Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

A former-blogger, still friend of mine added Sounds Like Titanic on Goodreads, and I knew I had to read it. It’s about a college-age woman who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains and made it to Columbia. She started playing violin when she was 8, which is considered ancient if you want to be a professional violinist. Her parents were not poor — they had white collar jobs — but Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman is surrounded by poverty and wants to leave her hometown. She chooses Columbia, much to her parents’ disdain, only because her high school boyfriend does, a boyfriend who is not originally from the holler but “the city,” code for “worth respect.”

To pay for college without her parents’ help, Chiccehitto Hindman signs up for the ROTC, but drops out almost immediately. Instead, she pays for her tuition by working three jobs, going to school full time, and selling 38 of her eggs. When she can’t even place in the college orchestra, her dreams of music major are destroyed. It’s circa 2001, and Chiccehitto Hindman works to earn a Middle Eastern Studies degree, spending time in Egypt and learning Arabic as planes crash into the Twin Towers and Americans argue with her that all people in the Middle East are terrorists.

But her college senior year is when it all gets weird. Responding to a want ad, Chiccehitto Hindman is hired into a professional orchestra without even an audition only to learn that The Composer, a real, famous darling of PBS, has his musicians play quietly in front of dead microphones while a CD blasts over speakers. Chiccehitto Hindman loses control as she questions what is real and fake, suffering from several panic attacks per day. She stays with The Composer’s orchestra for four years. The cheesy songs he composes sound so much like the Titanic soundtrack that he receives a cease and desist letter, but it is the music that makes Americans scared of terrorists calm during an uncertain time.

I love that face, as if she was about the play an the music blasts out of the speakers, like she’s thinking “the f**k am I hearing??”

The writing style in Sounds Like Titanic is brilliant. Short chapters keep you reading in that way that short chapters do: just one more, one more, one more. . . Chiccehitto Hindman’s style allows her to jump around between places and years as needed without confusion, simply labeling each tiny chapter with a name and date.

When she writes about her time on the God Bless America tour with The Composer (who is called such because he is a real person, and Chiccehitto Hindman doesn’t want his identity revealed), she uses second person — “you” — which is a method people use to distance themselves from the writing. The author acknowledges that she is doing this, which plants readers firmly in meta-memoir territory, meaning the memoir is aware that it is a memoir and makes its awareness known.

Later, Chiccehitto Hindman includes a chapter in which she had a conversation with her friend who notes that in any normal book, when things get really awful, that would be the point during which some boyfriend would come in and tell Chiccehitto Hindman that she needs to stop fake playing because it’s hurting her psychologically. The author retorts that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but agrees to put the conversation in Sounds Like Titanic. These moments pull the reader into the realness and fakeness that the author works to untangle. The conversation is real, the boyfriend is made up. The story is real and happened to Chiccehitto Hindman, but by using “you,” it’s as if the suffering is not real. It is an effective writing style.

The whole memoir comments on two other themes beautifully: one is the American work ethic. If only a person works harder, he/she will receive just rewards. When children who believe in that motto grow into adults, they learn it is fake. In college, Chiccehitto Hindman uses drugs to keep herself awake for days on end so she can be successful. Ages five to eighteen she worked harder to prove she was worth something.

But the fake orchestra turns the American motto on its head. The Composer works hard, but is a psychotic man with a “velociraptor smile.” For his minimal efforts, he earns very little but gains the adoration of millions:

Other than a small trickle of revenue he received from the CD sales table at the concerts, The Composer is not getting paid by PBS for the tour. The audience members have “won” admission to the concert by pledging donations to their local PBS stations. The money for the RV and the hotels and our salaries is coming out of The Composer’s own pocket.

If you came to adulthood circa The Great Recession in the United States, Sounds Like Titanic will speak to you, revealing just how much “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” can cause misery, but also how men receive respect and adoration, even if they are fakes who don’t produce anything of value and can’t recognize Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (The Composer can’t).

The memoir also says a lot about growing up female in America, which tied in nicely with my post last week asking, Is Grab the Lapels actually feminist? Chiccehitto Hindman explores why a violin is actually a tool for girls by arguing it is like attaching a penis: with a violin, a girl or woman is worthy of respect and validation for reasons other than her body, respect that she would never get “in previous jobs as a waitress, receptionist, or assistant”:

By putting a violin under your chin — or even carrying a violin case through the puke-green corridors of your high school — it is as if you’re telling the world that you have authority on something, and in having this authority, you are more complex, more consequential than your young female body suggests.

Women are trapped in their willingness to work harder to prove their worth, which makes them succumb to mental health issues, which makes them seem weak, like men already thought:

Later, your dad will invite you to shadow him on a night shift in the emergency room for an article you are writing, and you will discover the ER at three o’clock in the morning is not full of blood and gore but women in their twenties having panic attacks. “I’m dying” when nothing is actually wrong. Panic attacks serve as confirmation of the very things women spend their lives working to negate: suspicions of female silliness, stupidity, hysteria.

I found that Chiccehitto Hindman had a lot to say about the life of women in her memoir that purported to be about fake playing the violin. It was so much more, and especially captured the hustle and desperation of women in their twenties trying to survive in a country that starts them further back from the finish line. She even touches on fatphobia and the unruliness of living in a female body. Control is key: of weight, finances, mental health, grades, relationships, a sex life. And we cannot live by controlling everything without losing everything.

An excellent memoir that I blasted through and highly recommend.

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19 comments

  1. I have two questions: does the author still play the violin socially? and do you? Sounds like an excellent book, especially the meta elements. I hope Hindman has a career as a writer.

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    • Hindman said that she typically only plays if a relative has a wedding on a strict budget, but other than that, it’s sitting around and getting dusty. I’m not even that involved. I played in a community orchestra in….2017, I think it was? But I was also teaching too much, and the whole thing stressed me out just to think about it. So. I did get out my violin the other day, but it’s not like riding a bike. It’s more like watching a raccoon try to ride a bike: funny, but also slow and and painful. The muscles that you build up over years of playing in orchestras and taking hour-long lesson several times per week just disappear when you don’t use them, because they’re not the kind of muscles you use all the time.

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    • I hadn’t thought of her story playing in a fake orchestra as a framing device, but you’re right. It really is, as serves as a way to discuss other themes: what’s real, American work ethic, and women.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gosh, this sounds absolutely fascinating, I’m going to have to see if we can get it here. I really missed seeing it was a memoir and thought it was fiction for a while through your review – because how could this be real??!

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    • You know, I asked myself how I would feel if I found out this memoir was made up — because that will happen with books every now and again. And I realized that if the whole thing was fabricated, then it really was just a great story!

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  3. Intriguing! What an incredible life story, and one that lends itself well to deeper considerations of gender, power, autonomy, etc. I love it when a memoirist extends their gaze beyond their own experiences to bring in social concerns, and it sounds like Chiccehitto Hindman does that exceptionally well.

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    • You know, I didn’t realize that that is something that I need in a memoir, but you are right. The simple retelling of one’s life is not interesting on its own. I learned that the hard way when I read Joan Fontaine’s memoir and was supremely disappointed.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds like a really incredible memoir. It sort of reminds me of the Maid book i read a few months ago, that circles around this idea of ‘if you work hard enough, you will succeed’, but as we all know by now, that simply isn’t the case for many people. I can see why you liked this book so much.

    What was it that initially drew you to it on goodreads? Was it reading the blurb? How did you decide to take a chance on this one, other than your friend reading it?

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    • I started playing violin “too late” to be taken “seriously,” same as the author. I started college as a music performance major, same as the author. I also played in an orchestra that played wtih a CD for a while (we were not professional and never ended up doing a concert, though). There were just so many similarities!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, this sounds like a fascinating memoir. I was thinking about pretend violins recently. One of my kids plays in the orchestras at school (there are two, one for each grade, and she plays in both), and I’m always amazed at how wonderful they sound because it’s A LOT of kids, and they don’t audition for it. Then I noticed that some of the kids hold their bows really, really far away from the instrument. They can’t possibly be playing! My kid plays the bass, and loves it, and is actually playing. Lots of the kids are, but some of them are definitely pretending.

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    • Oh, Amal! I’m dyin’ over here!! I’m laughing because the fakery starts so early, but truly I am sad that the children are learning it’s okay to pretend. Then again….maybe that is a good lesson for life? Sometimes you have to pretend until you can really do something. I mean, my first water color painting in school sure felt like pretend artistry.

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  6. Not sure how I missed that this was actually a memoir when I read the book description… When you first mentioned this book in a Sunday post a few weeks back I totally thought it was fiction. Very interesting. I actually just finished reading a memoir that was told completely in 2nd person and I was surprised how well it worked…

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    • The premise is so goofy you would swear it was fiction just by reading the description! She doesn’t stick with second-person point of view the entire book, just the sections from the past when she toured with The Composer. What was the memoir you read in second person?

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  7. Oh man! This sounds INCREDIBLE. I want to read this promptly. I love second-person. I don’t get to read it enough. The idea of a meta-memoir really tickles my fancy. It freaks me out a bit that this is a real story, however. You know I have a passionate connection to music (dress rehearsal for the next VACB concert tonight!) — I cannot imagine a composer creating music no one plays. Or *does* he create the music? By 2011, we have the technology to recreate fairly realistic sounding instruments “playing” technologically written music (like, Finale), but it would have cost an arm and a leg. It sounds like The Composer didn’t have the finances to do that. Also, this whole thing would have given ME panic attacks. It’s so unreal.

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    • The Composer would write music, but didn’t know how to transpose anything to different instruments. All of his music that he wrote was so suspiciously close to Titanic (including that pennywhistle) that he was told he had to stop or would be sued, so he’d change his songs just on the positive side of copyright. Most listeners still said it sounded like Titanic, which they loved. He would have a real orchestra record the songs and the fake orchestra travel on tour. The weird thing is most of the musicians on tour were actually really good (aside from the writer) and could have played for real! It’s all so wacky. I do hope you read it; as a music major, I think you’ll love it.

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