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April 24, 2008

Book Notes - Kelly McMasters ("Welcome to Shirley")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

When I started the 52 Books, 52 Weeks series, one of my goals was to overcome certain literary biases I have formed over the years. The Book Notes series has also helped, exposing me to not only books I may have missed, but reminding me that quality writing is not limited by genre. For years I avoided memoirs, assuming most were poorly written and self-centered, and in doing so, missed out on many quality works.

Kelly McMasters' memoir Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town is one of the strongest memoirs I have read. Juggling her own life story with meticulous research on the town's history and the science of chemical and radioactive waste's medical effects on the local community, McMasters has created a powerful book.

In her own words, here is Kelly McMasters' Book Notes essay for her book, Welcome to Shirley: An Atomic Memoir:

In my first book, Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, I tell the story of the relationship between my blue-collar hometown on the east end of Long Island and a nearby nuclear laboratory owned by the federal government that has been leaking radioactive and chemical waste, including tritium, cesium, plutonium, and radium, into the surrounding environment for decades. That may sound dreadfully serious, but there are also plenty of UFOs, Fourth of July block parties, teenage make-out sessions in the Taco Bell parking lot, and I even walk in my hometown Christmas parade with Anna Wintour! Ultimately, this is the story of a town of working class people who are told over and over again that they are disposable until they begin to believe it themselves, so that when an overwhelming number of cancers and other tragedies befall the community—such as the three leaking nuclear reactors funded by the Department of Defense—they assume that they deserve no better.

In true Prince/Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake style, I’ll call this soundtrack “w2s.” My agent Anna Stein is a playlist maven, and during the time I was working on the book she made two kick-ass mixes for my husband and I, which we fell in love with and listened to over, and over, and over. Some of the songs on the w2s playlist are from her mixes, songs that seem to so perfectly articulate a moment or scene. Other songs I pulled from my own mix tapes (as in cassettes) that I was obsessed with and ultimately wore out during the 1980s and early 1990s, when most of this book takes place. Still others are the songs that got me through the writing—the ones that I kept playing on a loop on iTunes while typing away, that I could half listen to and half not, that I knew so well that they were like my heartbeat. The best of these comes from Ill Lit. All three of their albums are pure poetry, and are the most incredible songs I’ve ever found to write along to.

“Greetings to the New Brunette,” by Billy Bragg
Introduction: Shuuurl-leeeeee. Billy Bragg’s straining love song to Shirley both hurts the ears and yet is the song that sticks in your brain and refuses to get out. This is exactly my relationship with my hometown of Shirley. I’m celebrating my love for you/With a pint of beer and a new tattoo. I thought I was finished with my playlist when a writer told me about this song at the nonfiction reading series I run at the KGB Bar in the east village. I listened to it once and knew I’d finally found the perfect opening song. Whoops, there goes another year/Whoops, there goes another pint of beer.

“Mushaboom,” by Feist
Chapter 1: I love the quotidian images in this song, the feeling it gives of a young, struggling family just starting out. This reminded me of my parents, with all of their moves and rented homes and the small things they did to always make each place their own—Unpacking the bags and setting up/And plantings lilacs and buttercups. Chapter 1 is all about our family getting its start, finally finding a place that feels like home, even if it is a bit run-down, and I imagine my mother painting the walls and pulling weeds and feeling excited and hopeful, even if things weren’t exactly perfect or the way she imagined them: I got a man to stick it out/And make a home from a rented house/And we’ll collect the moments one by one/I guess that’s how the future’s done.

“Small Town,” by John Mellencamp
Chapter 2: There is no way I could have a playlist for and not include this song. Mellencamp is one of those singers that reminds me of riding in the flatbed of a pick-up down a dirt trail to a summer bonfire, a cold beer (or Zima, if truth be told) tucked between my legs, giggling with the girls about the boys we were hoping would be there. This is also the song that holds the most important message this book taught me: No I cannot forget where it is that I come from.

“My City Was Gone,” by The Pretenders
Chapter 3: At first I worried about including songs about other places, but ultimately although this book is about my hometown, it is about an issue that affects so many places across the country, and ultimately the world. This song is about progress gone wrong, and the lack of foresight humans often have when it comes to their environment: I went back to Ohio/But my pretty countryside/Had been paved down the middle/by a government that had no pride.

“Dirty Water,” by The Standells
Chapter 4: This chapter is about the history of the nuclear laboratory—that sits on top of one of the country’s largest sole source drinking water aquifer, serving more than 3 million people—and some of the first incidents of leaks and accidents that plagued the facility. A song named “Dirty Water” that starts out I’m gonna tell you a story/I’m gonna tell you about my town/I’m gonna tell you a big bad story, baby/Aww, it’s all about my town seemed all too perfect.

“The Scientist,” by Aimee Mann
Chapter 5: This was one of the hardest chapters for me to write, and I listened to many of Aimee Mann’s mournful melodies to get me through. Nobody said it was easy/No one ever said it would be so hard. This one struck me as ideal for the playlist because as the main character, Jerry, who works at the lab as a maintenance man, a job he feels has played a part in the cancers that are killing him, is dying at home there are government investigators pulling vials of water and soil samples from the lab’s property and finding lists and lists of harmful carcinogenic chemicals laced throughout the property. The lab has won numerous Nobel prizes in Physics, but the collateral damage left in the wake of its nuclear experiments means these prizes have come at a price. Questions of science/Science and progress/Do not speak as loud as my heart.

“Los Angeles,” by Ill Lit
Chapter 6: Daniel Ahearn of Ill Lit is one of those artists that other artists continually turn to for inspiration. His voice and words are pure and full of beauty—something we all work towards as writers. This chapter charts Shirley’s botched attempt to rename itself in hopes of getting rid of its trashy reputation. This act is a defining moment for the town, one that cuts to the heart of the book. This song, the third on the playlist about a place other than Shirley, spoke to me the first time I heard it and the following lyrics became half of the book’s opening epigraph: Don’t cut your losses/You’re gonna need them.

“Dissident,” by Pearl Jam
Chapter 7: I was obsessed with Pearl Jam and played my Ten cassette until it melted. This chapter details an attack by one of the neighborhood boys on a young girl in the Wildlife Refuge near my house. I knew I wanted Pearl Jam on here, and this song from Vs. seemed to fit the mood that hovered over the town after the attack—although the facts were clear (after stabbing her multiple times and bashing her head in with a log he left her to die in the middle of the woods) the town stood by the boy, and his church even raised his bail money. Meanwhile, she was cast out. This song, and especially the lyrics Escape is never the safest path and Always home but so far away are my way of imagining the girl’s life today.

“Policy of Truth,” by Depeche Mode
Chapter 8: Ahh, the lab chapter. As I researched the history of spills and leaks and dumping and apologies, these words rang in my head: Never again/Is what you swore/The time before. DM’s Violator cassette was another I played until it warped, sitting in my room as a teenager, feeling melancholy and powerless. I felt the same way researching this chapter, paging through packets and packets of documents listing all of the chemicals and poisons that were being released by the lab into the environment for so many years: It’s too late to change events/It’s time to face the consequence.

“Pictures of You,” by The Cure
Chapter 9: My first boyfriend (J. in the book) turned me on to The Cure and we used to listen to Disintegration in his babyblue Bonneville with the windows down on the way to the beach every summer. There were so many Cure songs that could work for this section—Love Cats, Boys Don’t Cry, Lovesong—but since this chapter is really a collection of snapshots, and the lyrics are sufficiently nostalgic and angsty, this one seemed the perfect fit: Hold for the last time then slip away quietly.

“All Day Long,” by New Order
Chapter 10: New Order’s Power Corruption and Lies is absolutely one of my top desert island discs. This song seemed to hit with the theme of childhood cancer in the town: Now I hope you know this song/Is about a child who now has gone/And other children like him, too/Abused and used by what adults do/So don’t tell me about politics/Or all the problems of our economics.

“Timebomb,” by Beck
Chapter 11: In this chapter I visit the lab for the first time, which is incredibly surreal—think ice cream trucks in the parking lot and little kids running around with Brookhaven Lab coloring books, the entire scene set against the backdrop of the twin smoke stacks of the old reactors. Pushes are being made for new nuclear facilities on the site even as the clean-up continues and will continue for decades. It all seemed so obvious to me on that clear blue summer afternoon: We got a timebomb/We got a red alert/We pull the plug out and we/Timebomb ticking/Timebomb ticking/It’s a timebomb ticking/Going/Tick tick tick tick. When are we going to learn our lesson?

“On the Radio,” by Regina Spektor
Chapter 12: At the end of the book, there is a sense of inevitability, of acceptance, of measuring the damage and trying to move on. While we were on our knees/Praying that disease/Would leave the ones we love/And never come again. This was one of the songs from my agent’s mix, and I love it because it is so perfectly human and matter-of-fact. You can’t live and not get hurt. You just try to get hurt a little less each time. This is how it works/You’re young until you’re not/You love until you don’t/You try until you can’t/You laugh until you cry/You cry until you laugh/And everyone must breathe/Until their dying breath.

“Casimir Pulaski Day,” by Sufjan Stevens
Epilogue: The elephant in the room for this book is the question of when sickness will catch up with my friends from childhood. In the morning when you finally go/And the nurse runs in with her head hung low/And the cardinal hits the window. The epilogue begins to answer this question, and it also finally lets go of the ghost of Jerry, who I like to think of as the patron saint of the book. With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied/I am crying in the bathroom. Ultimately, we’ll never be ready when it hits us, no matter how much we prepare.

“This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie
Moralizing Finale: The only way to change the story of Shirley and to make sure it isn’t repeated is to take the simple message of this song to heart: This land is your land/This land is my and/From California to the New York island/ When the sun comes shining/And I was strolling/And the wheat fields waving/and the dust clouds rolling/A voice comin’ chanting /As the fog was lifting/This land was made for you and me.

Kelly McMasters and Welcome to Shirley links:

the author's website
the author's book tour events
the book's page at the publisher
excerpt from the book at the publisher's website
excerpt from the book at the author's website

Dan's Papers review
Hebdomeros review
O Magazine review
Publishers Weekly review

The Debutante Ball guest post by the author
Mother Jones guest post by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)