October 28, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
David Lida's novel One Life is a timely and suspenseful debut about Mexico and the U.S. judicial system's treatment of undocumented immigrants.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"The story succeeds as a dramatic tale of sex, drugs, alcohol, and violence, a thorough indictment of the U.S. and Mexican criminal justice systems, and a moody rumination on why we care about the lives of others."
The point of departure of my novel One Life is the employment that has been my day job for the last nine years. I'm what's called a mitigation specialist. Based in Mexico City, I work for lawyers in the U.S. who defend undocumented Mexicans, and other Latin Americans, who are charged with capital murder in stateside jails, and as such are facing the death penalty.
It's a good job for a writer. Through interviews with the accused — and their families, friends, colleagues, classmates, teachers and doctors — I put together their life stories. They're usually rife with poverty, abuse, neglect, violence and, much of the time, mental disabilities. These mitigating circumstances are an important tool for the defense to negotiate a destiny better than death with the prosecutors.
To conduct my investigations, I've traveled to some of the most dangerous parts of Mexico, and the impoverished outskirts of towns and cities in the U.S., where Latinos create makeshift communities. I've been on teams that have saved about 20 lives.
One Life tells two stories in alternating chapters — that of Richard, who has the same job as me, and combs the back roads of Mexico to find out about the past of a client. The other chapters are about that defendant, Esperanza, who is in jail in Louisiana, accused of murdering her 11-month-old baby.
Music plays a big part in the book. All the songs that I write about in this piece figure into the story. These melody lines weren't so much a conscious decision as a natural process to my writing. I always hear music — whether I am actually playing it or not. In my mind, my life has a soundtrack. Music is one of the things that saved me from a childhood that was almost as cheerless (if not as impoverished) as those of my clients.
"Mexico" by James Taylor
One of the epigraphs of the novel is a line from Taylor's song: "Oh, Mexico, I've never really been but I'd sure like to go." To me, the lyrics of this tune exemplify the way that Mexico looms in the collectively naive gringo imagination — the dream of discarding a dull U.S. existence and hightailing it to a simpler, although more exotic, paradise. It's an ironic epigraph, as the book takes the reader very deep into a Mexico that, most likely, she's never seen before — a dire one that has none of the gee-whiz romance of Taylor's words.
"A mi manera"
In the first few paragraphs of the book, the reader learns that the narrator is telling the story from beyond the grave, and that, regretfully, the last song he heard was "A Mi Manera," the Spanish-language version of "My Way." The song actually figures into the plot of the book, but if I explain why, it would spoil the surprise. Let's just say that I imagine many people would think of dying while this song was playing — in any language — as a nightmare. If I absolutely had to go this way, I'd choose the Gipsy Kings' version, which is the least offensive.
"I'll Fly Away"
A hymn from1929, "I'll Fly Away" has supposedly been recorded more than any other gospel number in history. Most versions are by white people, in country and bluegrass arrangements. In the novel, in one of the narrator's moments of relaxation, he wanders into a church in Louisiana where the choir is singing "I'll Fly Away." The version I heard in my head when I wrote the scene was the one that Glenn David Andrews recorded live at the Zion Hill Baptist Church in New Orleans in 2008. That rendition is so beautiful that it almost convinces me that death will be a welcome and blessed moment.
"Media Naranja" — Fey
This love song reached #1 in Mexico when it came out on Fey's first album in 1995. That year — and for a long while after — every single teenager in Mexico was humming or dancing to it. It's a catchy tune with sweet lyrics, but the video — which I describe in the book — represents everything I hate about Mexican pop culture, in which it is suggested that happiness is about having a lot of possessions, and the whiter your skin and bluer your eyes, the better off you are.
"Gema" — Los Dandys
From the 1940s through the 1960s, among the most popular music in Mexico were romantic ballads with unabashedly sentimental lyrics sung by trios. Two of the singers would play guitars while the third played either a requinto (a tiny guitar tuned to a higher pitch) or a guitarrón (an acoustic bass hung over the musician's neck like a big guitar). To this day, these trios, dressed in suits and ties with their hair slicked back, wander into Mexico City cantinas and entertain customers with the old repertory. "Gema" is a classic of this category from 1962, and in the book, Richard, the mitigation specialist, listens to a woman sing it while she works making juices in a small-town market. He imagines what life would be like if he married her.
"Lean on Me" — Bill Withers
Most of the characters in One Life have no one to lean on. At a key moment, this realization is brought home to Richard. I wonder how many of us have heard this classic at a vulnerable moment and felt grief-stricken at our solitude.
"Cuando Vuelvo a Tu Lado" — Eydie Gorme and Los Panchos
I used to be married to a Mexican, and when she told me that "What A Difference a Day Made," Dinah Washington's colossal hit from 1959, was originally a Mexican song, I refused to believe her. But she wasn't making it up. "Cuando Vuelvo a Tu Lado" was written by Maria Grever in 1934. The version that Richard listens to in the book was recorded in 1964, and sung by Eydie Gorme — a New Yorker who was a Sephardic Jew with a Turkish mother and a Sicilian father. But her family spoke Spanish and Ladino at home, and her Spanish pronunciation on the record is perfect. Gorme was backed up by Los Panchos, the greatest of the romantic trios, and they had such success that they recorded several albums together. Richard listens to the song in a down-and-dirty Mexico City cantina after he signs the divorce papers with his wife.
"Papa Was a Rolling Stone" — The Temptations
Most of us have had complicated relationships with our fathers. Maybe not as bad as the one that the Temps describe in the lyrics to this number, but I believe that many of us can relate to the harsher side of family life it describes. And even those who were raised in the bosom of a perfect family can get into the incredible guitar riffs.
"Cómo Te Voy a Olvidar"
A romantic cumbia recorded by a Mexico City band called Los Angeles Azules in 1996, this tune was such an enormous hit that, to this day, it sort of follows you around wherever you go in Mexico — and outside of Mexico wherever you might find any Mexicans. That's why I chose it as the song Richard hears in a Louisiana community where Esperanza has lived among other Mexicans and Hondurans.
"Midnight Train to Georgia" — Gladys Knight and the Pips
About four years ago, I worked a case where most of the investigation happened in a small town an hour east of Dallas. It was a grim situation all around. The victim was a child who hadn't quite made it to his third birthday, and the lead defense attorney was a man who refused to recognize that a brain injury he'd sustained close to thirty years earlier was interfering with his abilities to save our client's life. My optimism was sustained by a radio station out of Dallas that played soul music from the 1960s and 1970s. One afternoon, while driving east from the airport, the station played "Midnight Train to Georgia." It made me feel as if there was still hope, and tears came to my eyes.
David Lida and One Life links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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