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April 4, 2012

Book Notes - Leela Corman - "Unterzakhn"

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.

Originally serialized at The Jewish Daily Forward, Leela Corman's graphic novel Unterzakhn follows the lives of two sisters, Russian Jewish immigrants in New York City's Lower East Side. Set in the early 1900s, Corman captures both her characters and the era elegantly and expressively with her pen and ink artwork, and the sisters' story is captivating, informative, and moving as they move along their divergent paths.

Craig Thompson wrote of the book:

"Unterzakhn swirls with the energy of Almodovar and the depth of Dostoyevsky as it follows the fates of two charmingly complicated twin sisters. I loved it."

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

In her own words, here is Leela Corman's Book Notes music playlist for her graphic novel, Unterzakhn:

There was a time when this would have been much easier for me to write. My first book, Subway Series, vaguely set in the late 80's, was about a punk-ish teenager in New York City. I always had a playlist in my mind for that book. I never actually created it for anyone, but if I had, it would have contained the kind of music I listened to a lot myself when I was in my late teens and early 20's: The Buzzcocks, The Jam, The Undertones, Einsturzende Neubauten. Am I a cliché yet? Doesn't every pathetic 16-year-old listen to those bands? Hmm. Actually, I still listen to all of them on a regular basis. Anyway.

My favorite use of music as a framing device for a narrative is in Fatih Akin's great film, Head-On/Gegen Die Wand, which has long been a school of storytelling for me. I watched it three or four times a year for a while, and learned something new with every viewing. Akin literally frames the story with performances by an ensemble of musicians led by the great Turkish clarinet player Selim Sesler, and a terrific female singer named Idil Uner. The musicians, in a classic six-piece formation, sit in a row behind the singer, on an island in the Bosphorus, with the iconic Ottoman architecture of Istanbul visible behind them. This almost static, postcard-like image contrasts sharply with the chaos and heartache of the story between the songs. Oh, the songs...all old love songs, arranged in descending order from hope to despair. From songs about the unparalleled beauty of the loved one's hair, to the joy of being engaged to be married, and then ending with a song that asks, "Have all those who have loved and lost also lost their senses like me? May the mountains rejoice in my stead." These performances exist in a world outside that of the protagonists, whose lives take place first in Hamburg and then in the sleazier precincts of modern Istanbul. The film was scored by Neubauten's Alexander Hacke, and that part of the soundtrack is also pretty great. There's a version of The Birthday Party's "Ho-Ho" sung by Nick Cave, different from the album version, which is sung by Rowland S. Howard; that's a highlight for me, as that's long been a favorite song of mine. But it's those set pieces with the classic Turkish ensemble that really make the story for me.

I have always wanted to be able to do something like that in my comics, and I still haven't figured out how. The closest I can come right now is this. I'm being less than literal here, not sticking to music contemporary to my book's setting. Generally, when I'm writing/thumbnailing, I don't listen to anything; I need silence, or sounds of the world going on around me. I wrote much of Unterzakhn in a café in Gainesville that no longer exists, called 2nd Street Bakery. When I move on to the drawing phase, I usually listen to NPR or to archives of the BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4. I also find that Joe Frank is a great inking soundtrack. And in the production phase, when I am a slave chained to my computer, I often listen to the afore-mentioned radio shows. However, during the production of this book, I became a fucking psycho, and streamed every episode of Battlestar Galactica back to back, including Razor, while I raced to finish it.

However, I did certainly also listen to music. Sometimes music engages my emotional center too much, but sometimes it is the only thing that helps.

May the mountains rejoice in my stead. I could tell you what that means now. Two weeks after I delivered the final files of the book to my publisher, my 23-month-old daughter, Rosalie Lightning, died in her sleep, for reasons unknown to us as yet. She just left. Shut the lights off and left. Something, somewhere, is rejoicing, but it is not me.

"Romania, Romania" - Aaron Lebedeff

This great Yiddish song is a folksong favorite, according to some friends of mine who are better Jews than me. This guy has an amazing voice. Apparently the lyrics are rather naughty, and there's a part where he repeatedly cries out, "Zetz!", which means hitting someone, rather hard. Harder than a potch. I love this song for many reasons, chief among them his voice, and his fabulous vocal gymnastics as the music gets more frenetic. But also, his accent reminds me of my grandparents'. It's very difficult for me to listen to any Yiddish music, even the happy stuff, without crying. This is from a terrific record called From Avenue A To The Great White Way, which also has....

"Huliet, Huliet, Kinderlach" (Play, Play, Children), which is entirely appropriate to include here, because my book contains many scenes of children, though whether or not they are playing is up for discussion. Here's a translation of the lyrics that I found online:

Frolic, play, my little ones,
Springtime has begun,
Springtime has begun,
How I envy you your youth,
Now my day is done. (2 times)

Frolic, play, my little ones,
While you're young and gay,
While you're young and gay,
Now it's spring, but wintertime
Is but a jump away.

Play, my dearest little ones,
Don't ever waste a thing,
Don't ever waste a thing,
Allow me, too, into the game,
May I join the ring? (2 times)
Frolic, play...

Take no heed of my grey head
Does it disturb your play?
Does it disturb your play?
My soul is still so very young,
Much as yesterday. (2 times)
Frolic, play. .

My soul is still so very young,
And longing to be free—
And longing to be free—
Yearning to escape the cage
Of my anatomy.(2 times)
Frolic, play...

Frolic, play, my little ones,
I, too, was once a boy,
I, too, was once a boy,
And I know that spring does end,
And with it all your joy. (2 times)
Frolic, play..

from Folksongs and Footnotes, Theodore Bikel, 1960
English translation by Theodore Bikel.

Popol Vuh, "Aguirre I"

This is the theme from Werner Herzog's film Aguirre Wrath Of God, another favorite of mine. This music expresses a great deal for me, non-verbally. It's ominous. It tells you that people and animals are about to fall off of the mountain. In fact, they're falling as you watch. There's no help you can offer. I felt that most of my characters in Unterzakhn were about to do that.

Rowland S. Howard, "Silver Chain"

Another song about begging to be saved, begging nature to save you, or even notice you, though it's hopeless and you'll end up like the narrator of this song: "I spoke to the forest, I spoke to the trees, I spoke to the river, but it did not speak to me/I carved your name in the cypress tree bark/I tattooed your name in a ring round my heart/I wore out my welcome, I wore out myself/I wore out my reason, I wore out my health/I forgot my name, on the day that you came". This is how I imagine my characters feeling at their worst, especially Isaac, though he lacks the eloquence to express it as beautifully.

The Happiness Boys, "She Knows Her Onions"

This winking vaudeville song about a gold-digging chorine could so easily be about Esther. Just a gal what knows her onions! Okay, so Esther's not a farmer's daughter, brought up in I-Oh-Ayy, but you can be sure she don't get out and walk. Sam Henderson gave me this song years ago, and now I can only see Esther in my mind when I listen to it.

Neko Case, "Hold On, Hold On", "Dirty Knife"

I'm not exaggerating when I say that she's probably the most important musician to me right now, in more ways than I can possibly explain here (am I a cliche yet?). I always wish my comics could have the visceral impact on readers that her music has on me, but I think that's impossible. "Hold On, Hold On" is to me a song that both Esther and Fanya would sing to themselves every day if they could, as they find their way through a tough world. And neither of them would ever get married. "Dirty Knife" is in there because of its dark Ukrainian atmosphere. Jew or Goy, if your ancestors come from Eastern Europe, there is a dark cloud over you at all times. It hovered all around me while I worked on this book. There's no end to the sorrow of our ancestors, on this side of the pond, or there.

Ahmed Adeweia, "Bint Al Sultan"

This song is Egyptian, and this book has nothing to do with Egypt. However, in my other life I'm a bellydancer, and I dance to this song all the time. If Cairo had a Lower East Side, this is what it would sound like: hot, smeared, dirty, exhilarating. A place where a guy from the wrong side of the tracks would serenade you with lines like, "Water turns to sugar in your hands". Since I spent so much of my time dancing when not working on this book, I feel I should include something from that part of my life."Hey Sultan's daughter...have mercy on the poor guy!"

Leela Corman and Unterzakhn links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (serialized at the Jewish Daily Forward)
excerpt from the book (at the publisher)

Baltimore City Paper review
Bookreporter review
Graphic Novel Reporter review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review
The SF Site review

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlists

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