his or her dilemma. My playlist would include a theme song, or two, for every one of the major players, each of whom I hope comes across as both extravagant and authentic, as essential and intense.
Neva: "Theme de Camille" from the film Le Mepris (Contempt, directed by Godard), music by George Delerue
Neva is in many ways the heroine of Burning Down the House. The book begins with a prologue describing her abduction from Russia as a child by human traffickers. Hers is an almost mythic, fable-like journey from the mountains to the city, from trauma to finding a way to navigate and survive the chaos and complexity of the contemporary world. The Theme from Contempt is my favorite piece of music from film. It's lush, moving, powerful and haunting.
Poppy: "Because The Night," Patti Smith (written by Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen); "Jackrabbit," San Fermin
Poppy is a precocious, romantic, heartbreaking high school senior. She’s actually an orphan adopted by Steve, her uncle, under somewhat Victorian novel circumstances. She is a child of New York City and Because the Night seems like a lot like her: glamorous, tragic, filled with color and intensity. Jackrabbit is a terrific song by the Brooklyn based indie baroque pop band San Fermin. Its energy is youthful and smart, like Poppy. Several of its lyrics, such as: "Let me tell you how the story goes.." and "All grown up but they’re just like you" and "Run for hills, run for the hills" seem as though they speak directly to or even from Poppy.
Ian: "Burning Down the House," Talking Heads; "Romeo Had Juliette," Lou Reed
Ian, a close family friend of the novel’s main characters, is a director, working on a musical adaptation of Jane Eyre set to Talking Heads music. Burning Down the House could be the theme song for the entire book. It was certainly the theme song of my college years and I have never stopped loving it. "I’m an ordinary guy" seems like a fitting phrase for Ian, an ordinary guy who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. Romeo had Juliette is such a gritty New York love song and it captures some of the darkness in Ian’s predicament. Lou Reed’s voice sounds like New York City to me.
Alix: "Gloomy Sunday," Billie Holiday; "I Lost It," Lucinda Williams
Alix is Poppy’s step-sister/cousin (as I said, it’s a complicated family). She’s best friends with Ian and like certain people she seems, at the beginning of the book, professionally unhappy. The title Gloomy Sunday says it all, and Billie Holiday’s voice brings it to gorgeous, gloomy life. I Lost It by Lucinda Williams works for Alix as she begins to make some changes, questioning choices she has made and looking for what has been missing.
Steve: "The Godfather Waltz," Nino Rota
Steve is the patriarch of the Zane family, a real-estate mogul with a domineering personality. He is also intelligent and although he is not what we would call a nice guy, he does have some moral lines he will not cross. I love this classic Godfather theme by Nino Rota. It is brooding and epic.
Felix: The Goldberg Variations, Bach; "Hummingbird," Wilco
Felix is one of Steve’s young sons. He’s preternaturally mature for his age. Wise and philosophical and beautifully kind, Felix seems to me to be made for Bach, especially The Goldberg Variations as recorded by Glenn Gould. Hummingbird is my favorite song by Wilco. The lyric "His goal in life was to be an echo" feels perfect for Felix.
Patrizia: "Heart of Glass," Blondie; "Sodade," Cesaria Evora
Patrizia, Steve’s current wife and mother of Felix and Roman, has a glassy sheen and a strangely upbeat sadness that Blondie’s classic captures. Sodade, or "Longing", by Cesaria Evora gets at what is underneath’s Patrizia’s surface. And Cesaria Evora has such a rich, soulful, generous voice.
Angel: "When September Ends," Green Day; "Hard Times," Ray Charles
Angel is Steve’s driver, and later in the book is promoted to working as a crane operator. The lyrics "The innocent can never last" and "falling from the stars" remind me of him. When September Ends feels like one of those perfect pop songs. Hard Times truly captures Angel’s plight. It’s a great song, brilliantly sung.
Jonathan: "The Room Where it Happens," Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton Soundtrack); "Sympathy for the Devil," The Rolling Stones
Jonathan is Steve’s oldest son. He lives in his father’s shadow professionally and feels shut out by Steve’s growing closeness to Neva. The Room Where it Happens captures Jonathan’s outsider, rejected sensibility, and Sympathy for the Devil needs no explanation.
Jane Mendelsohn and Burning Down the House 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
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guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)