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March 11, 2010

Book Notes - Ken Kalfus ("Thirst")

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

Like a classic out-of-print album, this month Milkweed Editions reissued Ken Kalfus's 1998 debut short story collection, Thirst.

The collection's stories vary greatly in geography and topic, but their characters resonate with timeless sincerity.

The New York Times wrote of the collection when it was first released:

"Ken Kalfus (an American who has lived in Paris, Dublin, Belgrade and Moscow) lights his stories with this fundamental strangeness. The displaced figures in "Thirst" drift through worlds that are at once astonishing and familiar. They'd like to wake up in their own beds after a good night's sleep, but even that blessing would, we suspect, have the word ''perhaps'' in it somewhere."

In his own words, here is Ken Kalfus's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Thirst:

I rarely listen to music when I read and almost never when I write: I'm trying instead to hear the music of the words in my head, the rhythm of those sentences, their harmonies and cadences, their fermatas and glissandos. And when I listen to actual music, I often do so for the words; sometimes, for me, music is yet another way to read. Not surprisingly then, my playlist leans heavily toward the lyrical. What shocks is the number of these songs that were written before I was born.

"Night and Day," by Cole Porter

Very few direct musical references show up in my work, but Thirst includes a short story named for the classic Cole Porter song, "Night and Day." The story is about a man, Harrah, who suffers a serious sleep disorder: whenever he falls asleep in his apartment on the East Side of Manhattan, he immediately wakes in another apartment, on the West Side, where he lives an apparently parallel life.

Porter was probably not thinking of fantastic situations like this one when he composed the song, for the 1932 show The Gay Divorcé, but he may have appreciated Harrah's romantic predicament. The always-awake Harrah has girlfriends in both existences and can't keep them straight. The story even embeds a Cole Porter phrase within it (risking unflattering comparisons with the phrases in the book that were not written by Cole Porter). In one life, Harrah hopes to encounter the girlfriend who inhabits the other, while he "stands on the corner of Pine and Nassau, in the roaring traffic's boom, eating a hot dog, waiting for her to show up."

"Night and Day" typifies my musical taste, for which I make no apologies, because Porter's work is infused with appealing human values: urbanity, romanticism and wit.

"They All Laughed," by George and Ira Gershwin

You can embed a phrase from Tin Pan Alley into your prose once in your career, but twice is probably pushing it. Now that I've begun this exercise, I realize that I did it again in an essay for the book, Dumbing Down: the Strip Mining of American Culture. In my contribution to the collection, I lamented the decline in the public's understanding of science and sought the reasons for it.

I maintained that many of us don't recognize science as an enduring process that over centuries has explained the world with consistent success. Rather, science is often perceived as a single body of knowledge or collection of facts - facts that are always being disproved by new facts, devaluing the entire endeavor. For evidence I cited Ira Gershwin: "They all laughed at Christopher Columbus,/ When he said the world was round./ They all laughed,/ When Edison recorded sound."

I promise not to do it again.

"Brush Up Your Shakespeare," by Cole Porter

I could easily fill up my playlist with show tunes or simply Cole Porter songs, including "You're the Top!" and "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," but for variety's sake I'll limit my selection to just one other Porter canto, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," which makes for good literary advice anyway.

The song is from Kiss Me Kate, a musical-within-a-musical based on The Taming of the Shrew. The metafictional song-and-dance is threatened when a shylock sends two tough guys to extract money from the show's producer. Observing the enduring popularity of classical writers, from Aeschylus and Euripides to Shelley, Keats and Pope, one goon tells the other, "But the poet of them all/ Who will start 'em simply ravin'/ Is the poet people call/ The Bard of Stratford-on-Avon."

"You Can't Get A Man With A Gun," by Irving Berlin

Whether in prose or in verse, every great line carries the charge of the unexpected: an unconventional word choice, a phrasal diversion or an alteration in the line's natural meter. In Irving Berlin's 1946 musical, Annie Get Your Gun, the theatrical sharpshooter Annie Oakley plaintively sings that her marksmanship has not won her suitors. Every time I hear these lines or sing them myself, I'm surprised: "For a man may be hot/ But he's not/ When he's shot./ Oh, you can't get a man with a gun."

"Goodnight Moon," by Shivaree

This song has a peculiar literary source: Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd's 1947 board book, which generations of parents have read to their toddlers at bedtime. As a little rabbit-kid is going to bed, we soothingly say goodnight to every familiar object in the room, goodnight chair, goodnight table, goodnight clock, and goodnight to the moon outside the window. It's a lovely book and very effective. By the time you're finished, you're half asleep yourself.

The songwriters were evidently required to read this book once too often. Shivaree's version is hilariously unsoothing. In it, the child going to bed worries, "There's a shark in the pool/ And a witch in a tree/ A crazy old neighbor and he's been watching me/ His footsteps loud and strong are coming down the hall...."

"Blue Alert," by Anjani

Written by Anjani Thomas and Leonard Cohen, this is easily the sexiest song on my playlist, permeated with longing and transcendent mystery. "There's perfume burning in the air,/ Bits of beauty everywhere,/ Shrapnel flying,/ Soldier, hit the dirt." The shrapnel flying - yeah, it's sometimes like that. Anjani recorded her own very sensuous version; Madeleine Peyroux's is slightly more up-tempo.

"Tombstone," by Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega's entire 1996 album Nine Objects of Desire is high literature, like a collection of stories from Updike or Salinger. Her ideas are profound and nuanced. Her use of language is imaginative and exacting. No one song sounds like another. My favorite is "Caramel": "It won't do/ To dream of caramel,/ To think of cinnamon,/ And long for you."

But further down the album there's "Tombstone," whose lively, funny, and yet darkly existential qualities I wouldn't mind infusing into my own writing: "You can carve my name in marble./ You must cut it deep./ They'll be no dancing on the gravestone./ You must let me sleep. /And Time is burning, burning, burning./ It burns away."

"Waters of March," by Antonio Carlos Jobim

Jobim wrote lyrics in both Portuguese and English for the much recorded Brazilian classic "Aguas de Marco." In Brazil, in the southern hemisphere, March is the rainy month and the Portuguese version is distinctly autumnal: "They are the waters of March/ Closing the summer." But the English, northern hemisphere version is a song of spring. The great Susannah McCorkle always touches me when she announces: "And the riverbank sings/ Of the waters of March./ It's the end of despair./ It's the joy in your heart."

I may have to listen to this song every day from now until the beginning of the baseball season.

"Van Lingle Mungo," by Dave Frishberg

One of the Thirst's short stories, "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz," consists of a series of baseball trivia questions, all of them concerning unrecorded distinctions, like the most consecutive pitches thrown outside the strike zone. I was besotted by baseball when I wrote the story, especially by its prodigal generation of statistics and the poetic names of its most prosaic players. The story may have been at least partly inspired by Dave Frishberg's 1970 song, "Van Lingle Mungo," whose lyrics comprise the names of forgotten players of the 1940s and '50s - names as strange and wonderful as those of fallen empires and lost cities: "Whitey Kurowski/ Max Lanier/ Eddie Waitkus and Johnny Vander Meer/ Bob Estalella/ Van Lingle Mungo!"

"Lydia the Tattooed Lady," by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg

This song was first sung by Groucho Marx in At the Circus, a clip of which is available on YouTube. Nowadays, the historical references to the lady's epidermal engravings all need footnotes, from the Wreck of the Hesperus (a poem by Longfellow) to "Grover Whelan unveilin' the Trylon" (a New York politico who opened the 1939 World's Fair, built around two symbolic structures called the Trylon and the Perisphere). The song adds: "For two bits she will do a mazurka in jazz/ With a view of Niagara that nobody has./ And on a clear day you can see Alcatraz!/ You can learn a lot from Lydia!"

Ken Kalfus and Thirst links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book (PDF link)

Huffington Post review
New York Times review
Weekly Alibi review

Bat Segundo Show interview with the author
Philadelphia Stories profile of the author
Salon interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
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