October 21, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Cheryl J. Fish's novel Off The Yoga Mat is a smart and funny debut.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Fish has created some interesting dynamics of adulthood amid Y2K tension, and she ably explores the shifting nature of relationships without casting anyone as the villain. Ultimately, each finds their own way without sabotaging anyone else's happiness."
My debut novel Off The Yoga Mat contains a soundtrack in its pages. Songs are embedded into character’s lives. My novel tells the story of Nate, Nora, and Lulu, who find their lives unraveling, their aspirations dashed. As they approach age 40, Nate is broke, in his eighth year of graduate school. He delves into yoga while his ex-girlfriend Nora finagles a position in Finland and embraces sisu, the Finnish concept of perseverance, in pursuit of motherhood. And Lulu, Nate’s talented yoga teacher, yearns to get to the bottom of her nightmares of childhood abuse as she returns to her hometown, New Orleans, to care for her ailing mother. Told in alternating chapters, the novel depicts three risky coming-of-middle age journeys.
I was a Fulbright professor at University of Tampere, Finland, in 2007, so many of the Finland scenes were inspired by my immersion in the culture, music, and the friendships I formed. I drew on my appreciation of Finnish traditions as well as their leadership in high-tech fields. I am a Native New Yorker, so the East Village scenes draw on my involvement at St. Mark’s Poetry Project and other art, music, and performance venues in the 1980s and 90s where I met many renowned characters. While the novel takes place in 1999, the music referenced is diverse—crossing genres, cultures, and generations. My playlist is referenced in the order in which the song appears in the novel, focused on revelatory moments.
1. “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Velvet Underground & Nico
It’s winter, 1999 in NYC’s East Village. Nate, a struggling graduate student, ABD (all but dissertation), smokes too much weed in his tenement apartment and “lives” in his swivel chair, writing a dissertation on jealousy. He and his girlfriend Nora are turning 40 and she’s desperate to have a baby. Nate takes a yoga class to relieve his aches and pains; he encounters freegan dumpster divers as he walks to Lulu’s yoga studio on Second Avenue and Second Street. Lou Reed and VU speak to Nate and to the pulse of NYC’s streets, its economic inequalities and escapism.
2. “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Nate’s yoga teacher, Lulu, grew up in New Orleans. Her mother is Black and her father White. Lulu and her mother Rosa moved to Maryland after her parents split up. Rosa is an itinerant artist, living marginally in Ocean Grove on the Jersey shore. Lulu worries about her mother’s health and well-being. During a tense visit, they walk on the boardwalk in Asbury Park past a mural of a mermaid and the fortune teller Madame Marie’s storefront, mentioned in this Springsteen anthem of love, longing and the Jersey shore at night.
3. “Säkkijärven polkka,” Eemelia & Esa Pakarinen
Nora travels to Finland to take a short-term assignment at Nokia. She is initiated into Finnish karaoke bar culture featuring singing, dancing and unbridled drinking. This song captures Finnish flamboyance, humor, and tradition beneath an introverted exterior. I discovered a bar in Tampere under the railway tracks, called Pool-Booli—this song evokes the scene there.
4. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” Whitney Houston
When Nate shares his academic struggles with Lulu and asks for her advice, he is clueless about what she has just been through. A silly jealousy scheme cooked up by his friend Gil to make Nate jealous for real, results in a disturbing encounter between Lulu and Gil. When Nate realizes that Lulu has been sexually assaulted, Houston’s song plays in the background.
5. “Gula Gula,” Mari Boine
Nora is introduced to the joik, a traditional form of Sami singing dedicated to a human, animal, or landscape. In this song, Boine, a renowned Norwegian Sami singer, refers to the voices of the foremothers, who ask why have you let the earth becoming polluted, exhausted? Nora doesn’t understand the words but she feels a connection through the haunting the beauty of the song.
6. “You’re A Big Girl Now,” Bob Dylan
In Tampere, Nora develops a vexing crush on Jussi, a younger man who fashions himself the Bob Dylan of Finland. He is a graduate student and fanatic Dylan fan who follows the singer across Europe. One night, Nora and her friend Bethany run into Jussi with a beautiful woman in a bar. Nora understands her obsession over Jussi is just plain foolish. She thinks of songs from an album she and Jussi both love, Blood on the Tracks. “When it came to sexy men, she was an idiot—a big girl with a child-like need.”
7. “Hard Rock Hallelujah,” Lordi
The semester I lived and taught in Finland, the Eurovision competition took place in Helsinki. As an American, I had never heard of that international song spectacle. Lordi, a heavy metal band that wears masks and uses horror themes and pyrotechnics in their shows, had won the year before, the first and so far, only time Finland won. Pandemonium ensued with Lordi-themed everything. Even though the novel takes place in 1999, the energy of Eurovision and its joyful kitsch fed my desire to capture a hard-rock-hallelujah feeling in my book.
8. “Hot Tamale Baby,” Buckwheat Zydeco
While Nora goes to Finland and Nate heads to Maryland to confront the adviser who has been blocking his dissertation, Lulu heads to New Orleans with her mother. She tries to convince Rosa to live with her half-brother, Monroe. To find some relief from her caregiving role, Lulu parties with a couple of new friends. She spends time in a café on Magazine Street featuring Cajun and Zydeco music. This song exemplifies the magic of the accordion, and the indigenous and Black creole blues and R&B traditions of Southern Louisiana.
9. “Journey in Satchidananda,” Alice Coltrane featuring Pharoah Saunders
Lulu’s spirituality and healing intentions encompass yoga and Buddhist philosophy; she keeps an altar filled with objects that connect to her ancestors, particularly the matriarchal ones. This song is one of many by Alice Coltrane that Lulu is drawn to. I listened to these jazz collaborations as I worked on novel revisions, some of them at an artist’s retreat—Drop, Forge and Tool—in Hudson, New York, that closed when COVID hit.
10. “Revolution,” Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Choir
Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Choir are a powerhouse radical performance art group with members from diverse backgrounds based in New York City. In their musical performances and creative direct-action protests, they critique “global monoculture,” including materialism, over consumption, racism, militarism, homophobia, and income inequality. They preach the gospel of sustainability, love, and community building. In the novel, Nate develops a relationship with a young freegan who takes him to a performance of Reverend Billy and the choir in Times Square.
While in Finland, I was amazed at how many folks of all ages and backgrounds play in bands. My friend Angie Pohja works in human services with immigrants and asylum seekers. Her band, Angie’s Farm, performs mostly cover songs around Tampere, including a bar that provided the inspiration for a chapter where Nora embraces the concept of sisu, mental toughness not necessarily rewarded. Nora watches her friend Bethany perform, and that night she meets Jyrki, recently separated with joint custody of a son. Like Angie, Bethany is supportive and generous. This song is one of Angie’s collaborations.
12. “Nemo,” Nightwish
13. “Scary Monsters,” David Bowie
These two songs are played when Jussi DJs for Nora’s birthday and farewell-to-Finland party. Nightwish, a symphonic metal band, had powerful Tarja Turenen as lead vocalist while I was in the country, but she soon departed the band. “Nemo,” a big international hit with a lilting piano refrain, is about songwriter Tuomas Holopainen’s sense of feeling like a “nobody” (the Latin meaning of nemo). Nora, at the time of her party, feels despondent about leaving Finland. She’s in limbo about returning to her marketing job in New York and her yearning to have a child. Bowie’s album and song—art-rock, new wave, post punk—epitomizes Jussi’s aloofness towards Nora’s unrequited desire.
14. “Let’s Go Crazy,” Prince
15. “1999,” Prince
These two Prince songs are referenced in the concluding chapters of the novel. Also, the artist’s spirit continues to motivate my writing. After Nora returns to New York City from Finland, and Nate returns to the city from Maryland, they unexpectedly reunite at the wedding of Nora’s best friend. Their boozy nostalgic attraction and nuanced acceptance of each other complicates everything. “Let’s Go Crazy” is one of the frenzied songs that vibrates through the floor as Nate and Nora steal away to talk in the bride’s preparation room. And 1999, of course, is the year during which the novel takes place. Nora has been in charge of dealing with the Y2K virus, believed to be dormant in computers that would beset the world crashing clocks and technology at the stroke of midnight, 2000. For the novel’s main characters, the song also symbolizes what they’ve learned during the year—rather than make feckless resolutions, they must pursue dreams on their own timeline. “We were dreaming when he wrote this,” Nora thinks in regards to Prince’s anthem.
Cheryl J. Fish is a poet, fiction writer and environmental humanities scholar. Her recent books of poetry include Crater & Tower, on trauma and ecology after the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption and the terrorist attack of 9/11/01, and The Sauna Is Full Of Maids, poems and photographs celebrating Finnish sauna culture, the natural world, and friendships. She has been a Fulbright Professor and she teaches at City University of New York.