January 27, 2015
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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Sharma Shields proves herself a masterful storyteller in her imaginative debut novel debut novel The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Imagine a mash up of Moby-Dick and Kafka's Metamorphosis (with a hearty dash of Twin Peaks thrown in), and you'll begin to get an idea of what Shields's ambitious tale of disenchantment sets out to do."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I decided to tackle this playlist by assigning a song to each of the novel's main characters. The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac spans seventy-some years of one man's life and focuses not just on Dr. Eli Roebuck, but also on the women (and Sasquatch) that his obsession affects. It's a novel about ambition and loss and guilt and family and, yes, Sasquatch, and the songs chosen here are frequently poignant and lovelorn, and a few of them are from Northwest bands, as the Northwest forests and towns loom large in the book. I gave Eli two songs because he goes through the biggest transformation from start to finish.
Young Eli Roebuck: "Where Did You Sleep Last Night (In The Pines)," Traditional, Covered by Nirvana
If I could choose one song to represent the entire book, this would be it. Young Eli could very well be singing this to his mother, who—in love with a half-man, half-Sasquatch named Mr. Krantz—disappears into the dark woods spanning Eastern Washington and the western Idaho panhandle.
I love how desperately WA State's own Kurt Cobain screams the last verse. It is pain-racked, the voice of pure despair. It is a gorgeous manifestation of how an abandoned child feels.
Greg Roebuck: "In My Hour of Darkness," Gram Parsons
Eli's father, Greg, is hard-working, loving father, although he is unsure of himself as a lone parent and a bit frozen-up by his wife's abrupt departure. He is featured in the chapter "The Bottomless Pit," in which a dark hole in the woods serves as a metaphor for his uncertainty in fatherhood and for his internalized anger with his missing wife. This Gram Parsons's song reflects that yawning darkness and Greg's search for hope and truth within it.
Mr. Krantz: "Song for Zula," Phosphorescent
This ambient, full-throated song, self-produced by Matthew Houck, is a perfect fit for a man who is half-Sasquatch, as Houck's gorgeous, emotional lyrics suggest:
O and all you folks, you come to see
You just stand there in the glass looking at me
But my heart is wild. And my bones are steam
And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free
I frequently had this entire album, Muchacho, on repeat while I was writing and editing. I've been getting back into listening to music while I write, and this feels like such a literary album to me. It may have influenced some of the tone of the novel, or maybe I just enjoy the album so much because it reflects a tone I frequently seek in my work: dark, brooding, emotional.
Gladys: "Too Many Birds," Bill Callahan
In the chapter, "The Funnel, The Hourglass, The Window," Gladys Roebuck, Eli's first wife, her mind beginning to unravel, stands with her husband in their yard and watches starlings grouping in the sky. She is sure they are spelling the word "Doom" overhead. Manifold birds haunt her in the novel, including a chicken-legged woman who sells her an enchanted cap.
This beautiful song by Bill Callahan's felt like a great fit for Gladys:
Too many birds in one tree
Too many birds in one tree
And the sky is full of black and screaming leaves
The sky is full of black and screaming…
I sorrow for Gladys in the book. At first it seems like she's there for comic relief, or merely to be intensely unlikeable, but she's a tragic character, at odds with the world, grappling with her own depression and mental illness. She is not a bad person, only mistaken.
Amelia: "Oblivion," Grimes
Amelia is Eli and Gladys's daughter, caught between her mother's mental illness and her father's indifference. She distances herself even further from them and in her pubescence veers toward self-destruction. In "Oblivion," Grimes sings, "When you're running by yourself, it's hard to find someone to hold your hand." Amelia runs away from home only to discover how terrifying the world at large can be.
Amelia is, I think, my favorite character in the book: she's tough, she's unsentimental, she's borderline mean-spirited toward those she loves (a defense mechanism, no doubt). Her Achilles heel is the approval she wants from her parents, which is a long-time coming in the novel.
Marion: "Ghost Writing," Neko Case
Marion is Amelia's older, sleazy boyfriend, who loves to seduce young girls and who finds himself greatly annoyed by Amelia's coldness toward him. After abandoning Amelia on the side of a dangerous highway near Grand Coulee Dam, Marion crashes his car into Lake Roosevelt, leaving him face to face with the ghost of himself. In "Ghost Writing," Neko Case sings, "Your ghost is a lightshow at night / On the Grand Coulee Dam," and the haunting, creepy tone of the music fits beautifully with Marion's terror, confusion, and sense of loss at a life poorly lived.
Ginger: "Late Night, Maudlin Street" by Morrissey
Eli leaves Gladys (and, in a way, Amelia, too) and marries a younger woman named Vanessa, who immediately gives birth to Ginger. Ginger, compared to Amelia, is a fragile, guilt-riddled, and over-sensitive young woman.
This song by Morrissey is one of my favorites of all time, because it captures so perfectly nostalgia and growing pains, the strange way we can miss a home and a time despite its ugliness. It's an appropriate song for Ginger, who seems unable to forgive herself for her own transgressions, and who longs to make everyone around her happy, even while she is so miserable.
Agnes: "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Joy Division
Agnes, Eli's mom, abandoned motherhood (and the very world as she knew it) to flee with Mr. Krantz into the forest. It's a life that suits her: She is a misanthrope, a private person more comfortable in the disinterested wilderness. Nonetheless, she winds up being abandoned, too, first by Mr. Krantz, and then by her son when she attempts (however weakly) to rekindle their relationship.
Agnes doesn't believe in the transformative power of love. I think she sees it as a force both driving and destructive, as Joy Division's classic song attests.
Vanessa: "Grieving Kind," The Moondoggies
The Moondoggies is one of my favorite Northwest bands of late, and this song represents Vanessa's heavy grief at the end of the book. It's a slow, sad song, and I'm a sucker for sadness/slowness in music. As John Goodman says in David Byrne's True Stories: "I like sad songs. They make me want to lie on the floor."
The thing about Vanessa is: she used to be a broader, bigger character in the book, but I cut a few of her chapters to make the book a bit tighter. She is now one of its lesser characters. Her bewildered grief, then, is what really separates her from the others.
Eli Roebuck at the end of the novel: "Love Travels Faster," Halo Benders
In the last chapter of the novel, Eli is given an opportunity to reach out to someone and communicate his sincere love to her, but it proves, as always, an arduous, maybe even impossible, task. So I'm bringing in this cheerful ringer from the Halo Benders, the spectacular side project of Built to Spill's Doug Martsch and Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson. This is my attempt at wishing Eli godspeed on his journey: May he communicate the love he feels swiftly and successfully. Best wishes, Eli!
Sharma Shields and The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac links:
Inlander profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Favorite Monster
Seattle Magazine interview with the author
The Spokesman-Review profile of the author
Writer. with Kids interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)