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August 27, 2018

Frances de Pontes Peebles's Playlist for Her Novel "The Air You Breathe"

The Air You Breathe

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

Frances de Pontes Peebles' epic novel The Air You Breathe is a lyrical and moving book of friendship and samba.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Samba music and its allure beats beneath this winding and sinuous tale of ambition, memory, and identity…Peebles' detailed and atmospheric story is cinematic in scope, panoramic in view, and lyrical in tone."

In her own words, here is Frances de Pontes Peebles' Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Air You Breathe:

1) Esta Melodia, Marisa Monte with Velha Guarda da Portela, Cor de Rosa e Carvão, 2005

This is one of my favorite sambas. The beat is peppy but the lyrics are bittersweet. Like the best sambas, it is a celebration of melancholy. The singer remembers the woman she loves, who left her. She sings: “Since the day she went away/ I keep this song in my memory.” Marisa Monte’s voice is so crisp and melodious. When I wrote The Air You Breathe, I imagined Graça’s voice this way. I imagined the Blue Moon Band singing and playing together, celebrating life’s contradictions, which this samba so beautifully articulates. (The YouTube video is pretty great, too.)

2) All I Ask, Adele, 25, 2015

Saudade is a word in Portuguese that’s hard to translate. It means feeling nostalgia and longing, sadness and appreciation all at once. The book’s narrator, Dores, is the last living member of the Blue Moon Band. She feels a deep saudade for all she’s lost. This song has that kind of longing. The singer is deeply vulnerable. You can feel the regret in her voice. I think it illustrates the book’s main relationship beautifully.

3) Nothing Can Change This Love, Otis Redding, Love Songs, 1998

I listened to a lot of Otis Redding while writing this book. His voice feels thick, gravelly, and rutted with sadness and desire. But there’s playfulness, too. He’s got flirtatiousness in his voice, which I love. In this particular song, he chuckles and tells his lover that she can be his “cake and ice cream.” It’s a mischievous moment in an otherwise serious ballad.

4) As Águas de Março, Elis Regina and Antônio Carlos Jobim, Elis and Tom, 1974

This song is a great duet. You can hear them having fun together. Elis even stifles a laugh at one point. Late in the book, Dores and Vinicius form their own band called Sal e Pimenta. I imagined them singing together like Elis and Tom. While writing the book I kept coming back to this song because it is hopeful. I think the characters of Dores and Vinicius love each other as artists (as opposed to a typical romantic connection). They give each other the strength to keep creating. They save each other through their art.

5) Preciso me Encontrar, Cartola, Cartola, 1976

This is a classic samba by one of its greatest composers. Cartola is the epitome of the 1930’s sambista. He made samba what it is today. I love how the guitar and clarinet introduction sounds almost menacing. The two instruments have a dialogue with each other, giving the intro a feeling of foreboding. They tell us: something, or someone, is coming. Then the cuíca whines and the percussion rattles and we get a more traditional samba sound. Cartola immediately tells the listener to leave him alone, to let him be. It’s the story of a man who needs his space, who needs time to understand his life. There’s a scene in the book where Dores feels this way, and she walks alone in the middle of the night. I imagine her composing a samba like this one, with lyrics that are simple but poetic.

Let me go,
I need to take a walk.
I’m going to wander,
To laugh so I don’t cry.

I want to see the sun rise,
See the waters rush through the river,
Hear the birds sing.
I want to be born.
I want to live.

*Translation here is my own.

6) Disseram Que Voltei Americanizada, Carmen Miranda, Carmen Miranda

This was Carmen Miranda’s response to Brazilian critics who said she’d become Americanized during her time in Hollywood. She returned to Brazil to play a concert and the crowd was very chilly, almost cruel in their response to her. Miranda later released this song to assert her Brazilianness (which is interesting because she is originally from Portugal). This song is much less cheerful than her other sambas. It is Miranda chastising her critics. This episode in Miranda’s life inspired a pivotal scene in my book, as well as an original samba called “Turned Into a Gringa,” in homage to Miranda.

7) Cranes in the Sky, Solange, A Seat At The Table

This song has an exquisite dreaminess and sadness. The lyrics tell us that the singer feels a deep loss that she desperately tries to escape by any means: sex, moving, shopping, dancing, running, traveling, breaking up, writing, crying, and on and on. But she cannot escape because the sadness is within her. It follows her wherever she goes. Both women in the book—Dores and Graça—attempt such escapes from themselves, from their voracious ambition and the emptiness it creates within them. Both find solace in each other, and in music.

8) The Chain, Fleetwood Mac, Rumours

I listened to the Rumours album quite a bit when I was writing the Hollywood portion of my novel. I think because the album chronicles a turbulent time for Fleetwood Mac as a band, dealing with arguments, affairs, and the pressures of success. This particular song speaks to a time when my book’s fictional Blue Moon Band is bound by affection and loyalty (which are good “chains,”) but also weighed down by other chains: money, ambition, prejudice, jealousy, and humiliation.

9) Volver, Volver, Chavela Vargas, Chavela at Carnegie Hall Live

I modeled some aspects of Dores (my book’s narrator) on Chavela Vargas. Vargas was an amazing singer who disappeared from the spotlight for decades because of alcoholism. Then she recovered and returned, finding fans who appreciated her again. I love this album because Chavela Vargas plays live at Carnegie Hall, and you can hear the crowd singing with her, celebrating her. This song in particular is such a passionate plea about returning to a lost lover. Chavela Vargas’s gritty, gravelly voice hides no emotion. I just love it, and her.

Frances de Pontes Peebles and The Air You Breathe links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Kirkus review
Lambda Literary review
Publishers Weekly review

Miami New Times profile of 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)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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