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October 24, 2016

Book Notes - Amy Kurzweil "Flying Couch"

Flying Couch

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.

Amy Kurzweil brilliantly leverages the power of the comic form in her graphic memoir Flying Couch, which chronicles the lives of three generations of women in her family.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A debut that enriches and extends the potential of graphic narrative."

In her own words, here is Amy Kurzweil's Book Notes music playlist for her graphic memoir Flying Couch:

Flying Couch is a memoir, the story of three generations of women in my family: My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, my mother, a psychologist, and me, an artist. I started this book in my very early twenties, when I was still struggling to understand myself and my family. (But I don’t think that process every stops, really.) I’d always felt a kind of attraction/aversion to the horrors and triumphs in my grandmother’s survival story, and when I left home for the first time (under quite privileged conditions, comparatively), it became more clear to me just how much my family members – my mother, my grandmother – were a part of my identity. Our family’s stories aren’t ours exactly, but they are inherited, like DNA.

I’ve often wondered who we would all be if my grandmother hadn’t had to experience what she did, if she had been an American, like me. My grandmother says that if she were born in this country she would be a singer. She loves to sing. "No pills," she says, "just song." Maybe she could use a little auto-tune, but when she sings, you can hear her spirit (click the link to hear her sing it).

"Bei Mir Bist du Schoen," The Andrews Sisters
This is an old Yiddish song – translated it means "To me you are beautiful" – known best by the Andrews Sisters’ recording. I remember: I was at a dance show with my mom (Mark Morris, I believe) and when this song came on, I saw that little thrill of recognition run through her. From then on I thought the Andrews Sisters were a Yiddish group. There was something sad about learning they'd just recorded that one song in Yiddish, and they weren't even Jews. (If you want to hear a lovely version of this song, listen closely to the background music of the Flying Couch animated trailer, played by jazz guitarist Dave Lincoln.)

"The Autumn Leaves," Nat King Cole
When asked to sing in English, this is Bubbe’s go to song (click the link to hear her sing it). I don’t know which version she likes best, but Nat King Cole’s is so beautiful, so classy. Doris Day also sings it, and Edith Piaf. I think it was a French song originally. This speaks to my grandmother’s taste. She likes Dean Martin, Perry Como, that era. She says she likes songs with a story, with lyrics she can understand. Songs with compassion, and love.

"Blue Suede Shoes," Elvis
Bubbe can’t relate to rock n’ roll, she says, because she can’t understand the lyrics. I believe her exact words were "It’s all: bay-bee baay-be, bay-bee, baay-be." But my mom has always been a rock-n-roll kinda gal. Her brother Bud used to send her an Elvis-themed card every year on her birthday. (I wonder if he still does.) I think we have a "rock around the" clock somewhere.  My mom taught me how to jitterbug in the kitchen of my suburban childhood home outside of Boston. I remember dancing to this song, my socked feet slipping on very clean wood floors.

"I Wanna Hold Your Hand," The Beatles
But my mom had a touch of a hippie streak, too. I remember listening to Beatles albums on road trips along the east coast. She told me once that the Beatles shocked the public because they had really long hair. I remember the cognitive dissonance when I studied their modest bowl cuts on that album cover of Meet the Beatles. (I miss CDs.). I remember a philosophical discussion about this song: "What's the subtext? Why does he want to hold your hand?"

"You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," Bob Dylan
My mother came of age at the right time, musically. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were always with us on our road trips, too. And there's a Shawn Colvin version of this song that we listened to so often. I think my mom feels especially connected to Dylan. He grew up in the Midwest, like her, and he left, like her. (I also have to say I think I really look a lot like Bob Dylan, I dressed up like him for Halloween once, with the leather and the cigarette. It was uncanny.) I was admittedly scandalized by Dylan winning the Nobel, but if I’m really honest; music was my first introduction to poetry. This song made me think about the power of subtlety, how you can say one thing and imply another. If he liked this person so much, how does he know she’s going to leave?

"California," Joni Mitchell
Whenever I left home, on my way back to college, I used to sit on the plane, usually crying, and I’d listen to this song on repeat on my iPod 2. Especially if turbulence conspired with my grief and I feared becoming ill. Joni’s voice, it’s like sparkling water. Leaving home for the first time was traumatic for me, and every time I left again – thanksgiving, winter break, spring – was like being ripped from the womb all over again. I tried to think about California as my new home, "full of strangers…Take me as I am."

"Holland, 1945," Neutral Milk Hotel
I also listened to this song often in college, and I was struck by how by completely unlike everything else on my playlists this was – playlists which were full mostly of old-school or what we called "socially conscious" hip-hop (Common, Blackstar, Dead Prez,) or else some smooth indie crooner like Sufjan Stevens. But there’s something about this song. I first read the transcript of my grandmother’s interview with a holocaust historian when I was in college, and this song seemed to epitomize the strangeness of my relationship to that history: vast distances of time and space and yet such emotional proximity. The song starts out with the death of a little girl during wartime, and then keeps warning "now we must pick up every piece of the life we used to love, just to keep ourselves at least enough to carry on."

"We Know," Talib Kweli ft. Faith Evans
In my early to mid twenties, when I wasn’t working on Flying Couch, I spent my time running around breathless between the boroughs of New York and New Jersey – South Brooklyn to the Bronx to Newark – from public school to public school, where I taught mostly dance classes to lovable and unruly middle-schoolers. Mostly hip-hop, or whatever they were into: latin, step dance. I spent so much time on public transit, and music was like sleep or oxygen. Oh man if I ever got a seat. The 4 train, the 6, the Path train, the Q, The BX39 bus. Music was peace. I listened to this song so often. And that album title: The Beautiful Struggle. That felt like life in New York to me. This song epitomizes my taste around this time of my life, and still. Sweet and rhythmic and profound.

"Take Care," Drake and Rihanna
This overwrought pop song legitimately moves me. More than any other popular song from my era, and I listened to a lot of popular songs when I was teaching dance. I was very tired. I wasn’t sure what my life was about, the world and my students had so many problems, and I just wanted someone to take care of me. I listened to this song on the way to class, and then again and again in class, since I’d choreographed a piece to it for the kids. Something happens when you dance to a song, you sort of hear through the lyrics, like all the nuances of the song, the empty spaces, come alive, mean something, so even the most simple song can be engaging if you like the beat. My students loved this one too. The breakdown in the middle is just like… mmm I can’t describe it in words. (I need pictures!)

"Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours," Stevie Wonder
Here’s a celebration song to cap off the list. My book is done, sealed and signed. It took a while. I’m a grown up now, sort of. This is the kind of song my mom, my grandmother, and I could all appreciate. The kind of song we might, and probably have, danced too together at weddings or bar-mitzvahs. Now whenever I dance with my mom, she’s always asking me to "teach her moves." "What’s that one called," she says, pointing. She thinks the moves I do have names. They don’t. I’m just dancing, Mom.

Amy Kurzweil and Flying Couch links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Kirkus review

Hobart interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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