October 25, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Clare Beams' short story collection We Show What We Have Learned is an imaginative and often startling debut.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Beams is an expert at providing odd and surprising details that make her stories come alive, and the result is a powerful collection about what we need from others and, in turn, what we can offer others of ourselves."
I wrote the nine stories in We Show What We Have Learned over a period of about seven years. They skip around in centuries, from the 1600s to the present or maybe the future, and they vary in their levels of the fantastical; what ties them together is their set of preoccupations. Our ability to transform ourselves, and each other, and the limits and repercussions of that ability. The female body and the rituals that surround it. Teaching, and classrooms—what teachers intend for their students to learn and what they actually learn. The terrifying, exhilarating leap of faith that is motherhood.
I need relative silence while I'm writing—this has become a fun challenge now that I have a three-year-old—though I do sometimes listen to music while I'm getting ready to write. Many of these songs are part of that warm-up rotation, but my real reason for choosing each is that for its paired story, it feels like the song that would be echoing in the characters' heads.
"Danza de la moza donosa," Alberto Ginastera
The narrator of "Hourglass", Melody, is a new student at a boarding school that promises to "reshape" its students and turns out to mean this in a very direct and physical sense. Over the course of the story, she embraces methods of attaining newness and beauty that grow more and more sinister.
I played piano growing up, and this piece, from Ginastera's Danzas argentinas, was one of my favorites—it just feels good under the fingers somehow. The dance is at first contemplative and haunted and then turns briefly frantic, ecstatic, in a way that suits Melody's progression through this story. I picture her being whirled around by its rhythms—or whirling herself to them. Hard to say.
2. "World's End"
"The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)," The Decemberists
In this story, set during the 1890s, a fledgling, ambitious landscape architect tries to pull off his biggest job yet—and develops an obsession with his wealthy client's daughter. While he works, her body gets all mixed up with the land in his mind.
I love how vivid and narrative The Decemberists' songs are, and while I was writing "World's End," I would take long walks at the actual World's End (a real place, in Hingham, Massachusetts, though I altered its history a little in the story) and listen to the whole album from which this song is taken: The Hazards of Love, a sort of rock opera. The love story in this song is very landscape-y, and I think that probably fueled the experiences of my poor architect.
Teresa, this story's main character, is thirty-one and has just broken up with her long-term boyfriend, who decided she wasn't a good enough person to be a mother; she decides, in response, to take her very elderly grandmother on a family vacation to Vermont in order to prove her generosity and goodness. Once they arrive, the grandmother begins, impossibly, to grow younger.
Without giving too much away, there's some literal "nightswimming" in this story. But this song also feels like a fitting soundtrack for Teresa's trip to Vermont because it combines nostalgia with the recognition that the past perhaps was never quite what it seemed ("I thought you knew me.")
4. "All the Keys to All the Doors"
"One More Time with Feeling," Regina Spektor
I grew up in Newtown, Connecticut, a place few people had heard of until 2012; when the tragedy there happened I was living in a different state, six months pregnant with my first daughter, Tess. This story is my slanted take on the experience of that time. It's about the aging matriarch of a town in the wake of a school shooting, and the strange, frightening balm she discovers she can offer her townspeople.
I find Regina Spektor's music sneakily heartbreaking—there's this innocent-seeming whimsy, accompanied by a gut-punch—and that quality is what makes this song feel right for "All the Keys to All the Doors" to me. It's a song about healing wrong, and that's my matriarch's great fear for the town she loves.
5. "The Saltwater Cure"
"In Corolla," The Mountain Goats
The main character of this story is a sixteen-year-old boy who's helping his mother run a sham health spa on a salt marsh during the Depression. He finds himself smitten with one of their guests, a young-ish married woman with a mysterious ailment.
My husband loves the Mountain Goats, and I've given him a hard time over the years about how depressing I find them—but as often seems to happen with his favorite music, somehow they've sort of snuck their way into being part of my music too. The combination of melancholy and rage in this song, and the salt marsh landscape, make it right for this story.
Prelude and Fugue BMV 871, Bach
"Ailments" is set in England in the 1600s, and Cassandra, the main character, is trying to cope with her lust for her sister's new physician husband; meanwhile they're all threatened by the Great Plague. There's lots of sisterly resentment, and a plague doctor costume.
The Prelude and Fugue in C minor is another of my favorites from my piano-playing days. Its feel captures something of Cassandra's busily, poisonously spinning brain.
7. "We Show What We Have Learned"
"Letter from an Occupant," The New Pornographers
This is the earliest story in the collection—I wrote it during the summer after my third year of teaching 9th-grade English at a small high school on Cape Cod—and the first surreal story I ever wrote. It's told from the collective point of view of a classroom of fifth-graders whose teacher begins to fall apart, literally, in front of them.
The manic feel of "Letter from an Occupant" fits what I was trying to accomplish with this story's pace. And this song seems to me to be about growing up, the various disillusionments and costs of the lessons we have to learn in order to become adults ("Where've all sensations gone?"); at its heart that's also what this story is about, for me.
8. "The Drop"
"Port of Call," Beirut
In this story, a young bride marries her groom—just returned from the Second World War—in a wedding dress made out of his parachute. The dress unnerves her for reasons she doesn't understand, but the ritual of the wedding takes on its own momentum and she finds herself swept up, acceding; not until the wedding and reception itself does she understand her own aversion, and the changed nature of her new husband.
"Port of Call" has the sense of propulsion I wanted to capture in this story—the feeling of being carried along by a whole existing machinery. And the ideas of aloneness and drifting, which surface repeatedly in the lyrics, are both important to "The Drop."
9. "The Renaissance Person Tournament"
"The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid," The Decemberists
This story's main character is a teacher named Julia who has poured her whole self into preparing her star pupil for an academic tournament—believing the results will propel the girl to new heights, and make up for Julia's own past disappointments. During the tournament, though, she discovers her pupil has desires of her own.
This song is another from The Hazards of Love—an exchange between a character named the Queen and her adopted son, to whom she has given eternal life, but who now wants a real human relationship with his new love. The Queen's fury ("This is how I am repaid") seems to be voicing Julia's, to me.
Clare Beams and We Show What We Have Learned links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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