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April 12, 2019

Jessica Handler's Playlist for Her Novel "The Magnetic Girl"

The Magnetic Girl

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.

Jessica Handler's debut novel, The Magnetic Girl, is a vivid and compassionate coming-of-age story.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Handler captures the ambivalence of female adolescence, where the newfound ability to captivate others exists in unsteady balance with the fear of loss of independence. A thoroughly fresh historical novel that both captures the essence of its time and echoes challenges that still exist today."

In her own words, here is Jessica Handler's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Magnetic Girl:

The Magnetic Girl is a novel that takes place in late nineteenth century America, when the new science of electricity was viewed with suspicion and sometimes conflated with the faux sciences of Mesmerism and Spiritualism. Writing the book was a wonderful dive into what Greil Marcus has called “old weird America.” Marcus was referring to music, specifically the genesis of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, but his phrase guided me into a frame of mind through which I considered vaudeville, hoaxes, women’s lives, and the great changes looming in the twentieth century. This allowed me a prismatic take on what I knew from my own past about being a precocious and awkward teenaged girl.

The first selection is “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” written by Sam Phillips and performed by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their 2007 album, Raising Sand. While this is about the great Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the song evoked both mysticism and a desire to be deeply understood by someone you don’t yet know, whom you fear may not exist at all. The lyric “strange things are happening,” sung by Krauss in such a dream-stricken voice, seemed to me how my character, Lulu Hurst, might have felt as she discovered her power.

While we’re on the subject of dreamy world-building, “Appalachia Waltz,” from the Mark O’Connor, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer album of the same name, set my mood most writing days. The composition has a wistful yet optimistic tone. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. Isn’t leaving the home you love for what you believe to be a greater good also heartbreaking? I think so.

Then there’s “Dixie,” by Robin Holcomb. The discordant piano and the arcing clarinet over a delirious but controlled arrangement of Dixieland sound (brushes on the drums, trombone) and a repeating musical phrase from Stephen Foster’s “Dixie” sound like the inside of my character’s head when she enters a trance state.

“All Things Are Possible (If You Only Believe)” by the Harmonizing Four. While the lyrics to this song refer specifically to a Christian belief in God, the real-life Lulu Hurst attributed her stage success to her audience’s willingness to believe in her power. As a side note, the Harmonizing Four sang at Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s wedding, so there’s a surprise connection within this list!

“I’m Shakin’.” This is The Blasters’ 1981 cover of the Rudy Toombs tune, which was a hit for Little Willie John in the early 1960s. I heard The Blasters play this in Los Angeles in 1981 or 1982, probably at the Club Lingerie or Madame Wong’s. Whenever I listen to this cover, Steve Berlin’s bari sax stays in my head for days, and I have to pronounce the word “noy-vis” like Dave Alvin does until the song’s out of my system.

“Little Red Shoes,” by Loretta Lynn. Jack White is threading through this list, too. He produced this album, Van Lear Rose, and covered “I’m Shakin’” elsewhere. In this song, Loretta Lynn tells a rambling anecdote about “Mommy and Daddy” taking her to the doctor because of her getting hit on the head and almost dying, and because she’s dying her Mommy steals a pair of red shoes for her from the five and dime and her Daddy carries her home on his back ahead of the law. Loretta Lynn laughs over a hypnotic music track as she tells this pitiful tale, and if that’s not contemporary Southern storytelling, then I don’t know what is.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” by The Band. I couldn’t let myself write a book set partially in the Reconstruction South without a close listen to this song. I’ve heard it most of my life; that ‘na na na na na na’ chorus was a guaranteed sing-along with friends and more than one guitar in high school and college. I grew up in Georgia, and when I was a child, my elderly piano teacher once referred to the Civil War as “The Great Disturbance.” While I have no affection for that kind of thinking, this song belongs on my playlist. That Virgil Kane is a broken man.

“Magnet and Steel” by Walter Egan. Sappy seventies easy listening rock, but it does kind of swing. And who doesn’t want a song about magnetic attraction with a character called “The Magnetic Girl?”

“Mary Had a Little Lamb,” by Stevie Ray Vaughan. I saw him perform this live at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, and there is no way a sentient human being can keep still while listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan. A solid dose of Texas blues gives a nursery rhyme a menacing tinge.

“The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away,” Janacek Piano Sonata. Leos Janacek was a Czech composer in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Depending on what orchestration you listen to – a harmonium? a contemporary pianist? – the weird factor waxes and wanes. I vote harmonium for a more period sound. Either way, feel the night around you, and the flapping of the barn owl’s wings. Yes, that’s a metaphor.

“Grande Tarantelle,” by Louis Moreau Gottschalk. I don’t know if the real-life Lulu Hurst had signature music, but I wanted my fictional version to have a walk-on tune for her pianist. I’m not an accomplished musician, so I couldn’t write something for her on my own, and I realized that I wanted a period piece with verve. I don’t name the composition in the novel, but this Gottschalk Tarantelle is what I had in mind. Imagine it played by an enthusiastic person limited by an out of tune upright with a few dead keys.

Jessica Handler and The Magnetic Girl links:

the author's website

Atlanta Journal-Constitution review
Booklist review
BookPage review
Foreword Reviews review
Kirkus review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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