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January 22, 2018

Book Notes - Thomas Mira y Lopez "The Book of Resting Places"

The Book of Resting Places

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.

The essays in Thomas Mira y Lopez's impressive collection The Book of Resting Places examines both personal grief as well as social and cultural customs dealing with the interment of the dead worldwide.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Mira y Lopez’s first book is a thoughtful, intriguing collection of 10 personal essays dealing with the dead and where they end up . . . These are wide-ranging and often tender meditations on death."

In his own words, here is Thomas Mira y Lopez's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection The Book of Resting Places:

My Morphine by Hurray for the Riff Raff

The first essay in this book is about grief and remembering my dad through the idea of Lethe, a river in the Greek underworld whose waters would cause forgetfulness in those who drank them. Lethe is characterized as a place "where dream-haunted poppies grow" and that doesn't seem too far off from "My Morphine" or the subject matter it covers. Using the Hurray for the Riff Raff version here instead of Gillian Welch's feels sacrilegious, but I like covers, particularly this cover, and how interpretations involve the reworking of a memory. The essay's also interested in unlikely or sudden deaths—falling tree branches, specifically, that have been described as a "booming" or "thunderclap". I first heard Hurray for the Riff Raff when my girlfriend and I watched them perform at a festival in southern Ohio. It started to thunderstorm during the set and lightning struck close by the stage, near enough so that Alynda Segarra, the lead singer, had to call the set and walk the band off. So that too feels appropriate. Plus, there's yodeling.

Roda Viva by Chico Buarque

Chico Buarque was one of my dad's favorite musicians. My dad, my uncle, and Chico were all born around the same time in Rio de Janeiro and they all went to school together. Or at least that's why my uncle says. This isn't the easiest song to translate, intentionally so—Chico's known for his wordplay since those lyrics would stand a better chance of making it past the censors in the Brazilian military dictatorship. And my Portuguese, at this point, is barbaric. Still, it's a song about cyclical time, or a time that turns things on its head, and so I'd like to think it's a natural fit with a book that examines what happens to the body when it dies. "Monument Valley," the second essay in this book, wonders if a ghost can somehow be the person left alive. Chico opens the song with "Tem dias que a gente se sente / como quem partiu ou morreu": in other words, he too is asking if the living can feel like the dead and departed.

Dancing in the Streets by Martha and the Vandellas

I wrote the third essay about my mom's stated desire to be buried alongside all her possessions, in the manner of Egyptian pharaohs. Her pyramid will be a Manhattan Mini Storage unit on 135th street. I was originally going to pair this with The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" but that seemed a little tawdry and obvious. So I chose a song I think my mom would like, "Dancing in the Streets," and this time not a cover but the original 1964 version by Martha and the Vandellas. This song, like Chico's, is known for having a double meaning: it's a party song and a political song. It surprised me to learn that, alongside "Walk Like an Egyptian", "Dancing in the Streets" was one of the hundreds of songs Clear Channel banned its stations from playing after 9/11. I read as well that Clear Channel—now known as iHeart Media—is close to declaring bankruptcy. I wish I had something more insightful to say here but, if that's the case, good riddance.

Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) by Old Crow Medicine Show

This song dramatizes the 1948 crash of an aircraft carrying mostly Mexican farm laborers. The passengers were traveling to an Immigration and Naturalization Service Center in California to await deportation and so newspaper reports referred to them only as deportees. While the victims' names were eventually published and a memorial established for them, they were first buried in a mass grave in a Fresno cemetery under the marker "Mexican Nationals." I thought of the song because it's similar to the subject matter in "Overburden", the book's fourth essay, which covers the exhumation and reburial of unknown bodies, many of Mexican heritage as well, in a 19th century cemetery in downtown Tucson. How do we honor the dead if we don't know their names? Or if they "are scattered like dried leaves" across the ground? Woody Guthrie wrote the original version, but I've chosen another cover, this one by Old Crow Medicine Show.

When I Paint My Masterpiece by The Band

"The Path to the Saints", the fifth essay, takes place when I lived in Rome as a study abroad student in college. The reason I ended up in Rome, for better or worse, came from listening to this song by The Band, night after night, my freshman year. The line "You can almost think that you're seeing double" seems applicable to my experience there, to the way I viewed my dad or Paolo, my study abroad host, or even the Roman catacombs. This song too is a cover, or at least Bob Dylan wrote it. And, just like "Deportee", it's got some sweet accordion; that's got to count for something.

La Citta Vecchia by Fabrizio de Andre

Paolo, my host in Rome, made me listen to a lot of Tom Waits and Fabrizio de Andre, the Italian folk singer. This is the song of de Andre's that I remember the most. I believe it's about Genoa and that it too, like Dancing in the Streets, was at one point censored. "Capricci", the sixth essay, is about the Venetian painter Canaletto's habit of substituting architecture and scenes from elsewhere in his cityscapes of Venice, a parallel to the substitutions I myself was making at the time between my dad and Paolo. So maybe it makes sense that the song doesn't take place in Venice.

Pretty Pimpin by Kurt Vile

This is another song of doublings and false identities, of not being able to recognize yourself for yourself, and so it goes along with "The Rock Shop", an essay that tells the story of a gem and mineral collector who presents very different versions of himself in different arenas. The collector lives outside Tucson and I visited his shop when I lived there. At night, I would work on these essays while a friend played The War on Drugs, Vile's band, from our backyard. My girlfriend and I were getting a drink at Hotel Congress in downtown Tucson one afternoon and the band was playing a show there that night. We didn't have tickets because we had work to do but we heard them warming up from the other room—just a few bars of Neil Young, I think—and it felt like listening in on a secret no one else knew.

No One Knows My Name by Gillian Welch

I'm blanking on how to connect the eighth essay about sunspots, Galileo, and parallax—the effect where the position of an object appears to change based on where the viewer observes it—to any song at all. So I'll just go with the one and only Gillian Welch, who got squeezed out by Hurray for the Riff Raff earlier, and this song in particular because it calls back to Deportee and anonymous or substituted lives. Oh, but it does connect, it does. Galileo exchanged letters with the Jesuit astronomer Christoph Scheiner, who disagreed with the Italian's theories about sunspots. Scheiner wanted to protect his identity and signed his letters with a pseudonym— he called himself "Apelles behind the curtain," after the apocryphal story of a Greek painter who hid and listened while his critics discussed his paintings. So you could say Galileo never knew Scheiner's name.

When I Live My Dream by David Bowie

Who else but David Bowie could stand in for an essay about cryonics, transhumanism, and the hope for a second life? "When I Live My Dream" is from David Bowie's first album, released in 1967, the same year Dr. James Bedford was cryonically frozen, the first person to have done so.

Come On Up To The House by Tom Waits

"Come down off the cross/ we can use the wood," Tom Waits sings. It's the epigraph to the book and, in a way, its epitaph. After my dad died, my mom believed his spirit resided in a tree. All I wanted to do was turn that tree into paper.

Thomas Mira y Lopez and The Book of Resting Places links:

the author's website

Full Stop review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review

Daily Tar Heel interview with the author
HuffPost interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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