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January 31, 2018

Book Notes - Xhenet Aliu "Brass"


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.

Xhenet Aliu's impressive debut novel Brass is a resonating story of the connection between a mother and and daughter and their struggles to achieve the American dream.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"This glimmering debut novel reflects on mother-daughter connections, abandonment and resilience, and dreams that endure despite the odds."

In her own words, here is Xhenet Aliu's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Brass:

I currently reside in Athens, Georgia, a place whose music scene put this little city on my radar long before I ever knew I'd end up living here. I hardly need to mention the artists and bands that have come out of Athens, but I will, because I somehow feel like I've acquired bragging rights just by being proxy to it: the B-52s, REM, Pylon, Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power, Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal, Danger Mouse, and my personal favorite, Vic Chesnutt. There are more, but I run the risk of sounding insufferable if I go on.

But my novel, Brass, is populated by blue-collar workers and immigrants living in Waterbury, Connecticut, both in the mid-'90s and today, and I promise you they wouldn't know what to make of Vic Chesnutt's off-key warble when he sings about settling down on a hurt as big as Robert Mitchum. Waterbury is the land of classic rock, '90s hip-hop and R&B, and Albanian-flavored Europop. Since the novel alternates between two narratives, I thought I'd give each heroine her own side. About half of these songs and/or artists are specifically mentioned in the novel; the other half are in the subtext:

Side One: Elsie

The Stroke - Billy Squier

Elsie compares Billy Squier's voice to a red-lining Pontiac Fiero, but even she can't deny that nasty guitar tone and slick—almost greasy—overall feel. Publicly she'd make fun of it, but when nobody's around she'd roll up the car windows and crank it up to full volume. She's a lot like her author in this.

How Many More Times - Led Zeppelin

Some people listen to dolphin sounds at night in bed. Elsie listens to Led Zeppelin. Loaded in her trusted Walkman is a dubbed copy of Led Zeppelin I on a Maxell cassette that's starting to warp with overuse; her favorite is How Many More Times, because it's eerie in that weird, pleasurable way, and because John Paul and Bonham really slap it around in the last two minutes.

Lovergirl - Teena Marie

Yes, Elsie's narrative takes place in the '90s, and Lovergirl is 80s incarnate. But the mini in-booth jukeboxes at the Betsy Ross Diner, where Elsie works, are a little crusty. There's a lot of Phil Collins, Duran Duran, and Frank Sinatra in there. Then there's Teena Marie. Sometimes, when Bashkim's acting particularly distant, Elsie fantasizes that she's got Teena Marie's vocal chops and she can seduce him back to her through song. Not just any song: Lovergirl.

This is How We Do It - Montell Jordan

Every east coast house party in the 1990s was blasting west coast R&B, and this was the song that got everybody to drop their Zima and get on the floor, which in most cases was a basement with exposed pipes and polyester throw rugs from Joey'z Shopping Spree. Elsie doesn't get invited to parties, which is fine because she doesn't want to be at those stupid parties with those stupid songs anyway. But she can't help but bop along to Montel Jordan just a little when she hears this song at CVS, and she's pretty sure she could do an okay job with it at one of those stupid parties if someone would give her a stupid chance.

Back on the Chain Gang - The Pretenders


Side Two: Luljeta

Landslide - Stevie Nicks

Find me a teenage girl with father issues who hasn't open wept at this song and I'll find you … well, it doesn't matter, because you won't find that girl. This one's for you, Daddy.

C.R.E.A.M. - Wu Tang Clan

Wait, why are we back in the '90s when Luljeta's chapters take place in the 2010s? Ahmet, the sweet young Kosovar man accompanying Luljeta on her road trip from Connecticut to Houston, is still playing catch-up on American hip-hop. He's doing a pretty good job with the classics, though. Plus, cash rules everything around the characters in this book, as it does with most people who don't have it.

AK47 - Noizy

Noizy, née Rigers Rajku, is a contemporary Albanian-born, London-based rapper. This is who Ahmet is up-to-date on. Noizy raps in both Albanian (Shqip) and English, aka Shqiplish—typical for first- and second-generation immigrant youth.

Te Ka Lali Shpirt - Silva Gunbardhi

This is another one off of Ahmet's Spotify account, and if this is about as Eurovision-flavored as Albanian pop gets. I'll be honest, I can't even translate the title correctly—it's got something to do with having the spirit or the soul, but I don't know who or what Lali is. What I do know is that that this song sounds like the Balkans: part European, part Ottoman, 1000% Ibiza.

Unfucktheworld - Angel Olsen

So this might seem a little too cool-kid for a girl from Waterbury, Connecticut, but Luljeta's got aspirations, and she's desperate to get invited to the cool-kid world outside of her hometown. I imagine Luljeta stumbled on this on some Internet forum and felt, like many of us do when listening to Angel Olsen, that it was written just for her.

Xhenet Aliu and Brass links:

the author's website

Entertainment Weekly review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review

Deborah Kalb interview with the author
TK podcast interview with the author
WNPR interview with the author

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

Largehearted Boy's 2017 Summer Reading Suggestions

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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guest book reviews
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