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August 20, 2008

Book Notes - Various Authors ("Best of the Web 2008")

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

Best of the Web 2008 is a new yearly compilation of writing published online. Published by Dzanc Books and edited by Nathan Leslie (and guest edited by Steve Almond), the book collects an impressive lineup of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and not only shares these works but also introduces readers to variety of sources for finding quality writing online.

The Los Angeles Times wrote of the book:

'"Best of the Web" isn't perfect; the editors include several seemingly random author interviews that come across as awkward and self-congratulatory. For the most part, though, the book is heartily significant, featuring work that is sometimes surprising, sometimes frustrating and sometimes exhilarating -- not unlike the Web itself.'

In their own words, here is a collective Book Notes essay from some of the contributors to the compilation, Best of the Web 2008:

Tess Taylor – Route 1 North, Woolich, Maine

I was listening to a lot of bluegrass that summer I wrote my poem, driving around in a car I'd bought from a Swedish helicopter pilot cum thriller novelist who I had met at a writing residency. I was feeling between things, in that way where you surely don't know where the next lilly-pad is. The car had broken down twice that summer. The Swedish helicopter pilot was back in Sweden. I was listening to the Hackensaw Boys' Keep it Simple on the CD player, which did yet work, but my CDs were in storage somewhere and that was the only one roaming along with me. Woolwich is the town before the town my grandmother has a house in: The junk stand I wrote about really does exist, or did before it got torn down, on an ugly part of a rural freeway, a poorer underbelly of a pretty part of the world that has survived in part because of being remote and in part because of being pretty. New England is a thrifty place, and Mainers are, too, but even so I was fascinated that anyone wanted to sell these things, strewn about the lawn like an abandoned construction site. I parked next to the cockamamie junk stand to wait while my dad was buying wiper fluid. The poem started just in an act of observing, in cataloging odds and ends, and in my feelings of the objects' wild impracticality, improbable beauty, and balance of apparent valuelessness and seeming value. I think sometimes we feel a paradox or pleasurable conundrum before we know what it means and it tumbles out of us in so many parts. Something pulls its way out and threads along-- you want to write it down, the jumble of details, and then perhaps salvage something in them, as well. Anyway, the bluegrass was playing-- a kind of modern reinvented bluegrass from Charlottesville and which I have come to love, a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, something remade out of a history of a place and time and voice and way of looking. An inheritance of sorts, but one that's been re-chosen, grappled with, remade-- one worn or played or carried at a jaunty angle. There's someone in the band who plays the washboard, someone else who plays the spoons. I listened to a song called Ruby Pearl: "she might fuss and she might fight, but it ain't like that all the time...."

Anne Dyer Stuart – [envy is a nude door]

I’m more a fiction writer than a poet, so I’m excited that this poem has been picked. “[Envy is a nude door]” is about the realization that you can’t outrun yourself—a damning feeling, and strangely, a nostalgic one.

Here are some songs and singers that come to mind:

1) Kelly Willis: “What I Deserve” and “Fading Fast”
In “What I Deserve,” Willis says “Well I have done/The best I can/Oh but what I’ve done/It’s not who I am.” We can only act and react and be startled by the results—see the results as separate from ourselves—when we don’t know who we are. But sometimes they should be separate—our identities shouldn’t be determined by stupid mistakes. And yet in “Fading Fast,” Willis asks if she would make those same mistakes again: “If I didn’t look back/And I changed my name/Would I find my new life/ Exactly the same?” In other words, are we indelibly ourselves?

2) Lucinda Williams, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
The longing for and terror of childhood is trapped in Williams’ voice—one syllable, and you feel it.

3) Bruce Springsteen, “The River”
Talk about trapped. Man. I love Bruce Springsteen. He can lay trapped on you like nobody’s business. The whole mood of that album captures the repulsion and attraction of home.

4) Patty Griffin, “Stolen Car”
Griffin does a great version of Springsteen’s song—that longing to be caught and yet the desire to get away. Griffin’s own songs are full of gorgeous heartbreak too.

5) Neko Case, Furnace Room Lullaby
Don’t make me pick one song, I can’t. Her entire album captures my relationship to home and to that feeling: as ugly as it can be, you always knew who you were all along.

Kris Broughton – The Black Folks’ Guide to Survival

I don’t have a CD player in my car. I don’t really listen to music at home unless it’s a special occasion – a party, or a gathering of some friends. I owned one cassette tape at the time – Will Downing’s A Dream Fulfilled – that I played over and over.

We were moving while I wrote this story, moving after ten years in the same house, ten years in the same neighborhood, with all its attendant packing, and cleaning and repairing of things we’d learned to live with all those years.

Hurricane Katrina had just hit. Half the nation seemed to be mad at the Government, and the other half seemed to be mad at the networks for showing so much suffering all day long.

And my erstwhile agent, who was now back in her New York office, couldn’t see any value in the work that I had toiled over for the last two years.

I’d shaken hands with this agent, my first and only, after Christmas in December 2005. I’d just published one of my favorite stories at Carve, a well-respected and widely read online publisher. The agent came across this story while trolling the internet for new talent. She took me to lunch here in Atlanta and we agreed to work together. I want to say a MAZE featuring Frankie Beverly song played on the radio as I drove home afterwards - either Happy Feelings or Joy and Pain - in any case, it was one of those times when I could actually FEEL the words and the melody as I sang along.

Within six weeks, I was having misgivings as she began to backpedal away from being a gung ho supporter of my work. The more stories I sent her for what I thought was going to be my debut short story collection, the less committed she became to the project.

Then she asked for the first three chapters of my novel. I sensed a change of heart, which was confirmed after she described the type of novel she really wanted from me – one that was more commercial.

So the next batch of stories included “The Black Folks Guide to Survival,” which lampooned our relationship and the publishing process – probably not a good career move, but at that point, I figured I had nothing to lose. I was probably channeling LL Cool J’s Rock The Bells or Run DMC’s King of Rock – aggressive, unapologetic, hard edged riffs that mixed it up the traditional rap song “sound” with bells or guitar licks while the rappers barked their rhymes at the microphones, their chests pumped out, their eyes fierce.

The agent has left the business.

I’m still writing.

Stevie Davis – Corner Knows the Dust

I cribbed the title of this story from "Lonelier Than This" by Steve Earle, from the aptly titled Transcendental Blues. Like so much of Earle's work, the song's strength is its raw earnestness. That loneliness is universal is high irony. The experience of grief is egocentric. Lonesomeness - as we call it here - seems terrifyingly tailored to its wearer. But its loose threads bind us one to another. Its presence in a fully realized human life is inescapable. Earle sings, "…there's no place I can go/ Just the dusty corners that the shadows know." Solitude is a physical locale - a room, a corner. A place. A place of tourists and immigrants and pilgrims, too. So I took my innocents abroad. To try to see how much a place could carry. Where does the physical world store our slough? Can the next person passing unlock the message of the weight we leave behind us? Maybe. And, if so, can the experience of bearing witness be transformative? "Maybe this is as good as it's gonna get," he continues, "and I'll always be this way." I hope so.

Justin Taylor – The Jealousy of Angels

My short story owes grand debts to two pieces of music. The premise of the story derives from my purposeful misreading of a song called "The Precious Jewel" by Roy Acuff, in which a man laments the loss of his childhood sweetheart. The lyric that struck me was: "She was called from this earth, a jewel for heaven / More precious than diamonds more precious than gold." Also, repeated a few times in the song is this line: "May the angels have peace, God bless her in heaven / They've broken my heart and left me to roam." The version of the song I own is performed by Acuff with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, on Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume 1 (1972).

The second song is "Casey Jones, the Union Scab," by Joe Hill, later recorded by Pete Seeger (among others) as "Joe Hill's Casey Jones" on Dangerous Songs!? Another example of purposeful misreading--in this case, Joe Hill took the folk song "Casey Jones"--about a noble railroad engineer who dies in the line of duty--and re-imagined it as a call to organize. Hill makes Casey a union scab: underpaid, forced to drive a "junk pile" and work "double time," but he won't join the strike for anything. Soon enough, the tracks he's driving on are sabotaged and his train derails. He gets to heaven and is told by St. Peter: "You're just the man...our musicians went on strike." So he becomes a scab harpist in heaven. But then "The angels got together, and they said it wasn't fair, / For Casey Jones to go around a'scabbing everywhere. / The Angels' Union No. 23, they sure were there, / And they promptly fired Casey down the Golden Stairs." The song ends with Casey Jones in Hell, and the devil--that arch moralist--telling him "that's what you get for scabbin'." And that's where my Angels Union came from.

The story also name-checks Bob Dylan's album "Slow Train Coming," but there's no big explanation for that. I just liked the turn of phrase.

Paul Yoon – Postcards From My Brother

Suggested albums to listen to while reading Postcards from My Brother, per section:

"Departure": Getz/Gilberto—Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto, featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim (Verve)

"Time Capsule": Swing 39—Django Reinhardt (Verve)

"Passages": Nocturama—Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Anti)

"Kingdoms": Blues Dream—Bill Frisell (Nonesuch)

"Map and Continents": i—The Magnetic Fields (Nonesuch)

"Orloj": You Forgot It in People—Broken Social Scene (Arts & Crafts)

"Footprint": The Greatest—Cat Power (Matador)

"Lessons": The Goldberg Variations—Glenn Gould (CBS)

"At Sea": Getz/Gilberto—Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto, featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim. (Verve)

Abby Frucht – Blue Shirt

Growing up with two sisters in the Vietnam War years, the closest I came to the draft were the war moratoriums that gave my older sister license to cut her junior high classes, and our cousin Steve’s low number, which somehow never resulted in his being called up. He died far too young anyway, a month or two ago. My sister Liz and I took the train from Penn Station on our way to the funeral, but we didn’t know whether to change trains or stay on to reach Manhasset, so we asked another passenger, a soft spoken, modest-looking man in a seat behind us, if he knew the way. When it was time to get off, he approached us in the aisle to ask if we were going to the same funeral, and when we said yes, he offered us a ride with his aunt from the station. He’s a lovely person. He turned out to be my dead cousin’s sister’s brother-in-law, and also, a writer. His name is Glenn Kurtz, his book is called PRACTICING (Knopf, 2007) and when I got back to Wisconsin, he sent it to me. I had written Blue Shirt two years before I met him, but his wonderful book directly addresses the very thing that was most apparent to me while I was at work on it. Unlike the way I generally work, I was conscious, while writing Blue Shirt, of not-striving, of just letting the little essay come to me in bits and pieces over unhurried months. Because I wanted to write it without struggle, I didn’t write it in my “writing room” but in my bedroom on a laptop, typing a few lines now and then, in a way far removed from my usual, frustrated, overreaching. For some time, until my son received his draft registration letter, I didn’t even know what it was about. PRACTICING articulates Glenn’s own methods and states of mind when, after showing much promise as a young, classical guitarist, his career as a performer failed to take shape in the way he had hoped. For ten years he stopped playing, but he missed it terribly, and finally he picked up the instrument again, allowing himself the pleasure he’d given up for too long. Here’s a passage from his book that puts into words my own frustrations and joys as a writer, a writer still struggling to put the struggle behind me and simply let the work evolve in its own slow, natural way: “In the course of one day, you might practice for pure joy, since nothing feels as good as making music, and you might practice in rage at the clumsiness of your own art ... In the space of a single note, you might lose yourself in fantasies and suddenly feel that you have only now discovered your true voice ...You might practice to finally grow up (or) for the love of a challenge, testing yourself against the minds of great composers. Or you might practice each day as a discipline of anxiety, endlessly picking at the flesh of your playng. Your ear becomes a knife, and you sharpen it against your own skin.”

Kim Whitehead – The Split

By the end of the story, Naomi is certain of it—she’s moving on, leaving her husband behind, staking a new independence by moving back to her mother's farm. So while the beginning lends itself to something more agonizing (Iris Dement’s “When Love Was Young,” maybe), her rebellious exit at the close begs for up-tempo tunes by women who know what they want and how to pick/sing it—perhaps Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard’s version of “Lee Highway Blues” or Elana James doing “Goodbye Liza Jane.” But my own choice is Brennen Leigh’s driving cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Gravel Road Blues”: “Ain’t gonna stop walking ‘till I get in sweet mama’s door.”

Michael Bahler – The Stiff Jew

Joni Mitchell's "River"

Nothing screams JEWISH MALE ANGST quite like Joni Mitchell.

Sarah Sweeney – Tell Me if You’re Lying

Music is essential when I'm writing, and for me the two are inextricable. Listening to the right song can help create an atmosphere and magic that often translates to the page. Music is such a constant in my everyday life that songs, lyrics, and artists often seep into my poems and stories—especially true for my essay, as music was my father's poetry and I often gleaned his moods and viewpoints from what he listened to. And because of music's transporting abilities—the way certain songs can bring you back to a certain person, place or emotion—I needed his seventies, (mostly) Southern music to bring me home again, back to my childhood and North Carolina.

1. Gregg Allman - "Multi-Colored Lady"
Gregg's voice is grittily redemptive, like he's been up all night drinking beer and clearing his head. This song from his solo work Laid Back just might predict the future partnership with multi-colored Cher.

2. The Byrds – "Farther Along"
The Byrds revision this gospel song and, in my opinion, make it their own. Funereal, soulful, with a prominent banjo, it's a latter counterpart to "Turn, Turn, Turn". Definitely a song to crank up and wail.

3. Dennis Wilson – River Song
The good-looking Beach Boy delivers this lush polyphonic track reconciling L.A. with a simpler, country life. Perfected with the help of a choir, Wilson's baptismal occurs as he swoons "I wanna cry," and so will you. Wilson drowned in Marina Del Rey in 1983 making the song that much more rich and eerily gorgeous.

4. Elvis Presley - An American Trilogy
Elvis opines for the South in three traditional songs melded and made modern by the King's irresistible vocals. His barbershop sounding backup singers wail "I wish I was in Dixie" as Elvis' voice and the orchestration lifts you closer to heaven. The finale of this song will leave you breathless and redeemed.

5. The Rolling Stones – Time Waits for No One
No, not "Time is on My Side"—this song is less raucous and more obscure. Jagger's pensive lyrics are a departure, and the chime sounds and jangling guitars mimic a clock-like beat. And if you need more mystique: this song has never been performed live.

Zachary Amendt – Casa de Serenidad

What I associate with Casa -- it's about migrant camps, rural California, folksy obscure towns -- is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the musical score to Doctor Zhivago.

Jenny Pritchett – Bugaboo

Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major

I imagine Antonia listening to this on her way home, conflicted yet uplifted. It does not represent the feel of the story, or of the incident described in the story, but it is a redemptive two-and-one-half minutes before Antonia must walk the rest of the way and face her husband, in whichever way she chooses, or does not choose.

Robin Behn – Childbirth in Alabama

I planned to deliver my son while listening to music. I had grand and plentiful ideas about what that music would be: something flowingly endless like Enya, something comforting due to its automatic familiarity like James Taylor, and for utter transport to purity and depth, Pablo Casals playing the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites. I purchased a little CD player with earbuds. When my son was born seven weeks early, I found myself in the hospital most unexpectedly without even a toothbrush, much less a CD player. The only sounds were the whir of white hospital noise punctuated by occasional, dire intercom summons.

Sandra Huber – Eels

As I composed "Eels" in a hotel room incredibly late at night, I listened to no music but rather the sound of my pen on the paper, the traffic of Soho outside the window, my at-the-time-boyfriend twisting and re-twisting in the hotel room sheets. If I had to pick a piece that best summarizes all the various non-music elements of those hours (traffic, silence, pen, sheets, thoughts, twisting) I'd go with Alva Noto's "Transrapid." And if I could hazard a guess at what the Girl in "Eels" listens to, I'd say Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" or Pink Floyd's "See Emily Play." In fact, she may even have them as her ringtones, alternately. If asked, though, the reader/listener may find her of a different opinion.

Elaine Chiew – Huckleberry Thumb

For "Huckleberry Thumb", the only piece of music that immediately jumped to mind was "Hoist the Colors" from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, by Hans Zimmer. Coincidentally, the dips and crescendos in the music matches the plotline of the story, and the grandiose sweeping movements of this piece of music contrast well with the tragicomedic nature of the story, especially in the last scene when the cannons are blasted and a flag is hoisted.

Bill Mohr – Headway

Certain songs would be obvious choices to accompany my article:

Edwin Starr's "War" (cf Bruce Springsteen's cover)
Elvis Costello's "Oliver's Army"
Bob Dylan's "Masters of War"
Country Joe and the Fish "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die"
Buffalo Springfield -- "For What It's Worth"
Phil Ochs -- "A Small Circle of Friends"
Midnight Oil -- "Beds Are Burning"
Rage Against the Machine -- "Bullet in Your Head"
The Sufaris -- "Surfer Joe"
The Rolling Stones -- "Gimme Shelter"
Creedence Clearwater Revival -- "Fortunate Son"
Eric Burdon and the Animals -- "Sky Pilot"
R.E.M. - "It's the End of the World As We Know It"

As attempts are made in the remaining months of the Bush regime to fabricate justification for an attack on Iran, I would recommend listening to an English band called XTC, which was one of more interesting groups to emerge after the initial stir created by Sex Pistols. XTC's "Living Through Another Cuba" deserves to be put back into steady rotation along with "Generals and Majors." Their song "Dear God" also deserve renewed airplay, not that it received much in the areas of this country where it needed to be heard the most when it was first released as a single. "Dear God" was censored in large portions of the United States, and the tone and the mood of my piece in Best of the Web 2008 ("Headway") was influenced by both the song and my resentment of its censorship.

Benjamin Buchholz – The Cabalfish

I wrote "The Cabalfish" in situ, between missions while deployed in Iraq, returning to my tent during blistering hot days when air conditioners struggled to keep interior temperatures under 100F. Wind tore at my tent-flaps. I'd put big studio headphones on to blot out the noise and escape to the sounds of Krishna Das. In his songs and voice I hear the same profound emptiness Cuneyt must have experienced after the explosion, filled with the words of a fish like the tinkling elusive finger chimes on a dancer. The refrain 'mean something' takes inspiration directly from those devotionals.

Charlie Geoghegean-Clements – Woodbury Notes

Where I lived, Woodbury VT, while I wrote this poem is very much etched into by music. At the time I was listening to a lot of Elliot Smith, but the songs which stand out most are John Lennon's "Oh, Yoko", Mira's "Don't Die in Me", and the Magnetic Fields' "No One Will Ever Love You". I remember moving out of the house, the last song we
played was Mike Doughty singing his song "Janine" and that song shadows this poem most.

Best of the Web 2008 links:

the book's page at the publisher
the book's contributor list

Los Angeles Times review
Time Out Chicago review

Condalmo guest post by Jacques Rancourt
The Elegant Variation guest post by Zachary Amendt
Emerging Writers Network guest post by Benjamin Buchholz
Matt Bell guest post by Ron Tanner
Syntax of Things guest post by Robin Behns about her story, "Childbirth in Alabama"
The Written Nerd guest essay by Sarah Sweeney

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musician and author essays in favor of Barack Obama's bid for the US presidency)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)