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March 20, 2018

Book Notes - Wendell Steavenson "Paris Metro"

Paris Metro

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 Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Wendell Steavenson's novel Paris Metro is a striking debut that deftly explores both the personal and political.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A very fine novel. . . . Deeply informed by the author’s experiences as a journalist but triumphantly transmuted into intelligent and heartfelt fiction."

In her own words, here is Wendell Steavenson's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Paris Metro:

Paris Metro is a story about a female Anglo-American journalist, Kit, who lives in Paris, having spent much of the decade and a half since 9/11 in the Middle East. When the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is attacked and terrorists storm the Bataclan theatre, the violence that she has reported on abroad is suddenly right on her doorstep. She must now navigate her reporting life along with her grief and being a mother to her adopted Iraqi son Little Ahmed, who is twelve years old and at the brink of adulthood. Suffice to say, she goes a bit off the rails.

I live in Paris too, up the hill in Montmartre, and every morning I go to the cafe at the end of the street to write. There is the same little band of us there most days: a group of freelance creatives, a graphic designer, a screenwriter, a photographer, the regulars, les habitués. Fred owns the cafe, Pablo is the barista who keeps us entertained with his cappuccino art: he has even managed to render a portrait of me in foam complete with bags under my eyes. The music is always good, no matter the grey drizzle outside. One morning Pablo put on the Beastie Boys. The cafe was quiet, no groups of tourists or toddlers or virulently chatting Parisiennes, and the four of us sat in a row, gazing at our laptop screens, while silently bobbing our middle-aged heads in time to You Gotta Fight. For the Right. To Party.

Kit doesn't listen to a lot of music in Paris Metro. The soundtrack to her life is gunfire, conversation and the clink of cocktail glasses. I suspect she is an ambient, accidental listener. Whatever happens to be on the radio turns into her soundtrack. A playlist, if she had one, might look a bit cobbled together from different places — reflecting her peripatetic, fractured life. It might look a bit like this:

"Set Fire to the Rain" by Adele

Adele has an extraordinary powerhouse voice and I love the overwash of sheer force and emotion that I feel — viscerally —listening to her. This song seems particularly apposite for Paris Metro because it describes the pain and beauty of the Middle East, which forms the backdrop to the story, a place where the rain can catch fire, where storms can blow up out of sand confusion, where your heart is broken over and over again. And for a Westerner, like Kit, observing and trying to make sense of, there is a feeling of she is seeing only parts and shards and odd angles; much is hidden, much is misunderstood.

There's a side to you that I never knew never knew

"Down to the River to Pray" sung by Alison Krauss

Kit is not religious, but at one point in the novel she finds herself in a monastery high in the Syrian desert. At evensong she opens a Bible, randomly scanning verses, looking for answers. Syria is on the brink of civil war, her relationship with her husband is over. She finds no solace, only descriptions of ancient battles between Hittites and Assyrians and Babylonians, as if history was just one long ongoing conflict. I would like to think though that she listens to gospel sometimes and finds hope in the warmth of its rhythms. The lyrics of "Down to the river to pray" — in particular would remind her of a miraculous heron she once glimpsed on the banks of the Tigris.

"1973" by James Blunt

Kit's father was a war reporter who has been missing — lost to drugs somewhere in South East Asia — for many years. The little she knows of him comes down from his best friends, her godfathers, Alexandre, a French diplomat and Jean, a correspondent for Le Figaro. These three originally met during the war between Israel and Egypt in Sinai in 1973 and whenever Kit hears this James Blunt song it reminds her of a nostalgia she never knew. Who is Simone? Where was this Club? What can we ever know of the lives of our parents before we were born? The faintly glamorous tone of the song captures Kit's longing to imagine for her father, a marvelous adventurous life, and along with it, a reason why he abandoned her.

"99 Problems" by Jay Z

Kit falls in love with Ahmed in Baghdad and they get married in Beirut, but cracks soon begin to appear in their relationship. Ahmed is often away and does not tell her where he has been. One day, at a crucial point in their relationship, they drive up the Lebanese coast to the town of Tripoli. Ahmed doesn't talk much, she hesitates to probe in case it provokes a reaction or an answer that she doesn't want to hear. At one point Ahmed puts on Jay Z really loud, as if he is blasting the cobwebs away from his life and drowning out the complications and horrors of his recent trip back to Baghdad. But lyrics are pretty ambiguous for a woman waiting to hear the man she loves tell her he loves her back. Kit is left to wonder: is she the bitch or the problem?

"Walk On" by U2

Kit has a mantra, when all is chaos and losing its head around her: one foot on front of the other, keep walking, walk on. It's the best way to get through a checkpoint, don't stop, don't look back, just continue forward, even if it's driving down an empty road in the middle of a war zone. It gives her a kind of doggedness, determination, a certain grit. It's a lonely song, and Kit often feels alone in the world; her mother has died, her father has disappeared, she is raising her son Little Ahmed in Paris after his father has gone back to Iraq. Over time she has had to create her own internal mechanisms for emotional survival and as a result she is prone to getting stuck inside her own head. She tends to believe — insist — that she is right. She is stubborn and refuses to listen to what her friends are telling her. In part, Kit's internal strength is one of the reasons she goes so far off the rails. She resists all kind efforts of correction.

"Let the River Run" by Carly Simon

Iraq is the land of two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, once mighty, now diminished, dammed, dry in places, clogged with garbage, putrid with blood and corpses. I first heard the Carly Simon version of this song on the soundtrack to the Great '80s movie, Working Girl, and have always had it in my head as a kind of feminist theme song. But actually its about all of us, 'your sons and daughters'. Its a song that rises joyfully, about hope and striving, 'coming through the fog,' to a brighter future: 'Let all the dreamers wake the nation!' Whenever I am asked about what I think about the Middle East, I reply: that there is always hope. Always.

"Bokra We Baedoo" sung by Abd El Halim Hafez

I can't speak Arabic, but I can sing this song. It is a popular Egyptian song from the 60s, about waiting for a date with a beloved.

Tomorrow and after tomorrow, tomorrow and after tomorrow
The one who promised me will keep his promise
It’s a matter of just tomorrow and after tomorrow

I always loved it because its chorus reminds me of the unofficial Middle East mantra 'tomorrow, day after tomorrow' beloved of officials from whom you need a stamp or some kind of permission or visa. 'Come back tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow.' Which basically means 'sometime, never-never.' Abd El Halim Hafez was an Egyptian singer and actor, one of the greats, charming debonair, suave. The Araby-cabaret tones of this song perfectly captures the spirit of the 50s and 60s when the Middle East and the West were far less culturally polarized.

"Leningrad" by Billy Joel

I was the generation of journalists who were drawn into the profession in the aftermath of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Suddenly there was a whole new world to explore that had been cut off and demonized. It turned out that Russians and Czechs and Romanians and all of the people behind the Iron Curtain were just as curious about us as we were about them. Kit also spent her early career in Moscow. (I never did reporting there, but I did write my first great unpublishable novel in a snowy garret in Moscow in the winter of 1994). I still have a great fondness for the earnest efforts of musicians to break down barriers in the 80s. At the time, when I was a teenager, I thought Sting's 'I hope the Russians Love their Children Too,' was a powerful anthem. These days it seems a bit dated, a bit mawkish. But recently I rediscovered another song from the genre, Billy Joel's Leningrad, a ballad of the Cold War, that he wrote after he toured the Soviet Union (one of the very first western artists to do so) in the late 80s. It's a song that says: huh, turns out that when we meet face to face and talk we discover we have a lot more in common than we thought.

"And the Money Kept Rolling In" from Evita

Evita is my all time favorite musical. I think its an extraordinary achievement to be able to describe from inside and outside, the mechanics and vanity of demagoguery and dictatorship. We feel for Evita, the heroine. But we see how grasping and selfish she is too even as we are beguiled by the glamour and the fashion and the high tragedy. There are lots of brilliant songs. But this one is a chorus classic, that describes how largesse and corruption can go hand in hand.

And the money kept rolling out in all directions

To the poor, to the weak, to the destitute of all complexions

Now cynics claim a little of the cash has gone astray
But that's not the point my friends

When Kit was still single and reporting from Afghanistan, Tehran and Baghdad, it would happen quite often that Michel Buble's "Home" would be playing in a lobby, or a foyer, or an airport coffee shop, and the simple yearning strains would somehow make her want to go home even thought she had no particular home in mind.

Little Ahmed, Kit's adopted Iraqi son, is twelve and still finding his way musically. He likes French rap, which his author is unfortunately not familiar with. His mother got him into Eminem, and he played Toy Soldiers to a group of kids at school and Rousse, his mother's best friend Rousse taught him an old song by Elvis Costello called Oliver's Army when he was eight. For ages he sang along enthusiastically because he thought the lyrics were about pizza: olive-salami.

When she is tired, which is often, because she is a working single mother, I imagine Kit lying down on the sofa, a little sad, because I suspect this is her default emotional setting, perhaps with a glass of calvados, which is her favorite drink because it is a little bit too strong for her and rough around the edges, and listening to Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits with its a gently soporific strumming hymnal cadence, and imagine a time when all the rebels will come down from the hills and hang up their guns and wars will be over.

And when she wants to cheer her son up, if he has had a bad day at school, or got teased, or if the news from Baghdad is bad and his father hasn’t called in a while, she puts on Motown. Their favorite song is "Ooh Child" by the Five Stairsteps, with its lullaby rhythms and its hopeful chorus 'Things are gonna be easier ... someday when the world is much brighter...'

I'm now half way through writing a second novel, and a bit stuck in the middle. The Syrian civil war is enduring another horrific and bloody phase. Sometimes, we all need to hang onto the idea that things can get better.

Wendell Steavenson and Paris Metro links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Library Journal review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Publishers Weekly review
Shelf Awareness review

New York Times profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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