Patrick Nathan's novel Some Hell is an impressive and poignant debut.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"A gripping account of the intricately woven mind of a teenager. . . . Nathan has crafted an all-consuming novel in which topics like suicide, homosexuality, parenting, friendship, and psychology make up a precarious tableau in which readers can leave their own subjectivity behind and experience the world from Colin's singular viewpoint. . . . A magnetic first novel combining wit, sex, and apocalyptic reverie."
In his own words, here is Patrick Nathan's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Some Hell:
For me, a novel’s playlist is not music to write to. Music to write to isn’t hard to find—rhythmic, wordless, nothing that wants too badly to be heard. What I look for when creating a playlist is music to write for. These songs and their order, listened to over and over, become one of the novel’s many aspirations. Along with films, photographs, poetry, and of course other books, music offers the shape and structure the novel strives to emulate. With music, you can see the entire arc as often as you want, which is an easy way to stay with it. It’s the metronome that says, Keep writing.
Sweet Sweet: The Smashing Pumpkins
I’m not sure why, but this is one of those songs that feels like it’s always there, behind some door, no matter how far you go or what other music you listen to. It will never leave you. What I wanted, going into my novel, was to open the door and find a family that has figured out how to exist with one another, to tolerate one another. Colin’s brother and his sister, his mother and father, all exist behind their closed doors. I had to find something to destroy.
The Art of Self Destruction, Part One: Nine Inch Nails
#1 Crush: Garbage
Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray: Patsy Cline
It’s Now Or Never: Elvis Presley
Don’t Be Scared: Andrew Bird
Here are some voices, or maybe dancers—whatever it takes to stage a psychological ballet where no one allows themselves to come into contact with anyone else, where no one really speaks to anyone else. This is, now, a damaged family. Of course there had to be cigarettes and they had to sound lonely. There had to be Garbage with a shade of Romeo & Juliet, even if it’s only Colin who’s star-crossed—his best friend and #1 Crush barely sees him as human. There had to be hope and beauty, a glance outside at the weather. There had to be a texture like music shredding itself, coming undone, to match what the novel itself wanted to be: unstable even in its early pages. None of this can last. Even the characters know that, despite pretending otherwise.
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This): Marilyn Manson
Long Black Snake Moan: Hank Pine and Lily Fawn
Green Grass: Tom Waits
Million Dollar Man: Lana Del Rey
We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37): Peter Gabriel
Things darken. So much of this novel is Alan, dead in the earliest pages, speaking through the notebooks he’s left behind full of historical and scientific facts, lists, anecdotes, and, occasionally, his own memories, even desires. “Lay your head where my heart used to be”: when Diane visits the cemetery, over a year after his death, this is the voice she longs to hear, speaking from beneath the green grass. But of course there’s nothing to hear, at least not outside of cinematic fairytales, those beautiful picnics with the dead.
Things deepen: Colin’s fantasies, which oscillate between getting fucked and getting murdered; his and his mother's dreams of hell and hell on earth; their mutually-destructive dependence upon one another; and their willingness to carry on with the identities prescribed them by what our culture expects of the bereaved, the steps and rituals that check all the boxes: sad, angry, healing, growing. It’s always easier to perform grief than it is to feel it, to look at it. Neither can do this any longer, and they think they know how to fix it.
Station to Station: David Bowie
American Wheeze: 16 Horsepower
Third Day of a Seven Day Binge: Marilyn Manson
Half Heart: Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch
Self Destruction, Final: Nine Inch Nails
A time signature change. The first five minutes of Bowie’s “Station to Station” are plodding, rhythmic, and could go on in perpetuity. The shift is radical: a new song erupts from within the song we thought we’d figured out, and then, stunningly, it does it again. By the time we reach the novel’s third section, everything begins to need this kind of radical and ongoing change. As Colin and Diane drive from Minneapolis to California, their road trip is the first major shift, their arrival in L.A. the second. Away from their home and cleaved from all consequences, their lives become more unstable than ever. Even the text itself comes apart. What promised to be a healing vacation, a way to get to know each other and break their routine of grief, becomes an out-of-control binge where each indulges their worst tendencies. Yet each grows as an individual, a more complete human being. Cruelly (on my part), they recognize this: they’ve pushed too hard and gone too far, and it’s with Badalamenti’s “Half Heart” that they appreciate this, that they step outside of time. This is their moment to see one another, to be honest with themselves, and it would be a neat little ending to a very different kind of novel, were it not for that final shift, that final track.
An imaginative comic story of Walt Disney going to a paradise rehabilitation centre after a nervous breakdown. There, he meets Tomi Ungerer and Saul Steinberg and, together, they embark on a regimen of relaxation and art therapy. Haifisch looks at the drive and crippling insecurities of the average artist and places those same issues on the shoulders of three celebrated 20th century artists with warmth and absurdity,
The special 10th anniversary edition gives you a fresh chance to read this seminal graphic novel. In early 20th century, light-skinned African-American men who could "pass" as white reported on the lynchings in the American South. Incognegro follows one such reporter in this dark somber mystery story.
The beloved magazine is back from a long hiatus. Look for comedian Maria Bamford answering written-in questions, an interview with love philosopher Alain de Botton, a new poem by poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, AND a short comic by the above mentioned artist Anna Haifisch.
While hospitalized for post-traumatic stress and bipolar II disorders, the author was given a notebook and began to write about her dysfunctional upbringing on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia. It's a poetic collection of memories,reflections, and dark ghosts. Not to miss.
Can't go wrong with a book beloved by both Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado. This book of dark folk and fairy tales may frighten and spook, but they are also delightfully balanced with emotional clarity and feminist mischief.
Curtis White's postmodern gem of a novel, Lacking Character, is clever, absurd, and marvelously entertaining.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Endlessly inventive and endlessly imitative... [Lacking Character] bills itself equally as a bomb tossed into the bunker of literary convention; an algorithm endlessly replicating the capitalist apocalypse; a picaresque through which White's mad characters tilt at real giants disguised as miniature-golf windmills. The result is a profane wrestling match between high style and low comedy which owes as much to Rocky and Bullwinkle as it does to Gauguin's Vision After the Sermon"
Honestly, all of my books, even the grimmest, have been comic. They’ve been satires, and there are satiric elements in Lacking Character. But mostly it's a book about the great Romantic Ethic of Play emerging from a tradition begun by Rabelais, Laurence Sterne, Byron’s Don Juan, and Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers.
The problem with creating a playlist for such a book is that most of the music I like is in a minor key. If I were a composer, my major key would be minor. It’s like with the Renaissance composer John Dowland: “Semper Dowland semper dolens”: John Dowland is always sad, a little bit sad. Even when he was dancing a galliard, it had to be a “melancholy galliard.”
For me, that’s true even with pop music. For example, my favorite early John Lennon song is “I’ll Cry Instead.” It’s a rocker, a Carl Perkins rocker, but the song begins in a key harshly minor, as if there were a key called Bitter Minor, accompanied by dark lyrics: “I’ve got every reason on earth to be mad,” right out of the “angry young men” scene in working class London in the 1950s. Surely, people danced to it, but while they were dancing they must have been wondering, at some level, “better hide all the girls…?” A little frightening.
Anyway, that’s my dominant taste, but it doesn’t quite fit the mood of this book. Which is a comedy, a playful comedy. Sort of. Mostly.
So what I’ll provide here is a soundtrack, ambient music, perhaps, something in keeping with the prevailing mood of manic invention that dominates a book that, in the end, wants to dance.
In chronological order but otherwise all over the place:
Mozart, Divertimento in D major k 136
Let’s start with Mozart because, how could we not? For me this is the quintessential Mozart of laughter, joy, and unbounded energy. I could tell you about it but it would be like trying to tell a stranger ‘bout Mozart’s Divertimento in D major k 136. (That’s a Lovin’ Spoonful joke.)
Berlioz, Symphony Fantastique, Second Movement (1830)
A waltz, a waltz to end all waltzes, crescendoing for seven minutes, leaving us breathless, and really, really glad to be alive, in spite of it all.
Thelonius Monk and Art Blakey, “In Walked Bud” (1958)
So gloriously deranged! Monk’s dissonant percussive punctuation, Blakey’s eccentric rim shots, What? What is happening here? Such a privilege to be human and to hear this shit!
Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, “Minglewood Blues,” (Garden of Joy, 1968)
On Garden of Joy a bunch of New York roots musicians go all California and hippy-like, led by Geoff and Maria Muldaur. You know the Grateful Dead’s version of this song, but Geoff Muldaur’s possessed vocal takes it to a whole ‘nuther level…of spontaneity and joy! This music should be remembered, but I fear that it’s not. Help me with this, will you?
As you might know, there wasn’t a lot of ecstasy in Steely Dan’s brilliantly morose catalogue. This is the exception. No gloomy lyrics, just “take me by the hand and show me the sparkle of your China.”
In closing, an ‘80s Medley: David Bowie, “Let’s Dance,” Black Uhuru, “Party in Session,” Nina Hagen, “Universal Radio,” Ian Drury and the Blockheads, “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” and Tom Waits, “Swordfishtombone.”
“Came home from the war with a party in his head.” That about says it.
This playlist may seem a little dated. Nothing post 1990? I thought about it and concluded that popular music since the Pixies (or the Indy scene where my ears tend to loiter) has been “kinda blue.” Which, as I indicated earlier, only makes me like it more. But Father John Misty? Bjork? Neutral Milk Hotel? Swans? Radiohead? Sufjan Stevens? All gorgeously grim.
But I will add one encore from of Montreal’s Early Four Track Recordings. Each song begins with “Dustin Hoffman…Needs a Bath, Gets a Bath, Thinks About Eating Soup” etc. All in the most gloriously surreal tradition of garage band joy.
Lynne Tillman's novel Men and Apparitions once again proves her one of our most innovative and masterful storytellers.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"With callouts to a mind-revving roster of photographers, writers, filmmakers, intellectuals, and media magnets, erudite, discerning, and everdaring Tillman has forged a mischievous conflation of criticism and fiction. Incantatory, maddening, brilliant, zestful, compassionate, and timely, Tillman’s portrait of a floundering academic trying to make sense of a digitized world of churning, contradictory messages reveals the perpetual interplay between past and present, the personal and the cultural, image and life."
Men and Apparitions switches gears a lot, throughout the novel, from expository to narrative, it’s introspective, speculative, declarative, there’s fantasy, reason, irrationality, from beginning to end; but the voice remains its protagonist’s, Ezekiel Hooper Stark. If you read it, you’ll see what I mean about changes.
In jazz, there’s a concept “playing over the changes,” jazz musicians sometimes play over the changes, improvising, and, as many times as David (Hofstra, my bass player spouse) explains it to me, I don’t think I really get it. It’s abstract, always. I have some idea, but I’m probably wrong. No matter, let me say I wrote Men and Apparitions as if playing over the changes that weren’t music, necessarily.
In no order, I listened to Solange Knowles, Al Green, Tammy Tyrelle and Marvin Gaye, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bernstein’s Candide, Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, The Fortress of Solitude musical, Miles Davis's You’re Under Arrest, The Threepenny Opera, Virginia Woolf talking on BBC, her only recording, Oscar Peterson’s West Side Story, Ray Charles, Galaxie 500, Jan Johansson, Aaron Copland, The Good Thief, John Cage talking.
Finding the right music....Isn’t the right music a weird concept? What is it right for? I can’t say I ever did find it. Maybe it would always be impossible for me, or I’d have to write the score to fit this novel, but I’m incapable of that. And besides my novel is my score, and rhythm is essential to every sentence I write.
Also, maybe I’m lazy, but I didn’t want to take time to think about what music I needed to write with or for or against. I like show tunes and movie soundtracks, because they have themes, which coalesce around musical ideas and repeat, that repetitiveness is helpful, and why I also like Baroque music, because it seems logical, with a necessity to its movements. Right, I listen to soundtracks, but they can also be a blur of chords, voices. A blur. Oh, I did listen to Blur. In solitude, I listened to the radio, and those modulated voices droning on and on, and I wouldn’t hear them, I mean, I’d hear something but not words. If anyone started talking about a book or a movie or any narrative, I couldn’t listen at all, I turned it off. Sometimes I couldn’t avoid becoming interested, especially if they were discussing spies and spying and certain crimes.
David cannot not listen. His ears are attuned to sound. Sounds. All sounds distract or attract him. I can be oblivious.
On the Internet, radio, TV, sounds would come along, move from hissing, white noise, whispers, booming voices, stadium shouting. I like hearing baseball games, I like announvers’ voices, I like enthusiasm. Wordless shouts. I like hearing David down the hall playing bass. I like 1010 WINS, weather reports. Street sounds can be OK, depending on what kind.
Basically, I didn’t want to have to stop and choose music or anything to listen to, to do something that distracted me from writing. Doing that seemed an imposition and an interruption to my concentration.
Concentration, I want to say, has sound. That’s weird, but when I’m thinking, I feel that I hear myself thinking. Thinking makes noise. Solving a problem in writing can be very hard, and I had obstacles along the way. How to write this THING.
I listened to Dylan a few times. Especially Time Out of Mind, but Dylan is always sad. I listened to Performance a few times. Singers Badomi de Cesare. Nora York. Rachelle Garniez. I always like listening to The Tapper Brothers talking about cars. Even if I didn’t hear what they said, I heard them laughing, and laughter helped me keep going. Comedy saved some of my days.
"[An] irresistible portrait of his first guide dog, Corky...Kuusisto's ever-lyrical writing pulses with lush imagery and unflagging curiosity. There’s no doubt: Kuusisto's love for Corky, and love itself, become a filter through which to perceive the world—and what a deeply compassionate, beautifully observed world it is."
Have Dog, Will Travel is about finding one’s way. Though its a memoir about my experience learning to navigate with a superb guide dog the book references music in several places.
As a schoolboy whose blindness was isolating, I’d retire to my room and listen to all kinds of things, both on the radio and LPs. When I was thirteen I discovered Duke Ellington. Even today I can’t adequately express how liberating that was. Ellington’s sinuous, unbowed, symphonic complexities washed over me.
“Diminuendo in Blue”
The best recording of this is from Ellington at Newport: 1956. The tenor sax of Paul Gonsales busts down the barn door and lets the horses run. The bass of Jimmy Woode and the hot shot drumming of Sam Woodyard make smoke—then Duke’s piano flies in.
The memoir has several threads. There’s a disabled kid who grows up with alcoholic parents. They tell him he shouldn’t be blind. It takes this boy-turned-man far too long to figure out that if he wanted a big life he’d better learn how to be himself. This is the customary stuff of many personal narratives but for me it meant daring to be physically different—overtly so—walking with a white cane and then getting a remarkable dog. When a guide dog trainer named Dave See (yes!) visited me to find whether I was a good candidate for a guide dog, he saw the hundred or so compact disks stacked neatly by my stereo. He asked me what kind of music I liked. I was self conscious. Should I tell him I liked grand opera? Jazz? The Clash? Suddenly I said: I like Eric Clapton, but not the Clapton from Cream, but the later Clapton from Derek and the Dominoes. Dave said, “Got to get better in a little while!”
“Key to the Highway”
Made famous by Big Bill Broonzy the Clapton version attacks this song with the electric blues. Could there be a better tune for a man who’s working with a fast moving and confident dog who knows how to navigate New York City traffic?
I got the key to the highway,
Billed out and bound to go.
I'm gonna leave here running;
Walking is most too slow.
After getting a remarkable guide dog named Corky—a big yellow Labrador—I went to the famous MacDowell Colony for the Arts in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Corky and I were the first guide dog team to have a residency at this wonderful retreat for artistes of all kinds. I ate dinner with several classical composers. Someone asked: “What’s your dog’s favorite music?” And of course, unable to resist a bad pun, I said: “Puccini, of course.”
"Un bel di, vedremo"
While I love Giacomo Puccini’s famous tenor arias, to me there’s no more poetic and heartbreaking song than this one from Act II of Madame Butterfly. While all the great sopranos have sung this, including Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballe, and Renata Tebaldi, my favorite performance is by Leontyne Price.
During my first solo trip to Manhattan with guide dog Corky I hit a jazz club. While I wish I could say I heard Thelonious Monk that night, I heard folks playing his tunes. There are some things that never let you down. For me Monk’s “Criss Cross” hits all the joy spots. Fast, precocious, a perfect melding of sax and sharp piano—piano that thinks—and yeah, a percussive upbeat that pushes the whole performance….no matter how cold the day, this track will warm you all over.
From the album of the same name. Featuring Thelonious Monk on piano, Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, John Ore on bass, Frankie Dunlop on drums. This album is a must for any jazz lover’s collection.
A last thought:
Have Dog is a love poem to a dog who changed my life. She taught me I could go anywhere with joy and confidence. This is why the subtitle is “a poet’s journey”—I walked with Corky all over the United States and Europe. So I think its fitting to mention Gerry and the Pacemakers:
Though set in the 1990s, Sarah Henstra's novel The Red Word is a timely and compelling exploration of rape culture.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Set in the 1990s, The Red Word interrogates the prevailing political preoccupations of that time: gender politics, third-wave feminism, and consent . . . A timely and nuanced dissection of rape culture."
The Red Word offers a snapshot of American college life in the mid-1990s, when two opposing forces collided head-on: the heyday of fraternity hijinks and the rise of third-wave feminism in the classroom and beyond. The story unfolds against a backdrop of typical campus activities: study groups, keggers in the dormitory basement, all-nighters in the computer lab, women’s marches, movies at the rep cinema, poster campaigns, sorority car-washes, protests, costume parties, potlucks. There’s also a Greek mythology thing going on here: the narrator, Karen, enrolls in a course called Women and Myth and, when conflict starts to brew between her social-activist roommates (whose house they call Raghurst) and her frat-brother friends, Karen sees it all in epic terms.
The songs on this playlist are a mix between my own remembered tunes of 1990s student life and summer jobs (I planted trees every summer in Ontario, Canada, to pay my tuition), and older or more recent songs that helped me conjure the right mood for a scene or even the right attitude to buckle down to the work of writing.
Pink, “What’s Up?” (4 Non Blondes cover)
4 Non Blondes’ iconic anthem was played so often on the radio in the early 90s that it wasn’t cool enough for me to really like it. But this song is so singable—its chorus so simple—that it creates instant camaraderie amongst those listening. And it’s a young woman’s song, a complaint against the “brotherhood of man” dominating the world. Getting “real high” and screaming “What’s going on?” isn’t, perhaps, the most effective of social-change strategies, but it’s a necessary first step toward finding one’s voice, and the women of Raghurst are very much in the middle of that step.
Bob Dylan (with Janis Joplin), “It Ain’t Me, Babe”
Karen begins dating Mike Morton, a member of GBC who stands out to her as smarter and more serious than the other frat boys and therefore seems like appropriate boyfriend material. But their relationship is badly one-sided, with Mike mooning after Karen while she makes up excuses to avoid him (meanwhile, she secretly lusts after another, totally inappropriate, frat boy). Janis also figures directly in the novel. The girls of Raghurst have a poster over the sofa of her screaming into a microphone, and in one scene they debate Janis’s status as feminist role model.
Leggo Beast, “The New Deal”
At one point in the novel Karen compares the frat boys to “henchmen of Ares, god of war.” The New Deal features writer Howard Bloom advising young people on how to resist fascism and other destructive forces around them. I find everything about the piece deeply moving: Bloom’s wise, nerdy voice, his deep respect for adolescent passion and adventure-seeking, and his metaphor of the gods residing within us: “You have to freeze him [the god of war] in his own private hell and make your positive gods the gods that take you over.” Leggo Beast sets this monologue to a humble harmonica-electronica soundscape and plays it (Bloom’s speech) twice. I wish I’d listened to his advice instead of waiting to write my first novel until after forty.