August 16, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Awarded Red Hen Press’s 2020 Women's Prose Prize, Coco Picard's novel The Healing Circle is a subtle yet powerful novel about the liminal state between living and dying.
Amina Cain wrote of the book:
"The Healing Circle is a far-reaching, honest, and funny novel about dying and living, a kind of pilgrimage to wholeness through uncertainty and disorientation. Full of resonance, it asks what it means to heal, to be in pain, to be a person."
My novel, The Healing Circle, follows Ursula, whose terminal disease makes her leave family and friends in California—friends who share her penchant for New Age remedies—for a miracle cure in Germany. The book takes place in her hospital room. Sitting on the window ledge, an aloe plant called Madame Blavatsky is Ursula’s main companion. The book is written entirely in the present tense through a series of short vignettes that capture different moments of Ursula’s life. It’s as if she experiences her life all again, out of order, in real time. With this playlist, I wanted to capture the inner mood of the book. Place, time, plants, and family are all guiding principles. Although Ursula can’t physically move, her mind goes all over the place and she often wonders whether she isn’t already in an afterlife, stuck in a loop. California makes regular appearances in this list. So does ‘60s-‘70s pop music from Germany and Argentina—songs she may have listened to as a kid growing up in a German community in Argentina, and potentially shared with her own kids and friends. Some New Age vibes show up too. Like the book, this playlist jumps between places and times in a dreamy pursuit of happiness.
1. Plantasia, Mort Garson
Taking its cue from the aloe plant-roommate Madame Blavatsky, this playlist begins with an homage to plants. I first heard this song on a mix tape made by my now-life partner. It comes from a 1976 self-released Moog album made for plants and sold exclusively at the Mother Earth plant store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.
2. Adiós chico de mi barrio, Tormenta
Next comes a flashback-time-travel blip with Tormenta (Liliana Esther Maturano, b. 1952), an Argentinian singer-songwriter who, in this song, describes waiting by a window for a boy to pass by on his bicycle. I was excited to think about what pop songs Ursula might have grown up with in La Cumbrecita, where she was born, and I liked imagining that this song might return to her at the end of her life. The thread of longing seems important too—an idea that no matter where we are, we end up peering out of windows, daydreaming about others and elsewheres.
3. Can I Call You Tonight? Dayglow
Many of Ursula’s interpersonal interactions occur on the telephone when she speaks with her three children, all wrestling with their own difficulties. This song emphasizes the telephone as a bridge, a way of reaching into another person’s world, a desire to speak to them, a question about how they make you feel. “Can I Call You Tonight?” by Dayglow (Sloan Struble) came out on the 2018 debut album Fuzzybrain and was later updated in 2019 to much acclaim. I’ve read about how it feels like nostalgic 1980s pop but for me recalls the early 2000s with a good dance beat and lyrics that slip between existential pondering and banal everydayness.
4. California Soul, Marlena Shaw
Ursula’s main group of friends, self-identified as the Healing Circle are all based in Northern California. This seems like the sort of song that they might listen to on a drive from Marin County to a place like the Esalen Institute along Highway One. Marlena Shaw’s the sort of person they probably wished they could have been—debuting at the Apollo Theater at age ten, mother of five, she made a career singing around nightclubs until landing a permanent gig with the Playboy Club franchise—a push that would cement her longstanding recording career into the 2000s. This song in particular was sampled on the hip-hop recording "Check the Technique," by Gang Starr.
5. Schade, schade, schade, Siw Malmkvist
This 1961 single was popular in West Germany at the time. Born in 1936 in Sweden, Siw had nine siblings and won a talent contest at the age of eighteen. In 1964 she was the first Swedish person to hit the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, and she also released records under the name “Die Jolly Sisters.” She maintained an active singing, touring, and acting career for her whole life. I imagine this song might have played on the radio in La Cumbrecita too—a real town that was founded by German expats unable to return to Germany at the beginning of the war and later populated by Germans fleeing the war and its aftermath. Prior to Ursula’s birth, her parents relocated here and her father, formerly an office clerk in the Nazi party, owns a bakery. La Cumbrecita was an interesting place to think about in the context of this book because, at least for Ursula’s conservative father, he can almost pretend that World War II never happened.
6. Hang on to Your Ego, Beach Boys
I like to think these early tracks (1-6) edge ever more deeply into psychological spaces of introspection. “Hang On to Your Ego” marks a transition—let’s say it’s like when Ursula gives into the dream of her life. Opening bubblegum pop notes remind me of that TV series, The Prisoner, where a spy wakes up in a mod Italian village, unable to escape (an apt metaphor for Ursula, maybe). Originally inspired by Wilson’s experience with LSD, Mike Love later insisted the Beach Boys re-record an alternative version, “I Know There’s an Answer,” because he didn’t want to make overtly drug-based songs. I imagine moving into death must be a very psychedelic experience.
7. Portals, Contours, KMRU
A pivot moment with a sudden release into the psyche. The rhythmic patterns of the collaborative pair (Contours, Manchester and KMRU, Nairobi) gives a thick percussive rhythm, carrying us forward into the body. The song is conceived to overcome geographic distance between UK and East Africa, illustrating a portal, one that syncs up heartbeats, pulses, breath, bouncing knees—a jolt of energy. On the one hand, this song calls back to “Can I Call You?”’s reference to overcoming distance through sound/song/rhythm. It marks the point when the emotional and psychological roller coaster of The Healing Circle plunges down.
8. Family Ties, Mykki Blanco and Michael Stipe
For me, the emotional peak of this mix lands right around tracks 8,9, and 10 (Mykki Blanco + Michael Stipe, Lana Del Rey, Tears for Fears). In this song, I imagine Ursula thinking about her family past and present, transcending time and space in the meditation of her life. She’s thinking about her relationship to the men in her life and those of her friends, allowing the book to ambiently trace the transmission and refraction of trauma between generations. At the same time, I imagine her three kids have parallel and complex reflections about their father (and mother) in their own lives. I love that this track, like “Portals,” is a collaborative work. Blanco says the song was written about the relationship between his ex-boyfriend and his ex-boyfriend’s father and because it’s the only song he’s made to date where he sings rather than raps, says he sonically found his voice here.
9. California, Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey, I know, I know, but ach, it’s so good. “California” seemed like a perfect addition both because of the mood/lyrics of this song (again, that longing for a California homecoming which, in Ursula’s case, would mean that she’d beat cancer for good) but also for Del Rey’s teasing pastiche-embodiment of 1950s-1960s Americana—the album for this song is called Norman F*cking Rockwell. Ursula likely aspires (and fails) to be either a good “American” or mother, categories she likely bases on a post-war concept. I also love this song for its answer to Joni Mitchell’s “California” from 1971, and the mix of cynicism and vulnerability Del Rey brings out.
10. Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Tears for Fears
I see this ‘80s pop classic like the last gasp rush of optimism. Ursula hasn’t quite given up on her fantasy of self-healing. She wants to rule the world. Maybe she can. Maybe the psychic surgeon will work. Maybe her psychic friend, Rowan will cure Ursula. Maybe the Healing Circle friends will raise enough money on Ursula’s behalf. Right at the peak of that optimism, Ursula recognizes everyone’s ego, everyone aspiring, all of those hopes—it might make her want to dance but it’s also a humbling admission. Suddenly her desires are no more pressing than anyone else’s.
11. La muerte de mi hermano, Los Mac’s
I think of these next tracks (11-15) as the playlist’s descent. There’s an emotional release around “La muerte de mi hermano” that references the death of Ursula’s brother and closest familial relationship. Los Mac’s is a “pioneering” Chilean band from Valparaíso that formed in 1962, and were allegedly the benchmark for Chilean rock music at the time. They toured with the greats! This song came out on their third album, Kaleidescope Men (1967).
12. Sunset Village – Blood Orange Remix, Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Blood Orange
2021 was the 35th anniversary of the iconic synth album--Keyboard Fantasies, by American-Canadian composer and activist Beverley Glenn-Copeland. This track, “Sunset Village,” was remixed by Blood Orange (Devonté Hynes). I love how this song embodies another temporal portal where two of my favorite artists collaborate at different points in history (1986 and 2021) to produce something new, warm, generous. I like imagining that it would offer real comfort to Ursula at the end of her life.
13. Reverie for Fragile Houseplants, Tomaga
The houseplant thread picks up again with Tomaga’s “Reverie for Fragile Houseplants.” Tomaga is the improv rock duo of Valentina Magaletti and Tom Relleen and this song came out on their final album, Infinite Immensity, released after Relleen’s death. The synthesizer effect here recalls the first Plantasia track on this mix, instilling a sense of return that I hope The Healing Circle also affords. I also love that this song introduces the idea of fragility, calling out houseplants specifically (<3).
14. La mort de l’enfant, Hikaru Hayashi
This song comes from the 1960 film, Naked Island, directed by Kaneto Shindō. The almost entirely silent black and white film follows the life of a family of four carving out a living on the island of Sakune (Mirhara, Hiroshima) without fresh water. Hayashi is considered one of the most accomplished Japanese composers from the postwar period and his soundtrack for this film is amplified by the relative silence of the film script. To me, the song sounds cinematic, like the end of something, referencing, on the one hand, the death of one of the characters in the film, the reverberations and enduring trauma of World War II, and the space of nonverbal experience—all elements that Ursula and her children might be each experiencing in their own way by the end of the book.
15. GREEN, Hiroshi Yoshimura
We land finally in the “GREEN” of Hiroshi Yoshimura. Yoshimura was a composer, designer, and historian, known as a pioneer of ambient sound. This album had cult status when it was released in 1986 and has been recently reissued. At the end of The Healing Circle, Ursula and the aloe plant are effectively holding hands. This felt like a parallel ending, one that might invite you to begin again from the top.
Coco Picard is a writer, cartoonist, and curator based in New Mexico. She is the author of two graphic novels, Meowsers (2022) and The Chronicles of Fortune (2017), which was nominated for a DiNKy Award. Art criticism and comics have otherwise appeared under the name Caroline Picard in Artforum, Hyperallergic, The Paris Review, and Seven Stories Press, among others. She started the Green Lantern Press in 2005, received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute and was a Bookends Fellow at Stony Brook University. Visit her online at cocopicard.com.