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October 23, 2017

Book Notes - Joshua Max Feldman "Start Without Me"

Start Without Me

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.

Joshua Max Feldman's Start Without Me is a compelling and moving Thanksgiving novel.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"This compact, well-crafted novel, alternating between two points of view, asks the age-old question—how do you get from where you are to where you want to be?—but does so with indelible protagonists and a vision firmly anchored in the reality that surrounds them....Highly recommended."


In his own words, here is Joshua Max Feldman's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Start Without Me:



As a novelist, I spend a lot of time alone. It's the nature of the business. Other forms of writing differ—hell, a TV writer works in a room full of other writers!—but virtually all narrative fiction is created by a solitary person. It's you, alone with your memory, your imagination, your anxieties, your ambitions.

That's an atypical way to work, but it's not that an unusual experience, given modern life, given "the way we live now" (a phrase for which we really ought to have settled upon a French or even German equivalent by now). I won't dredge up the inevitable data points demonstrating that we're more isolated from one another than ever: so many hours on the Internet; so many job changes, relocations in the average career; the jarringly tiny number of neighbors that the average American knows by name or whatever. I'm confident that when I say that aloneness is a common feature of contemporary living, getting by, getting over, you'll know what I'm talking about.

It's not too surprising, then, that being alone is central to my most recent book, Start Without Me. The protagonist, Adam, is a former a musician, sober for the first time in years, and invited home for Thanksgiving. But he can't shake the feeling of being a stranger, even (or especially) among his family. So he bails on Thanksgiving, winds up in a hotel lobby, and meets Marissa, a flight attendant on a day-long layover, a woman stuck in a troubled marriage and facing the prospect of a day with her in-laws. Adam and Marissa don't become friends, exactly, but for the length of a single day, they become a salve to one another's aloneness.

It's cool to be by yourself, of course—right up to the point when you'd prefer not to be. In my humble opinion, that's one thing novels are for: to give anybody who doesn't want to feel alone a measure of companionship. And I think music plays that role, too.

So in that spirit, here is a handful of songs about being alone, being at peace with it, yearning for others, and occasionally finding them:


"God" – John Lennon

John rattles off a litany things he doesn't believe in: magic, Jesus, yoga, Hitler (?), kings, Beatles (gasp!). But he gives away the whole game when he tells us that "I just believe in me… Yoko and me." Has there ever been a less convincing declaration of independence? He can't get through the lyric without name-checking his life-partner, like he needs to remind himself she exists. And that's ultimately what makes "God" so heartbreaking: John doesn't believe in this stuff, can't believe in this stuff. But God, he wishes he did, because the thought of just him is so scary.


"Here Today" – Paul McCartney

Sorry, I know the Lennon/McCartney pairing is too pat. But this song—Paul mourning John—is so stark and heartbroken in its discussion of loss, it seems to share some quantum entanglement with "God." "Didn't understand a thing / But we could always sing": nothing made sense except the two of them together, singing. And now that's over, and Paul sings alone.


"If You Need Me" – Solomon Burke

This is what it's all about, right? The vow that begins this song, "If you need me / I want you to call me"—how much sadness and suffering could be cured by hearing these words from another person? And the way Solomon Burke sings this song, it's clear he understands a subtle truth about loneliness: Often, it's a self-inflicted wound. We need to be convinced to reach out to the people who are there for us, aching to be there for us.


"Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" – Phil Collins

Sometimes we choose solitude; sometimes solitude is thrust upon us. Most pop songs are about the latter. And here, Phil Collins wallows in the well-deserved ego trip that often follows getting dumped. It's not about me, it's you? Au contraire, THIS IS ONLY ABOUT ME. There's anthemic self-pity here, but the terror of being alone is real, too, and the doomed desperate hope that this can't be happening.


"If It Takes a Lifetime" – Jason Isbell

This is a song about starting over, all by yourself. The guy in this song has made a ton of mistakes; he doesn't like his job; he falls asleep to the TV. But he's sober, and he's determined, and despite everything, he's optimistic: "My day will come, if it takes a lifetime."


"'01: Have You Seen It in the Snow?" – The Magnetic Fields

New York has long been established as the global capital of urban walking. And in New York, nearly every walk is a solo venture. To me, the titular question in this song is one Stephin Merritt is asking himself as he strolls down a New York street in the winter. New York is frequently cold and miserable and isolating. But there's beauty if you know how to see it.


"This Is My Story, This Is My Song" – Thelonious Monk

Disclaimer: I put this on the Largehearted Boy playlist I wrote up for my last novel. Further disclaimer: In my new novel, one character plays this for another. So I love this song and the way Monk plays it. But I swear, it belongs on this list—for its bravery and simplicity and its declaration by one man on a piano: This is who I am, and this is what I have to say.


Joshua Max Feldman and Start Without Me links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The Book of Jonah


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

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