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July 13, 2011

Book Notes - Reif Larsen ("The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet")

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

Reif Larsen's debut novel The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet is one of the most innovative and original debut novels I have ever read. The clever illustrations and footnotes that accompany this coming of age tale bring this coming of age story to life, and Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is as singular and unforgettable child narrator as any in fiction.

Newsday wrote of the book:

"There’s something very poignant about how T.S. slips his insights into the marginalia, as if exposing vulnerability directly would be too intimate or unsettling. He is only a child, after all. This is a book to be read slowly, savored for its digressions and offbeat characters."

In his own words, here is Reif Larsen's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet:

I listen to music constantly—just not while I am writing. I need to carve out sentences in total silence. I like to draw to music, but when it comes to textual output, for some reason any kind of organized noise blocks the creative word faucet in my head. I wonder why this is? I'm not a "lyric person," so it's not the dueling narratives that compete for space, it's more like I only have one runway in my head devoted to launching new story worlds and music sends in a swarm of wild turkeys to gum up the works. The plump birds crash against the control tower; they roost on the propellers; they demand to be heard and the literary planes remain grounded.

When I am away from the page, I love to stumble upon a song that really blows me away. You know what I'm talking about: songs that bring together a surprising amalgamation of sounds to produce a bridge or a melody or an outro that is most certainly greater than the sum of its parts, as in: this cannot be reduced; this song just is. For instance: the "tall grass" interlude tucked in the middle of Modest Mouse's "Cowboy Dan." When listening to these perfectly-odd little sonic gobstoppers, I often say to myself: I need to write with this same kind of cosmic irreducibility. I need to make my language this unexpected or mournful or bassoon-like. And even though I am talking to myself about two very different genres, myself knows what myself is talking about: Bring the nasty, there is no excuse for anything less.

In many ways, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet is a very American story, a traditional coming-of-age, cross-country journey, so one could appropriately supply an American roots soundtrack, mixing that high lonesome sound with the rich prairie twang of the Middle West. Unfortunately, I'm really not an expert in this department, so I'll leave this task to a bespectacled Smithsonian archivist. But after thinking about the pairing of novel and music for awhile, I thought I might design a playlist for T.S. to marinate on during his lengthy metaphysical hobo trip. I love that feeling of interstellar space travel that settles over you when you've been driving long distances at night; the blow-pop glow of the dashboard; the constant spooky wash of trucks coming at you; the scratchy (and local!) music emanating from your radio.

So here it is, T.S.: pop this in the Winnebago's tape player, sit back, and watch that country slip by.

"Skinny Woman Blues" by Peg Leg Sam

T.S. actually references Peg Leg in the book as a cautionary tale against riding the rails. Peg Leg Sam lost a leg hoboing before joining the traveling Medicine Show as a storyteller/master harmonica player. His heave-haw draw riffs on the blues harp are (literally) breathtaking, and this song has a wonderful stomping beat that echoes the clap and tumble rhythm of the rails. There's an amazing short documentary about Peg Leg called Born for Hard Luck—you can find it online, and you won't be sorry you did.

"Annabelle" by Gillian Welch

If there was ever a song that captured the lonesome haze that lingers over the Coppertop Ranch, maybe this is it. I love the entanglement of Gillian's voice and David Rawling's delicate finger-pickings. This song gives me chills every time I listen to it. T.S. could listen to this in order to remember where he came from.

"Moonshiner" by Dylan (sung by Bob Forrest)

T.S's is only twelve, and he's not much of a drinker, but this song was meant to be listened to with your legs dangling out of box car, your hand on a bottle filled with something homemade and alcoholic and your head full of regrets. I love Forrest's version from the I'm Not There soundtrack

"Farewell Transmission" by Songs: Ohia

Songs: Ohia (later Magnolia Electric Company) bring the bluesy-Americana nasty. I love these guys. I always imagined this should play over one of those IMAX swooping movies. Wouldn't that be great? We could see the dew-soaked pacific northwest coast, the Sierra Nevadas, Reno, the Badlands, the Bayous, Appalachia, the black pebble beaches of Maine. I will write them now.

Dear IMAX people,

Seriously, what the hell? How about a swooping movie that doesn't use Vivaldi or James Taylor? I know the perfect dudes…

"The Last of Me (Gracie's Song)" by Matches

Here's a poppy-delicious break from all that alt-country melancholy. This song was written by Jeff Rabb and Sarah Connolly for the website. Gracie, T.S.'s sixteen-year-old sister, feels totally trapped on the Coppertop, surrounded by all these science-loving weirdoes and her laconic, bronc-busting father. She dreams of escaping to Hollywood and Broadway, and so this song is kind of her anthem, to be sung in front of the mirror with hairbrush/microphone-in-hand. T.S. would listen to this to remember his sister, even if their relationship is a little complicated. But: she's all he's got now that Layton is gone.

"The Ballad of RAA" by The Rural Alberta Advantage

This song conjures the long, flat landscape of the prairies, the lost souls, the endless horizon, the hope of migration to brighter shores. Perfect for the 42nd hour of long distance travel, when you are googly-eyed and wondering if it will ever end. Will it? (It will, it will.)

"Slow Bicycle" by Múm

Another song to listen while you are going crazy from interstellar travel. Múm, an electronic outfit from Iceland, always seem to construct these absolutely bonkers concoctions of slippery Nintendo blip-hop lounge music. I imagine them staring out at the glaciers, adorned in sweaters, slowly twisting knobs with great sadness in their hearts.

"The Twins (Prague)" by Max Richter

This is the song to have playing when the sun comes up and you can see the great city ahead, the train whispering to you, Yes, we have arrived, I am tired from our journey, but I have delivered you safely, and you may now continue with your life. Richter's really a genius; his new album 24 Postcards in Full Colour, is composed of 24 textured, crystalline cell phone rings to be played live by an audience with 24 cell phones.

"Chicago" by Sufjan Stevens

Yes, I was thinking of this song when I wrote chapter 10. Sufjan's now-classic composition captures the audiovisual explosion that is a city—the overwhelming (yet comforting) embrace of gridded streets and crosswalks and traffic and sewer grates and shish-kebab carts. T.S is paralyzed by all of the possibilities and non-possibilities of city existence. I have a love/hate relationship with the urban scrum myself, but this book—for all of its rumbling landscapes and pan-a-vision frontierism—echoes the sensory-crush of a city, and in that sense, it is a very urban novel.

Reif Larsen and The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet links:

the book's website
the book's Wikipedia entry

The Bookbag review
Booklit review
Boston Globe review
The Classroom Conservative review
Entertainment Weekly review
Guys Lit Wire review
Independent review
Medieval Bookworm review
New York Times review
Observer review
Oregonian review
Pink Sheep Cafe review
The Sunday Times review
Telegraph review
Vivid Scribe review
Washington Post review

The Diane Rehm Show interview with the author
USA Today profile of the author
Vanity Fair profile of 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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