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October 9, 2013

Book Notes - Catherine Burns "The Moth"

The Moth

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.

The Moth is a wildly entertaining storytelling series, and its artistic director Catherine Burns highlights 50 of its best stories in this anthology.

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

In her own words, here is Catherine Burns' Book Notes music playlist for the anthology she edited, The Moth:

When Hyperion asked us gather a number of our favorite stories for publication in a book, we were thrilled, but also, frankly, daunted by the task. We were concerned that putting the stories on the page was a little at odds with what we were known for, which is stories told and recorded live, with no notes (no paper involved, ever.)

But as we began to transcribe the stories, we were amazed by how well many of them worked on the page -- how you could really "hear" the voices as you read. They felt alive, even in two-dimensional black and white.

One of the nicest things about reading the stories, as opposed to listening, was that it allowed you to pause mid-story. If a moment made you think of something that happened in your own life, you could stop and reflect on that for a minute without missing the next three minutes of the story. Things suddenly stood out in the stories that you might have missed when just listening to them (even for someone like me who had heard every story in the book at least a dozen times).

For the first time I noticed how often music was referenced in the stories. We ended up including the lyrics of three different songs in the text, and half a dozen other songs were mentioned. For fun I downloaded all of the songs, and created a play list that I listened to while I edited. I hoped the music would help me connect with the intention of the stories and the storytellers' voices, so I could preserve those voices as much as possible as I prepared them for the page.

So when Largehearted Boy asked me to put this together, I jumped at the chance. Below is that play list, supplemented by songs chosen by a number of our raconteurs as the music they would choose for the soundtracks of their own stories.

"A Thousand Tiny Pieces" by Sean Hayes

This song features prominently in astrophysicist Janna Levin's beautiful story, "Life on a Mobius Strip." Sean was a friend of Janna's and her then-musician boyfriend Warren. Janna and Warren were in the midst of some pretty big relationship struggles, most of which were caused by their very different backgrounds. He was a self-professed uneducated musician from a tough part of working-class Manchester, England (with the brogue to match.) She had recently gotten her PhD in theoretical physics from MIT. When they first heard the song, they suspected that Sean had written it about them. These lyrics in particular seemed especially damning:

We'll just play this one out until it explodes
Into a thousand tiny pieces
What's your story universe
You are melody, you are numbers
You are shapes, and you are rhythms

"Moonlight" Sonata by Beethoven

In the summer of 2008, The Moth traveled to Dushanbe, Tajkistan to work with the survivors of the recent brutal civil war. In "Tajik Sonata," Anoid Latipovna Rakhmatyllaeva recounts standing down a group of young machine-gun carrying soldiers who were destroying a roomful of musical instruments at the university where she was a professor. She started playing this song on the piano, and they stopped, put down their rifles and listened until she finished, then left peacefully.

"Angel" by Sarah McLachlan

In Darryl "DMC" McDaniels' story, "Angel," the rapper is saved from suicidal thoughts by listening to this song over and over. He is depressed because he's just learned – at age 35 – that he was adopted. He becomes obsessed with Sarah McLachlan's music, and makes all the other guys in his band crazy insisting that they play it over and over in their limousine as they tour Europe.

"It's Tricky" by Run-DMC

Later in that same story, Darryl meets Sarah McLachlan at a Grammy party thrown by Clive Davis. He becomes a tongue-tied, stammering fan upon spotting Sarah, but she runs right up to him and begins singing the lyrics to "It's Tricky" – she's a fan of his too! The story is much funnier if you can read the actual lyrics and picture Sarah McLachlan singing them out loud. So our brilliant (then intern, now assistant producer) Caleigh Waldman spent days tracking down the rights and negotiating the fees with the record label.

"Just Like Me" by Sarah McLachlan and Darryl "DMC" McDaniels

At the end of the story, Darryl flies to Vancouver to record a song with Sarah, a cover of Harry Chapin's classic "Cat's in the Cradle". While there, he discovers that, like him, Sarah was also adopted.

"In My Place" by Coldplay"

Michael Massimino's story "A View of the Earth" takes place miles above the planet where he is desperately trying to fix the Hubble Space Telescope. He and his fellow astronauts have literally spent years preparing for this mission, only to find it jeopardized by a tiny stripped screw. When I called to ask him what he liked to listen to in space, he first mentioned the soundtrack to the movie The Right Stuff, which cracked me up. But he explained that soundtracks just go well with space. He talked about the soundtracks to Meet Joe Black ("Michael: Not so great for day passes, but really great with looking at the stars on the night passes.") and Dances with Wolves.

What doesn't go well with space? Bruce Springsteen ("Love him normally, but really no use for him in space. It doesn't work.")

As for the Coldplay song above, he says, "I remember looking out the window with my iPod, and it was a day pass over the ocean -- really beautiful and sunny -- and I was going through songs, and that Coldplay just went perfectly with the scene."

"My Way" by Frank Sinatra

In Malcolm Gladwell's story "Her Way," Malcolm and his college friends entertain themselves by writing parody songs to tease their fellow students. At the end of the story, Malcolm and his friends write fake lyrics to "My Way" and sing them at the wedding of the group's ringleader -- to disastrous effects.

"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye

In Sherman "O.T." Powell's story, "Cocktails in Attica," O.T. earns spending money by making and selling hooch in his prison cell. He's busted by the guards, who know something is up because every time he makes a batch, the prisoners, in their drunken revelry, blast Motown from their boom boxes and sing (so his own customers inadvertently snitch on him).

"Open" by King Missile

This is the song Jon Levin chose for the soundtrack of "Elevator E.R." which tells the story of the night when Jon was transporting a patient to surgery during his overnight shift as an ER orderly at Beth Israel Hospital, and the hospital elevator plummeted with him and a cardiac victim inside. The near-death experience was a wake up call for Jon, who then quit his job and returned to school. Jon was a self-described "angry, sullen, disaffected high school drop out" at the time, and this song's low-tech punk aesthetic matches the tone of the story. Also, the lyrics are a plea to stop being closed off/closed-minded, which goes to the heart the story.

"Everybody Hurts" by REM

Faye Lane's "Fireworks from Above" chronicles her first difficult months working as a flight attendant in the days after 9/11. Normally a compulsively upbeat person, she finds dealing with the often angry, cranky passengers challenging (to put it mildly). Over the course of the story, she struggles to see the passengers as individuals rather than nameless, faceless groups ("the Ft. Lauderdale crowd," "the Palm Beach Crowd.") She chose this because, as Faye puts it, "Pain is the great equalizer and you never know who's in it. So you have to treat everyone with kindness."

"Straight Lines" by Christian Doschers

Ed Gavagan's classic, "Whatever Doesn't Kill Me" follows him as he struggles with severe post traumatic stress disorder after surviving a violent knife attack from a street gang (five kids were sent to kill a random stranger, as their initiation to The Latin Kings, and Ed was the unlucky man to run into them on a deserted street.) This song was written by friends of Ed's around the time of the stabbing. Says Ed, "My dear friend Kate is singing in the background; Christian wrote the song, and I remember the two of them playing it at an open mic night in the east village -- one of those nights when something pure and good, created by friends, and played to an empty bar on a weeknight, managed to push all of the rest of the misery away for a little while. It made me feel like I might one day be able to join those people back out in the street, ‘trying to make our lives complete.' I heard it at a time when I didn't think I was going to make it back." (Note: it isn't on iTunes, but can be purchased here:

Love is All Around (The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme) and Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side."

Kimberly Reed's story is about returning to her small hometown for her father's funeral. In addition to losing her dad, she has to deal with the fact that no one in town (besides her mom) knows that a few years back she transitioned from male to female (in fact she used to be the high school quarterback!) When I asked her for a song, she said she'd like to have the mash-up artist Girl Talk combine the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show with Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side."

"We are all Made of Stars" by Moby

If I had to pick one song for the book as a whole, it might be this one. Stories have a way of bringing us together, and reminding us that, at the end of the day, what connects us is always greater than what separates us. Through surviving the trials and tribulations that become fodder for our greatest stories, we are put back in touch with who we are at our most elemental:

Slowly rebuilding
I feel it in me
Growing in numbers
Growing in peace
People they come together
People they fall apart
No one can stop us now
'Cause we are all made of stars.

Catherine Burns and The Moth links:

The Moth website
The Moth Wikipedia entry
excerpts from the book

Chicago Tribune review
Publishers Weekly review

Canadian Public Broadcasting's Q interview with the author
CastRoller interview with the editor
The Kathleen Dunn Show interview with the author
The Leonard Lopate interview with the editor

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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