August 19, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Anne Korkeakivi's second novel Shining Sea is an engaging and moving multi-generational epic.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"With a far-reaching plot that includes the military, the counterculture, marriage, parenthood, loss, and AIDS, and storytelling that couples pointed restraint with sweeping vision, Korkeakivi covers the not-so-shining moments of the late twentieth century. The result is a family saga that explores the lingering effects of war and the elusive emotions of peace."
My parents both started out as musicians, and as a girl growing up in New York City I dreamt of becoming a singer-songwriter although I knew from the time I was five or six--not particularly willingly, because it felt like fate and not a choice—that I would grow up to write books. As a young journalist, I found some compromise by writing music criticism. I never listen to music when I’m writing fiction, though. Its mood, context, and rhythm influence my work too much. Plus I end up listening or singing along rather than writing.
Shining Sea was the exception that proved the rule. The novel opens in 1962 and ends in 2015, leaping through time and geographically over 288 pages. Listening to the right music was very useful: it lifted me instantly into a new location or era. For a change, I wanted to be influenced by music.
"Mr. Tambourine Man," The Byrds
Shining Sea has two point-of-view characters—well, three but the first POV character dies in the opening chapter and we don’t hear from him again directly—and one of them is a beautiful, adrift boy and later man named Francis Gannon. As he struggles to make his way through life, Francis will repeatedly find its course influenced by music—sometimes in tiny and sometimes vast ways—starting with an adolescent fascination with the unique, rambling, jingle-jangling sound that Roger McGuinn and the Byrds brought to this Bob Dylan song in 1965.
The lyrics provide a good preview of what’s in store for him too:
And my hands can't feel to grip
And my toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin'
"Angel of the Morning," Merilee Rush
Merilee Rush’s 1968 mega-hit recording of Chip Taylor’s "Angel of the Morning" is all about sex outside of marriage, something towards the start of the book very much on the mind of Shining Sea's other POV character. Widowed at only 37, with four children and one on the way, Francis’s mother, Barbara Gannon, has to navigate the sexual revolution of the 1960s on her own at the same time as guiding—or trying to guide—her headstrong oldest daughter, Patty Ann. Suffice to say that things don’t always go smoothly.
As a little girl, I heard "Angel of the Morning" playing over and over on my eldest sister’s transistor radio, without understanding its meaning. Or why my mother got irritated hearing mini-me warbling the words:
Well, it was what I wanted now
And if we're victims of the night
I won't be blinded by the light.
"Everyday People," by Sly & the Family Stone
By the end of the 1960s--against the backdrop of an America at war overseas and also, ideologically, at home--Francis and his brothers and sisters have begun to take radically different directions, with Barbara trying to keep them if not together at least civil to one another. It was during this era that Sly & the Family Stone, one of the first integrated and multi-gender bands (and the female musicians in the band were not simply back-up singers), burst onto the scene in San Francisco.
Sly, in his effervescent Afro and crop tops, playing his unique blend of soul, funk, and psychedelic music, was all about individuality and mutual acceptance. In fact, the term "different strokes for different folks" is said to have originated in his song, "Everyday People":
You love me, you hate me, you know me and then
You can't figure out the bag I'm in
I am everyday people, yeah yeah.
"Freedom," Richie Havens
With the Vietnam War raging in the background, Francis experiences a moment of grace—just like thousands of other youths uneasily approaching adulthood (and conscription age) in 1969--at the Woodstock rock festival. He also discovers something unexpected about himself that will redirect his life for years to come.
Richie Havens--whom I once, memorably, heard play a tiny club in downtown NYC—also had an unexpected experience at Woodstock. He wasn’t supposed to open the festival. Nor was he supposed to play for three hours straight. But when the surge of incoming festivalgoers created traffic jams that kept his fellow artists away, the organizers asked him to step up and he did. When he ran out of songs, he began riffing on the old spiritual "Motherless Child,"producing what would become one of the festival’s most iconic performances. Havens later explained, "I think the word 'freedom' came out of my mouth because I saw it in front of me. I saw the freedom that we were looking for."
Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone
A long, long, way, way from home
"I-Feel-Like-I’m Fixin’-To-Die Rag," Country Joe & the Fish
The Woodstock song that actually appears in Shining Sea, though, is Country Joe McDonald and the Fish’s "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag." Best known as the Fish Cheer, it became an anthem for a generation of draft-aged Americans—such as Francis, his older brothers, and his best friend, Eugene. The following are also the only lyrics of a published contemporary song to appear in Shining Sea because, in a beautiful piece of synergy, Joe McDonald and his producer generously gifted me permission:
And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for?
Don't ask me I don't give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam.
"Roxanne," The Police
By the 1980s, members of the Gannon family are increasingly untethered, from each other and from their own selves. Francis, ever the most wayward, finds himself wandering Europe. At a club on a Spanish island one night, he meets a woman who sweeps him up to London, a passage that will again change the course of his life.
The Police’s tango-inspired, British-invasion dance hit, "Roxanne," is playing when they meet on that wild night. Fittingly--although you’ll have to read the book to understand why, and it’s probably not what you’d guess.
Told you once, I won't tell you again
It's a bad way
"The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry," The Corries
After a few debauched months in London, Francis flees still further northward to the tiny Hebridean island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland and home to gliding guillemots, Christian pilgrims, and old Scottish songs. Two of these ballads find a way into Shining Sea: "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" and "Molly Bawn."
As with many old songs, various versions of both exist. The most famous recordings of the former--about a mythical Scottish half-man, half-sea creature who foretells his son’s death at the hand of the future husband of his son’s entirely earthly mother--probably are the ones by the Corrs (my own favorite) and Joan Baez. But the version that appears in Shining Sea is the older, traditional one collected by Francis James Child in the late nineteenth century:
An thu sall marry a proud gunner,
An a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
An the very first schot that ere he schoots,
He’ll schoot baith my young son and me.
Which means in modern English:
And you will marry a proud soldier,
and a proud soldier I’m sure he’ll be.
And the very first shot that ever he shoots,
he’ll shoot my young son and me.
"Electric Avenue," Eddie Grant
The early ‘80s were gritty days in UK history: the Troubles, the first diagnosed case of AIDS, the iron hand of Margaret Thatcher, and lots and lots of drugs. In 1981, a few months before Francis arrives in London, race riots exploded in a depressed southern borough of the city called Brixton with many inhabitants of Caribbean descent. Eddy Grant’s hit song "Electric Avenue" is all about the suffering of Brixton, but when Francis ends up at sea literally--because this is a guy who really is adrift--he and his crewmates use its quasi-reggae beat to bring the strokes of their oars together:
Now in the street there is violence
And a lot of work to be done…
"Wynton Marsalis: The London Concert—Haydn, Hummel, L. Mozart," Wynton Marsalis
Many people associate Wynton Marsalis with jazz, but he also is an extremely accomplished classical trumpeter. In fact, in the early 1980s, he became the first musician ever to have won Grammy Awards both for jazz and classical music.
His elegant classical trumpet concertos come to have an important meaning for Barbara who, by the 1990s, is still nimble and brave but whose life has taken turns she could never have conceived of as a starry-eyed war bride. This particular recording has a bit of meaning for me too, because the copy I listened to as I worked on this latter part of the book was given to me by Marsalis himself, back when I was still regularly writing about music. Like Barbara, it is courageous and beautiful.
The very last chapters of the novel are dominated by a song of considerable importance to the story but with few words and no published melody. In fact, each time I worked on the pages where it is mentioned, both changed. That’s because, coming full circle from my childhood aspirations, I made the song up myself. And then made it up anew each time it came up in the book; its melody and words, which other than two lines are never spelled out, changing in my mind to fit the moment. I hope readers will also write and re-write it for themselves as they read the chapters where it’s mentioned, however they want to hear it.
Anne Korkeakivi and Shining Sea links:
CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for An Unexpected Guest
Literary Hub essay by the author
Laurel Zuckerman interview with the author
TIME essay by 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)
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)