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August 5, 2008

Book Notes - Danit Brown ("Ask for a Convertible")

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

Danit Brown has drawn comparisons to Lorrie Moore, Philip Roth, and others with her interconnected collection of short stories, Ask for a Convertible. Spanning twenty years, these stories follow an Israeli family in the United States, and Brown captures the immigrant experience with a keen ear for dialogue and clever, often uneasy humor that holds the reader's interest.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the collection:

"At once openhearted and close-minded, Brown's characters often offend one another when they collide, and their stories capture the awkwardness of both coming to America and coming-of-age."

In her own words, here is Danit Brown's Book Notes essay for her short fiction collection, Ask for a Convertible:

“Shir Hashalom” by Yankele Rotblit and Yair Rosenblum

I wouldn’t have been able to write Ask for a Convertible if I hadn’t spent four years as an adult living in Tel-Aviv. I decided to make the move soon after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995: I’d recently dropped out of graduate school for the first time (I would drop out again later) and figured that any life I’d lead would be more meaningful if I were living it in Israel. Like Osnat, the half-Israeli, half-American main character in the collection, I thought that I was in Israel to stay, and like her, I ultimately moved back to the States, unable to fully make the transition.

On the night he was assassinated, Prime Minister Rabin had a sheet of paper with the lyrics of this song, “The Song for Peace,” tucked into his breast pocket. Later, this paper was found covered in blood. To this day, I have a difficult time listening to this song, and I wonder how much of it is due to the association with Rabin’s assassination, and how much is due to the lingering guilt I feel about not living in Israel.

“Don’t Speak” by No Doubt

After a few lonely months in Tel-Aviv, I started going to dance lessons at the Tel-Aviv University gym, ostensibly so I could learn how to waltz and salsa, but really so I could spend a couple of hours being led and twirled, storing up enough physical contact to get through the rest of the week. When I think of Israel now, I inevitably think of the songs that were on heavy rotation in that darkened gym, and of the way my hands, afterwards, reeked of cologne. Israeli guys were not shy with the cologne.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that these dance lessons were actually a major meat market, and whenever Gwen Stefani started singing “Don’t Speak,” everyone started kissing. Not just kissing, but kissing fervently, with tongue, hands on each other’s asses, the women collapsing into the men’s arms. I have never witnessed anything quite like the sexual stupor induced by this song, and on those rare occasions that I still hear No Doubt on the radio, I still get an urge to pucker even though I am proud to say that I personally never fell victim to this particular song’s spell. You have to have some standards. Which brings me to:

“Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits

I’d never heard this song before moving to Israel, but the first time it came on, I developed an instant and long-lasting crush on the guy I was dancing with at the time and would have gladly begun kissing him if only I weren’t so shy. Who can resist Mark Knopfler’s voice as he croons sorrowfully about unrequited love? Plus, the guy I was dancing with had a smooth, clean-smelling neck. Today, my husband—not this guy—claims this song is nothing but cheese, but I can still listen to it over and over, my stomach knotted with a kind of loneliness that’s about homesickness and wanting to belong. When I was writing the book, this was one of the songs that could put me in the right frame of mind: not here, not there, and wanting to be touched.

“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Men in Black” by Will Smith

A secret shame: dance nights weren’t just about couple dances—there were also line dances to songs like these. During the instructional part of the evening, we were taught the routines, and then we practiced them throughout the night. “Sweet Home Alabama,” with its leaps and mid-air high kicks, was one of my favorites even though my own leaps and kicks were never quite high enough.

I soon learned that even dance nights had their hierarchies. If you were a real line-dancing aficionado, you did the dance from the music video whenever possible. There was a pair of male identical twins who had all the moves down for “Men in Black.” They always dressed in dark denim overalls, one strap undone, and white T-shirts, and there was something aesthetically satisfying about watching them sliding and pointing like Will Smith and his entourage of alien backup dancers. More disconcerting: watching the twins merengue with each other, a vision that always brought to mind Jeremy Irons as those creepy twin gynecologists in Dead Ringers. I’m not sure exactly how these songs informed the book, although I’m sure that they somehow did.

“Dil to Pagal Hai” by Lata Mangeshkar and Udit Narayan

Having lived in the Midwest for most of my adult life, there was something exciting about how international Israel can feel. It’s not just anywhere that you can hear people arguing in French at the Laundromat, watch Spanish soaps on TV, or hear songs on the radio in languages other than your own (and I’m not counting Hebrew, Arabic, or English here). This song, for example, from the Bollywood movie of the same name, was all over the airwaves for a while. I don’t know what the lyrics mean, and I haven’t seen the movie, but the bubbly exuberance of this song always makes me feel happy and cosmopolitan, at least for the first three or so minutes (it goes on for more than five). In a way, the song is a metaphor for my time in Israel: it starts out all giddy and optimistic, then goes on for a bit too long.

“Diva” by Dana International

Part of my failed journey towards assimilation involved faithfully watching the Eurovision song contest: each participating country sends a performer, preferably one who favors glitter and fringe, and then everyone in those countries calls in and votes for their favorites. Abba won Eurovision in 1974, and Dana International, an Israeli transsexual of Yemeni descent, won it with “Diva” in 1998. Maybe I couldn’t tell jokes in Hebrew quite yet, and maybe I didn’t have many friends, but I could still engage in national pastimes like sitting in traffic jams on the way to the Passover Seder and watching Israel kick butt on Eurovision. These were the moments I felt I belonged.

“Pines” by Noa

This song’s lyrics are by Israeli poet Leah Goldberg, who writes about having two homelands: maybe, she writes, only birds know this ache when they’re suspended between earth and sky. Noa, when she arranged the song, added a chorus, so that the verses alternate between Hebrew and English. “My roots,” she sings, “are on both sides of the sea.” Someone gave me Noa’s album, and when I finally listened to it a year or so later—long before I began writing Ask for a Convertible—this was the song that made me step back and say, “It’s not just me.” Still, it took me ages to figure out what my collection was really about, and in retrospect, I’m not sure why. You’d think this song would have clued me in sooner.

“New Soul” by Yael Naim

Okay, so this is a relatively recent song, but I’m including it here because of the inevitable welling up of national pride I felt when I learned that the catchy ditty from the MacAir commercials is sung by an Israeli. At the same time, this discovery made me question the efficacy of my Israeli-dar, which generally detects all Israelis within 100 yards. “How could I have missed those distinctive hard Ls on the la-la-las?” I asked my husband, bewildered.
My Israeli-dar also functions as a kind of conscience, its bells and whistles a reminder that as much as I want to believe I’m a real Israeli—I was born there, after all, and lived there for nearly a third of my life—I’m really not one, at least not anymore. To some extent, this turns out to be Osnat’s struggle as well in Ask for a Convertible: when you’re from more than one place, where exactly is home?

Danit Brown and Ask for a Convertible links:

the author's website
"Hands Across America" excerpt from the book
"The Dangers of Salmonella" excerpt from the book
the author's upcoming book tour appearances

Ann Arbor News review
Deseret News review
Library Journal review
New York Post review
Publishers Weekly review
Weekly Dig review

One Story interview with 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)