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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

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Entries in alice bolin (25)

Tuesday
Oct302012

In Which We Get Taylor Swift Alone

See Red

by ALICE BOLIN

“Do you consider yourself a feminist?” Ramin Setoodeh of The Daily Beast recently asked country-pop girl wonder Taylor Swift, a simple question that Swift predictably dodged. “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls,” she responded. “I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.” Sigh. I read things like that and I wish more than anything that homegirl had been allowed to go to college.

There are obviously troubling things about Swift’s prim, old-fashioned, virginal persona—she defines herself by her relationships with men, and she’s in danger of arrested development, a permanent girlhood. There is also the fact that her public persona is so resolutely composed that her only recourse to address pain is passive aggression, so that anger leaks out at every corner. This is why the popular image of Swift is a fascinating contradiction: a perfect princess who is also a total mess.

But I think I’ve gone beyond the point of finding Swift merely fascinating, an interesting public figure. If my iTunes is to be believed, I have listened to the songs on her last album, Speak Now, an average of fifty times. I karaoked the teenage revenge anthem “Picture to Burn” from her self-titled first album two weeks ago. I play her songs on my ukulele, just like hundreds of thirteen-year-olds on YouTube. I am not an interested observer of her constructed celebrity — I am an enthusiastic fan of her music.

Swift’s albums have the quality that I love about all pop music: that it is fake, commercial, even cynical, and somehow it still speaks in real ways about what it’s like to be human. This is as true about mass-produced music from the days of Phil Spector and Motown, the cubicles of the Brill Building that made it like a literal hit factory, as it is about today’s mega-producers like Dr. Luke and Max Martin—a song’s sound is engineered to be perniciously memorable, and a song’s sentiment is engineered to be universally relatable. Pop music is manipulative in so many ways.

Swift is clearly shrewd about how to construct a perfect pop song. When she was a teenager in Nashville, she was not only scouted as an artist, but Sony/ATV publishing house also hired her as a songwriter. She has always written the bulk of her own music, and with Speak Now she had sole writing credit for the entire album. On her new album, Red, she is working with co-writers again, including Shellback, who wrote some of Britney Spears’ best hits, and pop songwriting legend Martin, the man responsible for a baffling amount of top ten singles including Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” ‘N Sync’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” 

Her collaboration with these pop giants initially appeared as an alarming departure for an artist with country singer-songwriter roots, especially because Martin has such a reputation for writing surefire hits that working with him is often seen as an act of career desperation. But the songs on Red that Swift wrote with Martin and Shellback are brilliant to a one: the album’s lead single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is a pop-punk revenge tune that’s as snotty as it is catchy, and the party anthem “22” features a gleeful and glorious chorus, not to mention Swift doing her best Ke$ha impression. The most surprising song on the album, “Trouble,” is heavy and synthed-out with a dub-step (!) chorus.

These songs are distinct from Swift’s typical output, but the partnership was fruitful because Swift, Martin, and Shellback understand pop’s most important quality: it is addictive. In a New Yorker article about Ester Deen and Stargate, the songwriter and producers who are responsible for most of Rihanna’s hits, Deen’s manager is quoted as saying, “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore. You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge.” It’s not only the overtly pop songs on Red that follow this prescription — “Treacherous,” a sexy acoustic ballad Swift co-wrote with Dan Wilson of nineties music footnote Semisonic, is tightly composed from a soft verse to an almost chant-like chorus, swelling to the bridge where Swift sings intently, “I will get you/Get you alone.”

Swift’s savvy about how to write a hit feels almost at odds with her reputation for writing autobiographical lyrics — people speak as if her songs are emotional and filter-less, when in reality her songwriting is anything but “raw.” With each new album, theories emerge about which of Swift’s celebrity ex-boyfriends each song is about. Swift claims to be bemused by this guessing game. “There are a lot of songs that people think is about this dude, but it’s really not, it’s actually about this guy you have no idea I even dated. Or you’ll sit there and go ‘that song was inspired by three different situations with three different people,’” she told VH1 recently. “I never really talk about who my songs are about,” she insisted.

But Swift plays into this speculation. She has a practice of encoding secret messages in the lyrics portion of her albums’ liner notes, which fans use to conjecture about the songs’ subjects. Songs on Red bear messages like HIYANNIS PORT, clearly referring to her summer beau Connor Kennedy; FOR ETHEL, a slightly embarrassing ode to Kennedy matriarch Ethel Kennedy; and MAPLE LATTES, a nod to a famous photo op she had with actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

This is the confusing thing — by all appearances Swift’s brief relationship with Gyllenhaal was a blatant publicity stunt. Their maple latte outing was documented by the paparazzi and written up in People magazine; as Vulture notes, “‘Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal Share Thanksgiving Maple Lattes’ is the third result when you Google ‘maple lattes.’” If their relationship was real, why did she use the most famous detail about their time together as a clue, rather than a less public one? Swift has never publicly discussed any of her relationships, other than her teenage romance with Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, but she purposefully capitalizes on the publicity they generate in subtler ways.

“All Too Well,” the song with the MAPLE LATTES clue, exploits a media-driven celebrity relationship for the sake of sensation, and it is also probably Red’s greatest triumph. It is the only track on Red that Swift wrote with her original songwriting partner Liz Rose, with whom she wrote hits like “Teardrops on my Guitar” and “You Belong with Me,” and it is filled with classic Swift details in lyrics like “We’re dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light.” “All Too Well” also contains the line “You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest,” which, scaling for what could conceivably heard on Top 40 radio, is the best lyric I’ve ever heard.

I don’t know how to rectify this — that the song on Red that feels the most authentic is the one that cashes in the most cravenly on media narratives that Swift herself controls. Clearly, Swift’s reputation as a crazy ex-girlfriend skewering her former loves in her lyrics is something that she cultivates — she, Adele, and Alanis Morissette are only a few of the female artists who have learned that this is a gimmick that can take your albums multi-platinum. It also seems that her code of propriety, her desire to be a “classy” celebrity, is what dictates her reticence about her relationships — writing songs that allude to them and then baiting fans to guess who is a way that Swift acts out.

With Swift’s constricting good-girl image, she performs the transgressive acts available to her, and she releases her considerable aggression in controlled ways. “Tell all your friends I’m obsessive and crazy./That’s fine,” Swift sings to an ex on “Picture to Burn.” “I’ll tell mine you’re gay.” The height of her vindictiveness might be “Dear John,” the nearly seven-minute diss track to her ex-boyfriend John Mayer off Speak Now. The John Mayer-signature blues guitar solo on the song is both witty and stone cold. She talks about her temper in many of her songs, as in “Stay Stay Stay” off Red, where she sings, “I’m pretty sure we almost broke up last night./I threw my phone across the wall/At you.” In “Stay Stay Stay” as in her hit “Mine” from Speak Now, she daydreams about a man who will stick by her after the fights, in spite of her anger.

Her aggression isn’t only limited to her songs — after Jonas allegedly dumped with eighteen-year-old Swift with a twenty-seven-second phone call, Swift took to YouTube. In the video she posted, she is holding collectible dolls of both her and Jonas. “Oh look,” she says, examining the Joe Jonas doll’s packaging. “This one even comes with a phone. So it can break up with other dolls.” As demure as she may be, this girl is also intense and out for blood — of Red’s title, Swift said, “All those emotions — spanning from intense love, intense frustration, jealousy, confusion, all of that — in my mind, all those emotions are red.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but in this she echoes another passionate artist constrained by traditional expectations of femininity: Sylvia Plath. Red was Plath’s favorite color, and in her work it often has the same meaning that Swift assigns it on Red. “Their redness talks to my wounds, it corresponds,” Plath writes in “Tulips.” In “Lady Lazarus” she transfigures herself as a wrathful Fury — “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair,” the poem famously ends, “And I eat men like air.” It seems like Swift could relate. (The song “Higher Ground” off of Red contains the lyric “Back when you fit my poems like a perfect rhyme,” and I think we as a public must demand to know more about these poems.) There are numerous reasons why Swift will probably be better able to achieve her goals as an artist and a healthy human being than Plath was — but like Plath, Swift’s life seems to be about oscillating between acting out and falling in line with what’s expected of her. I can’t help but think, “Taylor, maybe if you were a feminist, all this would be easier for you.”

I cling to evidence that Swift is moving slowly toward more comfort with herself, more freedom. Granting that her schtick is that she is not a girl, not yet a woman, as they say, Red is distinctly more womanly than any of her other releases. She has let go of some of the narratives that she subscribed to in the past, particularly her obsession with fairytale love — tracks from previous albums bear names like “Today Was a Fairytale” and “White Horse,” and her hit single “Love Story” describes a Romeo-and-Juliet style pairing, except everything turns out fine in the end.

More than ever before in her work, Swift is acknowledging that love is not a fantasy—on “Treacherous” she makes the stunning acknowledgment that sex and sexual desire can complicate things. “I’ll do anything you say,” she sings, “if you say it with your hands.” She has also turned away from some of the persistent nostalgia for childhood that marks her previous albums. “Fifteen,” from Fearless, remembers in sentimental detail what it was like to be a freshman in high school. On the schmaltzy ballad “Never Grow Up” from Speak Now, our female Peter Pan advises a child, “Oh darling, don’t you ever grow up/Just stay this little.”

In contrast to “Fifteen,” “22” refers to the age Swift is now, not an age she longs to be again. The story “22” describes is as far from her fairytale songs as possible, as Swift sings about going out to a club with her friends and trying to pick someone up — “You look like bad news./I’ve got to have you,” she sings. This is such a welcome departure: on Red, Swift is acting her age, and even, for the first time, acknowledging her celebrity. In “The Lucky One,” she sings enviously of a young woman who gains success in Hollywood, only to abandon it all for a return to comfortable anonymity. I am relieved by these developments. If Swift were still making high school records at twenty-two, this would be a sadder story than it is.

A number of songs on Red display a chip on Swift’s shoulder about her goody-two-shoes image — on “22” she talks about dressing up like a hipster and complains that the club has “too many cool kids.” She tells an ex-boyfriend on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “You would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” The fact that Swift is not a cool kid is one thing I like about her — she is, after all, a gawky dork who grew up on a Christmas tree farm. I hope she realizes, though, that just because she isn’t “alternative,” that doesn’t mean that she has to be a Disney princess. She should take a lesson from her former nemesis Kanye West, whose persona seamlessly encompasses varying types including “sensitive genius” and “annoying egomaniac.”

The Swift-versus-Kanye West meme is a chance binary that is incidentally instructive — they have a lot in common as rigorous artists with volatile personalities. West is able to perform a public self that is stylish, nerdy, vulnerable, powerful, smart, sympathetic, and irritating. I wish Swift could do the same and be viewed as complex, not schizophrenic. For anyone who was wondering, that’s what feminism is. 

Alice Bolin is a senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about Isaac Mizrahi. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here.

"Back to December (acoustic)" - Taylor Swift (mp3)

"If This Was A Movie" - Taylor Swift (mp3)


Friday
Sep282012

In Which We Focus On Building A Persona

This Year’s Model

by ALICE BOLIN

The theatrical poster for the 1995 fashion documentary Unzipped shows designer Isaac Mizrahi, his head adorned with a wreath of laurels, with supermodels Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell flanking him, the three of them framed by a v-shaped opening that has been “unzipped” in a wall of white fabric. Evangelista and Campbell, along with fellow supermodels Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss, get top billing with Mizrahi on the poster, above the film’s title. Much of the attention surrounding Unzipped since its release has focused on the remarkable presence in the film of every major supermodel of the mid-1990s — included in the parade of celebrity models that makes its way through the film are Shalom Harlow, Amber Valletta, Niki Taylor, Veronica Webb and Carla Bruni.

This preoccupation with Campbell, Evangelista, and their cohort is understandable: the supermodels in Unzipped are conspicuous and easy to talk about, filling their role as the most accessible part of the fashion industry. But to paint them as the stars of the film is totally misleading. Unzipped, directed by Mizrahi’s then boyfriend, Douglas Keeve, and documenting the creation of Isaac Mizrahi New York’s fall 1994 collection, has only one star, Mizrahi. He is so compelling that he renders the most beautiful women in the world merely set dressing.

In fact, the supermodels contribute to a tension at the heart of Unzipped: that the film performs a kind of timelessness while chronicling the mid-90s fashion zeitgeist. The film is shot primarily in black and white, and the picture is at times so grainy that it recalls a silent film. Mizrahi himself could be from another time, with his loose pleated pants and two-tone shoes straight out of an old movie — and most of the references he draws from, films like Call of the Wild and Nanook of the North, The Red Shoes, Valley of the Dolls, even That Girl! and Mary Tyler Moore, are classic, nostalgic. The models appear halfway through the film, and it seems they play their part — with their celebrity, with their skill at wearing and displaying clothes — only after the collection is already designed. Mizrahi’s true muses are a world away from Cindy Crawford.

Mizrahi’s fashion spirit guides are depicted in Unzipped as wholesome and idiosyncratic women, odd American icons like legendary sex kitten Eartha Kitt, who makes a memorable cameo in the film. “Because I’m American. And I’m not a stone. That’s why I like Mary Tyler Moore,” Mizrahi says, and he is constantly singing the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mizrahi’s mother, Sarah Mizrahi, appears in the film, and she was one of his earliest fashion inspirations. He describes how she would alter and adorn her store-bought clothes, by, for instance, affixing cloth daisies to a pair of plain mules. “And who knew that he was looking at them,” Sarah says of the mules. “I mean, he was four years old.” “Who knew that I was obsessed with them,” Mizrahi says.

These totems of Mizrahi’s mythology, the objects of his fancy, swirl through Unzipped, forming the scaffolding that eventually supports the fashion show that is the film’s finale — a crucial part of the project here is documenting the process of inspiration. “Here’s my process,” Mizrahi announces to the camera early in the film. “I get inspired somehow, somewhere — from the ballet, from dance, from a movie, from something — I get this gesture in my head. And I think, is this worthy of doing a whole collection? Usually it is, because it’s the only thing I can think of. And from there I just do all these millions of sketches about this one gesture.”

For the collection he’s designing in Unzipped, Mizrahi has become infatuated with an arctic motif involving lots of colorful faux furs. He is shown watching the 1922 film Nanook of the North, sketching, and talking on the phone — he says he wishes he could design a pair of fur pants, but he knows he can’t. “It’s about women not wanting to look like cows, I guess,” he says. “When in fact there’s something very charming about cows.”

His other main reference is the 1935 film Call of the Wild, starring Clark Gable. He is shown repeatedly describing a scene where the film’s starlet is found almost dead of exposure on the tundra — “She’s nearly dead,” he says, “and her makeup is perfect, dewy skin, perfect eyebrows, lip liner.” The dissonances of these pop culture depictions of life in the frozen north are what Mizrahi ultimately finds so inspiring. “I don’t need go to Australia or to India in order to do collections about those places,” he says. “I can do them from my imagination or from having seen, you know, the Flintstones episode that is set in Australia.”

Unzipped collects these sources of inspiration like a scrapbook. Keeve makes frequent use of other footage — Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby,” a portion of The Mary Tyler Moore Show opening credits, scenes from Call of the Wild — so that collage is critical to the aesthetic of the film. And Mizrahi does endless impressions, channeling Bette Davis, Boris Lermontov from The Red Shoes, and his old drawing teacher at Parsons. Often these impressions are cut with footage from what he is recreating: after Mizrahi says, “There’s only one star in a Helen Lawson production, and that’s me, remember?” we see Helen Lawson, the washed-up diva from Valley of the Dolls, say the same line.

Mizrahi recounts his meeting with Eartha Kitt and then there is footage from the encounter — “Will you make me gowns?” Mizrahi says in Kitt’s signature purr, then we cut to Kitt asking the same question. “I have to be able to move around!” Mizrahi mimics, and then we see both Mizrahi and Kitt contorting their bodies bizarrely. Unzipped features incredible cameos — even disregarding the supermodels, there are appearances by Sandra Bernhardt, Roseanne, Ellen Barkin, Richard Gere, André Leon Talley, and fashion legend Polly Mellon — and it becomes even more densely populated with the legendary figures who live in his memory.

Mizrahi is a performer, and as he ventriloquizes his show business role models, we glimpse a defining aspect of his identity: that he is interested in, and good at, staging a show, and this talent is separate from his talent at designing clothes. In Unzipped, Mizrahi is fixated on his idea for the fashion show of using a theatrical scrim for a backdrop that, when backlit, would become transparent, exposing the chaos backstage. His business partner Nina Santisi is skeptical, but it turns out to be a visionary concept, presenting the show’s viewers with the finished product and then, with a change of lighting, giving them access to all the work and workers who created it, disrupting the fantasy.

Particularly after his Isaac Mizrahi New York line folded in 1998, Mizrahi seemed to be exploring more fully his interests in theatre and performance. He made frequent collaborations with director and choreographer Mark Morris, who appears in Unzipped, including costuming Morris’s productions for New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He performed a one-man show off-Broadway called Les Mizrahi and had television shows on the Oxygen and Style networks, in addition to appearing on Bravo’s fashion competition show The Fashion Show. But Mizrahi’s flair for the theatrical was also blamed for the ultimate failure of his line. “Mizrahi was such a great showman that his runway extravaganzas sometimes overwhelmed the clothes they were meant to be selling,” New York magazine reported on Isaac Mizrahi New York’s closing.

New York spoke of Mizrahi’s celebrity eclipsing the poor sales of his clothes. In his final showdown with Chanel, who owned a majority of Isaac Mizrahi New York, the brand reportedly refused to pay for another one of Mizrahi’s extravagant fashion shows. “But I’m showbiz,” Mizrahi is rumored to have replied. Mizrahi’s public personality may have helped hide his line’s business problems, but Unzipped steadfastly rejects the notion that Mizrahi’s focus was on “showbiz” at the expense of designing clothes. “Isaac Mizrahi really knows how to put on a show,” he reads aloud from Women’s Wear Daily at the end of the film, on the day after his fashion show. But this is precisely what he talks about as his main headache.

“That’s when it gets kind of grating on my nerves,” he says of the work that happens after the clothes are designed. “Because it’s no longer about creating a look, it’s about creating a show.” There is an incredible shot of an exasperated Mizrahi in a closet full of garments covered in plastic, his arms spread wide. “Everything is frustrating,” he says. “Every single thing is frustrating. Except designing clothes. That’s not frustrating. That’s really liberating and beautiful.”

It’s hard to know which of these contrasting pictures — of the Mizrahi whose “primary goal was not making money but building a persona” (as New York quoted from fashion critic Bernadine Morris) and the one who finds everything except designing clothes to be frustrating — to look to. The only solution is to hold them both in the mind at once. Mizrahi has often been likened to an old fashioned dandy, described by Time as “a kind of Seventh Avenue Oscar Wilde.” According to the ethic of dandyism, wit and style must suffuse not only dress but every aspect of the dandy’s life, making, in Michel Foucault’s conception, an art of life, rather than a life of art. Or, as Wilde put it, “One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.”

Mizrahi’s art of life, his outsized self, provides one answer to the question of Unzipped’s simultaneous datedness and timelessness — how it remains a supremely stylish film while chronicling the creation of clothing that is no longer remotely stylish. When the fashion show begins, the film switches abruptly from black and white to color, as if signaling a move into the glaring, undeniable present — there is no way this portion could have been shot at any time but in 1994.

The clothes in this collection are by now truly ridiculous. There are tailored looks made of a soviet gray flannel, medieval-inspired corsets with full skirts, sequined mini-dresses, and of course the day-glo furs, some of them accenting Technicolor vinyl raincoats. House music pulses as Cindy Crawford walks down the runway and one cannot help but think that it’s all so nineties. Fashion is arbitrary: it is a cyclical, mass change in taste required by the dictates of capitalism so that the public is continually keeping up with the joneses. As much as one can try to opt out of fashion, it infests the eye — styles that are “out” look simply, inexplicably wrong.

And nothing jars the eye like the “wrong” color, or the wrong colors used together. Mizrahi has always been known for his use of color, and in Unzipped, color serves as synecdoche for all of the changing whims of fashion — when, during the show, the picture moves momentarily from garish full color to black and white, the clothes look immediately more stylish. Ultimately, Unzipped might be about the limitations of fashion, or how style picks up where fashion leaves off. In 2010, while speaking about Unzipped at the Costume Institute at the Met, Mizrahi discussed how he used both “real people” and models for his campaigns for Liz Claiborne. “Sometimes the model isn’t in the foreground,” Mizrahi said. “Sometimes the model is the worst part of the picture.”

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Thunder Clatter" - Wild Cub (mp3)

"Colour" - Wild Cub (mp3)

 

Monday
Aug272012

In Which Very Little Is Equitable In The Fifth Form

Lunch Line Realism

by ALICE BOLIN

They are Scholastic paperbacks from the 1980s, approximately 150 pages, their covers featuring an illustration bordered in a bright color, and since I was a child they have appealed to me more than almost any other object. Even now I often buy them in Goodwills and used bookstores, especially if they seem off-brand, a little sad: because some of these books — The Babysitters Club, notably — took off, while others — ever heard of Sleepover Friends? — languish in bookstore-free-box limbo for all eternity.

I was in a thrift store in the strange, tiny town of Ronan, Montana when I came across Barthe DeClements’ 1985 novel Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You, whose title struck me immediately as both bizarre and bizarrely honest. I bought the book for fifty cents and read it dutifully: it’s the story of a sixth grader named Helen who can’t read and acts out in serious ways, like spray painting her school, because of her learning disability. It’s about ineffectual authority figures and what it means to be a “bad kid.” It’s a totally sad and totally good book.

It wasn’t until after I read Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You that I realized that it is by the same author as one of my most obsessed-on books from childhood, Nothing’s Fair In Fifth Grade. It’s difficult to describe the plot of Nothing’s Fair In Fifth Grade: in Google Books’ synopsis, “Overweight Elsie Edwards, new to Brier, Washington, steals lunch money in order to buy candy and Jenny has to decide whether to risk her popularity with her friends in order to help the troubled new girl.” Or taken another way, on the Scholastic website: “A group of fifth-graders must deal with an overweight classmate who steals everyone's lunch money to buy candy for herself.”

Both of these feel so wrong. The first paints Jenny as brave and valiant, risking her popularity, and the second paints Elsie, the overweight classmate, as the villain. Especially for children’s books, DeClements’ books are remarkably morally ambiguous: the kids in Elsie’s class are brutal to her for her weight, but she does steal from them, making some of them feel justified in disliking her. Jenny eventually becomes Elsie’s friend, but it takes her half the book to discover any compassion for Elsie.

A short synopsis also gives the book too much of a coherent, climactic arc. Nothing's Fair In Fifth Grade is humdrum and episodic — we hear about Jenny making dinner with her mom, playing with her cat, and babysitting her younger brother. There are also amusing 1980s mundanities like Elton John records and Mork and Mindy; Jenny’s mom has to get a part-time job and her dad bitches quaintly about having to make his own dinner. The plot is so quiet as to be almost inaudible, but DeClements gets away with it because the book is so emotionally true — it isn’t boring because it feels real.

When I was a kid I ate that shit up. All I desired was a protagonist whose emotions I could project into and experience; plot could get in the way of my lingering in the fantasy. This is related to my childhood love of sequels: Sister Act 2, Beethoven’s 2nd, and, especially, My Girl 2. (I should mention that Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You is not a sequel to Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade, but it is something of a spin-off: it features a few of the same characters, but only peripherally.) While first films tediously focused on introducing characters and having stories that made sense, sequels could dispense with character development and focus on hijinks and gratuitous love affairs. Sequels felt low-pressure: first films are tense where sequels are loose, their pacing haphazard, as if they have nothing to prove.

My ideal book offered no novel historical setting, no supernatural elements, and characters who were superbly average — but while Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade and Sixth Grade Can Really Kill You are low-pressure, they are also serious. They’re a few steps less bleak than K-mart realism (Target realism? J.C. Penney realism?) for ten-year olds. DeClements was a school psychologist, and this is obvious in her books: they often focus transparently on the underlying issues that make kids misbehave and the problems teachers and parents have when dealing with troubled children. The questions involved are fraught, and Declements doesn’t attempt a unified answer. There’s something axiomatic here: that Declements’ books, like childhood, betray surprising complexity. They’re the kind of books I want to liberate from garage sales and flea markets, wonky, earnest relics that supply weird, honest joys.

Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about the bad movie club. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Nothing Is Impossible" - Chad VanGaalen (mp3)

"Weighed Sin" - Chad VanGaalen (mp3)

Enjoy The Perils Of A Literary Childhood At Your Leisure

Elena Schilder and The Babysitter's Club

Lily Goodspeed and The Golden Compass

Helen Schumacher and Little House on the Prairie

Jane Hu and Walk Two Moons

Kara VanderBijl and A Wrinkle In Time

Hafsa Arain and Harry Potter

Lucy Morris and Bruno and Boots

Dayna Evans and The Diary of Anne Frank

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