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January 8, 2015

Book Notes - Thomas Pierce "Hall of Small Mammals"

Hall of Small Mammals

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.

Thomas Pierce's Hall of Small Mammals is an impressive debut short fiction collection.

NPR Books wrote of the collection:

"There isn't a weak story in Hall of Small Mammals, and Pierce is an endlessly incisive and engaging writer. It's a book full of wisdom and emotion, with stories that explore what it means to live and die in a world filled with invisible things."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Thomas Pierce's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection Hall of Small Mammals:

In a previous life I sometimes directed radio shows at NPR. When a show is on the air live, the director's job is to cue the stories, to help the host to hit the time posts, to watch the clock. Always the clock! Public radio shows operate according to very strict clocks. It's a stressful job that involves a lot of quick math. Whenever I was directing a show early the next morning, I'd sleep terribly. I'd dream about dead air and busted time posts and calculators that flashed the wrong numbers. Anyway, the job did have at least one perk: Directors get to pick all the music that plays between the stories and segments. I'd spend hours trying to find just the right piece of music to match a story's mood or to echo a line in a playful if predictable way. I really miss this part of the job, and so I'm grateful to have the chance to give the same treatment to my first book of short stories. This isn't necessarily the music I listened to as I was writing. This is the music I would pick if I was directing the book like a radio show (or film).


Shirley Temple Three
Harry Nillson -- "Me and My Arrow"

Hilarity ensues when a lonely retired lady has to care for a cloned dwarf woolly mammoth that her charming but feckless son has dropped off at her house. Okay, maybe not hilarity. Loopy, goofy, googly-eyed--what better song to kick us off than one originally written for a strange animated film from the 1970s? Substitute the word ‘mammoth' for ‘arrow,' close your eyes and imagine the music over this: a montage in which a woman brushes a mammoth's long tangled hair, feeds it M&M's, rubs lotion on its dry patches, watches television with it on the couch at night.


The Real Alan Gass
The Isley Brothers -- "Love the One You're With"

Walker is dating a theoretical physicist named Claire, who dreams every night that she's married to another man. Her dream husband isn't even so dreamy. He's not George Clooney. He is Dr. Alan Gass--opthamologist, Saturday golfer. Walker doesn't know what to make of this situation. They are on their way home in a cab one night when Claire falls asleep with her head against Walker's shoulder. Cue music. Is this Walker's song--or Claire's? I'll leave that to you.


Grasshopper Kings
R.E.M. -- "What's the Frequency Kenneth?"

I'm a huge R.E.M. fan. They are one of my favorite bands of all time. This is far from being my favorite R.E.M. song, but it is the one I associate most with my days in the Boy Scouts, the song we made our fathers listen to as they drove us up into the Blue Ridge mountains to live in the woods for two and three nights at a time. It feels appropriate therefore to use it here, as the soundtrack for a story about a father and son joining a cultish, bizarro version of the scouts called the Grasshoppers.


Why We Ate Mud
St. Vincent -- "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood"

Does God look like Allen Ginsberg? What's a hallelujah bath? Did aliens create life on earth? A girl named Ellie feels spiritually adrift. Boyfriends, jobs--everything seems temporary. I imagine her listening to this song--which I think she'd like as much as I do--with the windows down in her car as she moves back home after a breakup. Just as she pulls into town, the chorus swells: All my old friends aren't so friendly. All my old haunts are now haunting me.


Saint Possy
Daniel Johnston -- "Devil Town"

Honestly I really can't think of a better song for a story about a mysterious and (possibly) evil deformed possum skull.


Felix Not Arriving
Faces -- "Stay With Me" by The Faces

A comedian named Felix fears he's soon to be iced out of his young son's life. Felix is a man who says the wrong thing, who wants to connect with the people he loves but doesn't know how to do that. In one scene he wanders into an empty hotel bar wishing for a drink. Rod Stewart is playing on the stereo. I don't specify the song in the story, but yeah it's probably this one.


Videos of People Falling Down
Johannes Brahms -- "Hungarian Dance No. 5"

One of the many, many characters in this story is a cellist who confesses to his wife that anytime he hears "Hungarian Dance No. 5," he has memories of a past life in which he's in love with a beautiful maid in a fancy ten-story hotel. Personally I've been obsessed with this song ever since I played it with my high school orchestra, and it was on repeat in my head as I was wrote this story. It's dramatic, fun, antic--like a hayride through a ballroom.


Hot Air Balloon Ride for One
The Beach Boys -- "Let the Wind Blow"

I'll set the scene: A hot-air balloon pilot named Fiona has taken up a single passenger, a middle-aged guy with a parakeet in a cage. He doesn't seem much interested in the Blue Ridge mountains below them, and so Fiona sips her coffee and appreciates the perspective. The basket creaks. The wind blows. The grass grows. Why is the middle-aged guy taking his parakeet from its cage?


More Soon
Lou Reed -- "Perfect Day"

Bert's brother has died overseas from a mysterious contagion, and his body will never be allowed to reenter the country. Bert can do little as his brother's body is shipped across the globe from one research lab to another. Cue music. One day Bert gets the chance to board a helicopter and fly over a ship that currently houses his brother. It's time to say goodbye. Helicopter blades chopping, they begin to circle the ship, and then the chorus posts and swells: Oh it's such a perfect day! I'm glad I spent it with you! Oh, such a perfect day. You just keep me hanging on.


Hall of Small Mammals
Jane Birkin -- "Orang Outang"

Yeah, it's a song about an orangutan, and yeah, I have some orangutans in the story. But for all its chirpiness and ice-creamy melody, I love this song and find it vaguely unsettling. Plus I'd really like to see this story--about a guy who takes his girlfriend's son to the zoo to see some endangered monkeys--transformed into a no-smiles French New Wave film.


We of the Present Age
Devo -- "Wiggly World"

Welcome to the wiggly world of the early nineteenth century. Gigantic fossils have been unearthed on a farm in the small town of Golly. Not even Dr. Anders--the proto-paleontologist who has come to town to procure the bones for his scientific academy--knows what to make of them. This is the song that plays as he tries to arrange and fit together the fossils in a rickety barn.


Ba Baboon
The Wizard of Oz -- "If I Only Had a Brain"
Chad & Jeremy -- "Yesterday's Gone"

A brother and sister are trapped in a stranger's pantry by some attack dogs. The brother has recently suffered a brain injury and feels like a different person. "If I Only Had a Brain" is the song stuck in his head when the story opens. "Yesterday's Gone" is the one stuck in mine as the story--and book--closes. Imagine the song isn't directed to an old lover but a long-gone version of yourself.


Thomas Pierce and Hall of Small Mammals links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Bookslut review
Columbus Dispatch review
Kirkus review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review

New Yorker interview with the author
Weekend Edition 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

List of Online "Best of 2014" Book Lists
Essential and Interesting 2014 Year-End 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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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