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May 9, 2017

Book Notes - Barbara Browning "The Gift"

The Gift

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.

Barbara Browning's novel The Gift is a brilliant work of autofiction from one of my favorite writers.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"…an exceptionally graceful page presence: loony and profound, vulnerable and ingenuous, Barbara acts to unify the book's central concerns, giving its intellectual flights of fancy a palpable human pulse."


In her own words, here is Barbara Browning's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Gift:


The Gift opens with an anecdote about how the narrator, Barbara Andersen, began a "conceptual art project," spamming people with individually crafted ukulele cover tunes in order to conduct an experiment in "inappropriate intimacy." Her project, in fact, closely resembles my own. Around the time of the Occupy movement, I started sending my amateurish little home recordings to people in hopes of jump-starting a gift economy of purely sentimental value. One of my first victims was "Dr. Mel," a guy who was running a weight loss clinic in Winnetka, Illinois. He’d sent me some weight loss spam in a seemingly personalized message that began "Dear barbara" and ended "Love, Mel." I thought it was weird and interesting that he was larding his business spam with love, so I took it upon myself to ask him why. We had a friendly little exchange about why it might be a good idea to be indiscriminately bombarding people’s inboxes with so much affect, and he signed off one of his messages: "I wish you love." Well, that was all the encouragement I needed, so I popped him a cover of the Charles Trenet standard.

I mention a ton of other covers in the book, from Nicki Minaj and Twiztid to Burt Bacharach and Adriano Celentano. I’ll spare you my attempts at rap, horrorcore and punk screed. On some of these recordings, you can hear the fan going off on my MacBook, sorry. That was before I figured out I could rest the computer on a Ziploc bag of ice cubes. There are two duets – one with my narrator’s mom and one with her son.

"I Wish You Love" (music: Leo Chauliac, French lyric: Charles Trenet, English lyric: Albert Beach)
This one, as I said, was for Dr. Mel.

"Baby, I Love Your Way" (Peter Frampton)
This was the first cover that Barbara Andersen sent to Sami, her Indo-Prussian collaborator in Germany – ostensibly a classically trained musician with savant syndrome. He called it "sublime." She said, "hm, that would be a pretty ample definition of ‘sublime’…"

"Pierre" (Barbara)
This was the second song Barbara sent Sami, when he was having a freak-out. She thought it might calm him down.

"Les Anarchistes" (Léo Ferré)
Sami suggested she take this one on. She recorded it and then spammed David Graeber with it, for obvious reasons. He said it was "quite a nice rendition." Seriously. David Graeber really said that.

"Aishiteru, Aishitenai" (Ryuichi Sakamoto, with Leo Lynx)
That’s my narrator’s son. He suggested this one. He also suggested the Twiztid cover that I’m sparing you.

"Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast" (Jerome Leshay, Bobby Troup – after Julie London)
My narrator recorded this for her lover, Olivia.

"Ce n’est pas facile d’être vert" (Joe Raposo, version by Andrew Bird)
Kermit the Frog’s "It’s Not Easy Being Green," in French. Barbara Andersen sent this to the adorable student organizers of the Free University.

"Just the Two of Us" (Bill Withers)
I recorded this as a kind of a joke, because I like to collaborate with myself (or maybe I mean with Barbara Andersen).

"Bye Bye Blackbird" (Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon)
My narrator recorded this duet with her mother, Elaine, who was having some age-related difficulties, both physical and cognitive. Elaine found rehab pretty unbearable. "No one here can love or understand me. Oh, what hard-luck stories they all hand me." That pretty much sums it up. As the saying goes: old age is not for sissies.

"Perfect Day" (Lou Reed)
When Elaine fell and broke her pelvis, her doctor put her on morphine. That was complicated. Sami also had some issues with opiates. So did Lou Reed.

"Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole" (Martha Wainwright)
This was a request from the affect theorist Lauren Berlant. Barbara Andersen observes that the song is actually much sweeter than the title would lead you to believe.

"Daddy, Why Did You Eat My Fries?" (Rebecca Sugar)
This one’s also pretty touching. In fact, when she recorded it, my narrator had the impression that Rebecca Sugar might be a fucking genius. It could just be that my narrator was emotionally exhausted.

"Mi Fa Male" (Adriano Celentano)
Barbara Andersen says she recorded this for a "pretty theatrical person" she knew who was crazy about Celentano. The actual person in question was Jon-Jon Goulian.

"Máscara" (Rômulo Fróes)
Barbara recorded this one for another friend, the performance artist Narcissister, who always appears in a mask, although she is otherwise often entirely exposed.

"Always Half Strange" (Angel Olsen)
Andersen explains that this is a song "about persisting in believing something you know is probably only half true. I didn’t send that one to anyone."

"Psychotic Girl" (Black Keys)
Barbara records this as a joke, sort of, when her friend Abner Berg, a constitutional law scholar, seems to feel she might be suffering from psychosis. Her friend Lun-Yu Wolf, a psychotherapist, assures her she’s not.

"Verdade, uma illusão" (Carlinhos Brown, Arnaldo Antunes, Marisa Monte)
The lyric tells you that "truth" is always "an illusion, coming from the heart." Barbara recorded this in a period when she was struggling to come to terms with something like this.

"Doubt" (Wye Oak)
This one’s from the same period, but it’s pretty dark: "What I have learned of you does not assure... But I believed it then, believe it still."

"For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her" (Paul Simon)
This one isn’t from the book, but I made it for Emily Gould, who is publishing it, and if the book hadn’t found her, or if she hadn’t found it, it might have remained forever in the sock drawer of my computer.

"Gone My Love" (Pattern is Movement)
This also goes beyond the bounds of the book, but is maybe the melancholy goodbye to one of the characters. I got some of the lyrics wrong, but I left them that way because Andrew Thiboldeaux, who wrote it, said he liked the mistakes.


Barbara Browning and The Gift links:

the author's website
the book's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The Correspondence Artist
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for I'm Trying To Reach You


also at Largehearted Boy:

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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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