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May 2, 2016

Book Notes - Amy Parker "Beasts and Children"

Beasts and Children

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Amy Parker's brilliantly dark collection of interconnected stories Beasts and Children has earned her numerous comparisons to Flannery O'Connor.

Booklist wrote of the collection:

"An electrifying, daring, and magical debut collection sure to appeal to fans of Karen Russell and Lorrie Moore."

In her own words, here is Amy Parker's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Beasts and Children:

So many songs about broken hearts only treat romantic love, as if your heart can only be broken in one specific, adult way. I wanted to find music that is about love and heartbreak, but not necessarily cued in terms of a sexual or romantic relationship. Beasts and Children playlist reflects the other ways hearts can break, the other kinds of losses we sustain, and the many other types of loves we experience in a lifetime. Also, because it's a story collection, I imagined the playlist as a series of jukebox singles, with A and B sides.

Townes Van Zandt is the patron saint of this book.

The White Elephant

A side: "Kathleen," Townes Van Zandt

It's plain to see, the sun won't shine today

But I ain't in the mood for sunshine anyway

Maybe I'll go insane

I got to stop the pain

Or maybe I'll go down to see Kathleen.

The book's first story is about a lot of things; violence; parents betraying children; bad choices; but central to it is the death of a beloved adult sibling. Midway through the story, Mark Bowman's wild sister Loretta dies unexpectedly, and he spirals into a profound depression. In "Kathleen" the bathos of overproduced strings contrasts with the stark resignation in Townes' voice. The song combines self pity with all-out mourning, and it perfectly describes the grief that leads Mark Bowman into the jungle with a rifle in his hands.

B Side: "Pancho and Lefty," Townes Van Zandt

Lefty he can't sing the blues/all night long like he used to/
the dust that Pancho bit down South/ended up in Lefty's mouth.

Violence links us as intimately as love. The harm we do to others lingers—to choke or to poison us, or simply to silence a vital part of ourselves. Lefty's betrayal of Pancho silences Lefty for good. Pancho dies. Lefty winds up alone in a cheap motel in Ohio. The blame may lie with Lefty, but the song mourns for them both. Then there's the chorus: all the federales, hanging out talking over mistakes—their failure to catch their man twisted into deflated boasts about kindness. Which is what we all do, right? We justify ourselves. And as we age, we try to soften our mistakes and give them heroic meaning. The song moves between compassion and irony so beautifully. Townes knew the human heart better than anyone.

Rainy Season

A Side: "Like a Prayer," Madonna

This song appeals to the fanatical romanticism of teenaged girls. Jill and Maizie hear it in a karaoke bar, but they've also listened to the album on bootleg cassettes they bought in the Chiang Mai night market, and danced to it in their rooms, dreaming of that kind of love—forbidden and holy. In the story, it comes on at a crucial moment when Jill is being pulled over the line by her impulse to run off into the night with a group of drunk businessmen. "Like a Prayer" is exhilarating for Jill because it's a song about loss of control, about giving yourself over to something (or someone) bigger and stronger.

You're in control/just like a child/heaven help me!

When the adult Madonna sings it, it's a gleeful celebration, but in this story it takes on darker undertones.

B-side: "Nightswimming," R.E.M.

Love and youth and newness. The two sisters, Jill and Maizie, side by side in orbit, around the fairest sun.

The Balcony

A side: "The Wayward Wind," Patsy Cline

he was born the next of kin/to the wayward wind

A lesser known song of Patsy Cline's, and it plays on the radio during Danny's ill fated road trip with his mother. She's chasing bad love, and she drags Danny and his dog along for the ride. The wayward wind, in this case, is his love-drunk (and literally drunk) mother, and Danny, of course, is her next of kin.

B side: "Rake," Townes Van Zandt

And now the dark air is like fire on my skin

And even the moonlight is blinding

"Rake" is one of Townes' all time greatest. This song is kind of an inversion of Neil Young's “My my, hey hey (out of the blue)”, with a dash of William Blake thrown in. The protagonist laments his descent—from a man once so vital his “laughter the devil would frighten” to a used-up, exhausted husk, stripped bare by hard living. Rakes can be female, and this song predicts the fate of Danny's mother Loretta.

Endangered Creatures

A side: "All Things Bright and Beautiful"

Played on a slightly out of tune, plunky piano, and sung by an amateur children's choir, preferably without comprehension, with a soloist who can't quite hit the high notes. And there should be a recorder in the background. This will reproduce the sense of what shitty, half-assed singing in church is like—frustrating, endless, dull, and sorrowful. This hymn pointedly doesn't say who made the other things in the world (all things dark and horrible, for example). It's a haunting little tune, and it has way too many verses. It's exhausting. (The same has been said of my book).

B-side: "Little Green," Joni Mitchell

there'll be icicles/and birthday clothes/and sometimes there'll be sorrow

A love letter to a surrendered child.

Beasts and Children

A side: "Me and Little Andy," Dolly Parton

I LOVE this song. It's everything— melodramatic but effective, it tells a damn good story, it incorporates nursery rhymes to devastating effect, Dolly Parton does a creepy little girl voice, and it contains lyrics like:

London Bridge is falling down
my daddy's drunk again in town.

My own work just barely stays on the right side of kitsch, so I appreciate Dolly Parton's total disregard for taste. And underneath all its kitsch is a song about the deadliness of childhood neglect. Sandy, a neglected child, is so far gone that even Dolly Parton can't save her—and if Dolly can't save you, who can?

I chose it for "Beasts and Children" because it is period appropriate, and I'd like the to think that little Jerry heard this song on the radio with his mother, and that it cut to his heart. When Sandy dies, God, in his great mercy, doesn't want her puppy (Little Andy) to be lonely without her, so he kills the dog, too.

Ain't you got no gingerbread/ain't you got no candy/ain't you got an extra bed/for me and little Andy?

Dolly's sigh on the last line, like Sandy's expiring breath, will give even the most cynical ironist chills.

B side: "Ben," Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson, the quintessential wounded child, singing to his animal friend.

Catastrophic Molt

A side: "Song to the Siren," Tim Buckley

Long afloat on shipless oceans
I did all my best to smile

"Catastrophic Molt" is a sea-change story about a mother leaving her barely-adult children, and departing the world. The mother has a long hidden grief that comes to light too late. Buckley's throbbing vibrato, backed by the eerie wailing of sea-sirens, will echo in your head for days. There are many covers of this song, because it's a strange, heart-breaking, bravura tune, but Buckley's is the best. Oh my heart/oh my heart/cries from the sorrow.

B side: "Shahdaroba," Roy Orbison

The future will be better than the past, right? Right??

The Corpse Diver

A side: "Solo le Pido a Dios," Mercedes Soza

All I ask of God is that he make me not indifferent to suffering. What a request! This is an anti-war protest song, an anthem in South America, Argentina in particular. This is a call for the ability to bear witness—something we could all use more of—and the strength to stand up to oppression. Sosa's voice is pleading and defiant—begging God, in his mercy to allow her to feel mercy, and defying those who trample the weak, and those who turn away. In "Corpse Diver," everyone is so fucking tired, and so wound up in their own problems, that they miss the suffering of those nearest to them.

B side: "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," Iris Dement

Dement's piney-woods yowl is so pure in this. Part faith, part exhaustion. This is a hymn for those pushed beyond the brink.


A side: "Shilo," Neil Diamond

Shilo when I was young/I used to call your name/When no one else would come/Shilo you always came/and you'd stay

This delightful anthem of loneliness begins in childhood and progresses through a breakup, as the singer invents an imaginary friend to make up for the lack of a parent, projects those qualities onto a lover, and then loses the lover, reverting once again to magical thinking in the last verse.

Aren't all badly matched lovers basically one another's imaginary friend?

B side: "Red, Red Wine," Neil Diamond

A Neighborly Day for a Beauty

A side: "Fish and Bird," Tom Waits

I'll always pretend you're mine/and though we both must part/you can live/in my heart

Like Maizie, I had a crisis pregnancy. I was obsessed by this song the whole time I was pregnant, and I sang it to my son as a baby. It's about love, and how you can't hold on, and how all love is a meeting and a letting go, and it has a whale in it, so of course I love it, and it's about the impossibility of keeping what you love, and the line “you can live in my heart” is so true—because when we're between worlds, or encountering impossible contradictions, the only possible place to make a home for the impossibly beloved is in one's own heart.

B side: "You Can Never Go Down the Drain," Mister Rogers

Like Jill I find this song literally and metaphysically reassuring.


A side: "Balm in Gilead," Nina Simone

There is a balm/in Gilead/to make the wounded whole/there is a balm/in Gilead/to heal the sin-sick soul

This version of "Balm in Gilead" comes from my favorite Nina Simone album, Baltimore, which everyone should buy immediately. It's the penultimate track on the album (leading into the vociferous and uplifting "If You Pray Right"). Simone takes a traditional bible verse and gives it such contemplative sorrow. It's a low key rendition, syncopated and slightly reggae inflected. She repeats a single verse and chorus, and her voice, rough as a callous, tender as a caress, offers the wistful promise that somewhere, someplace, there is restoration for every wound, wholeness for the broken places, and that there is the potential for even the most ‘sin-sick soul' to be healed.

In the final story, Cissy, the permanently-on-the-margins daughter of the Texas stories, longtime spinster and secret romantic, meets Hector, a Mennonite minister who has sustained incomprehensible losses in Colombia's civil war. Each has lost a family member to suicide. Each has deep wounds. As the two begin a tentative midlife relationship, Hector's gentleness shows Cissy a way forward out of resentment and suffering. The book closes with the possibility that none of us is ever as alone as we imagine ourselves to be.

B side: "To Live is to Fly," Townes Van Zandt

Shake the dust off of your wings and the tears out of your eyes

Amy Parker and Beasts and Children links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Library Journal review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
School Library Journal review

Writer's Bone interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)