April 20, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Zhanna Slor's novel At the End of the World, Turn Left is a stunning debut, a book that explores the allure of the past with Milwaukee at its heart.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Slor’s elegantly written and thought-provoking debut keeps the suspense high in this unconventional detective story, using her characters’ musings on language and perception to enrich readers’ understanding of how and why events unfold as they do. Those looking for an intricately textured tale of family relationships will be rewarded."
The only difficult part about creating a playlist for my upcoming novel, At the End of the World, Turn Left, was in narrowing it down from nearly a hundred songs. I’ve always been as much a music person as a book person, able to find solace and enthusiasm in consuming both, especially in times of duress. This is partly why music was a huge part of my life in 2007-2008, when At the End of the World, Turn Left takes place, as well as the years surrounding it—and why it plays such a large role in the book as well. (Music is still a pretty large part of my life, as I’m now married to the saxophonist in the Jazz-Rock fusion band Marbin).
Music also plays a huge role in memory. If I want to remember how it feels to be a certain age, all I need to do is play the music I was listening to at that time. Because thus far I only write about younger people, I use it to help me write all the time. If I want to be sixteen again, like I do when I work on my YA novel, it’s all Bad Religion and Social Distortion and Operation Ivy. If I want to be thirteen, it’s all about the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack. If I want to be in college, like in At the End of the World, Turn Left, it’s mostly sad-guy indie rock and haunting female singer-songwriters. The thing I love most about Milwaukee is that it, too, seems to live in the past. Now that I’ve relocated back here after nearly ten years in Chicago, I’m reminded all the time about what a great musical city it is. Judging from what plays at local cafes and bars, the city’s musical tastes have also barely changed in the last fifteen years. Which makes it even easier to make this playlist, since neither have mine!
#1 Skinny Love by Bon Iver
When I think of my college years, Bon Iver is always the first band to come to mind. It not only captures the mood of Milwaukee in 2007-2008, when my novel takes place, but also the mood of the book in general. Perhaps this is because Justin Vernon, originally from Eau Claire, wrote and recorded For Emma, Forever Ago in an isolated cabin in western Wisconsin and only a Wisconsinite can perfectly capture the melancholy and gloom of winter here. This song was everywhere in Milwaukee when it came out, just a few months before the setting of At the End of the World, Turn Left. It's still everywhere.
#2 The Real by John Frusciante
I am not a huge Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, so I don’t know how I first heard the Curtains album—I think my old roommate’s Austrian boyfriend brought it with him from Graz—but once I did, it was one of the mainstays of our house’s music collection. This song in particular was a big hit, especially when one of us was dealing with a breakup. It’s a perfect blend of melancholy and hopefulness.
#3 Apres Moi by Regina Spektor
As a fellow Soviet refugee, and a great lyricist, no one is more deserving to be on this list than Regina Spektor. This song is even mentioned in the book in an early chapter, as we listened to the Begin to Hope album so much in 2007-2008 that I can’t think of that year without thinking of this song. It’s a very dramatic piece of music—even the title, a popular French saying, “after me the deluge,” is dramatic—and I loved that the part she sings in Russian during one of the refrains is a Boris Pasternak poem. Very fitting for my book about Russian immigrants.
#4 Living Room by Tegan and Sara
I remember all my friends in Milwaukee being obsessed with this band in the early aughts. It’s one that I can forget about for years, but then they pop up on my iTunes and I listen to every album on repeat for about a week before forgetting them again. Most of the songs seem to be about relationships and heartbreak, so it makes sense that a bunch of emotional twenty-year-olds would connect to their discography.
#5 These Old Shoes by Deer Tick
I went to many beer-soaked basement shows during my Riverwest years, but I don’t think I could have guessed that this would be the one band I saw to really make it big. And yet, they’re now a pretty popular band. I mostly only like this one song—another love song of course.
#6 Hold Hands and Fight by The Rosebuds
I’m not sure whatever happened to The Rosebuds, but when I first started going to Milwaukee coffee shops regularly, I heard this album so many times I had to finally ask the baristas what I was listening to. Now I can’t hear this song without feeling like I’m drinking coffee and chain-smoking in Fuel Café during a blizzard—which makes it perfect for the soundtrack for my novel, since that is the exact feeling I’m trying to replicate.
#7 Waltz #2 by Elliott Smith
How can you have a soundtrack about artsy twenty-year-olds without Elliott Smith? Another one who I heard nonstop at our house and all the coffee shops and bars. We had every album in high rotation, and his discography still seems to get played around here quite a bit.
#8 John Wayne Gacy, Jr. By Sufjan Stevens
Before Sufjan Stevens sang at the Oscars and became a household name, he was very big in the Milwaukee coffee shops circa 2007-2008. Illinois, perhaps because it was the neighboring state, was a big hit especially.
#9 I’ll Believe in Anything by Wolf Parade
This Canadian indie-rock band was a huge hit in Milwaukee with their debut album, Apologies to the Queen Mary. As one of the most influential bands of the 2000s, its disquiet is the perfect addition to this list.
#10 Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show
Oh, this song. I can’t listen to it anymore to be perfectly honest. If you drink whiskey and lived in Riverwest in the 2000s, you probably had this song playing on repeat daily. I remember once a guy I was dating had to go unplug the CD player after the third time in a row that his roommates played Wagon Wh eel. This band's entire discography was big with the revolving door of trainhoppers who used to couch surf in Riverwest.
#11 Summer Came, A Warning by Rachel Ries
Rachel Ries is probably the least recognizable name on this list to anyone who didn’t live in Milwaukee 15 years ago, but she was huge in Riverwest, and came once or twice a year from Chicago to play heartfelt, original music in our attics. This album was the soundtrack to my summer of 2006, which I spent backpacking in Europe with one of my roommates.
#12 Hotel Yorba by the White Stripes
How can you talk about the 2000s music scene without The White Stripes! They became so big I don’t even think I can call them an indie band. I recall several sing-a-longs to this particular song at parties.
#13 South 2nd by CocoRosie
Another melancholy female voice that any Milwaukeean can remember listening to.
#14 Postcards from Italy by Beirut
I couldn’t end the playlist without an appearance from Beirut, another fun, melancholic indie-rock band close to my heart. I’m still impressed that Zach Condon wrote and recorded this album, Gulag Orkestar, alone in his house.
#15 The Rat by the Walkmen
Sorry, just one more! I used to listen to this song a lot while walking around Milwaukee in the snow, I don’t know why. It just makes me want to move. And there is something very “winter” about it, too.
Zhanna was born in the former Soviet Union and moved to the Midwest in the early 1990s. She has a master's degree in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University, and has been published in many literary magazines, including Ninth Letter, Bellevue Literary Review, Tusculum Review, Midwestern Gothic, Another Chicago Magazine, and five times in Michigan Quarterly Review, one of which received an honorary mention in Best American Essays 2014. She and her husband, saxophonist for Jazz-Rock fusion band Marbin, recently relocated from Chicago to Milwaukee, where, besides writing, she is raising her newborn daughter.