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January 17, 2019

Marci Vogel's Playlist for Her Novella "Death and Other Holidays"

Death and Other Holidays

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.

Awarded the 2017 Miami Book Fair/de Groot Prize, Marci Vogel's novella Death and Other Holidays is a lyrical and thoughtful exploration of grief.

NPR Books wrote of the book:

"Death and Other Holidays brilliantly balances humor and anger, sorrow and beauty. Vogel’s subjects may be grief and death, but her writing reflects life as we live it, life with its many intricate, unnoticed balances."

In her own words, here is Marci Vogel's Book Notes music playlist for her novella Death and Other Holidays:

Death and Other Holidays is told through the voice of April, a young woman learning to navigate loss and love in turn-of-the-20th-century Los Angeles.

The story takes place over a year's time, from 1998 to 1999, each season propelling April forward into her own life. And while there might not be a way to stop the changes that time brings, the songs here are ones to play on repeat.

:: Spring ::

"Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" performed by Rickie Lee Jones

Death and Other Holidays begins in the spring, and it also begins with a death—an upending of usual seasonal expectations: "They say you're supposed to get this miraculous sense of renewal and promise, but it never happens that way either," observes April early in the novella.

Spring might be the narrator's namesake season, but April is also "the cruelest month," as T.S. Eliot writes in the opening lines of "The Waste Land." With lyrics by Fran Landesman, "poet laureate of lovers and losers," the song's title is actually a variation on Eliot's groundbreaking poem of the 20th century.

Rickie Lee Jones recorded this version on her 1991 album Pop Pop, which April would have listened to on CD, either driving around Los Angeles in her Honda Civic or on a boom box in her apartment.

"Your Long Journey" performed by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

Musical legend has it that Doc Watson heard his wife, Rosa Lee, singing this song one day while she was sweeping their house. He took out his guitar, and they composed it together. The original lyrics say "lone" for "long," but somehow the conflation feels exactly right, as does the lightness of the melody in bidding a heartbreaking goodbye.

Krauss and Plant recorded their duet on Raising Sand in 2007, well after the year Death and Other Holidays takes place, but it's one I listened to on repeat—frequently in tears, frequently while sweeping my own kitchen—and the intimacy of it moves me still.

Several of April's snapshots capture the love between her step-father Wilson and her mother: "After Wilson died, my mother started sleeping on his side of the bed so she wouldn't see the empty space where he used to be. He always took the left, like where your heart is inside your body, farthest from the door."

It's a song I imagine April's mother singing off camera, maybe to Wilson, or maybe to console her desolate grief. Even in imagined scenarios, this song's brilliance is the way it so simply conveys the tremendous courage of sending off those we can't imagine living without.

"The Circle Game" written and performed by Joni Mitchell [with The LA Express]

This is a song April probably sang as a child, maybe in a now fire-devastated Malibu camp; more likely, at Camp Hollywoodland, located between the Golden State and Hollywood Freeways, and a stone's throw from where Joni Mitchell recorded it live at the Universal Ampitheatre in 1974. April might not have known she was singing the lyrics of an icon, but likely she could feel their emotional wisdom.

Years later, stuck in traffic, April might pop Miles of Aisles into the Civic's CD player and listen to Mitchell recount a story about the bewildering difference between painting and singing the same song over and over: No one ever said to van Gogh, "Paint 'A Starry Night' again, man."

I like to imagine April, bumper to bumper, belting out this tune from her childhood at Mitchell's gentle insistence: Let's sing this song together, okay.? This song doesn't sound good with one lonely voice. . . . It was made for out-of-tune singing, this song.

:: Summer ::

"Trouble Me" written and performed by Natalie Merchant [with 10,000 Maniacs]

Recorded on Blind Man's Zoo with vocals by Natalie Merchant, then about the same age as April, "Trouble Me" has always felt a natural response to the earlier—and bravely candid—single, "Like the Weather." Released in the 1980s, both songs speak to depression in a way I'd never heard before, neither romanticizing nor dramatizing, simply offering an honest depiction of the paralyzing fog that steals right in beside sufferers, this four-poster dull torpor, pulling downward.

A survivor of suicide loss, April is mourning not only the untimely cancer death of Wilson—"an accident of cells"—, but of her equally adored father, who took his own life when April was a teenager: "I used to say heart attack, but after I heard about aneurysms, I started using that, it sounded so plausible."

I've written before about my own father's suicide under watch in a VA hospital, but it's worth noting that the Reagan-era repeal of The Mental Health Systems Act continues to resound in ways that abandon our most vulnerable. What I so appreciate about Merchant's "Trouble Me" is that it speaks to the power of simple kindness. A song—or for that matter, a novella—might not be able the solve the systemic breakdown of social safety nets, but a compassionate shoulder can make a quietly powerful difference: "Libby's measure of truth can be exacting, but once she's a friend, it's forever."

"Learning to Fly" written and performed by Tom Petty [with Jeff Lynne] and the Heartbreakers

Death and Other Holidays is a Los Angeles story, and if ever a city had a patron lyricist, it would be Petty, who lived in the San Fernando Valley of April's childhood. The music video for "Learning to Fly" traces another coming-of-age tale and begins with a midcentury Buick taking off in the desert (which Los Angeles would be if not for our stolen water, but that's another story—see Robert Towne's Chinatown).

I love the way the song merges the real and fantastic, quotidian and dramatic, narrative and image. It's a quintessential Los Angeles ballad in a landscape of gutted-out airplanes beached in the middle of nowhere, a little like the LAPD holding yard where April and Victor drive to retrieve Victor's truck after it's been stolen: "Off the new Century Freeway . . . nothing but gas plants and used auto-parts shops, down a narrow pitted driveway to a chain-link fence topped with circles of barbed wire. The place is a dirt lot filled with cars in various stages of disrepair—no tires, hoods missing, engines gone."

It seems an unlikely setting for any kind of flying, but it's where April will see "the lights of the planes blink in the end-of-winter darkness" as they take off and land with equal aplomb at nearby LAX.

As the song goes, rocks might melt and the sea may burn, but the story ends with Petty's whistled chirp flying out over the ruins, and the couple that survives flames.

"The Only One" performed by Roy Orbison

Along with grieving Wilson's death, April endures her share of romantic heartbreak, and the legendary Orbison, whom Bruce Springsteen described as a "true master of the romantic apocalypse" would have been a steady voice tucked into the glove box of any of her cars.

This song, written by Orbison's son Wesley, appears on the posthumously released, Mystery Girl, and in all honesty, it's nearly impossible to choose only one from the preternaturally cool Orbison, who—as Richard Sassoon wrote in the liner notes—"sang about the great mystery, the only one that matters, the mystery of love where there is no solution, there is only eternal hope."

As any heartbreak can tell you, though, it never feels hopeful at the time, and despite the song's title, this particular flavor of pain seems in perfect company with April's tragicomic sensibility: You bite the bullet then you chew it / Tie a knot at the end of your rope / Buy a book to help you cope . . .

I imagine April listening to this track (#8, not that I've listened to it a million times on repeat) on her drive back from Libby and Hugo's Fourth of July party, which she leaves early after being stood up by the ever-unreliable Motorcycle Man. It's only later that she notices the brightness that was there all along, "sitting over the pool—cross-legged atop the diving board—Hugo's cousin, Victor, in a halo of sparklers."

:: Fall ::

"Just the Motion" performed by David Byrne

Earthquakes are part of the physical and emotional landscape of California, and seismic waves play a starring role in the love story between April and Victor. "Around four in the morning, the earth started shaking. I ran naked to the doorway, crouched down, and covered my head with my hands. My organs felt as if they were swishing inside my body." April's best friend, Libby, sends Victor to inspect April's Mar Vista apartment, a midcentury dingbat famous for star-shaped stucco embellishments and a tendency to soft story collapse in an earthquake.

Written by the inimitable Richard Thompson, David Byrne's luminous cover appears on the 1994 tribute album Beat the Retreat. I love how this song's motion becomes lullaby, how the drum finale surrenders to convey a sense of what it is to plunge straight into the eye of a whirlpool and emerge the other side of the hemisphere.

"Salty Dog Blues" performed by Mississippi John Hurt

As the seasons turn, Libby advises April to get a dog as a way of meeting a partner capable of commitment: "She say's it's a reliable means of assessment, walking a dog."

Of course, just as he does with damage assessment and driving, Victor also passes the dog test, having once rescued a young chocolate Lab-mix off the street "[l]ong before me. Long before any woman. Any girl, even. It was boys only for a long time, and they didn't mind, those boys."

A folk song dating from the early 1900s, "Salty Dog Blues" has made its way into just about every American musical vernacular, from Johnny Cash to Cat Power, lyrics shifting to suit. Clara Smith recorded a version in the 20s, but it's rare to hear a woman's voice accompany the music, and the term salty dog can slip quickly from favored-one to sexual come-on with varying degrees of innuendo.

Indeed, Victor and his now-aged dog, Argos, spend much of their time in a none-too-clean woodshop, where "[e]verything was dirty, dangerous, or noisy, and it all smelled of slightly damp brown fur." Naturally, they would have listened to this playfully sly Mississippi John Hurt version. And what creature—human or canine—could resist that?

"Moon River" performed by Audrey Hepburn

Born in Hollywood and written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, "Moon River" was originally performed by Audrey Hepburn playing the role of Holly Golightly in the film version of Truman Capote's 1957 novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Capote is said to have wanted Marilyn Monroe to play Holly (and the film suffers mightily from an ugly and very dated portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi), but the song won an Academy Award and two Grammys, and the scene where Hepburn strums it out on a lone guitar begins with the clickety-clack of a red typewriter (thought to be a 1960 or 61 Smith-Corona Galaxie) tapping out words to a story called "My Friend": There was once a very lovely, very frightened girl. She lived alone except for a nameless cat.

The camera pans to Hepburn as Holly, framed in an open window, towel-wrapped hair, consoling herself with the sound of her own voice, a luminous solitary.

The depiction might be said to be the start of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, but Capote's Holly disappears into her own legend, signing only Mille tendresse on a postcard with no forwarding address, and leaving the narrator she called Fred (after her adored brother) to locate the jettisoned cat, who arrives, finally, somewhere he belonged.

Re-reading the end of Capote's novella (which I still have, thanks to a customer who knew I couldn't afford it during the days when I worked at the much-missed Dutton's Books on Laurel Canyon Boulevard), I'm struck by a phrase I must have stolen for Death and Other Holidays. Certainly, I lifted Holly's name for the title. But the two words that capture my attention here are voiced from the back seat of a limousine. The car in Holidays isn't anywhere near as elegant, but in both novellas, the scene is the same: A couple is seated inside a car that has stopped, and one of the pair says, Let's go.

It's the song on the radio that continues: Life's just around the bend, my friend / Moon River and me

:: Winter ::

"Here Comes the Sun" performed by Nina Simone

As with the first section of Death and Other Holidays, the last ends with an atmospheric inversion—in this case the sun, or at least its warmth. On cold winter nights, April follows the heat of Victor's body in bed "until he's on the edge about to fall off." He likens April to "one of those heliotropic plants, a sunflower or black-eyed Susan. We saw a stand of them last time we went hiking in Solstice Canyon."

April's favorite Beatle, George Harrison, wrote the song, but I'm certain she'd agree with her inventor that this extraordinary cover by the legendary Nina Simone conveys exactly the right note of sunlight—just in time to turn around the darkest day of the year.

"My Funny Valentine" performed by Miles Davis

Originally written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for the 1937 musical, Babes in Arms, this is a song April and Libby likely heard playing from their parents' stereo turntables, maybe crooned out by Frank Sinatra, or the incomparable classic by Ella Fitzgerald.

April's father would have had the 1964 Miles Davis In Concert album, and I imagine her enveloped by those gorgeous notes wafting up from the window of her studio musician neighbor: "I put the kettle on the fire, sprinkled yeast over lukewarm water. I opened the window to hear my neighbor practicing. The steam whistled, the yeast foamed, the trumpet blew."

Late in the novella, those notes return over a shared box of valentine chocolates: "Even when we still lived in the same house, my father always sent my valentine through the mail. He knew I loved receiving letters, and finding his card in the box was like a secret conspiracy between us, as if we didn't know each other and someone in the outside world was sending me messages from afar."

Maybe this is what music does—maybe any work of art, especially those favorite imperfect ones—send us messages from afar.

"La Mer [Beyond the Sea]" performed by Django Reinhardt

This timeless French chanson was penned during World War II by Charles Trenet, with English lyrics written later by Jack Lawrence. Wildly popular in its era, the song remains alive in the 21st century with over 4,000 recordings in different languages.

Django Reinhardt's guitar version allows for the imagination of the untranslatable. I could listen to it all day—in every season, for years on end. So could April and Victor, I think, "though the air and into the Pacific, where the water washes over us until, finally, we are swimming with the striped fish in the deep blue ocean."

:: Holiday Bonus Tracks ::

And in no particular seasonal order, a year's worth of last-century music for raucous festivities, all manner of friendsgivings, mash-up family celebrations, and miscellaneous other holidays, personal and communal:

1. "Linus and Lucy" by the Vince Guaraldi Trio
2. "1999" by Prince
3. "Auld Lang Syne" performed by The Pogues
4. "This Is Halloween" by Danny Elfman
5. "Celebration" by Kool & the Gang
6. "We Are Family" performed by Sister Sledge; written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards
7. "The Hanukkah Song" by Adam Sandler
8. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" performed by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole; written by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen; George Douglas, George David Weiss, and Bob Thiele
9. "Manic Monday" performed by the Bangles; written by Prince Rogers Nelson
10. "My Favorite Things" performed by John Coltrane; written by Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers
11. "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" performed by Thurl Ravenscroft; written by Theodor "Dr. Suess" Geisel and Albert Hague
12. "Waters of March/Águas de Março" by Antonio Carlos Jobim, performed with Elis Regina

Marci Vogel and Death and Other Holidays links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Full Stop review
Kirkus review
NPR Books review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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