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April 16, 2010

Book Notes - Marisa Silver ("Alone With You")

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

Once again, Marisa Silver exceeds my already high expectations with her new short story collection, Alone With You. The eight stories in this slim volume brim with emotional intensity in their intimate portraits of love and family.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the collection:

"Longing swells each of the eight stories in "Alone With You," as Silver investigates "aloneness" and the dear and inevitable distance between people in loving relationships. These stories stand out because of their high tolerance for complexity, never opting for a single note. The situations here don't settle on the neat broad themes of loss or connection, but there are always surprises, nuances, changes of heart. Many times, the stories turn on elements of estrangement and the layered love between a mother and a daughter."

In her own words, here is Marisa Silver's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection, Alone With You:

The stories in my collection Alone with You seem to circle around themes of intimacy and separation, and the humbling fact that at the very moment when you are closest to a person, you, paradoxically, might feel the most alone. The stories are about how hard it is to love, and how fleeting and crystalline and privileged that moment of connection can be.

I don't listen to music while I write. But these songs, either lyrically or musically, evoke some feelings that I hope my stories evoke. Plus, they are just great pieces of music, every one of them. They make me happy.

"Temporary" is a story about two young women, strangers in their early twenties who, through happenstance come to inhabit a loft in downtown Los Angeles. Shelly is a casual girl who takes up and sheds careers and men with the kind of carelessness one only possesses when one is backed up by a bank account. Vivian is a more fragile, uncertain soul is trying to figure out who she is when everything around her seems conditional. I wanted to capture that strange quality of being in one's twenties, when decisions are not so often made as they are fallen into, where you follow whatever path opens up simply because it's there. Then, lo and behold, you're in your thirties and decisions you made without a lot of forethought have become your life.

The song "Chicago" by Sufjan Stevens captures this moment of life perfectly. The music is, on the one hand, sort of simple, repetitive and childlike, and then there are these portentous swells of strings, as if to remind us that something more important is going on here than meets the eye. It's hopeful, but also aware of things that go missing as one stumbles through life.

"Chicago" – Sufjan Stevens

I fell in love again
all things go, all things go
drove to Chicago
all things know, all things know
we sold our clothes to the state
I don't mind, I don't mind
I made a lot of mistakes
in my mind, in my mind

"Leap" is a story about how easy it is to mistake something dangerous that could hurt you for love. It's also about a woman who thinks her dog has tried to commit suicide, so…

"Phantom Other" by Department of Eagles

All right, we'll do this your way
All right, we'll make it anyway
Now'd be good time,
To send us all away there
So what would it take?
And what would it take to make you learn?
And what would it take?
And what would it take to make you listen?

In "The Visitor" a young nurse at a VA hospital lives with her grandmother and the ghost her grandmother believes lives in the house with them. The nurse starts a relationship with a patient, a vet who has become a ghost too. So, the ghostly, beautiful Bon Iver, so much air and space in their songs…

"The Wolves (Act I and II) – Bon Iver

Someday my pain, someday my pain
Will mark you
Harness your blame, harness your blame
And walk through

In "Three Girls," three sisters become snowbound in their home along with their alcoholic parents and are visited by another family-–the family they'd be if they could escape, or if they lived in an alternate universe…

"Neighborhood #1 - Arcade Fire

And if the snow buries my
My Neighborhood
And if my parents are crying
Then I'll dig a tunnel
From my window to yours
Yeah, a tunnel from my window to yours.

"Pond" is a story that unfolds in three parts in three different periods of time and it's about a lot of things including a man who has to make a Solomonic choice about who to love.

"Animal" - Mike Snow.

"In your eyes I see the eyes of somebody
I knew before, long ago
But I'm still trying to make my mind up
Am I free or am I tied up?

In "Night Train to Frankfurt" a failed concert pianist travels in a train with her mother to an esoteric medical facility in Germany where she hopes her mother's life will be saved. The pianist was probably paying Grieg or Beethoven, but this Vaughan Williams song is elegiac and full of rapture. It's beauty makes you think about beauty, about how evanescent it is, and how you could spend a whole life trying to create just a single moment of something perfect and beautiful, and how that might be a good life.

"The Lark Ascending" Ralph Vaughan Williams

"In the New World" tells the story of a Polish immigrant father trying to figure out how to love his Americanized son. It's about being stranded in a strange place and having to locate yourself when you have nothing familiar to root you. It's a lot about language, too, about how people don't and won't understand one another, about how words fall apart.

"Promises" – Morning Benders

It's been so long since I've been alone
I can't think of a time when you were
Here breathing by my side

My other said to talk things through
Don't let heavy hearts pile up on you
But how can I when I'm too scared to speak?

In the final story, "Alone with You," a family travels to Morocco and the mother, struggling with her own emotional equilibrium, makes a decision to do something that will both ruin and save everyone she loves. It's a story about how vast the world is and how hard it is to convince yourself that you're alive in it. To me, jazz is about infinite gestures, about the how big the universe of sound is, how every note contains every other note, and every note contains the full, crazy spectrum of how we feel. Here's some new jazz I love:

"Arabic" – The Claudia Quintet

And one for me: Listen to any elementary school orchestra play anything. All the players start out together, confident that they will perfectly execute the piece they hear in their minds. Then, a violin kid starts to wander onto some weird divergent path. And then the flute kid goes all off kilter. And the cello kids start playing a waltz when the piece is in 4/4 time. Notes get jumbled. Stuff sounds strange and not quite right. The audience's collective heart seizes: will they pull it together? And just when everything seems like it's irretrievable, that all that will be left will be tears and a puddle of notes, something happens. By some force of will or magic or subconscious connectivity, the players reach that final note at exactly the same time. The piece is over. It's become itself and something wholly other than anyone could have expected. It's been infused with life.

That's what writing a story feels like for me.

Marisa Silver and Alone With You links:

the author's website
the author's book tour events
excerpt from the book ("Temporary")

Los Angeles Times review
Miami Herald review
Oprah review
Publishers Weekly review
Time Out New York review
Vogue review
Wall Street Journal review

The Elegant Variation interview with the author
Five Chapters by the author ("Aliens Among Us")
Los Angeles Magazine feature by the author
Publishers Weekly profile of the author
Significant Objects story by the author
The Urban Muse essay 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