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July 31, 2009

Book Notes - Lydia Peelle ("Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing")

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

Lydia Peelle's short fiction has earned comparisons to Alice Munro and Mary Gaitskill, but her voice is unique and strong in this eight-story debut collection of short stories, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. These are impressive stories of the past colliding with the present, and the emotional chaos that ensues.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"In this debut collection of eight esoteric stories—three of them prize winners—Peelle’s characters negotiate tumultuous relationships and buried memories. This nimbly crafted group of lonely souls range from a one-legged taxidermist, who happens to be the only person in town who does not believe a hungry panther is on the loose, to a winter-bound woman, tormented by her ex-husband but saved by the most unlikely of creatures."

In her own words, here is Lydia Peelle's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing:

I wish I could listen to music when I write, but I can't. In fact, I need total silence. I hate earplugs, so I've got big orange ear phones of the sort one would wear while operating a jackhammer or directing a taxiing airplane. Not to say that I don't take them off often and wander over to the record player while I'm working…

My husband is a professional musician, so there's a lot of music in our house – especially old American music from the teens and twenties. And I live in Nashville, so yes, I am bombarded by the stuff they're calling country today, but there is also a deep sense of the history of country music here. Tune in to WSM 650 AM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry, while you're driving around town on a hot July afternoon and you're likely to hear something classic and great.

In Nashville, when you tell people that you're a writer, the automatic assumption is that you're a songwriter. If I could write a song that anywhere approached the emotion and urgency of any one of these, I'd quit writing stories in a heartbeat.

"Jokerman" – Bob Dylan

If there is one song I listened to over and over while writing this book, tying to capture even a glimmer of the feel of it, this is it. How many times did I put it on the turntable, crank it up, and wish that listening to it could be my creative act of the day? "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread…" Dylan at his line-borrowing best.

"False Hearted Lover" – Dock Boggs

"When my earthly stay is over/throw my dead body in the sea/you can tell my false-hearted lover/that the whales will fuss over me." Dock Boggs was a coal miner from Southwest Virginia who made a few dozen recordings in his late twenties and then went back to the mines for another forty years. It's believed he learned to play the banjo from black men who worked on the railroad when it was laid through his town, and he is just one of a few whites who were playing the blues in the 1920's. His lyrics are otherwordly, his banjo playing is spare and primitive sounding, and his voice is quavering and haunted. I know folks who won't listen to him at night, they get so spooked.

"Thanksgiving Day Parade" – Dan Bern

New American Language, Bern's 2001 album, is fantastic all the way through, and this, the final track, is the most righteous. I love a parade, and this song captures all that's great and unsettling and hopeful and crazed about one, with a giant cast of characters and ending with a rag tag band coming together in a cacophony of instruments – cymbals, saxophone, xylophone, clarinet, bass drum – you name it. It's messy and crowded and beautiful. I like crowded songs and crowded stories, too.

"Turkle Dove" – Bessie Jones, from the Georgia Sea Island Singers collection

After his initial collecting trips in the South in the 1930's, Alan Lomax returned to the Georgia Sea Islands in the late fifties to see if the old songs were still alive there. They were, and he believed them to be so important because they were a unique combination of slave songs and West African and Afro-Caribbean music. This song, according to Jones, was the song that the angels sang when the devil was cast out of heaven. Whenever I listen to it, I wish I was a D.J., because it's got a killer beat, and I'd sample the hell out of it.

"K.C. Moan" – the Memphis Jug Band

Recorded in Memphis October 4th, 1929, this railroad work song was sung by "TeeWee" Blackman, not Will Shade, their usual frontman. The sound of the jug in this song is both mournful and joyful. For a long time, I wanted to make a short film for the book, and when I finally did, this song was the natural soundtrack.

"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" – Kitty Wells

There's a wonderful tradition in country music of songs that answer other songs. It's often a woman answering a man, in a "honey, let me tell you how it really is" vein. For example, Roger Miller's "King of the Road" was answered, somewhat campily, by Jody Miller [no relation] with "Queen of the House." But the first to do it was Kitty Wells, the Queen of Country Music. She answered Hank Thompson's early fifties hit "Wild Side of Life" with this song. I'm paraphrasing here, but: just wait a minute, there, Hank, you want to talk about bad girls? It's a bad man who make a good woman go wrong. She sings it so sweetly, yet with a resolve of steel.

"Highwater Everywhere (Part I and Part II)" – Charlie Patton

There was a story I worked on that ultimately never made it into this collection, about a black sharecropper during the Mississippi flood of 1927. I worked on it for several years, listening to a lot of Memphis and Mississippi Blues from that era as I went, and writing that story was my introduction to the great and mysterious bluesman Charlie Patton.

I wrote the first draft of the story about six months before Katrina, and in addition to listening to Patton and his contemporaries, I was reading a lot of old New York Times articles about the 1927 flood, which was one of the great disasters of its time. So much of the poor population of Mississippi ended up homeless in Red Cross relief camps along the levees.

Then Katrina happened and it was like Déjà vu. The New York Times headlines were almost identical as the ones nearly eighty years before. And those songs resonated so painfully with what we were seeing in New Orleans. Back then, many people sang about it, but Patton was there when it happened – he lived through it – and his account is most haunting. "The water was risin' up in my friend's door/Some man said to his womenfolk, ‘Lord, we better go!'"

Lydia Peelle and Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing links:

the author's book tour events
reading guide for the book
the book's video trailer
excerpt from the book ("Mule Killers")

Publishers Weekly review

One Story interview with the author
Paper Cuts interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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