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November 19, 2018

Marina Benjamin's Playlist for Her Memoir "Insomnia"


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.

Marina Benjamin's Insomniais more than a memoir, the book haunts with its journeys into what unsettles us in the night.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

"A svelte work of nonfiction that bridges memoir and the history of sleeplessness . . . Benjamin has written three other memoirs and she knows her way around the form, drawing out personal details and reminiscences and connecting them to a larger history of sleep and its discontents . . . She pings between mythological stories of sleepers and gods of sleep, dreamers and insomniacs, as well as cultural and literary approaches to sleeplessness. Like a night-ride through an insomniac’s mind, Benjamin’s book moves from thought to thought, driven by tangential linkages rather than logical progression . . . But the writing itself is so luminous that you hardly notice . . . It’s writing like this, effortless as a sleeping dog, that carries you through Insomnia, the kind of book for those late hours of the night, keeping you company when you’re most alone."

In her own words, here is Marina Benjamin's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Insomnia:

My memoir Insomnia is a deliberately unsettling account of an everyday condition that is no less troubling for being widespread or routine. That state of lack and desperation and longing that comes from wanting sleep and not being able to get it, and growing more and more fatigued by its evasiveness, is simply tortuous. But Insomnia is a different kind of journey into darkness, one that dares to peer into the abyss – the dark night of the soul! – and then trip lightly through the lucid experiences of being sleepless. In the book, I describe the edgy, jittery highs of night-waking, and I look beyond the horrors of insomnia to take stock of its inspirations and ambivalent gifts – especially the way sleeplessness offers lightning glimpses of profound truths that elude us by day, about life, love and creativity.

I once wrote an entire book – an earlier book – listening over and over to Mozart’s Requiem for weeks on end. But these days I prefer to write in silence, or else against a backdrop of white noise: a big bustling public library suits me just fine. If I do listen to music while writing it is as an interlude. Or as a way of pumping me up for the next section to come. My tastes are bipolar, which is to say I have a nostalgic bent that cherishes music from my youth, but since my teenager is now a budding singer-songwriter, I’ve also grown to love some of the music she listens to, even as it ricochets around the house, booming and unapologetic.

Some of the music I list here works like an earworm, especially when I’m up at night, when it goes round and round my turntable head. It is amazing to me that I retain any affection for it, really. But then insomnia is nothing if not contrary.

‘Somebody to Love’ by Queen
This track is a favourite of my teenager, who at the age of about 6, went to a fancy dress party as Freddy Mercury, dressed in a white wife-beater vest and a painted-on, cruiser-style moustache. The wand from her magic set doubled up as a mic. ‘Somebody to Love’ can keep me up at night for hours. The extraordinary thing is that when it whirls round my insomniac brain, I imagine hitting all those impossible high notes, just like Freddy did, and that is truly thrilling. But the pleasure dies all too quickly when the thumping anthem beats of the middle section bang pots and pans against my skull.

‘Born Slippy’ by Underworld
This song is emblematic of the kind of music that pumps me up – hypnotically rhythmic and yet still tuneful, and with enough of a druggy House vibe to it to really get me into the zone. Music like this makes me feel slightly reckless. Which is a good thing when it comes to writing, especially memoir, where one’s instinct to self-censor is always rather too close to the surface. I happen to really believe that in order to produce your best writing you need to find a quality of carelessness in yourself that bypasses stylistic concerns and gets to the heart of a feeling or idea.

‘Big Love’ by Fleetwood Mac
Through the months of 2017 when I was writing Insomnia against a live soundtrack, a shifting troupe of musicians shuffled across my mental landscape. As my teenagers fads changed monthly– 21 Pilots, Nothing but Thieves, Bad Sounds, Declan Mckenna – each artist took their bow. At the same time, she was rehearsing ‘Big Love’ in preparation for an important exam. This fiendishly difficult song is one that many adult guitarists find impossible to master, but through sheer bloody-mindedness my teenager became more than competent at playing it. Her efforts inspired a similar blood-minded ambition in me (I would finish my book, and it would be more than competent!) and so between us, we gave the Puritan work ethic some strenuous exercise.

‘Death of a Bachelor’ by Panic! at the Disco
There’s so much of the night in Brendan Uri’s beautiful ballad. It is lounge music, but of the best kind. It makes me think of low-lit nightclubs, satin tuxedos, tall colourful drinks, ambient whispers and melancholy flirtation (“Share one more drink with me / Smile, even though you’re sad.”). Only someone with Uri’s remarkable vocal range can sing this song. Well, maybe Harry Connick Jr could attempt it. I love the way that it somehow manages to be romantic and unsentimental, in other words, it’s prickly. Like insomnia, it also brims with longing. I actually find it painful to hear Uri sing the line ‘How can I live?’

Sleep by Max Richter
Richter’s 8-hour lullaby was something I turned to in search of an alternative to opiates and other chemical sleep aids. It’s a remarkable composition, inspired by the brain science of sleep, and its 31 ‘songs’ consist of otherworldly arias, ‘whispers’, ‘patterns’, ‘solos’, ‘constellations’ , ‘dreams’ and ‘paths’. The music is minimalist, meandering, enchanting, ambient, as it echoes back the brain’s cyclical rhythms that dip then rises again through beta and theta waves, to the deep, pulses that characterise delta waves, and back. Sometimes Sleep offered up these magnificent shimmering walls of sound, resonant but tuneless – like the soundtrack to a sci-fi flick, as wonderstruck cosmonauts drift within admiring distance of a resplendent alien or – and I could drift off happily under the music’s hypnotic spell.

‘Been Around the World’ by Lisa Stansfield and Barry White
Everyone needs a song to dance around the house to when stressed. This is mine. My musical fidget-spinner. My guilty pleasure. You don’t want to be there when I’m crooning it, believe me; and now that I’ve made my confession you can go away. I’m not saying any more about it.

‘Protection’ by Massive Attack
Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I search out music for it restful qualities. I may not nap during the day (a real sleep hygiene no-no is napping), but I will lie on the sofa and close my eyes and more often than not at those times I’ll listen to Massive Attack. 'Protection' in particular is a polished, sexy, slick track, at once dreamy and uplifting. It takes me back to more youthful days, since I was at turning point in my life when the song came out, and listening to it I re-live that dizzying feeling of choice and possibility. 'Protection' reminds me that I find thresholds exciting, and Insomnia is precisely about thresholds – between darkness and light, waking and sleeping, love and abandonment.

Marina Benjamin and Insomnia links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Evening Standard review
Kirkus review
Los Angeles Times review
NPR Books review
Spectator review

Vulture 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)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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