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August 19, 2011

Book Notes - Lev Grossman ("The Magician King")

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

The Magician King is the rare sequel I enjoyed as much as its predecessor, which says a lot, because I loved The Magicians.

I called The Magicians a "modern day fantasy coming of age classic," and feel the same way about The Magician King. Grossman continues to expertly deconstruct and reimagine fantasy literature, and has me already anticipating the third book in the series.

The Chicago Sun-Times wrote of the book:

"Grossman’s heroes are complicated and tremendously appealing. By writing such strong characters so well, The Magician King squares up to a few questions at the very root of our modern condition: Who are we? How much is enough? Are we our choices or our outcomes? And, if I finally get all that I have dreamed of, then will I be happy?"

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, request an invitation.

In his own words, here is Lev Grossman's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The Magician King:

Originally the point of this playlist was to make me look cool by telling you about all the cool music I listened to while I wrote The Magician King. Unfortunately that will not be possible because now that I look at it the music I listened to while I wrote The Magician King was totally uncool. I mean it was really kind of odd. My next impulse – obviously – was to lie about what I'd listened to, but honestly at this point I don't even know what a cool lie would be. So I've fallen back on the truth, and God help us all.

1. "Oh No You Didn't," or, The Mercenaries 2 Song, by the Wojahn Brothers

Oh yes I did! I did write my novel to an advertising jingle for a video game! Look, you take your pleasures where you find them. A novelist can't afford to lie to himself, let alone his readers, about what gets him hot, so let's just get it out there: I fucking love the theme song to Mercenaries 2, so much so that I bought the full version of it off of iTunes, and it's entirely listenable-to despite that painfully weak white-boy rap bridge that comes in toward the end. Whatever its crude, capitalistic origins, it is an admirable display of pure cold-forged anger and bitterness. Obviously this says nothing about my personality or the general tone of my emotional life.

2. Mitch Benn, "Dr. Who Girl"

When I was a kid, every night for what seems like -- and may have been -- years, I went down to my father's book-lined study after dinner and watched a half hour of Tom Baker-era Dr. Who. I think Mitch Benn must have done something similar. This is a paean to the rotating cast of ridiculously hot nerd-girls who served as the good doctor's assistants over the years. It's no less moving for the way it picks up on the show's faint whiff of condescension and even sadism -- "I'll do all the thinking/You'll look good in shorts and scream." It's best listened to while watching one of several montages from the show that have been put up on YouTube. (This item is dedicated to the late great Elisabeth Sladen, a.k.a. Sarah Jane Smith, 1946-2011, whom I was in love with when I was 10.)

3. "Love My Way," by the Psychedelic Furs

I sort of want to be the Psychedelic Furs. Not any particular Fur, you understand: I want to be all of them at once. How do you make it big in 1982, when this song came out, the height of New Wave ridiculousness, and still be that cool? Dude is in the back there playing xylophone for the whole song, like he's in the 6th grade talent show, and he's cold as ice about it, like he's fucking James Bond back there playing the xylophone. This is about as perfect a pop song as you'll find anywhere, even though I have no idea what it's about. I imagine it as the kind of song a Thought Policeman in Orwell's 1984 might sing to his girlfriend – cruel and sad but also somehow heartfelt.

4. Bolero, by Maurice Ravel

This is basically the worst idea for a piece of music ever: one single theme repeated over and over again by different orchestral instruments over a rattling snare drum and some random pizzing from the strings. But weirdly -- I don't even understand why – the Bolero theme has the property that it gets more interesting the more times you hear it rather than less so. It's one of those melodies that's so obviously perfect you can't understand how one human being could have come up with it -- it's sounds like the product of a 1000-year-old folk tradition (I imagine Ravel doing what Paul McCartney did after he wrote "Yesterday" – he went around asking everybody if they'd heard the melody before, because he could swear he'd stolen it from somewhere). It's great to write to because it doesn't have any words, which are always distracting, and it whips you up into an intensely excited state in which you feel like a genius even when you aren't one.

5. "Up the Wolves," the Mountain Goats

Allow me to lay some heavy shit on you: this song is sung (I'm pretty sure) from the point of view Romulus and Remus, mythic twin founders of Rome, who were raised by a she-wolf (after they were abandoned by their real mom because of their evil uncle and blah blah blah … ). It starts out gorgeous and hopeful – rarely has John Darnielle's high, reedy voice sounded as full and musical as it does on this track. But as the chorus repeats – "Our mother has been absent/Ever since we founded Rome/But there's gonna be a party when the wolf comes home" – you realize that all the brothers want is for their mom to come and look at what they've done and tell them how great it is. But she never will, because she's a wolf and she's off chasing rabbits or whatever.

6. "You Don't Have to Be a Prostitute," by Flight of the Conchords

Yeah, I know, I know, it's a novelty song. Obviously, it's a parody of that Police song about the chick who doesn't have to be a prostitute anymore, what's her name, Roxanne. And yet I find it weirdly moving, so much so that I put it in heavy rotation while I wrote The Magician King. Because it's actually a great song. When Brett calls to Jemaine, sonorously, "Do you have any other skills? Like typing?" I swear the longing in his voice is almost palpable. And that steel drum solo at the end, gamely mimed in the video by Eugene Mirman (who went to my high school!), that shit is plangent.

7. "A Lot Like Me," by Schaffer the Darklord

I am a heavy user of nerdcore hip-hop, which is rap by nerds about nerdy things like computer games and Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons and whatever else. Schaffer the Darklord (or just STD) is an underrated practitioner of the art: I don't hear as much about him as I do about MC Frontalot and mc chris and MC Lars, great artists whose equal he definitely is. "A Lot Like Me" is a definitive STD track: profane, hyperverbal, densely referential lyrics spat out bitterly, like that first mouthful of siphoned gasoline, over a heavy head-nodding beat: "I got no time to be a rhyme-writin' tightwad/After I already blew your mind thrice on your iPod…" Thrice, mind you. If you've read this far, then STD is right: you are a lot like him.

8. "Do You Swear to Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth So Help Your Black Ass," by Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer used to be (and for all I know still might be) in a band called the Dresden Dolls, who do a song called "My Alcoholic Friends," which the first time I heard it (it was outside Minneapolis, Minn., on a book tour) I had to pull over to the side of the road to give it all my attention. (This has only happened to me once before; the other song was "Here's Where the Story Ends" by the Sundays.) My taste in music runs to anthems, and this is one: just Palmer's pretty, plain-Jane voice (which can belt when it wants to, don't be fooled) over piano, acoustic guitar and trombone, slinging lyrics of head-snapping frankness ("when I was 17/I was a blowjob queen"). Whenever you find yourself feeling unnecessarily unhappy, sing along with Amanda: "I've already spent too much time/Doing things I didn't want to." You can stop. She says it's OK. In conclusion: Amanda Palmer, like Eugene Mirman, also went to my high school.

9. "Help I'm Alive," by Metric

The scene is Comic-Con, 2010, the first screening of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Great movie. I left right after the screening not realizing that Metric, who did a song for the movie, and who were about to become my new favorite band, were waiting behind the curtain and did an actual live set right there in the theater. Instead I went to a crap party. Then later I downloaded their album Fantasies and listened to it nonstop for the rest of the year; if you sort my iTunes library by ‘most played,' five of the top 10 songs are currently Metric songs. "Help I'm Alive" is the one that hooked me: an anthemic number that runs off the terawatts of power generated by Emily Haines' clear, liquid, girlish vocals. When she sings "they're gonna eat me alllive," she enjoys that long round "l" so much, you wonder if -- maybe a little bit -- she really wants them to eat her alive…

10. "I Wanna Be a Magician," by Parry Gripp

OK, this is a bit a of a cheat, but bear with me. I didn't listen to this song while I wrote The Magician King, but this song exists because I wrote The Magician King. If you happened to read the last playlist I wrote for this blog, you'll know what a hardcore fan I am of Parry Gripp, frontman of Nerf Herder, the definitive nerdcore power-pop band of all time. Well, when the new book was almost done I e-mailed it to Parry and asked him if he'd consider writing a theme song for it. Amazingly, he agreed, and a couple of months later this came flooding out of my speakers: one minute fifty seconds of pure musical felix felicis. It opens with a classic Hogwarts-style solo celesta, then builds to crashing guitar chords, with Gripp's elastic tenor bounding along over them. You can't know what it means to me to hear this guy, whose work has given me literally hundreds of hours of pleasure and solace, singing about the Chatwins and the Questing Beast. Listen to how he lets his voice break in the last verse: "You can keep/New York City/'Cause there's nothing here for me." I hear you man. See you in Fillory.

Lev Grossman and The Magician King links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the book's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

A.V. Club review
Barnes and Noble Review review
Boing Boing review
Boston Globe review
Chicago Sun-Times review
Full Stop review
The Hipster Book Club review
Kirkus Reviews review
Marie Claire review
Miami Herald review
NPR review
The Ranting Dragon review
Seattle Times review
SF Signal review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review
Washington Post review
West End Word review

The Brooklyn Paper profile of the author
CNN interview with the author
Daily Beast profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Magicians
Riverfront Times interview with the author
Speakeasy profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists