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August 1, 2017

Book Notes - Kristen Iskandrian "Motherest"


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.

Kristen Iskandrian's brilliant novel Motherest is one of the year's strongest (and most moving) debuts.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"[A] stellar first and honest...Agnes's voice charms with a subtle undercurrent of humor and sarcasm making this a delightful and satisfying reading experience. Iskandrian is a writer to watch."

In her own words, here is Kristen Iskandrian's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Motherest:

It's difficult for me to listen to music with lyrics while I'm writing. I need to be able to hear my sentences very plainly, with no interference. I'm happy to write in silence, or in the midst of coffee shop ambiance provided I'm not in direct earshot of individual conversations. I love listening to classical music, Mozart and Bach and Chopin, at deafening volumes, as well as the Renaissance polyphony of composers such as William Byrd and Gregorio Allegri. This kind of music opens me, empties me, and ultimately helps transport me to the realm of concentration where it becomes possible to transcribe a fictitious person's real story.

In many ways, Agnes is a typical brooding nineteen-year-old, though she has faced more loss than many of her peers. She plays piano—some of the pieces, in fact, that I love listening to—and as a teenager in the early 1990s, is a de facto delegate for that explosive moment in popular music history. She has angst, a lot of it, and is often at odds with her impulses. It's very hard for her, because of what she's been through, to enjoy anything without imagining a grim ending for it. She's not "too cool" for music—she just won't let herself be lied to in song. Motherest actually has its own Spotify playlist, and a few of the tracks below are on it, but I consider these the deep cuts: true fans only.

"Summer Breeze," Seals and Croft
God, what is this song? Some mediocre white male domestic fantasy, with bad mixed metaphors and horrible harmonies? Yes. But: it's also about coming home and seeing someone you love waiting there, which…fits. I imagine it playing during the scene, early in the book, where Agnes and her father are standing in the carpeted mall eating caramel apples, having a tough conversation. It is, at its essence, a carpeted mall song, evoking the kind of loneliness only a carpeted mall song can—not because of any artistry on the song's part, but simply because its popularity proves that most people are terrible and have bad taste (Agnes's thoughts, not mine).

"Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want," The Smiths
Who can't relate to this song? Agnes is nothing if not filled with perpetual longing. And her brother, whom she misses intensely, turned her onto The Smiths at a tender age. Morrissey, the King of Sad, is a great musical patron saint for Agnes.

"Come As You Are," Nirvana
After Cobain dies, Agnes's college campus feels rife with boys strumming the opening chords of this song, in tribute, something she's clearly disdainful about. But. There is no denying the sexiness of those chords, the snarling romance of the lyrics, the echo of "memoria," itself an echo of Agnes's own painful memories. Also, Tea Rose, Agnes's love interest, is Nirvana's Number One A-Plus Superfanboy, so we can imagine that they did a lot of anguished making out to Nevermind.

"Sweet Sir Galahad," Joan Baez
Before Agnes knew that the girl who worked at the music library, where she often went, was named Joan, she called her Joan in her mind, because she reminded her of Joan Baez on the cover of Diamonds & Rust, an album Agnes's parents argued about. Turns out, Joan was her actual name, which seasoned her relationship with Agnes with a tiny bit of magic, right from the outset. Based loosely on her own sister's courtship story, Baez has said that "Sweet Sir Galahad" was the first song she ever wrote. It is cloyingly folksy, but I like to imagine it as a kind of love song between two great friends, Agnes and Joan, with the chorus—"here's to the dawn of their days"—a fitting tribute to Agnes's bold decision at the end of the book.

"Gin and Juice," Snoop Dogg
It's hard not to imagine this one wafting out of dorm windows in the spring. Snoop's sleepy voice is what a bong would sound like if it could rap, and name-checking not one but two brands of gin is a pretty smart way to connect with young, enthusiastic drinkers. I'm going to guess that Agnes doesn't love the rampant misogyny inherent in a lot of hip hop but also would not miss an opportunity to bounce to this.

"Mother," Tori Amos
Almost too easy, but if you were a girl in the 1990s, chances are Tori Amos was your Spiritual Mother, and if we could record Agnes's inner turmoil, it'd probably sound a lot like Amos's breathy tremolo and manic piano. Pretty much any track off of Little Earthquakes could rightfully belong on this list, but it's tough to find lyrics that apply to Agnes's existential dilemma more than "I walked into your dream / And now I've forgotten how to dream my own dream."

"Long Division," Fugazi
If you ever want to feel like you're in the final throes of teenagedom, listen to Steady Diet of Nothing. When you're writing a book about a young woman at that particularly raw, confusing juncture, it's helpful to do some Method acting, like, to see yourself popping in this tape and turning it way up and flopping down on the bed all like, whatever, MOM.

"Hunger Strike," Temple of the Dog
Is Temple of the Dog Seals and Croft for the grunge set? I don't know. All I know is that this song was everywhere, and it takes itself way too seriously, and I promise that neither Agnes nor any of her friends know what on earth "the fire's cooking" any more than they know how a breeze can blow through the jasmine in somebody's mind. This was definitely queued up at least once at the ill-fated party in Phil's basement, and I have no doubt that all the flannel-clad boys felt super deep listening to it.

"End of the Road," Boyz II Men
I'm from the Philadelphia area, and we're pretty proud of our Boyz over there. This is one of those "can't let go" songs whose smooth genericism quickly made it THE placeholder for virtually every type of goodbye: breakups, graduations, going-away parties, etc. It seems like the perfect song for Agnes as she awkwardly reunites with her high school friends, Jenny and Sadie, after their first semesters at college, changed and strange to one another.

"Lacrimosa (Requiem in D Minor)," Mozart
I love listening to this on repeat, I love the sublime drama of it, those strings a kind of sacred antecedent to the theme from Psycho (and much creepier, in my opinion). I imagine it could play at so many intervals throughout the book: Agnes as she walks home from the train station, Agnes waiting on her pregnancy test, Agnes at the doctor. It's suspenseful, and sad—literally, the word for "weeping"—and evokes the Motherest of all Mothers, Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows.

"Losing My Religion," REM
Look, I don't care that it was overplayed to the point of being in an episode of 90210: this is the song J.Alfred Prufrock would have written if he'd stopped measuring his life out with coffee spoons for two seconds, the song Agnes would write if she could just cool it with the letters for a week or so. Losing our religion is how many of us find God. Losing everything is how Agnes finds—starts to find—herself.

"The World Has Turned And Left Me Here," Weezer
The release of The Blue Album would have coincided almost exactly with the end of Agnes's first year of college. It's the perfect driving-away-from-something song; in this case, a place, a love, the sweet memory of Tea Rose who was somehow a memory even while he was real and happening in Agnes's life. Some relationships are like that—too much for the present moment to handle, they get instantly converted into exquisitely painful snapshots that you might spend an entire lifetime glimpsing with one eye.

"Miss World," Hole
Every young woman needs a song to get the lead out to, and this is Agnes's. It's bleak and sad and angry, but Courtney Love knows, somehow, how to turn those things into triumph without eradicating them or offering any solace whatsoever. It's a difficult bed to lie in, Agnes's, but lie in it she does.

Kristen Iskandrian and Motherest links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly

also at Largehearted Boy:

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