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September 18, 2012

Book Notes - Sheila Heti "The Middle Stories" and "How Should a Person Be?"

The Middle Stories How Should a Person Be?

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? is as ambitious a novel as I have read this year, a brutally honest semi-autobiographical work told in a startlingly original voice.

A 10th anniversary edition of her short fiction collection The Middle Stories was also published earlier this year.

The New York Times Book Review wrote of How Should a Person Be?:

"Funny…odd, original, and nearly unclassifiable…Sheila Heti does know something about how many of us, right now, experience the world, and she has gotten that knowledge down on paper, in a form unlike any other novel I can think of."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Sheila Heti's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, How Should a Person Be? and short fiction collection The Middle Stories:

When I wrote my first book, The Middle Stories, I was in my early twenties and in university, living in my dad's basement. I remember I invited an friend over and showed him a naked picture of myself as we sat on my bed at the end of the night. After about ten awkward minutes, he left. A year later he said, "I should have jumped your bones right then. It's a big regret."

"That's not why I showed you the picture," I said.

"Why else would you have shown me the picture?" he asked.

I had no idea. It was a time of real confusion.

This fall, it's just over ten years since The Middle Stories was published. A lot happens in a decade. In that time, I published more; married, got divorced. I learned how to eat right. I have a nice apartment. I'm less confused now. I probably wouldn't show a friend a naked picture of myself for no reason at all.

During the years I was married, I could have become a real connoisseur of music. My ex-husband is a music critic, and the house was filled with CDs, but even then I preferred silence. Sometimes, though, I'll stumble upon a song that I need to hear over and over again. I'll listen to it a hundred times. It's like that song is ironing out part of my brain. It's un-confusing a confused part.

The ten songs on this list were those kinds of songs; they helped me understand something about my heart as it navigated the past decade. When what you're feeling is so strong and inchoate, the right song makes that feeling even stronger – you feel it all the way. The feeling is no longer murky; suddenly it has outlines and the outline is the song. The song connects you to the human who must have felt what you were feeling, to sing it so true. They went on to write different songs, like you go on to feel different feelings.

"It's Only a Paper Moon" – Ella Fitzgerald

On my twenty-third birthday, the man I would marry a few years later wrote me a poem which was based on this song. I remember him handing it across the dinner table in my tiny apartment. Its lyrics were sliced into his words like shards of moments in a Cubist painting. I sang it to myself often after that: Say, it's only a paper moon / sailing over a cardboard sea / but it wouldn't be make-believe if you believed in me. Was it true? Could love made this random world into a real and meaningful one?

"A New England" – Kristy McColl

My husband and I always had parties, partied often, and often at our parties I played this song. I remember dancing to it, elated, swinging on the arm of one of our guests. It made me feel really young, irreverent, defiant. I loved the first lyric: I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song... since tales of artistic discipline have always moved me (much more than tales of motherly sacrifice). It conveyed joy and ease, and a feeling of confidence and endless freedom, which I could access now and then (certainly while drunk, at our parties).

"When You Were Mine" – Cyndi Lauper

After we split up, my ex-husband put this song on a mix tape for me. There were a dozen others, but this is the one I listened to most often. It felt like a direct message from him (so did "Paper Moon," which was also on the tape, but that one I could not play through once). I remember lying in my bed in the crummy, empty apartment I had just moved into, the song filling the echoey aloneness of the middle of the night, wondering where he was, and if he was thinking, When you were mine / you were kinda sorta my best friend. I wondered if he also felt, I love you more than I did when you were mine. I was sure he did. And I remembered with a pang how gentle and accepting he had always been.

"On The Moon" – Ryan Kamstra / Tomboyfriend

Though I listened to Cyndi Lauper at night, during the day, I played to this song by my friend Ryan Kamstra on endless repeat. He had recorded it and put it on my computer. It felt like a great joke about my situation – a joke I needed to hear. I had just slept with a guy who I'd pined for back in high school, and would smile cynically at the line: All the boys who followed me since high school are now solid into booze. For my newly frozen heart, the lyrics, Love was just a word you used/when you were on the moon captured a truth I held close: Love was not real. It couldn't keep two people together. It was just a word you used when you were on the moon – the paper moon.

"Hello It's Me" – Lou Reed & John Cale

This is the final song on the album Lou Reed wrote for Andy Warhol after Andy Warhol died. It's heartbreaking; full of guilt, longing and regret. Andy it's me/I haven't seen you in a while... begins a chastened voice. Near the end of my stay in that dismal apartment, I played this song often. It so perfectly captures the state that follows the high, dizziness and shock of loss – its simple truth, its bland finality; loss's most humble stage. I wish I'd talked to you more when you're alive. I thought about all I could have done and said in my marriage, to make things a little better, or maybe save it. I really miss you / I really miss your mind... (cue tears) I'm sorry if I doubted your good heart / things always seem to end before they start...

"Wet Blanket" – Metric

Suddenly, I developed a debilitating crush on someone new: I suspected he wasn't a good choice, yet he was all I could think about. He was cool and aloof, a total bastard, then was winning and vulnerable, then acted like a dick again, and then was really winning. I danced to a lot of Metric in my (next, better) apartment, trying to rid myself of the craziness that filled my blood; to rid myself of my obsession through physical exhaustion. In this track, a girl's friends tell the guy she's hung up on that they can see that he's a real asshole (dude dude dude / we're onto you) even if the girl can't. I think I needed someone to drill some sense into me; to alert me to the fact that underneath the shaken knit / he's a brick wall /she keeps falling for the trick...

"Don't Worry Baby" – The Beach Boys

A few months later, I travelled to Spain for a month, where my obsession grew worse, then met up with my friend, Lee, who had just broken up with his girlfriend. We drove through the countryside for three weeks, talking about love, how we were doomed, couldn't make a good thing last. I remember one afternoon we were driving high in the mountains, overlooking the cliffs and the rocky coast, the ocean far and blue out the open window, when this song came clear as a bell over the radio, like it was God speaking directly into our ears. We were reverent, breaths held, as a bright ray of relief broke through our doom: Don't worry baby / everything will turn out all right... We smiled at each other when the song ended. Maybe it really would!

"Into My Arms" – Nick Cave

A few years ago, I fell in love. I didn't know this was happening when I boarded the bus which would take me three hours from Toronto, where he was attending school in a smaller town. I had planned to stay for the weekend. It was late winter; the days were short. There was snow everywhere. The house he was renting was old and beautiful, with dark wood trim and a fireplace on the main floor. He went out to buy groceries one night, while I sat in the living room before the fire, book in hand. He had started the fire and put this song on before he left, and when he returned, the song was still playing. Because I kept getting up, lifting the needle, and placing it back at the beginning to listen to the track again. I couldn't read. All I could do was stare into the fire. I wondered, Is this how he feels about me? Was he out in the world, thinking, "I would ask God not to touch a hair on your head / leave you as you are / if he felt he had to direct you / then direct you into my arms." I could only hope!

"Love the Way You Lie" – Rihanna and Eminem

Three months later, we were living together in my apartment in Toronto. Our first year together was wonderful – to find someone you want to be with all the time, with whom there's a sense of movement and meaning, and also deep peace. But it was also hard – even well into our second year it was so hard. It's one of my big frustrations with the world: why don't we talk more about how difficult things can be in the beginning, when you're figuring each other out? Why don't people talk more about the fights you can't find your way out of, which you don't know how you got into, where the pain is like right now there's a steel knife in my windpipe / I can't breathe... / it's like I'm in flight. This song reassured and steeled me in some of our worst moments: the bad with the good. And even the pain can be bearable, can be okay: that's all right / because I like the way it hurts...

"A Case of You" – Joni Mitchell

At a certain point, maybe a few years in, you know a lot more about the other person, and you wonder whether you can love them in this way for a long time or not, knowing something of what the hard times together are like, knowing something of the good. I listened to this song a lot last fall, and still today I get chills: I remember that time you told me, you said / Love is touching souls / Surely you touched mine / Cause part of you pours out of me / In these lines from time to time. Practically everything I've written since meeting him I can trace back in threads to worlds he's opened up. And while this next lyric makes me think of nothing so much as him, it also speaks to me of love itself, in all its mysteries and convolutions: You're in my blood like holy wine / You taste so bitter and so sweet / Oh I could drink a case of you / And I would still be on my feet / Oh I'd still be on my feet.

Sheila Heti and How Should a Person Be? links:

the book's website
excerpt from the book

All Things Considered review
Full Stop review
Los Angeles Review of Books review
National Post review
The New Republic review
New York Observer review
New York Times review
New Yorker review
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review
PopMatters review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Thought Catalog review
Toronto Star review
Vue Weekly review

ArtsBeat interview with the author
Bookworm interview with the author
Lee Henderson interview with the author
The Millions interview with the author
The Paris Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists