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October 2, 2014

Book Notes - Kathleen Founds "When Mystical Creatures Attack!"

When Mystical Creatures Attack!

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.

Deeply poignant and incredibly funny, When Mystical Creatures Attack! proves Kathleen Founds a talented and inventive writer.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Founds’s stories are punctuated with marvelous moments of humor and pathos, and no matter the narrative form they take, they uniformly reveal vividly realized characters with complex inner lives."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Kathleen Founds's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection When Mystical Creatures Attack!:

The When Mystical Creatures Attack! Playlist: Dance Party Meets Dark Night of the Soul


Ms. Freedman: "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out," by Cat Stevens

Like Ms. Freedman, this song is sweet, well intentioned, and painfully naïve. Ms. Freedman shows up in a dusty border town with a summer's worth of training, thinking she will set her hand on students' heads and watch them blossom like flowers. She writes, "I am ready to obliterate the achievement gap, to dismantle the systems of structural oppression and racism that plague our society, to equip the leaders of the future with the academic tools to live out their full personhood" (29).

As her student Janice Gibbs might say: "Ha ha."

After failing to heal her students through the transformative power of journaling, Ms. Freedman has a nervous breakdown and spends the second half of the school year in an insane asylum.

Part of Ms. Freedman's failure as a teacher is that she doesn't bring her full self to the teaching. She projects a sweet upbeat persona that does not reflect her (dark, chaotic) inner life. Students see the hollowness of her façade and prey upon that weakness. If Ms. Freedman had been a little more real—a little less like this song—she might have lasted more than three months as a teacher.

Janice Gibbs: "Heretic Pride," by The Mountain Goats

The speaker in "Heretic Pride" narrates the experience of being martyred in the town square:

well they come and pull me from my house
and they drag my body through the streets
and the sun's so hot I think i'll catch fire and burn up
in the summer air so moist and sweet

Like the heretic, Janice Gibbs (one of Ms. Freedman's high school students) takes fierce pride in her rejection of all that is hollow, sad, and hypocritical. Janice's condemnation of the stupidness and sadness of school and PE and nursing home employment is apt. But Janice struggles to find a satisfying outlet for her rebellion. Speaking in the second person, Janice recalls being the troublemaker of her Catholic youth group:

"Sister Gloria . . . thought she'd get you out of your mess of a family with beatitudes and liturgical dance, but instead you brought the mess with you. You pierced your belly button with a safety pin in the girls' bathroom, rolled a joint with a page from Deuteronomy, and drank sacramental wine until you threw up in the community garden. You dumped dish soap in the courtyard fountain of the Virgin Mary, and on Halloween you put fake blood running down in tears from her cheeks, so that for two days everyone thought there was a miracle" (72).

Janice rejects an unsatisfying present in order to embrace a brilliant future. The final lines in "Heretic Pride" reflect Janice's sense of being bound for glory and destruction:

and I start laughing like a child
and I mark their faces one by one
transfigurations gonna come for me at last
and I will burn hotter than the sun

Cody Splunk: "I Would Do Anything for Love," by Meatloaf

In "In the Hall of Old Testament Miracles," Cody writes: "Everyone knows the first second you're alone with a wax sculpture, it's going to try to kill you. So why bring the Bible to life with 300 wax figures just waiting to hunt us down with shepherd's crooks and slay us in a manger?" (123). An aspiring pulp author with delusions of grandeur, Cody proves his passionate, unrequited, love for Janice Gibbs by building her a time machine. Cody believes in chivalry and dragons. He is the opposite of cool and a little out of touch with consensus reality. But his sincerity, large-scale passion, and bombastic artistic vision make him a sort of chubby Don Quixote. So . . . Meatloaf. A natural choice for his soundtrack.


"Wagon Wheel," by Old Crow Medicine Show

I was sent to South Texas by The Jesuit Volunteer Corps (a Catholic post-collegiate year of service program) to serve as a drop-out prevention counselor at a middle school. My South Texas friends John (an Americorps Volunteer with a penchant for sustainable agriculture) and Abby (an art and literature loving Teach for America Volunteer) were ardent community builders. They hosted weekly potluck sing-alongs (John played the banjo, Abby, the violin). Drained teachers and social workers would show up on John and Abby's porch and be revived through the power of chard scramble, bourbon, and song. I can't carry a tune in a bucket, so while people sang, I drew. The giant squid on the cover of "When Mystical Creatures Attack," was designed in John & Abby's living room, to the tune of "Wagon Wheel."

"Gasolina," by Daddy Yankee

In my capacity as a drop-out prevention counselor, I was asked to MC a kids' dance competition at a community festival. I called two volunteer competitors onstage. The DJ played "Gasolina," by Daddy Yankee, and the girls began a dance off, gyrating to the Reggaeton beat. The crowd cheered wildly as the tweens executed sensual, rhythmic moves. But in my (prudish?) eyes, the situation was exploitative. The more stripper-like the moves, the more the audience catcalled and applauded. "Alright!" I said brightly. "I think we have a winner! Thank you girls! Lovely work! Dance competition OVER!"

My awkward navigation of this moment—and many others like it—contributed to the genesis of the Ms. Freedman character.


"Quiet," by Sam Tyx

While I was writing short stories in Texas, my friend Sam (a Mennonite Service Volunteer advocating for refugees) was writing songs. We compared notes on craft. My artistic style was to check off a box each time I put in an hour at the desk. I'd push through the time, creative well as dry as a bone, just so I could check my box. Sam had some kind of direct pipeline to the creative unconscious. Songs poured from his guitar. "I wrote a sentence," I'd say. "I wrote a song," he's say. "Well, seven. But I'm only keeping one." Sometimes Sam would accesses something so mysterious and holy in his music that I wanted to burn my brittle notebooks and abandon my charade of being an artist. But his songwriting also gave me hope for what I might do if I kept digging at the creative well.

THEME: Nervous Breakdown

"We're on Our Way," by Radical Face

In, "The Un-Game," Ms. Freedman writes a letter explaining her breakdown: "In short: there are some pills I take to balance my brain chemistry. In November, I flushed them down the toilet. I had an initial rush of energy—I imagine you recall the lit-term Jeopardy board coated with industrial-grade glitter glue. Soon, though, I felt a strong need to curl in the fetal position in a dark, enclosed space. Toward the end, I hallucinated that a great bird appeared at my window and wrapped me in its downy wings" (13).

"We're on Our Way," by Radical Face, expresses the existential swamp a person might find herself in after burning through a manic episode:

Show your hands
If you need a new coat of paint
If your bones are now heavy things
Like anchors hidden somewhere ‘neath your skin
Or if your head's just an empty box
If your heart has become spare parts
If your days are now just something you must bear

THEME: Self Destruction

"Come Pick Me Up," by Ryan Adams

Accompanied by plaintive harmonica, Adams implores a reckless heartbreaker to: Come pick me up / take me out / fuck me up / steal my records /screw all my friends / behind my back / with a smile on your face." To me, this song is about being so worn down and exhausted and broken that you seek out anything to distract yourself—even if you know the fleeting balm will engender chaos in its wake. The speaker in this song knows his lover is bad news, but he still yearns for her to come relieve him from the asphyxiating boredom of life without her.

Time and time again, Cody, Janice, and Ms. Freedman, get sucked into "Come Pick Me Up"-style self-destruction.

THEME: Valley of the Shadow of Death by Chocolate Cake

"Cold Water," by Damien Rice

In "Cold Water," Damien Rice evokes the quiet desperation of a dark night of the soul: "Cold/ cold water / surrounds me now / and all that I've got / is your hand."

Next time you're plastered to the floor, so depressed you can't even muster the energy for self-destructive behavior, reach for this song.

THEME: Change

"Change," by Tracy Chapman

"If you knew that you would die today / if you saw the face of God and love / would you change?" Chapman asks. A question at the heart of my book is this: what enables a person to transcend her tendencies towards inertia, depression, and self-destructive behavior? What enables a person to change?

THEME: How the Light Gets In

"Anthem," by Leonard Cohen

The epigraph for When Mystical Creatures Attack! comes from the chorus of Cohen's "Anthem":

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in

I think this means: our wounds become our wings. Our brokenness becomes our gift to the world.

THEME: The Mountaintop

"And We Danced," by Macklemore

This song is gleeful, exuberant, cathartic, profane, and fun to dance to. Kind of like my book.

Wait. How can you dance to a book? That doesn't even make sense.

Neither do these lyrics: "I will not be a manikin / The ego, banish it / The roof's on fire / Let's burn down the Vatican."

And yet, they contain a self-forgetful joy and radiance. The theme of this playlist is, "Dance Party Meets Dark Night of the Soul." This is the dance party part. In Macklemore's words, "Take my hand/ Let's have a blast / and remember this moment for the rest of our lives."

Kathleen Founds and When Mystical Creatures Attack! links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

American Short Fiction 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
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