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October 14, 2010

Book Notes - Joyce Hinnefeld ("Stranger Here Below")

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

Joyce Hinnefeld's Stranger Here Below is an engaging and ambitious novel spanning three generations and almost a hundred years. The book's juxtaposition of past and present works exceedingly well in exploring the lives of its characters and the choices they make.

Stranger Here Below is one of the rare works of literary fiction I can recommend to my friends and family who would rather read page-turners, and for that reason this would make an excellent choice for book clubs (and all readers of fiction).

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"This is a multigenerational novel spanning decades rich in history, but ordinary women, who suffer from life's challenges and keep secrets, are at the heart of the story. Recommended for its wide appeal to readers seeking thoughtful, well-written fiction."

In her own words, here is Joyce Hinnefeld's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Stranger Here Below:

Music is so central to my novel Stranger Here Below that a playlist to accompany the novel almost writes itself. But I'll pick and choose a bit here—and try to bring in a few surprises too.

Claude Debussy, "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum" and "The Snow Is Dancing" from the Children's Corner; "Reflets dans l'Eau" from Images I

There needs to be some classical piano, of course, for my character Mary Elizabeth, who "loves the Frenchmen" (in the words of her piano teacher at Berea College). For the playlist I'll choose Debussy—three pieces that Mary Elizabeth plays for her friend Maze, early in their time as as roommates at Berea, in 1961. Two are from the Children's Corner: "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum" and "The Snow Is Dancing." Though my own friend since college, Rita (Stone) Horn, claims not to remember this, she played "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum" for me on a grand piano in the lounge of a youth hostel in the Swiss Alps, way back when she and I were traveling around with backpacks and Eurrail passes in the spring of 1983. I didn't know Rita that well (we had mutual friends, and we'd decided sort of impulsively to travel together after we both finished up a period of studying in England), and I also didn't know Debussy; hearing her play that piece, in that gorgeous setting, was a revelation for me—much like it is for Maze, when Mary Elizabeth plays the piece for her on a grand piano in a college lounge, on their second night as freshman roommates.
The third Debussy piece I'll include is the first of the Images I, "Reflets dans l'Eau." One spring day when, after a long time away from the book, I was getting back to work on the manuscript that would become Stranger Here Below, I went with my friend Virginia Wiles to have lunch with her friend Charles Rix, and then back to Charles' house to hear him play the piano. He played the "Reflets dans l'Eau" for us that day. Mary Elizabeth plays this for Maze too—when she finally decides to stop trying to impress her new roommate and just play something she loves. When she finishes playing it, there are tears in both girls' eyes. That's how I felt when Charles finished playing it that day.

Roscoe Holcomb, "Across the Rocky Mountain" and "Wayfaring Stranger"

And then, for something completely different, let's shift to Maze's background and hear a couple pieces by Roscoe Holcomb: "Across the Rocky Mountain" and "Wayfaring Stranger"; both are included on a Smithsonian Folkways CD called Mountain Music of Kentucky, compiled and annotated by John Cohen. Cohen's film "The High Lonesome Sound," with its beautiful black and white footage from the hills of eastern Kentucky accompanied by Holcomb's (and others') haunting music, was a powerful inspiration for me as I worked on Stranger Here Below. When you listen to "Across the Rocky Mountain," you understand where the film's title, "The High Lonesome Sound," comes from. Mountain music and a distant train whistle: no sounds hit me quite as powerfully as these.

Mahalia Jackson, "Amazing Grace" and "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"

Maze's mother Vista names her for her favorite hymn, "Amazing Grace." I create a fictional recording of the song by the Carter Family in the novel, but for this playlist I'd probably include Mahalia Jackson's version. And then of course that needs to be followed up by Mahalia Jackson singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand"--in tribute to Mary Elizabeth's father, Reverend Cox. He's a complicated character, and not exactly likable throughout the book. But I do sympathize with his struggle, and I value what he tries to do for both his wife and his daughter in the novel.

The Carter Family and the Haden Triplets, "Single Girl, Married Girl"; the Carter Family and Roseanne Cash, "Wildwood Flower"

I don't mean to slight the Carter Family! They should be here too, maybe doing "Single Girl, Married Girl" and then "Wildwood Flower"; I might follow these up with contemporary versions of these songs, on a terrific CD called Rambling Boy by bassist Charlie Haden and his "Family and Friends" (his list of friends is an impressive one; there are songs performed by Vince Gill, Elvis Costello, Pat Metheny, and Ricky Skaggs, among others, on this 2008 CD). Following up the Carter Family I'll include Haden's triplet daughters singing "Single Girl, Married Girl" and Roseanne Cash's version of "Wildwood Flower." These songs are for Maze's and Mary Elizabeth's mothers, Vista and Sarah, whose lives are sad and beautiful, like these songs.

James Crase and Hot Club of Cowtown, "Sally Goodin"

When Maze walks into a high school gymnasium for a Berea Country dance on the evening she will meet her lover Harris Whitman, the musicians are playing a lively fiddle tune called "Sally Goodin." So let's liven things up a bit next, with two versions of that song as well: first the James Crase version on John Cohen's Mountain Music of Kentucky compilation, and then a version by a terrific contemporary group called Hot Club of Cowtown, on their 1999 CD Tall Tales.

Muddy Waters, "Feel Like Going Home"

Mary Elizabeth never accompanies Maze to any of the Berea Country dances; it's just not her thing. But on one memorable evening, she stops just short of stepping inside for one of the dances when her "date" for the evening, the mysterious Daniel, invites her to go have coffee with him instead. They talk about all kinds of things that night, and she translates a portion of Camus' The Stranger for him. He tells her about the music he likes, and in honor of my character Daniel, who will eventually die in Vietnam, I'll include his favorite Muddy Waters song, "Feel Like Going Home."

I'll end the list with two happy discoveries from recent months: pianist Jade Simmons and cellist Ben Sollee.

Jade Simmons, "Hip Hop Study and Etude in B Minor"

My discovery of Jade Simpson was a pretty remarkable accident. Recently I pulled out some of my old notes from my earliest days of doing research for Stranger Here Below, and I came across a list of African-American musicians who spent time living and playing in Paris (like my character Mary Elizabeth does in the mid-1960s, and like her great-aunt Paulie had done as well, in the 1920s). Out of curiosity I googled pianist Art Simmons; after reading a bit about Simmons' post-World War II career in Paris jazz clubs, I noticed another link, to a piece about a pianist named Jade Simmons. And that's how I discovered this talented and exciting young musician. I'm following her on Facebook now, and hoping for a time when I'll be able to see her live (and also for an opportunity to ask her if she's familiar with Art Simmons!). In the meantime, her Revolutionary Rhythm - The Rhythm Project--which has music ranging from Samuel Barber Sonatas to a really wonderful series of "Hip Hop Studies and Etudes" by Daniel Bernard Roumain--has become my favorite thing to listen to at my desk these days. It's hard to choose a single piece for this list, but for its wonderful sonic surprises--and also for the ways in which it makes me think of Mary Elizabeth, teasing new possibilities out of her piano at the end of Stranger Here Below--I'll choose "Hip Hop Study and Etude in B Minor."

Ben Sollee, "Flyrock Blues" and "Sweet Marie"

I caught a show by Ben Sollee at the Wildflower Cafe in Bethlehem, PA, a stop on his "Ditch the Van" tour (see, and besides discovering his wonderful music, I learned that he's also from Kentucky! A promoter of alternative transportation (he and his bandmates are touring by bike), he's also spoken out, in his music and online, against mountaintop removal coal mining. Sollee's music is a perfect accompaniment to Stranger Here Below, and it's nearly impossible for me to choose only one or two songs. But in tribute to all those people in eastern Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia who are fighting to save their mountaintops, I'll choose two songs from Sollee's CD Dear Companion: "Flyrock Blues" and the haunting and (I believe) richly metaphorical "Sweet Marie."

Joyce Hinnefeld and Stranger Here Below links:

the author's blog
the author's book tour events
the book's website
excerpts from the book

Amy Reads review
A Books Blog review
Fizzy Thoughts review
From the TBR Pile review
Library Journal review
New York Journal of Books review
A Reader's Random Ramblings review
Rundpinne review
Washington Post review
WV Stitcher review

Allentown Morning Call profile of the author
Beth Fish Reads guest post by the author
The Book Lady's Blog guest post by the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist essay by the author for the novel In Hovering Flight

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 comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists