February 10, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Steven Amsterdam's debut short fiction collection, Things We Didn't See Coming, spans 30 years of the narrator's post-apocalyptic life in nine linked short stories. Richly imagined and filled with dark humor as well as an almost unimaginable depth of pathos, the book surprisingly often finds hope in the bleakest of situations.
Harpers Magazine wrote of the book:
"These short episodes are funny, scary, and described with a flair for the telling detail, but the strength of Amsterdam’s book, as of Atwood’s recent work, lies in its eschewing of pie-in-the-sky theorizing that so often mars science fiction. This is not a nerdy fantasy of some undiscovered galaxy. Steven Amsterdam reads the newspapers. And his book gives us the gentlest imaginative push into a future that will, sooner than we know it, be our own—unless all the scientists are wrong by a stroke of luck that could truly be described as dumb. These are things we didn’t see coming—except, of course, that we did."
For Things We Didn't See Coming, the playlist is all over the place, covering nine stories, each from a different moment in the life of the narrator. He starts out as an innocent kid, ready to believe his father's panic on the eve of Y2K, and goes onward for thirty years, making his way through a variety of dystopias and one or two utopias. The response to the book has been a bit of a Rorschach, with some people finding it a gripping downer and some finding it a funny/hopeful story about survival. So given this assignment, my instinct was to play to both crowds and provide two soundtracks. Then I pulled myself back to the time when I was writing it and came up with this list, which feels comfortably in between:
"Flying" by the Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour
An odd, uplifting tune--underloved because it's instrumental--that manages to create a sense of diversions and dangers ahead.
"Safe From Harm" by Massive Attack, Blue Lines
The overbearing bass and echoey vocals ("I was lookin' back to see if you were lookin' back at me") captures the escape-from-the-city-tonight paranoia fueling the father's flight from his Y2K fears in the first story, "What We Know Now."
"I Turn My Camera On" by Spoon, Gimme Fiction
There are barricades between the city and everywhere else. He's living with his grandparents in the city and his grandmother, who's been out of it with Alzheimer's suddenly responds to her meds and is now completely with it. She wants to go for a drive in the country and that involves all sorts of risks. "I turn my camera on, I cut my fingers on the way" is a smooth encapsulation of the quick and rough growing up he's got to do.
"500 Miles" by Rosanne Cash, The List
He's a journeyman now, working for the state, clearing people out in advance of flooding. All he wants is a little love and he finds everything but. The weariness of the simple chorus ("Lord I'm one, Lord I'm two, Lord I'm three, Lord I'm four, Lord I'm five hundred miles from home") and Rosanne Cash's somber take on a classic kills me in the best possible way.
"I Melt With You" by Nouvelle Vague, Nouvelle Vague
The xylophone and the sugary voice on this Modern English cover captures the hyperdreaminess of deep love, which is where he's at. He and his partner are camped out in the wild, waiting out a pandemic. You know the feeling. "I'll stop the world and melt with you. You've seen some changes and it's getting better all the time."
"See You Again" by Jason Falkner, Can You Still Feel?
Working at a disaster site when he has the chance to reconnect with his ex. He's sadder here, but not much wiser. "I amazed all the survivors, with my heart strings intact, I brought it all back to you... Walk me through your maze I promise I won't stray."
"Slippery People" by Staple Singers, Turning Point
Living the very high life, in a three-way relationship with his partner and a senator. The Staple Singers improved the Talking Heads' biblical incantations with their Gospel delivery ("God help us, help us lose our minds, these slippery people help us understand"). As the stakes in his relationship(s) go higher, so does the dread that his personal and professional greed is leading him into a trap.
"Walk Away" by Tom Waits, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards
"There are things I've done I can't erase, I want to look in the mirror and see another face/I said never but I'm doing it again, I want to walk away and start all over again." That feeling, best expressed through the wrecked voice box of Tom Waits, has driven the narrator for years. He's sequestered himself away from the dangers of the world, in a quiet remote commune. And yet--
"Aclestis on the Poetry Circuit" by Vanessa Daou, Zipless
The softly spoken paean to neurosis by Erica Jong and the smooth jazz behind it grabs the sinister juxtaposition of the story near the end. He's at a job interview, trying to be cool and impress, but his potential employer, the government, has more information about him than he does. "The best slave does not need to be beaten."
"How Many Worlds" by Marianne Faithfull, Easy Come Easy Go
He's an adventure tour guide for the terminally ill. A little unwell himself, he finds his group on the verge of mutiny. Marianne Faithfull's voice, soothing here, and Brian Eno's expansive lyrics bring the book into focus: "How many worlds will we ever see/and how many people will we ever be/if we wake up?" Will he wake up?
Steven Amsterdam and Things We Didn't See Coming links:
Bookmarks Magazine review
Books and Other Stuff review
Books on the Nightstand review
Christopher Miles review
The Courier-Mail review
The Enthusiast review
Green Man Review review
Library Journal review
Los Angeles Times review
The Monthly review
Publishers Weekly review
Reading Matters review
San Francisco Chronicle review
The Writer in Disguise review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (highlights of the week's comics & graphic novel releases)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (highlights of the week's book releases)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists