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February 6, 2017

Book Notes - Kelcey Parker Ervick "The Bitter Life of Bozena Nemcova"

The Bitter Life of Bozena Nemcova

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Kelcey Parker Ervick's The Bitter Life of Bozena Nemcova is an innovative and unique insight into the Czech author's life told through postcards, snippets of interviews and essays, and collage.

Danielle Dutton wrote of the book:

"Kelcey Parker Ervick's The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is a singular compendium—a handbook, a digest, an offering, a constellation in orbit around the strange bright star of nineteenth-century Czech writer Němcová. Via a series of carefully curated letters, excerpts, images, and documents, Němcová is brought to life in curious gasps. But the book is also a vivid and gripping portrait of another artist, Kelcey Parker Ervick, who, in searching for the other finds something of herself."


In his own words, here is Kelcey Parker Ervick's Book Notes music playlist for her book The Bitter Life of Bozena Nemcova:


One of my favorite activities when I travel to Prague is going to concerts, often by myself, and finding someone to sell me a cheap ticket. I write about two of the concerts in the book: Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen.

Božena Němcová loved music and dancing. She was a Czech fairy tale writer, and the first part of the book is a collage of her life, which had all sorts of reasons to be bitter, but which was also an amazing triumph of resistance to the literary and patriarchal status quo. She published the first Czech novel in 1855. Her writing celebrated Czech culture and traditions even as it exposed the small-mindedness of townspeople and their beliefs about women and work and marriage. Němcová understood these problems first-hand, having been forced into an unhappy marriage at a young age and struggling financially throughout her life.

The second part of the book is a series of postcards, written from me to her, about my language study failures, my love of Franz Kafka and Bohumil Hrabal, my divorce, and about falling in love. I recently had coffee with a Polish woman who read the book and said that in my story I become like one of Němcová's fairy tale heroines as I fall in love, in search of a happy ending. Maybe so.


"Crazy Mary," Pearl Jam

One of Božena Němcová's most famous characters is "crazy" Viktorka, a beautiful young girl who ran off with a soldier only to return to her village alone and pregnant. Later, one of the villagers sees her throw her newborn baby into the water, and for the rest of the book Viktorka wanders the woods and sings late-night lullabies at the water's edge. Němcová's portrayal of her is sympathetic and generous. Pearl Jam's song is about a similar crazy lady, and in the gorgeous crescendo, the song's speaker imagines Mary "rising up above it all." There's also the strange coincidence that both Viktorka and Mary (if I understand the lyrics right) die in a lightning storm.

Another reason for this song choice: I've been pretty obsessed with Pearl Jam since the early nineties. I write in the book about arriving in Prague for my first day of Czech language school and seeing a picture of Pearl Jam on the (now defunct) Prague Post. They were playing in concert that night. Jet-lagged and far too old for such things, I screamed and cheered throughout the whole concert. They played, as they often do, a long and awesome jam of "Crazy Mary."

"Toxika," The Plastic People of the Universe

Božena Němcová didn't have any relationships that weren't toxic, is one way to think of this song. The other is the way that The Plastic People of the Universe, a dissident Czech punk band, shaped the twentieth century revolution with their music the way Němcová shaped the 19th century revolution with writing. Inspired by Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground, the band formed shortly after the Prague Spring of 1968 came to an abrupt end with the arrival of Soviet tanks. The Plastic People were deemed a threat by Communist authorities and regularly detained, questioned, and arrested (like Němcová), inspiring Václav Havel and others to compose the protest document, Charter 77.

"Cloudy Shoes," Damien Jurado

In the early months of the new relationship that I write about, Damien Jurado played a "living room show" in my town of South Bend, Indiana. The living room in question was in an old high school converted into apartments, and we were sitting on a couch in the former deep end of the pool just a few feet from Damien Jurado.

I lead an overseas study class to Prague and Berlin, and the next summer, in 2014, Jurado had a show the week we were in Prague at Klub 007, a small underground venue that's been around since The Plastic People of the Universe formed. My colleague, a German historian, came with me to the show, and at one point she said, "I can see why you would like this." Which was a way of saying she didn't like it at all. She thought the lyrics were too weird and nonsensical, but she could see that they were a collage of sorts. After the concert, I got to talk to Jurado and told him of the South Bend concert, and he totally remembered playing in the deep end of a pool. I still have a video recording of him playing this song.

"Pulchritude," Thee More Shallows

This is the song on the book's trailer. It's also the main song for a weird German film called "The Strange Little Cat," which has very little plot, and which my partner and I watched one night. When it came time to make the book trailer, I wanted to commission someone to compose a song like this one, with the haunting strings and repetitions, so I Googled the song for reference. When the commission fell through, I decided to email the record company of the actual song. And they wrote back! And I asked to use the song, and they said yes!



"One Sunday Morning," Wilco

This song. For hours and hours as I revised and proofed this manuscript, my partner, the new love who shows up in the book, taught himself to play this song on guitar. The tone of this song is exactly how I want this book to feel.

"Born in the USA," Bruce Springsteen

You've never heard "Born in the USA" until you've heard it played by Bruce in a foreign country and sung passionately by a crowd of people who were NOT born in the USA.


Kelcey Parker Ervick and The Bitter Life of Bozena Nemcova links:

excerpt from the book (PDF link)
video trailer for the book

TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog post by the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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List of Online "Best Books of 2016" Lists

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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