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September 23, 2010

Book Notes - Ben Tanzer ("99 Problems")

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

Ben Tanzer connects running with creativity and memoir in his new essay collection 99 Problems. Filled with humor, pop culture references, and personal insights, Tanzer entertains and enlightens with each essay.

Most importantly for me, 99 Problems reminded me of my own personal relationship with running, how it clears my mind and offers gateways to inspiration. Since finishing the book I have again started pounding the pavement every other morning. Thanks, Ben.

The book is being innovatively released as an e-book only, with a "pay what you want" pricing model (from nothing to any amount you wish).

Barrelhouse wrote of the book:

"Tanzer seems incapable of writing a boring paragraph, and it’s a pleasure to accompany him on the ten or so runs that make up 99 Problems. In contrast to the act of running itself, reading this book is fun, quick, and painless."

In his own words, here is Ben Tanzer's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection, 99 Problems:


I want to begin by saying that I am not controlling. In fact, I'm incredibly chill and balanced, Zen really. I am not obsessed with sex or the fact that I am slowly being betrayed by my body as I age. Nor am I compulsive or paranoid, I do not check my alarm clock or the door lock repeatedly before I go to sleep, and I do not refold T-shirts until the lines are just right. In fact, the only reason I am even writing this at all, is because it's not yet clear to me what my children will later tell their therapists or write in the memoirs they are already no doubt crafting.

I also say all this, because I suppose there are some things I am obsessed with. Music certainly, but running as well. I run a lot. I also talk about running. A lot. And writing too. Sometimes at the same time, and other times not. But they are linked for me, they are obsessions, there is joy involved and accomplishment, they enhance one another and my life, but they are problematic as well, because when you have to do something, when you feel like you have no choice, you have to have time to do it, and you have to feel up to it, and you can't be precious about it, or too tired, and work must be done, and kids raised, and you can't drink as much as you once did or lose yourself in Soap marathons. I tend to talk about all that as well, and now I've written about it, and the result is 99 Problems my new collection of essays on running and writing.

Someone recently asked me in an interview why the collection is called 99 Problems, and I said, "Whenever I'm writing some song inevitably seems to have the right vibe for what I'm trying, hoping to capture. So this song has some obvious elements to it that work here, as both running and writing are rife with problems for me. Running is always a struggle on some level, physically, mentally, emotionally, time-wise, whatever, but I still have to run, there's no choice, and apparently when there is no choice, there are problems. Of course, trying to get a story untangled has its own types of problems. But like running, I'm in it, and like running, it's not a choice, so that's a problem. Finally though, and maybe mostly even, the song is tight, sparse, minimalist, profane, funny and slamming, and I always want to write like that, but especially here, stripped down to muscle and pain, but still laughing, still creating, still punching and still having fun."

After that they asked me to identify my ultimate "balls to the wall" running playlist and I came up with the following list of songs, which aren't all balls to the wall necessarily, but they are songs that always bring me pleasure and sometimes motivation when I run and the shuffle function on my iPod blesses me with their presence. I recognize that I could probably make a separate playlist just of these tunes, not to mention a handful of others, but then you might think I'm controlling, and I'm not, really.


"99 Problems" - Jay Z/"Sabotage" - The Beastie Boys/"Blitzkrieg Bop" - The Ramones

I know I discussed "99 Problems" above, but I do want to stress the impact this song has had on me as a writer, sparse and slamming, full of storytelling and dialogue, really something to strive for each and every time out. Similarly, "Sabotage" and "Blietzkrieg Bop" fall into this bucket for me, with one additional thought, all these songs say, that yes, you can you tell stories well fast, and they can be intimate, and almost like a fight. Bam.


Dear Lord - Joseph Arthur/ Don't Walk Alone - Tim Easton

I am not a very religious dude, despite my God-complex, nor have I had many experiences one might deem religious though I did once see the visage of Jesus in the window of a hotel across the street from my office. But, running can be a pretty awesomely religious experience, I think, and this song came on as I was running along the lake early one morning and the sun was just coming-up all crazy and swirling and purple and orange and I did feel something awesome. I should add, that I also felt something similar when I saw Karch Kiraly in the very same spot watching the AVP Tour guys setting-up beach volleyball courts for Chicago's AVP tour stop, but who's to say Karch isn't God? I coupled "Don't Walk Alone" with "Dear Lord," because for me it has the same vibe, and came off of the same mix CD. Tim Easton is a guy a friend of mine went to high school with, which also reminds me that regular people, well, people you know, sometimes bust out in some fashion, and as I write about in these essays, I'm down with busting out even if I don't know what that means.


"Delta 88" - X/Armchair - Avail/"Thresher's Fail" - Be Your Own Pet/"Minor Threat" - Minor Threat

Not much storytelling here per se, but sometimes in the final stretch of a run, or during editing, you want to be kicked in the head and when that's necessary these bands are perfect and these songs especially resonate with me. Also, not unlike "Blitzkrieg Bop," punk really speaks to me now in terms of energy and ferocity, but also in terms of how much good stuff can be accomplished in a short period of time, something I really want my writing to feel like.


"The Overly Dramatic Truth" - El-P/"None Shall Pass" - Aesop Rock

In contrast sometimes you need to stir the juices and loosen up and while these guys, and these songs, are far from benign, they tell a story, it's like the hip hop version of This American Life.


"California Songs" - Local H/"Gold Digger" - Kanye West

This is at least in part a Chicago thing, and while Kanye doesn't need any more attention, Local H probably does. Still, more than ever I want to support Chicago artists, something that makes me feel happy whenever songs like these come on, and feeling happy is always good for writing or running, something only enhanced by the fact that these particular songs both put a smile on my face for their bombastic over the topness and purported anger and humor.


"8 More Days Til The 4th of July" - Ike Reilly/"Massive Nights" -The Hold Steady

Much of what I said above applies to Ike Reilly, and I'm not so sure he would even want to be coupled with The Hold Steady, at least according to an interview between him and Steve Almond I read on this very site. I believe he considers them to be "magic ratting," but for me, no two recent acts have brought me more pleasure the last several years, and no one does relationships, and bars and girls quite like they do. These are favorite topics of mine anyway, but when I write, I want to write about what they write about, and when I run I want to think about these things, so for now, and for here, at this moment, you guys are coupled together, feel free to discuss it amongst yourselves.


"Since You Been Gone" - Kelly Clarkson/"SexyBack" - Justin Timberlake

If you sometimes need to be kicked in the head when writing or running, you also sometimes need to beam, and I would like to tell you that these songs don't make me beam, much less "Girlfriend" by Avril Lavigne, or even "I Want It That Way" by The Backstreet Boys, but I would be lying. Plus a good pop song has to be well-crafted to hit, and I not only want to learn the craft of the writing, I want to figure out what makes something hit, and maybe Kelly Clarkson has something she can share with me. Maybe.


"She's So Cold" - The Rolling Stones/"Won't Be Fooled Again" - The Who

Do you have to pick which of these bands you prefer, I always feel like I do, sort of like with U2 and REM, and I favor the former, sorry, anyway, these bands are important to me because they represent nostalgia and youth, this is the music, along with "Riders on the Storm" by the DOORS or "Back in Black" by ACDC, that I listened to when I first started running. It also represents a time and place I go back to again and again in my writing, upstate New York in the 1980's. Something started there, and happened there, and I want to capture it whenever and however I can.


"Play Your Part Pt 1" - Girl Talk/"I See You Baby" - Groove Armada (Fatboy Slim remix)

These songs to me are about hope and joy and pulling a random, twitching assortment of ideas from everywhere, I don't entirely know how to accomplish that yet as writer, not like I would like to, these essays get there somewhat, pop culture and memoir and compulsion, all of it, but not really, not exactly, some day hopefully, and until then something to aspire to and run with, joy and hope, and the promise of something great.


"Smells Like Teen Spirit" - Nirvana/ "Bullet in the Head" - Rage Against the Machine

Both of these tunes, more than any other, got me back into loving music, and different music than I ever had, noisier, more slamming. They also played a role, or at least coincided in my starting to write, and ultimately influenced my finding the music that influenced how I wanted to write. I had drifted away from music for awhile and was easing back in, though mostly listening to the Dead, but then I heard these songs, plus Sabotage, over a several month period in the early nineties and suddenly music, everything sounded and seemed different, and then I started to write, and there you go.


"Lose Yourself" – Emimem/"Loser" - Beck

I hear "Lose Yourself" and I think of Emimem in 8 Mile furiously scribbling notes on whatever paper is at hand, trying to create something, trying to be something and find his voice, and then I think, that's me, was me, is me, might be me, that's how it works. And then I hear "Loser" and think before Beck was Beck there was "Loser," a fun, quirky song with crazy lyrics that might have portended something great, or greater, but might not have, you just didn't know, but it made you smile, and it was the start of something, a guy who's carved out a niche for himself, success that isn't success like an Emimem or a Justin Timberlake, but its unique and cool, and who doesn't want something like that? Further, one time in the early nineties I was in a club in Syracuse, NY and late, late at night, during the dead of winter Loser came on and this group of girls ran onto the dance floor and whipped their shirts off to reveal matching, yet different brightly colored bras. They then danced as a group during "Loser" and "Loser" only and then casually put their shirts back on and left the floor. I'd like to think some group of girls will do that during a reading of 99 Problems some time.


Ben Tanzer and 99 Problems links:

the author's blog
the author's zine

Chicago Subtext review
Daily s-Press review
Decomp review
Third Face review
Vinnie the Vole review
Whoever Brought Me Here Will Have to Take Me Home review

Barrelhouse interview with the author
Codex interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for his novel Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine
publisher interview with the author
YouTube interview with the author (conducted by his eight-year-old son)


also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists


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