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April 20, 2020

Ann Lewinson's Playlist for Her Novella "Still Life with Meredith"

Still Life with Meredith

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Ann Lewinson's novella Still Life with Meredith is a breathtaking debut, a book masterfully told and insightful.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Endlessly inquisitive and wider in scope than length, the novella proves a worthy addition to the canon of messy, strange, and keen women. Genre-bending, hard to categorize, and teeming with life."

In her own words, here is Ann Lewinson's Book Notes music playlist for her novella Still Life with Meredith:

"Life Saver Girls," Riz Ortolani, Nino Oliviero
The dogs don't start barking until the end of Still Life with Meredith, but I had to kick this playlist off with the soundtrack of Mondo Cane, the 1962 Italian travelogue-exploitation documentary that kicked off a whole genre of "mondo" films, because I did a lot of work on this manuscript in an Italian village with more barking dogs than people. So I had to put them in the book. From the back of the LP, about the soundtrack: "A thing of sheer beauty, it has been carefully developed and recorded so that on its own it becomes a most important contribution to the Arts."

"Modern Art," Art Brut
My narrator, who is unnamed, works in a contemporary art museum, where she first meets Meredith. It's probably not The Tate, where this guy is seriously getting off on that Hockney Blue. I can't imagine rocking out to David Hockney (R. B. Kitaj, maybe), but I appreciate the impulse. When all this COVID is over we should all proceed to our nearest museum and Just. Rock. Out.

"Bird Song (Diplo Remix)," M.I.A.
Meredith invites the narrator to a party at her apartment, where birds happen to be flying around, and I just know this would be playing. Those squawking bird calls are aping the cuckoo-interlude in "Oru Kili Uruguthu" from a 1983 Tamil film, Aanandha Kummi. M.I.A. always has the best samples. Also, she name-checks a whole lot of birds.

"Artists Only," Talking Heads
As far as the narrator is concerned, Meredith's party might as well have an "Artists Only" sign taped to the front door. After she moves in with Meredith, she finds her unwavering confidence both enviable and absurd. I can see Meredith exclaiming with exasperation at her skeptical roommate, "I don't have to prove…that I am creative!" She wouldn't even recognize that the lyrics, by a RISD classmate of the Talking Heads, are mocking her.

"I Don't Know Enough About You," Peggy Lee
My narrator, observing Meredith in her element, quotes this song quite literally. Something you might not know about Peggy Lee: she wrote the lyrics for many standards, including this one, as well as Duke Ellington's "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'," Sarah Vaughn's "What More Can a Woman Do?" and camp classics "Johnny Guitar" and "Mañana"—but not her 1969 comeback, "Is That All There Is?"

"Art Star," Yeah Yeah Yeahs
This is, more or less, Meredith: "I've been working on a piece that speaks of sex and desperation/I've been screwing on the tracks of abandoned train stations." Karen O's sing-song deadpan and inane "doo-doot-doo"s are exactly right; her scream manages to encompass both the artist's need for attention and the audience's exasperation. Scream along with her, won't you?

"The Purloined Letter," NBC University Theater
My narrator doesn't have the patience to actually read Edgar Allan Poe's "Purloined Letter," so why should you, when you can listen to this 1948 radio dramatization starring Adolphe Menjou as the original master detective, Auguste Dupin? NBC University Theater actually divided its seasons into semesters, offered college credit and in its final year ran an essay contest—the winner won a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas. The entire series is available on the Internet Archive.

Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Felix Mendelssohn
The narrator remembers auditioning for a summer camp production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which recalled for me this evocative movement from Mendelssohn's incidental music for a production of the play. It's a wondrous swirl of woodwinds and strings representing fairies and the natural world, respectively (at least that's how I hear it), in playful battle for dominion over the enchanted forest—interrupted about thirty seconds in by a braying Bottom.

"Go Away Little Girl," Donny Osmond
When the other girls at summer camp want the narrator out of their cabin, they sing this Gerry Goffin and Carole King number, and although plenty of grown-up men have tackled these anxious lyrics (set against an incongruously gentle, cantering accompaniment), I did have Donny Osmond's No. 1 hit in mind. When Donny recorded this he was 13 years old, so how little is this girl? Few things are more terrifying than Donny's high belt, and this single in general.

"Dolphins," Fred Neil
Meredith and the narrator visit one of those places in Florida where you swim with dolphins; perhaps it was one of the beneficiaries of Fred Neil's Dolphin Research Project, which he founded after leaving the Greenwich Village folk scene. But before returning to his native Florida—where one of the dolphins who played Flipper had tried playing his guitar—he wrote this song, along with "Everybody's Talkin'." Famously reclusive, Neil's songs were hits for other people. Even Linda Ronstadt covered this one, but there could be more no fitting voice than Neil's oceanic baritone.

"At the Zoo," Simon & Garfunkel
During this quasi-quarantine I've been wandering down to the closed Central Park Zoo to watch the seals, who don't know from COVID and are having there usual blast. Paul Simon was right: "It's all happening at the zoo." My narrator also wanders into a shuttered zoo, one not quite so hopping as Simon's, where "Zebras are reactionaries/Antelopes are missionaries/Pigeons plot in secrecy/And hamsters turn on frequently." This song was written for The Graduate but not used—but I do recall it in a commercial for the Bronx Zoo.

"No One Was Like Vermeer," Jonathan Richman
The narrator recalls a class on Dutch still life painting, but since I don't know any songs about Dutch still life painting, I'll go with "No One Was Like Vermeer." Because Jonathan Richman is right. And Vermeer did paint people as if they were still lifes—think of his "Milkmaid," her poured milk in suspended animation. But why flamenco? I googled "flamenco" and "Dutch" to see if there was any history there, and got an announcement for a 2019 Flamenco Biënnale in the Netherlands. Perhaps Richman just wanted to show off his Spanish guitar chops.

"I Am a Kitten," Momus
The roommates have a cat, Malinka—and just what goes through that cat's head? Let's ask Momus, a.k.a. Nick Currie, that mysteriously prolific Scot—even the CD this appears on, 1996's 20 Vodka Jellies, a compilation of demos, B-sides and outtakes, is magically delicious. This is one of those demos—the song was written for Japanese singer Kahimi Kari and recorded in French in homage to Serge Gainsbourg, and you see where I'm going with this. Like so many Momus characters, this is one licentious cat, with a very physical longing for his owner.

Theme from "Fractured Fairy Tales," Cartoon Theme Ensemble
The story of Maisy Bumble that appears about two-thirds of the way into the book was inspired by "Fractured Fairy Tales," a segment of The Bullwinkle Show that put fairy tales through a contemporary ringer with bored Brooklyn princesses, ineffectual knaves and conniving, wart-nosed witches adept at the ol' switcheroo. These cartoons were profoundly formative on my young psyche, so much so that I wrote the story with narrator Edward Everett Horton's voice in my head.

"I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts," X
This is uncanny—it's like Exene Cervenka and John Doe are inside the narrator's disintegrating mind as she's waiting for Meredith to return from one of her international engagements. They're two voices in conversation, like a split personality. I even suspect the scribbles on the inner sleeve of the album this comes from, 1983's More Fun in the New World, are hers. Even the whistle at the end. "It's dog eat dog, dog eat body, and body eat dog." That's definitely where her head's at.

"Brown," Ken Nordine
The pigment "mummy brown," favored by the Pre-Raphaelites, is up for morbid discussion in my novella. Here's Ken Nordine's evocation of the color, in all its range, from his 1966 album Colors, which evolved from a series of radio commercials he'd done for the Fuller Paint Company. Think about that assignment—sell colors, on the radio. Nordine, who was both a copywriter and voiceover artist, had been making his "word jazz" records since the '50s. I spent many nights listening to his radio show "Now Nordine" when it was broadcast on WFMU—lying in the dark, in wonder.

"The Ballad of Caryl Chessman," Ronnie Hawkins
"Let him live! Let him live!" sings Ronnie Hawkins on this Roulette single, released in February 1960, just months before Caryl Chessman's execution after nearly 12 years of death row. During those years he became a bestselling author (I recommend his autobiographical Cell 2455 Death Row) and a cause célèbre for many, including Marlon Brando, Eleanor Roosevelt and the psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte, who pops up frequently in my novella, and who visited him in San Quentin.

"Canary in a Coalmine," The Police
A song about dead birds you can dance to? When The Police recorded this bouncy little ska number it wasn't just a metaphor: British miners were still sending canaries ahead to detect carbon monoxide, a practice that didn't end until 1986. Andy Summer's skittering guitar is practically onomatopoetic here—doesn't it sound like fluttering birds? After all the anthropomorphized animals on this playlist, this one flips it: whose "sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect" if not the narrator's, accustomed as she is to strict regimens and routines?

"The Electrician," The Walker Brothers
If the end of my novella were music, it would sound like this ahead-of-its-time Scott Walker track from the Walker Brothers' 1978 reunion album Nite Flights: "Baby it's slow/When lights go low/There's no help/No." Walker is writing from the perspective of a CIA torturer, and that's how I see the narrator in the novella's last pages—alone, fiddling with her bird box: "If I jerk the handle/You’ll die in your dreams."

Ann Lewinson’s fiction has appeared in Agni, Hayden’s Ferry Review, MoMA PS1’s Special Projects Writers’ Series and other places. A 2014 fellow at the Edward F. Albee Foundation, she is also a playwright, journalist and film critic who has reviewed movies for ARTnews, The Boston Phoenix, The Hartford Advocate and The Kansas City Star. She lives in New York. Read more at

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