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Alex Carnevale

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Kara VanderBijl

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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

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in kara vanderbijl (77)


In Which The Greatest City In The World Is Smaller Than You Think

Studies in Claustrophobia


On the back of a postcard I scrawl, “New York City: smaller than expected.”

That’s it; those are the only notes I managed to take during my seventy-two hours in Manhattan. Exactly what I planned for the extensive scribbling I meant to do eludes me now, three weeks of outlining and imagining and remembering later. After beginning this essay a thousand times, I became convinced that the only thing more difficult than living in New York is writing about New York.

It’s strange that I should be overwhelmed with the subject when I did find Manhattan petite — a water-lapped gray island of which I could see every last corner from the plane. I spent my weekend there navigating tiny spaces. Restaurant tables were so close together that I stood on tiptoes and bent in awkward angles to get to my seat. In public restrooms (of which there were few), my arms touched the walls on either side of the toilet and I had to duck my head to wash my hands. I stepped out of restrooms into kitchens and backed into bookshelves that doubled as wine cellars.

On the High Line, we walked single file between rows of native shrubs, not-so-native Germans, and two couples taking engagement photos. Behind them, buildings crowded en masse to fit inside the small screen of the digital camera. I covered a distant skyscraper with the tip of my finger, feeling like that primordial ape attempting to catch the toy city whirring around my head.

Below ground, the air was close and smelled like what it sounds like when brakes squeal against iron rails: burnt. The subway cars were long but squat, as if the tunnels had been pressing against their ceilings for decades. Inside one, I slid slowly off the tiny plastic seat into the crush of people talking about work and ugh, really? in Brooklyn? We climbed steep stairs to come up for air. I thought I could smell the Atlantic but I also smelled pizza, sewer, coffee, metal and perfume. New Jersey loomed close over Manhattan’s shoulder, the less desirable bank of the river.

Sitting on a stranger’s stoop hip-to-hip to eat a slice, we went through a thick wad of napkins mopping up grease. Entering Central Park through the Women’s Gate, we caught a whiff of fermenting November leaves and ducks. After a perfunctory stroll, we exited onto 5th Avenue somewhere in the 70s. At a book stand, they were selling stiff new copies of The Great Gatsby with Cugat’s original cover, that yellow blue silhouette somehow bigger, somehow brighter than the city blurring into the dusk around me.

Before long the crowds made me feel anxious, and we caught the subway downtown, watching groups of friends get on and off and plan to meet for drinks later. In an exhausted stupor, we lifted miraculously out of our seats at the right stop by the promise of Katz’s pastrami on rye and half-sour pickles. The deli was the only thing in New York that was bigger than I thought it would be, tables going on forever, people biting into sandwiches under pictures of Johnny Depp and Bill Clinton and the Kennedys clasping Katz's hand and smiling.

Meat slid out the back of sandwiches, plopping soft onto plates in greasy folds. An Eastern European bus boy, or rather, middle-aged gentleman, came by to shove napkin-covered plates into a dirty tub. At the neighboring table, two ladies compared cosmetics and sipped Diet Cokes. “Hope you have what she had!” crowed a sign above the table where Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan sat in When Harry Met Sally. We hope you’ll all have what we’re having.

Even after a day during which I had done everything I could think of to experience the city, to feel its pulse underneath all the kitsch, it was here — on this holy kosher-style ground — that I realized I’d been hearing the New York City narrative running through the crowds the whole time, like a half-muffled scream.

It’s a survivor’s tale, except instead of chopping through jungles to flee a starving tiger, the survivor is a girl crying on the subway, her mascara running down her cheeks, and she’s on her way to her entry-level job (which, in Manhattan, is probably located in some basement far below street level). And nobody is looking at her, because she’s just another anonymous survivor who won’t quit the city because this — this story of living in less-than-humane conditions is what thrills her, this always reaching and never getting is the greatest story she thinks she can write, because after all, this is the greatest city in the world…

This, I think, is what makes it hard to live in and write about New York. The city will always be bigger than you, her sense of self will always be more important than yours, and no matter how many times you laugh at someone who moves away, breathlessly saying, “They just weren’t tough enough,” a small, stifled part of you wonders if you, too, will be swallowed by this machine that chews, and chews, and chews away at your sanity, your guts spilling out the back into the Hudson like so much pastrami. Writing a New York City story is a study in claustrophobia.

It takes a good ego-squashing to be a writer, but squash someone far enough below ground and they’re mining for salt to chew on between paychecks, not stories. There’s a name for the condition that makes a person vow To Leave or Never To Leave New York, and it’s “identity crisis”: when the setting of the story has engulfed its main character. Nor is the main character wholly to blame; everything in New York seems built to induce this crisis, from its perfectly miniature coffee shops blasting Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong down to the lox on your bagel. I worried at the small apartments that had no windows.

In the morning, I woke up early while the city slept on, West Village streets yawning sunbeams into one another, sidewalks stubbly with last night’s litter. I took my maps and my empty notebook and stopped at Patisserie Claude to buy a croissant and a cappuccino. From there I wandered to Washington Square Park, where I found the famed monument thinner than its Parisian cousin, living on a starvation diet of pigeons and piano music. At my feet, two squirrels fought over the crumbs from my pastry. The peddler pianist launched into Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

I wondered then, sitting alone on a bench in the sunshine, what I might have been if I had chosen to live here, how I might have molded my life to fit into the narrative of New York City. Would I have become best friends with Ambien or fashioned, out of a budding creative bent, an oxygen mask to filter out the high rent, the four-dollar coffees I finished in two sips? Would I have caught the tiny city whirring in dreams around my head? Would I have sacrificed the morning, my favorite time of day, for Manhattan’s endless night?

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about Donna Tartt's latest disappointment. She is a writer living in Chicago. She tumbls here and twitters here

Photographs by the author.

"I See My Mother" - Polica (mp3)

"Violent Games" - Polica (mp3)



In Which We Return To The Scene Of The Crime

All That Glitters


The Goldfinch
by Donna Tartt
784 pp

We expect a bad writer to produce drivel; we can lament that a good writer’s work is not appreciated in its time. But that Donna Tartt, an incredible writer, should produce three wearisome books in twenty years is an enigma that I have been trying to solve since I finished her latest, The Goldfinch, this week.

The Goldfinch revolves around Theo Decker, a young New Yorker who is visiting the Met with his mother when a bomb goes off. He leaves the museum without his mother (she dies), Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting “The Goldfinch” under his arm (he stole it from underneath a pile of rubble). Theo moves from home (that of the wealthy Barbours, the family of one of his schoolmates) to home (that of his alcoholic father in Las Vegas); the story touches on his guilt, exhilaration and the self-destruction that occurs where the two intersect.  As Theo works feverishly to protect his secret and maintain the painting he idolizes, he crumbles under the influence of drugs, alcohol and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder.

Like her previous works (The Secret History, 1992, and The Little Friend, 2002), Tartt’s newest monolith is extremely lengthy, and is at turns bildungsroman, thriller, and exposé on beauty. In fact, if you replace murder with heist, The Goldfinch is essentially the same book as The Secret History. Both feature an unlikeable, half-privileged half-tragic male protagonist and a cast of supporting characters who are somewhat more likeable, yet more likely to be bad influences. Both will thrill you at first. In fact, you’ll be tempted to include them in your “Top 5 Novels I Love” list. But then you get to the halfway mark, and it all begins to unravel.

If we’re picking someone to blame, her editor seems like the most likely candidate. You can allow a certain degree of extravagance, Donna Tartt being Donna Tartt (the characters in her first novel murdered someone during a bacchanalian rite, after all). But after she reaches the climax of the story, she’s not really sure what to do with herself anymore. During the last 100 pages of The Goldfinch, Theo monologues about art, beauty and life, like Tartt threw her personal notes into her manuscript and called it a resolution.

A reader will forgive a slow beginning if she can trust the writer to give her more and more reasons to believe that the book will dazzle her. But Tartt has consistently done the opposite: she carries her readers to the top of a mountain, then watches them slip and slide their way down the other side.   

Tartt’s biggest strength lies where action meets self-reflection; this is where she creates her most powerful scenes. However, when she leans too heavily either on plot or on a character’s introspection, she loses steam. For this reason, some parts of The Goldfinch feel false, like they were merely conveniences to move along the plot (really, Theo just happens to stop by Kitsey’s apartment and just happens to find out she’s cheating on him?), and other parts drone on and on, the vibrant thread of action getting lost in details about furniture restoration and personal histories which, while fascinating, do little to carry the reader through to the end.

It’s a shame because Tartt’s talent demands that we trust her. Her voice is that of a master. She paints an opulent picture of New York City, she seasons even the slowest moments with delightful details, like rain “peppering the windows”; the smoky fragrance of lapsang souchong tea; Theo’s many physical ills as he drifts in and out of drug dependence. She has a knack for drama, for creating believable characters and relationships. She has a sense of humor. She can get you to turn pages like there’s no tomorrow. Now, if she could just finish well... I’d follow her up another mountain and down the other side.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about four things. She twitters here and tumbls here.

"The Light" - Stars (mp3)

"Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It (Com Truise remix)" - Stars (mp3)


In Which The Reason For Her Visit Is Obsolete



Four things:

a trip to Cape Cod, Massachusetts,

Little House on the Prairie,

the first story I wrote,

my mother’s piano.

Baring ivory keys chipped like old teeth, the piano smiled at the Canadian border officials. These pearly assets made my small mother out to be some kind of elephant poacher, however unlikely; she was 5’2’’, charming, with the appropriate lilting accent. Her American children watched from the backseat. They could not let the instrument cross onto maple-soil, the officials informed her, she should take back her tainted spoils.

It offended me at the time that my mother would so easily part with the old brown upright, since it had been a gift from her father, who soon afterwards passed away from cancer. Now, though, I think that my reaction was not so much directed towards her own loosely-clasped hands, but towards how tightly my own fingers held onto objects. The piano was the oldest thing I knew. It was older than my mother was for me, because it had existed before I knew her. My brother and I had leaned against it on toddling trips across the living room. We’d taken lessons on it up until complex “Good King Wenceslas”. My mother had moved it, bent in half and pushing all of her weight into its side, around the living room with the changing of the seasons. And here she wanted to move it away forever.

Of course, we didn’t actually drive the Steinway all the way up to the border. The proceedings happened over the telephone. But so stricken was I by this great abandonment, that I visualize the event as I told it above, a bartering for greasy Canadian change. Because Canada would not take it back, we packed it in quilts with the rest of our things in a shipping container that took it across the Atlantic to Europe. In the months before we saw it again, I imagined it tossing through stormy nights, its homesick cries pitching deep.


Moving to France was only our most recent adventure. These moves, they’d become like yawning business travelers on long-haul flights, permanently jolted out of a familiar time zone, accustomed to vacuum-sealed meals and blinking blue and green maps. Moving to Europe was just back to business for us. At twelve, I knew how to roll my underwear into the tiniest possible crevices of a suitcase. I did not yet know that it was a bad idea to bring along as many books as I could fit into my backpack for the trip. This heavy, shoulder-shrugging habit of mine continued well into college, when I filled a dorm room with one suitcase full of clothes and six full of books. 

What stories I couldn’t fit in a suitcase, what stories were too close to tell or even to share with others, I wrote for myself.

I couldn’t write adventure stories, because adventures meant leaving, and that was filled with a personal pain I wasn’t even aware of at my age, and also, a hero leaving her hometown for a quest seemed banal to me, on par with a knock-knock joke, “Knock knock, who’s there, the Vanderbijls, the Vanderbijls who? They moved again.” When I was six we’d packed all of our belongings into a yellow moving truck and made the drive from Washington State to Southern California. Then, in our six years in California, we lived in four different houses, and it was in the fourth — a non-descript apartment in a complex with two pools —  that I began to write a story about staying.

It centered around a place called Red Brick Inn and about a family that lived in and managed it. It was about illnesses that fascinated me like tuberculosis and love stories culminating in the chastest of kisses. It was about visitors arriving in the night, cold and wet and wandering, to  a warm hearth within and a family that never left. It was about a home. I wrote the story of two generations in six books, and then the last three books were dedicated to a distant descendant who, orphaned, searched for the truth about her birth parents and discovered the dilapidated remains of the Inn.

Of course, in true Hollywood fashion, she restored it in the end. And got married.


Laura Ingalls was also a girl who Didn’t Stay and I think it was this underlying frontier spirit that made me reach for her books again and again when I was very young. She, too, did not complain when she was told that her family was moving yet again; she too was caught up in the adventure of it, the newness of the land and the blind opportunities a person might find if they just kept moving. That she settled, later, and lived out the last portion of her life in one place, though, made me feel as if she’d caught the bug second-hand, that she’d become tired, too, of living out of a suitcase on a never-ending journey.

I was haunted by the image of the Ingalls family slowly leaving their little log cabin in the prairies of Kansas, and I wonder if the girls knew at that point that it wasn’t the destination, the promise of cheap land, that kept Pa Ingalls going but the idea of movement itself.

As much as I shivered reading The Long Winter, and as much as I know that the Ingalls family was starving and was near death for the greater part of that book, I could not help but envy the coziness of their home, the snow blocking their front door and preventing them from leaving the space around the hearth. But snow melts, and the end of the book filled me with a sense of claustrophobia. Does this mean that they will have to leave again, I wondered, now that the winter is over?


It should not be easy to leave a home behind. I have friends who moved once in their childhood and tell the story with tears to this day, the trauma of new rooms and new schools and new friends barely compartmentalized into the cardboard boxes of their hearts. But for my family, it was eerily easy. We flung off extra clothes and furniture and memories until we reached the few bones that held our frame together. Our idea of home grew more and more emaciated, its holy body rolled behind a stone.

Our old homes should be kept sacred likes shrines, like street corners decorated with crosses or clusters of dead flowers. Why is it so do we spend so much time memorializing a place where someone has died, when we move so easily from the places where we’ve lived? Doesn’t living leave a greater mark than dying?

I’m a mystic, and now, in my adulthood, it takes me the time of a few tears to tear myself away from a place. I mopped the floor of the little bedroom in my last apartment with the devotion of a monk. Empty, it looked even smaller than when it was full of bed and dresser and discarded hair collecting dust. When I’ve been camping it’s taken me longer than others to stop looking at the spot in the grass that the tents flattened, the imprints of our bodies left to be raked away by wind and strangers, touched by the sparks of strangers’ fires.

This week, some dear friends of mine are moving out of their apartment. It is an attic unit with sloping ceilings and what is quite possibly the lowest rent on the North Side of Chicago. The big tree that used to be in the backyard rotted away and got cut down. Since it only has one exit, the apartment is technically illegal, and the landlord is grossly negligent on a good day. But it’s the first home I was invited into as a friend, just as the weather was turning after a hot summer.

I had made a mental list of places to locate immediately: a Bank of America, the closest dry cleaners and a pizza place within delivery distance that wasn’t too expensive. But I did not think about places that are not open to the public, the sanctuaries that existed behind the glowing golden windows of the row houses and bungalows on my street. I thought about making friends, but I did not consider that moment in a warm living room, winter outside, when a sense of family hangs heavy over fledgling acquaintances and empty bottles of wine. I thought about nights out, about bars and restaurants, but I did not think about home. I have not yet made the habit of thinking about how to stay instead of how to get out.


Before we moved to France, we visited Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was fall. The cranberry bogs were crimson with ripe fruit. Colorful cottages dotted roads carpeted in yellow leaves. On the horizon, a gray sky hung low over the Atlantic. This was the birthplace of our country and I felt like I should remove my sandals on hallowed ground and also because my feet were cold and tired from walking.

The reason for our visit is now obsolete, thus rendering it impossible for me to recreate an experience that felt like coming home. I cannot explain what about these small villages on the easternmost side of our country, territories I’d never visited before, made it seem like I was coming home at last. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that ‘disorient’ means to lose the east and that the further you march from the east, the further west you search for your elusive frontiers, the more you lose yourself.

It was after visiting Cape Cod that I began writing my Red Brick Inn stories, placing the Inn off a main road from one of the villages we’d visited during our time there. And I know it’s not there, but I almost can’t bear to visit the East Coast again without hoping it will appear like a beacon, like a warm glowing window on a winter night.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about the end of summer. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Love in Stereo" - Sky Ferreira (mp3)

The new album from Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time, was released on October 29th.

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