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July 5, 2013

Book Notes - Ethan Rutherford "The Peripatetic Coffin"

The Peripatetic Coffin

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.

Ethan Rutherford's debut story collection The Peripatetic Coffin marks him as a writer of great promise. Though varying in genre and style, these stories all impress with their depictions of emotional and physical isolation.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:

"This is a beautiful book about human suffering, about human quandaries. It is also about bravery, history, love, longing, scientific and sexual exploration and the seasons of the year, principally summer and winter. A peripatetic coffin can, like the H.L. Hunley, be a "sealed iron tub," or it can be a schooner trapped in sea ice, or even the adult mind recalling what happened between two boys many years before."

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 Ethan Rutherford's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, The Peripatetic Coffin:

I love music, but, like a lot of other writers I've spoken to, can only listen to instrumental tracks when I'm trying to write. I've tried it the other way around—putting on a favorite Stones album, or something, thinking: yes, this story is going to be exactly like Beggar's Banquet—but the lyrics always hijack whatever thoughts are trying to cluster on the page. You begin with "It was a dark and stormy night…" and before you know it you're writing about street-fighting men, or factory girls, or, well, whatever it is that Keith tricked Mick into singing about. But I do have a few albums on constant rotation while writing—tonal music that sets a mood, or albums I'm so familiar with at this point that they recede into the background, forming an aural strata sturdy enough to build on, but not intrusive enough to veer whatever story I'm working on in a direction I don't want it to go. While writing the stories that appear in The Peripatetic Coffin, I listened to a couple of albums so many times that if they were records they'd be worn out: Ocean Songs by the Dirty Three; Chet Baker Sings by Chet Baker (a gift from a writer friend years ago; Baker's voice is beautiful, and does not, for whatever reason, get in the way). But two albums. How boring is that? So the music I'm listing here—think of these songs as a thematic pairing with the stories in the book, chosen for mood, setting, genre, lyrics, etc. Ideally a successful story collection functions like a lasting album, the whole being somehow greater than its parts, the singles working less as "hits" you listen to over and over again than navigation points in a greater work of art. Am I calling my own book a great work of art? No, no. I'll leave it to my mom to say that. I just want to share some good music with you. So here we go. Organized chronologically by story, here are some of my favorite songs that in some ways let the light in.

The Peripatetic Coffin
Unless you want to listen to a bunch of old time Confederate War songs, which, well, I don't, let's start with the Dirty Three, the instrumental three piece from Australia. These guys are maniacs (they play, frequently, with Nick Cave, if that frames things for you), and the dirge sound that comes from the violin of Warren Ellis is by turns mournful, aggressive, otherworldly, and unbelievably beautiful. Ocean Songs is a perfect album, anchored by the drummer Jim White, who is my favorite drummer ever. He drums like the ocean moves; he's not intrusive, but the music is impossible to imagine with anyone else pushing things along. You've probably heard his signal rumble-march drumming on Smog's "Let Me See The Colts"—or, if you haven't, just listen to that song now, because it's amazing. You get the sense that very idea of a drum solo embarrasses him, but I'd happily listen to a track that was just White softly tapping whatever rhythm he feels like, for hours. Horse Stories is another Dirty Three album I love, but since this story features the first Confederate submarine, Ocean Songs feels the most appropriate.

Summer, Boys
This is a story about that immersive-friendship feeling – a story set to the music of "way back," when you were a kid, and it wasn't enough to see your best friend at school, you had to see him/her after school too, and on the weekends. That short period of time seems both incredibly fraught and fragile, but also, with age, and memory, somehow those moments become the durable pigments of your imagination, the colors you paint with again and again. So, let's keep it simple. "Best of Friends" by Palma Violets, with the straightforward hook: "I wanna be your BEST friend." And an awesome little song by the Minneapolis band Best Friends Forever—a song called "Handpocket" which features the line: "Put your hand in my back pocket / as if it were your own back pocket." That line for me captures the strangeness inherent in these early friendships: I want to be you, and I want you to want to be me, and neither of us sees anything strange about that.

John, for Christmas
Well. This is a story about parents who are trying to negotiate their own feelings about their disturbed son as they wait for him to arrive home for the holidays (there's also a snow-storm, and an alpaca, and a real marriage-ending moment thrown in there as well). For most of the story, John, the son, is in his car, slowly making his way home, periodically calling his father, becoming a bit of a tent. Perhaps this is unfair to both John and to the Velvet Underground, but I always sort of imagined the music he had on in the car was a VU grab-bag, that ratcheted up in intensity the closer to home he got. So how about "The Black Angel Death Song," complete with John Cale's grating and nerve-wracking viola dominating the track, and Mr. Lou Reed singing "If Epiphany's terror reduced you to shame / have your head bobbed and weaved / chose a side to be on"? For easier VU listening, maybe check out "Stephanie Says," "Pale Blue Eyes," "Ocean," or "New Age." Or if you like music, just listen to everything they've done, except for "The Gift," which is unlistenable.

Camp Winnesaka
Toby Keith, "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue." And I'm going to take a pass on explaining why this song, which I hate, is appropriate for the story.

The Saint Anna
An icebound Russian schooner, drifting north with the icepack, the crew wondering if they'll be released or crushed by the floes. . . This story is set in 1913, and I was hoping to find something slow and mournful and also appropriate to the year of the story, but I can't, so how about this: grab yourself a bottle of Mackinlay's Rare Old Highland Malt (Shackleton's favorite), turn out the lights, and listen to Screws by Nils Frahm. And imagine the loneliness of the ice.

The Broken Group
A good friend of mine who lives in New Orleans periodically sends me burned mix CDs of the most amazing music I'd otherwise never hear (and has gotten me hooked on WWOZ, which very well may be the best radio station in the country). A few years ago he sent me the first album by The Valparaiso Men's Chorus, which is called Guano and Nitrates. I didn't want to mention the name of the album, because now you don't want to listen to it, but trust me: it's the best album of sea-faring songs I've ever heard. Which is appropriate listening for "The Broken Group," which is a story about a father and his son, sailing off the desolate coast of Vancouver Island, and their encounter with a man who may or may not be some kind of pirate.

A Mugging
Nothing wrong with dad-rock, as they call it, particularly when the story concerns a character who would listen to such a thing as dad-rock, before reaching his breaking point. So this must be Wilco, here—the face of "dad-rock"—a band that is both loved and dismissed by many, often in the same sentence. I do not like their new stuff (though I will always, always give Jeff Tweedy a chance, and a pass on just about anything), but their older stuff is really great. And the song that I think would go well with this story: "Misunderstood," which opens the second disc on Being There. That song, which is two chords, begins pleasantly enough, a walk through a neighborhood, and then builds to such staggering and unexpected self-hatred and aggression at the end (musically, lyrically) that you cannot understand, exactly, how the song got there.

This is probably my favorite story in the collection for all sorts of personal reasons. It's about a whaling expedition, and is set far in the future, when the energy crisis is even worse than it is today. So: fun stuff, an adventure, a confrontation with diminishing returns. But the story is also epistolary—it's composed of a series of letters, written from an older brother aboard the ship, to his younger sister, whom he had to leave at home in less than ideal circumstances. I was trying to think of "letter songs" that would be an appropriate match here, and the only song I know of that just nails your heart to your chair, as if you'd received the letter personally, is "Famous Blue Raincoat" by Leonard Cohen. It's a match only so far as the narrative mode is that of a delivered letter ("Sincerely, L. Cohen" he sings, to close out the song), but it's such a beautiful song, so expertly sung, that if you haven't heard it, listen to it now. If you want a thematic match, I suppose let's just dust off the Dirty Three again, to close it out, but this time, rather than listening to Ocean Songs, let's listen to Horse Stories.

Ethan Rutherford and The Peripatetic Coffin links:

the author's website

Cleveland Plain Dealer review
The Coffin Factory review
Fiction Writers Review review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review
Washington Post Express review

Barnes and Noble Review interview with the author
Express Milwaukee interview with the author
Gaudy interview with the author
Minnesota Public Radio profile of the author
One Story interview with the author
Shelf Awareness interview with the author
Wisconsin State Journal interview with 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
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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