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August 8, 2014

Book Notes - Josh Ostergaard "The Devil's Snake Curve"

The Devil's Snake Curve

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 Devil's Snake Curve is a unique baseball book, one that cleverly explores the history of the sport through cultural and political lenses.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"The Devil's Snake Curve will receive a particularly warm welcome from those who love the game but resist easy analogies comparing its slow, idiosyncratic progress to the slow idiosyncratic progress of the American experiment. Its young author, Josh Ostergaard, emerges from an ironic generation that tends to regard hero worship as faintly ridiculous, meaning that individual legends from any given era are less interesting to him than whatever social, cultural, or political forces might have combined to prop those legends up."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Josh Ostergaard's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, The Devil's Snake Curve:

"Human Behavior," Bjork

A brilliant juvenile delinquent spray-painted "Good Luck Humans" all over my hometown in the early nineties. I was intrigued but wasn't sure why. Around that time, Michel Gondry's video for Bjork's "Human Behavior" appeared on TV. I was entranced. For a long time I didn't know what to make of it—I distrusted the song's high production values and its catchy tune, yet the lyrics were thought-provoking and the video of the giant teddy bear stomping through the forest was exceedingly strange. I wouldn't look away. The sense of distance between Bjork and other people was similar to the "Good Luck Humans" graffiti I often drove past in my mono-cultural suburb. I was intrigued and disturbed by that distance. I wanted more of it, and so I went on to study anthropology. Later, when I started writing The Devil's Snake Curve, that distance helped me see Major League Baseball as a pageant that had a variety of roles in society that went beyond who won the game or who hit a double. During the months I was editing The Devil's Snake Curve with Coffee House Press, I found an old mix CD that had "Human Behavior," and I blasted it loudly in my apartment every morning as I ironed my clothes and ate granola with blue berries—thinking ahead to the day's work.

"Masters of War," Bob Dylan

There's an excellent show on Kansas City public radio called Cypress Avenue, and one Saturday during those impressionable high school years, my dad and I happened to listen while driving to a Royals game. The show that day featured Bob Dylan's album Blood on the Tracks. Apart from "Like a Rolling Stone," which played on pop radio now and then, I'd never heard Dylan before. By the time we got to the ball game I'd been hooked. But the Dylan song that impacted The Devil's Snake Curve most directly is "Masters of War,' which I discovered a few years later on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Listening to that song in my early twenties and again during the build-up to the war in Iraq opened my perspective on how violence is enacted in "advanced" civilizations. Dylan's line about men hiding behind desks helped me see that those making policy decisions are capable of instigating bloodshed on a truly horrific scale, even as they are shielded physically and emotionally from its most visceral effects. This, of course, is also the violence of Eichmann's train schedules, which I also discussed with friends during those years. Through "Masters of War," I began to see that certain aspects of mass culture, like sports, movies, etc, can serve as a buffer or sugar-coating for violent systems and policies. The ways that Major League Baseball has consistently supported the war-mongering of the political system during the past decade makes sense in light of "Masters of War."

The Impossible Leap in One Hundred Simple Steps (full album) by From Monument to Masses

About a year before I began writing The Devil's Snake Curve, a friend gave me the album The Impossible Leap in One Hundred Simple Steps by From Monument to Masses. It was 2003, and post-9/11 hysteria was still building. Nationalistic fervor had become the norm for most media outlets and for many Americans. The first time I listened to The Impossible Leap I thought the band's heavy use of samples from newscasts and speeches interrupted the music, but after a few spins I realized they did an amazing job weaving the sonic landscape together into a powerful album. During the years I was writing the early drafts of The Devil's Snake Curve, I listened to The Impossible Leap countless times. Its critique of the way the US government handled the aftermath of 9/11—with misguided wars, the curtailing of civil liberties, and increased surveillance—felt refreshing during a militaristic era. It also made brilliant use of the detritus of pop culture to achieve its artistic impact. It opened my perspective on our role in world affairs while reinforcing a truth that had been buried by the onslaught of pro-war media coverage: not everyone in the US agreed with what was being done in our names. And we still don't.

"Candy" by Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson

As I've said elsewhere, The Devil's Snake Curve was a novel for a few years. During that time I became intrigued by "Candy," the duet by Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson (of the B-52s). The song is about a reunion between lovers who hadn't seen each other in years, and somehow its seriousness and slight cheesiness wormed its way deeply into my consciousness. In retrospect I think that in the years I was drafting the book I was radically open to influence of all kinds, not just from Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson. In fact, "open to influence" implies I had some kind of rational control over what influenced me. Instead I think I became an emotional and aesthetic dart board. Anything I encountered on a given day struck me sharp and deep. Anyway, after listening to "Candy" a thousand times, I began to view the song as a duet between George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees. In 1990, the year the lyrics reference, Steinbrenner had been banned from baseball for consorting with a gambler. I wrote a scene into my novel in which Steinbrenner—disheveled, unhappy, schnockered, and desperate—goes to a Florida karaoke bar and sings this love song to his beloved Yankees. I had Reggie Jackson, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, and Lou Piniella form a chorus and sing Kate Pierson's part. The whole thing was totally insane. I never cut it from my novel, but I did throw away the entire book and start over.

"Dead Shrimp Blues" by Robert Johnson

I think most writers reach a point in the process when they realize they must cut beloved words, paragraphs, sections, and even chapters to make their book viable. It's a terrible feeling. Only in retrospect can I look back and be hugely relieved I lost certain passages—like my scene of Steinbrenner covering Iggy Pop. During the painful process of making radical cuts, and ultimately walking away from the entire book as I'd first written it, I took grim pleasure in Robert Johnson's "Dead Shrimp Blues." The narrator wakes up one day and finds that all of the shrimp he's been farming are dead. That's what drafting a book is: waking up each morning and realizing that most of your shrimp are dead. And, because you've spent too much time focusing on your creative work, someone else is bound to be fishing in your pond.

"Motion Pictures" by Neil Young

The blues that come with realizing your shrimp are dead are only one kind of the blues inherent in writing a book. There's also the blues that come from the requisite solitude, which too easily decays into isolation. "Motion Pictures," from Neil Young's On the Beach album, can be understood as being about the perils of creative work. When I first heard the song I was deep into the guts of drafting my book. Its melancholy sound, even removed from the lyrics, perfectly captures the feeling of having gone down a creative rabbit hole and looking up at the folks gathered at the surface. You can see and hear them, but they are far away. Neil Young's narrator feels this way, and wants to return to the world and re-engage with people. Yet his singer is also resolute—there's no other life he wants, even though his own is far from perfect. Creative work paradoxically requires this kind of deep focus, with the distance it allows from everyday life, and the simultaneous ability to remain susceptible to influence. Long after I came to know and love "Motion Pictures," I grew curious about the album title. It turns out there was a movie called On the Beach in the late fifties starring Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck. World War Three has just happened, and the movie tells the story of survivors in Australia as they wait for a cloud of radiation to cross the ocean and kill them. They are the only humans left on earth. Some have parties and try to enjoy their final weeks, but the outcome is inevitable. It's a disturbing film. I named the final vignette in The Devil's Snake Curve after that movie and album.

"America (Closing Time)" by Allan Ginsburg and Tom Waits

I've never been a fan of the Beats. I didn't read Jack Kerouac until I'd traveled the world and read too many other books. But the more I learn about the culture from which they came—Cold War America's mass consumerism and rigidly enforced conformity—the more curious I've become about their lives and work. I absolutely love the recording of Allan Ginsburg reciting his poem, "America," accompanied by "Closing Time" by Tom Waits. Ginsburg calls out the US for what it did to his Uncle Max, along with other social and foreign policy ills, but it's clear he's writing with disappointment and love for his country. His words and the sound of "Closing Time" work perfectly together, and they served as direct inspiration for The Devil's Snake Curve. The sense of loss that permeates the poem, along with Ginsburg's grim bemusement, are contagious.

"Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen

I began by writing about "Human Behavior," and how I played it nearly every morning while editing The Devil's Snake Curve. What I didn't say is that "Born in the USA" is on that same mix CD, so I always heard these two songs together. Even more than Springsteen's excellent lyrics and their meaning, the sound of "Born in the USA" inspired me to push forward with my creative work. It gave me energy. Over time I began to notice how the song functioned as a work of art. Its sound and iconography conjure a benign kind of patriotism that many Americans, myself included, can relate to. The catchy tune and the refrain "Born in the USA" open the listener's mind and create an opportunity for influence. That's when the lyrics weasel their way into your brain and do their work. They are not obscure, but unless you're listening carefully their critique may be lost. I became interested in the way "Born in the USA" functioned, and decided to employ its tactics. I chose to work with material that seemed on the surface to mean one thing (baseball) as a way of talking about others (culture and politics).

"Now I'm Learning to Love the War," Father John Misty

The deadline for submitting manuscripts to Coffee House Press in the fall of 2012 was the same night as a Father John Misty concert here in Minneapolis. And it was Halloween. I knew it would take me a few hours to do another revision of the materials I wanted to submit, but I also wanted to go to the show. Since it was my first book and I knew how difficult it is to find a publisher, it seemed like an exercise in futility to go through with my submission. After work that night I was riding home and I nearly turned around and pedaled to the venue to buy a ticket. I can still picture the dark stretch of street near the Hennepin Bridge where I considered what to do. I rode home, sat at my desk, and worked. I submitted before the deadline—and lucky for me. Father John Misty nearly derailed my writing career before it began. I love his album Fear Fun and there are too many good songs on it to really pick one, but "Now I'm Learning to Love the War" has a similar spirit to The Devil's Snake Curve. The song is about the ways in which destruction is woven into the rhythm of everyday life. Cultural and artistic production deplete natural resources, too. Even a work of art intended to be a voice of protest against war by necessity contributes to the policies the artist abhors. The structure of contemporary life is at fault: it takes oil to make a record or a book. But even in this grim milieu it doesn't make any sense to stop writing, or singing, or choosing to finish your project. Viva la muerte!

Josh Ostergaard and The Devil's Snake Curve links:

excerpt from the book

Collagist review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review

HTMLGIANT interview with the author
Late Night Library interview with the author
MinnPost 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)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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