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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Tuesday
Jul052011

In Which We Decide To Forgo The Trombone

And Then God Created the South

by ALEXIS OKEOWO

I’m far from an authentic Alabamian. I don’t have a Southern accent; I can’t make enormous meals of pulled pork and barbecue, nor deep-fry anything, nor brew ice tea; and I tend not to romanticize the Civil War, unlike some of my Confederate flag-bearing high school classmates. But I did spend all of my childhood and young adulthood in the Deep South, that weary strip of bright green grass, orange powdered back roads, and confused, segregated cities. It's a place that is difficult and generous and slow and rough but, still, it's mine.

I had always felt indifferent about Alabama, where my parents had met as international students, and where we had moved back as a family when I was eight, after stints in Texas and Tennessee. But it was a state – the beautiful weather, the friendly people – that felt mostly easy and comfortable. It wasn’t until I moved to the East Coast for college, confronted by friends from New England and California who were surprised the police hadn’t water hosed me in the streets and that I had been allowed to go to an integrated school, did I become defensive of the South. (A male alumnus once came up to talk to me at a bar, and, upon learning that I am from Alabama, asked me, “How are you not an idiot?”) And it wasn’t until my home region was attacked, often by idiots like the one just mentioned, did I begin to feel proud of its resilience. So when the television series version of the film Friday Night Lights first appeared five years ago, I was nervous.

The original movie had been an uncomfortable freak show with a heart of gold, every Southern stereotype heightened to the point of garishness. The town was hopelessly small; the adults charmingly single-minded; and the black players menacingly brutish or silent. What it did get right was its portrayal of the internal baggage nearly all of the players had, as they tried to be kids with the eyes of the town on them, watching, waiting, and forever expecting.

But on television, the scene was swiftly laid in a Texan village named Dillon that was not bleak or simple; it was just a little peculiar and obsessed with football. The kids went to small-time strip clubs (or danced at small-time strip clubs), drove around in pickup trucks, and drank beer and talked shit. And football games – football games were like prom each and every fall Friday night until the end of time. The girls always had their hair, makeup, and outfits together even if they were hanging in someone's trailer, so anxious was their desire to be noticed. I once agonized over what to wear to a gathering at the local Super Wal-Mart.

The episodes prompted flashbacks to my own delirious beginnings at an Alabama public high school. Boys who wore t-shirts emblazoned with Confederate flags and who were both polite and obnoxious; my brilliant friend who wanted to be a preacher and lived across from a barn where a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan met; and the sudden presence of fun and catty girl cliques that were racially divided but got along wonderfully. As I progressed through the first season, and then all of the rest, the characters began to feel human and relatable.

There is, and has always been, a difference between the way in which the Deep South is portrayed and the way in which it actually feels to live there. To breach this gap, television shows and films have often relied on the pastime of football as Universal Unifier; football as a path of salvation for the downtrodden of the Bible Belt. Friday Night Lights fell into this trap, too. Football does mean a lot of things for a lot of people – a way to be popular and get girls, a way to escape darker realities and channel your energy, a ticket out of town, a very good time – but salvation it’s not, even as we got swept up by our teams, taking pride in them as we built up and then cast away their adolescent heroes.

The show was melodramatic, but necessarily so. I constantly thought high school in Alabama was over the top. Navigating the girl clique terrain was difficult. I desperately needed girlfriends, to strut through the mall with and ward off the catcalls of boys and also to have my back in mini-gossip wars. My refusal not to wholeheartedly join the black or the white clique resulted in a whole lot of confusion for everyone involved.

Negotiating with conservative friends was difficult. After September 11th, a boy accused me of supporting terrorists when I questioned the logic of invading Afghanistan. Figuring out my social life was difficult. I traipsed through most of the South with my speech and debate team to compete in addictive tournaments, but I was doubtful that it was an activity that impressed my crush, a boy in the grade below mine. So I joined the cheer quad for the soccer team, on which he played. When I found out that he was sleeping with someone else, however, I returned back to extemporaneous speaking practices with a kind of relief.

Figuring out hillbillies was difficult. One afternoon I stopped at a gas station near my house to fill up my dad’s minivan and walked in front of two white men sitting in a pickup truck, cigarettes dangling from their mouths and straw hats planted on their heads. They stopped talking and watched me with huge grins, mockingly, until I went inside the shop; the tension was made heavier by my sense that they had called out a name I hadn't heard. And balancing on the racial line was difficult. When I belonged to a Girl Scout troop, I shared baths and sleeping bags with my white friends, much to the disappointment of our troop leader, who kept trying to pair me off with the other black girl in the group.

Despite having figured out a lot about the region, when some people learn that I am Southern, they ask me to prove it. If I have drunk enough or am in a good enough mood, I’ll oblige and speak in a convincing slow drawl or say “y’all,” and I’ll end up feeling like the embodiment of the television show Treme – sounding alright, but not really feeling right. And superficiality is sometimes fine! It can be fun to embellish a place if you know what you’re talking about. I’ve now realized that Treme doesn’t.

Like a lot of people, I awaited the premiere of Treme with eager anticipation. After capturing a side of Baltimore so elegantly, I assumed that writer David Simon would be able to portray a stage of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina that was honest and compelling. The ingredients were all there: musicians with addiction and love problems, families with loved ones missing after the storm, and normal people trying to adjust to a drastically altered city. I was even fine with the fact that the show was starting off slow – so, so slow – but there is a difference between a slowly developing storyline, which should be employed carefully, and style filling in for an actual plot.

New Orleans’ musical tradition is soulful and complex, and its relationship to the city's triumphs and heartbreak deserves exploration. The extent to which the series exploits that tradition without further analysis, through extended scenes of live music or musicians talking about some gig or the other, is disappointing. For most of the first season, I wondered if I had somehow not known that there was a parade or festival for every week of the year in Louisiana. I would have urged my parents to take my brothers and I on more family trips there. All of the flash rubs irritatingly against the substance.

Instead of the way in which the characters of Friday Night Lights felt familiar yet unpredictable, these ones just seem boring. John Goodman’s protagonist from the first season is a man furious and hurt by the government’s neglect of New Orleans during and after Katrina, but the roots of his rage are undefined, and we’re left with a conspiracy theorist who puts up kooky videos on the Internet. An astoundingly annoying musician, played by Steve Zahn, is self-righteous and pretentious, supposedly a native who wants to take his city back, but all of his preaching about an authentic and mythical New Orleans rings trite.

Wendell Pierce from The Wire as a womanizing, hard-partying trombone player is delightful, but the only reason I stuck through the first season and part of the second was Khandi Alexander, who acted the hell out of a woman who was trying to find her brother, an inmate who disappeared in the storm. It’s as if the show’s creators don’t want to show the ordinary nuances of a place that isn’t so different from the rest of the country because they fear that they will lose the interest of an audience that wants to see gumbo and jazz on the screen all the time. Southerners joke among ourselves that the South may as well as be another country sometimes, but you don’t need a passport to go to Louisiana yet.

The South will continue to move at its own pace, and it’s really not that much worse than the race and class tensions present in the North. That sounds like a cop out, I know. I have a friend from high school who now lives in Boston and who became angry a few years ago when I told her that I hadn’t voted in Alabama’s local elections or in its national primaries. I didn’t understand her anger, at first. I haven’t lived in Alabama full-time since I left for college. Then I realized her frustration at the puzzle of a closed off and conservative state managing to produce open and smart people, who mostly either left it or didn’t do anything to try to change it from within. I realized that even if we renounce that godforsaken place, it’s still ours.

Alexis Okeowo is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about her favorite novels. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find an archive of her writing at The New Yorker here. You can find her website here. She twitters here.

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"Miles to Go" - Alison Krauss & Union Station (mp3)

"Sinking Stone" - Alison Krauss & Union Station (mp3)

"My Opening Farewell" - Alison Krauss & Union Station (mp3)


Monday
Jul042011

In Which We Read To Live And Vice Versa

Summer Reading

by KARA VANDERBIJL

It seems unnatural to read in the summer, when the only thing keeping us inside is the occasional electric storm. That is why it is of utmost importance that we find the books that enhance our experience of it rather than taking us outside of it. There are books that would prolong your best vacations and pillow your head in the sand. Do not read anything that you will take seriously. If you must, purchase a book on tape and listen to it while in your vehicle en route to a campsite in Vermont. The machines that keep us alive throughout the rest of the year become obsolete in these warm months. We are quick to believe the same of books. In reality this is the most beneficial time to read, outside the constraints of academic or meteorological obligation.

Childhood by Nathalie Sarraute

Most memoirs of childhood are summer watercolors. When we were children, summers were long — or at least we remember them as such. Most of Sarraute’s autobiography, penned when she was over eighty years old, takes place in the winter. Within it she converses with a failing memory. Questioning the significance of events one must recall using secondary sources or reconstruct with logic, she shares all the sensations of her earliest recollections: the color of a sofa she destroyed with a pair of scissors, the cool indifference of her mother.

Sarraute’s tendency to bend literary convention shines through in this, her last of works, as she uses her own life story to question the human ability to remember. Because she does not know for sure that the events of her childhood happened in the sequence or in the manner she recalls, she must use the gift of invention to create a life for herself.

Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen

Cohen disguises his memoir as a eulogy to his mother, which will irk you slightly as the book progresses. I had no trouble finishing this short reminiscence of a move from Corfu to Marseille, of marginalization as foreigners, of the complex relationship between a Jewish male and his mother — but I did have trouble liking Albert all the way through.

His mother represents nothing less than a female ideal, the connection to another world and the safety of traditions; his regrets about their relationship read like the ranting of a lovelorn teenager. One particularly poignant moment describes Cohen’s embarrassment about his mother’s accent and her insistence on knowing his whereabouts at all times. His shame transforms her into a bizarre conglomeration of the Madonna bending over her child in simple adoration, and of the Christ with stigmata. Plow through the overwhelming waves of sentimentalism to find his purpose; the story will soothe any tension out of a family vacation.

Losing North by Nancy Huston

“To be disoriented is to lose the east,” roughly translates the first line of Huston’s book. This is familiar to me. To lose the east in Chicago is to forget, almost absolutely, where anything is. Earlier I was trying to find a popular Italian ice shop in the neighborhood. “Where is the lake?” my companion reminded me gently when I very nearly lost my head at an intersection. We followed the grid of this city back to its steel giants and remembered. You will relate to Huston’s small essay best if you are a third culture kid, but even a small trip overseas will affirm the brilliance of its thoughts on the mottled cultures and languages of the expatriate.

Huston expresses this jet-lagged sense of vertigo better than any other writer I have encountered. She plays with her bilingualism like other writers play with literary allusion, claiming to have found her voice when she mastered French during her years at a Canadian university. As the most empathetic and amusing of travel writings, it should find its way into your carry-on.

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert translated by Francis Steegmuller

It is becoming apparent that I am incapable of reading anything in the summer that was not first written in French. What Flaubert’s letters say about him and the intricacy of his art delights anyone who has spent significant time reading his novels. “I’ll try to arrive some evening about six,” he writes to Louise Colet, his longtime lover. “We’ll have all night and the next day. We’ll set the night ablaze! I’ll be your desire, you’ll be mine, and we’ll gorge ourselves on each other to see whether we can be satiated. Never! No, never! Your heart is an inexhaustible spring, you let me drink deep, it floods me, penetrates me, I drown. Oh! The beauty of your face, pale and quivering beneath my kisses!” Tell me if you can find the same man in these pages as the one who knew how to best kill his darlings.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

To read this fascinating account of the World’s Fair and the people who had a hand in it is to become a true Chicagoan, I soon found out. Not for the faint of heart, Larson’s book follows the architects who built the fairgrounds — the “White City” — as well as America’s first serial killer, H.H Holmes, who victimized young women at the fair.

Do not pretend you are not fascinated with death and the men who choose to bring it upon others. Why would Larson choose to parallel the creation of a monster and the creation of the World’s Fair? The comparison is obvious — men at their best, men at their worst — and it employs all the good-versus-evil jargon we appreciate in a summer read.

Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Robbe-Grillet returns to one particular scene repeatedly in his novel: on a tropical veranda, a husband observes his wife and their neighbor, hidden in the penumbra whispering while ice cubes melt in their glasses. Although the tale rests on that most piercing of suspicions — the suspicion of unfaithfulness — Robbe-Grillet visits the setting more often, describing in painstaking detail the banana plantation, the way the sunlight hits shaded windows and angles on the grass.

This hostile environment, and the constant revisiting of the moment on the veranda, illumines the husband’s jealous obsession, as much as Desdemona’s handkerchief did for Othello. There is quite a bit of fruit in this novel. Is it possible to eat anything else in the summer? Very little satiates in the heat except the inkling that some other truth lurks beneath the details of the tiles underfoot, the soft linens of your clothing and the exchange of words in a moist evening. The dialogue in the novel rings false, but what is there to be said in August?

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Some Southern acquaintances were telling me about how you cannot live in downtown Charleston unless you are of old money, and then proceeded to laud the Confederate flag. This story should be lesson enough to read Stockett’s literary debut, should you read any bestseller in the next months. It alternates between the first-person narratives of privileged white females and their black maids in 1960s Mississippi, thus exploring civil rights on almost every level of society.

There are practically no male characters in this book, but I have not yet decided whether or not Stockett did this on purpose or whether she does not know how to write them. What the novel lacks in profundity it makes up for with its unabashed treatment of themes we thought to let lie at rest forever with Harper Lee. Read it before August 12th, and then go cool off in a dark theatre with the movie.

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

The land is a wild, unpredictable thing, which you will forget until you run out of gas somewhere in West Texas with no Dairy Queen in sight. In Cather’s short masterpiece, several immigrant families attempt to tame it. Two characters share the kiss of infidelity at a gypsy wedding. People die off regularly, and a kitten is rescued in the first few pages. Must I convince you of its other merits? I do not know if you have been to a place lacking in human presence, but I have. It is a frightening thing to be alone with nothing but the sky.

What Cather’s characters dream of most is security and protection — the very things that the earth cannot give them, and that their conflicts prohibit them from giving to each other. We do not love this book as much as we love Cather’s My Antonia, because we have forgotten what it is like to want soil and to live at the mercy of the land. In writing about people that are strange to us in culture and desire, Cather reminds us of our roots.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. You can find her website here.

This is the fourth in a series. You can read the first part here and the second part here. You can read the third part here.

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"Desire (piano demo)" - Alela Diane (mp3)

"Long Way Down (acoustic demo)" - Alela Diane (mp3)

"Eastward Still" - Alela Diane (mp3)

Our Novels, Ourselves

Part One (Tess Lynch, Karina Wolf, Elizabeth Gumport, Sarah LaBrie, Isaac Scarborough, Daniel D'Addario, Elisabeth Donnelly, Lydia Brotherton, Brian DeLeeuw)

Part Two (Alice Gregory, Jason Zuzga, Andrew Zornoza, Morgan Clendaniel, Jane Hu, Ben Yaster, Barbara Galletly, Elena Schilder, Almie Rose)

Part Three (Alexis Okeowo, Benjamin Hale, Robert Rutherford, Kara VanderBijl, Damian Weber, Jessica Ferri, Britt Julious, Letizia Rossi, Will Hubbard, Durga Chew-Bose, Rachel Syme, Amanda McCleod, Yvonne Georgina Puig)

The 100 Greatest Novels

Why and How To Write

Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Gene Wolfe, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)

Sunday
Jul032011

In Which We Secretly Harbor The Desire To Be Looked At 

Escape to New York

by ELIZABETH GUMPORT

Just as our first romantic relationships impress types upon us, so, too, do our early urban experiences determine if and how we will live in cities. There are people from whom we do not recover, experiences into which we try to fold all others, places we do not leave.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1933, the photographer Bruce Davidson spent his adolescence on the train, riding the El into Chicago. "I’ve left Chicago," Davidson later told an interviewer, "but Chicago hasn’t left me."

The experience was "catalytic," he said; as an adult, he would go on to document New York’s transit system in the series Subway. On the trains he found "an iridescence like what I had seen in photographs of deep-sea fish."

Before Subway, he had submerged himself in South Brooklyn, where he documented the romances and rituals of a young street gang called the Jokers. After covering the Civil Rights Movement, he returned to New York, to its parks and streets, and, for two years the 1960s, its tenements. He set up on the block between Second Avenue and First, working with a large camera on a tripod to capture the street’s sidewalks, bedrooms, and the people who used them.

East 100th Street appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. Nearly twenty years later, my parents and I moved into an apartment a few blocks west, on 100th between Park and Lexington. Both streets belong to the part of Manhattan known as Spanish Harlem, which runs from 96th Street, where well-tended medians on Park Avenue give way to train tracks, up to the northeastern edge of the island and the Harlem River.

The neighborhood is largely Puerto Rican, and home to 24 public housing projects. Last year, the Department of City Planning designated the neighborhood a "food desert," which means its residents have little access to fresh food, specifically produce, and are therefore likely to suffer from diet-related illnesses.

When I was very young, I did not realize people considered my neighborhood unsafe; once I did, I thought they must be mistaken. It was not until after the building next door to mine burned down that I learned it had been a crackhouse. Nobody ever told me anything. If someone was admitted to the hospital, I was informed days or years after they were released.

Now this seems to me fantastical: how do you not talk about things? But my parents and I, we did not talk about things, so for a long time I pretended everything was fine. Then, when evidence to the contrary became impossible to ignore, I decided not to care. This is actually a choice you can make.

The images in East 100th Street do not disclose secrets like a diary, those subjective assessments of material experience. They hold only the brute, dull detritus of daily life: 15-cent pie, a flyer from a camping show, Hart brand bird food. Looking at Davidson's photographs is like visiting someone's apartment for the first time, or reading his blog: I eat a sandwich, I drink a beer, I do not make my bed.

To see the people Davidson photographs is to be reminded that people exist when we do not see them. These are not candids, or stolen shots of animals taken securely from safari caravan, but their subjects accept him without ceremony, as one admits not a stranger but a sibling, someone who has a key and does not care if you have cleaned your apartment.

At the Howard Greenberg Gallery, East 100th Street is accompanied by Davidson’s wide, expansive shots of Central Park. In the foreground of one lies the sweating, bathing-suited body of a woman; beyond her, more bodies, and trees, and beyond them the city, the buildings rising together like a great crenellated castle.

In comparison to his photographs of Central Park, the images in East 100th Street are airless and cramped. The exteriors feel like interiors. Rarely do you see the sky, or the spine of the Triborough Bridge, that big animal, lying across the East River. The city resembles a room, a closed space, a closet. The effect is counterintuitive; in Davidson’s work, narrow alleys and low ceilings serve as reminders of the city’s size, of how much it contains, and conceals.

If you believe people do whatever they can get away with, you might imagine his portraits of people peering out windows or sprawled on beds to be portraits of lust and false-heartedness. Manhattan's geography generates infidelity: ours is a capacious city, a vast island whose size permits isolation and therefore betrayal.

Davidson's photographs remind us that people's personal lives are mostly tedious. Everybody has dirty plates and families. Privacy protects us. Behind closed doors we shine our shoes and our personalities; we rest and then resume playing the roles of interesting people. We hide our worst selves, and our dullest: we would rather have people see us as bad than boring.

What is universal are chores, the failure to do them, and the desire to be looked at. From the way one girl turns her foot you can tell she has taken ballet. She is wearing church clothes; in another picture, a sign on a storefront church proclaims, "All are welcome!" Sunday devotional services meet at 12:30, and something abbreviated "W.P.W.W." gathers on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30.

A few of the buildings Davidson photographed still stand, but this church is gone. The northwest corner of the block has been cleared for a baseball diamond, and luxury condominiums now run along First Avenue up to 101st Street. In 2006, one of the new apartments on Lexington Avenue sold for $8.5 million dollars.

The protagonists of children's books are usually orphans. The family home is a prison that must be demolished before the book can begin. Only once they are freed from their cells and captors can the characters' adventure begin. Out of the cradle and into the boxcar, or boarding school; the best world is the one without parents.

My parents sold their house this fall. Like Davidson's subjects and storybook orphans, I am one of the lucky ones: I never have to go home again.

Elizabeth Gumport is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about the life of Maeve Brennan. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here. You can find an archive of her work at n+1 here.

"Strangeness (live at the Wiltern)" - Florence and the Machine (mp3)

"Between Two Lungs (live at the Wiltern) - Florence and the Machine (mp3)

"Ghosts (live at the Wiltern)" - Florence and the Machine (mp3)

"Cosmic Love (live at the Wiltern)" - Florence and the Machine (mp3)