October 5, 2012
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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
The Reasonable Ogre: Tales for the Sick and Well, written by Mike Barnes and illustrated by Segbingway, is filled with 12 timeless short stories both thought-provoking and dark. The text and illustrations in these timeless fairy tales play off each other brilliantly, making the book a fascinating read for both adults and children.
The National Post wrote of the book:
"The Reasonable Ogre is illustrated by the artist, Segbingway. The pictures are ink brush and wash, black-and-white with lots of grey tone — they draw deep from the subconscious and, as such, pulse through the stories, and bind them one to one. The 12 stories that comprise this collection are marvelous in the truest sense. They are strange and dark, unpleasant and open-hearted, by which I mean my deepest compliments."
The Reasonable Ogre, my eighth book, is a collection of twelve illustrated fairy tales. The illustrations aren't just incidental; my collaborator, Segbingway, envisioned an all-through visual treatment with its own arc, and the book has seventy illustrations, most full page, done in brushed ink using homemade resists and blade-scratched details. The stories, all containing at least one element of magic, range widely in subject and tone: from fable to broad comedy, and from hauntings and curses to adventure quests. The common denominator is our human need to negotiate with forces larger than ourselves. I wrote them to please myself, so I assumed they would be for adult readers; yet, at readings, I have been happily surprised to find young children following easily and asking sharp questions. They are like all fairy tales that way: they tell a swift story on the surface, but yield deeper meanings if you want them, drawing on your own life experience.
I listen to music all the time, but not while I'm writing first drafts. If I'm writing an email, say, or revising an already existing draft, music doesn't interfere; but if I'm trying to make up something new, music crowds out the fragile scenes, which need space and silence to have a chance to grow. So I've worked out a kind of listening I call "stemming" for these times. I have to tell a little story to explain.
The girl who lives in the house next door to my apartment has a backyard trampoline she jumps on at various times of the day. Eight a.m., noon, mid-afternoon, even ten o'clock at night. I hear the regular bounce of the springs and know she is out there for a session. She doesn't do anything fancy: no flips, no straddles, no seat drops, no turns even. She just goes up and down, up and down—like a human yo-yo—for twenty minutes or so, then climbs off. A mother I know with an autistic son suggested she was "stimming," using repetitive body movements to stimulate and thereby calm and stabilize herself.
"Stimming" was what she said, but I heard "stemming". And stemming, like the girl's bouncing, is how I use music during new writing. I pick a song and put it on repeat in my car. I drive up to four hours a day in my job, so I might listen to a three-minute song 80 times in a shift. As it loops continuously, it becomes one giant endless track that I can tune in to or wander away from many times, knowing it will be there when I return. Only certain songs will do. It has to be one that has the ability to keep me in the zone of what I am writing but also transport me from it. "Stemming" (I'll keep my own mistaken word) stems the flood of words, but also keeps me close to the stem they come from.
Going through my music, I find 74 songs I used as stemmers during the writing of The Reasonable Ogre. The best ones also have a clear link—clear to me now—to the themes and moods of the book. Those are the ones I'll list, one (or two) per story.
(Note: Between first drafts, I listen to music in a more random, less obsessive way. And a different project would mean finding a new list of stemmers that work for it. Unlike the girl's trampoline—she has started again just now, 11 a.m., Sunday morning—there's no an aural sweet spot I can just keep bouncing in.)
"Big Rock Candy Mountain": This 1928 classic by Harry McClintock ("Haywire Mac") has been a classic stemmer for me ever since I heard it on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. It could be the presiding spirit behind "The Reasonable Ogre," the title story that comes first in the book (I'll talk about the stories in order). Both fable and song grant wish fulfillment, but only if the wisher brings hard lived life and honesty to the bargaining table. You need wisdom gained from personal hardship to get past the reasonable ogre, and McClintock bought the tumbling fantasies of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" with the coin of authentic experience. McClintock's life could furnish several movies: running away from home to join a circus, working a railroad in Africa and a mule train in the Philippines; he aided newsmen in China during the Boxer Rebellion (it's still 1899 and he's not yet 18), before returning home to do a score more jobs and ride the rails as an itinerant minstrel. So the hobo visions of the lush life in the song are for real, as who can doubt who hears their wonderful specifics: "the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the railway bulls are blind" (you can sense real bulldog teeth and bullyboy truncheons behind the whimsy); "there's a lake of stew and of whiskey too" (not lobster thermidor and champagne). It goes on and on, and it's all great.
"Gold in Them Hills": From Ron Sexsmith's 2002 Cobblestone Runway, this song links in spirit to many tales in The Reasonable Ogre and to the book overall, in its gentle but insistent determination to wring comfort and hope from raw disillusion. The gorgeous melody is hauntingly poignant, carried perfectly by Sexsmith's scratched-angel voice. It relates most obviously to "Silver," the second tale, in which an old man undertakes an arduous journey into the wooded hills to try to find a cure for his polluted, dying village.
"Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?" and "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away": I wish I could pair a female vocal (there are plenty on my stemming shortlist) with the third tale, "Moonswoop," about a sick little girl, Moira, who takes a strange voyage to recover health and self; but the two that come to mind most forcefully are by men. Young men, though, not far out of their teens; brilliant boy-men, say. Bob Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?", with The Hawks (later The Band) backing him, was originally released in 1965 as a single, though it appeared on later Dylan compilations. Whatever context Dylan originally intended, it works as a boisterous invitation to explore new powers and escape; and my character, Moira, does in fact crawl out her window to do just that. John Lennon's "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," from the Beatles' Help!, also in 1965, captures for me the "sadder but wiser" mood at the other end of the story, after Moira's return from her miraculous adventure. There are many testimonials in art to the secret sorrows of childhood, but fewer to the no less secret remedies found for them, cures that sometimes last, and make possible, all a secret lifetime.
"Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There Is a Season)": Pete Seeger adapted the words from the Book of Ecclesiastes and put them to music in 1959. In 1965 (a good year, see above), The Byrds recorded it as their third single, appearing on their second album Turn! Turn! Turn! I can't add anything except the delight of another pair of ears to the reams that have been written about McGuinn's jingle-jangling twelve-string Rickenbacker and the group's close harmonies, but I would like to say something about the Bible-derived lyrics. I've noticed that wisdom literature is often derided as corny the closer it comes to being irrefutable, i.e. allowing us no wiggle room. "A time to rend, and a time to sew/...A time to love, and a time to hate...." In the almost-eternal sentence he is serving, my inmate in "The Jailed Wizards" begins to understand a bit of this primal patience and balance. It reminds me of the Zen master—one of those legends who issued mind-stopping koans or cracked disciples upside the head with sticks—who answered an importunate seeker inquiring after the secret of his wisdom: "I eat when I'm hungry, and drink when I'm dry." Simple obedience to the dictates of the moment. So totally obvious. So totally elusive, so much of the time.
"My Love": I'm not sure I know what people mean by "guilty pleasures." Guilt is guilt, and pleasure is pleasure. "My Love," Petula Clark's 1965 single and second straight Billboard #1 (after "Downtown") gives me a shot of pure joy. Her clear ringing voice—praised by Glenn Gould, it's worth remembering—celebrates without a hint of diva-dom a feeling that permits no misunderstanding: "My love is brighter than the brightest star/That shines every night above/And there is nothing in the world/That can ever change my love". Writers spend a lot of time trawling webs of irony, and for this writer at least, it can come as an enormous relief to spring free of them into the sun of simple declaration. This is the song I've chosen for the book's longest story—"Neverday: The Grateful Sprites"—since, for all the wanderings and adventures the characters undertake, the deviousness of the sprites is ultimately benign, leading to the joy found in unexpected places.
"Doctor Worm": "Wear Me Last" features a student with the not untypical problem of not knowing who he is, so pretending to be a lot of things, but he tries this in the wrong kind of shop. The natural song for this is "Doctor Worm" by They Might Be Giants from their mostly live 1998 album Severe Tire Damage, whose narrator, practising to be a better drummer, informs "I'm not a real doctor/But I am a real worm/I am an actual worm/I live like a worm." How can you not love that? Hearing the song always picks me up and also gives me a shot of self-confidence. A lot of the exuberant oddness and experimentation in They Might Be Giants' songs boils down for me into the helpful mantra: Dare to be weird.
"Lawyers, Guns and Money": The last track on Warren Zevon's 1978 album Excitable Boy. This one is a good match for "Sloth's Minions," who, as the title implies, are lazy bastards who get in way over their heads by their perversely strenuous attempts to do nothing. I love the way the guitar just finds a catchy, simple riff and chunks away at it non-stop, like a chain-smoker staring out the window. The lyrics, with Zevon's customary dry wit, nail the pleas of spoiled privilege exactly: "I was gambling in Havana,/I took a little risk;/Send lawyers, guns and money,/Dad, get me out of this." Zevon even manages to hint at a stifled sob in the drawn out "Da-ad."
"Joy": One of many piano transcriptions of J.S. Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," itself the tenth movement of a larger work, this version is played by George Winston on his 1982 album December. Its meaning to me in connection with the story "The Glass Garden" is very personal, and has much to do with crystal. The CD was a gift from someone close to me who is now declining rapidly with Alzheimer's. She gave it to me during the late fall, when my own mental tar pits tend to suck me down. In "The Glass Garden," the lonely young daughter of self-absorbed parents finds her way through a glass garden into portals beyond which time and relationships warp and blur. The transformations seem alluring and sinister, liberating and entrapping. In this they make me think of all the mental aberrations I have known, in myself and others. "Joy" is pure joy—if there is something in the human world vaster or more magnificent than the mind of Bach, I don't know what it is. He seemed to be a crystal garden himself, sprouting infinite shapes of faceted clarity and delight—so opposite from the deadly crystallization of Alzheimer's, the amyloid plaques that colonize and rob. Yet they come from the same human brain.
"Manic Depression": From Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced (1967), this one is a natural fit with "Falling Water", which tells of a dancing couple's continual falling out of rhythm with themselves and each other, a calamity that magic first helps then makes much worse. In 2008 I published a memoir (The Lily Pond) about my then thirty-five-year odyssey through the thickets of manic depression (I used the current "bipolar disorder" in the book, but now I prefer the more colourful and descriptive older term); my wife Heather graciously allowed me to describe her own ride on the same beast. A friend once spoke of Hendrix as "a great singer". At the time I thought it was a pretentious bid to say something different—a great singer?—but he's right: Hendrix inhabits the words with total conviction. The other feature of the song that can be obscured by the guitar virtuosity is the equally virtuosic drumming by Mitch Mitchell. In fact, the song is a duel between two instruments racing and screaming to within a hair's breadth of chaos, keeping just this side of control. It is scarily thrilling, spot-on to its title.
"Death or Glory": By The Clash from 1979's London Calling. In one sense, "Grimus the Miser" is a classic boy's quest story, as David, the child protagonist, seeks to slay an evil force and rescue his hapless prisoner. The dream of heroic bravery in a noble cause (which summarizes whole libraries of fantasy literature) is universal in young boys, I think, and perhaps in young girls as well, though obviously I can't speak from experience. It's more than myth, dream-stuff: without active confrontation with peril, not once but repeatedly, development stalls; the impulse to large-hearted battle is the door to selfhood. Lots of rock songs, with their slashing guitars and pounding drums, aid this perfectly. But the insolent swagger of "Death or Glory" is my choice this time for the music of a future self that lures David into a scary lair.
"Tryin' to Get to Heaven": "I'm tryin' to get to heaven before they close the door" is the refrain Dylan sings on this song from 1997's Time Out of Mind. Its images of flight from past hauntings to reach a ray of dimming light are a perfect fit for the protagonist of "The King's Huntsman," whose past glories led him to a terrible bet and the curse he is forever outrunning. I'm of the camp that thinks Dylan's last several albums are among the best of his career, a great late harvest. I could have made this list just from his songs in the last decade. Among so many other things, Dylan is a touchstone of the tirelesss artist: who else who recorded their first album in 1962 is still reaching (and finding!) the great song, still touring constantly, still actively inventing himself? And I agree with whoever said (quoting as I recall it), "Sometime in the 1990s Dylan's voice fell through the basement floor, and it was the best thing that ever happened to it." Dylan was always a great singer, but this new strangled rasp seems to be uttering things from deep inside some impossibly ancient oak or pine. Dylan has always written not just as a traveller to, but an inhabitant of, other times and places (on a recent album he says he was almost killed during the Mexican War), a temporal ease or slipperiness that shows itself in these lines: "I was ridin' in a buggy with Miss Mary-Jane/Miss Mary-Jane got a house in Baltimore." That unanchored-ness is liberating to any writer, but especially when you're writing magical tales. To realize you can you just open a door on otherness and—go.
"Waters of March" and "Redemption Song": For the tiny last tale in the book, "The Spigot," I have to cheat again and choose two songs I can't decide between. "Waters of March," by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, is his own translation of his original Portuguese lyric ("Águas de Marҫo"). There are many good covers of this famous song, but my recent favourite and my stemmer during this writing is Cassandra Wilson's version on her 2002 album Belly of the Sun. The song's tumbling catalogue of things—"A stick, a stone,/It's the end of the road,/It's the rest of a stump,/It's a little alone,/It's a sliver of glass,/It is life, it's the sun,/It is night, it is death,/It's a trap, it's a gun" are just the first two of twenty-four verses—suggests (or demonstrates, overpoweringly) that our only joy and hope is in minute attentiveness to the sheer profusion of the everyday. With some magical assistance, the down-and-out painter of "The Spigot" learns that too. The song's exhilaration of noticing is exhaustive, never exhausting. But for any tale of redemption, concluding many tales of redemption, I could never leave out Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" from 1980's Uprising. The simple, spare, heartcatching mother of all redemption songs, picking its way raggedly from misery to the clutched promise of salvation. And challenge: "How long shall they kill our prophets/While we stand aside and look?"
(Shortlist stemmers considered for this list: "The House That Jack Built" (Aretha Franklin), "I'll Try Anything" (Dusty Springfield), "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" (Sara Vaughan), "Sittin' in the Sun" (Louis Armstrong), "I Go To Pieces" (Del Shannon), "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (Frank Sinatra), "Louisiana 1927" (Randy Newman), "Sheila Take a Bow" (The Smiths), "Twin Cinema" (The New Pornographers), "Renegade" (Warren Zevon), "All Tomorrow's Parties" (The Velvet Underground), "My Music at Work" (The Tragically Hip), "Magic" (The Cars))
Mike Barnes and The Reasonable Ogre: Tales for the Sick and Well links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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