Ranée

Favorite(s)

I’m a lifelong lover of books and music, having been massively influenced by both since I was a child, so this post contains a list of my seven favorite books and—as an homage to one of them—my top five all-time favorite recording artists.

Favorite Books

Listed in chronological order according to when I read them.

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (whom my father claims is some distant family relative of ours) is one of the first authors with whom I became enamored; he is also responsible for getting me hooked on supernatural literature. As a teenager, I devoured his stories of horror: “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and others. I also repeatedly read a number of Poe’s grimmer poems. What I admired most about his work was the artful way he generated suspense, the shocking turns he incorporated, and his lyrical style. Poe, to me, wasn’t just a master of the horrific but also rhythm, rhyme, and repetition of sounds (both assonance and alliteration). He will forever occupy a significant portion of my rather morbid heart.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

This book about a pathetic record store owner and self-described arsehole obsessed with making top-five lists, penned by a music-loving writer and critic has been among my all-time faves since I first read it back in college. Hornby’s debut novel reads like an Elvis Costello song (note: the title is an Elvis Costello song and Mr. Declan McManus also happens to be one of my favorite recording artists). I’ve never been able to find out whether or not Hornby purposely chose the title because of the song or whether, just being the music writer and lover that he is, he decided (like Costello) that the double meaning of the term high fidelity was incredibly appropriate (and clever) for his debut novel. Maybe it was a little of both. If I ever get the chance to interview or chat with Hornby, I’ll be sure to ask him. What makes this book one of my favorites, however, isn’t just its references to music or the fact that it was obviously written by a music lover who’d seen more than his share of know-it-all music snobs, but because Hornby is so frank about the awkwardness and absurdity so often inherent in relationships, his flawed and quirky characters are entirely believable, and his chronicle of Rob’s ridiculous romantic entanglements is really funny.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I treasure this tale of magic and the sacred feminine based on the Arthurian legends. Morgaine is without a doubt one of my favorite literary heroines, right alongside Lisbeth Salander (two very different but equally strong women, in my view). When I read this book, Avalon also represented something that I’d sorely lacked for most of my youth—a community of genuinely supportive women. This beautifully woven tale gave me hope that I’d eventually find my own place within one.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

I know I probably shouldn’t list this book among my favorites without also including Bram Stoker’s Dracula on that list, but, well, King’s updated version of the Dracula story is frankly scarier than the original. In fact, it’s the scariest book I’ve ever read. I like my vampires creepy and terrifying and, like his predecessor and obvious influence, Count Orlok, the original film version of Kurt Barlow certainly fits the criteria.

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

When I was introduced to Duffy’s poems in an Irish lit class in graduate school, it was love at first read. By turns, bawdy, brash, and beautiful, Duffy’s style is one that I admire above many others. Her words, imagery, and subject matter felt so raw and real to me, and when I read The World’s Wife, a collection of poems about famous literary, mythical, and historical women (reimagined and written from their points of view), I identified with so many of them. Duffy herself is one of my favorite writers.

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

Mama Day is another book I discovered in grad school, this one thanks to my advisor (and one of my real-life heroes) Teresa Washington. I suppose that aside from African American lit, this book also falls into the genre of “magical realism.” It’s also something of a love story. Those elements of the book along with its incorporation of the sacred feminine are certainly partly why I love it so. Another reason is Naylor’s brilliant storytelling and creative narrative choices. Parts of the story are told from the points of view of two of the main characters, Coco and George, and written in first person as they talk to/about one other and their relationship. Some elements are a beautiful lesson in history and culture. Other sections are a third-person narrative focusing on the title character of Miranda “Mama” Day and other residents of Willow Springs, which, like its most famous denizen, Sapphira Wade, belongs to no one but itself and its people. This is one book that I will never tire of re-reading because of its richness, and I laugh and cry every time I enter the world of Willow Springs.

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

This book is on my list because of how much it has meant in terms of my personal and spiritual growth. Reading this book awakened something that had been buried and brutalized within my soul, and it inspired me to reclaim and nurture that part of myself—to heal so that I might become whole.

Favorite Recording Artists

My favorite musicians

In true High Fidelity fashion, here are my desert-island, all-time, top favorite recording artists, in alphabetical order:

  • Tori Amos
  • David Bowie
  • Elvis Costello
  • Queen
  • Lou Reed (and The Velvet Underground sans Nico)

Satisfyingly soulful and strange, Tori Amos was a big part of my formative years and although Sarah McLachlan, U2, and Garbage were just as much so, it’s Tori’s music that’s stood the test of time for me. Most of the music that I loved by those other singers and bands were their earlier songs and records, whereas I’d rank albums like 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk and 2017’s Native Invader right up there alongside Tori’s first three. Quite a number of her songs have inspired post titles on this blog.

Elvis Costello, aka Declan McManus, aka Napoleon Dynamite, is the only one of my top five I’ve actually seen in concert (I didn’t really get out much when I was younger, OK?). He’s a masterful, witty lyricist and wordsmith, sharp with a turn of phrase, genius with his use of the double entendre, and fantastic on guitar. I’m a bigger fan of his earlier, grittier work on albums like My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, and Armed Forces, but I’m also impressed with his ability to effortlessly shift between music genres, particularly stuff that I wouldn’t have thought a fit for him (see albums like Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane and his work with Burt Bacharach). I appreciate genre-shattering musicians just as much as I do authors.

I suppose the other three on my list are sort of a testament to my love affair with glam rock, which began in earnest when I saw Todd Haynes’ film Velvet Goldmine, but I don’t just love those guys because of their glam records and personae. I love them because they’re weird and wonderful.

Lou Reed was the primary songwriter behind The Velvet Underground, one of the most influential bands in modern rock. To me, he was also its heart. I think one of the reasons I so love Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is that it reminds me of Lou Reed’s songwriting. He was a poet too, a fellow freak and survivor, and a damn fine guitar player.

Speaking of freaks . . . yes, I loved the oft alien, always androgynous David Bowie for his weirdness too. But, like my other favorites, I also adored him for his musical talents, especially the risks that he took musically and his production work.

Bowie certainly had style and flair but so did Freddie Mercury, who is one of the main reasons that Queen makes my list. I called him “The Voice” because I was simply in awe of that man’s vocal range and talent. To me, he is far and away the most amazing vocalist in all of rock; no one else even comes close. I also couldn’t help but dig the fact that he was often so in-your-face and over-the-top when performing. Freddie isn’t the only reason I love Queen, though. I’m also a huge fan of Brian May’s guitar playing and the band was brilliant in the way that they melded genres and pulled off stuff that I’m sure the people working behind the scenes with them thought would never work.

Hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know a little more about me. I know you have your own favorite books, writers, and music-makers and I’d love for you to share them in the comments.

On Writing, Ranée

Cosmic Dancer

I danced myself right out the womb
Is it strange to dance so soon?
— Marc Bolan

Ever since I can remember, there was music in my life—Mom singing me nursery rhyme songs or dancing around the house to one of her favorite tunes, Dad making up silly (sometimes dirty) little ditties or playing his records, the Pittsburgh Oldies station, 3WS, playing every time we went somewhere in the car. That exceptional early exposure to and shared passion for music left an indelible impact on me. I grew to love music just as much as I loved stories and, just like stories, music has ever been my muse, my outlet, and my savior.

You know that scene in Guardians of the Galaxy where Starlord presses play on his Walkman and dances and lip syncs to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone? Yeah, that’s me. When I was a kid, I used to dress up, pop a cassette tape into my purple boombox, grab a brush to serve as my makeshift microphone, and lip sync to Jem and the Holograms songs. As a teenager, I performed in choral groups and a musical, knew all the words to pop songs on the radio (even the ones I couldn’t stand and, yes, I always sang along), and made dozens of mix tapes and CDs. Even now, I have songs that resonate with me so much that I consider them theme songs, everything that I write has its own soundtrack, I have something of an obsession with vinyl records, and I have loads of playlists on my phone for everything from workouts to my quasi-pyromania. It was music that brought my husband and I together. I met him at a bar in Kent, Ohio the summer after I completed my master’s degree. He drove me back to my car and we sang along with the radio and in that moment, I felt more comfortable with him than I had with anyone I’d met in the entire two years I’d spent in my program. This is all to say that I truly think my musically obsessed nerdom might be at the Rob Fleming level.

At one point in High Fidelity, a depressed Rob wonders “Which came first, the music or the misery?” It’s a chicken and egg question really and I totally get what Hornby (through Rob) was saying about the power of music. It affects my emotions like nothing else, amplifying or altering my mood far more than any drug ever has. That power was never more evident to me than when I began to heal.

I became depressed back in high school and it stayed with me for decades, festering. Music, like writing, became my solace; it helped me to both embrace my bad feelings (acknowledge them) and escape them. I would write about what I felt, what I experienced, because I didn’t believe that I could or should talk about it. It was a lot of very dark, moody, material, reminiscent of E. A. Poe’s gory, weird tales of horror. I would also write what I wished that I felt, what I hoped that my life might be like, creating characters who talked with each other about what they were feeling, tried to help one another heal, and showed each other love. At some point, the music, like my writing, began to fade. If depression hadn’t made me such an utter zombie, I would’ve seen that as a clear sign that things had gone way too far.

Then one day, I walked into this little record store at the mall where my husband had shopped a few times before, intending only to buy him a record or two as a birthday gift, but as I strolled around the store, browsing the racks, something strange happened. I saw albums and artists that I’d grown up listening to and it began to rekindle my lost love. I hadn’t owned or even really listened to a record since I was a kid, but when my fingers flipped through the “R”s in the Rock/Pop section and found that rather worn copy of Lou Reed’s Transformer, I felt compelled to buy it because it was mine, it belonged to me. When I brought that record home, put it on the turntable, pressed play, and heard the opening guitar riff of “Vicious” issue from the speakers, I was transformed. From that moment on, music, followed closely by writing, re-entered my life again in earnest, turning up the volume on my emotional and psychological healing. It was no accident that I found that record that day. Music and writing are a vital part of my self, my soul; without them, I withered and when I found them again, I began to bloom. They were my voice when I had none and they helped me to finally find my own.