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September 3, 2010

Book Notes - Kate Bernheimer ("Horse, Flower, Bird")

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

I have read more fairy tales as an adult this year than I ever did as a child. I just finished a classic collection, Swedish Fairy Tales, that introduced me to another culture's take on the genre, but two modern takes on fairy tales have impressed me most. Earlier this year I raved about Jim Knipfel's wonderful These Children Come at You with Knives, and Other Fairy Tales, and I also adored Kate Bernheimer's new collection Horse, Flower, Bird.

Bernheimer's prose is bold yet spare, and always poetic. She has been compared to both Aimee Bender and Kelly Link, but these stories brim with imagination and their own uniue charm.

Library Journal wrote of the collection:

This is a collection of eight imaginative if not downright unusual tales that will delight readers but also evoke sadness and loneliness. Bernheimer's lean and lyrical writing conceals forceful and spirited stories that will definitely prove disturbing, as in the collection's last, dreamlike tale, "Whitework." Other stories, like the penultimate "A Star Wars Tale," will bring back strong memories of childhood as they communicate an innocent understanding of the world that is simultaneously beautiful and perhaps brutal."

In her own words, here is Kate Bernheimer's Book Notes music playlist for her book, Horse, Flower, Bird:

Horse, Flower, Bird is a sparse collection of tales that I wrote over a long period of time; on each page, there is just a little bit of text, as if the pictures in a child's book have gone missing—or are simply ghosts on the page. This leaves a lot of space for the idea of music as well. I feel about songs I love just as I do about books: I want to inhabit their worlds completely, over and over again. It's a kind of magic—the idea that the characters in books or in songs live forever, trapped and imagined in there. I've given each story in this book a chance to play music.

"Star Wars Tale"

This story of two sisters playing out scenes from the movie as a fairy tale of impossible, violent love has the theme song from "Star Wars" presiding over it, of course. I saw the movie in a theater with my three siblings and parents, and the music really was quite overwhelming to me. I didn't understand the plot very well.

In my story, the little girls who play Leia, Darth Vader, and Luke pass a tape recorder back and forth, recording love letters to one another. I had a tape recorder in the early seventies and mangled my favorite cassettes by playing them too often. The first song I remember ruining from overuse is "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)" by Jim Croce, which I'd play and sing, weeping.

Yet the song "1972" by Giant Sand, on the luminous Chore of Enchantment, is the brutal and beautiful brief tune that completely encapsulates the mood of "Star Wars Tale" for me: its entire lyrics, which go around only once in Howe Gelb's tender, perfect, rough voice, are 1971, 1972, 1973.


This story's narrator is a nameless woman who has no use of her legs and no idea where she is—she's in a cottage in the woods with a brother or friend, trapped or at peace in a turret with only one tiny book and some embroidered pictures of ravens and priests on the walls. Despite her confusion, she feels consoled and enlightened, because everything in her whole world is contained.

A song that gives me this exact feeling of peaceful bewilderment is "Everything in Its Right Place" by Radiohead. I listen to it a lot—for the past year maybe three times a day. Its repetition and nonsense are haunting ("Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon"). Beautiful, horrible, too-big, miniscule, threatening, loving, all at the very same time. I really cherish that song.

"A Garibaldi Tale"

The poor narrator of this story has webbed toes and a simple mind. She's experienced something unspoken and dark to do with desire and rejection—and yet brims still with innocent affection. She does not understand her world, and at the same time she is misunderstood. I feel sad about her.

The tender song "Nightswimming" by R.E.M. evokes her clarity and vulnerability for me. "Nightswimming deserves a quiet night/I'm not sure these people understand"—the way the piano folds into the longing.

I heard R.E.M. play for the first time at a concert in a gymnasium at my sister's college (in 1983 I think). In many ways the band's entire body of work comprises the play list for my whole adult life, my sense of what was possible in the world and in the life of an artist.

"Petting Zoo Tale"

The wife in this story keeps a petting zoo in her basement and has great plans for it. She's worried about her husband, who hates his job. The tenderness she shows toward him and the secret chickens and ponies, however, won't help keep sadness at bay in their house, though she does not know that.

This story was set to music by a wonderful Italian composer in Born Magazine (an electronic journal that was way ahead of its time and is still incredible). In that version, there are little chickens clucking in the background, so sweet! Those chickens are great. I love the idea that possibly you could open a book and—like in a kid's pop-up book—a sound might come out. Eric Carle has some sounds in his picture books ("The Click Beetle" for example). If any story in Horse, Flower, Bird would have sounds come out of it, it'd be "Petting Zoo Tale." You'd turn the page and out would come the sound of soft, clucking chickens. Nuzzling ponies. Squawking monkeys and birds. And pinball dings.

"A Tulip's Tale"

The tulip bulbette at the heart of this story misses her mother, a bulb. (A bulbette is the real name for the little bulb that grows from the bigger bulb of a tulip—that's how they reproduce!) She is, as in many fairy tales, banished from home. Another girl in this story also is banished; she's Jewish, and sleeps in a bureau drawer.

Longing for home: there are so many songs about this. "This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)" by the Talking Heads is incredible: Home is where I want to be/Pick me up and turn me round/I feel numb - born with a weak heart/I guess I must be having fun/The less we say about it the better/Make it up as we go along/Feet on the ground/Head in the sky/It's ok I know nothing's wrong . . nothing. What poetics.

And Richmond Fontaine's masterful We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River, which Willy Vlautin wrote the year after his mother had died, is one of the best elegiac records I've ever heard (the afore-mentioned "Chores of Enchantment" by Giant Sand is another).

The sweeping and romantic sound of Richmond Fontaine's "You Can Move Back Here" especially makes me think of my motherless tulip—I hear it in Willy Vlautin's cracking voice with its shy, broken-down tone. The big shape of this song has a delicacy that is really hard to bring off. The whole record is gorgeous; I love the song "The Boyfriends," narrated by a guy whose dad left his mother. That eerie and uncomfortable sense of abandonment: Vlautin really gets it, in his novels and in his music. The record makes you both rock out to it, while you cry. It's very real.

"A Doll's Tale"

The stunned girl in this story is rejected by her sister, loses her favorite doll, and then her life-size imaginary friend runs away from her too. She basically goes nuts after that—she gives up friendship and feeling, is lost in a kind of sad universe, mute in a sense. She disappears into herself. I have sad feelings about that story. I wrote it at a bad time.

That year, I often played the beautiful record "Slush" by OP8, which was produced over one weekend by Lisa Germano with Giant Sand and Calexico musicians Howe Gelb, Joey Burns, and John Convertino. "Was a Rainbow" is on that record and I think it's one of the saddest and loveliest songs I ever have heard. Also, it's about not being able to see a rainbow---the sadness of that--and yet it never becomes cliche. As a writer I so admire that. "Blame me, blame me," the song repeats again and again. It ends with one of the most depressing, beautifully delivered lines in American musical history: "Alcoholic, alcoholic/That's a word my/Friends call it." In an interview about another record, Germano says “it's about behavior, the behavior of very lonely people who don't understand why they're so lonely." That’s what "A Doll’s Tale" is about, exactly.

"A Cuckoo Tale"

This story takes place on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In the story the narrator is dizzy with guilt, shame, and hunger; she is overwhelmed with a fear of being killed in a war even though she lives in the 1970s suburbs. The only music I can truly associate with anything to do with Yom Kippur are the sounds of my small temple's cantor, singing, but specifically her voice as it sounds to a person who is very, very hungry from fasting. Hallucinatory, then, and lilting and haunting. We had a rabbi who often would say "And now we'll pray to God, if there is a God" in a sort of Woody Allenesque tone but without trying to be very funny. The music wasn't entertaining; it was mournful and sad.

"A Cuckoo Tale" also has imagistic connections to the Russian fairy tales about Baba Yaga. She's a witch who either eats or protects animals and children, depending on the version and interpretation on hand. There's a song called "Baba Yaga" on a record I used to have—a compilation of pieces called "Stravinsky's Firebird." "Baba Yaga" was not by Stravinsky; I'm not sure who composed it. The record used to be my grandfather's and the cover image was gorgeous, a colorful graphic featuring a fantastical bird.

I could probably find the image and song by searching online, but there's something magical about keeping it silent—locked in the past. I remember listening to "Baba Yaga" and not quite comprehending the music. I had no training in classical music but I loved the song and knew the Russian folk tale. I wanted nothing more in the 1970s than to be a ballet dancer and I often listened uncomprehendingly to classical music, lost in a colorful dream featuring myself as the prima ballerina. When I listened to "Baba Yaga" I always imagined the witch played by a man lumbering around in a black dress in black toe shoes, and myself as the hut on chicken feet (which were also toe shoes). I wish Mark Morris would stage "Baba Yaga"—he's a genius at pairing music with story.

"A Cageling Tale"

This story is about a girl who grows up in the suburbs and has a parakeet that she lets die; later on she becomes a stripper and builds herself a cage to live in. When I summarize this story it sounds dirtier and darker than it really is. It's told in what I think is a pretty wholesome, sweet tone.

When I wrote the story, some of my friends and I, and my boyfriend (now husband), were regulars at a tiny strip club in Portland called Magic Garden. I think it's still there. The stage was miniscule and the dancers chose their own music. They'd come out in lovely robes and put on their own music behind a curtain—very Wizard of Oz. Sometimes in my living room I'd put on impromptu, late-night performances for friends, to music that would be entirely inappropriate for strip clubs: "Rainy Days and Mondays" by The Carpenters, "If You Could Read My Mind" by Gordon Lightfoot, "Visions of Johanna" by Bob Dylan, "Shiloh" by Neil Diamond. I remember one particular rendition to Mazzy Star "Fade into You" which might have been the only song I danced to that would have also been appropriate for Magic Gardens.

I guess the dancing was kind of outrageous—more interpretive than erotic. But I hope I was appealing. I don't remember, because I usually was drunk. These are the songs I imagine Edith would choose for herself to strip to as well.

Kate Bernheimer and Horse, Flower, Bird links:

the author's website
the author's collaborative blog, The Fairy Tale Review

Bookmunch review
Denver Books Examiner review
January Magazine review
Kirkus Reviews review
Library Journal review

Powell's Books interview (the author interviews Willy Vlautin)
Willy Vlautin interview with the author

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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