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March 18, 2010

Book Notes - Peter Bognanni ("The House of Tomorrow")

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

Peter Bognanni's debut novel The House of Tomorrow is an inventive coming of age tale that skillfully combines the teachings of Buckminster Fuller, the power of punk rock, and the struggles of the teen years into a heartfelt, funny book that always rings true.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"A good punk song is one that entangles itself with your pulse, mirrors the syntax of your body, and leaves your bones humming like train tracks when it passes. A really good novel does the same thing. At its best Peter Bognanni's 'House of Tomorrow' is tight and quick enough to pull you into its rhythm. It draws its audience in the way a steady bass line does — to the waxing and waning of the story's tides."

In his own words, here is Peter Bognanni's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The House of Tomorrow:

A major part of my first novel, The House of Tomorrow, focuses on two awkward teenagers and their broken-winged attempt to start a punk band in a rural Iowa town. Only one of them knows how to play an instrument, but they're not about to let that minor detail get in the way. Talent is for bands that try too hard.

When I was writing those sections, I couldn't help but indulge in some nostalgia for the first band I was in. Our name was too profane to print here. Our songs were worse. Yet, even though I often have trouble remembering my high school graduation (not to mention large patches of my twenties) I can still perfectly conjure the way it felt to play as loud as I wanted in an unfinished attic space above my friend's Thai restaurant in Des Moines, Iowa.

Those nights feel like they are still suspended in time somewhere. There was no air-conditioning in the summer. And the smell of curry often hung in the air, mixing with our barely-inhaled cigarette smoke. There was such a beautiful sense of delusion about it all. On some level we knew we were terrible, but we didn't play for anyone else, so it didn't matter. It just felt good to disappear into the noise for a while.

It turns out that even professional rockers can't help but romanticize all the bad music from the good old days. The following is a list of songs from bands singing about playing in bands, with special emphasis on the teenage years. Play them back-to-back at full volume, and maybe your neighbors will call the cops.

1. "In the Garage" - Weezer

This song almost makes the rest of the list irrelevant because it captures that first-band feeling so masterfully. From a singer known for his use of irony, I've always loved how earnest this song is. Only the young Rivers Cuomo could get away with lyrics as pure as “In the garage, I feel safe/No one cares about my ways.” (Though I must admit, on first listen, I originally thought he was saying “waist,” which made the song partly about teenage obesity for me). One can assume from the claustrophobic focus on how great everything in the garage is, that everything outside of the garage must be hellish, confusing, and wrong. Yet, it remains a beautiful ode to the teenage electric guitar womb-room. A place where you can play your “stupid songs” to a rapt audience of posters and comic book characters.

2. "Heavy Metal Drummer" – Wilco

I connected with this one from first listen, but it wasn't until I heard Wilco play it outside at a summer concert that I fully embraced the song's contagious exuberance. It's a celebration of nothing less than the sweet simplicity of youth. “I miss the innocence I've known/playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned.” It harkens back to a time when you liked what you liked and that was enough. Girls fell in love with drummers. And people danced to rock and roll outside at night. If I had to turn the song into an equation, it would go something like this: Heavy metal + bad pot + some dude's garage = teen enlightenment.

3. "Formed a Band " – Art Brut

“Formed a band/We formed a band/Look at us!/We formed a band!” While it's easy to read these exclamations as pure cheek, I like to think Eddie Argos is actually expressing unadulterated enthusiasm here. A dual sense of incredulity and wonder at his (and his band's) musical existence. Yes, it's funny that he's recorded a song about what we can obviously glean from hearing the album. But, why shouldn't the act of forming a band get an anthem? It's just as exciting as falling in love, becoming “free as a bird”, or “buying the stairway to heaven,” whatever that means.

4. "Time to Pretend" – MGMT

I go back and forth with my reading of this song's lyrics. Either it's a satiric look at the music business of old or a flash-forward from some kids “digging up worms” and pretending that they will someday be rock stars. Or… it's about the inevitable pretending that goes on when creating a rock persona. But no matter how you slice it, this song rocks and it's clearly about being in a band. That much I can parse. The opening lines are nearly contagious in their energy, “I'm feeling rough, I'm feeling raw, I'm in the prime of my life.” Isn't this the reason all bands start? Some kind of itchy feeling combined with hope and hubris? Isn't it all about playing pretend?

5. "Talent Show" – The Replacements

Where would the high school band experience be without the Talent Show, where you can go on after some “lip-synch chicks” and try to win it all? There is something bittersweet about this song, like Westerberg is recalling something he'll never get back. I like how this song is rooted completely in the moment right before the band is about to go on. It's about nerves and giddiness (and being high on pills). It's a feeling of anticipation that only a bunch of people who barely know their songs can experience. Yet there's so much life in that last line, a sense of finite time, and awareness of having this one moment to fail gloriously. “It's too late to turn back, here we go.”

Peter Bognanni and The House of Tomorrow links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book

Bookhounds review
Book-lover Carol review
Boston Globe review
Brizmus Blogs Books review
Cleverly Inked
The Crowded Leaf review
Details review
DM Avid Reader review
Girl About Town review
The Golden Reviewer review
Good Books & Wine review
In Bed with Books review
Kansas City Star review
Minneapolis Star-Tribune reviews
Mrs. Magoo Reads review
Mrs. O'Dell Reads review
My Overstuffed Bookshelf review
Petoskey New-review Review
PopMatters review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review

Minnesota Public Radio profile of the author
Paper Cuts music playlist by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists