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June 20, 2016

Book Notes - Anna Noyes "Goodnight, Beautiful Women"

Goodnight, Beautiful Women

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

Anna Noyes' collection Goodnight, Beautiful Women is filled with nuanced, masterfully told stories.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Noyes’s knack for lucid prose includes providing her characters with simple language that nevertheless grasps an understanding of complex human dynamics."

In her own words, here is Anna Noyes' Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Goodnight, Beautiful Women:

In my girlhood in Maine, I spent much of seventh and eighth grade loitering in the Wendy's parking lot, or fishing tiny stars from a jar of blueberry-scented gel and sticking them to my eyelids, or dialing the local radio station to request songs for my boyfriend just so I could hear the startling sound of my own recorded voice played back through the speakers. I called so often the DJ knew my special song ("Breathe" by Faith Hill) and my boyfriend's name by heart. I have spared you the playlist of my radio days, days that included a choreographed lip sync to Shania Twain's "Man! I Feel Like a Woman" performed at a talent show in front of my entire school (I lost, justly, to a two-girl Sonny and Cher rendition of "I Got You Babe"). Instead, here's a small selection of songs my mother passed down to me – as she passed down the books from her bookshelf that would save my life, plumb lines that sounded a depth in me I didn't know I had. Some of these songs, so interwoven with my childhood, made their way into my stories of girls and women finding their way and growing up in their tiny Maine towns. And some of these songs (including a few outliers to my mother's good taste) aren't mentioned in the stories, but I can imagine them playing quietly in the background.

"This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)" - Talking Heads

In the first story of the collection, "Hibernation," the main character Joni is told by her sister that she needs to pray. She believes her husband has drown in the quarry beside their house – she saw him walk into the water – but a part of her is convinced he is still alive. She doesn't know who to pray to, if there's anyone to hear her prayer, and she doesn't know what to say. Her sister tells her to "Call it whatever you want. Just give the thing a name." So Joni comes up with a list of gods, including David Byrne of Talking Heads.

At the wedding where Joni first meets her husband Jack, they dance drunkenly in the kitchen. I think "This Must Be the Place" could be the song they danced to. It's my favorite love song - full of tenderness and wonder, recognition (of all those kinds of people/ you've got a face with a view) and relief (I'm just an animal looking for a home/ share the same space for a minute or two). In "Hibernation" two people who love each other grow into a place where they no longer recognize one another. The home they have created together turns toxic, and frightening. Ultimately, refuge - and a familiar, animal comfort - can no longer be found together. To me, losing someone I love, ending a relationship, has always felt like a kind of loss of home.

"Angel from Montgomery" – John Prine and Bonnie Raitt

I am an only child, but when I was in sixth grade, and also in eighth grade, two girl friends moved in with my family for a time. The poignancy and intensity of being girls together – sharing a bedroom, taking baths in our bathing suits, falling asleep side-by-side in twin beds – is unshakable. One of those friends - my earliest best friend – died recently. We used to sing "Angel from Montgomery" together. In my story "Treelaw" a girl moves in with her classmate's family, and in an early draft the girls sang "Angel From Montgomery" also. I cut this detail because the song seemed too neat a soundtrack for fiction. But for me, this song has always played beneath "Treelaw:"

Make me an angel
that flies from Montgomery
make me a poster
of an old rodeo
just give me one thing
that I can hold onto
to believe in this living
is just a hard way to go

"Wild Horses" - The Rolling Stones

In "Safe as Houses" Harold wakes his daughter Jenny with this song. I remember it was suggested when I workshopped this story that "Wild Horses" was too sexy a song for a father/daughter morning dance. "Yellow Submarine" was offered up as an appropriately playful alternative. But I liked how the slightly discomforting sexiness of "Wild Horses" fit within a story about a young girl's emerging sexuality, and the effect these changes might have on the fragile, sweet relationship she has with her Dad, altering the familiar comfort of their rituals. Also, the sentence "Jenny wakes to Wild Horses" had a certain agitated, electric ring that I wanted to keep.

"Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl" – Broken Social Scene

"The Quarry" is about two sisters, one ten and one fifteen. The older sister is mysterious and a little dangerous, spends hours soaking in the bath, sneaks in late at night, wears a forbidden bikini. This song isn't mentioned in the story, but I wanted to include an unreachable-older-sister kind of song that encapsulated some of the feverish, moody, summertime teenage girlhood of "The Quarry" (which opens with the girls beside the quarry where they're forbidden to swim, pining for water). I also used to cry to this song, when I was feverish and fifteen.

"Helpless" – Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

I've included this song as substitute for "Unknown Legend" by Neil Young, which is a linchpin to this playlist, but not available on Spotify. I considered a cover (sung by Shakey Graves, whose gravely voice weakens my knees) but ultimately that seemed a sacrilege. "Helpless," beloved to me, feels closely aligned, and gives me a similar feeling of fraught forward motion.

In "Glow Baby" Carla takes off in the middle of the night with her four-year-old daughter Milly, leaving Milly's dad behind. In the car, she plays "Unknown Legend:" somewhere on a desert highway/ she rides a Harley Davidson/ her long blonde hair flying in the wind. My mom and I went on a (very different) road trip when I was four. A tape of Neil Young's album Harvest Moon played over and over, alternating with Tuesday Night Music Club by Sheryl Crow. Listening to "Unknown Legend" still gives me a rush of momentum (and sadness, and nostalgia. Mostly, the songs I love make me feel this way). In "Glow Baby," Milly doesn't know what a Harley Davidson is, and she imagines it's a kind of horse. I confess, when I was little, a Harley Davidson was a mystery to me, too.

"Save Me" – Joan Armatrading

I find this song wrenching. Though it doesn't appear in any of the stories, I think it articulates a desperation many of the character's in Goodnight, Beautiful Women share, though their desperation is quieter, not expressed with such clarity and urgency. Often the women in my stories are isolated, searching for the connection and tenderness they need to survive, and finding this need met by unexpected sources.

"Run Baby Run" – Sheryl Crow

"Glow Baby" is followed by another story of mothers and daughters taking to the road, "Goodnight, Beautiful Women." For a collection about women chafing against their lives and sometimes fleeing them and the people they love, "Run Baby Run" seems a good anthem. If I didn't have a paralyzing fear of driving, this song would make me want to roll down my windows and speed away.

"Stand by Your Man" – Tammy Wynette

In the story "Changeling," the narrator says that her mother had a bright voice that won her blue colored shots at Karaoke. A Tammy Wynette voice. "Stand by Your Man"– husky, keening – is a song I can imagine playing in a distant room in the house where the narrator of "Changeling" unexpectedly spends the night. This song is discordant and slightly surreal within the context of "Changeling," which seems fitting for a story that feels to me like it takes place in a dream.

"Katie Cruel" – Karen Dalton

Karen Dalton's voice haunts me from the first note, like an incantation. In my stories, women and girls transition from belonging (in their communities, their relationships, their families) to potential exile. We meet them at an in-between place, where they no longer fit in comfortably but haven't truly been ostracized either. The woman in this song seems stuck; her good, sweet standing has shifted. She is no longer a jewel, and that is what captivates me.

When I first came to town
They called me the roving jewel
Now they've changed their tune
Call me Katie Cruel

"We Sing Thy Birth No. 3, Sing, Heavin Imperial, Most of Hicht!" – Stephen Paulus"

Bonus Track!

In "Homecoming" a young woman moves back to her hometown, where she feels aimless and fallen out of love and very lonely, and in an attempt to reorient herself she joins a local choral group that sings a song in Old English, with lyrics that sound to her like "Lay out your Levi's, lustily." Please take note, around minute 2:37.

Anna Noyes and Goodnight, Beautiful Women links:

the author's website

Electric Literature interview with the author
Kirkus review
New York Times review
Portland Press Herald review
Publishers Weekly review
Washington Post review

Portland Press Herald profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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