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August 20, 2009

Book Notes - Lev Grossman ("The Magicians")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Lev Grossman's latest novel The Magicians has drawn comparisons to the Harry Potter and Narnia series, but exists in its own right as a modern day fantasy coming of age classic.

With this playlist, Lev Grossman joins his brother Austin (who wrote the novel Soon I Will Become Invincible) in becoming the first pair of siblings to contribute to the Book Notes series.

At Salon, Laura Miller wrote of the book:

"Instead of deflating the novel's spell, this skepticism liberates the story from the old fantasy clichés and takes it into exhilaratingly uncharted territory. There are some ravishing episodes (especially a passage in which Quentin gets transformed into a migrating wild goose), and above all an irresistible storytelling momentum that makes "The Magicians" a great summer book, both thoughtful and enchanting."

In his own words, here is Lev Grossman's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, The Magicians:

I have a bad habit of hiding allusions to other books in my books. Sometimes I even leave them lying around in plain sight. The Magicians is a fantasy novel, but it's also a fantasy novel ABOUT fantasy novels, and as such it contains secret and not so secret nods to CS Lewis, JK Rowling, JRR Tolkien, Piers Anthony, Larry Niven, TH White, and on and on and on. It is a nerdy book.

A lot gets made of how nerd culture is mainstream now, what with actual regular people playing Halo and reading Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and all. But that's really only true in certain media -- books and movies and TV and games. Nerd music has yet to break out of its little subcultural Shire. What follows is a playlist of some of the nerd music that aided and abetted, and sometimes hindered, the writing of The Magicians.

1. Parry Gripp, "The Girl at the Video Game Store." Gripp is the lead singer of Nerf Herder, a band that's probably best known for the theme to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but which has a long and rich discography of its own, much of which is as nerdy as you'd expect from a band that's named after a Star Wars reference. Gripp appears to have done "The Girl at the Video Game Store" solo, but it has Nerf Herder's same hard-charging power-pop sound. It's about one nerd's longing for a girl who, in being hot and working at the video game store, appears to combine all possible feminine virtues at once.

Sample lyric: "She was nice to me/She helped me buy my Wii."

2. MC Frontalot, "Dude and Catastrophe." Frontalot is one of the founding fathers of the hip-hop genre known as nerdcore. It's hip-hop about nerdy things -- video games, D&D, programming, etc. This song may be the only song ever written entirely in the persona of a character from a webcomic, specifically Achewood, which if you've never read it, you should, it's genius. The song is about the death of a character called Todd, who is a squirrel of low moral character. He dies pretty regularly.

Sample lyric: "Man why he even got to do a thing/Like pass out on the Bar-B-King?"

3. The Decemberists, "Bridges and Balloons." This isn't nerd music per se, though in their arcane, obsessive, ultra-literate sensibilities the Decemberists and Joanna Newsom are, in an abstract way, extremely nerdy. This is the Decembrists covering Newsom, a songwriter with a whimsical, spacy, intensely verbal style that is basically indescribable (she sings and accompanies herself on the harp). I once, in a very black state of mind, listened to this song on repeat for about 6 hours, but I still don't know what it's about. Listen to it and tell me.

Sample lyric: "I can recall our caravel/a little wicker beetle-shell/with four fine masts and lateen sails/its bearings on Cair Paravel."

4. Jonathan Coulton, "Still Alive." Another musical first: a great song that was written for the closing credits of a video game (namely Portal). Coulton is one of the major nerd troubadors, and he rocks a protean but incredibly funny, appealing style. "Still Alive" is sung by Portal's villain, a sinister, sexy-voiced AI who has spent the game trying to kill you by subjecting you to a series of experiments. Though she won't admit it.

Sample lyric: "I'm not even angry/I'm being so sincere right now/Even though you broke my heart/and killed me"

5. Swish and Flick, "Swish and Flick." OK, now we're in the world of wizard rock: music written about, and set in the world of, the Harry Potter books. This is a vast and varied world, much too vast and varied to be represented by a couple of songs. But I love Swish & Flick, a hip-hop duo who hybridize a kind of badass Lil' Kim persona with the dark energy of a Slytherin student. Don't miss the heavily vocoded outro: "Harry P-o-o-o-o-otterrrrrrr …"

Sample lyric: "I won't think twice if you're nice/'Cause I only date the bad boys/like Draco and the Malfoys."

6. The Remus Lupins, "Loosen Your Tie." A different take on wizard rock (sometimes just referred to as "wrock"), by the Remus Lupins, who are one guy, who is kind of the Connor Oberst of wizard rock. This is a punk anthem about a Hogwarts student -- probably Harry himself -- who can't stand the pressure anymore, he has to head over to Hogsmeade and tear shit up.

Sample lyric: "Everyday I go out, its a little bit colder/I need to wear my awesome scarf"

7. Schaffer the Darklord, "Nerd Lust." Back to nerdcore. Schaffer the Darklord -- a.k.a. STD -- is a skinny guy in a dark suit who raps about cats and Craig's List and clones and what would happen if Jesus Christ came back as a zombie. "Nerd Lust" is his paean to nerdy girls and how hot they are. I think we can all agree that he is correct.

Sample lyric: "When we kiss, girl, it's like magic … the gathering."

8. mc chris, "Fett's Vette" (Baddd Spellah remix). One of the acknowledged masterpieces of the nerdcore canon, by one of its acknowledged masters. mc chris is another nerdcore pioneer, gifted with a crazily high voice and a rapid-fire, chain-gun delivery -- he sounds sped up, but he isn't. "Fett's Vette" is a Robert Browning-like monologue from Boba Fett's point of view, musing on his life and times and his hatred of Han Solo.

Sample lyric: "I'm a devious degenerate/defender of the devil/Shut down all the trash compactors on the deee-tention level."

9. The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets, "The Innsmouth Look." Let us first pause to acknowledge the greatest band name ever. OK, done. TDotHT play nerd metal. I don't listen to them as much as some others on this list, because metal isn't my thing, but I have to give it up for "The Innsmouth Look," which is off their Spaceship Zero album (which is the soundtrack to a 1950's science fiction radio show ... that doesn't actually exist). Like a lot of TDotHT's work, this song is grounded in the Lovecraft mythos. It concerns the romance of a young man with a young woman who has a touch of the Old Ones in her family background.

Sample lyric: "She sank her dewclaws into me."

10. Nerf Herder, "Mr. Spock." I could have diversified the gene pool of this list a bit further, but instead I'm circling back to Parry Gripp and Nerf Herder, because of my great fannish love for them. "Mr. Spock" is sung from the point of view of a man whose lady, in her heart, longs not for him but for the Enterprise's first officer. And who among us would want to compete with that? The song is also notable for its flawless power-pop instrumentals, and for the most achingly plangent mention of Diet Dr. Pepper in the entire canon of rock and roll..

Sample lyric: "You don't want a boyfriend/What you want is Mr. Spock/To come to your wasteland/And destroy the ro-o-o-o-o-bot."

Lev Grossman and The Magicians links:

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

A.V. Club review
advance.reader review
The Book Studio review
Bookforum review
BookPage review review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Darque Reviews review
dfan review
Entertainment Weekly review
Errant Dreams review
Fantasy Book Review review
GamingAngels review
The House of Camera Egoists review
INDenver Times review
King of the Nerds!!! review
A Novel Menagerie review
O, The Oprah Magazine review
Publishers Weekly review
Quomodocumque review
Salon review
Seattle Times review
Time Out New York review
Total Sci-Fi review
USA Today review
Village Voice review
Washington Post review

AuthorsDen interview with the author
Flavorwire interview with the author
NPR All Things Considered profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks