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May 4, 2015

Book Notes - Nina MacLaughlin "Hammer Head"

Hammer Head

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Nina MacLaughlin's Hammer Head is a thoughtful and inspiring memoir about work, life, and change.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"An effortless blend of literary craft with woodcraft."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Nina MacLaughlin's Book Notes music playlist for her book Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter:


I've been jealous of work crews with big boom boxes blasting classic rock all day. Must be nice to have a soundtrack framing walls or installing windows or giving trim a fresh coat of paint. Music makes the hours move in a different way, can inject the work with a boost of enthusiasm or energy, can distract from a particularly tedious task. My boss Mary and I never have music on at the jobsite. The soundtrack is hammerbangs, the screams of the saw, the dentist chair buzz of the drill. Mary hums.

I write mostly without music, too, but listen to a lot of it in hours not spent at the computer screen. During the writing of Hammer Head, which documents leaving my journalism job to work as a carpenter's assistant, the music usually coincided with dinner-making. I returned to certain albums over and over. Did the tunes infect the prose? I suspect they did. I latched on to ones that told a story.

Bob Dylan, "House Carpenter," Another Self-Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10
Obvious! This old Scottish ballad, otherwise known as "'The Demon Lover"' or "'A Warning to Married Women,"' tells the story of a woman who's seduced away from her carpenter husband and three babies by the devil himself. He appears at her door and promises to take her where the grass grows green. Good enough for her! They board a ship, and after about three weeks, the devil smashes it, and they sink to the bottom of the ocean. Women: quick to leave their families and their steadfast carpenters for more tempting shores. And when they do, doom by drowning. We've been warned.

Richard Buckner, "Rafters," Dents and Shells
It's not my favorite of Buckner's songs, but he was often on (is often on, is my favorite) while working on the book. The mood of his work whispers at abandoned houses, what remains behind, raw wood, splinters, something about to be lost or rebuilt. This song has a couple references to the work I do: "'it's a wall you feel"'; "'we stood with our building, slanted"'; "'I pulled the rafters down,"' he sings, "'but the ghosts were only dropping."' In the carpentry work, we spend time in other people's homes, in old dark spaces, and I think a lot about the ghosts.

Silver Jews, "Farmer's Hotel," Tanglewood Numbers
Like the Buckner above, it's not my favorite Silver Jews' song, but the one that I link most with the writing. There's something so alive about David Berman's narration of finding himself in Goshen in need of a bed and ending up in the "'rank abattoir"' of the Farmer's Hotel, a place of inarticulatable filth and untold horror. A perfect ramshackleness defines the whole record, and in writing a book about my own life, the lines, from "'How Can I Love You (If You Won't Lie Down)"' served as good reminder not to take myself or anything too seriously. "'Fast Cars, fine ass, these things will pass, and it won't get more profound."'

Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy, "Hard Life," Master and Everyone
On a day painting without my boss Mary around, I brought my computer and listened to this song on repeat for seven and a half hours. I cried and sang and painted walls and trim, coats of white on white.

Cat Power, "The Moon," The Greatest
There's some comfort knowing that some of the things we build the decks and walls and bookshelves will linger on after we're gone. There's a glimmer of immortality in that, which is something I'm always seeking. Cat Power asks in this short simple song about what lingers after you, I, she is put six feet underground. "'Will the big bad beautiful moon be around?"' What leaves when we leave? What stays?

Lightnin' Hopkins, "Shining Moon," Shake It Baby
The first song on a great dinner-making album. After a day at the screen, it's not too up and crashy-bangy, and not too sad-sack acoustic melancholy. It's just the right sort of transition from mucking around inside your own skull to being around another human being again, to tap the toes while chopping onions.

Ali Farka Toure, "Hawa Dolo," The Source
When the silence was too much and I needed sound while writing, I turned sometimes to Ali Farka Toure's album The Source with its words I couldn't understand syllables stripped of meaning and a music language I could. This song is the loveliest sort of lullaby. A soothing loving song that conjures a drift towards sleep under stars and a big bright desert moon.

Philip Glass, "Metamorphosis One,"'Solo Piano
Like Farka Toure's The Source, I now-and-then listened to this wordlessness while writing. Hammer Head is about leaving the life you know for something else. It's about transformation, and Ovid's Metamorphoses became an unexpected backbone to the book. As he puts it, "'By birth we mean beginning to re-form, a thing's becoming other than it was."' Glass's piano, which drifts in and out of consciousness, appearing now at the front of your brain, dissolving then to the back, proved good writing music. Sometimes it's hard to resist a metaphor.


Nina MacLaughlin and Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter links:

the author's website
the author's Tumblr
excerpt from the book

Boston Globe review
Entertainment Weekly review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

All Things Considered interview with the author
Boston.com profile of the author
Cosmopolitan essay by the author
Fast Company interview with the author
The Millions interview with the author
New York Magazine interview with the author
Radio Boston 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)
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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