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August 4, 2011

Book Notes - John Minichillo ("The Snow Whale")

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

John Minichillo's The Snow Whale is a clever and comical postmodern satirical debut novel, a masterfully told modern retelling of Melville's Moby Dick.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"With palpable insecurities and unwavering commitment to what is an otherwise absurd cause, Minichillo has created in Jacobs an immensely endearing protagonist who grows more appealing as readers accompany him on his overwhelmingly personal and admirable pursuit. Packed with tongue–in-cheek observations, Minichillo has crafted a delightful tale that is subtle and outrageous in equal measure, and filled with 'the wisdom of the-everything-and-the-nothing that is the Great Living Breath.'"

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes (minus Zappa's "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," Moby's "South Side," Bob Dylan's "Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)," Phish's "It's Ice," Nick Wongatilin's "Small Owl," Pink Floyd's "Echoes," and The Grateful Dead's "Cold Rain and Snow"). If you don't have Spotify yet, request an invitation.

In his own words, here is John Minichillo's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, The Snow Whale:

A book-length first draft of The Snow Whale was written over a nine-month period. It's a retelling of Moby-Dick that begins as an office satire with the main character a white guy with a meaningless job, his home in a suburb where the houses are all alike by design, and his relationship with his wife has gone stale. He notices that an office worker undergoes a personal change after getting a DNA-ancestry test, so he orders his own, and it comes back that he's part-Inuit. When he learns of the indigenous whaling in Northern Alaska, he begins a trajectory that leads to the white whale.

I've always been very picky about what I could listen to while writing, and I've become one who prefers silence. However, there were times when something instrumental, or mostly instrumental would raise the spirits. I'm a Deadhead and have spent many thousands of hours listening to wandering Jerry Garcia solos and looping jams. I've followed the Grateful Dead forward to Phish and backward to Miles Davis, and these kinds of extended psychedelic songs have often encouraged productive writing sessions.

While I love artists like Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa, I find their lyrics demand to be listened to, and that's distracting when I'm working on sentences. Probably the music I listened to most while writing the book was a couple of Grateful Dead compilations off the torrents labeled "Beautiful Jams" that are just the improvised instrumental interlude sections of the concerts, with one fading into the next, and the Frank Zappa album, Shut Up and Play Your Guitar, which does something similar, an instrumental compilation of Frank Zappa guitar solos. I'm sure I listened to quite a lot of Miles Davis, and I also listen to Afro-Pop, like Fela Kuti, compilations like Nigeria 70, or the kind of stuff to be found at music blogs like Awesome Tapes From Africa, or Likembe, because even when the speaker sings in English I can barely understand, so I can bop along as the manuscript lengthens.

This playlist represents my tastes, some of the things I may have listened to while writing, and also the character of the book. Enjoy!

Frank Zappa – "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow"

The first line is "I wish I was an Eskimo," which is my main character's perspective and Frank Zappa is just funny as hell. I can listen to these albums and laugh out loud at the same jokes. It has to do with vocal delivery and the timing. Frank Zappa was a genius who knew how to have fun and to be funny. Worth aspiring to. Technically I would follow the story of this one on the Apostrophe album up through "St. Alfonso's Breakfast," but this single did used to get radio play all it's own. Side note: there are something like 25 serious musicians on this album. What other 70's rock band can claim that?

MC Lars – "Ahab"

Rapping the plot of Moby-Dick. It's funny, with a great video. I love it. Only became aware of this one recently, because I try to keep an eye on the pop culture to see what Moby-Dick has been up to. MC Lars, I salute, ye!

PJ Harvey – "Working for the Man"

My main character starts out a soulless cubicle worker. I'm more of a fan of PJ Harvey's early stuff, because she's a badass with a guitar, but this is a great song even without the trademark distortion.

Belle and Sebastian – "Step Into My Office, Baby"

Continuing the office work theme. Add some sexual tension. My main character is in a stagnant relationship with his wife and one of the first things to happen when learns of his new identity is that his libido returns. Hubba hubba.

Moby (featuring Gwen Stefani) - "South Side"

I had to have a Moby song. I picked this one because my main character goes over to the other side of town to meet his sidekick, Q. I love Gwen Stefani, probably more than I should, and I love the humor that's in this video. Moby just seems like a semi-normal good genuine guy. Gwen is my hollerback girl.

Modest Mouse – "Dashboard"

Before his transition, my main character is a modest mouse. I love this singer's lyrics, his voice, and his turn of phrase. This one has a great Moby-Dick inspired video. My three-year-old son is a YouTube aficionado and he recognizes this band when they pop up on the Roku player on our TV. "Mouse Song!" he says. He's got pretty good taste so far.

Bob and Doug McKenzie (featuring Geddy Lee) – "Take Off (to the Great White North)"

This is exactly what my main character does. Can't really recommend this for playability, but I was a fan of SCTV in junior high and this was the only comedy album I've ever bought.

U2 – "Until the End of the World"

I'm stretching the meaning of this one a bit, but my main character travels to the end of the world. My setting is in the Arctic, up above the Bering Strait, as far as you can get and still be in the U.S. (or on the planet for that matter). U2 has been on my mind lately because they just played in Nashville for the first time in almost thirty years. War was the first album I bought with my own money and I still have the records. Whatever else people might think of him, Bono is an incredible singer and they put on a great show. Thank you to my wife, the writer, Katrina Gray, for the tickets. She's sweet to me and gives wonderful gifts.

Miles Davis - "Go Ahead John" (from the album Big Fun)

The most important musician of the twentieth century. I love the electric Miles Davis, and this underrated album really is Big Fun, the song an outtake from the Jack Johnson soundtrack sessions. It's a message to my main character, John, and to me. He can go ahead to Alaska, and I can go ahead and take that leap and write about it. I used to write to Miles Davis quite a lot. I once saw him play for free at Grant Park in Chicago. I couldn't talk anyone I knew into going with me, so I went alone. Six months later, he was gone.

Edgar Winter Group – "Frankenstein"

OK, so it's a stretch, but the guy's name is Winter. An incredible keyboard solo and a massive instrumental jam.

Bob Dylan – "Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)"

A jam-band favorite, a fun song, and the original Dylan studio version wasn't released until 1985 on his first box set. It's not really evident by this song, and you won't find any literary critics saying it, but Bob Dylan is the most important poet of the twentieth century. Chew on that, Harold Bloom!

Phish - "It's Ice" (Clifford Ball 8-17-96)

Undoubtedly, one of the best live bands of all time. I've listened to thousands of hours of Phish over the years, sometimes while writing. I used to write with them playing a lot more, but I'm happier writing to silence these days. I love that Phish is back together and touring and I may have seen Trey Anastasio in Nashville. I used to live in the part of town where the recording studios are and I saw a redhead with an unremarkable car over there outside one of the studios. I'm sure it's my imagination. At any rate, I loved walking my dog past the studio where Neil Young recorded Harvest, and the dogs liked it too.

Nick Wongatilin - "Small Owl" (from Smithsonian Folkways' Eskimo Songs from Alaska)

I'm putting this one here mostly because the Pink Floyd song that follows is really hard to lead in to. In this case, there's nothing quite like going to the source. I didn't listen to a lot of Inuit songs, mostly because they were so foreign-sounding in a way that wasn't conducive (for me at least) to a meditative state (which does work for me with African music – foreign-sounding but also trancelike). I did research the history of the setting and the mythology. It's an important and serious thread that runs through the book.

Pink Floyd – "Echoes"

I did listen to this one from time-to-time for inspiration, because it's the only modern rock recording I know of with whale songs on it. It's good spacey vintage Pink Floyd and the song takes up one side of the LP, which is how I played it. Of course, listening to LP records is not conducive to writing because one has to get out of the chair every 15-20 minutes to flip the record over.

The Grateful Dead - "Cold Rain and Snow" (7/23/90) Tinley Park, Chicago

One good jam deserves another. This song was on The Grateful Dead's first album, but there it's very short and a little tinny-sounding. It's worth hearing it nearly twenty-five years later, with a band that has the experience to make it danceable. This recording is from Brent Mydland's last show. I wasn't at this one but at the one the night before. This was at a period when the venues were having trouble dealing with the size of the band's following. Phil Lesh could be heard on radio spots asking fans not to show up if they didn't have a ticket. The rumor was that Alpine Valley wouldn't have them back, and Tinley Park was a brand new amphitheater in the Chicago area. So new, in fact that there was only a temporary chain link fence around it, and I can remember, at a climax during "Fire on the Mountain" a rush of a thousand fans or more from the parking lot running over the top of the hill onto the Amphitheater lawn and down into the crowd. I'm really glad those guys are still playing, but Jerry is missed around here. If you watch the videos from this period there was a great chemistry between Jerry and Brent that's worth paying attention to.

Pavement –" Summer Babe"

After his big adventure, my main character has to return home, to the heat, and to heal the relationship with his wife. I spent the nineties listening to Pavement all the time. This first album, Slanted and Enchanted, is still one of their best.

Marvin Gaye – "A Funky Space Reincarnation"

My main character gets his wife back and they reconcile. There is no doubt that Marvin Gaye's music is sexy music and there they are again back in their bedroom. My wife has this song as her ringtone and I'm thinking of her. I'm a lucky lucky man.

John Minichillo and The Snow Whale links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book (at the publisher)
excerpt from the book (at The Collagist)
excerpt from the book (at Emprise Review)

Erin Reads review
Los Angeles Times review
Plumb review
Publishers Weekly review
Small Press Reviews review

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

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