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February 27, 2017

Book Notes - Elena Passarello "Animals Strike Curious Poses"

Animals Strike Curious Poses

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.

Elena Passarello's new essay collection Animals Strike Curious Poses is a dazzling bestiary about animals famous in their time and humans' relationships with them.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"This phenomenal collection documents the lives of particular animals from a wide range of species…. Passarello treats her subjects with dextrous care, weaving narratives together in a way that investigates, honors, and complicates her subjects…. Passarello has created a consistently original, thoroughly researched, altogether fascinating compendium."

In her own words, here is Elena Passarello's Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection Animals Strike Curious Poses:

All the essays in Animals Strike Curious Poses are devoted to famous creatures in history. The book tells the stories of certain animals that inspired human art, music, medicine, exploration, and myth. Since each essay is devoted to a single, noteworthy creature, I thought it'd be fun to make a similar playlist—one song for each beast. Full disclosure: I had way too much fun putting this together.

Local Natives, "Wooly Mammoth"
The book begins with "Yuka," an essay on a mammoth recently found preserved—much of her red fur still attached—in the Siberian permafrost. When she lived (about 39,000 years ago), Yuka could have run across Siberia into Alaska, as there was no ocean separating the two continents. I like how the pressing rhythm of this Local Natives song sounds like a massive quadruped running across a continent as fast as she can.

Howlin' Wolf, "The Wolf is at Your Door"
My book takes its structure from the medieval bestiary—an encyclopedic "book of beasts" that describes both real and imagined creatures. Many "facts" in a bestiary were fanciful: one book says that wolves steal the voices of men, for example; never open your door to a wolf, another says. Around 1200CE, Saint Francis of Assisi convinced the town of Gubbio to let a wolf into its gates, despite the warnings of all those bestiaries. I wonder what would have happened if that wolf sounded like the resplendent, sinister Chester "Howlin' Wolf" Burnett. Burnett sounds like a man who stole a wolf's voice—a bestiary inversion. Poor Gubbio would be no match for such a sound.

Adrian Belew, (f/ David Byrne), "The Lone Rhinoceros"
When a rhinoceros arrived at Lisbon Harbor in 1515, it was the first of its kind to greet Europe in a millennium. The lone rhino survived less than a season, but in that time, a description of the beast made its way to the great German artist Albrecht Dürer, who then made a notorious woodcut of the creature. Many call "Dürer's Rhino" the world's first viral image, as it sold zillions of prints in the coming two centuries. The woodcut gets a lot of the biological details wrong, so generations of Europeans lived and died thinking a rhino looked the way one man imagined it (Salvador Dali cites it as one of his favorite examples of reality). How fascinating that one lonely beast could replicate so mightily, and in so much error.

Descendents, "I Wanna Be A Bear"
Just like the life of Sackerson, star bear of the Elizabethan animal fighting ring right next to Shakespeare's Globe theater, this 42-second punk song is nasty, brutish, and short.

Run the Jewels, "Close Your Eyes and Meow to Fluff"
Meow the Jewels—the 2015 remix of Run the Jewels' second album using only cat sound samples—is one of my favorite cultural products from the past decade. El-P, one-half of RTJ, made the album on an Internet dare, and he said the process drove him a little batty. I can't think of a better song to accompany "Jeoffry," my remix of a 250 year-old cat poem written by Christopher Smart while Smart was interned in a London asylum. What can I say? Cats make humans do crazy things.

Insane Clown Posse, "Leck Mich Im Arsch"
OK. Bear with me here. My essay "Vogel Staar" discusses Mozart's beloved pet starling, which would whistle the maestro's compositions back to him as he worked, usually after taking sonic liberties. Mozart loved the starling's silly edits because he, too, liked to make silly music. The pair spent three productive years together and one of the pieces Mozart composed in that time (along with Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute) was a vulgar ditty called "Leck Mich Im Arsch," or "Lick My Butt." Don't ask me why Insane Clown Posse (with Jack White ?!?) decided to cover this Mozart deep cut, but I think it's a downright starling move. I love the way they pronounce the lyrics—and even Mozart's name—totally wrong, just like the starling mangled his music back in the day. And Mozart would love all the scatological rhyming the Clowns do in this track. He was a noted fan of poop humor, and were he alive today, I think he might even identify as a Juggaloo.

Modest Mouse, "The Tortoise and the Tourist"
A decade ago, Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin's zoo started an advertising campaign that claimed their 175-year-old Galapagos tortoise, Harriet, had been brought back by Charles Darwin on the Beagle in 1835. "Proving" this involved wrenching a lot of facts to fit their narrative; the whole Harriet campaign is really just a bent spoon of historical records. So for my essay, I wrenched those same facts to prove that this tortoise was the love of Charles Darwin's life. Fifty bucks says mine is the only book on the market today with a sex scene between a tortoise and the father of evolutionary theory. And now you can imagine them boinking to this Modest Mouse song!

Black Sabbath, "War Pigs"
So I lied—most of the essays cover a single famous representative of a species, but not all of them. One exception is "War Pigs," which includes four famous homing pigeons and their respective service in four human wars. I just couldn't pick a single pigeon—these birds are truly amazing in their biology, their behavior, and their heroic acts—and I also couldn't resist the pun of the title.

Curtis Eller, "The Execution of Black Diamond"
If this playlist sends you to the work of only one musician, I hope it's this one. Curtis Eller is a terrific banjo player, songwriter, and showman, and this songwriter about a rampaging elephant from 1929 feels so much like a historical essay to me. It definitely ran through my head the entire time I was working on "Jumbo II," my sad history of circus elephants, electricity, and capital punishment as they were braided together through America's Gilded Age.

Langley Schools Music Project, "Desperado"
Just like with the pigeons, I couldn't pick only one horse for the book, either. The essay "Four Horsemen" covers a quartet of famous equines and the strange, ancient symbiosis their bodies can achieve with human bodies (and in a human's thoughts). I think that funny connection between young girls and horses—think Tina Belcher from Bob's Burgers—plays into this symbiotic history. You really hear it as this little Canadian tween sings this Eagles song, which has never sounded better than it does in her hands. "Desperado" always feels to me like it's more about a horse than a man.

Magnetic Fields, "A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off"
A surprising number of songs have been written about Mike the Headless Chicken (many of them, strangely, are instrumental). But for my money, nothing fits the tale of Mike—who survived, decapitated, for eighteen months of the 1940's and became a major draw on the sideshow circuit—than this tune that depicts a heart as "blind as a bat, getting up, fallin' down, getting' up." It's one of Stephen Merritt's 69 Love Songs, but I only think of Mike when I hear it. "Who'd fall in love with a chicken with its head cut off?" Merritt asks in his astonishing basso. AMERICA, STEPHEN, THAT'S WHO.

Arctic Monkeys, "Arabella"
When I heard this Arctic Monkeys song, I'd already begun my essay on Arabella, the SKYLAB garden spider that spun the universe's first interstellar web and became a TV sensation (Walter Cronkite was a big fan). I still can't believe this song wasn't written expressly with that astronaut spider in mind. Just listen to the lyrics! A female "made of outer-space" with a "seventies head" and "interstellar" glimmering boots (eight of them, perhaps?). In the song, and in history, Arabella rides "in the passenger side" of a spaceship headed toward the horizon, irresistible to anyone who witnesses her. Just imagine Walter Cronkite singing it.

The only personal essay in the book (well, they're all personal because I wrote them and I am a person, so let's say the only essay written with an "I" voice) is "Lancelot," which recounts a trip to the circus in 1985. There, my seven-year-old self saw a "unicorn"--aka a surgically altered goat with a pastel-bedazzled, very wang-like horn sprouting from its forehead. When he was wheeeled around the ring by totally 80's beauty pageant lady in a zillion sequins, it sounded a little something like this.

Charlie Parker, "Koko"
Koko the sign language gorilla was also a big part of my childhood; I'll never forget that National Geographic cover of her cradling All Ball, the orange kitten that she purportedly named herself. She's also the only creature I discuss in the book that's still alive. So here is a song for you, Koko. Since you were born on July 4th, you were given the name Hanabiko, which means "fireworks child." I can hear fireworks in the Bop pyrotechnics of Charlie Parker's saxophone throughout this song and I hope you can, too.

Neva Eder, "Never Smile at a Crocodile"
I uncovered a lot of absurd pieces of culture in the years that I worked on this book. In the running for the weirdest of all is this Australian elementary school textbook that includes a section on Osama, a crocodile that ate dozens of fishermen on and near the shores of Lake Victoria. The comprehension questions at the end of the section are like, "what words are synonyms to ‘horrifying' and ‘fiendish'?" and "what does ‘devoured' mean?" This made me think of all the children's stories and songs that discuss, recount, or sing about the violent things an animal can still do to humans—an early lesson, perhaps, in irrational fear.

Lou Reed, "Last Great American Whale"
The last long essay in the book is "Celia," about the first mammal ever to be brought back from extinction. The "de-extincted" buccardo only lived for a few minutes, but she represents a new chapter in our relationship with animals—the ways in which we're scrambling to bring them back. In today's scientific discussions, I hear a deep fear of loneliness accompanying all the reported enthusiasm. That fear is a voice resigned to the fact that we've made a mess of things, and it sort of sounds like Lou Reed to me.

Bob Dylan, "Man Gave Names to All the Animals"
I knew I wanted to title my book with song lyrics (a tradition begun with my first book, Let Me Clear My Throat). And I love this song, which always strikes me as Dylan's kiddie number. It's also a fitting pairing to the story of the dentist who shot Cecil the Lion; that man says he wouldn't have fired his gun had he known the big cat was given a name. What does it mean that the naming of an animal brings it closer to us? How can we care about animals without labeling them? Can we even believe in a thing we haven't touched in some way? Someone else will need to write another book—and make another playlist—to figure that out.

Elena Passarello and Animals Strike Curious Poses links:

Kirkus Reviews review
Portland Mercury review
Publishers Weekly review

KLCC interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Let Me Clear My Throat

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