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June 6, 2016

Book Notes - Max Porter "Grief Is the Thing with Feathers"

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

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

Winner of the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is an exceptional debut, a book that is as much prose poem as novella.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is the most exquisite little flight of a story captured between hardback covers, and its appearance has been crafted to show us that we are in for something unusual. This deeply moving book about death and its grief-stricken consolations―love and art―appears to be no more than a scattering of text, dialogue and poetry that lifts and settles on the page, the frailest sort of thing. Yet as we read on, we become aware that the way it has been put together is robust indeed. . . . Grief is the Thing with Feathers shows us another way of thinking about the novel and its capabilities, taking us through a dark and emotionally fraught subject, one airy page after another, as though transported by wings."

In his own words, here is Max Porter's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers:

Terry Callier, "Ordinary Joe"

"For my opening line, I might try to indicate my state of mind, turn you on, tell you that I'm laughing just to keep from crying."

This was the song my wife and I danced to at our wedding. When I set about trying to create a character who had lost the love of his life I was keen to find a form which was appropriate for describing the unruly, chaotic emotional landscape of mourning. I wanted space in the unspeakable darkness for joy, and bittersweet yearning for the electrifying happiness that has passed. This tune has always made me electrifyingly happy, but also calm and reflective. Terry was a great truth-speaker, a poet and bringer of joy. As one gets better at mourning, at connecting what is gone with what is here, it's tunes like this which speak the truth about the unique blend of joy and pain that characterises human existence.

Sizzla, "Just One of Those Days"

Dry Cry. Again, this is balm. This is self pity, blame, and the uncurling of the crumpled wounded human animal into something capable of standing up again, dancing again. We listen to a lot of reggae in our house. Some of the Crow character's syntax and style in my book is inspired by the great toasters (U-Roy etc) as well as the swagger and wit of British Grime MCs. And Sizzla's voice is a gift. The toughness, the soaring looseness and sweetness. It's a thrilling thing. My character Dad, alone in the flat in the months and years after the death of his wife, would play this record to remember her, to get his children dancing. Crow would join him, hot-stepping in the kitchen. I Had hoped my book might have a bird-like movement between darkness and light, between the litter bin and the clouds. This tune is the medicine which nudges hurt into skin-tingling gratitude and serenity.

Anais Mitchell, "Why We Build the Wall"

From the great folk-opera Hadestown, this is a mighty fable of wall-building vanity, economic control and enslavement. It's also a wonderful song. I put this here to celebrate the old stories. Orpheus wandering the streets of modern America, Crow hopping about the terraced rooftops of modern London. Myths are templates to be slipped into, and slip up into. We use them to shed light on our own times, but also to connect with a storytelling tradition that goes way back before us. It's ambition and humility combined for art, and for understanding. The children in my book –encouraged by crow- use stories to grow. They use them to fight, to heal, to goad each other, to hurt each other. And they come to realise quickly that everything is connected. The origin myths and the domestic routine, the distantly political and the intimately personal.

Ali Farka Toure, "La Drogue"

The great early 70's and 80's recordings of Ali Farka Toure, reissued as the album Red and Green, were the only music I had on the computer I wrote Grief Is the Thing with Feathers on. So I would put my headphones in and let the Niafunke droning blues accompany me. I was working at making the book a musical thing, something which rolled and clicked as a living triptych, three voices working against each other, working for each other. Nothing could have helped me more than this stripped back acoustic guitar and calabash heaven. I can cry to this music, I can sigh with great calm to this music. Short of sitting by a river and listening to water move over rocks, this is the perfect music to write by.

Gorecki, Symphony number 3 Sorrowful Songs

This is for when words fail. The atrocious pain and the extraordinary beauty. The utter meaninglessness and the mighty importance of things. For me, as for many people, this piece of music has been revelatory. It is an enormously significant work of art and one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. At the halfway point it melts my heart. If a sentence, or a turn of phrase or a juxtaposition of written elements can achieve even a fraction of what the soprano voice in this piece achieves, then I believe in literature.

Burial, "Distant Lights"

Much has been written about Burial as the sound of post-rave, post-hope, night-bus London. This is the music of the years I wasn't writing this book. I was working, I was struggling to express myself, loathing the politicians, feeling a grubby complicity with the sham of late capitalist London, boom town rotten. I include it here because it's deep and dark and plays around a lot with what has come before, while also sounding like nothing else. It's an act of collage and innovation and respect, and therefore has much in common with some books I love. But I also include it here as a representative of the UK music I have grown up with. If you cut the character of Dad in my book open he bleeds Portishead, Photek, DJ Food, Ed Rush and Optical, Attica Blues, Wiley. It's also a book that grew from many years sitting alone getting stoned missing people and reading strange books. Burial is good for that.

Roly Porter, "Caladan"

My first aim as a writer was to try and write about the sibling relationship. Not as two people related, but as a thing, a living thing. The book is therefore dedicated to, and about, my brother. He has ended up making extraordinary sci-fi ambient classical music. It's unclassifiable but usually very beautiful and very dark. "Caladan" from his first solo album after leaving the industrial dubstep duo Vex'd features me playing my toy keyboard and my melodica. It also features my wife snipping and using her sewing machine to make herself a shirt. So it's a family affair. I listen to this piece of music and I feel nostalgic, and optimistic, and blessed to have known some people. There is one significant blank page towards the end of my book. It is like the drawing of breath before the final leaving. If forced to insert a piece of music, I would insert this, my brother's space music.

Howlin Wolf, "Wang Dang Doodle (London sessions)"

People tell the character Dad in my book that he needs time. He says what he needs is "Shakespeare, Ibn Arabi, Shostakovich, Howlin Wolf". So I diagnose him here this stupendously hot session with Howlin Wolf, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Charlie Watts. I mean come on. This shit should be prescribed by doctors. I ain't superstitious but a black crow just moved in my house with me and started telling me how to play the blues. This is the greatest thing, this album. I played it so much when I was younger that the tape wore out. I think London should still pause every day to give thanks for this. And for the magnificent bit in the session where the wolf stops to criticise Eric's playing. Clapton gets taught.

Max Porter and Grief Is the Thing with Feathers links:

Atlantic review
Electric Literature review
Guardian review
Independent review
London Review of Books review
Los Angeles Times review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review
Telegraph review
Wall Street Journal review

The Bookseller profile of the author
Guardian podcast interview with the author
Guardian profile of the author
ICA 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)
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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