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March 28, 2017

Book Notes - Hannah Lillith Assadi "Sonora"


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.

Hannah Lillith Assadi's moving and lyrical novel Sonora is an impressive debut.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"A lyrical meditation on the confusion and awe of growing up that is made beautifully strange by the desert's haunting presence . . . both typical and painfully, relatably fresh . . . Lyrical, raw, and moving."

In her own words, here is Hannah Lillith Assadi's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Sonora:

Often when writing the first draft of something, I listen to classical music or contemporary classical, sometimes the same piece over and over, as if I'm trying to emulate the melody of something absolutely transcendent inside prose. This was the case with writing Sonora and what follows is definitely not an exhaustive list of all that I listened to in the years it took me to write and edit it and edit it again. The protagonist Ahlam is a dancer and her best friend Laura is a musician and some of the songs contained here are mentioned in the pages of the novel and some of these songs inspired scenes and some are so beautiful that I owe them a fair share of gratitude for their company over the years.

"Broken Bell"—Friends of Dean Martinez

A song I listened to often and on repeat in the first thrusts of Sonora when it was just a lot of word vomit on the page. The band is from Arizona, so maybe that has something to do with it.

"Once upon a Dream"—Mary Costa, Bill Shirley

This of all the Disney tunes I heard in my childhood still haunts me. In the book Laura hums this song from the early more innocent days of the girls' friendship to the very end when things have become rather gloomy. It's a song about loving someone in a dream before knowing them in life, and hoping that in life the dream love will burn as brightly, a premise that manifests itself rather darkly in the book.

"Blue American"—Placebo

This is another song Laura sings in the backseat of a car as the girls make their way into a night that will have disastrous consequences. In my own teenage years, I remember the dawn coming up in Arizona, listening to someone sing this song as he drove us home. The lyrics crawled inside me that morning fifteen years ago and never went away: "I wrote this novel just for you, that's why it's vulgar, that's why its blue, and I say thank you…"

"Gloomy Sunday"—Rezso Seress

An urban legend surrounds this song claiming it caused dozens of suicides in the thirties in Hungary. Its composer committed suicide decades later (he survived defenestration, only to choke himself with a wire in the hospital). It has been covered broadly but the original is the one I love most. There is a chapter in Sonora I've morbidly deemed "the suicide chapter", which ends with Laura mentioning this song.

"Pictures of You"—The Cure

I could list a few Cure songs (especially from the album Disintegration) here that inspired parts of Sonora. My father introduced me to The Cure at age five and told me I would love them one day. He was right. This sequence of lyricism and anguish from Robert Smith is still so beautiful to me: Remembering/ you fallen into my arms/crying for the death of your heart/you were stone white/So delicate/ Lost in the cold/ You were always so lost in the dark/ Remembering/ You how you used to be/Slow drowned/You were angels/So much more than everything/Hold for the last time then slip away quietly/ Open my eyes/But I never see anything

Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do—Sigur Ros

This 20 minute instrumental album will forever be associated with the black Honda Civic I drove as a teenager (I still have the keys though the car is gone), my sun roof down, the windows open, the smell of the desert in my car. I used to say it reminded me of what the stars would sound like if they had a soundtrack. There is a scene in Sonora where the two girls drive into the mountains by night and an album Laura has recorded is playing which I imagined to be like this one.

"La Llorona"—Chavela Vargas

Laura sings this song throughout the book and I tried my best to write her voice something like Vargas' wild, supernatural resolution to her version when she screams (in translation): "If I have already given you life, Llorona, what else do you want? You want more?"

"Venus in Furs"—Velvet Underground

On my wildest nights that lasted far into morning, this was the song that despite feeling "tired, weary" like "I could "sleep a thousand years" still made me feel a little too sexy. I liked to imagine the girls in Sonora on their darkest nights swinging their hips to this far past when the party should have ended.

"House of the Rising Sun"—Jesse Glendon Tillers

My dear friend Jesse and I would sing her version of this song together, very, very drunk for whoever would listen on some of those nights mentioned above. We went through some shit together, some of which just may have made its way into the book, and hers is the voice that still brings back those times and can still make me cry. You may not know who she is now but one day you will.

"Kol Nidre"—Max Bruch

Laura plays this song on her cello for the narrator and it is playing in the end at their last meeting which I will not further embellish here. I am not religious but used to go to High Holiday services on Yom Kippur just to hear this performed.

"Windows"—Angel Olsen

I first heard Angel Olsen play live at Le Poisson Rouge in February 2014. I was floored by her voice as many had been before me. I listened to her album Burn Your Fire For No Witness nonstop for the next several months. Then in April that same year, a dear friend and one of the most influential people in my young life passed away suddenly. This was the song that in the few moments it lasted softened my grief because it was hard to be so sad inside something to beautiful. I had written a draft of Sonora which after that April changed to be almost unrecognizable from what it was and became more or less what it is now.

Piano Concerto No. 2, op. 18 (all three movements)—Sergei Rachmaninoff

My favorite piece of music in this universe and the next one. If anyone were to ask me what song, dance, book, film would I wish I could have made, it would be this. I've listened to this concerto while running, figuring out beginnings, endings, while writing and smoking furiously because there is nothing I could ever do that would be as good as this. I will never make something so fucking beautiful. Thankfully Rachmaninoff did. Also he died on March 28th, the birthday of Sonora, so in that minor way we are forever connected.

Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K 488, Adagio—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 

The hesitation and longing in the duet between the piano and the strings reminds me of the feeling I have when I never want a book to end, a night to end, a love affair to end, or even this list which too must end.

Hannah Lillith Assadi and Sonora links:

the author's website

Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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