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January 4, 2016

Book Notes - Deanna Fei "Girl in Glass"

Girl in Glass

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.

Deanna Fei's memoir Girl in Glass is one of 2015's most important and moving books.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Fei grippingly details her dread, anxiety, and wonder with her second-trimester delivery . . . An urgent call for corporate compassion by a woman with a baby in peril."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Deanna Fei's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Girl in Glass:

When my second child was born, we entered a time and place without music. Amid everything else that was missing, I didn't take much notice of this at first. My daughter had arrived nearly four months premature. None of her vital organs—her heart, lungs, brain, skin—were ready for the outside world.

Her one-pound, nine-ounce body was entangled in tubes and wires, connected to machines, and encased in glass. Instead of the exuberant congratulations that had heralded my son's exemplary birth, I heard sober voices, grim statistics, a doctor's matter-of-fact description of my daughter's birth as "catastrophic."

In our corner of the neonatal ICU, there were no balloons or flowers. No windows, no glimpse of sun. And instead of the usual soundtrack of a mother and child's first days together—the cooing and howling, the babbling and crooning—there was a deafening kind of drone.

The humming of monitors, the gurgling of ventilators, the nurses' muted bustle and chatter, the doctors' clipped cadences. Beeping, always something beeping: a loose connection, a missed heartbeat, a suspended breath. This is the soundtrack of what's known as "the gray zone": the very edge of life.

Sometimes I longed for the clarity of despair. Even the release of grief. But every time I reached through a porthole in that glass box, my daughter's tiny hand held onto mine.

One afternoon, I became aware of a strange, lulling sound. A woman singing, her voice impossibly sweet and pure. A woman perched far across the room, strumming a guitar and singing the kind of simple, tender song that mothers have sung to their babies for all time.

She seemed to have alighted in the NICU from an entirely different realm. Her hair was lustrous, her skin pearlescent, her eyes unhaunted, her smile serene. I'd never seen her wearily hunched in the breast-pumping room. I'd never seen her struggling to absorb news of a heart murmur or a collapsed lung. That day, I hadn't even seen her walk in.

During my hospital vigils, I'd tried to sing to my daughter. I was used to singing on demand to my 1-year-old son: "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" and "B-I-N-G-O" throughout the day, "Hush Little Baby" and "Moon River" before sleep. But here in the NICU, those boisterous rhymes seemed unthinkable, while every lullaby seemed to veer dangerously close to a dirge.

Now here was this angelic stranger singing amid baby-sized life-support machines as if nothing could be more natural. Over in my shadowy corner, I strained to keep my hand steady inside that porthole while my daughter fought for each breath.

Out of everything that might've been magically granted to us – out of everything my daughter needed that I was helpless to provide – why music?

And yet that singing gradually seeped through my chapped skin. Something inside unclenched a little bit. A smidgen of warmth began to spread.

I didn't know if I would ever have the chance to bring my daughter home. I didn't know if she would ever walk or smile or breathe on her own. But here we were, inside this lull together. However long this moment lasted, it would have to be enough.

Later, I learned that the woman was a music therapist, and that live, sung music has been shown to help reduce stress among premature babies. Over the next weeks and months, I finally learned to sing to my daughter, too—through the porthole, then softly into her ear once she stabilized enough for me to hold her, skin to skin.

More than a year after I brought my daughter home, I began to write a memoir, Girl in Glass. It's an exploration of love and fate, and the parent-child bond at its most elemental, and learning to embrace the uncertainty at the heart of life. Somehow, even as I relived every harrowing detail of my daughter's earliest days, I couldn't recall any of the songs that the music therapist sang.

I still can't. But, in the same way that we all carry some memory of the first music we ever heard—the songs our mothers sang—I remember their essence: out of the darkness, a bit of transcendence.

There's nothing like having a child on life support to give you perspective on what really matters. Even so, these days I'm liable to losing that perspective amid the daily frenzy of life with two tyrannical toddlers.

But it comes back to me every time my daughter laughs in the swing with the wind ruffling her hair. Every time she and her brother run to hug and kiss each other at the end of the school day. Every time she shouts, "Mama, I see the moon!"

And every time she sings along to one of these songs:

You Are My Sunshine, by Elizabeth Mitchell

We all know those saccharine lyrics: You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,/You make me happy when skies are gray… But it wasn't until my daughter started requesting this song over and over that I truly listened to the lines that follow the chorus:

The other night, dear, when I lay sleeping,
I dreamt I held you in my arms.
When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken,
So I hung my head and cried.

Of course, once you think about it, the soothing melodies of lullabies are often offset by lyrics that are strikingly "unsettled and dark," as Rivka Galchen recently wrote. "The bough has broken; darling Clementine is lost; even my sunshine, my only sunshine … has gone away." After all, the loss of a baby—a loss we often describe as unimaginable or unbearable—has been, for most of human history, an everyday fact of life. Through the ages, we find a way to rock our babies to sleep against the beating of our hearts and sing into the blackest nights.

I think my daughter loves the simple, classic quality of Elizabeth Mitchell's version. I appreciate its spareness, the way it manages not to cloy, the way Mitchell honors both the sweetness and the ache of the song. And—a highly notable feature in this genre of music—I don't mind listening to it again and again (and again).

Over the Rainbow, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

Apparently, this version of "Over the Rainbow," by the beloved Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, has become more popular than Judy Garland's original, used in dozens of commercials and TV shows. It was only vaguely familiar to me when it played on our Pandora kids' station one rainy afternoon, just as one toddler or the other was gearing up for a tantrum. Both of them paused, ears perked. "Hey, I know this song!" my daughter exclaimed. And we all started to sway and sing along.

According to NPR, Kamakawiwo'ole recorded this song in one take, in the middle of the night, accompanied only by his ukulele. By the time the demo made it onto his debut album, Kamakawiwo'ole knew that he was destined for a brief life; he weighed close to 700 pounds and had already lost his parents and siblings to complications of obesity. He died a few years later, right at the cusp of worldwide fame.

His version of "Over the Rainbow" is irresistible—breezy, effortless, yet full of "shimmering vulnerability." Somehow, every time my kids and I try to sing along, we get muddled and resort to humming. I couldn't figure out why until I read this, from the engineer who recorded Kamakawiwo'ole's near-throwaway that night: "He gets the lyrics wrong, he changes the melody. If you sat there with a book and a score card, you could count the mistakes or you could listen to the song and smile… We just caught the moment."

Three Little Birds, Bob Marley

This is the song my daughter demands more than any other. I can't lie: When those first notes hit my ear for the twentieth time that day, I kind of want to bash my head into the nearest wall. But by the time my daughter trills, "This is my message to you-oo-oo," I'm a sucker all over again. I believe every single word of the song. Which is another way of saying, I'm a mother.

Deanna Fei and Girl in Glass links:

excerpt from the book

Boston Globe review
New York Times review
Washington Post review

All Things Considered interview with the author
Fortune interview with the author
Guardian profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for A Thread of Sky

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

Online "Best of 2015" Book Lists

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
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)