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June 3, 2009

Book Notes - Joshua Mohr ("Some Things That Meant the World to Me")

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

Joshua Mohr's debut novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me, is yet another stunning book from Two Dollar Radio. Mohr's protagonist Rhonda is unforgettably crafted, and this gritty tale of self-redemption is told with exacting prose and poetic insight.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Mohr's first novel is biting and heartbreaking, a piercing look at the indelible scars a violent past has left on a young man named Rhonda."

In his own words, here is Joshua Mohr's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Some Things That Meant the World to Me:

1. "Green Grass": One of Tom Waits' best ballads. When I first meet someone and if I hear that they are not a fan of his, I burn them a mix I have called "Tommy is my Mommy," a thorough showcase of the man's latitude and genius. Sometimes I pretend that Waits gives me pep talks on days when I'm writing predictable blasé shit. "Why don't you try something you've never done before?" he asks me. I shrug my shoulders, him and haw, crippled with obviousness. "Seriously," he says, "if that's the best you can do, why not make balloon animals or something?"

2. "Holiday in Cambodia": The Dead Kennedys are mentioned on the 2nd page of the book. I tried to squeeze them onto the first but it just wasn't happening. They informed the majority of my willingness to wonder aloud instead of wondering silently; say what you will about Jello Biafra, but you never had to guess where the man stood. That was back when people thought it admirable to be forthright; now all the rage is likability. We're all trying so hard to be palatable that the art of earnestness has been abandoned.

3. "Hungover Together": The Supersuckers can play punk with the best of them, but I love their country record, "Must've Been High." This is a love song from that, a duet, a couple pledging affinity through skulls squealing from whiskey and beer. This beautiful woman Leota and I once sang it to each other driving back from Tahoe while I was revising the book. You can call it corny, but the song would end and we'd play it again and I'd serenade her and she'd return the favor and we'd smile and laugh and kiss. It's one of the fondest memories I have.

4. "The Piano Has Been Drinking": Another one of Mr. Waits' infamous romps. Between you and me, I wrote the entire first draft of this novel in a blackout. I'm an insomniac so I'd sit down to write about midnight—it's 12:30 now—with a bottle of whatever that evening's poison happened to be, and I'd stay "coherent" until about three and then whammo!, enter the darkness and I wouldn't come to until around seven am. I'd reread what I'd done: often it was crap; there were a lot of wrong turns in the book's genesis; but sometimes black-out-Josh did a pretty good job. I remember being told as a kid the story of the old shoemaker who had so many orders for new shoes that he couldn't fill them all and he'd pass out from fatigue at his workbench; then these fairy-types would come out of the woodwork and finish making all the shoes. I like to think I had whiskey-fairies when writing this novel.

5. "Between the Bars": I know Elliott Smith was a junkie and probably had some psychological problems, but I still think about his suicide a lot. I'm not sure why. I just can't imagine stabbing yourself in the heart. How do you do that? Where does that kind of pathos come from? Anyway, a lot of my book demanded I occupy a rather tortured psyche, as the narrator has a post traumatic stress disorder called depersonalization. For the moments in the narrative that seemed to require I "understand" that kind of tormented reality I played a lot of Smith. He's the only singer who's ever made me weep.

6. "Exit Music (For a Film)": Of all Radiohead's records, I listen to OK Computer when I feel I'm being lazy in my sentence structures. They are the kind of artists who squeeze everything out of each track, exhaust every possibility of melody and nuance; so when my sentences lay on the page flaccid and useless, I go to Radiohead for inspiration, and on good days, they resuscitate me from complacency.

7. "That Feel": A boozy sad sordid cut that Tom Waits and Keith Richards did together in the early nineties. I've made certain people in my life promise that this is played at my funeral. At least, once. But maybe more. Hopefully, I have time to work out the details. I definitely know that I want this song to play while someone reads an excerpt from my writing. Since this is the only book I've written so far, it will have to do. I'll let them pick what they read, but hopefully it will be particularly interesting. Wouldn't it be depressing to bore people at your own funeral?

8. "Hot For Teacher": I just reread this playlist and didn't intend it to be such a god damn downer and thought maybe some glam rock might shatter the frowns. I'm not going to outright blame Van Halen for my divorce, but I seem to recall my ex being less than impressed when I wanted this ditty spun at our wedding reception. Call me old fashioned, but it's hard for me to imagine a romantic occasion without Diamond Dave and the gang blaring their misogynistic fantasies. I think my novel's main character, Rhonda, would dig Van Halen, too. There's a portion of the book where Rhonda goes on a road trip with his inner-child, and I bet at least one of them was smart enough to bring a copy of 1984 along for their listening pleasure. Speaking of Rhonda, I have his name tattooed on my arm and someone asked me the other day, "Who's that?" and I said, "This guy I made up," thinking he'd ask for clarification, but he walked away, shaking his head.

9. "Criminal Inside Me": This is from that RL Burnside record A Ass Pocket of Whiskey that he recorded with John Spencer and the Blues Explosion. You know how certain songs remind you of certain people? This one always reminds me of Rhonda. Which I guess isn't a good sign since Rhonda isn't real. But in a way, he is to me. I probably talked more to him over the last few years than to anyone else in the world. Maybe that means I need more friends. What are you doing right now? Wanna get a beer?

10. "Losing Ground": This PJ Harvey song is amazing because it's just her mewling voice and a guitar; there aren't any other instruments. And yet she manages to build it to a vicious crescendo. This is another track I fled to for solace when things were awry in the book's early drafts: if she could conjure all that emotion with such simple arrangement, wasn't there more feeling I could scrape from that last paragraph? Was I eliciting every fleck of sensation that I possibly could?

11. "Know Your Rights": What can I say about The Clash? On my best days, I aspire toward their pure self-definition: the ability to maintain the wonderful "tunnel vision" necessary to produce your art your way without distraction or stilted interference. I know too many people who ponder accolades and hype and gleaming fame and all kinds of masturbatory delusions when really, they should be brewing more coffee and listening to their own playlists and making sure they are writing the book that they want to be writing, regardless of how tiny the audience might be. It's sad to have ulterior motives in your own life.

12. "Tango ‘Til They're Sore": Just for symmetry, I'll end this list with another song by Tom Waits. As you can see, he really is my mommy. This one has a kind of warbling, sloppy piano riff in it that I really dig. I like sloppiness in art because it makes it feel more alive. I'd rather read or listen to or view/watch messiness than stuff that's been so polished that all the vitality has been stripped away.

Joshua Mohr and Some Things That Meant the World to Me links:

Wikipedia entry for the author

Minnesota Reads review
Partners West Blog review
Publishers Weekly review

CR Stories interview with the author
The Rumpus article by the author
San Francisco Examiner interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks