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March 21, 2013

Book Notes - Steven Amsterdam "What the Family Needed"

What the Family Needed

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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Steven Amsterdam's What the Family Needed is a straightforwardly told and magical novel of family, both heartbreaking and filled with compassion.

The Sydney Morning Herald wrote of the book:

"A wonderful novel: imaginative, intelligent, empathetic. It's like a cross between The Corrections and The Slap, except without any of the gloom or rage and with the addition of something that may or may not be either a form of magic realism or simply that old staple of the literary art, metaphor."

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

In his own words, here is Steven Amsterdam's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, What the Family Needed:

I once heard an author describe her morning ritual: she silently rises, exchanges no words with her partner, steeps her green tea for a precise duration, sits down at her desk, scatters around her desk the open books of writers she hopes to invoke in her own work that day, and then, to maximize inspiration, puts on headphones, blasts Radiohead and begins.

My mornings are not so focused. At minimum, there's some business related chores, dog-walking, email activity, and breakfast. In my fantasy, I have her asceticism. It would be Louis Armstrong bleating through the headphones. Specifically, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. The problem is that I'm distractible. I rarely listen to music while I'm working and if I do, it has to be instrumental. No words but my own. This is all to say that any proposed soundtrack for my writing has to be added later, in post-production.

What the Family Needed has seven members of a family, each discovering their own special power. Over thirty years, they fly, read minds, conjure, etc. The powers hit everyone differently. Some characters struggle to find their source, some try to learn their limits, and some are simply jubilant. As no one is on track to become a train-punching superhero, they mostly keep their gifts to themselves and set about making their own lives make sense. Hovering in the background is Alek, a bit magical himself, and troubled. He has the last chapter. I'll leave it at that.

As evidence of my distractibility, I submit this playlist which is as varied as any family. I couldn't stick to one singer or style. Instead, I was guided by the visuals of favorite scenes and the feel of each track.

"Let it Ride (Jimpster remix)" – Lisa Shaw

This song hypnotically preaches that thing we all know we must do but can't. I want to play it for Giordana when she is riding the night bus back to her mother. Having snuck away and tried out her new power, she is overflowing with adolescent revelations. Now that she understands everything, she is itching to get on with her life, just as it's getting complicated.

"Rich Man's Frug" – Sweet Charity soundtrack

This is the music whizzing in Natalie's mind. A suburban mom, life is pushing her at an insistent tempo through ever-shifting rhythms. She's trying to find the reason for the drift of her adolescent son Alek. In the midst of her spying, the discovery of her own new strength lures her out to sea.

"Secret Life of Arabia" – David Bowie

Ben, a househusband on a downbeat, is saved by the sudden gift of flight. This track, from the less radio-friendly, second side of Heroes, has both the darkness and the lift that would come to a depressed guy who is suddenly able to see his whole world from above.

"Crystalnight" – Alpinestars

Ruth is a night nurse. She has provided her wayward nephew Alek with a place to crash and freedom from his parents. But he has taken off once again, without a clue. If she can find him and read his mind just a little bit, maybe she can heal the entire family. "Crystalnight" is encoded with sneakiness, mournfulness and a hunger to make things whole again.

"Just You, Just Me" – Nat King Cole

Alek's brother Sasha plays Cupid. Successful meddling brings him a jazzy kind of joy and maybe even some love of his own.

"The Long Road" – Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn and Eddie Vedder

This is the first chapter I wrote: the idea of grief led me to magical thinking which led me to the idea of magic. Here, a period of mourning is tempered or exacerbated by the power to conjure up anything – except the departed. The way to survive such mourning and such magic is to take the long view. That is what these two geniuses warble about.

"Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)" - Aretha Franklin

Alek's chapter. As I said, I'll leave it at that.

"Brazil" - Cornelius

The meandering melody of "Brazil" provides the coda. I have 19 versions of this song, all of which maintain the same seductive smile as they promise a far-off utopia. The electronic tricks on Cornelius' version add a layer of hypnosis: "Tomorrow was another day/the morning found us miles away/with still a million things to say." Exactly.

Steven Amsterdam and What the Family Needed links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Entertainment Weekly review
Kirkus Reviews review
Observer review
Publishers Weekly review
Real Simple review
Sydney Morning Herald review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Things We Didn't See Coming

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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