Author Playlists

Robert McKean’s Playlist for His Story Collection “Mending What Is Broken”

“Peter Sanguedolce swims in music.”

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Robert McKean’s story collection Mending What Is Broken offers a series of moving and funny glimpses into its protagonist’s life.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“An amusing, zigzagging adventure starring an unlikely hero with a plethora of issues big and small.”

In his own words, here is Robert McKean’s Book Notes music playlist for his story collection Mending What Is Broken:

Peter Sanguedolce swims in music. He remembers his Nonno Franco—known all his life as Fatty—playing a tinny upright on the mezzanine of a pungent cigar factory. Fatty regaled his bored cigar-rollers with everything from Giuseppe Verdi to the Big Bopper. Peter’s Uncle Nico commanded the organ at the Ganaego Roller Rink, the subtlety of Nico’s lovely, lilting Strauss waltzes all-but lost on his colliding, ass-over-teakettle skaters. Peter, a promising piano student, walked away from his lessons as an adolescent, choosing weightlifting, marijuana, and girls. By the time he returned to the instrument it was too late, although he can still render decent covers of the standards he loves. He is determined to keep his daughter practicing through the shoals of adolescence. Peter’s neighbor Jacob Weiner, clarinetist and chairman emeritus of the Oak Grove Music School Woodwinds Department, was once on the cusp of national recognition. Peter reminisces about Jacob’s performance of Mozart’s clarinet concerto. Peter tells his new lover, When Jacob played that piece it was exquisite—divine, if I may use the word. My grandfather would’ve put his fingertips to his lips and kissed them.

Fittingly, a playlist for Mending What Is Broken is bound to be, must be, an eclectic list.

Valse Melancoliqué, Vladimir Rébikoff, Op. 2, No. 3

A minor work, but ruefully wistful. Rébikoff’s Valse is what Peter’s daughter Jeanette is learning when we meet her. The piece features some intentional half-sour notes, some clashing seconds; a longing threads through its diminuendo runs. When Jeanette finishes playing it for her father, she asks if it was too slow. About her music Peter never lies. Maybe a little more waltzy, he tells her. More melancoliqué. I picture these particular waltzers waltzing at the end of a very long evening, doll.

On a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Greensleeves, The Lark Ascending, Vaughn Williams

Peter plays these lovely fantasies for his dying friend, Jacob. Peter’s eyes stray to the nursing home windows to catch sight of a young girl across the way who is furious at her three cows for refusing to move along before an impending storm. The girl, in dungarees and peacoat, swats the lethargic animals on their bony rumps, waves her arms and points indignantly at the heavens. “Greensleeves” puts Peter in mind of Elizabethan England. The hopping mad girl and her stolid cows with their swaying bellies and shrunken teats, he muses, might have walked out of a pasture in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Basin Street Blues, Jack Teagarden

Peter, despondent over the probable loss of legal contact with Jeanette, goes on a bender. He breaks into Jacob’s vacant, partially demolished house and rescues Jacob’s doomed piano by spectacularly winching it inch by inch across a sagging floor. Once he’s got the old Ivers & Pond under the trees, sans legs, he recalls the boozy voices of Billie Holiday and Jack Teagarden and goes harder at the Cutty Sark. Teagarden’s creamy trombone in Spencer Williams’ “Basin Street Blues,” comfortable in its lazy sonority, trades off with his intimate smoker’s baritone that enfolds you like your great uncle’s Chesterfield coat.

Someone to Watch Over Me, Ella Fitzgerald

I respect Sassy’s aficionados (I’m one, I love Sarah Vaughn), but when my wife and I require restoration of our souls it is to Ella and her Fellas we turn. I thought Peter might reach for one of Ella’s scat riffs, but no, it’s the salve of her classic renditions of the American Songbook Peter needs. Someone to Watch Over Me, the inspired collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin, gives play to Ella’s silky, ravishing contralto. Listen to her phrasing, her lingering over the long vowels, the understated undulations, her absolute control of pitch and time, her ease.

Autumn Leaves, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

In dipping into Duke Ellington’s rich storehouse one hardly knows where to begin—or end. Mending What Is Broken opens with a prologue in January, then drops back to the previous autumn, and thus Ozzie Bailey’s incredible “Autumn Leaves” makes an appropriate choice. Performed in a duet with Ray Nance’s limpid, singing violin and backed by the likes of Clark Terry, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, and Harry Carney, Bailey gives us a heart-wrenching version of Joseph Kosma’s standard such as it has never been sung, first in Jacques Prévert’s original French and then Johnny Mercer’s English. An anthem of haunting sorrow. Who is being mourned here? A lover who has betrayed us or a lover who has died?

Clarinet Concerto, A Major, Mozart

Written for a basset clarinet, an instrument with a lower range than our more common standard clarinet, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was composed months before Mozart’s death for his friend, clarinetist Anton Stadler. It is the crowning piece Peter hears Jacob Weiner, accompanied by a piano reduction, play in a recital at the Oak Grove Music School. Jacob’s sonorous clarinet, his confident fluency navigating the demanding Mozart, lingers in Peter’s memory in the way the notes from Jacob’s practicing on his backstop carried through the trees separating their properties. Jacob’s mastery touched the lives of thousands of pupils and failed his daughter. You can find Thea King’s wonderful basset clarinet version of the concerto on YouTube.

Missa Brevis, Palestrina

It’s said that Giovanni Palestrina saved Western music from the suffocating strictures of the Church. Palestrina’s dizzying polyphonic interweaving of voices—the countertenors, tenors, and basses providing foundation for Peter Phillips’ radiant Tallis Scholars sopranos—is hypnotic, a gossamer of glorious sound. It’s what a man, twice divorced, deprived of close contact with his daughter, without job or ambition, might play as he gazes through his ice-painted windows at the snowbound world beyond. Thoughts of eternity? Probably nothing so devout, thoughts of eating a cold dinner alone on a cold night, more likely.

The Rock Island, Meredith Wilson

Where is Peter Sanguedolce going to end up? Back on the road, probably. When the management of the clay works fell to him, it was the loss of the freedom of the outside salesman he most regretted. Those had been the happiest years of his life. Peter had treasured his solitude, the hours-long, meditative drives under a paper lantern moon—his tapes, his audiobooks, his mind at play. One of those tapes was the original Broadway cast recording of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. As the play opens, the commercial travelers on the Rock Island: You gotta know the territory, Cash for the merchandise, cash for the button hooks, Cash for the cotton goods, cash for the hard goods, Cash for the crackers and the pickles and the flypaper, Look whatayatalk. whatayatalk, whatayatalk, whatayatalk, whatayatalk?

Waltz for Debbie, Bill Evans

We’ll conclude where we began, with the eighty-eight keys of the piano. A Bill Evans CD Peter might play as he travels through the night to his next sales meeting. Delicate, fragile, a hand-stitched melody that seems to vanish under Evans’s fingers. Who is Debbie? Debbie is Peter’s mother who possibly had had an adulterous affair, Debbie is Peter’s father who ended his own life, Debbie is Peter’s first wife, quiet, bespectacled Vicky, whom he used too casually, Debbie is his second wife, Avis, the young woman who changed after he met her and kept right on changing, Debbie is that child of the second marriage, Jeanette, who chooses to leave her mother and her father for a boarding school, Debbie is Jacob Weiner mourning the loss of his wife and the estrangement of his daughter, Debbie is all of us who drive through the night.

Robert McKean lives outside of Boston now, but he grew up in Western Pennsylvania in a company town with nine miles of steelworks along the Ohio River and its own company store. At night the Bessemers burned the sky, gas jets flamed, and black “sugar’’ speckled the porches so thickly that they had to be swept every morning. Paydays the supermarket overflowed with shoppers speaking a dozen languages, and if you needed shoes, that’s when you got them: payday shoes.

McKean, winner of Methodist University’s Longleaf Press Novel Contest and recipient of a Massachusetts Arts Council grant, has set The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts (and the rest of his work) in and around a hardscrabble town like the one he grew up in. He calls it Ganaego. Beneath the ethnic, racial, and generational stew of lives and passions herein lies the story of Ganaego itself, its rise and fall as a protagonist in America’s late-Twentieth Century existential drama, the making of the Rust Belt.

McKean’s shorter works have been featured in publications including The Kenyon Review, Armchair/Shotgun, The Chicago Review, Crack the Spine, The 34th Parallel and many others. For story links, a guide to Ganaego, and more, visit

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