Natalie Merchant’s latest album is a treasure. She takes American and British poems about children and childhood and sets them to all kinds of melodies and instruments: the accordion, cello, banjo, harp, clarinet, and flute; the bass, oboe, French horn, and violin. The effect is a magical journey with beautiful lyrics.

I admit that when I first heard about this project, I was skeptical. Poetry and music have elements of each other, but they are separate genres for a reason. I teach poetry; I love it and respect it, but I thought that making poems lyrics would spoil them, take away their inherent beauty and depth.

I was wrong, and seriously underestimated Merchant’s talent. If someone else tried this, it’s quite possible that they’d fail miserably. But diligent research, exploration, planning, and six years of composing helped the former 10,000 Maniacs frontwoman create one of the most fantastic albums I’ve heard in a long time. Each song feels like a magical, mystery escape into a dream world. Old language and imagery, paired with myriad string and folk instruments hearkens of warm days in the country, girls shaking ankle-length skirts as they spin with flowers in their hair. Before listening to Leave Your Sleep, I had not heard or read any of the poems Merchant adapts, but they quickly and easily enter your brain and enchant you with a not too distant, soulful past.

The album’s two discs–the first called “Leave Your Supper”; the second, “Leave Your Sleep”–are set inside a colorful book of lyrics, each a poem in its original form, complete with a photograph of the poet and a description of his or her life. The first song, a poem Charles Causley called “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience,” is about a young boy who asks a sailor to bring him back toys his travels, but learns, years later, the ravages of war. Most of the poems are more cheerful, however. The second, perhaps my favorite on the album, is a simple melody called “Equestrienne”:

And nothing that moves on land or sea

Will seem more beautiful to me

As the girl in pink on the milk-white horse

Cantering over the sawdust course.

Merchant pulls from even more traditions in “The King of China’s Daughter,” using the erhu and dizi flute as she sings of “the nutmeg grove.” Ogden Nash’s poem, “Adventures of Isabel” starts off the second disc–a folk ballad about a fearless girl who tackles a bear, a witch, a giant, even a doctor, and uses their strengths against them. One can’t help but laugh at the regretful creature in “The Sleepy Giant” who “used to pick up and voraciously chew / The dear little boys whom [he] met.”

The end of the album turns a bit more somber–a Gerard Manley Hopkins piece about sorrow, and Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s 19th century poem about the plight of Native Americans. Yet the entire album is a celebration of the children we have been and still can be, if we open ourselves up to the beauties of the world with wide and imaginative ears.

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“Time is a goon,” says Bosco, a character who doesn’t appear until midway through Jennifer Egan’s new book, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

“The question I want to hit straight on…[is] how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?”

Bosco is a has-been, former frontman for the 1980’s band The Conduits, now inflicted with cancer, obesity, and gray hair. In “A to B” (chapter seven), he implores his publicist, Stephanie, to help him promote what he calls a Suicide Tour, his last hurrah before death. In fact, he hopes the tour will cause his death. He wants his suicide to be an art form.

Where does Jennifer Egan come up with these ideas?

Bosco’s publicist is Stephanie, wife to Bennie Salazar, a famous and successful record producer. Bennie is the boss to Sasha, the subject of the introductory story, “Found Objects,” first published in The New Yorker in 2008. Sasha is a kleptomaniac who in some way haunts each subsequent story (or chapter): a ghost of time past, present, and future.

Egan created her latest book as a series of narratives, each connected to the other pieces through characters who appear and disappear in prior and subsequent chapters. The stories can stand alone; Egan has made sure not to label her latest work a novel. But it’s not a book of short stories, either. The reader pushes through chapters with the same momentum as she would a novel, with the same inquiries about conflicts and characters. Where did they go next? Where have they been? Where will they end up?  Time is a goon–as Bosco says–in that it doesn’t stop, doesn’t relent. It just keeps on going, or it kept on going, and characters find themselves…well, here, in chapter ten (“Out of Body”), or there, in chapter two (“The Gold Cure”), which chronologically, happened after chapter ten. Phew. Each time a character reappears, we are struck with the obvious realization that people, everywhere, keep on living their lives whether they are still part of ours or not.

Modern society is a facebook and Twitter society. We are haunted by our past, just as we are haunted by characters who disappear and flicker like ghosts throughout Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. That friend from elementary school is living somewhere now; we know, because we see the pictures on facebook. A former coworker tweets that she is growing her own lettuce. The same astonishment, allure, and voyeurism exists in Egan’s latest artistic exercise. We find out about Bennie Salazar’s failed marriage in the second chapter, but we aren’t told exactly what happened until chapter seven. A teenager who falls in love with Bennie’s mentor appears later, at his death. Bennie’s wife’s boss has a downfall of her own, and her daughter grows up to work for him.

In some way, all of our lives are intertwined, and in other ways, they are not. We just pass on the street with a steady gaze, not knowing the story of the person whose air we breathe for a short time. But Egan’s characters are not sentimental; they are mysterious and detached, which adds to their allure. The story of Sasha that opens the novel shows us a woman struggling with an addiction, a desire for adventure or connection to another human, but she holds us–as she holds everyone–at a distance. Finally, we see her through a younger person’s point of view, and while there is joy in the progress Sasha has made, there is also awkwardness in what we know about her past.

Egan is, in my opinion, a hip and accessible literary genius in plain clothes. Her books are thought-provoking and innovative when it comes to the power of fiction and imagination. A Visit from the Goon Squad is quite an accomplishment in this postmodern, modern world. When we think we’ve conquered all other things, Egan reminds us that we can never forget our past–or when we do, our past remembers us.

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Reading Nafisi

I just finished Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, and I feel like I just travelled to a place that will remain in my heart indefinitely. I thought I had to read Nabokov’s Lolita first, so I finally picked Reading Lolita up, ironically, two years after Nabokov’s weird anti-hero fluttered out of my life and started collecting dust on the shelf. Now I know, of course, that most of Nafisi’s book is a personal and professional biography, and not about Lolita at all, so it wasn’t a problem that I forgot most of the novel. (Though Nafisi does spin an analysis so complicated in the first 50 pages, you might think you’re in an English literature seminar). Because I am a teacher, I love reading what other teachers’ experiences are like, and I can tell Nafisi is brilliant at her job. She even taught me how to read Jane Austen with more appreciation, […]

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The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud

I recently devoured this book, and to continue the metaphor, felt that I had eaten too much. At first, Messud’s wit and quick-paced chapters were alluring. In the beginning, the developing story was certainly living up to the quote from the New York Times Book Review that is written on the cover, that it is a “masterly comedy of manners.” Could Messud be the Edith Wharton of our modern age? It takes a little while to figure out how so many characters, each with his or her own introduction in alternating chapters, relate. But after 50 pages or so, we see that Messud is describing New York at the turn of the 21st century, and particularly, the lives of educated, hip, artistic folks who are turning the corner of the third decade of their lives. For a while, it is fun to read about the penthouse apartment that ’60’s liberal journalist Murray Thwaite […]

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