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May 12, 2017

Book Notes - Leyna Krow "I'm Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking"

I'm Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking

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.

Leyna Krow's brilliant short fiction collection I'm Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking is filled with marvelously varied stories.

Amber Sparks wrote of the book:

"What a wonderful book Leyna Krow has written! And what a rare book - innovative, clever, funny, deliciously language-driven, delightful dialogue - but also so very warm and human. It's about humans, it's for humans, it makes me feel better about being a human reading this book about humans. A joy to read."

In her own words, here is Leyna Krow's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection I'm Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking:

I typically don't listen to music while I write. I get too caught up in the lyrics, and it makes it difficult for me to focus on my own words. I suppose I could listen to strictly instrumental stuff…but the lyrics are my favorite part and I'm honestly not nearly as interested in music without them. So, I have to do my writing and listening in separate spaces.

Although my collection I'm Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking wasn't particularly influenced by music, for this reason, I still think there are a lot of great songs that pair well with its stories, particularly if you want to geek out over lyrics. So, here's my playlist, one song per story, with a particular fondness for the lonely, the isolated, the weird, and the lost at sea.

"I'm Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking" – "The Mariner's Revenge" by The Decemberists
Okay, so this long, twisty, complicated song is a rough pick for the START of a mix tape, but hear me out. "The Mariner's Revenge," which comes at the end of the Decemberists' excellent album Picaresque, is a tale of violence and revenge on the high seas, featuring a giant whale that eats both the narrator and the man he's trying to kill. It's so creepy, it's actually darkly funny. To add to the humor, when performed live, a big whale puppet runs around on stage. Brilliant! The title story of my book isn't creepy like "Mariner's Revenge" …and there's no revenge. But it does take place in the ocean where bad things are happening to the people involved, to a darkly comic affect (I hope). Also, there are sea creatures of somewhat mythical stature. If there was ever a stage version, surely a giant squid/octopus puppet would be present.

"Tiger, Tiger" – "I'll Believe in Anything" by Wolf Parade
"Tiger, Tiger" is one of the oldest stories in the collection, and since writing it, my perspective on the couple at its center has changed. The piece takes place a year after the protagonist's wife suffers a miscarriage fairly far along in her pregnancy. In the aftermath of this tragedy, the couple – Mark and Jenny – find themselves not really on the same page about their relationship. And then, when they come to suspect one of their neighbors is keeping a live tiger in his backyard, they aren't on the same page with what to do about that either. At the end of the story, they are still together, but things are rough and I used to think they probably weren't going to make it. But now that I'm married and a parent myself, and have watched others close to me also embark on similar journies, I've reconsidered Mark and Jenny's fate. The acts of building a life together and then creating new life while you're at it are just such inherently fraught undertakings that there are bound to be some hard, sad times. In some cases those hard times can last years. But they don't necessarily spell the death of a relationship, not by a long shot. So now, I think Mark and Jenny stay together after all, although what their situation in the long term ends up looking like, I don't know. But I think "I'll Believe in Anything" is a good fit for them. A big, bold song about wanting to build a life with someone regardless of adversity. "We've both been very brave/Walk around with both legs/Fight the scary day/We both pull the tricks out of our sleeves."

"End Times" – "Berkeley by Hearstback" by Why?
"End Times" is the saddest story in the collection, I think. It's about the end of the world, but the apocalypse is actually sort of an afterthought for the characters who are too wrapped up in their own familial grief to fully process what's going on external to themselves. "Berkeley by Heastback" is about death, and mothers, and trying to contextualize death and mothers and personal identity through the lens of Judaism (which is also happening in "End Times"). The lyrics have a fragmented, patchwork feel to them, with the speaker thinking forward to his own death, just as the narrator of "End Times," a woman who can see into the future, is projecting forward to hers through a series of footnotes. "Berkeley by Hearstback" makes me sad when I listen to it, but in a good way – in a familiar way. That's how I want reading "End Times" to feel too.

"Katie Eats Boston Cream Pie at a Motel Diner in Southeast Portland" – "Pacific NW Last Chance to Dance" by Japanther
"Went to see your band/Portland, Oregon, I'm a fan." These are more or less the only words to this abbreviated pop song. And while the protagonist (Katie) of "Katie Eats Boston Cream Pie in a Motel Diner in Southeast Portland" isn't actually much of a fan of Portland, I feel like the obsessive repetition of this song is right up her alley. Katie travels to Portland to find the ex-girlfriend of her ex-boyfriend, who she believes owns some artwork of his that she wants for herself. If her ex were a musician and not a painter, she would definitely go see his band….over and over and over, in Portland, Oregon and beyond. "The devil loves those idle hands," this song reminds us. This too couldn't be truer for Katie, bored and alone with all her worst ideas.

"Habitat" – "Maps" by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Wait! They don't love you like I love you! "Habitat" isn't a love story. But I think the almost clinging desperation of the love in "Maps" is a good fit none-the-less for the characters in this piece. There's the protagonist who fears losing her close relationship with her best friend and twin brother when he threatens to move away from the family's home town. And then there's their father who has been forced to give up his house and business when the family farm is overtaken by an invasive species. He's so distraught by the loss that he sends his two adult children out to the abandoned house each weekend to strip it for parts (doorknobs, light fixtures, etc.). There's a lot of holding on happening all around. "Maps," in its stark simplicity and focus, seems apt for people who are trying so hard to keep things the same as they've always been even in the face of undeniable, irreversible change.

"Excitable Creatures" – "Animal" by Miike Snow
In "Excitable Creatures," a recently unemployed woman finds an animal she can't identify in her backyard and decides to keep it as a pet. In her company it is sleepy and gentle, but she comes to suspect that when left on its own, it is actually a violent hunter of neighborhood cats and other animals. Not only does she decide she doesn't mind this trait in her new pet, she actually maybe likes it a little, and is even envious of the creature's wildness. That's kind of the deal in "Animal" too: a dissatisfaction with one's place in the quote-unquote civilized world. "I change shapes just to hide in this place but I'm still, I'm still an animal/Nobody knows it but me when I slip yeah I slip/I'm still an animal." Basically, if we don't acknowledge we are violent and mean and hungry and vacant as a species always just pretending to be otherwise, then we are liars.

"Disruption" – "Lost in the Supermarket" by The Clash
Such a happy-sounding sad song. The protagonist of "Disruption" is one hundred percent lost in the supermarket. Her world has been thrown into chaos by the disappearance of her husband after he commits a horrible crime. Each morning everything falls off of her kitchen shelves and onto the floor for no apparent reason. On Thursdays, her freezer also voids itself. She blames someone pushing a button in Detroit, Michigan and works to uncover who this might be. Both the song and the story are all about the unhinging of a person in an otherwise benign, domestic setting. Plus, I love The Clash. Last year I was talking about The Clash to my mom and she said she'd never heard of them, which I absolutely refused to believe, so I immediately put on London Calling and after each song, I demanded to know if it sounded familiar. Her answer each time was "no."

"Spud & Spud II" – "Two-Headed Boy" Parts I & II by Neutral Milk Hotel
Neutral Milk Hotel's In An Aeroplane Over the Sea album is well known for being about Anne Frank, and so it's probably in super poor taste to try to appropriate it for other purposes. But…the lyrics to these songs are so opaque in their oddity that they could apply to just about any lonely youth, particularly one living in slightly surreal circumstances who also happens to be missing their parents and experiencing some sort of sexual awakening. This is pretty spot-on for thirteen-year-old Spud in "Spud & Spud II," the orphan clone of a dead astronaut who spends his days communing with animals and fending off/encouraging the sexual advances of his neighbor. Also, like "Two-Headed Boy," "Spud & Spud II" is a story split into parts. Chunks of the Spud story appear between the other, longer stories in the book, building on each other as they go.

"Mr. Stills' Squid Days" – "Saltbreakers" by Laura Veirs
We started with the sea and we shall end with the sea! But this time with a little more optimism. I've heard it said that the key different between short stories and novels (aside from the length) is that novels are redemptive, and short stories are punitive. And indeed, most of the stories in my book follow that rule. But I didn't want to end on a punitive note. I wanted redemption. And while "Mr. Stills's Squid Days" isn't an entirely happy story, I think it is redemptive. In it, Dahlia, an elderly, wheelchair-bound woman tries to make sense of recurring dreams she's certain are actually memories from her childhood – but the dreams keep changing, and so she works to figure out which, if any of the dreams represents what actually happened. "You will not burn me up/Though I've dreamed nightly of your face," Veirs sings in "Saltbreaker" and I think this could be a rallying cry for Dahlia too, who refuses to give up on her quest to discover the truth of what's in her mind. Also, the dreams contain a lot of squid, which synchs up nicely with the whimsical sea creatures of "Saltbreakers." There are serpents and flying fish and dragons in the fist stanza, all of which would be well at home in Dahlia's dreams.

Leyna Krow and I'm Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Fnews Magazine review
Heavy Feather Review review
Necessary Fiction review

Pacific Island Inlander profile of the author
The Spokesman-Review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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