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February 10, 2012

Book Notes - Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral - "Chopsticks"

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

Chopsticks is a breathtaking YA novel, a groundbreaking exercise in visual storytelling. The book tells its tales through illustrations and photos, while the app and online components add videos and music. Both the printed and digital offerings serve up an extremely intimate peek at two young people's relationship.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

""Chopsticks" is a collaboration between author Jessica Anthony and designer Rodrigo Corral, the creative director of Farrar, Straus & Giroux who came up with the covers for bestsellers by Chuck Palahniuk, Jay-Z and others. It isn't the first novel for young adults to exploit the Web in conjunction with print storytelling, but it is elaborately inventive and compelling."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In their own words, here is Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral's Book Notes music playlist for their novel, Chopsticks:

Chopsticks is a multimedia novel which questions the truth of objects, sounds, and images. From the start, neither of us wanted to employ multimedias merely for the sake of it; instead, we wanted to use music and images that would actually do the work of textual narrative. We spent several months combing through music websites, iTunes, Youtube videos and selected pieces which, whether sonically or lyrically, helped to reveal story. We also recruited help writing and recording original arrangements from music producer Jonathan Wyman. The outcome is a book which collages a variety of visual, textual and musical narratives.

The music in Chopsticks ranges from Beethoven to The Lawrence Welk Show to The Rolling Stones to a veritable buffet of Argentinean rock music. (Also, there are a number of contemporary songs which, once contextualized in the novel, create a kind of nostalgia for the Aughts.) While there are over forty pieces of music played or referenced in Chopsticks, here are our strongest influences:

"Tiny Lustre," by Seekonk, from the album For Barbara Lee (2003)

In 2003, Jess heard the now-defunct band Seekonk (key members currently belong to a group called Plains) perform "Tiny Lustre" in a bar in Somerville, Mass., to a riveted crowd. The song is about being stung by a jellyfish, and sounds like some kind of underwater dream.

In Chopsticks, there is a repeated motif of sea-life: seahorses, jellyfish, along with a variety of underwater beasts which could exist only in our imaginations. In the App, we see Glory’s mother hanging a picture of a large octopus in her childhood bedroom, an image which triggers Glory’s obsession with these creatures, and with the ocean. She feels a conscious longing for it, but also fears it, though she does not know why. The lyrics to Tiny Lustre reveal how danger can romance us, beckon us closer:

Man-o-war down to the shore
I saw your tiny lustre
Man-o-war down to the waters
Where your millions cluster

"Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, 1st Movement," by Sergei Prokofiev

The original inspiration for the character of Gloria "Glory" Fleming came from the film The Competition (1980), to which there are several nods in Chopsticks. In the film, Amy Irving plays a young pianist who is a finalist alongside her lover (played by Richard Dreyfuss) in a fierce piano competition. The tension over who will win builds between them until the day the competition arrives, and Irving’s character sits down to perform. As soon as she begins to play, she realizes that her piano is out of tune. She is given a new piano, and at the last second, chooses to change her concerto. She performs this piece, one of the most difficult Prokofiev compositions, his third piano concerto in C major, and to the chagrin of her boyfriend, wins.

Another composition of Prokofiev’s, "Suggestion (Obsession) Diabolique," is performed by Glory at Carnegie Hall in the novel, and the piece which Richard Dreyfuss’ character performs in The Competition, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #5, op. 73 in E-flat Major (otherwise known as the "Emporer" concerto), is performed by Glory at the Kennedy Center.

"Un Canto a Galicia," by Julio Iglesias, from the album Un Canto a Galicia (1972)

Using the images of Julio Iglesias’ record albums created a mini-drama for us. We originally selected Iglesias to be the musician whom Francisco’s mother listens to constantly, annoying Frank (a lover of rock music) to no end. But after the book was completed, Penguin informed us that Mr. Iglesias’ handlers would not allow us to use the images unless we were willing to spend an extravagant sum.

For a few days, there was real panic as we fretted over who might serve as a quality replacement. We flirted with Gloria Estefan, Sergio Mendes—but there was an unparalleled blend of timeliness and emotional oversaturation in the music of Julio Iglesias. Simply put, this was the music that we could imagine Frank’s mother listening to. Then our editor at Penguin, Ben Schrank, called with some amazing news. Somehow, Julio Iglesias had heard about Chopsticks, and asked to see the book. He read it, and contacted his handlers. Permission was granted.

We selected "Un Canto A Galicia" for Largehearted Boy not only because it is a song which is directly referenced in Chopsticks, but also because the lyrics are an ode to home—specifically, the home which Glory has not felt since she lost her mother in a motorcycle accident in 2000:

Un canto a Galicia
Que es mi tierra madre…

A song to Galicia
Which is my motherland.

"La Balsa," by Los Gatos, from the album La Balsa (1967)

Compiling Frank’s mix of Argentinean rock music took quite a bit of research, as there were a huge number of groups to listen to: from the Sixties with Los Shakers, Manal, Almendra and Los Beatniks, up through the Seventies with Billy Bond, Vivencia, Sui Generis, Pastoral, Soluna, Serú Girán and Vox Dei, to the Eighties with Sumo, Soda Stereo, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and Los Twist. In the end, we came up with a list of music which hopefully pays homage to this era known as "Rock Nacional."

Los Gatos was one of the first Argentinean rock groups to sing in Spanish. Frank includes them on his mix to Glory primarily because he is a young artist who thinks it’s cool to listen to dated music and wants to impress her—but he also wants to introduce her to the rock of Argentina, and help her feel closer to his country. The lyrical sub-text adds considerable narrative weight when you know that the song is about building a raft to drift into madness.

"1234," by Feist, from the album The Reminder (2007)

At one point in the novel, Frank and Glory have fallen for each other and are sitting together a couch watching Feist perform this song on The David Letterman Show. The song is about remembering the fierce and ephemeral love we all felt as teenagers, and Glory and Frank are there, right in the moment.

"Dandelion," by The Rolling Stones, from the album Through the Past Darkly (1967)

When Frank moves in next door to Glory, he is asked by his mother (via a note in his pencil box) to mow the dandelions in the back yard. The dandelions, worn by Glory in a crown, given to her in a gift box, and surrounding her in one of Frank’s paintings become another motif in Chopsticks. By the end of the novel, the loss of Frank and Glory’s love for each other is manifested in the white heads of dying dandelions. In a poem to her, Frank echoes something Glory’s mother wrote in the family photo album when he writes:

Love is wild
And when it is cut
Returns again, stronger
Whether you want it to or not

"Back In Your Head," by Tegan and Sara, from the album The Con (2007)

A few of the musical selections in Chopsticks foreshadow the truth about Glory’s world, and the events to come. This is one. Tegan and Sara are twins, and there’s a mirroring effect to their appearance in the video which is slightly unsettling. You see them playing the piano and drums, and staring matter-of-factly at an audience full of masked people who are dressed in creepy black, white and red clothes. On the far wall in the video, you can see "1234," echoing the Feist song, which appears earlier.

"Bachelorette," Björk, from the album Homogenic (1997)

The lyrics of this song capture the reality of the relationship between Frank andGlory unlike any other in the book:

I'm a whisper in water

Secret for you to hear

You are the one who grows distant

When I beckon you near

But we felt the video was especially vital to Chopsticks. In it, Björk plays the character of a young girl who finds a book buried in the ground: "But all the pages were blank/And to my surprise/It started writing itself." The book continues writing itself, is published, and becomes wildly successful. But the story of how the book was written continues as the character must read from the book, and as variations of the book are adapted for stage and screen. The writing of the story becomes the story itself, again and again, until, like an M.C. Escher image, the meaning overlaps. Finally, nature takes over, reclaiming the story, returning it to the place where it began: underground. Thus, the video is a meta-commentary on the nature of writing and publishing—which, with its integration into a multimedia novel, is in itself a kind of meta-commentary.

"Chopsticks Waltz," by Euphemia Allen (traditional)

Our final song of course is "Chopsticks," which is played or referenced in the novel over twenty times. In 1877, a sixteen-year-old British girl named Euphemia Allen adapted the song from a Russian piece called "Tati-Tati," which begins, like "Chopsticks," in F & G. Over the past century, there have been innumerable references to the song in popular culture. It was played by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, is sampled at the end of the introduction to the cartoon The Jetsons, and was often performed by Liberace. It was referenced in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. We felt that "Chopsticks," as pervasive as it is annoying, was the right fit for a young pianist on the brink of madness.

Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral and Chopsticks links:

video trailer for the book

Book Addiction review
The Daily Campus review
Entertainment Weekly review
Kirkus Reviews review
Los Angeles Times review
PadGadget review
Touch and Go review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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

List of Online "Best Books of 2011" Lists
List of 2011 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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