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May 11, 2007

Book Notes - Ben Greenman ("A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

I have been reading Ben Greenman's pieces in the New Yorker, McSweeney's, and various other outlets for years, and have much respect for his prose. His short story collection, A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both is filled with both wit and sensitivity, and Greenman's cleverness makes these stories unforgettable.

Of the author's previous book, Superbad, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote:

“[Greenman] is not afraid to attach authentic sentiment and poke around at the poignant. It works, and it works quite well…. He constantly walks a narrative tightrope.”

In his own words, here is Ben Greenman's Book Notes essay for his collection of short fiction, A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both:

My new book, "A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both," is subtitled "Stories About Human Love," and that’s because it collects fourteen stories that investigate all aspects of the phenomenon. Two deal with love as an art form. Two deal with love as a locale. Two deal with the humor in love. Two deal with baseball. When I write, I don’t really listen to words with lyrics – too distracting – but many songs are in my mind, and as soon as I’m done writing, I run off and listen to them. This list is seventies-heavy, for some reason. Other days, in other moods, it might lean toward the nineties or toward the fifties.

"Baron of Love, Pt. 2," Alex Chilton

I’ve been accused of intentional oddness in some of my stories. I would reject that notion, and I’d say that I am simply reflecting an oddness that is present – maybe even everpresent – in the most confusing and complicated of phenomena. This song does that, too: it’s surreal and repetitive and horny and a put-on and a train wreck and a triumph. If my book looks like a song, it looks like this one.

"Sheela-Na-Gig," PJ Harvey

There’s a story in my book about a woman who has an affair with a married man in Miami Beach. While I was writing that story, I thought about this song, and the character in it, and how it takes all the conventional ideas about women, libido, and power and punches them in the stomach. There’s a live version from a Peel Sessions that I think is even more ferocious.

"Protection," Graham Parker and the Rumour

There are some authors and some books that are foundational documents. It’s not just that they are among my favorite writers and writings. It’s that I can’t imagine life without them. The same is true for bands and albums. Graham Parker’s Squeezing Out Sparks is one of those records. A world without it would be a poorer world, maybe even a horrible one. This is one of the most insightful and powerful dissections of relationships ever recorded. I’m not sure there are many records that beat it. "Love Gets You Twisted" is also on this record, but "Protection" is my pick, if only for the line, "Your love letters are confetti / I ripped them up, my hands were sweaty."

"Paranoia Key of E," Lou Reed

Love isn’t a walk in the park. Sometimes you want ideals and sometimes you want to be brought down, crushingly, by reality. This song gets to the corners of the bed of roses, where the dying blossoms have blown. Oh, also, it has probably Lou Reed’s best guitar riff in years.

"Couldn’t I Just Tell You," Todd Rundgren

Power-pop, at its best, doesn’t just reflect love. It is love. It’s exhilarating, intoxicating, and kaleidoscopic. Find a person you want to love. Place that person in front of you. Play this song. "Couldn’t I just tell you the way I feel / I can’t keep it bottled up inside / And couldn’t we pretend that it’s no big deal / And there’s really nothing left to hide."

"Super Bad (Parts 1, 2, & 3)," James Brown

They say that you can’t love others until you love yourself. And who loved himself more than James Brown? Back in 2001, I named my first book "Superbad" because it always struck me as a wonderful sentiment, a superb ad for healthy ego. I don’t go through a week without listening to this song. If other people do, I don’t know how.

"I Don’t Want to Talk About It," Rod Stewart

It’s hard to improve on the original Crazy Horse song, but early on in his career, Rod Stewart made a habit of improving on other people’s excellent work. Part of love (sometimes most of it) is pain, and pain knocks you down to a whisper or pushes you up to a scream, and this song explains why.

"If I’m In Love I Might Get Picked Up Tonight," Betty Davis

Not so much love as sex, but the absence of love confirms the presence of love, as someone (Einstein? Erma Bombeck? Emily Dickinson?) said. An early review of my book, a positive review, called my stories "romance-free." I’m okay with that, and I suspect that Betty Davis would be, too.

"Praise God I’m Satisfied," Blind Willie Johnson

Sometimes you love another person. Sometimes a place. Sometimes a pet. Sometimes you love your Lord. I love this song. Blind Willie Johnson’s vocals have always stuck me as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

Preview or download this mix from iTunes

see also:

Ben Greenman and A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's website at the publisher

author's articles at the New Yorker
author interview with Hobart
the author's contribution to Coudal Partners' Field-Tested Books
"Fragments from Horse’s Mouth! The Musical"
the author at the Happy Booker
the author's short story, "Barn" at Five Chapters

reviews of A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both:

San Francisco Chronicle
The Brooklyn Rail

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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