February 28, 2014
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.
TaraShea Nesbit's debut novel The Wives of Los Alamos is both thought provoking and creatively written, an essential insight into the American atomic bomb research project told in the first person plural voice of the scientists' wives.
The Boston Globe wrote of the book:
"Quietly revealing, 'The Wives of Los Alamos' offers an unusual glimpse into a singular community where war, science, and home life collided."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Writing fiction is an act of accessing memory. Even historical fiction does this, by recalling and retrieving our collective history. For me, music recollects my past selves, and brings me back to a particular time, but more than a time, a particular sensation. When I listen to music, I am asking to feel again a sensation: one I want to feel again, or one—as anyone going through a breakup listening to sad love songs knows—I can't help myself but to feel again. My nostalgia is often for the feelings that are part sadness and part elation.
When I thought of the women who helped build the atomic bomb, both through their work in the lab as calculators and secretaries and librarians, and as their work as wives and mothers, I felt a kinship with them as young women newly married, planning a family, and trying, and failing, to get life right in a time of secrecy and fear. I see their stories as one of friendships and love and guilt and longing and anxiety. We as humans are not very different across time.
What I listened to while writing this book and what the women in the 1940s would hear rarely overlapped. But these women loved to dance: music was a large part of their lives, and is therefore a large part of the novel. The community formed an orchestra and a jazz band, they sang along to "Hit That Jive, Jack," they swayed to "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen." Some men formed the Mushroom Society, a group that listened to Mahler recordings in the Tech Area late in the evening, and since many of the wives were not allowed in the Tech Area they stood outside the fence, near the north-facing windows, in the snow, to listen. But what I hear most when I think of the women are the songs that annoyed them. The chant they heard coming from the Women’s Army Corp barracks was of particular dislike to some women, but since I have yet to find a recording, I’ll share part of the lyrics instead: "They get us up at five a.m. / To scrub the barracks clean. / Then what do we do when we get through? / We scrub the damn latrine!"
The songs, below, were helpful for me to access memory and (re)experience sensation as I wrote The Wives of Los Alamos.
1. "Let's Get Out of This Country" by Camera Obscura is me living in Georgetown, a neighborhood in Seattle near the airport, in a 250 square foot apartment along the flight path, next to the highway exit ramp, and abutting the train tracks. It sounds almost romantic to me now, the way the summer sun left its golden light on the streets and how I rode my bike downtown to work as a temp at Amazon in the tall black tower I referred to as the Darth Vader tower. But I was broke, so broke I could barely afford to feed my dog, and I listened to "Let's Get Out of This Country" at the end of the day, in the mid-afternoon, when it was winter and the snow fell and I felt trapped in the snow globe of my apartment. But it was also the song I grew up with, the song that helped me fall in love with the country, the city, and my partner. The wives were living behind barbed wire and could not tell their families where they were, so in contrast my longing for someplace else seems a bit trivial.
2. In around 2001, but perhaps earlier, Jane magazine issued a CD complication along with its magazine for subscribers. It was on the complication that I heard David Berman of the Silver Jews singing "I'm Gonna Love the Hell out of You" in an acoustic demo, and though that CD was one of the few things that survived my early twenties, I somehow lost it in the variety of moves. I love this song for its simplicity musically, the humor and double meaning of loving the "hell" out of someone, the simile "sentimental as a cat’s grave" and the barrenness. Berman is one of our great poets; his book Actual Air was the beginning of what I now see happening in contemporary poetry. The Jane magazine compilation version is much different than what made it on to the album.
3. "Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl" by The Barbarians
When I need an afternoon dance party, I listen to this song. Corollary: I always need a dance party in the afternoon. With hair down in the face, I raggedly dance, and if things get really rowdy the dog—a Saint Bernard who matched me in body weight—joins in. "Always wearing skin tight pants, and boys wear pants—Yeah boys wear pants!"
4. "Martha my Dear" by The Beatles
Paul McCartney wrote this song after his sheepdog, Martha, though some lyrics speak to the end of his relationship to Jane Asher, while also describing the regret that comes with feeling one might be spending their life too much "in contemplation" rather than in life. McCartney asks Martha to "Please, remember me" though he is working. I’ve been singing this song to my own dog, Ellie, since she appeared in my life eleven years ago, and I find joy in the playfulness of directly addressing one’s dog to explore one’s conflicted feelings about working as an artist at the expense of being with others.
5. "The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness" by The Feelies
I found this in my Dad's record collection (my dad was a very young dad) and took it with me into adulthood, across the Midwest and into the West. I am drawn to the hypnotic building of beats and how the song calls for one to dance around, spastic.
6. "Look at Miss Ohio" by Gillian Welch
Ohio-born, with beauty pageant contest winners in my family, how could I not love this song of resignation and failure, this song like a soggy pancake in a pothole puddle.
7. "Lift Yr Skinny Fists to the Sky Like Antennas to Heaven" by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
There is a moment in this song that sounds like the sun breaking over water. The cello and violin rise, the guitars and drums join, we are walking with this band of musicians along the beach, the trumpets breaks through silence, the waves recede. This song does what the most beautiful lines from poems do: it creates something that cannot be translated.
TaraShea Nesbit and The Wives of Los Alamos links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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