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May 21, 2019

Karen Havelin's Playlist for Her Novel "Please Read This Leaflet Carefully"

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully

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.

Karen Havelin's Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is a poignant and profound examination of life and illness.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Chronic pain takes center stage in this funny, moving meditation on coming to terms with your body's limitations."

In her own words, here is Karen Havelin's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Please Read This Leaflet Carefully:

Once, through a long, careful conversation at a loud, drunken party, a friend who was writing about his experiences as a soldier in Iraq and I discovered that we both used playlists of the most ridiculously bright, happy pop music we could find played loudly over and over in order to be able to do the work of transferring the frozen nausea of PTSD moments into words.

My debut novel Please Read This Leaflet Carefully tracks time backwards through about twenty years of its main character Laura’s life. A former figure skater, she leaves Norway for the US. During the course of the novel, she undergoes major surgery and lives through years of pain and chronic illness.

Each chapter in Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is named for a song. I listened to a different playlist for each part as I worked on it. The playlist for some of the most painful material was full of cheerful pop music. This playlist contains the highlights of all those playlists. I would press play as I sat down to write, to get into the right state. I also used the music to pull myself safely out of the darkest material. After an hour and a half had passed, the songs would lighten so I could withdraw a little. Some days I would play the most intense songs, at the beginning of the playlist, again and again to get deeper and deeper and to keep, keep, keep writing.

The best songs are transmissions directly from the private, secret space inside another human being, an occurrence you can’t explain or put into words. But when you come across them, you know that some truth, some experience has been shared. If it arrives in a version you can dance to, dressed up in pink eyeshadow and bleached hair, all the better.

Even though the novel is fiction, and I’ve let my main character Laura off lightly compared to me and given her a sort of happy ending, writing this novel meant remaining in trauma spaces for hours, even weeks at a time. Writing it was liberating, and painful. Editing it was a fucking nightmare. Wondering whether I would ever sell a book with a non-traditional structure about a woman with invisible illnesses and chronic pain was the worst part.

In short, the work of this novel required that I rally all the forces of good. In order to survive the past few years of my life and also write this book, I had to stay away from all other things that were too sad and painful, and had to line up and strengthen all my routines and support systems.

It is no accident that most people who have the experiences similar to my main character never write about it. The fact that there are any books at all is amazing. If you layer pain, exhaustion, treatments, and physical discomfort with angry strangers on Twitter, with condescending reviews, with the endless (payless) work of writing and publishing a book, it’s amazing that anyone with less than perfect health does it at all. People with disabilities and chronic illnesses often have to spend their energy on fighting governmental institutions for their income and healthcare, dealing with insurance companies, paperwork, and the emotional labor of managing other people’s reactions to their vulnerability.

These songs helped me find something beautiful in being a vulnerable human being.

Throughout the whole playlist, there is a feeling of being about to roll out over a cliff that still reflects how I feel about life. Something about it all clearly being way too much, ridiculous in fact. We are in so much danger it’s clearly not going to ever be alright. So what are we going to do? Put on some makeup and eccentric outfits and show up to be present with each other and dance while we can. Do our best to reclaim some glamour from a situation with no control, which is basically all of life. Your makeup and your memories are the only things coming with you into the MRI machine.

But, the book sold and will be out in three countries this month, so.

Morrissey, Now My Heart Is Full

The title of Part 1. I adore Morrissey. The first line is

“There's gonna be some trouble
A whole house will need re-building
And everyone I love in the house
Will recline on an analyst’s couch quite soon”

Another line that I absolutely love: “Tell all of my friends, I don’t have too many, just some raincoated lovers’ puny brothers.”

“Rush to danger, wind up nowhere.”

This song represents a sort of resolution, since part 1 is also the ending of the book.

Hana, Clay

This is the song I imagine Laura dancing to on the ice in part one. The beautiful melody, Hana’s well-schooled voice (that only barely lands on the “s”-sound) is extremely pleasing to me. It is also a song about reclaiming yourself, which is one of the biggest themes of my novel.

Wailin’ Jennys, You Are Here

The title of Part 2:

Laura has left her life, her love, and her family behind. She feels some release too in being ripped from her old life.

“Every darkened hallway, Every fallen dream,
Every battle lost and Every shadow in between
Will bring you to your knees and Closer to the reason
And there's no making cases, For getting out or trading places
And there's no turning back, No you are here.”

Farao, Bodies

I love the dangerous energy of this song, by young Norwegian artist, Farao. The video and song explore bodies, which runs as a through line in my novel.

“When our bodies melt
And they will collide
Every time I say that I believe you
I believe you”

Birdy, Young Blood

This song gives me a feeling of something new, starting.

“The bittersweet between my teeth
Trying to find the in-betweens”

Grimes, Oblivion

Title of Part 3: I love the video for this song, which places Grimes, an extremely slim and delicate-looking girl with pink hair, in a hyper macho setting of a football game and motocross, of men flinging themselves around and bumping into her. Grimes has said this song is about surviving sexual assault. Although the novel does not deal with sexual assault, this song has a very familiar feeling of trauma and loneliness.

“And now another clue, I would ask
If you could help me out
It's hard to understand
Cause when you're really by yourself
It's hard to find someone to hold your hand

And now it's gonna be, tough on me
But I will wait forever
I need someone now to look into my eyes and tell me
Girl you know you gotta watch your health.”

Florence + the Machine, Never Let Me Go

Title of Part 4: The music video shows Florence dressed in black, on a skating rink in her socked feet, playing around with a boy before being reclaimed by something gross, huge, dirty, corporeal, symbolized by dirty foam and water. It blew my mind when I discovered it after listening to this song every day for ages writing about skating.
The release in giving up feels like such a relief in this song, while the title is still “Never let me go”:

“I’m not giving up, I’m just giving in.”

Regina Spektor, One More Time With Feeling

Title of Part 5: In 2009 I saw Regina Spektor live in Oslo and she sang this song. At the time it was just what I needed, a strengthening tonic. This is why we fight. The songs from this album are so sad they are almost unbearable to listen to for me now. She channels a kind of pure emotion, with her beautiful short story-like lyrics.

“Hold on, one more time with feeling, try it again, Breathing’s just a rhythm. Say it your mind until you know that the words are right: This is why we fight.”

Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall, Bela Fleck, Sliding Down

A moment to breathe.

Le Tigre, Keep On Livin'

Title of Part 6:

This song is about PTSD for me. “What if you remember more today?”

It is also about reclaiming pleasure from life. But it is also very valuable to remember that that means acknowledging the difficulty, too.

“Take back your own tonight
You'll find more than you see
It's time now now get ready
So you can taste that sweet sweet cake and
Feel the warm water in a lake (y'know)
What about that nice cool breeze and
Hear the buzzing of the bumble bees just
Live beyond those neighborhood lives and
Go past that yard outside and
Push thru their greatest fears and
Live past your memories tears cuz
You don't need to scratch inside no just please
Hold onto your pride and
So don't let them bring you down and
Don't let them fuck you around cuz
Those are your arms that is your heart and
No no they can't tear you apart
They can't take it away now
This is your time this is your life and
This is your time this is your life and
You gotta keep on(keep on livin!)”

The queer feminist in me is thinking of it for use in a disability setting. Intersectional possibilities for allyship and liberation are important to me.

Peaches, I U She

An earlier version of the chapter now called “Keep on Living” was named “I U She.” Instead, I have Laura listen to Peaches as she bikes through the city. At the time when this song came out it felt pretty revolutionary to have a pop song with this chorus:
“I don’t have to make the choice, I like girls and I like boys.”

Robyn, Indestructible

Title of Part 7: The first line of the song is “I’m going backwards through time at the speed of light.”

The video for the single “Indestructible” from the 2010 album Body Talk by Robyn is rather explicit video features a girl having sex with different people, interspersed with shots of Robyn herself, an androgynous, pale and serious figure, lying on a white bed wrapped in layers of clear plastic tubing that liquid of different colors flows through. The red liquid lends the tubing a particularly medical look, like blood, an IV-drip, or dialysis. The theme of vulnerability in love is clear in the lyrics and towards the end the tubing appears in the sex scenes as well. The shots change to Robyn in a standing position, which makes the tubing look increasingly like an armor, or corset, maybe a superhero suit. Vulnerability appears to turn to strength as the song lyrics turn from vulnerability to determination and willingness to try.

“And I never was smart with love/I let the bad ones in and the good ones go but/I'm gonna love you like I've never been hurt before/I'm gonna love you like I'm indestructible."

I love how this video pulls something dangerous and medical/disabled into a mainstream world of catchy music, dancing, sex, and beauty.

Wilson Phillips, Hold On

An earlier version had a scene of Laura and her older sister dancing to this song in 1995. You can read it on and

Belle and Sebastian, We Rule the School

Title of Part 8, in which we meet Laura as a 14-year-old figure skater in Norway, and she experiences feelings of bodily control and pleasure on the ice.

“Do something pretty while you can
Don't be afraid
Skating a pirouette on ice is cool.”

Rihanna, Calvin Harris, We Found Love

This is one of those bright, energetic songs that reminded me desperately of all the fun and delicious and young things.

Robyn, In my Eyes

Basically this song expresses what I’m hoping the book will tell someone:

“Hey little star, don't be afraid
We all fall apart and make mistakes
Don't you know when nothing ever seem to make sense
You put your dancing shoes on and do it again
You know I believe it if you say you can

We never get what we deserve
So when you feel like it's all pretend
Then you look into my eyes
Just say one true thing like you mean it
And baby, just look into my eyes

And though I bet you think it's better on the inside, there with them
We're better off outside looking back in
I know you think you're lost but you think again
When you look into my eyes”

Mountain Man, Animal Tracks, Sewee Sewee

At times, working on this book felt so tender, so exposed I could not stand to do it in silence, yet only the lightest touch of music. That’s where Mountain Man comes in, to bring us safely home, out of this playlist.

“We'll follow animal tracks
to a tree in the woods
and a hole in the leaves we'll see
the bright baby eyes of a chickadee.”

Karen Havelin and Please Read This Leaflet Carefully links:

the author's website

Kirkus review

Agave Blog interview with the author
Literary Hub essay by the author
The Millions interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Support the Largehearted Boy website

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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