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April 18, 2013

Book Notes - B.J. Hollars "Sightings"


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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

B.J. Hollars' short story collection Sightings shares refreshingly absurd coming-of-age stories, punctuated with a perfect sense of humor and impeccable storytelling throughout.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"All of these stories represent a talented tightrope walk between genres and a gentle lesson in craftsmanship for aspiring storytellers... An imaginatively sculpted collection of absurdist concepts applied liberally to the equally preposterous notion of growing up."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is B.J. Hollars' Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, Sightings:

With the exception of Mumford and Sons' "The Cave," the remainder of the playlist for my short story collection, Sightings, could easily be confused for my favorite high school mix tape. This is more than mere coincidence. The collection (at least according to the back copy) sets out to "subvert conventional notions of Midwestern coming-of-age stories." I think that's pretty accurate. And though these so-called subversions manifest themselves by way of basketball-playing Bigfoots, Civil War reenactors, grief-stricken Clowns, among many other equally unexpected characters, in a way, they all seek to reinvent my own awkward adolescence. I often wonder if the seeds for these stories first sprouted while I thundered around Fort Wayne, Indiana in my powder blue, 1984 Volvo, spewing smoke from the muffler and humming along to these songs.

Below, you'll find the title of each of the ten short stories in the collection, along with each story's kindred spirit musical equivalent. These songs were meant for these stories—both lyrically and musically—though since I couldn't fit a mix tape between the book flaps, its up to you to make the playlist.

Indian Village -"Brown Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison

In the collection's opening story, a ragtag team of sandlot baseball players find their turf threatened when a family of Native Americans moves in next door. The rivalry intensifies when the brown-eyed beauty, Georgia Ambler, enters into the scene, prompting all adolescent aged men to vie for her attention. Van Morrison's caterwauling of "skipping" and "jumping" and "hearts a thumpin'" is a near pitch perfect description for the tone I was aiming for—one in which the reader understands the wobbly tightrope walk between childhood and adolescence.

Schooners - "Two Points for Honesty" by Guster

Sixteen-year-old Roger Silverstein has trouble being honest, and when his 6-year-old neighbor, Felicity Blanket, goes missing, he has even more trouble telling the truth. The less-than-reliable narrator attempts to cope with her disappearance, though his efforts to find an answer to Felicity's vanishing only takes him deeper into his self-imposed distraction. For honesty, Silverstein is awarded zero points.

Sightings - "66" by Afghan Whigs

And now onto the title story, in which Sasquatch joins a high school basketball team and takes part in an interspecies love affair with Becca Marsden, the high school goddess "who's scent alone could cause boy's pants to swell…" Sasquatch and Becca attend a school dance, and it's there—right as they enter into the dimly lit aquatic-themed gymnasium—that I hear this song blasting in the background. Imagine a tuxedo-wearing Sasquatch cocking his furry head toward the speakers, listening as the Afghan Whigs warble, "You walked in, just like smoke…"

Westward Expansion - "Box of Rain" by Grateful Dead

When an overzealous father drags his family to an Oregon Trail wagon train reenactment, young Max Fowler grapples with split loyalties between family and his own independence. Throughout the story, history runs amok, though father and son soon find themselves far more concerned with their future. Every time I hear this song, I hear Max speaking through Garcia's lyrics: "What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through?"

The Clowns - "Steven's Last Night in Town" by Ben Folds Five

A family takes in a clown couple (allegedly distant relatives) as the red-nosed, big-shoed, face-painted pair struggles to grieve over the death of their clown son (spoiler alert: it was a cannon-related accident). The wonkiness of the situation demands an equally wonky song, which is why Ben Folds Five's "Steven's Last Night in Town" serves as the story's go-to anthem. The song sounds a bit like calliope music on amphetamines, creating an auditory dissonance that captures the hazy, grief-stricken saga with which these clowns are afflicted.

Line of Scrimmage - "Lonelily" by Damien Rice

When a shockingly awkward middle school football coach and his equally awkward kicker form a relationship beyond the confines of the football field, the pair struggles to understand the benefits of their newfound friendship. Recently abandoned by his father, seventh grader Rex Yancey stops just short of allowing the coach to fill the void, though he soon learns he's not the only one missing something. Rice's "Lonelily" reflects the complexities of their shared loneliness. When I hear the line, "I was sure I wouldn't find you at home," I imagine Rex staring hard in the mirror, waiting anxiously for someone—practically anyone—to appear behind him.

Dixie Land - "The Cave" by Mumford and Sons

In "Dixie Land," we return to reenactors yet again, only this time, the Civil War obsessed father finds himself preoccupied by a son sacrificed to the river. When a noodling incident goes awry, the father is forced to remove himself from the past to deal with the present. When Mumford and Sons sings "So tie me to a post and block my ears," I envision the father in his Confederate Grays, marching desperately in his backyard as he tries to will himself to an earlier time, one in which his son still marches beside him.

Loose Lips Link Ships - "Disarm" by Smashing Pumpkins

When a less-than-likable sixth grader befriends a new student, the pair enters into an imbalanced friendship. Jackson's possessiveness over his new buddy immediately drives the buddy away, forcing Jackson to take drastic measures to maintain the relationship. Billy Corgan's line "What's a boy supposed to do?" hits at Jackson's confusion with the protocols and formalities involved when forming alliances. His unconventional efforts to show love for his friend seems perfectly apt for Corgan's question: What is a boy supposed to do?

Robotics - "At My Most Beautiful" by R.E.M.

When young Dylan learns of the death of his baby brother, he attempts to take control of the situation by rebuilding his brother from the family vacuum cleaner. Though his efforts are pure, his attempts at resurrection hurt more than they help. Nevertheless, when Michael Stipe swoons, it all makes sense: "I've found a way to make you, I've found a way…"

Missing Mary - "Sadie" by Joanna Newsom

In the collection's final story, a second person narrator tries to solve the mystery of a missing high school student named Mary. Yet the narrator—equipped with little more knowledge than the reader—is left to sift through the many hypothetical possibilities of what might have happened to her. As the versions dwindle and the years pass by, one afternoon Mary's younger sister peers up at the Periodic Table of Elements in her chemistry class and finds closure: "My sister has simply turned soluble. A moment there and then gone." When Joanna Newsom sings "And the mealy worms in the brine will burn," I'm left wondering about Mary—which destiny she chose or which was chosen for her.

B.J. Hollars and Sightings links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Kirkus Reviews review

Eau Claire Leader-Telegram profile of the author
Tri-Quarterly interview with the author
Volume One profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
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Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
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musician/author interviews
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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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