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November 5, 2009

Book Notes - Ben Winters ("Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters")

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

With Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Ben Winters adds literary-inspired nautical mayhem to Jane Austen's classic novel. A well-written combination of monsters and classic literature, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is a clever and entertaining literary mashup.

In his own words, here is Ben Winters' Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters:

Alas, there are not a lot of famous songs about sea monsters. There is only one really famous one, which is the theme from the hallucinatory Sid & Marty Krofft show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters; unfortunately, it’s a terrible song. Even allowing for the fact that it’s the theme song for a children’s show about a playful sea monster, it’s a pretty darn bad song.

There are, however, a lot of great songs about just the sea, and also lot of great songs about just monsters. Both themes offer a lot of bang for your buck, metaphor-wise—as Homer knew when he wrote (chanted?) The Odyssey, the ocean and all the menacing things therein can stand in really well for the sea of troubles that we mere mortals navigate, in life and love.

So the playlist for my Regency-romance-meets-B-movie-action/adventure novel consists of fun and/or cool and/or interesting songs that deal with either monsters, or the sea. I’ve left off a lot of bad songs about monsters (including "Monster Mash") and plenty of bad songs about the sea; for example, the two entrants in the sub-genre I call Cutesy-Wutesy Beatles Songs Set Beneath the Ocean ("Yellow Submarine" and "Octopus’s Garden").

For each song, I’ll include a brief lyric quote or some other explanation of what it’s doing on the list; songs that somehow touch on the sea and monsters are marked by an asterisks.

"Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon

For once, an artist’s most famous number which is actually one of his best, encapsulating so much of what made Zevon a class act. "Werewolves" is catchy, dark, and sublimely funny. Like the singer himself, the titular werewolf is debonair and dangerous: "Better stay away from him / He'll rip your lungs out, Jim / I'd like to meet his tailor."

"Boat Train" by The Pogues

The Pogues have a lot of terrific songs set on the water, tales of immigration, drinking heavily on a boat, and/or shipwrecks. This one has whiskey, gin, tequila, brandy, racial slurs, and vomiting.

"Plenty More" by Squirrel Nut Zippers

"Al the boys are monsters / all the girls are whores / so if you lose the one you love, there’s always plenty more."

* "Half Shark Alligator Half Man" by Dr. Octagon

You have to love that math. The half shark/alligator half man sounds like a sea monster to me, although in the lyrics he tangles not with sailors, but with the LAPD.

"The Man in the Iron Mask" by Billy Bragg

The real l'Homme au Masque de Fer was a top-secret prisoner, but the guy in this Bragg weeper is the classic lovelorn-person-as-hideous-monster. "You must have your reasons [i.e. for breaking my heart] / I will not ask / For you I will be the man in the iron mask."

"Crawling to the USA" by Elvis Costello

"I thought I would go to the sea and shrink down very tiny / to slide inside the telephone wire that runs under the briny." I use the word "briny" a bunch in the book, and every time I fondly recalled this EC classic.

* "Everything You Can Think of is True" by Tom Waits

Like so much of Waits, this number from Alice presents a weird and gorgeous vision of descent into madness, or at least some altered state. Earns its asterisks for rhyming the title line with both "before the ocean was blue" and "Nigerian skeleton crew." Also, for that matter, "the fishes make wishes on you" and (my favorite) "the baby’s asleep in the shoe."

"Enter Sandman" by Metallica

I like songs that confirm the fears of children. Yes, there is something under the bed, and yes, it is trying to kill you.

* "Rock Lobster" by the B-52s

Chapter 28 of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters features a malevolent band of death lobsters, which is why the folks at Idlewild Books played this song as a warm-up before my reading at the book launch— happily reclaiming it forever from my previous association, which was with awkward junior high school dances.

"Two Headed Boy" by Neutral Milk Hotel

"Two headed boy / all floating in glass … I can hear as you tap on the jar." So unsettling, and so, so very beautiful.

"Sloop John B" by the Beach Boys

Obviously I had a lot of Beach Boys numbers to choose from, since so much of their oeuvre is, you know, beachy. But there is something really simple and sad about this number from Pet Sounds, which has origins in an old folk song. "I feel so broke up / I wanna go home."

"Thriller" by Michael Jackson

No brainer.

"Table-Top Joe" by Tom Waits

Waits has a lot of monsters scampering around his catalog. I also might have selected "The Eyeball Kid," but I happen to like ole Table-Top a little better: born without a body, he’s rich and famous, playing Stravinsky on a baby grand.

"If I Had a Boat" by Lyle Lovett

The mixing up of perfect worlds in this song always makes me laugh: "If I had a boat I’d go out on the ocean / and if I had a pony, I’d ride it on my boat."

"Tokyo Storm Warning" by Elvis Costello

An epic disaster movie of a pop song, featuring "cheap Korean monster-movie scenery" , "Japanese Jesus robots," and Martians.

"Hat and Feet" by Fountains of Wayne

Maybe I’m stretching, but surely "I’m just a hat and feet" is some kind of declaration of monstrousness. With Fountains, its hit or miss in any given number whether the quirkiness will outweigh the sincerity. In this song, which takes as its heartbroke metaphor the image of a video game or cartoon character crushed by a heavy object, sincerity wins.

"Ventura" by Lucinda Williams

Of all the songs that use the ocean to talk about the boundlessness and the boundless terror of love, this is my favorite. "I wanna watch the ocean bend / the edges of the sun, then / I wanna get swallowed up / in an ocean of love."

Ben Winters and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters links:

the author's website
the book's video trailer

5-Squared review
Books 'n Border Collies review
Diary of a Book Addict review
Fandomania review
fashion_piranha review
The Harvard Crimson review
Jane Austen's World review
Living Read Girl review

The Lovecraft News Network interview with the author
Shelf Life interview with the author
Slate essay by the author about writing the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

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

online "best of 2009" book lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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