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October 27, 2015

Book Notes - Jessa Crispin "The Dead Ladies Project"

The Dead Ladies Project

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jessa Crispin's essay collection The Dead Ladies Project melds memoir and history into an unforgettable travelogue.

Shelf Awareness wrote of the book:

"Is it possible for a memoir to be at once introspective and yet fully embedded in the context of the world around it? The Dead Ladies Project seems to suggest that it is--or at least, that Bookslut founder Jessa Crispin is capable of making us believe it is. . . . Imbued with a deadpan sense of humor, The Dead Ladies Project tackles some of the weightiest subjects possible--suicide, death, infidelity, fulfillment--in a way that is always heartfelt but never heavy. The result is somewhat astounding: a philosophical musing on what it is to live one's best life, even if--or perhaps especially when—that best life fits no mold of conventionality or tradition."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Jessa Crispin's Book Notes music playlist for her book The Dead Ladies Project:

The Dead Ladies Project is a series of nine essays and two half essays, following one artist, writer or composer as they leave everything behind and start up in a new city. Likewise, I packed up everything I owned, put it in a storage unit, and moved around Europe for a year and a half in their footsteps. But it's really just about how to be a person in the world, how to construct a life outside of what everybody else seems to want from and for you.

Prelude / Chicago

"Grid" by Perfume Genius

People keep saying I am brave to start off the book by mentioning that oh yeah I wanted to kill myself for a while and almost did. Then there was this one interviewer, very dad-like, who told me he would call me every day, to check up on me and tell me that I am a special person, that I should keep living. And you want to say "thanks, I guess?" because this is their way of being nice even if their way of being nice is mostly to feel sorry for you.

I like Perfume Genius because he would have no time, I feel, for people feeling sorry for him, whereas I still try encourage the niceness in the impulse by not saying, "You're being a shit right now, actually." Also, I admire people who make darkness sparkling and funny and scary and weird, because it is.

Berlin / William James

"Always Crashing in the Same Car" by David Bowie

David Bowie is a Berlin cliche, which is why he is here. When I was writing my book suddenly there was this explosion of writing by Americans and other anglophones about life in Berlin and how it was so easy to lose years of your life there, to drugs and parties and sex with twentysomethings. There were novels, personal essays everywhere, including in the New York Times. It was a Berlin I never, ever saw. I was bewildered, all of these Americans in Berlin were apparently having this monolithic experience and I was having something else entirely. It was then strange to try to write a counter-narrative to all of that. When you don't participate in the cliche, you sometimes wonder if it's because everyone is going to the same thing and decided not to invite you.

Also, a friend once spoke wisdom to me, and that was, "I didn't get David Bowie for the longest time. Then I moved to Berlin, and it was like I was handed the decoder ring." And yes.

"Carousel" by Jacques Brel

It's hard to find a good version of this, by the way, someone singing it in a way that conveys the terror of the song. It starts fun and nice and then spins out of control, but most people sing it as wheeeee.

But I kind of obsessive about this song in Berlin, because it is a bit like what it's like to come out of depression. Look pretty lights and smells and good food and then it can quickly become overwhelming, feelings and sensations after so few of either.

Trieste / Nora Barnacle

"Fool" by Nadine Shaw

In this chapter, I give wives a hard time. I've had a lot of interesting, wonderful, chaotic girlfriends go all dull-eyed and blank as soon as they got married, most of them to literary boy "geniuses," guys who would subtly manipulate their women into thinking that his career was the primary, that his genius needed nurturing, that she was better off facilitating his work that working on her own. And some of these guys listed Bukowski as an influence. I almost fell into that trap, once, but luckily he asked me to marry him, which snapped me out of whatever stupid reverence I had fallen into and made me flee.

But if I could meet that guy for the first time all over again, I would coo this song into his ear right before I smashed his face into a baked good of some sort.

"Bitter Mule" by Meshell Ndegeocello

But also what a hell of a thing to see other women friends to get equal partners who love them and believe in them and to be left the only romantic wreck in the bunch, the only forever lonelyheart, whose lovers mostly leave me listening to Meshell Ndegeocello albums in the dark while lying on the floor.

Sarajevo / Rebecca West

"Sat in Your Lap" by Kate Bush

For everything a woman does, there is a "scientific" study that will tell her how that thing is ruining her chances at getting married. If she owns property, she's less likely to find a partner. If she is successful at her work, she's less likely to find a partner. If she is educated to a certain degree, she's less likely to find a partner. If she ages past 30, etc etc.

Which means it's almost goddamn impossible to have an intelligent conversation about women and ambition, because there is so much rank stupidity in the atmosphere, taking up all of the oxygen. You see Rebecca West, who was ambitious more often than brilliant, alas, but she did have real moments of brilliance, simply dismissed as HG Wells's "mistress." A lot. Like it was the only interesting thing she did, having Wells's dick inside of her every once and a while.

There are also a million songs by men about ambition and desire for success. This was the only one by a woman I could even think of.

"Boom" by M.I.A.

But the other part of the Sarajevo chapter was seeing much more clearly how we talk about and talk to other countries, how it is almost entirely about us. We in the West tell ourselves stories about the Balkans ("ancient hatreds," "ethnic tension") to understand the war there in a way that de-humanizes them. In a way that removes any humanity from them, so that we don't have to feel empathy or connection, so we don't have to do anything about it nor understand that that could happen to us.

I can't write to music, but after I was done writing for the day, a lot of the time I would have MIA's "Matangi" on very very loud as I tried to recover.

South of France / Margaret Anderson

Rachmaninoff's Prelude in G Minor, Op 23, No. 5, performed by Moura Lympany

In her completely weirdo memoirs, Anderson takes a break from lying (marvelously) about her life to list a number of recordings that are, to her, the best recordings. This was on her list. And as she is about most things (except for how things really went down), Anderson was right.

"L.E.S. Artistes" by Santigold

As Hedwig's mom says, In order to walk away, you've got to leave something behind. Margaret Anderson and I left a lot of similar things behind: our Midwestern upbringing, our families, most of our money, to try to construct something entirely new. Something about beauty and art, while still remaining very politically active. I like this song, because it's distinctly about the moment before you have any idea of what (if anything) will replace what's been left behind.

Galway / Maud Gonne

"Helelyos" by Sexwitch

There was this boy poet who recently told me all of the reasons he hated Maud Gonne (they were all about her romantic rejection of WB Yeats). Gonne is more interesting than Yeats. Revolutionary, black magician, sold her soul to the devil as a young girl, hallucinated (or just plain saw) spirits and visions. Yeats didn't even come close to deserving this chick, she was right to toss him to the curb. (Genius does not make up for everything, boys.)

So she gets Sexwitch. Music for conjuring.

Lausanne by Igor Stravinsky

"Mother Whale Eyeless" by Brian Eno

When I first went to the little farmhouse outside of Lausanne where I was staying, it was raining so hard that I couldn't see the mountains that surrounded me for the first week or so. Then the sky cleared, the mountains emerged, spring had sprung, and all of the wintry depression and cold and pessimism was just ushered out. It felt like a bad metaphor for this halfway point of the book / journey, and yet who cares. The dairy cows came out to play, I started to take long walks up and down the mountain, and felt like a person again.

"Bedlam!" by Veda Hille

While thinking about Stravinsky, I was trying to figure out what made an artist resilient. What made them persevere even after, say, having one of their compositions set off a riot. What made them open to experimentation, what made them leave their peers behind and go off and do something entirely different. My friend Veda Hille, who has written a crazy number of albums, operas, and musicals, covering a wide range of forms and genres, and is just breathtakingly talented, is also good company for this particular train of thought.

St. Petersburg / W Somerset Maugham

"Suede" by Tori Amos

It's hard to have a conversation about Tori Amos these days, without it devolving into groans about "What did she do to her faaaaaace?" (search "tori amos + plastic surgery) or how she used to talk about religion, sex, power, mythology, and now she just prattles on about her husband. Her turn into Facelift Hera has been, well. At least she seems to be happy in her marriage, even if she hasn't released an interesting album in fifteen years.

W Somerset Maugham had a terrible, dreadful marriage, married to an abusive bitch. He wrote beautiful books until he died. We like to pretend art and family doesn't have to be a trade-off, and yet. But here's to remembering what Tori Amos used to be able to do.

London / Jean Rhys

"House of Glass" by Roisin Murphy
"Prison Girls" by Neko Case

Someone asked me recently what was more important, being a good person or being a great artist. And I've always wondered why we think that's a choice one is forced to make. Like, if Roman Polanski wasn't a rapist, would he have made worse movies?

So Jean Rhys wrote some really good novels. She was a monster. At least, she's a monster in my eyes. Sponging off of men her whole life, playing at powerlessness. She saw every person in her life as what it was she could take from them.

I have nothing against fragility, and if anything, here are two of my favorite songs about fragility. But using your fragility as a weapon, nothing makes me angry faster.

Jersey Island / Claude Cahun

"Caruso" by Gavin Friday

I bought Gavin Friday's Shag Tobacco in 1995 and fell in love immediately. Sometimes you find an artist or musician or writer whose work moves in the same way your brain does. Claude Cahun's photography was also like that for me. Just: I got it. And it expands what you thought about art, what you thought about yourself, it rewires you in an essential way.

Coda / Zakynthos

"Home" by Sarah Kirkland Snider

Taken from her Penelope song cycle, this song makes me ache. I used to think that well, once I've traveled enough, "got it out of my system," I will surely settle down into a relationship, a little house somewhere with a garden blah blah blah. And every time I think I am close to that moment, I'm pulled back onto a plane or a train again and again. Probably "house," "husband," and "security" will always be words that make me shrug. And probably "the road" and "the world" will always give me that buzz, that thing that lights me up. That's hardly a tragedy.

Jessa Crispin and The Dead Ladies Project links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
Los Angeles Times review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Publishers Weekly review

Bookslut interview with the author
Broadly interview with the author
Chicago Tonight profile of the author
Los Angeles Review of Books interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)