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January 3, 2014

Book Notes - Ian Stansel "Everybody's Irish"

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.

Ian Stansel's Everybody's Irish is an impressive debut short story collection.

Banshee Boardwalk wrote of the collection:

"Stansel shows with deftness the possible implications of a single gesture and how quickly, and sometimes slowly, things can change for people battling to maintain their lives."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Ian Stansel's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, Everybody's Irish:

"Dukes and Duchesses of Park Ridge"

The Langley Schools Music Project: "God Only Knows"
Because the story is told through a collective, first-person plural POV, I thought it was important that the musical accompaniment feature a good deal of harmonizing. I listened to a lot of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's "Déjà vu", as well as the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" album, and pretty much any track from either of those bands would work well. But then I came back to this great album that was released in the early aughts (I believe), but recorded at a small rural elementary school in British Columbia in the mid-1970s. The Beach Boys classic is here sung by a collection of school children, with minimal instrumentation. I hadn't listened to it since I worked at a record store when it came out. For a while there, everyone I knew was a little in love with it: its innocent charm, the children's voices coming together with these sometimes melancholy lyrics. And I think the characters in this story would have felt the same.

"Introduction by the Author"

Andrew Bird: "Pulaski at Night"
This song was just recently released, but as soon as I heard it I thought of the narrator of the story, the once-painter, now-writer and reluctant book shill. There is a longing here, a loss symbolized by the great city of the Midwest. It could very well be that Mr. Bird had a romantic relationship in mind, but the lyrics seem easily translatable to the brother relationship at the center of this story: "I write you a story/But it loses its thrill//I paint you a picture/Of Pulaski at night/Come back to Chicago/City of light."

"A Dry Season"

Horse Feathers "Working Poor"
I had originally wanted to nick the title of the album this track comes from, "House With No Home," for this story, but it felt a little too dramatic, a little too spot on. The album was my main musical companion for the writing of this story, and the title of this track probably says something about the mood and tone I was going for. Like Sufjan Stevens' "Michigan" album (another one I listened to a lot), this one has a sparseness and austerity that haunts. I think the band hails from the Northwest, but the album feels very "heartland" to me, very dry and flat and old.

"The Ridiculous Future"

Buzzcocks: "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)"
I'm cheating here (as I will again later) and including two songs, one for each narrator/protagonist of the story. Though the song isn't mentioned by name, it is noted that David, who spends drunken evenings with his punk rock neighbors, sometimes dances to the Buzzcocks. And realistically, this is probably one of the tracks they'd put on. Plus he sort of, you know, falls in love with someone he shouldn't fall in love with.

Violent Femmes: "Good Feeling"
"Good Feeling" is the theme song for David's son, Steven, without any doubt. In an earlier draft of the story one of the neighbors gives Steven a Maxell dub of the Femmes' self-titled debut, which he listens to nightly. For Steven the song would be about his mother, who has passed away a year or so before the story begins. "Oh, dear lady/Won't you stay with me just a little longer?/You know it always seems like you're leaving/When I need you here just a little longer."


Houndmouth: "Come On, Illinois"
I had trouble coming up with a track for this one. I thought of LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge," since the story is in part about growing up and older, but that song seemed a little too hip. Then I happened to hear this in my car one day (thank God for college radio). This is the only story in the book that I'd say is set in "Illinois," rather than in Chicago or some small town or suburb. The characters cover a lot of ground, riding their bikes from the bottom of the state to the top. And the song has a sort of wide-open, windy sound that seems to echo that gorgeous prairie.

"The Tall Lake Grasses"

Sufjan Stevens: "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!"
In an alternate version of this list, the song for this story is "Master and Servant" by Depeche Mode. In my first conception of this story, before I had written anything down, it was supposed to be about two city-savvy Chicago kids in the late-80s getting into S&M and making inaugural trips to leather shops to spend their allowances on dog collars and whips. But that version of the story never really came together, though the experimentation with pain/pleasure remained. I only found the tone and setting for the story when I stole an image from this Sufjan Stevens song: a few young folks lollygagging in a lake. In the song, one of the kids gets stung by the wasp of the title. In the story, the character of Silver stings himself with a homemade lash.

"All We Have"

LL Cool J: "Football Rap"
There aren't any good football songs. Baseball is easy, with John Fogarty's "Centerfield" and Springsteen's "Glory Days." Soccer, you have New Order's "World in Motion" and, even better, Air Miami's "World Cup Fever." Basketball? Kurtis Blow's "Basketball" and G. Love & Special Sauce's "Shooting Hoops." Even hockey has Pansy Division's ode to the mullet, "Hockey Hair." But aside from that awful Monday Night Football theme, there isn't much for the gridiron. Thankfully there is this mostly-lost gem from the 1986 Goldie Hawn vehicle "Wildcats" (which gave us the big screen debuts of both Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson). More than two decades since I've seen the film and still every once in a while walking down the street I'll find myself singing, "It's the sport of kings/Better than diamond rings/That's why we're here to sing/Football."

Liz Phair: "Divorce Song"
On the other hand, there are a lot of songs about break-ups. This one by Liz Phair (oh, great daughter of Chicago, why did you ever leave?) is one of the best—though I have to admit that the split depicted in the song is far more amicable than the emotional shitstorm I offer in the story.

"Everybody's Irish"

The Pogues: "The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn"
All great drinking songs, like all great benders, are about becoming immortal. This, my favorite Pogues song, is a good example.

Bruce Springsteen: "Death to My Hometown"
The book is not about being Irish at all. It isn't even really about being Irish-American, though that's perhaps getting closer. "Irish" serves as a loose metaphor—though not explicitly—for those who struggle economically and, of course, emotionally (we are talking about literary fiction, after all). This emerald hued Springsteen tune is a response to the financial situation of the late-aughts, and a would-be theme for the Occupy Movement. I see the unnamed protagonist of the story not so much akin to the voice of the song as to the person hearing that the voice: "Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it 'til you're done/Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well/Send the robber baron's straight to hell." I think our protagonist is still a couple years away from really understanding his place in the world and how politics largely determines that place, but I trust he'll get there.

"Traveling Light"

Tindersticks: "Travelling Light"
This story came out of a larger project that will most likely never see the light of day, and as I re-formed it into a stand-alone story, I listened to Tindersticks' 1995 self-titled album compulsively. Stuart Staples' barely-audible baritone vibrates like the precursor to an earthquake that may never come, while guest singer Carla Torgerson (of The Walkabouts) adds a bit of twangy country bitter-sweetness. I used the idea imbedded in the song's title through the story, but as in the song there is an irony to this. Each character carries much more than what they hold. When Staples sings, "I travel light," Torgerson is there to counter: "No, no, you don't travel light."

Robert Ellis: "Westbound Train"
It's always been a rule of mine never to end a mixtape with a downer, and "Travelling Light," like so many Tindersticks songs, is most definitely that. So instead I'm going with Robert Ellis's "Westbound Train," which starts quiet but ends in a big, joyous honky-tonk. This is the only story in the collection that takes place outside of Illinois, being set instead in the thick humid air of Houston. Ellis and his band were the entertainment on "Whiskey Wednesdays" at a bar in the Heights neighborhood of Houston, where my wife and I lived for five years. The story is, in good part, about the families we construct around us, and Ellis's lyrics ("We are older now and there's no need to pretend/That anything we have in life means more than friends") seem to fit nicely.

Ian Stansel and Everybody's Irish links:

the author on Twitter
excerpt from the book (the title story)

Banshee Boardwalk review

Ploughshares essay by the author
Poets & Writers guest post by 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

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists
2013 Year-End Online Music Lists

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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