There is a wealth of novels which have music, musical instruments, musicians or composers at their core, fictionalised accounts of real people and real accounts of fictionalised characters. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, a wonderful account of the century long journey and the owners of an accordion from Sicily to America, or Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, the long story of a break up and a reconciliation, of sorts. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity or Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, the list is long covering all kinds of music and all kinds of fiction. We asked a few of our colleagues to pick their favourites and review them for you here.
Douglas from the Music Library takes a look/listen to this audiobook available at Overdrive, The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes.
A fictionalised biography of Dmitri Shostakovich which through three “meetings with power” lays out for us the very great compromises made by artistic communities in Russia during the reign of Stalin and Khrushchev. The novel opens with Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich awaiting his fate, sitting with his packed suitcase in the hallway outside his apartment. Waiting for the lift doors to open and two men in suits to come for him and take him to the Big House. Where he could expect a bullet to the head for his artistic crimes, listed in a Pravda article, probably written by Stalin, denouncing his Opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”. The first of two killer assassinations, by the state, of this work.
The dates, the names, the compositions, the main events are all as they should be, in this imagined version of a very real life. How Dmitri Dmitriyevich reacts and comments through his internal and external monologues and conversations are for the greatest part down to Julian Barnes. It is this commentary which, one main thread of the novel, makes us question the veracity of any of Shostakovich’s written dialogue with the world. The Shostakovich of the novel comments on this saying his written output will be worthless to future scholars of his thoughts and deeds. Through the novel Dmitri Dmitriyevich alludes to how the state put words in his mouth or wrote words which were attributed to him.
At his death, of heart failure on August 9 1975, Shostakovich was probably one of the most successful soviet composers of the 20th century. But is his legacy and his survival, that of a man who did what he did to stay alive, and keep his family alive, or is it that the things he did and said, he truly believed, because he was a party man, leading a charmed life. Whichever of those statements you believe, few of us will ever be made to examine ourselves and the strength of our believes and how strongly we would hold on to those believes in the face of imprisonment or death.
I recommend you don’t listen to this as an audiobook when you are out for your daily constitutional, it could end in tears.
Borrow The Noise of Time as an audiobook
Doris from Central Library introduces Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
This evocative novel captures the hedonistic lifestyle of a fictional Los Angeles-based seventies band, The Six. Though the band is made up, Taylor Jenkins Reid has made no secret of her love of Stevie Nicks and The Six is reportedly inspired by Fleetwood Mac.
Daisy Jones and The Six experience highs and lows over a period of years, revealed through interviews with a journalist and written as transcripts. Readers witness the accelerated rise to fame of Daisy Jones and the Six, the struggles of producing a hit album and being on tour and the eventual breakdown of the band.
Complicated relationships are at the heart of the novel. Not only is there the romantic entanglement between Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne, the married front man of the group, but the tension between Billy and his brother Graham is well written, as are the interactions between the other members of the band. Big personalities and tortured souls feature heavily in this book, adding a vibrancy and sadness to the novel.
I read Daisy Jones and the Six during the first lockdown in April 2020. Given that we were unable to escape to sunnier and warmer climes, this made the book even more poignant. While plane rides to California were off limits, it certainly made me listen to Fleetwood Mac’s album Rumours with a renewed perspective.
Borrow Daisy Jones and the Six as an ebook or an audiobook
Bronwen from the Art & Design and Music team tells us about Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers
If ever there was a book to transport us to a world of sea, sun and bohemia Polly Samson’s novel A Theatre for Dreamers would top the bill! Set on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, through the eyes of our narrator Erica we are dropped into the artistic set living on the island that includes the authors Charmian Cliff and George Johnstone and the Norwegian couple author Axel Jensen and wife Marianne Ihlen. Into their lives comes the young Canadian, charismatic musician and poet Leonard Cohen who meets his muse Marianne and turns the lives of this bohemian set around as we see musician and muse increasingly drawn to each other.
Erica is fulfilling her late mother’s dream for her to experience an adventure and though Erica is largely outside the main events, we see her eyes opened and innocence lost as wars are waged between the bohemian men and the women on the island over their respective allotted writing time contrasting with the locals who struggle to make a living and feed their families and for whom art is not an option. This book is blissful escapism and captures a period of time in the life of Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen lived on Hydra 1960 to 1967 and continued to make short visits throughout his life right up to his death in 2016.
Borrow A Theatre for Dreamers as an ebook or an audiobook, and sample interpretations of Cohen’s music on Naxos Jazz. Go to playlists and select Listen and Read and select the Leonard Cohen playlist.
Our colleague Fumiko, is normally based in Morningside Library but during the post lockdown period she joined us in Central Library, below she tells us about the author Murakami and his book Norwegian Wood.
‘I was thirty-seven then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to the Hamburg airport. Cold November rains drenched the earth and lent everything the gloomy air of a Flemish landscape: the ground crew in rain gear, a flag atop a squat airport building, a BMW billboard. So—Germany again.
Once the plane was on the ground, soft music began to flow from the ceiling speakers: a sweet orchestral cover version of the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’. The melody never failed to send a shudder through me, but this time it hit me harder than ever.’
— Haruki Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ starts with these lines.
Murakami uses various genre of music in his books from pop, rock, jazz to classic music, which attracts many readers. Since I like to listen to any type of music, it was a pleasure when I read Norwegian Wood first time and I devoted my time reading his books one after another.
In Norwegian Wood, he uses Beatles ‘Norwegian Wood‘ of course and their many other songs and other pop, folk and rock musicians.
For jazz, Henry Mancini ‘Dear Heart’, Bill Evans ‘Waltz for Debbie’, Miles Davis ‘Kind of blue’, Thelonius Monk ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and many jazz players are mentioned.
For classic music, the book mentions Debussy ‘Claire de Lune’, Brahms ‘Fourth Symphony’ and ‘Second Piano Concert’, Ravel ‘Pavane for Dead Princess’ and Bach ‘Inventions’ and many mentions about classic music composers.
Cleverly using this blend of the music, he describes the mood and the lives of young people in the sixties in Japan effectively and gives the people in the books character.
You can borrow Norwegian Wood as an audiobook and many of his other via Overdrive/Libby app. And moreover, you can enjoy the music in his books with library’s online services, Naxos Music and Naxos Jazz without any advertisement!
A library user from Edinburgh, David, introduces Trumpet by Jackie Kay.
Trumpet is the stunning debut novel by the writer/poet Jackie Kay. First published in 1998 it is, as you would expect, beautifully written and tells, mostly through a series of flashbacks, the story of the life of a great Scottish jazz trumpeter Joss Moody.
The novel starts after Moody’s death when it is revealed that Joss had been born Josephine but had chosen to live her life as a man, a fact that was kept a secret from all but his wife. Through the recollections and reactions of his family and friends we follow his story from 1927. The book deals sensitively with the many issues that this situation creates. His loving wife Millie the only person who knew the truth tells much of the tale and her version contrasts with the reaction of his adopted son Colman whose reaction to the news is at times less than sympathetic.
The novel is in part influenced by the true story of the American jazz musician Billy Tipton who found fame as a pianist and band leader and who had been born Dorothy Lucille Tipton. It is a moving story, sensitively and brilliantly told but it also works on other levels as well as dealing with issues of sexual and racial identity.
Borrow Trumpet by Jackie Kay as an ebook or an audiobook.
In his review, David mentions the jazz musician Billy Tipton, Suits me: the double life of Billy Tipton by Diane Wood Middlebrook is available to borrow from the Music Library when we reopen.
Zoe works in the Libraries’ Central Lending department and is busily collaborating with colleagues from other departments to launch our new online Craft Group. Ursula le Guin is one of the most read science fiction/fantasy novelists, and below Zoe shares with us her regard for her work.
Ursula le Guin, perhaps best known for her Earthsea series, wrote many more science fiction and fantasy books for both children and adults over her long lifetime. She was a peerless world-builder, philosopher and scholar of human nature. One of her books, ‘Always Coming Home’, available on the shelves at Central Library, is about the lives of an imagined tribe of people, 500 years into the future. Le Guin collaborated with analogue composer Todd Barton to invent the music of this world, and a soundtrack to the immersive experience of reading this unconventional book. The resulting album, created with its own music notation, is ‘Music and Poetry of the Kesh’.
Library reader Daniel from Leith reviews Utopia Avenue
David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue took me right into the sixties London music scene and then further afield to America. Along the way I met famous musicians of the time and had a few words with them. I went to a great party at the Chelsea Hotel and felt very rock and roll. In fact, my only real disappointment was not to have met Jim Morrison of The Doors.
The book concentrates on the experiences of three members of Utopia Avenue, and deals with many of the all too human personal stories that are the backdrop to finding fame and fortune. These form the basis of many of the band’s eclectic songs and music, and hence the story the book tells.
I’ve been left trying to decide, if Utopia Avenue actually was a real band from the 60s, who would they have been? I reckon they were somewhere between Jefferson Airplane and Fairport Convention, with a touch of The Yardbirds. The whole book felt very tangible and I wanted to be there among it all.
Utopia Avenue is available to borrow in hard copy
Mairi too joined us at Central Library in the first post lockdown period from her home library, Oxgangs. If you are not already aware of the works of Mitch Albom, Mairi introduces us to part of what to expect in The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.
What do you choose to read during a global pandemic? Words I never thought I would utter!
I decided on a fairy tale for adults, and Mitch Albom is the master of them. I had avoided this book as I thought it was about a puppet! I couldn’t have been more wrong, the strings in question were on a classical guitar.
I was transported around the world with the most eclectic musical accompaniment.
Starting with Mozarts Eine Kleine Nachtmusic. It was August 1930 in Villarreal and in an erratic 6/5 tempo we met Francisco Tarrega, travelling on to Hector Villa-Lobos living in the Brazilian Rainforest writing his twelve etudes. The a Taverna playing flamenco.
The protaginist travels to England by boat to escape Franco, and abandoned on a dock there he meets Django Reinhardt heading to America to tour with Duke Ellington, as he speaks no English the young man accompanies him to Detroit! He finds love to the tune of Avalon, enjoys solace on Waiheke Island, then travels to New York to teach, and via La Catedral by Agustin Barrios we return to Villarreal where the symphony ends.
I would add all living musicians – Marcus Belgrave, Roger McGuinn, Lyle Lovett, Ingrid Michaelson, Paul Stanley, Tony Bennett, Winstom Marsalis and John Pizzarelli were all happy and proud to be included in this book!
We have created some playlists of some of the music mentioned in the books above.
All you need is your library card to log on to Naxos and then go to ‘Playlists’ to stream or download this literature-inspired list of tracks.