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February 25, 2021

Ellie Eaton's Playlist for Her Novel "The Divines"

The Divines by Ellie Eaton

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Ellie Eaton's novel The Divines is haunting and complex, a captivating debut.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"At times both sharp and haunting, this novel embodies the awkwardness and regret of adolescence.... A layered and complex debut."


In her words, here is Ellie Eaton's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Divines:



I grew up in a family with such wildly differing tastes in music I was in danger of getting whiplash. My father, who lived in the Caribbean for part of his twenties, was fanatical about reggae and soca. My mother was an opera buff with a penchant for The Boss. Two of my uncles happened to be in the industry, one the co-founder of beloved indie label, 4AD, the other an A&R exec at Warner Bros. No surprise then that the tracks on my list are a little all over the map.

Drafting my debut, The Divines, I almost always worked in silence, but after my writing day was over I liked to stick on my headphones and take a walk around my neighbourhood in Los Angeles, blasting the music of my adolescence, hoping to recapture some of that teenage energy and angst. The songs on this list are a handful of the tracks that helped transport me back to my schooldays.


I’ll Never Grow Old - The Maytals

My sister and I were both pupils at an Oxfordshire boarding school, a monotonous three-hour drive from where we lived. On those long trips my father liked to distract us from the crushing sense of dread that came with the first day of term by cranking up the car stereo as loudly as possible. Ska, soca, reggae, rocksteady. This Maytals track is a reminder of the feeling of immortality I had at sixteen when I genuinely thought I’d never grow old.

Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana

The Divines is set in an all-girls boarding school where pupils plaster their dormitory walls with pictures of '90s icons. In my teenage years there was no one more idolised by my peers than Kurt Cobain. With his rasping voice, unkempt blonde hair, torn jeans and old woolly cardigans, Cobain seemed to encapsulate the spirit of teenage rebellion.

Cannonball - The Breeders

Growing up my uncle would periodically visit my family, depositing an armful of posters and cassettes on our kitchen table, the latest bands he’d signed to his record label, 4AD. Most of the artwork on my bedroom wall was by the legendary designer Vaughn Oliver—Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil—years before I was old enough to appreciate them. "Cannonball" was the song that turned me into a Breeders fan, hooked by those first few seconds of eerie vocal feedback. Something about this song reminds me of the wildness of the girls I write about in The Divines, their irreverence and unassailable bravado.

Common People – Pulp

The events of my novel largely take place in the nineties at the height of Britpop and grunge. At the time I was a devotee of New Musical Express, pouring over newspaper headlines that documented the ongoing feuds between the chart-topping bands of the day. "Common People" by Pulp is a nod to the elite bubble that the girls in my book inhabit. A gated world, the preserve of the privileged few.

Cakes - Max Tundra

London born electronic musician, Max Tundra, is a synth looping genius. The title of this glorious early album, Some Best Friend You Turned Out To Be, is a tongue in cheek reference to the poisonous friendship at the heart of The Divines. While my book has somewhat sinister undertones, Max Tundra’s "Cakes," is a joyous and dreamy piece of electronic wonder, with flutes and trumpets and drum machine beats.

Little Fluffy Clouds - The Orb

When my sister and I were young we became obsessed with the idea of moving to America. Growing up in rural England, the US seemed to embody everything that we most craved; excitement, glamour, the open road. Rickie Lee Jones’s musings on the Arizonan skies of her youth, sampled in this track by The Orb, remind me of our teenage yearnings for something bigger.

Into My Arms - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

In The Divines, Joe, my narrator, describes a picture of Nick Cave she keeps by her bedside. A “signed photograph…bought from a stall at Kensington Market, a pre-Bad-Seeds-era Nick Cave in which a very young, cocky Cave smoked and gazed mysteriously upwards through quizzical eyebrows.” There’s no distance I wouldn’t travel to watch Cave perform.

Look On Down From The Bridge - Mazzy Star

The organ chords at the start of this spine-chilling track remind me of seven years of mandatory school chapel, sitting on hard wooden pews, aching for freedom. The song also makes me think of the ugly metal bridge at the heart of the school campus in The Divines, erected to keep the pupils out of the way of the (rightly) contemptuous locals.

Song To The Siren - This Mortal Coil

In Elizabeth Fraser’s hands this cover of Tim Buckley’s "Song To The Siren" is a haunting reminder of the agony of early love. How intoxicating it can feel and the bitter sting of rejection. In The Divines I tried to capture some of the pain of unrequited love which Fraser’s melancholy voice evokes so perfectly. This song is also a sly nod to the Greek mythological references that weave in and out of my book.

Girls! Girls! Girls! - Liz Phair

"Girls! Girls! Girls!" is an unapologetic song about the power of womanhood. “I take full advantage of every man I meet,” Liz Phair declares in her low-key, matter of fact tone. I want to sit down Joe, the narrator of my book, and force her to listen.

Sweet - Porridge Radio

These days almost all the new music I listen to comes from my friend Holly O’Neill who—in addition to being a supremely talented editor, writer and occasional butcher—introduced me to British indie rock band, Porridge Radio. The track "Sweet" reminds me of the notoriously tricky relationship between mothers and daughters that I navigate in my novel. The song reads like a diary entry, a flash back to the nail biting awkwardness of our teenage selves.


Born and raised in England, Ellie Eaton lives in Los Angeles with her family. Former writer-in-residence at a men's prison in the United Kingdom, she holds an M.A. in creative writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. The Divines is her first novel.




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February 25, 2021

Shorties (An Excerpt From Hermione Lee's Tom Stoppard Biography, Stream Nick Cave & Warren Ellis's Surprise New Album, and more)

Tom Stoppard by Hermione Lee

The Paris Review shared an excerpt from Hermione Lee's book Tom Stoppard: A Life.


Stream the surprise new Nick Cave and Warren Ellis album.


February's best eBook deals.

Today's best eBook deals.

eBook on sale for $2.99 today:

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy


Davido played a Tiny Desk Concert.


Bustle shared an excerpt from Lee Lawrence's memoir The Louder I Will Sing.


Stream a new Wolf Alice song.


Tim O'Brien discussed his new documentary with Fresh Air.


Paul McCartney will publish a two-volume, 900-page "lyrical biography," The Lyrics, in November.


Black booksellers recommended books to read during Black History Month at Parade.


Stream a new Julien Baker song.

Baker also covered Radiohead's "Everything In Its Right Place."


Ms. Magazine interviewed poet and literary activist Marisa Crawford.


Stream a new Half Waif song.


Ibram X. Kendi talked books and reading with the New York Times.


Rolling Stone shared an excerpt from Eric Spitznagel’s book Rock Stars on the Record: The Albums That Changed Their Lives.


Anne Enright reviewed Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel Klara and the Sun at the Guardian.


Bright Eyes covered Vic Chesnutt's "Flirted With You All My Life."


Paste examined the intersection of Allen Ginsberg and popular music.


Cloud Nothings' Dylan Baldi shared tips for pandemic productivity with Stereogum.

UPROXX and Noisey also interviewed Baldi.


Avni Doshi discussed her debut novel Burnt Sugar with Shondaland.


Stream a new song by Son Lux.


Electric Literature interviewed Daniel Loedel.


Stereogum considered the Fat Boys' legacy.


The Irish Examiner recommended Irish books for Irish Reads Day.


Stream a new song by Spirit of the Beehive.


Epigram examined the Booktok community on TikTok.


The Creative Independent interviewed musician Sarah Beth Tomberlin.


Literary Hub shared a new essay by Elissa Schappell.


Uncut reviewed every album in Mogwai's discography.


CrimeReads interviewed Jeff VanderMeer.


Spoon shared the demo for their song "Lines in the Suit."


The New York Times Magazine shared a new essay by Hanif Abdurraqib.


Helado Negro covered David Bowie's "Sound and Vision."



If you appreciate the work that goes into Largehearted Boy, please consider making a donation.


February 24, 2021

Julia Fine's Playlist for Her Novel "The Upstairs House"

The Upstairs House by Julia Fine

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Smart, haunting, and inventive, Julia Fine's novel The Upstairs House is a marvelously unsettling exploration of being a new mother.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"In this inventive, visceral novel, Fine creates a dark fairy tale about a woman whose career plans are sidelined by pregnancy and the birth of her daughter.... Fine depicts the devastation of postpartum depression, all too often shrouded in shame and blame, and offers hope."


In her words, here is Julia Fine's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Upstairs House:



I listened to music constantly while working on my first novel (What Should Be Wild), but I wrote The Upstairs House during my son’s naptime, and I savored the quiet. The following are songs that inspired me while away from the page.


Neko Case, “I Wish I Was the Moon”

Who among us hasn’t been up with a newborn and whispered, “I’m so tired”? If you’re simultaneously mid-dissertation on Margaret Wise Brown, of course you follow with “I wish I was the moon tonight.” This is a song about exhaustion and loneliness and no longer recognizing yourself—it’s the perfect The Upstairs House anthem.

Rudy Vallee, “You’re Driving Me Crazy”

I listened to a lot of Rudy Vallee while getting to know the 1930s/40s characters—particularly Michael Strange. He’s the sort of artist Michael might have had playing during one of her Upper East Side soirees—socialites drinking champagne in the luxury penthouse and looking out over the East River, dancing drunkenly to his records. There’s also a scene in the book where the music Megan has been streaming switches inexplicably from rock and roll to Rudy Vallee—how fitting that it would be this particular song.

Phoebe Bridgers, “Killer”

Nobody does it like Phoebe. “I am sick of the chase/but I’m hungry for blood/and there’s nothing I can do,” and then in the second chorus, “I am sick of the chase/but I’m stupid in love/and there’s nothing I can do.” This is a song about desire and control, and I envision it as a love letter from Margaret to Michael, and from Megan to Clara.

Rockabye Baby!, “Gold Dust Woman”

Rockabye Baby! does a series of lullaby versions of basically any artist you can imagine—from Bruno Mars to The Beatles to Beyoncé to Metallica. I considered just making this track white noise, (a constant companion to any new parent), but these are much more fun. I’m not sure that Margaret Wise Brown and Stevie Nicks would get along, but I do think they’d be something of kindred spirits. Regardless, I love the Fleetwood Mac Rockabye Baby, I love the original “Gold Dust Woman,” and I appreciate the opportunity to rock out while my kids are asleep in the car.

Bob Dylan, “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)”

“I couldn’t see/how you could know me/but you said you knew me and I believed you did.” This lyric perfectly encapsulates Megan’s relationship with her husband, Ben—her struggle to communicate, the tragedy of inertia, his confidence in the stability of their marriage. I’m always here for a good upbeat, messy breakup song, and I see this one as an examination of the lies we tell each other, and ourselves, during dispassionate relationships.

Billie Holiday, “There is No Greater Love”

Lyrically, this song is quite simple, but Billie Holiday’s version adds complexity that I don’t necessarily hear in other recordings. There’s something almost menacing here—the fear of losing love sits right alongside having and enjoying it, which is a key theme in The Upstairs House. This song could be sung as a purely celebratory love story, but instead becomes a multi-layered examination of what it means to be vulnerable in a relationship.

Frederic Chopin, “Op. 28: No. 15 in D-Flat Major, Raindrop”

Toward the end of her career, Michael Strange did a regular radio program during which she’d recite famous poems over classical music. Poe’s "The Raven" was paired with Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, and honestly this combination says so much about Michael. She felt things deeply and dramatically, she loved an ostentatious display (particularly when she could insert herself front and center), and she didn’t necessarily have deep wells of original artistic insight. Chopin is, however, a lovely accompaniment to writing ghost stories.

Lucius, “Two of Us On the Run”

This song builds very slowly, which I think makes it a good fit for Megan’s experience in The Upstairs House. Of course, the title is also quite fitting for the latter third of the book, when Megan sets out to excise her ghosts. It’s melancholy and hopeful and, as always with Lucius, the harmonies are absolutely perfect.

Malvina Reynolds, “Turn Around”

I dare you (a parent) to listen to even the first few notes of this song without crying. As frustrating and mind-numbing and exhausting as it is to have a newborn, the time passes, the babies grow, the generational cycles continue. My mother used to sing this to me when I was small, and now I sing it to my daughter. Listen while reading The Upstairs House epilogue.


Julia Fine is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s MFA program. She teaches writing in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and son.




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Shorties (A Robert Coover Folio, An Interview with Julien Baker, and more)

The Public Burning by Robert Coover

Big Other shared a folio to celebrate Robert Coover's 89th birthday, including a new short story by the author and critical essays on his work.


Julien Baker talked to Uproxx about her new album.


February's best eBook deals.

Today's best eBook deals.

eBooks on sale for $1.99 today:

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories/em> by Susanna Clarke
Salvage the Bones/em> by Jesmyn Ward

eBooks on sale for $2.99 today:

Evicted/em> by Matthew Desmond
Of Wolves and Men/em> by Barry Lopez
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler


Amanda Petrusich looked back on Bessie Smith's music at the Oxford American.


Poet, publisher, and bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti has passed away.

Esquire listed essential books Ferlinghetti wrote or published.

The Guardian and New York Times remembered him.


Stream a new song by the Natvral.


Debutiful interviewed author Zak Salih.


American Songwriter profiled Chuck D.


BuzzFeed recommended the week's best books.


Hillary Clinton is co-authoring a mystery novel with Louise Penny.


Suleika Jaouad discussed her memoir Between Two Kingdoms with the Los Angeles Review of Books.


Stream a Gloria Record rarity.


Granta shared a conversation between authors Lucie Elven and Madeleine Watts.


Stream a new Adult Mom.


Philadelphia Magazine interviewed poet and activist Sonia Sanchez.


Stream a new Fog Lake song.


K Chess talked books and reading with Book Marks.


Stream a new Pussy Riot song.


Stream a new Bloodkin song.


Author Jeff Jackson discussed his music with Vol. 1 Brooklyn.


The Transmissions podcast interviewed author Peter Guralnick.


Electric Literature shared an excerpt from Emma Duffy-Comparone's collection Love Like That.


Stream a new song by Mia Joy.


The Creative Independent interviewed publisher and editor Estrella Bonilla.


Guitarist Rachel Aggs shared her favorite music with The Quietus.


Betina Gonzáles and translator Heather Cleary discussed the novel American Delirium with Debutiful.


BOMB interviewed author Matthew Salesses.


Kirkus examined the continued resonance of Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir The Woman Warrior.


The New York Times previewed March's best books.


Tor Nightfire interviewed author Cassandra Khaw.


Lucy Clarke recommended books about castaways at the Guardian.


The OTHERPPL podcast interviewed author David Tromblay.


The New York Times examined baseball's fascination with Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow.


Literary Hub shared Jonathan Lethem's introduction to a new edition of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.


The Rumpus interviewed author Julia Fine.


Words Without Borders interviewed poet Najwan Darwish.



If you appreciate the work that goes into Largehearted Boy, please consider making a donation.


February 23, 2021

Matthew Gavin Frank's Playlist for His Book "Flight of the Diamond Smugglers"

Flight of the Diamond Smugglers by Matthew Gavin Frank

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Creative nonfiction is one of my favorite literary genres, and Matthew Gavin Frank is one of its most talented writers. Flight of the Diamond Smugglers blends investigative reporting, memoir, and natural history into a compelling and unforgettable book.

Bookpage wrote of the book:

"A work of strange beauty born of personal tragedy.... An often unsettling, thoroughly researched, poetically expressed mélange of memoir, historical analysis and philosophical meditation.... The narrative’s path is not linear; instead, Frank follows the flow of his prodigious curiosity.... Frank observes... with a sharp yet sympathetic eye.... Suspense builds as the pages turn.... there’s much to marvel at, from the far-reaching aftermath of diamond mining to the ways old memories have a hold on us. Readers will empathize with Frank’s efforts to process his grief and with Diamond Coast residents’ search for glints of hope in a grim desert. Through it all, pigeons soar in the sky and alight on the ground, offering companionship, a particular set of skills and thought-provoking fodder for metaphor."


In his words, here is Matthew Gavin Frank's Book Notes music playlist for his book Flight of the Diamond Smugglers:



My new nonfiction book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, investigates the role of carrier pigeons in Southern African diamond smuggling—the ways in which workers bring their trained birds into the mines concealed in lunchboxes, pack diamonds into specially-sewn bags, attach said bags to the birds’ feet, and set the pigeons into the air, where they fly to their homes and the awaiting hands of the laborers’ families, who unpack the diamonds and make their fortunes. The book also engages the endurance of personal grief, as well as issues of climate change, social justice, environmental destruction, eco-criticism, corporate colonialism, police brutality, exploitation of indigenous people and people of color, late-capitalist greed, and animal rights. And the book also engages…well… a love for birds. Throughout, in telling these stories, I tried to be open to wonder and horror, to mystification, to quiet beauty, and to flight and to music, actual and metaphorical.

“Pata Pata” by Miriam Makeba

Makeba’s song wedges joy and delight into an encompassing heartbreak, celebrating the drive to sing and dance and commune amid a looming oppression. As the book opens, I sit with a young diamond miner on a beach on the outskirts of the restricted mining town of Oranjemund, just on the South African side of the Namibian border. We both hug our knees to our chest at sunset, sitting in the sand beneath a sun-bleached sign that reads, NO ENTRY. He speaks to me of the many dangers facing those who labor in the diamond industry. He speaks to me of the danger he faces simply by speaking to me. He speaks to me, joyously, of the pigeons he raises in secret as companions, and as avian accomplices in “illicit” diamond smuggling. Can Makeba’s song help to contextualize this brew of danger, joy, sand and sunset? I don’t know. I do know that “Pata Pata” was the last song Makeba ever performed right before collapsing onstage on November 9, 2008, the night she died.

“Ketine” by Ali Farka Touré

This slow, droning, meditative blues manages to entrance, while—perhaps via the rattlesnake-y percussion—also managing to disquiet, to build a kind of suspense. It’s not entirely safe to give oneself over to its spell, but one is helpless to resist. One just has to hold on, and be transported, as if tied to the feet of a diamond-bearing smuggler pigeon as it takes off from the mine, and rises over the aerial ropeways, stout ladders joining the stepped catacombs and blind alleys, pyramids, plateaus, arroyos of mud; the boys and men who dig until their bodies break. One can only dig into the earth so deep before the earth decides to collapse.

“Andizenzi” by Kanyi Mavi

Urgent and incantatory, Mavi’s stew of synth, chorus, explosive percussion and wordsmith-ery evoke also an amalgam of beauty and brutality, anger and wonder. Until very recently, much of South Africa’s West Coast was owned by the De Beers conglomerate and was officially closed-off to the public for the better part of 80 years (the heyday of diamond exploration and mining in the area), plunging the local communities into a mysterious isolation. Recently, De Beers even had a shadowy agreement with satellite companies to scrub the images of this so-called Forbidden Zone from their recorded files. It was, essentially and officially, an erasure from the earth. A blank spot on the map. A redacted place. A non-country within a real country. Terra incognita-meets-planned-community. According even to the satellites, it didn’t exist. Heavily-armed security forces guarded (and still guard) its borders. And surrounding this zone is the richest bulb flora arid region on the planet— blanketed, for two weeks’ time in the middle of August, in an overwhelming kaleidoscope of orange and purple desert flowers.

“Pomp and Pride” by Toots and the Maytals

Speaking of those desert flowers, I was lucky enough—during one of my research trips to South Africa— to have witnessed this brief bloom. The world seemed to have gone Oz-like, and I drove a rental car through all of this floral psychedelia, blasting some Toots. The roads, during this two-week window, are jammed. Bloom-obsessed tourists descend on the region hoping to spot and photograph as many of the 3,000 plant species as possible, and temporary “Flower Hotlines,” replete with all the latest updates, spring up. People drive recklessly in order to outrun the dusk hours when the flowers close up for the night. In the evenings, tourists fill under-prepared cafes, sip Chenin Blanc, and compare pictures, speaking animatedly of kaleidoscopes and rain-daisies. And then the two weeks are up, and the flowers die, and the land’s apparent infertility is restored. Every time I imagine the flowers opening and closing, I imagine them opening and closing to the bounce of this song.

“Police and Thieves” by Junior Murvin

When laborers affix too many diamonds to pigeons, the exhausted and overloaded birds tend to falter, and to land at random along the beaches of the Diamond Coast. When De Beers officials caught wind of this, they had it declared illegal to raise pigeons in the region. In fact, in 1998, a local lawmaker made it illegal to not shoot a pigeon on sight, should one have the means to do so. Still, so many raise pigeons in secret, and sometimes successfully smuggle diamonds using this method. If one is caught keeping these birds, the local police are given leeway to enact “unofficial” forms of punishment. Rumors abound in the region of such “offenders” having had their fingers broken, or eyes excised, or hands or ears or feet, or head cut off. Murvin’s falsetto haunts the song’s lyrical content, and yields the sort of protest that longs to ascend from atrocity, without ever turning away from it, taking to the sky, but never forgetting the blood.

“Type” by Living Colour

At one point in the book, I find myself riding on the back of a Land Rover, passing around a bottle of brandy with a bunch of gun-toting anti-pigeon militia members. Though not officially sanctioned by De Beers, these militias thrive here, contracted to kidnap people’s pets right from their coops on nighttime stealth runs, and bring them to isolated spots on the beach hidden among the labyrinth of dunes. Here, they make a game of executing the birds. As they allowed me to bear witness to the slaughter, this song—especially the live version in which Living Colour includes it in an extended melody with their (also awesome) song “Elvis Is Dead” and their cover of “Police and Thieves”— made a surprise and appropriate appearance in my head, serving to italicize my shock in the face of all of those dead birds.

“Factory” by Bruce Springsteen

In 1870, Cecil John Rhodes, founder of the De Beers conglomerate, came to South Africa from England. In diamond fields of Kimberley, Rhodes, with the financial backing of a British banking company (with whom he had familial connections), was alone in being able to afford steam pumps to eradicate the water from flooded claims, which—given that they were presumed ruined— he originally bought for a song. The miners slated for De Beers’ underground work would line up single-file by 5:00am, and trundle down the shafts to chip away at the rock with pick-axes. The workers were charged with squeezing themselves into crevices so tight that they had to chip mere millimeters from their bodies. As such, toward the end of the shift, ghostly parades of human-shaped depressions were left in the rock, hard outlines of the men who once labored there. “And you just better believe,” Springsteen sings, “somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight,” and, still today, along South Africa’s Diamond Coast, in bars called Diamond Hunters, and bars called Fortune’s, I saw knife-fights stop just short of the stabbing, because the men know they have to line up single-file by 5:00am, and trundle down the shafts…

“Dollar’s Moods” by The Jazz Epistles

Msizi, one of the young diamond miners to whom I spoke, loved jazz. He especially loved The Jazz Epistles, a 1950s Johannesburg-based band who recorded the first-ever album by a Black South African group in 1959. Msizi raised pigeons in secret, and, exhausted, post-shift, he would often go out to his coop and hum some of their tunes to his favorite pigeon, Bartholomew. “Dollar’s Moods,”—which somehow braids an elusive and subtle mournfulness into what seems to be a cheerful and exuberant primary line— is named for the volatile temper of the band’s piano player, Abdullah Ibrahim, aka Dollar Brand. After the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre (during which South African police opened fire on Black protestors demonstrating against apartheid policies, killing 69 people), the apartheid government doubled-down on their viciousness in order to discourage future protests. As part of this doubling-down, jazz was banned—the music could no longer be performed either in public or in private, could no longer be broadcast on the radio, or sold to fans. The lives of the musicians were threatened, and less than a year after recording their first album, The Jazz Epistles were forced to break up. When Msizi hummed this song to Bartholomew, the bird would raise and lower its wings, but its feet would remain fixed—evoking the machinations of flight, without rising.

“Birdland” by Patti Smith

John James Audubon on watching flocks of pigeons pass overhead: “A thundering storm of beating wings and dung like melting flakes of snow.”

A song about the role of dreaming and self-delusion in the endurance of grief and a persistent sense of estrangement (in a Didion-esque “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” sort of way), “Birdland” can serve as a sort of soundtrack to many of our myths in which pigeons and diamonds intersect. (In drafting FLIGHT OF THE DIAMOND SMUGGLERS, I had to eventually cut so many of these myths out of the book!) For instance: Indra, the bright red and four-armed Vedic deity, possessed as his weapon of choice the fearsome vajra, a thunderbolt coated in diamond dust, making it both indestructible and irresistible, the pointy ends of which were used to ritualistically eviscerate the ignorant. The vajra was forged by Tvastar, the artisan of divine gizmos, who had the ability to take the form of a dove and who would do so in order to sing angry birds to sleep. Indra’s mount, Airavata the albino elephant, was blindingly white, and generously endowed with four tusks and seven trunks, and was descended from a great serpent—the same one responsible for producing—after eons of Darwinian evolution, of course—the pigeons. As if a bird, Airavata hatched from an egg, which was nursed and pacified by the quiet hymns of the creation gods, and when this egg cracked, it yielded, along with the white elephant, an ocean of milk, which itself served as an amniotic bath to which earthbound mortals in need of hope could aspire to return, as if wayward homing pigeons to the comfort of their coops.

“Imayini Yase (Coalbrook Mine)” from This Land Is Mine: South African Freedom Songs

In one of the most ethereal dirges ever performed, a group of South African refugees commemorate the 1960 collapse of the Coalbrook Mine, which killed 408 people, at once memorializing the dead, and condemning the apartheid regime responsible for the labor laws that devalued the lives of Black workers. Though the apartheid government officially fell in 1994, many of its atrocious policies simply evolved and still haunt aspects of South African life, including those pertaining to the diamond mining industry. Oftentimes, still today, the Black security officials working for the diamond mining conglomerates have to patrol the mine on foot, while the White officials make their rounds from the comfort of white pick-up trucks, lording over the laborers who are charged with extracting diamonds from what one poetic and dystopian (and anonymous) local journalist referred to as, “A vast heaving crater. A world of dust, drought, dysentery, and flies, disease and despair, where some dig up a fortune, and others dig their graves.” And overhead, some of their diamond-smuggling pigeons fly, and some of these birds will make it home, and some people’s lives will get better and some will get worse. And did you know also that in her poem, “Pigeon Post,” Sylvia Plath wrote, “I split my soul/into twin pigeons/and hurled them hard…//With homing spiral/one drops from heaven…//my other bird,/plump-fed, admired/from an elegant nest/in the fields of hell…”? And did you know that, in Hebrew, the word yownah, or “dove,” also refers to the holy warmth generated by an act of mating? And did you know that the ancient Greeks called pigeons peristera (the female form of pigeon) and named their prettiest islands after them?


Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo; the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and 2 chapbooks.




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Tracy Clark-Flory's Playlist for Her Memoir "Want Me"

Want Me by Tracy Clark-Flory

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Tracy Clark-Flory's memoir Want Me is a smart, funny, and incredibly insightful coming-of-age story.

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the book:

"Luminous, funny, big-hearted... this is a book of insight, both cultural and personal. It is majestic to behold."


In her words, here is Tracy Clark-Flory's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir Want Me:



I came of age in the nineties alongside fizzy declarations of "girl power" and exhortations to “break the glass ceiling.” It was also a time of sexualized pop culture, from Girls Gone Wild infomercials to MTV Spring Break specials. I emerged with a sense that sexual empowerment meant being both like men and wanted by them—and I set out to become an expert in both, first as a young woman coming of age and then as a journalist covering the sex beat. My memoir, Want Me: A Sex Writer’s Journey into the Heart of Desire, follows me down that path as I report on everything from adult film sets to orgasmic meditation retreats, and reckon with the disappointments of channeling my own wanting through men.

While writing Want Me, I often looked for inspiration from the music that defined various periods in my life. Some of those songs, like the ones below, viscerally transported me back to key moments of feeling and discovery. They were the soundtrack to my writing—and maybe now to your reading—this book.


“#1 Crush” by Garbage

I write in Want Me about my tweenage Leonardo DiCaprio obsession, which led me to run a high-circulation daily fan newsletter where I recounted tabloid gossip and previewed TV appearances in screaming all-caps (“EMERGENCY NEWSLETTER!!!!!!!!!!!! Leo on Inside Edition????????”). My devotion was sparked by Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, a flashy re-imagining of the classic that introduced me to DiCaprio in his most perfect state: peeking through a forelock of golden hair with a cigarette dangling from his lips, while scrawling love poems in a notebook. The film’s soundtrack perfectly captures the moody intensity of teenage obsession, but Garbage’s “#1 Crush” does so especially with its creeping beat and melodramatic lyrics. It instantly brings me back to those early awakenings of longing and lust, before my attention shifted to what boys wanted from me.

“Too Close” by Next

Here is a song all about a guy getting an erection on the dance floor (“Baby when we're grinding/I get so excited/…You’re making it hard for me”). That is to say, here is a song perfectly made for pubescent teens living for the school dance. At my middle school, there was little in the way of stiff-armed slow dances. I wrote in my 7th grade diary ([sic] here on out), “Freaking is a kind of dancing—it’s were the guy puts his leg in-between yours and his arms around you waist and your arms around his neck. And you kinda move back + forth. It really fun.” For me, this song encapsulates not only the thrill of school dances, but also my teenage fascination with boys’ bodies, and the possibilities of their bodies responding to mine. As RL croons toward the end, “You’re making me want you.”

“Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by Backstreet Boys

As I headed into high school, I gave up on my Leo crush in favor of AJ McLean, “the Backstreet Boy with tattoos, questionable facial hair, and crotch-thrusting dance moves,” as I write in Want Me. (One of those tattoos was a “69” around his navel.) AJ, who was known for humping the floor during concerts to the delighted screams of hundreds of teenage girls, was the designated “bad boy” of the bunch. He felt to me like a safe, vicarious route for expressing my own emerging sexuality. This isn’t the group’s sexiest song—but, man, did I run down my VHS taped copy of the accompanying music video just to hear AJ deliver this line: “Oh my god, we’re back againnn.”

“Genie in a Bottle” by Christina Aguilera

Ooof, revisiting these lyrics, it’s no wonder I belted them so intensely while watching MTV’s TRL after school:

"I feel like I've been locked in tight/For a century of lonely nights/Waiting for someone to release me/…My mind is saying let's go/But my heart is saying no/…I’m a genie in a bottle, baby/Come, come, come in and let me out.”

The sense of suppression, the conflicted desire, the wish for a man to set you free. Not to overanalyze, but I can’t help but think of the developmental psychologist Deborah Tolman who writes of adolescent girls’ “dilemma of desire,” in which their sexual feelings come up against the social and material dangers associated with their sexuality. During these years, the traditional virgin-slut dichotomy was starting to loosen for girls, leading to new sexual possibilities as well as pressures and contradictions. This song spoke to my own teenage attempts at navigating that shifting terrain—and maybe to Aguilera’s as well. In a few years, she would introduce her alter ego Xtina while singing about wanting to get “dirrty.”

“Midnight In a Perfect World” by DJ Shadow

This song is first love. It’s cutting class just to make out on a park bench with my high school boyfriend, who had great taste in music and a pair of oversize headphones always slung around his neck.

“Like a Boy" by Ciara

In my 20s, I wanted to be able to “have sex like a man," not exactly appreciating how this was guided by a distorted stereotype. I longed for a sense of sexual power that seemed to belong to men—whether it was around entitlement to pleasure or the freedom to explore. I grasped for that power through trying to be desired by men, and trying to be like them. As Ciara sings, “Wish we could switch up the roles” and “Sometimes I wish I could act like a boy.”

“Gimme More” by Britney Spears

As I write in my book of my marginally adult 20something life: I “routinely paired… Kraft dinners with cheap chardonnay followed by a solo dance party,” which often "turned very quickly into strip routines.” Britney Spears, and this song in particular, was emblematic of this period of privately performing in front of my mirror, while imagining myself reflected through any number of straight men’s eyes.

“S&M” by Rihanna

I write in Want Me about how my mom’s terminal cancer diagnosis led to my experimenting with rough sex in an attempt to physically surface my all-pervasive emotional pain. Just a few months later, Rihanna released her single “S&M,” in which she sang that “chains and whips excite me.” We were still years away from Lady Gaga singing about liking it “rough” and the release of Fifty Shades of Grey. As I write in the book, “We were on the verge of a massive mainstream cultural shift around BDSM, as well as countless think pieces about a purported, though never reliably documented, ‘rise in rough sex,' but I’d already felt the rumblings of it in my immediate surrounds.”

“thank u, next” by Ariana Grande

This song perfectly channels my feelings in looking back on my 20s: “Thought I'd end up with Sean/But he wasn't a match/Wrote some songs about Ricky/Now I listen and laugh/Even almost got married/And for Pete, I'm so thankful/Wish I could say ‘thank you’ to Malcolm/‘Cause he was an angel.” It’s playful, loving, and filled with gratitude, but all without looking longing toward the past.

"WAP" by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion

“Swipe your nose like a credit card” is one of the most delightful lyrics I’ve encountered in my entire life. Clover Hope, author of The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop, writes that this Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion song wasn’t just a “perfectly crafted duet about the slipperiness of their vaginas,” but “about women making music for women’s enjoyment, reclaiming the object gaze and the vision of sexuality that men had monopolized.” This kind of reclamation has been subject to decades of feminist debate, but all I feel when listening to this song is: Yes.


Tracy Clark-Flory is a senior staff writer at Jezebel. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Elle, Esquire, Marie Claire, Salon, The Guardian, Women's Health, and the yearly Best Sex Writing anthology. Prior to Jezebel, she was a senior staff writer at Salon. She has appeared on 20/20, MSNBC and NPR. Tracy lives in San Francisco with her family.




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Shorties (Kazuo Ishiguro Profiled, Hand Habits Covered Neil Young, and more)

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

The New York Times Magazine profiled Kazuo Ishiguro.


Hand Habits covered Neil Young's "I Believe in You."


February's best eBook deals.

Today's best eBook deals.

eBook on sale for $1.99 today:

Milk Bar Life: Recipes & Stories by Christina Tosi

eBooks on sale for $2.99 today:

The Quiet American by Graham Greene


Stream a new song by Early Riser.


BuzzFeed recommended the week's best virtual literary events,


Julien Baker played a virtual session for The Current.


Poets discussed their favorite John Keats poems at the Guardian.


ARTnews recommended compelling artist biographies.


Cloud Nothings' Dylan Baldi talked to Bandcamp Daily about his favorite music on the platform.


Esquire listed essential books on Black history.


Cover Me shared a collection of covers performed by Bill Frisell.


Bustle interviewed Roxane Gay.


Stream a new Guided By Voices song.


Electric Literature interviewed poet Baba Badji.


Stream a new song by Smerz.


The Creative Independent interviewed advocate and author Heather McGhee.


The 2020 Bram Stoker Award nominees have been announced.


Literary Hub recommended the week's best new books.


Kirkus interviewed author Brandon Hobson.


The Rumpus Book Club interviewed Randa Jarrar.


Marie Claire shared an excerpt from Leesa Cross-Smith's novel This Close to Okay.


Book Riot recommended 2021's best speculative short story collections.


Kirkus previewed March's best books.


Literary Hub interviewed Te-Ping Chen.


PEN America interviewed author Zak Salih.


The I'm a Writer But podcast interviewed Dmitry Samarov.



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February 22, 2021

Rebecca Morgan Frank's Playlist for Her Poetry Collection "Oh You Robot Saints!"

Oh You Robot Saints! by Rebecca Morgan Frank

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Rebecca Morgan Frank's poetry collection Oh You Robot Saints! is a brilliant exploration of the automata we create with our hands and minds.

Jericho Brown wrote of the book:

"'The truth is in the job, not the wound' is one of my favorite lines in Rebecca Morgan Frank’s daring Oh You Robot Saints!, a book in which the beauty, jealousy, and worship of the gods take center stage. Part of the precision of this book and every one of its lines has to do with Frank’s commitment to showing us tragedy as the Greeks would through her indomitable use of second person like a director giving instructions: 'Fill the ark: start / with the giant flower / beetle . . .' And part of it has to do with full-on Sapphic tenderness: 'The women I’ve loved and lived with are dead, / and today it felt like spring might return.' This volume proves Rebecca Morgan Frank is a poet of the exact and the harrowing."


In her words, here is Rebecca Morgan Frank's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Oh You Robot Saints!:



My new collection of poems, Oh You Robot Saints! is populated with automata and their future incarnations, the rapidly evolving robots we live with now. As a Gen Xer, I grew up in the early days of electronic music, infused with robotic sounds and repetitions. I couldn’t have imagined the lasting imprint that electronic music would have, or that we would live in a world run by computers and inhabited by such realistic humanoid robots, much less a range of multi-use robotic creatures. Join me in this “robot parade” of robot songs of the last four decades. If anyone else is home, you may need to put on your headphones as we travel back in time, or maybe invite them to dim the lights and join you in “the robot and the robo-booge,” the only two kinds of dance in the future, according to the Flight of the Conchords’ song “Robots.”


Kraftwerk, “The Robots"

Martin Gore of Depeche Mode called Kraftwerk the “godfathers” of electronic music, and in the original Kraftwerk video for “The Robots,” the four members of the band pretend to be robots. Over the years of live performances, the band replaced themselves with robots pretending to be them. Now you can watch a band of Lego robots cover this song. Maybe we’re all replaceable by Legos.

Companion poem: “How to Make Your Own Automaton”


Styx, “Mr. Roboto”

Did you know that the 1983 hit “Mr. Roboto” is part of an album that’s a rock opera/concept album? The narrative of the album Kilroy was Here follows rockers jailed by the Moral Majority– “Dr. Righteous” is concerned with sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, including satan backmasking. But have no fear, the protagonist escapes disguised as a robot.

Companion Poems: “The Fool of Aljaferia Palace Encounters Death”


Men at Work, “Helpless Automaton”

This was the first cassette I ever bought, purchased alongside of my yellow Sony Sports Walkman for my thirteenth birthday, spent alone at an arts boarding school. Who would have imagined that the lyrics “I stay in my room / All alone in the gloom” and “To dream of your face/But a video screen takes its place” would feel so timely again now during the pandemic? Go ahead, turn it up and dance like you can’t go anywhere!

Companion poem: Ode to Loneliness


Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Go Robot”

The Red Hot Chili Peppers played in a small room at Columbia when I was at Barnard, and I have clear memories of a packed room of pungent bodies and my tiny roommate bodysurfing: I had dragged her along to her first concert ever. The thing about robots is they don’t have BO.

Companion Poem: “Mechanical Birds”


Lemonheads (with Kate Moss), "Dirty Robot"

You have to love the line, “I hate your every bolt and screw,” right? A supermodel joins the Lemonheads to cover Dutch artists Arling & Cameron’s song, “Dirty Robot” from their 2001 album We Are A & C. Check out the original and you can sing along your favorite fake robot voice with Francoise Cactus of Stereo Total, who guests on vocals: “You’re a dirty robot, I’m a dirty robot.”

Companion poem: “Here Come the Parasitic Robots”


Robyn, “Fembot”

“Fembots have feelings, too”! There’s much to be said about gender and robots, but I squeezed several of my favorite research finds into one poem, “The Mechanical Eves.” We live in a time of “real dolls,” but before that Edison made a bunch of talking girl dolls that were so terrifying they were reportedly destroyed, maybe even buried alive. (Can we do that to the “real dolls”?) Most “fembots” have been designed by men, so it’s nice to see one come from a woman, even in a song.

Companion Poem: “The Mechanical Eves”


Dresden Dolls, "Coin-Operated Boy"

Of course, then there’s the coin-operated boy of this Dresden Doll’s single: “I can’t imagine any flesh and blood could be this match / I even take him in the bath.” But when I think of coin-operated automata, I remember one of my favorite spots from my research travel for this book: London’s Novelty-Automation, an arcade of satirical automatons. Some of my favorite automata were “Pet or Meat,” “Autofrisk,” and “Is it Art?” I hope this arcade survives the pandemic.

Companion Poem: “I Don’t Like Its Computer Face”


Alexander Bonus, “Automaton Turk”

The “Automaton Turk” was an automaton chess player that toured and beat many a champion and celebrity, but in reality¬–spoiler alert–was a hoax and one of the more fascinating fake automata I wrote about in my book. It turns out there was an expert chess player crammed into a secret compartment to move the pieces. (Edgar Allen Poe debunked the automaton chess player in depth in his essay “Maelzel’s Chess-player.) This album explores the same world of early automata as my collection, and a few more songs are populated by some of the same figures as my poems, including the tracks “Automaton Monk” and “Automaton Aviary.”

Companion poem: “The False Automaton”


Daft Punk, “Robot Rock”

When Gertrude Stein said there’s no such thing as repetition, she couldn’t have foreseen electronic music. This song makes me think of the talk I recently gave on the repeated-line sonnet, except the three-word line of Robot Rock is repeated forty or so times rather than fourteen. Yes, I counted. (Has anyone made a digital track of “A rose is a rose is a rose”?)

Companion Poem: “Ode to the Robobee”


Flaming Lips, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robot”

I know, you were probably expecting this one, and I really did consider the also great “One More Robot,” which gets at the heart of what separates us from robots: we can love. In the end, not only did Yoshimi win in my quick Twitter poll, but honestly, as someone who came of age receiving mixed tapes from everyone I ever dated, I believe transitions are key, and this had to come after Robot Rock, right? And it doesn’t get better than “But you won’t let those robots eat me, Yoshimi.”

Companion poem: “Aquanauts”


Flight of the Conchords, “Robots”

From the pilot episode of Flight of the Conchords, this song is the characters’ first music video, filmed in robot costumes made out of homemade boxes. In this pretty funny send-up, the humans are dead, robots rule the world, and “There is no more unhappiness / Affirmative / We no longer say yes, instead we say affirmative / Yes, affirmative / Unless it is a more colloquial situation with a few robo friends….” The album version offers extended lyrics and, of course, the same refrain: “The humans are dead.” Perhaps a few of those humans uploaded their consciousnesses into robot heads before they died and live on, like Bina48, which was created to mirror the (living) Bina Aspen.

Companion Poem: “Imagine Loved Letter to Bina48”


They Might Be Giants, "Robot Parade"

It seems appropriate to wrap this playlist up with a little They Might Be Giants and a robot parade. In my poem “Not Everybody Else’s Bestiary (Yet),” the parade is full of such existing creatures as octobots, robot snakes, robot cockroaches, and robot children. Remember, in the future, “Robots obey what / The children say.”

Companion Poem: “Not Everybody Else’s Bestiary (Yet)”


Rebecca Morgan Frank’s fourth collection of poems is Oh You Robot Saints! (Carnegie Mellon 2021). Her debut collection, Little Murders Everywhere, was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and she is the recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award for her next manuscript. Her poems have recently appeared such places as The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, 32 Poems, Women’s Review of Books, and The Slowdown podcast, and her collaborations with composers have been performed and exhibited across the country. She teaches in the MFA Program in Prose and Poetry at Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies and edits the online literary journal Memorious.




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Elizabeth Knox's Playlist for Her Novel "The Absolute Book"

The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Elizabeth Knox's The Absolute Book is an epic fantasy novel grounded in mythology and unfolded with spellbinding storytelling.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Knox’s restrained, poetic writing works well with this ever-spiraling, mind-blowing optical illusion of a novel, which marries myths and lore from Celtic, Norse, and Judeo-Christian traditions with a variety of literary references. Weird and enigmatic...this grand ode to Story itself is one that begs for a reread."


In her words, here is Elizabeth Knox's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Absolute Book:



I set out to write this and got distracted by Appalachian folksinger Jean Ritchie on Youtube. At the dinner table I asked my son whether he remembered me singing to him all those old English ballads like Matty Groves and Mary Hamilton. Yes he did. ‘You'd always make yourself cry.’ Which is why I should never be in charge of the music. Fortunately for me someone else has always been in charge of the stereo – my father, then my younger sister, then my husband – people more decisive and enthusiastic about what they listen to. Music always arrives for me like birdsong, with only an occasional objectionable bird. I don’t have to do any thinking, and I can always ask, ‘What is this?’ and hear why my husband likes it, where it comes from, how it came to be. But plenty of the music takes, attaches itself to me, those songs we listen to in the evening or on road trips.

All these pieces are tangled up somehow with The Absolute Book – a playlist that grew with the novel, the novel starting small, like one of the epiphyte forms of Northern Rata, up in the sunlit branches, slowly clambering down its host tree to take root and become another tree.


Schubert's Winterreise (Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau).

All of it, but particularly the last five songs – ‘the signpost’ to ‘the hurdy-gurdy man’. From ‘what foolish longing drives me into the wilderness’ to that final stately, limping dance, where the music seems to be walking backwards with sliding steps out of the room. That last song seems very different than the rest, and I guess that difference and its air of something patiently proposed in a new tone, but in the same terms that have shaped the whole, is something that gave me encouragement about my ending. ‘Barefoot on the ice. He sways back and forth… And he lets it go on, everything, just as it will.’

Maurice Ravel, L’Enfant Et Les Sortileges (Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker) Part II.

This little opera is a sort of musical of Where the Wild Things Are. A child is angry at his mother, has a tantrum, escapes into the garden – at night – and there is everything (just as it will), amorous cats, the rain, frogs, a squirrel the child attempts to trap. The child is a threat and a disturbance, but then he hurts himself and all the animals coordinate their voices till they are calling for his mother. It's lovely –a world full of creatures with potential for tenderness towards one another. It has always reminded me of the forest spirits in Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro – gardens full of animals, and forests full of spirits, and the humans who can see them and aren’t separate from them.

Stardust. Hoagy Carmichael

Other people sing this song but I prefer the composer's breezy unemphatic version. He knows what he means. This is your basic love song where someone speaks to someone else who is no longer there. It’s nostalgic, regretful, but more rueful than tragic—this guy is long past weeping into his whiskey. The words and music are both like speech, the singer seems to ramble, has a few flourishes. Then the song does what I most love it for, it sallies forth in little gasping gaps, then climbs up a short stair of glass and starlight into a turret of a memory – out of nowhere – ‘beside a garden wall, when stars are bright, you are in my arms’, rushed and panting, then sure and shining ‘the Nightingale tells his fairy tale, a paradise where roses bloom’. The singer believes and doesn't believe it, he knows he's being told a story, ‘I dream in vain’. He knows it, but the feeling is real in as much as ‘in my heart it will remain’.

It's a song that has a very light touch with its deep feelings, is almost throwaway, but carries its little capsule of transcendence.

On a more bracing note, REM, ‘It's The End Of The World As We Know It’.

This is a song I've listened to for years to cheer myself up, and which has remained cheering, no matter that now seems to have prophecies in it: ‘team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped…a tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies.’

The Absolute Book’s continuous timeline of seven months between April, when Taryn collapses at her best friend's wedding, and October when she is at a very strange summit meeting in an 18th-century marble folly, on an island, on the grounds of her family's former home, is mapped on 2017, though with very few clues, and possibly only to give myself a ‘now’ for the book. I think of ‘It's The End Of The World As We Know It’ as both Jacob’s and the Muleskinner’s song, two potentially violent men with a degree of mastery over either the social or natural world. Either one of them might say, as the song does, ‘offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline.’ One man can imagine no solution that isn’t engineered by him, and the other in the end gives up everything he knows and understands and has power over for an ‘alternative’ and is happy to live as either cynic or believer so long as he can continue to exercise his appetite for both positions.

Phil Collins, ‘In the Air Tonight’.

I’ve loved this since it came out – and had to pretend not to because I was only listening to punk rock and German electronica. There’s that YouTube video of the two post-millennials listening to it for the first time – making expressions of faintly impressed concession to what it's doing, till the break when it blazes out with all its controlled fury, and more energy of joyous ill-will than just about any other song. At which point the young men get pretty bloody excited.

The Absolute Book has an accomplished revenge at its heart. The revenge starts off looking like backstory. As if all there is left of it is just sick guilt. Then it comes to life again – the revenge’s loose ends knotting themselves to make a noose, and the protagonist Taryn is suddenly in deadly danger.

Phil Collin’s great rock anthem remains a live wire for me.

Emmylou Harris, ‘Boulder to Birmingham’

It's this song’s combination of plaintive emotional exhaustion and grandeur that has it forever running in my head. Emmylou Harris wrote it after Gram Parsons died. It's a song of love and loss by a friend and collaborator.

The ferocity of Taryn's feelings for her lost sister are central to The Absolute Book as is the growing passionate friendship she forms with the mysterious Shift. There's nothing in ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ to suggest that its force of feeling isn't about romantic love – except maybe the purity of its towering loneliness. The way Harris doesn’t lay any claims, just shows you where she is. ‘The last time I felt like this. I was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire. And I stood on the mountain, in the night, and I watched it burn, I watched it burn, I watched it burn.’

‘Andy’, Songs From The Front Lawn, by Don McGlashan and Harry Sinclair

This song is just one of the ludicrously huge number of great songs on this great album. Written by McGlashan in memory of his dead brother, this song was never far from my mind when I was thinking about the constancy of the presence of Taryn's dead sister Beatrice. I haven't had to imagine losing a sibling. (There is an ambivalent sentence that I'll just leave there).

It starts with drones and bells, like Tibetan temple music, then falls into a tramp and swaying like a sea shanty, or carnival music. The lyrics begin with a proposed walk, with a one-sided conversation, with patience, with a plea, ‘Andy, don't keep your distance from me’. It's sparse and measured, then it thickens—the music—and hastens—the lyrics, and the brother who is speaking is full of things to share, not the least of which is his indignation at the difficulty of describing the changes in their home town. It all comes out a pressured rush of rage and grief. ‘Can you believe this place? Well can you? They’re making money out of money, they’re making buildings out of glass…’ The song opens with the living brother speaking to the dead one as if he’s still alive, goes on with the impossibility of catching up the dead—both catching them up, and catching up with them—then comes around to acknowledging the distance between them and admitting to all the wishes of grief. It's a miracle of a song and, like many of the songs on the album, it’s a story, an enactment, a whole drama.

Shirley Collins, Heart’s Ease, ‘Locked in Ice’

While I was re-editing The Absolute Book for northern hemisphere publication, I became entranced by Heart’s Ease, a new album by 85-year-old Sussex folksinger Shirley Collins, and especially the song ‘Locked in Ice’, about ‘a little ghost ship on the Beaufort Sea’— ‘Locked in ice, half a hundred years, Where the ice goes, I go, I go, I go.’

The song is in the voice of the ship, pleased with its usefulness, its part in human commerce; then left by its crew in the ice floes. What moves me most is the song’s animism. The ship has a soul, and a self once its abandoned. That, and the way that Collin’s voice is sometimes near and sometimes far, like a lonely singer heard by someone standing on the shore who can’t see where the music is coming from.

I really have learned so much from music about how to write fiction. The arias of dramatic utterance. But I definitely shouldn't be in charge of the stereo. And it's better if on a daily basis I forget my Spotify, because I'm far too fond of those songs that leave you standing on the ice in bare feet.


Elizabeth Knox is the author of seventeen books, including the novels The Vintner's Luck, Dreamhunter, and Dreamquake, which received awards from the ALA, CCBC, Booklist, and The New York Public Library. An Arts Foundation Laureate, an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and the recipient of the Prime Minister's Award for Fiction, she lives with her husband and son in Wellington, New Zealand, where she teaches a course on world building at Victoria University.




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Shorties (Recommended Novels about Gossip, Craig Finn on the new Hold Steady Album, and more)

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Priyanka Champaneri recommended novels about gossip at Electric Literature.


Craig Finn discussed the new Hold Steady album with the Boston Herald, Atwood Magazine, and Forbes.


February's best eBook deals.

Today's best eBook deals.

eBooks on sale for $2.99 today:

Presidential Mission by Upton Sinclair
Under the Volcano by B009S33I9A

eBook on sale for $3.99 today:

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck


Pitchfork, The A.V. Club and Paste recommended the week's best new albums.


The Hold Steady played a virtual live session for The Current.


Morning Edition profiled poet Natalie Shapero.


Mitski has written the score for a graphic novel.


The New York Times shared a history of comedian memoirs.


PopMatters listed the best songs by the Replacements.


Electric Literature shared new fiction by CJ Green .


Bandcamp Daily shared a guide to MF Doom's discography.


Bookworm interviewed David Duchovny.


SPIN reconsidered Dinosaur Jr.'s Green Mind album on its 30th anniversary.


Aimee Ogden recommended novels and stories about mermaids, selkies, and sea-wolves at Electric Literature.


A new comic series from Victor LaValle is forthcoming.


PopMatters listed the ten best early Billy Bragg songs.


Alex McElroy talked teaching writing with Electric Literature.


Stream a new Grandaddy song.


Literary Hub profiled Nicola Barker.


Stereogum reconsidered Spoon's Girls Can Tell album on its 20th anniversary.


The Los Angeles Review of Books interviewed author Dinty W. Moore.


Stream two new Porridge Radio songs.


Literary Hub shared an excerpt from Andromeda Romano-Lax's novel Annie and the Wolves.


Stream a new Matt Berninger song.


The Rumpus recommended the week's best virtual literary events.


Bill Callahan & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy covered two Silver Jews songs with Cassie Berman.


Vol. 1 Brooklyn interviewed poet Greg Brownderville.


Aquarium Drunkard interviewed Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat.


The Los Angeles Review of Books shared a history of cyberpunk comics.


K Chess talked books and reading with Book Marks.


The Heavy Feather Review shared new fiction by David Leo Rice.


The Los Angeles Review of Books interviewed Susan Shapiro.



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February 18, 2021

Kathryn Nuernberger's Playlist for Her Essay Collection "The Witch of Eye"

The Witch of Eye by Kathryn Nuernberger

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Kathryn Nuernberger's essay collection The Witch of Eye delves into lives both past and present with amazing clarity to share their truths.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"This book is a social history, threaded through with folklore, mythology, current events, and glimpses into the author's own marriage. It is a poetic and hypnotic trance of a read."


In her words, here is Kathryn Nuernberger's Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection The Witch of Eye:



In “The Invention of Mothers,” an essay from The Witch of Eye that is close to my heart, I wrote about Rhiannon, the fairy queen accused of eating her own child. The victim of a coup, she fell asleep and woke smeared in blood and surrounded by the bones of a dog her accusers said was her baby. For this was she bridled like a horse at the gates to the city until her son grew up to escape from captivity and return home to her. She is best known, though, for having called forth the Alder Rhiannon, those three magical birds who sing so beautifully they send the living to sleep and raise the dead from their slumber.

So of course a The Witch of Eye playlist must include Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.” But how to represent so many other wrongfully accused women – the midwives, healers, activists, leaders, philosophers, and successful business owners – whose ways of being in the world gave some priest or friar or judge or king a bedeviled feeling? Whose songs would call to mind Lisbet Nypan, who, even under the most dire circumstances, refused to apologize for herself or for her work healing the sick with rituals of salt. Whose voice could echo that of the midwife Walpurga Hausmännin’s as she confessed to every crime the village had ever known, every stillbirth, every miscarriage, every sick cow or hail storm, so that the inquisition of Dillingin, Germany could be snuffed out with her? Is there a song in the key of Agnes Naismith laying a dying woman’s curse on the mob gathered to watch her hang, then burn?

With these notes of defiance in mind, I chose “Bruja” by La Perla, “Black Dove” by Tori Amos, “Testify” from Rage Against the Machine, and “For Her” by Fiona Apple.

But what about those who understood themselves to be not merely scapegoats but also actual witches who loved the power and connectedness they derived from their connection to their gods, goddesses, and the natural world? What music could do justice to a fierce shaman like Isobel Gowdie, a masterful practitioner of the Scottish oral tradition? She was an acclaimed flyter, a flinger of insults as a literary art form, which was a common practice among professional storytellers in her time and place. She also said with pride that she knew how to heal sick children with traditional magic and with righteous and vengeful notes added that she knew how to punish those who had it coming. A playlist for The Witch of Eye must also reflect the spirit of sorceresses like Maria Gonçalves Cajada, who once said, “If the bishop has a mitre, I have a mitre, and if the bishop preaches from the pulpit, I preach from the cadeira.” Some song must parallel the work of the abolitionist Marie Laveau who visited the imprisoned, nursed the sick during outbreaks of yellow fever with plant medicines that were far more effective than anything the doctors had to offer, and invited Choctaw women displaced once again from their land by the U. S. government to set up camp in her own front yard.

With their spirits in mind, I offer “All That You Have is Your Soul” by Tracy Chapman, “Untitled God Song” from Haley Heynderickx, and “God Is Alive Magic Is Afoot” by Buffy Sainte-Marie.

I also want a The Witch of Eye playlist to hold verses of love spells, like the one Maria Barbosa would have offered her desperately pining clients, the kind Agnes Sampson offered women to ease their labor pains, the one in the letter Johannes Junius had smuggled out of prison to his beloved daughter to be sure she knew every word of his confession to being a warlock was a torture-induced lie. To that end, you will hear Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You,” Billy Holliday’s “Blue Moon,” “Twice” by Little Dragon, and “Hex” by Neko Case.

Let’s make a little more room here too for the witches of myth and legend. It’s such a pleasure to see Baba Yaga’s house running through the pages of a book on her chicken feet. And what an enchanting spell poem Macbeth’s weird sisters cast on us with “double, double boil and trouble.” There are songs on this playlist for Medea and Medusa and Circe and Dido, as well as for all those hags and crones we love as we love our own grandmothers. Let’s sing along with Michael Kiwanuka’s “Tell Me a Tale,” Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” Bjork’s “Pagan Poetry,” and Mirah’s “The Forest.” The inquisitors tried to make monsters of our grandmothers’ agedness, their infirmity, their vulnerability, and their hard-won wisdom, but we can see through that mean propaganda to the heart of the tale, that they love us still across that difficult ravine of infirmity, dementia, or death. They will even let us carry their spirits with us, if we can figure out the recipe, the story, the spell, the song to bring their memories racing back to us.


Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of 3 poetry collections, RUE, The End of Pink and Rag & Bone. Her essay collection is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past. She teaches creative writing at University of Minnesota.




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Shorties (The Best Campus Novels, New Music from Iceage, and more)

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

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