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May 25, 2016

Book Notes - Jensen Beach "Swallowed by the Cold"

Swallowed by the Cold

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jensen Beach's impressive story collection is one of the year's most rewarding (and unsettling) books.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Characters' morally ambiguous actions . . . simultaneously provoke readers' judgment and invite compassion. . . . [Swallowed by the Cold] memorably depicts how selfish humans can be, and how often we’re alienated from one another."

In his own words, here is Jensen Beach's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection Swallowed by the Cold:

Since I was eighteen I've moved on average once every three years or so. The longest I've lived in one place as an adult is a little more than six years in Stockholm, but this stretch, too, was interrupted by kids and marriage, kinds of moves themselves. Music has always seemed to me to arrange itself around each of these periods, and then, often, certain songs will get lost to the transitions, or else simply to time, only to surface later on some forgotten corner of my phone or in a bar or at a party and hurtle me back to a previous time, a previous place.

Here are eight songs that I was listening to during the years I was writing the stories in this book, roughly 2010 to 2013, all but one of them by Swedish musicians.

Ebba Grön – "We're Only in It for the Drugs" (1978)

My book doesn't seem particularly angry to me, though I was listening to a lot of Ebba Grön during the years I wrote these stories. This song is about the anger of circumstance, of being born into working class suburbs and a boring, aimless, or else narrowly determined, life. Though the variables in my stories are different, I think this is a kind of frustration that many of the characters would share.

Joakim Thåström – "Fanfanfan" (2005)

When this song came out it played endlessly on the radio in Sweden. At the time I was working in a warehouse, where I packed and unpacked boxes of cable modems. Whenever this song came on the radio, the guy I worked with, he was a musician, would stop whatever he was doing and turn the volume up to listen. It is a great song, catchy, melodic, and really sad. Joakim Thåström was the lead singer of Ebba Grön. This song is punk in its sensibilities, I suppose, like Ebba Grön was, particularly in the early albums, but this song and the album it comes from seems sadder to me, richer, more textured and deeper than Thåström's music from the 70s and 80s. More mature and reflective. This song is about lost opportunities. Again, I think this is an emotional tenor that resonates with my book. A note on the title: Fan is a Swedish word for devil and used in a number of ways and has a number of translations into English. Depending on context and use it can mean everything from damn to fuck.

Jose Gonzalez – "Heartbeats" (2003)

Jose Gonzalez's cover of this song is probably best remembered for being the soundtrack to a commercial for televisions that featured thousands of brightly colored bouncy balls bouncing down a street in San Francisco. That was a good commercial. The song is better. I find Jose Gonzalez's voice really haunting and this song, played on a classical guitar, is at once calming and heartbreaking.

Robyn – "Fembot" (2010)

I never listen to music while I'm writing. I find it distracting. But I do listen to music when I exercise. Robyn has been a part of my workout playlists for years. She's the perfect combination of thoughtful and catchy pop, and though I do not ever dance, it's nice to listen to music that makes me want to move when I'm lifting weights or riding my bike. I also think about writing when I exercise. I can't pinpoint an exact example, but I'm certain that some problem in one or more of these stories was solved, on a bike, riding the flat, gridded streets outside of Champaign, IL with Robyn in my ears.

The Knife – "Heartbeats" (2003)

This song reminds me of the summer. I'm not sure if it's because I listened to it a lot during one summer, or if it taps into some nostalgic node in my brain that is also all about summer. Either way, this song is about loss, something my book deals with, and I really love it. "Heartbeats" is a gorgeous song.

A.C. Newman – "Submarines of Stockholm" (2009)

One of the stories in my book is called "Ships of Stockholm." The story takes place on the terrace of a bar called Mosebacke. The terrace overlooks Slussen, the lock between the Baltic Sea and the lake in the western part of the city. I've always liked the view from this bar. It's one of my favorite places to go in the summer. It seems to me that the view captures something essential about Stockholm, or in any case my memory of it. You can see water and islands, some typical Swedish apartment houses. Whenever I hear this song, I always think of a submarine, slowly working its way in from the sea, between the islands and among the cruise ships with A.C. Newman standing at its bridge. For some reason this thought has always made me smile. And I find this song catchy and fun. My kids love it, too.

Shout Out Louds – "The Comeback" (2003)

There's something about Adam Olenius's voice, a cracked and vulnerable quality, that I find appealing. It's probably harder than I think to summarize the emotional center of a song (in any case, I find it difficult), but I think this song is about being hurt and then, in spite of that hurt, trying again. I like that. But I mainly like this song for sentimental reasons. When my oldest son was little he often used to ask us to put on the song about the "reasonable man" (a lyric in the song). Even now I like the song for these personal reasons. And, you know, maybe art is meant to be enjoyed mainly for personal reasons.

Kent – "Dom Andra" (2002)

Kent is a band that never managed to make it outside of Sweden. If they sang in English, they'd probably as widely known as a band like U2 or Coldplay (which is to say both loved and despised by exactly the types of people you'd expect). But I like them, and because this book is so much about Sweden, particularly a Sweden when this band was so big, I couldn't not include one of their songs. Also, it turns out that this playlist is entirely made up of songs that make me feel nostalgic, an emotion that might not be at the surface of the book, but for me, is present nonetheless.

Jensen Beach and Swallowed by the Cold links:

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

Kirkus review

American Short Fiction interview with the author
New Yorker interview with the author
Vermont Public Radio interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Largehearted Boy's 2016 Fundraiser

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)