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April 24, 2014

Book Notes - Elizabeth McCracken "Thunderstruck"


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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Elizabeth McCracken's new short fiction collection Thunderstruck is the work of a storyteller at the top of her game, the stories both poignant and resonant.

Nick Hornby wrote of the collection in The Believer:

"'Thunderstruck' showcases all the things this remarkable writer is so good at: the eccentric but illuminating metaphors, the deft characterization, the heart-lurching narrative development, the tenderness, the fantastic aphorisms."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Elizabeth McCracken's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection, Thunderstruck:

Something Amazing - "Can't Stop the Beat" by Junior Senior

In 1993, when I was working on what turned into this story, I lived in Paris with the fellow I eventually married, Edward Carey. After a few months of happiness he went off on a book tour and I was left alone in our apartment with my fear of speaking French to French people. I stayed in a lot. After a few days I developed the bad habit of putting on a music video channel to hear other human voices. Justin Timberlake's big hit "Cry Me A River" was in heavy rotation, and some Jennifer Lopez song I have since happily forgotten, and a strange vaguely upsetting 8-bit old-school computer animated video for a dance song that I loved without ever paying attention to it. Years passed. We left Paris. I forgot who recorded the dance song, or anything about it other than it was full of joy and featured a squirrel and I wanted to see it again but shouldn't shake it out of the internet. Finally I saw it on a Mashable list of great 8-bit videos: "Move Your Feet" by a Danish group called Junior Senior. I have since bought several of their albums. They are so much fun.

Property - "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" by Billie Holiday

The first time I ever heard this song was undoubtedly in the all-musical Warner Brothers' cartoon "One Froggy Evening," in which a man discovers a singing frog and believes his fortune is made, until it turns out the frog only sings when nobody else is around. The frog delivers "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" at the end of the cartoon, when he and his discoverer have been thrown in jail for vagrancy. Later I heard Leon Redbone's version (I wore out my copy of Champagne Charlie), and finally Billie Holiday's jauntily heartbroken rendition. I've always loved the strange lyrics, in which the singer demands to be remembered and forgotten at the same time. It seems like the perfect song for the main character of this story, an archivist who specializes in ephemera who himself feels ephemeral.

Some Terpsichore - "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time" by Tiny Tim

Tiny Tim was one of my first full-blown musical obsessions in high scool. I still love him. I saw him perform at the Middle East in Cambridge, MA, at the end of his career, on a bill with Rosie Flores—he was enjoying some little renaissance, as he did from time to time. The club was packed with people who had come—I think—ironically, since Tiny Tim's success was built on irony. The odd thing is: though his success was irony-driven, Tiny Tim himself was powered by pure earnestness and love and brilliance: he loved the music that he played. I think of all those oddball people who have become famous over the years only because they're weird, vaguely monstrous—Larry "Bud" Melman, Brother Theodore, Clara Peller—and perhaps that's how Tiny Tim's career began, but not how it ended: because of his love for music that turned his strangeness into beauty. That night at the Middle East, it was Flag Day, and he played "It's A Grand Old Flag," and won the crowd over: he drained the irony right out of them. I wanted my lady who sounded like a musical saw to be like that: monstrous, and then beautiful, and then both at the same time.

Juliet - "When Things Go Wrong"- Robin Lane & the Chartbusters

Though there's nothing of me in any of the characters in "Juliet," the heart of the story is absolutely based on fact: when I was the Circulation Desk Chief at the Somerville Public Library, a teenage patron was arrested, and later convicted, of the murder of his best friend's mother. None of the library staff in this story are based on my former colleagues, but a lot of the patrons are. So my song for this story is "When Things Go Wrong," by Robin Lane & the Chartbusters, because one of my favorite patrons, Tim Jackson, was the drummer for the band, and also because it's a great song.

The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs – "Boum!" by Charles Trenet

Some of the happiest and saddest moments of my life took place in France, with the music of Charles Trenet as the soundtrack. My first week in Paris I bought a CD of his greatest hits at a store near the Pompidou Centre, & I walked around the Marais with my Discman (this was 2003, O my children) listening to his songs, which at the time seemed like pure joy, particularly "Boum!" Trenet wrote thousands of songs, including "La Mer" which was translated into "Beyond the Sea." In 1954 while in New York he announced that he was going to marry Doris Duke, who then asserted that she'd never met him; in 1963 he spent 28 days in prison, on charges that he'd corrupted the morals of four 19-year-old men. Rumor has it that Maurice Chevalier ratted on him to the police, jealous of Trenet's success. Now when I listen to "Boum!" (the sound you heart makes, according the song) I heard not only the possibility of disastrous explosion, but the strange sadness of Trenet's own life.

Hungry: "Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Group

I grew up in the 1970s, the heyday of steak houses where you pushed your tray along a track and augmented your dinner with baked potatoes and rolls and cubed jello in cut glass bowls. It was also the first age of frozen yogurt: in my memory, the yogurt was nearly always peach-flavored and the color of the "flesh" crayon in the Crayola box. At one steak house not too far from my childhood home, there was a frozen yogurt stand called Afternoon Delight, which now strikes me as the kind of period detail I'll tell my grandchildren about. So I didn't go to the Stork Club or the Hungry I: I ate peach yogurt at Afternoon Delight. Off-color humor that I didn't quite get flavors a lot of my 1970s memories: peach yogurt the color of skin, sweet but not delicious; dirty t-shirts whose jokes I couldn't parse. I still had my innocence, but I knew it was being threatened: skyrockets in flight.

The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston

This story was once a piece of something larger (something larger! What a euphemism: a novel that didn't make it). In it the main character, Asher Blackbird, was a music obsessive, who lived in the basement of his house with an enormous cabinet stereo player, the kind that opens like a hopechest, of the exact sort I bought myself at a yardsale as a teenager. I didn't listen to popular music in those days, because I was afraid of doing it wrong: I once bought tickets to a concert that I remember as being a double bill of Journey and The Cars, though now that I type that, it sounds impossible. At any rate, the idea of going—of being in public while enjoying music—filled me with panic, and in the end I gave the ticket to my friend Donny Gallagher. For the failed novel—I really should have a T-shirt printed up that says, DON'T ASK ME ABOUT MY FAILED NOVELS—I invented all kinds of fake bands and albums, but for some reason when I think about this kid listening to music, I imagine him in the basement listening to Marvin Gaye sing "Sexual Healing," a song that was a big hit when I was a teenager, and one I loathed, largely because I was a prude. Later I was ashamed I'd hated that song so much—it's so lovable—but now that I am a middle-aged lady, I once again have great sympathy for my prudish young self. Let's face it: "sexual" is one of the least sexy words in the English language, and the phrase "Sexual Healing" sounds like a something you'd see on a sign above the aisle at CVS that houses the K-Y jelly. The song is great. The lyrics are pretty bad. It happens sometimes.

Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey- "Let Me Play With Your Poodle" by Tampa Red

I love old dirty music—filthy, really, not of the "Afternoon Delight" variety, not even of the very grown up "Sexual Healing" sort. I want my music not suggestive but ludicrously bawdy. When I think about the two characters in this story driving across country in the 1980s, they're listening to Tampa Red's "Let Me Play With Your Poodle" on a retrofitted tape deck, which they would pull out when they parked in New York at the end of the trip. One of them would leave a sign in the car window that said NO RADIO. One of them would have made the joke, "No soap, either."


"Carrickfergus" is one of the saddest, most stirring songs I know: pure melancholy and yet deeply pleasurable. Music can do that. Can fiction? I want the answer to be yes. It's about being separated by an ocean from someone you love, as the characters in this story are, and also about the loss of childhood innocence ("My childhood days bring back sad reflections/of happy times spent so long ago/My childhood friends and my own relations/have all passed on now like melting snow"). I love the version that Van Morrison, one of the singers of my heart, recorded with the Chieftains.

BONUS TRACK: "Slip Away" by David Bowie

I don't know why I'm including "Slip Away," other than I unearthed it while writing this list. The Uncle Floyd Show was a cable television program out of New Jersey, hosted by the piano-playing Floyd Vivino—it was sort of a parody of a children's show, with a lot of bad jokes and raucous laughter and a puppet named Oogie. A lot of the Uncle Floyd Show was a vaguely monstrous, in a way that interested me just as Tiny Tim interested me. They had a lot of musical guests, including The Ramones; I saw Lena Lovich on an episode. I have just found out to my absolute amazement that David Bowie, a fan, wrote a tribute song. Apparently John Lennon introduced him to the show. Life is wondrous strange.

Elizabeth McCracken and Thunderstruck links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Portland Press Herald review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
Wall Street Journal 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
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)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists