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November 15, 2017

Book Notes - Jessica Keener "Strangers in Budapest"

Strangers in Budapest

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.

Jessica Keener's Strangers in Budapest is a lyrical and captivating literary thriller.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Keener immerses the reader in Budapest's postcommunist period in all its tumultuous glory. As the Gordons get in over their heads in their new city, the author combines strong characters and a riveting plot to craft a memorable novel."


In her own words, here is Jessica Keener's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Strangers in Budapest:



Much like the main character, Annie Gordon, in Strangers in Budapest, I lived in Budapest for a year in the mid-1990s with my husband and infant son. It was a fascinating time to be there. The Russians had left Hungary after occupying it for 50 years. In the wake of this major cultural shift, Budapest was riding on an influx of new ideas, people, and ways of doing things. Americans and Europeans were pouring in, seeking opportunities to make fast money. Everyone was charmed by the city’s decrepit quaintness and potential. Yet, it was impossible not to experience the restless undercurrent of the country’s dark, convoluted past. All the characters in the novel are restless too, struggling with unresolved questions.

Running through the middle of the city (and my novel) the Danube is a constant presence that serves as a reflective symbol of both nightmares and dreams. It also sets the stage for my story in the opening paragraph: But, like all things in this city, the river that glittered at night concealed a darker surface under the day’s harsh sun.

In assembling this playlist, the iconic Talking Heads song, “Take Me To the River” (written by Al Green and Teenie Hodges) became the obvious first choice to lead things off.

Talking Heads - “Take Me to the River” refers to the scene in the opening chapter, where Annie and Will Gordon are crossing a bridge over the Danube in Budapest. On a mission to fulfill a neighbor’s urgent and unsettling request, they have no clue that they are about to walk into a nest of terrible trouble.

“Magical Mystery Tour” by the Beatles, mixes glitter and fantasy with a dash of uneasiness. In the novel, Annie tries to stay upbeat and positive. Living as an expat in Budapest, she is captured by the sparkle of the city’s visual beauty. Yet, the city is foreign and mysterious, which heightens her feeling of “otherness” and of being untethered and in danger of floating away.

“Budapest” by George Ezra – This upbeat pop song mirrors the culture’s whimsical side. Hungarians have a light and subversive sense of humor. As the song says, Budapest is a hidden treasure. There is much to discover in its alleyways, corner markets, and wide boulevards.

Liszt piano concerto no. 1 in e flat – played by virtuoso pianist Martha Argerich, and written by the famous Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt, is a tempestuous, moody, delicate, and theatrical work. I chose this to reveal the temperament of Annie’s relationship with Edward Weiss, an elderly and ailing American who has come to Budapest to find the man he believes murdered his daughter.

“The Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers is a pounding rock instrumental that pairs perfectly with Edward Weiss’s personality. Edward is in his seventies who spends much of his day lashing himself with self-loathing, regret, and rage about his daughter’s untimely death.

“Can’t Find My Way Home” sung by Bonnie Raitt (written by Steve Winwood) is a good accompaniment to Annie’s own muddled journey to find her center and emotional home. Drawn to helping others, her biggest challenge is helping herself discover what she has been avoiding and running from.

“Walk the Dog & Light the Light” by Laura Nyro is an uptempo song about everyday life, about living and loving, and hoping, which is what Annie and Will are trying to do with their own unsettled lives in a foreign country. Even though Annie feels estranged in a strange land, she is still part of the stream of humanity filling Budapest’s crowded sidewalks and streets. I also picked this song to honor one of the greatest songwriters and singers of the 20th century—whose musical intelligence and heart embraces every aspect of life and rises above the confines of any country.

“Willows” by Vanessa Carlton (from her Liberman album) has a line in it that says: “But memories they don’t stay behind us.” For Annie and all the main characters in the novel, as well as Budapest, the past intrudes into the present. Budapest is scarred by its historic failures, including the decimation of 800,000 Jews during WW2. Annie is unable to ignore the memory flashes of a tragic childhood accident.

“White Rabbit” sung by Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane points to the novel’s underlying questions about reality. At the center of Strangers in Budapest is Annie’s pursuit to learn what is or isn’t true. Who is or isn’t lying? And to discern how her emotions and fears may or may not be distorting her perceptions of reality.

“The Creator Has A Master Plan” written by and featuring Pharoah Sanders, jazz saxophonist extraordinaire, underscores my own belief that life’s confusions and conflicts, its cross currents of emotional and spiritual ambiguities can coalesce into something universally forgiving and loving. For Annie, this means searching for higher meaning for herself and others, despite tragedy and loss.


Jessica Keener and Strangers in Budapest links:

the author's website

Publishers Weekly review

HuffPost interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Night Swim
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Women in Bed


also at Largehearted Boy:

Support the Largehearted Boy website

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

Largehearted Boy's 2017 Summer Reading Suggestions

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