Reading List: The Business of Music

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I’ve been bingeing on books about music lately, partly because there have been so many big, critically acclaimed releases by musicians in the past year or two, and otherwise fueled by my ongoing email correspondence with my dog walker/local musician on the topic of music books—a correspondence that initially took shape as comments scribbled back and forth on the notes he leaves after every walk. (My life is adorable.)  Below are some of my favorite recent reads on the topic.

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A Voyage to Mars, Real and Imagined

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The Martian had been on my reading list for a while and when the trailer for the movie came out I knew I was running out of time to read it, because there was no chance I was not going to see the movie on the big screen, and I knew this was the kind of book I wouldn’t read afterward. I don’t have the patience to spend hours on a book that’s mostly plot-driven when I already know the plot and it’s outcome, so it’s rare for me to read a thriller or sci-fi novel after seeing the movie.

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Station Eleven and California: Hope and Despair in Apocalyptic Fiction

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To say that apocalyptic literature is a trend is a little misleading, unless your idea of a trend is rather long term. Impending apocalypse has been a source of special interest for literary writers since the birth of postmodernism, and it certainly wasn’t a new idea even then. That being said, I have seemed to gravitate toward apocalyptic novels in the past year or so, like The Age of MiraclesSuper Sad True Love StoryStation Eleven and California. But the two which seemed to me both most similar and most disparate from each other were the latter two, which I read pretty much back to back.

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Kodi Scheer’s Incendiary Girls and other fantastic fiction

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I recently finished reading Incendiary Girls, a collection of stories by Kodi Scheer. The book first came to my attention because she’s a local Ann Arbor author, but it ended up on my bookshelf because Scheer’s stories occupy a space between fantasy and magic realism that I consistently gravitate toward in my reading and in my own writing.

In Scheer’s stories, the protagonists confront any number of spectacular events; a woman’s boyfriend turns into a camel, a beauty pageant contestant is literally torn to shreds by the competition, and an army wife finds the body parts of her imperiled husband hidden around their house.

Medicine is a common theme, and it’s no surprise that Scheer once planned on a career in the discipline. She’s also the writer-in-residence at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, and that experience shines through in this collection, where several characters confront the specter of cancer or other life-altering illnesses. In “Fundamentals Law of Nature” a woman considers a possible breast cancer diagnosis after becoming convinced that her mother has been reincarnated as a horse, and in “Transplant,” a patient undergoes extraordinary physical and spiritual changes following an organ transplant.

By the end of the collection, I grew a little weary of the fixation on bodily crisis, but each story on its own investigates this common thread in an interesting way. And the final story is such a brutal and tragic semi-departure from the theme that it will make you appreciate the gentleness with which the preceding stories treat the body in its most delicate states.

A couple other favorite story collections that fall on the spectrum between the fantastic and the magically real:

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The Secret Goldfish by David Means

In my favorite story, the protagonist is stalked and repeatedly struck by lightning. These stories step in and out of the realm of the fantastic, but the collection is as notable for its fantastic qualities as for the author’s spectacular turns of phrase—they’re gorgeously written tales. Coincidentally, Means is also from Michigan—at least originally.

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Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz

In Budnitz’ stories, correlations to real world issues are often strong enough that her tales read as modern fables, with something fantastical to say about our literal lives. In “Where We Come From,” a hopeful immigrant mother extends her pregnancy by several years, as she tries again and again to cross the border so that she can give birth to the titular American baby. And in “Sales,” a family traps a traveling salesman in a pen in their living room. Flipping through the book now is making me want to read it cover-to-cover again.

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Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta

Technically a novel rather than a story collection, Dasgupta’s riff on the Canterbury Tales finds an international group of travelers stranded in an airport together. Like Chaucer’s travel companions, these characters launch into stories of their own, some of which crossing over into the truly surreal.

Can We Talk About How Much I Love Lucky Peach?

Lucky Peach is a food magazine in that it covers topics that are at least tangentially related to eating. The most recent issue, for example, includes articles on Andy Warhol’s preoccupation with packaged foods, (he ate cavier for show, but his conscience compelled him to pack up most of his meals in to-go boxes even at the fanciest restaurants and leave it on the sidewalk for the homeless) the ups and downs of political food photo ops, and why the Ojibwe tribe never developed a distinctive cultural cuisine. Great for anyone who really likes snacks, essays and also lots of other things.

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The Plague

“And it was in the midst of shouts rising against the terrace wall in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, while cataracts of colored fire fell thicker through the darkness, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence,: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can live on for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

Albert Camus, The Plague