November 7, 2014
Book Notes - Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, and Aaron Teel "My Very End of the Universe"
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 anthology My Very End of the Universe is an impressive collection of novellas-in-flash, and the accompanying essays on the genre are illuminating.
Matt Bell wrote of the book:
"The five novellas-in-flash in MY VERY END OF THE UNIVERSE are excellent type specimens of the genre, and the accompanying craft essays help give this chimeric form a theory and a practice. Writers interested in story structure owe it to themselves to add this book to their office bookshelves, but it's adventurous readers who will surely benefit the most, finding themselves thrilled by the surprising tales within."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Tiff Holland's playlist for Betty Superman
(Note: it's important to imagine these songs played at very high volume inside an English Tudor house that looks great on the outside but is actually disintegrating around the occupants.)
Barbra Streisand, "Superman"
Betty provided her own playlist in the songs she plays within the novella. My mother, Polly, upon whom Betty is based, owned hundreds of records, which she stored, mostly outside their covers, in towering vinyl stacks in the dining room. She was a bipolar DJ with a time machine. One minute it was Mozart, and the next she was performing an impromptu burlesque with my brother's blanket. Streisand's Superman album spent an entire spring and summer on the turntable. In the title song, Streisand's voice soars higher than a bird or a plane, and Mom, Betty, singing along, came pretty close herself. But the part that really captures Betty's spirit is the part of the refrain that explains, "…when you love me, it's easy." She loved love, yearned for it, love from me, I realize now, as much if not more than from any man. Streisand's "Superman" is a vocal rollercoaster, high notes, low notes, much like life with Betty.
Neil Diamond, "Forever In Blue Jeans"
Diamond was another perennial favorite with Betty. She owned all his albums. Blue Jeans was her favorite Diamond song. However, it's important to note that Betty believed the song was "Reverand Blue Jeans," and that's how she sang it. We didn't question her at first, in part because she always sang along and it took a while until I heard the song without her accompaniment. At the time, Betty had an obvious crush on the Reverand of our church. In retrospect, maybe Betty purposely sang "Reverand" instead of "Forever," but she refused to alter the lyrics when the error was pointed out to her. This fact, as well as her affection for the song, tell a lot about Betty. She was stubborn. She didn't care about the lyrics. She loved the sound of her own singing voice. She was right; she had a beautiful voice.
Meg Pokrass's play list for Here, Where We Live
Frank Black and the Catholics, "California Bound"
"No worries, I know tomorrow brings the golden sun
Where theres wine and olive fruit for everyone."
The promise of good-life California is the setting I chose for my story of a tiny, injured family, reeling from anxiety and loss. The mother and teenager in this novella have been crushed, and California, the land of promise and sunshine, is the too-lovely place they land. In "California Bound" is a brilliant blend of menace and grace.
The Mountain Goats, "Teenage World"
"and i'm sick and tired of trying to figure out your gestures
and i'm sick and tired of wondering what your presents mean."
When a kid's only parent—a single mother—has cancer, every moment is a mixed bag of love and anger. The kid must uncouple from the only unconditional love she has, and far too early. She tries to look at it from afar, fails, and tries again. In "Teenage World," I love the exploration of parental power.
Stevie Wonder, "Superstition "
"Very superstitious, wash your face and hands,
Rid me of the problem, do all that you can,
Keep me in a daydream, keep me goin' strong."
Our lives are determined by luck from the moment we are born. All of the stuff we believe we can control is mostly wishful thinking. Sure, we can influence the way things turn out, to some degree, but we can't do anything about strangely shitty luck. In "Superstition," the feisty brilliance and passion become addictive, compelling; it makes us want move our hips, ready to face whatever comes next.
Aaron Teel's playlist for Shampoo Horns
Beach Boys "Heroes and Villains" from The Smile Sessions
The whole Smile mythos appeals to me on a really geeky level. Its stitched togetherness—composed as it is of little suites, or "feels" as Brian Wilson called them—works as a nice analogy for the way Shampoo Horns and the novella-in-flash function generally. But this song in particular evokes for me a clinging to childhood that I associate with Cherry Tree moving awkwardly into adolescence with his comic books, red underwear and tattered towel-cape.
Daniel Johnston "Happy Time," from Fun
Johnston is another lost boy. This one is bursting with fractured dream images all swirling around: TV shows and sunshine and bubble gum and Captain America. Comic book heroes are everywhere in Johnston's art, symbolizing power, freedom, incorruptibility and the divine. It's an appropriately messy and disjointed sound, and that uncertain undercutting/distrust of memory in It must have been a happy time is quietly devastating.
Neko Case "This Tornado Loves You," from Middle Cyclone
This may be sort of an obvious one, being a love song sung from the point of view of a tornado, but everything about it is pretty nearly perfect. Case's voice is just mesmerizing here. I have waited with a glacier's patience, smashed every transformer with every trailer, 'til nothing was standing 65 miles wide. If Shampoo Horns had a theme song, this would be it.
Margaret Patton Chapman's playlist for Bell and Bargain
Camille Saint-Saëns "Aquarium" from Carnival of the Animals
Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven might be my favorite movie of all time, and the first time I saw it was the first time I ever heard this song, which has now become shorthand for dreamy, old-fashioned-y strangeness. I still love it. And I was knocked out by the way Malick introduced the world of his film by juxtaposing rather ordinary images of late nineteenth century American life with this watery, weird music, played on the eeriest acoustic instrument, the glass harmonica. I wanted the world of Bell and Bargain to touch the world of Days of Heaven and this song is part of that. Plus it is from 1886, and so it is entirely possible my characters would have heard it when it was brand new, in as much as it is possible for characters to hear anything.
Iron and Wine "Woman King"
I love the insistent rhythm of this song, the weaving guitars playing off of Sam Beam's voice and the beauty of the story. When I first heard Iron & Wine I immediately had that kind of gratitude you feel when someone makes art you've been waiting for, art that's the puzzle piece you slot into place and that helps the world make better sense to you. When I first started writing Bell and Bargain, I made a playlist to listen to while I wrote and for a while the playlist was pretty much this song on repeat.
Orenda Fink "Holy Holy"
I actually found this song recently but it seems so right here with its swimmy, Lynch-ian strangeness. Another aquatic-sounding song points to the piscine nature of the story for me and relates so strongly to the dreamy world of Bell, who I think of as a very fish-like girl; probably because I see so much of Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" in her. I think this song is beautiful and Orenda Fink's voice is so pretty and fragile it's heartbreaking and still somehow comforting, which is all I want from fiction, too. Heartbreak and somehow comfort. Maybe not in that order.
Chris Bower's playlist for The Family Dogs
Tom Waits "Take It with Me" from Mule Variations
To say that nobody plays piano quite like Tom Waits is like saying that nobody writes stories like Donald Barthelme. People don't because they can't because they lack the life that created the ability in the first place. Whenever I hear Tom Waits—and it's been this way since I first heard the horns on "Hang on St. Christopher" when I was 16 years old and asked wide eyed, "What the fuck is this?"—I was hearing a voice that was not just extraordinary; it was biblical and I didn't even know anything about God, but that there was something bigger than myself, as far as making music and saying important things. Waits' music spoke to all the different parts of me and when he stopped talking about the chaos of life and slowed down, as he does, as he always has, and talked about what we do in "Take It With Me," he speaks to the crippling sentimentality that has afflicted me all of my life; a characteristic I passed on to Al in The Family Dogs. Al in the book, hears things wrong, filters memories incorrectly and listens to music irrationally and sometimes makes up his own lyrics. This song is not about things, it is about memories, but Al sees things as connections to memories and thinks that if the things go away, that the memories go too. Waits sings about the things he is going to take with him "when he goes" and sings, "All that you loved is all you own." Al hears this song and is glad that he saved all that dog hair and that remote control because he is "taking it with" him when he goes. Waits has "worn all the faces of all the cards" and Al is fighting that decay, drawing the faces back on.
T-Love "Nie, Nie, Nie" from Model 01
I think this song is an anti-gun anthem but the only words I know in the song are in the title and that's "No, No, No." As you can see, I don't understand Polish but in the early-2000's, when I was writing The Family Dogs, I was absolutely obsessed with this song because it's ridiculously sure of itself and this might be snobby on my part to say, but it's like this band didn't realize that it wasn't cool to write a song like this in 2001 but because they were a Polish band writing their own music in their own version of the world, they had no idea how cool I was. The Family Dogs started off as a play called The World's Oldest Dog and it involved a story about the two brothers in the book arguing about the death of their dog, Peggy. Al refuses to believe that Peggy could have ever died and not only imagines that she is alive, but that she is alive and happy, even though she has been gone for over 10 years. Al, in The Family Dogs, has imagined a version of the world where everything is perfect; not that his life was perfect but he wants to know that everything in his life has been perfectly preserved, so he can be happy, being properly remembered. This is the perfect pop song, in that it captures the moment where it doesn't matter if you don't understand anything in the world, what is happening in your life and not even the words of the song you are singing along to but because you want to feel happy, so you just let it be true. Peggy is most likely dead, guns are mostly bad, but we can't care about that right now because this song is fucking awesome.
Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, Aaron Teel and My Very End of the Universe links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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