A Playlist for John Henry Fleming’s Songs for the Deaf

Songs_mainJohn Henry Fleming’s forthcoming story collection, Songs for the Deaf, is full of haunted characters: haunted by the deaths of loved ones, memories of lovers, knowledge of truth. The range of characters—aliens, bigfoot look-alikes, cloud readers, floating girls—lends itself to satire, creating a new mythology out of crises of faith.

Most importantly, though, these stories are fun.

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AWP Award Series: Julian Hoffman’s The Small Heart of Things and Andrew Ladd’s What Ends

Recently, I put cream cheese, Nutella, and orange zest between two pieces of bread and cooked it up like a grilled cheese. A little butter, a hot pan. Grilled cheese is tried and true. It doesn’t need improvement. But I saw the recipe (though for grilled cheese, I’d call “recipe” a stretch) in this book and had to try it.

I was skeptical. But, you guys. That sandwich was so good. It was warm (duh) and melty (duh) and bittersweet. Perfect for chilly weather, which we are getting plenty of here in Iowa.

Julian Hoffman’s essay collection, the small heart of things, and our blog editor Andrew Ladd’s novel, What Ends—both 2012 AWP Award winners—are a lot like that toasty sandwich. The two seemingly different narratives—also warm and bittersweet—cross the 3,664 kilometers of land and sea between their settings to tackle the complex, emotionally hefty topic of “home.”

(I’ll be discussing the other two winners of the 2012 AWP Award, Joan Naviyuk Kane’s poetry collection Hyperboreal, and Lucas Southworth’s story collection Everyone Here Has A Gun, in a later column.)

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Two Deserts by Julie Brickman: A Ploughshares Playlist

9781933435466After a detour into the Land of Internet GIFs, I’m back on the music train, bringing you tunes to accompany Julie Brickman’s new story collection, Two Deserts, released the first of this month from Hopewell Publications.

Brickman’s stories examine the breadth of love—love between mother and son, husband and wife; between those ill and those well, those who lean extremist and those who don’t. The collection acknowledges myriad aspects of Capital-L-Love: endurance, lust, dedication, and small, bright sparks of joy.

I hope this playlist brings a small, bright spark of joy to your day.

Listen  to the playlist here and read on after the cut!Continue Reading

“A Powerlessness That Was Kind”: A Playlist for Aimee Bender’s The Color Master

The-Color-Master-Aimee-Bender-Cover-199x300I have to admit that this was one of the tougher playlists to put together. Aimee Bender’s latest collection, The Color Master, does not easily lend itself to non-ephemeral song. It’s a collection that drops hints. In the opening story, “Appleless,” for example, a girl refuses to eat apples, compelling those in the orchard to eat the fruit in excess while she circles the trees over and over. Eventually the apple-eaters’ desire becomes too big and they overwhelm the girl, touching her, smothering her as they move in closer and closer. Like much of the collection, “Appleless” is a story about hunger, about desire, about consumption.

Sometimes the hunger is literal, as in the closing story, “The Devourings,” in which an ogre father eats his children. Sometimes the hunger is less literal; sometimes it is sexual (“On a Saturday Afternoon”) or monetary (“The Red Ribbon”).

In “The Fake Nazi,” a man metaphorically consumes a whole nation’s guilt, asking for punishment for something he had no part in. In “Lemonade,” a teenage girl hungers for acceptance. In “The Doctor and the Rabbi” the doctor desires knowledge he can’t possibly achieve.

It goes on.

Bender’s stories are playful, a little dark, and sharp around the edges. (A notable exception to this rule is “A State of Variance,” which ended up having the sweetest ending. Good sweet. Not rot-your-teeth sweet.) In this collection, Bender strikes a balance between pointing out—and amping up—the oddities of real life (“The Red Ribbon”), and going whole hog into the realm of fantasy (“The Devourings”).

Some of the songs on this playlist are instrumental; some are not. Some of Bender’s stories warrant a quieter backdrop; others beg for words. Either way, each song in this playlist reflects the hunger and desire of Bender’s characters. They dive right on in to the deep end of the collection’s happy/sad/uncomfortable/satiated/desperate/ despairing/quietly-joyful tone. I hope you do, too.

Playlist for Aimee Bender’s The Color Master. Happy Listening!

(Click through for the song list, and don’t forget to also check out our interview with Aimee Bender on the blog today!)

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Similar Bravery: A Playlist for Rick Bass’s “All The Land To Hold Us”

rick bookThe first time I met Rick Bass, in early 2010, I was sick as a dog. Iowa State University had invited him to participate in its annual Wildness Symposium, during my first year in the MFA program. In the middle of the symposium my Florida-born body rejected winter altogether. I discovered what a full-blown Iowan flu felt like when I almost passed out walking to teach a class. After a trip to the doctor I figured out that if I walked only short distances and sat frequently—essentially chair-hopping my way from Point A to Point B—I could outrun the dizziness, so when a few of my peers and I were given the opportunity to have dinner with Rick after his reading, I thought, Cool. I’ll just sit and it’ll be fine. No way was I going to miss the opportunity to talk to the activist whose writings I taught to my composition students.

I was pretty sure I wasn’t contagious anymore when we sat down to dinner at a Mexican restaurant on the west side of Ames. I contemplated the menu—quesadilla or tostada? I sipped my water.  My swimmy vision was still for the moment.

Then it happened. A shift in the AC and I could smell the fried food—the one thing my stomach hates on a regular day. I was done. I spent the whole of the meal sitting across from Rick Bass, lips shut tight against all the questions I wanted to ask him, because I figured it would look real bad if a first-year grad student threw up on the table.Continue Reading

Red Moon Rising: Playlist for Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon

Red_MoonHB-195x300In my last post I talked about my love of zombies—the blank stares, the hyperfast sprinting, and the social allegory of the undead—and my less-than-love for the resurgence of swoony vampires. In light of the revival of such classic horror monsters, I’m left wondering: what about werewolves? (Or for that matter, mummies—because isn’t a walking mummy kinda-sorta like a zombie? But anyway… Today we’re talking about werewolves.)

There have been a few recent werewolf appearances in books and on the screen: Toby Barlow’s novel-length poem, Sharp Teeth, for example, and MTV’s Teen Wolf series—now in it’s third season. And let’s not forget Twilight’s Jacob Black, the love-torn, angst-ridden teen subject of this Facebook group.

None of these stories, though, have re-envisioned werewolves in quite the way I’ve been craving. I want less teen angst and more action, more imagination and reinvention within the cannon.

Benjamin Percy’s second novel, Red Moon (Grand Central Publishing 2013), finally delivers such a story, and just in time for hammock weather here in Iowa.Continue Reading

Book vs Movie: World War Z (A Ploughshares Playlist)


First things first:  Did you all know that Max Brooks, author of World War Z (basis for the newly released movie of the same title), is Mel Brooks’s son? Neither did I.

Moving on.

I’ll be honest. I’m not so into the recent vampire craze. I can’t get into shiny, marble-man vampires, or teen angst with fangs. (I do love Karen Russell’s short story, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, though.)

I am, however, like my fellow Ploughshares blogger A.J. Kandathil, unabashedly a sucker for a good zombie story. Really. As far as I’m concerned (sorry, purist friends) Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is worlds better with Elizabeth Bennett kung-fu-ing the undead.

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This month Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby came out in all it’s extravagant glory.

One thing I especially love about the film is its soundtrack. Setting the story to a backdrop of current music (Jay-Z, Lana Del Rey, Jack White) is true to Fitzgerald’s own inclusion of pop culture in his work.  That’s why this week’s playlists—that’s right, two—for Fitzgerald’s novel, Tender is the Night, cover both the author’s own musical choices and a more modern soundtrack of my own making.

But first a little more about Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald’s most popular novel.

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“He Had Crossed to Arrive There”: A Playlist for Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities


Every time I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities I get something different from it.  Like NPR’s Eric Weiner writes, “I leave it, again and again, and yet never discover it—never really know it.” This latest reading, for me, boils down to one thing: the act of searching, of trying to grasp something that’s always just beyond our reach. (In this month’s playlist: “Exposition” by Takenobu.)

Marco Polo ventures out into the world and returns to Kublai Khan with descriptions of cities.  He categorizes them, finds a way to organize his experiences so that he can better understand them, and in understanding them, communicate them to the Mongolian founder of China’s Yuan Dynasty (“The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe, Part 7: After the Storm” by Andre Desplat).  He conveys images of cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and signs, thin cities, trading cities, cities and eyes, cities and names, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, continuous cities, hidden cities.

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“Look Who Made It:” A Playlist for Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove


To me, a new Karen Russell book is literary Christmas. Her new collection tells the stories of characters doing their best to conquer insurmountable odds: addiction, enslavement, the aftereffects of war. The stories explore the strengths and frailties of people; below, I’ve tried to match each one with a song that does it justice.

“Let Your Guard Down” by Emily Wells: To me, this song sounds like the slow passing of years. It speaks to the feeling of having everything and nothing at the same time. In “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” Clyde and Magreb have found a way to dull their hunger, but Clyde still feels an emptiness—an emptiness that’s furthered by Magreb’s growing distance and his insatiable desire.Continue Reading