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May 3, 2013

Book Notes - Amy Shearn "The Mermaid of Brooklyn"

The Mermaid of Brooklyn

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Amy Shearn's second novel The Mermaid of Brooklyn is one of the funniest books of the year and one of the most charming, a modern fable rooted in the responsibilities of parenthood.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"Amy Shearn's second novel charmingly blends the magical with the real…Funny, fearless, and unexpectedly moving, this modern fairy tale is, in a word, enchanting."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Amy Shearn's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Mermaid of Brooklyn:

1) "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," Elvis Costello

In an early version of my novel, I had this as an epigraph:

"Oh I used to disgusted
And now I try to be amused.

But since their wings have got rusted,

You know, the angels wanna wear my red shoes."

We don't have many CDs in my household, and our only CD player is in the car (it's not what you think, we are lousy with vinyl), and somehow this Elvis Costello greatest hits disc became the de facto driving music for probably 8 months, which happened to coincide with the time in which I was revising this book. I became obsessed with this song, which just seemed connected to EVERYTHING all of the sudden in the way only a weird song can:

-Jenny, my main character, is disgusted by pretty much everyone and everything, and over the course of the book really must move to that place of being amused. AKA, growing up.
-She also has a pair of magical red shoes, and knows, like the girl from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" and Mr. Costello alike, how important shoes can be.
-And of course, in my book as in the song, there is some tussling with a mythical creature.

(PS: In writing this I discovered an amazing site full of people debating songs' meanings, which I didn't think anyone did any more once I personally stopped circa 1999. It's amazing. One commenter wrote: "I always though this was a happy, peppy song about suicide." Which is, thematically, very much my book!)

2. "Sea of Love," Cat Power

For all of her issues with motherhood, Jenny really loves her kids more than she can stand. I'm not sure she would listen to Cat Power, I am quite sure she would love this wistful, happy-sad love song, and probably even adopt it as a lullaby for her baby. "Come with me, my love, to the sea, the sea of love…I want to tell you how much I love you." Is that the feeling of having a brand new baby, or what? Plus, hello, the sea.

3. "Wave of Mutilation," The Pixies

Jenny is an overwhelmed mother who feels that she is losing herself, and what's worse, that she is losing herself in a very ordinary way. This sense of what she calls "me-lessness" is heightened when her compulsive gambler husband disappears.

As she is teetering on the brink, her mother-in-law comes to babysit and like mothers everywhere, Jenny is unable to think of anything better to do than to buy groceries. She wanders around the store, her "iPod blaring music I liked in high school, music I knew was cheesy, that Harry had always made fun of, but that reminded me of some nascent part of myself, some innocence I'd had no idea was innocence at the time. Morrissey, the Replacements, the Pixies. Soul Asylum, dear God. The songs sounded like dispatches from another world: grungy and crackly and distorted, luxuriantly whiny. Now that I actually had something to be upset about, their angst seemed vestigial."

When I think of the Pixies I think of "The Wave of Mutilation," but what's really amazing to me is that I didn't actually listen to this song while writing. I didn't even think about the lyrics at all, just that Jenny is a little bit older than I am, so as an angsty teenager in a suburb of Minneapolis in the late 80s/early 90s, she would have been contractually obligated to have Doolittle on repeat. Now that I think about, this song is ridiculously relevant:

"Cease to resist, giving my goodbye

Drive my car into the ocean

You'll think I'm dead, but I sail away

On a wave of mutilation

Wave of mutilation

Wave of mutilation



I've kissed mermaids…"

Kissed mermaids? Did I ever process those words until now? Did this song plant the book-seeds in my brain, 100 years ago in my high school boyfriend's car? Mermaids. Pfffff.

4. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"– the You've Got Mail version

One thing I find endearing about this grumbling character I've created in Jenny is that, like so many people who have found love to be complicated in real life, she unabashedly adores corny romantic comedies. She bonds with Cute Dad about their shared love for You've Got Mail. I know, from the Pixies to You've Got Mail: If that's not parenthood I don't know what is. Cool? What? That's a temperature, right?

Real talk: You've Got Mail is totally great. It's a smart, New Yorky, bookish romantic comedy that happens to feature some very outdated technology. Do you remember that it's about a passionate battle between a large chain bookstore ("your theme park, multi-level, homogenize-the-world mochaccino land") and a locally-owned indie ("It's a lovely store, and in a week it will be something really depressing, like a Baby Gap")? It's more fraught than Romeo and Juliet, and I am not kidding in the least.

Finally, a word about my husband. A tender-hearted soul masquerading as an artsy cynic, he is known for his cooler-than-cool tastes in music (remember all the vinyl? That's him). But he is lying if he denies crying every time he hears this damn song plays at the end of You've Got Mail. (It's been a lot of times.) There are many cute things about him, but this is one of the cutest. So I snuck the movie reference in there as a secret little nod to him – because obviously only the best guy ever would like this bookish, big-hearted love story.

5. "The Hokey Pokey"

But the thing is, listening to music she actually likes, or liked, that reminds her of her, is an anomaly in Jenny's current life. What she really listens to these days is kid sing-a-long after kid sing-a-long.

And there you have it. That's what it's all about.

Amy Shearn and The Mermaid of Brooklyn links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book
excerpt from the book

Auburn Citizen review
Boston Globe review review
Publishers Weekly review
Wichita Falls Times Record News review

Brooklyn Daily Eagle interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for How Far Is the Ocean from Here
The Nervous Breakdown self-interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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