In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Hilma Wolitzer’s collection Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket is filled with stories both moving and funny.
The New York Times Book Review wrote of the book:
“Wolitzer has a gentle touch for conveying the nuances and humor to be found in small moments of intrigue… Throughout these dispatches from the American homefront, the family unit is formed, broken, pasted back together, mused over – but always serves as the anchor for Wolitzer’s narratives … Intrigue may lead a story, but for Wolitzer the daily rituals of family always carry it.”
I’m a late bloomer. When I first began writing, I was married for several years and had two young kids. We lived in a small house in the suburbs. My husband Morty was a psychologist who occasionally moonlighted as a musician at weddings and bar mitzvahs. When he wasn’t playing his own sax or clarinet at home, he usually had the stereo turned up high. I wrote my stories on a manual typewriter at the kitchen table with the kids and the dog running around, and Miles or Ella or Benny jamming in the background. It all permeated my fiction: the raucous domestic clatter and the gorgeous sounds of jazz. It’s not surprising that one of my early characters was a saxophone player who happened to be married with two children.
I wasn’t neurotic in those days about privacy and quiet. I didn’t need Proust’s cork-lined room or Colette’s Willie to create a perfect, silent space in which to be creative. Much later, though, after our older daughter went off to college, I began to use her room as my office. I kept the door closed when I was working and asked my husband to lower the volume on the stereo.
Now, I live by myself in a high-rise apartment in the city. If I keep the windows shut against the sirens and general street noise, it’s pretty quiet up here. But that old mix of music and family life is still alive in my head as I sit at my computer trying to write. My husband died of Covid-19 last year. His tenor sax rested in its case under my desk until we were all vaccinated and our younger grandson claimed it.
At Morty’s Zoom memorial service in April, on the first anniversary of his death, we played some of the music he loved best. And, sometimes, before I try to write in this eerie new silence, I listen to the same numbers–for pleasure, for inspiration, for consolation.
“Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins’ was Morty’s favorite musician. And when our older grandson was born on November 21, Hawkins’ birthday, Morty was especially pleased. Now, listening to Coleman Hawkins’ great solo rendition of “Body and Soul” elicits feelings of joy and sadness in me at once.
“September Song” by Sidney Bechet
Like the characters in my latest story, my husband and I (who were married in September), used to slow-dance in the living room to some of Bechet’s mellow standards. We did several laps around the room to this one, picking up the pace when Bechet did. He still leaves me a little breathless.
“It Had to be You” by Billie Holiday
This song, that voice.
“But Not For Me” by Miles Davis
Davis’s sublime interpretation of Gershwin.
“Blue Moon” by Ella Fitzgerald
We were once lucky enough to see and hear her in concert. It was near the end of her life, but she was still extraordinary. This is a favorite version of a favorite song—so romantic and filled with longing.
“My Funny Valentine” by Chet Baker
In one of my stories, the narrator claims that there’s nothing in this life like your own nostalgia. I share that sentiment, and for my generation the nostalgia includes songs you could dance to or sing along with. Baker’s heavenly version of this beautiful ballad makes me want to do both, and it really takes me back.
“Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman
The sheer virtuosity and energy of Goodman and company playing this number always put Morty and me in a good mood. I wondered if it could still lift my spirits, and it does.
Hilma Wolitzer is a recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and a Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award. She has taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, New York University, Columbia University, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her first published story appeared when she was thirty-six, and her first novel eight years later. Her many stories and novels have drawn critical praise for illuminating the dark interiors of the American home. She lives in New York City.