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August 2, 2013

Book Notes - Jen Michalski "The Tide King"

The Tide King

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.

Jen Michalski's The Tide King is a vividly told and engrossing debut novel, a profound exploration of mortality.

Jessica Anya Blau wrote of the book:

"The Tide King sweeps from 19th-century Poland to 20th-century America with intimate details and big ideas. It will be hard to forget this beautifully written epic tale."

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 Jen Michalski's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Tide King:


The playlist for The Tide King could have been rather long, given that the novel spanned two centuries. However, a great portion of it occurs in the span of 35 years or so, 1942-1976, so that made the parameters a little easier. I guess if I were Ken Burns doing a documentary about an enchanted herb that granted immortality to those who ate it, these would be a few of the songs I'd add to the soundtrack.


"The Wang Wang Blues" by the Benny Goodman Sextet

In The Tide King, Stanley Polensky, while serving on the front lines in World War II, carries an herb, burnette saxifrage, in his helmet that his old-world mother brought over from Poland. It's supposed to make those who eat it immortal. His mother urges him to take it if he thinks he might die during combat. Stanley, of course, thinks no more of it until a fellow soldier to whom he has grown close, Calvin Johnson, is shelled as a result of Stanley's questionable decision-making. Stanley stuffs the herb down Calvin's throat in an attempt to save him, but nothing happens, so he leaves him for dead. And, of course, what happens next you'll know if you read The Tide King.

I did a lot of research on World War II, to make sure Stanley and Calvin's company were in the right countries at the right time for the right battles, etc. But a lot of research was just for the feel of life during war and peacetime during the 1940s. Ken Burns documentary "The War" was a godsend, and "The Wang Wang Blues," a song on The War soundtrack, is a song I listened to when writing, particularly when Stanley and Calvin come back from the war, both alive and unbeknownst to each other, trying to reintegrate into civilian life.


"Looking Back to See" by The Browns
"Ramblin' Man" by Hank Williams Sr

In researching Stanley's wife, Little Cindy, a midget who becomes a country music star in the late 1940s, my main source books were Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800-2000, Maxine Brown's memoir Looking Back to See, of her time with her country music family, The Browns, and the fictional novel about the Browns, Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass. Suffice to say, I listened to a lot of the Browns during this time of writing. "Looking Back to See" is one of their earliest hits, from 1954. I think it gives a great feel of country music of the period.

Of course, Hank Williams seemed the quintessential country music star back in the late forties, and I imagined that maybe he and Little Cindy would cross paths once she became famous enough (although it never made it into the final version of the book).


"Montana" by Frank Zappa

Part of The Tide King takes place in Montana, where Calvin Johnson participates in the actual Mann Gulch fire of 1949 (forever immortalized in Norman McLean's haunting book Young Men and Fire). Frank Zappa's "Montana" is not about that at all. It's about, uh, dental floss. Still, when you can add Frank Zappa to a playlist, you sure as hell can.


"Diamond Dogs" by David Bowie

Calvin Johnson "dies" and resurrects more than once in The Tide King. One of those times, he finds himself newly alive in 1974 New York City, which is a complete Infero-esque zoo to him. I imagine that Calvin (who is searching for his first love, Kate Crane, 30 years later) must have felt a lot like Halloween Jack roving through Manhattan in David Bowie's title track to one of my favorite albums, Diamond Dogs.


"The World Has Turned and Left Me Here" by Weezer

Ela is the oldest character in the book. At novel's end, she is a 169-year-woman in a 9-year-old's body, having been the first to eat the enchanted herb, in Poland, nearly two hundred years ago. She sees more things than most, including the violence and end of partition-era Poland, the Holocaust, and, worst of all, a upper East-side girl's private school in the early 1970s. I can't help but think if she had a theme song, this would be it.


"Crocodile Rock" by Elton John

Stanley winds up raising his daughter, Heidi, alone in the 1970s. She asks for the album "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player" for her birthday one year. Stanley thinks (rightly so, as it turned out) that Elton John is a "Nancy boy."

(Times that the phrase "Nancy boy" appears in The Tide King: two.)


"Thirteen" by Big Star

Heidi's English teacher, Ms. Webster, plays a pivotal role at the end of The Tide King. When writing the novel, I imagined Ms. Webster had the following 45 records in her apartment (below). I also wanted her to have the LP Big Star's No. 1 Record, but I figured, given the distribution problems surrounding Big Star's debut, probably no one in the seventies actually owned it.

"Brandy, You're a Fine Girl" by Looking Glass
"Morning Has Broken" by Cat Stevens
"You're So Vain" by Carly Simon
"My Love" by Paul McCartney and Wings
"Saturday in the Park" by Chicago
"Doctor My Eyes" by Jackson Browne
"Rocky Mountain High" by John Denver
"Ramblin' Man" by Allman Brothers
"Superstition" Stevie Wonder


Jen Michalski and The Tide King links:

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

Baltimore Sun review
Prime Number review

Cobalt Review interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay for Could You Be with Her Now by the author
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
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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