In Which We Recommend You Take A Job Typing

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Self-Centered

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

Manny Streisand was her father, known in Flatbush as the instructor of troubled men at the Brooklyn High School for Specialty Trades. The E. 7th street tenement he was born into charged a rent of $15 a month. Heading into Manhattan for the only honeymoon he could afford, Manny Streisand banged his head against the windshield when the car in front of him stopped short. Five years later, he began to suffer the first of many seizures. On August 4th, 1943, he was dead.

His daughter Barbara was almost a year and a half. She was not yet Barbra, she was still Barbara. She did not cry as a child, despite the fact that her grandfather was a malicious tyrant. Her mother Diane, unable to cope with her husband’s early passing, was keen to drop the girl off with a caretaker whenever she could.

side the cartel

When she was old enough for school, she was old enough to experience its displeasure. Her peers called her Big Beak and drew attention to her lazy left eye. The Yiddish word for an ungainly misfit was “mieskeit,” and everyone knew that was her.

Her mother was attractive enough to find a second husband, and young Barbara did not care for her suitors. Barbara tried to turn them away like Penelope. When these strange men kissed her mother, Barbara thought they were trying to take Diane from her.

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A neighbor in her Brooklyn building knit the young girl a sweater to wrap around her only toy: a hot water bottle. Her mother became concerned by Barbara’s lack of interest in eating. The only time she paid attention to the girl was when she was force-feeding her something or other, possibly a knish.

She sang for the first time at the age of seven. She rushed breathlessly into her mother’s embrace afterwards, eager for her approval. Her mother told her, “Your arms are too thin.”

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Her mother found another man, one in the garment business. He impregnated her but refused to get married for some time. Diane Streisand moved into a one-bedroom on the corner of Nostrand Avenue. The rent was $105 per month.

Barbara’s new father Louis Kind hated her, would criticize her clothes in front of her friends, brought no money to the family, beat his new wife. When one of her friends asked why Kind owned a different last name, she told the girl, “Oh, he uses that name for business.”

On the plus side, her new father possessed the only television set she had ever had. She imitated everything she saw, showing her mother the correct way to hold a cigarette for the first time at the age of ten. Lucille Ball was generally regarded as the best.

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Her first band in elementary school was Bobbie and the Bernsteins. She was Bobbie, backed by twin sisters, her closest friends at school. She never invited them over to her house out of fear. One of her classmates told her, “Barbara, please don’t sing anymore.”

For her fourteenth birthday, her mother nixed the idea of going to see My Fair Lady. Instead, her and her friend Anita Sussman saw The Diary of Anne Frank. At first she cried at the bracing similarities of her own existence, but afterwards it occurred to her as if there had never been a question: that part was made for her.

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With her family in tatters, she sought a second home and found it in Jimmy and Muriel Choy, a Chinese couple who owned a restaurant on Nostrand Avenue. Kosher food had the disadvantage of being associated with her awful parents; Chinese food meant magnificent life in comparison. She schlepped from table to table as a waitress, the only Jewish one they had.

High school was a different matter. Her desire to perform became a singular force of will, the only one she required. She had never been identified as gifted in school, but a mandatory IQ test quickly revealed the truth. With a quotient of 124, she was quickly shuttled into the honors classes. Still, she did not fit in with the smart students, and she ate alone. One teacher called her “self-centered.”

Sex was taboo in her home. Information had to be attained through other avenues. She asked Muriel Choy whether the man was always on top during intercourse. Muriel responded, “Not necessarily.”

Her first romance was with the best-looking guy in her theater troupe. She had always been considered the ugliest girl in school. He did more than admit she wasn’t: he told her she was attractive, the first person who had ever done so. Her second boyfriend was a black guy named Teddy. People were absolutely flabbergasted.

The pace of things began to pick up, even if the world wasn’t exactly to her liking. She auditioned for Otto Preminger’s cinematic version of the Joan of Arc story, Saint Joan. They chose a gentile. Her mother separated from her abusive stepfather and had to sue for a measly $37 a week. To make ends meet, her mother sold undergarments in her building’s laundry room and asked her daughter to steal milk bottles from where they sat outside their neighbor’s doors.

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A theater near her home would play Italian films. She did not understand the language. When Jerry Lewis movies filled the theater, she imitated him in the lobby for other patrons. Her mother let her use their college savings ($150) to fund an apprenticeship at an upstate New York playhouse. Her first part was as a Japanese child leading a goat, and the role meant she had to clean up the animal’s droppings after every performance.

She continued to lie about her age, hoping she would be accepted into a year-round program at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. Her mother trashed the clothes that her theater friends gave her out of kindness, and accused them of enslaving her daughter. She adopted a new style: skirt, stockings, shoes, leather bag, all blacker than black.

Some time later on, in her aspiring actress days, another student spotted Barbara and took notice. James Spada’s 1995 biography of Barbra, Streisand: Her Life, has him remembering his first vision of the girl: “I remember this funny-looking girl on the stage sitting cross-legged…she had a very small part, she didn’t have many lines. But boy, by some magic wave of her wand she was making everybody look at her,” Dustin Hoffman said. “Did you ever see those pictures of a mother bird with the worm and there’s a bunch of baby birds with their mouths open? Somehow there’s one that’s straining more than any other to get that worm from their mother. That would be Barbra.”

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She met Warren Beatty, five years her elder. She rejected him for the moment, put off by his strategy of chasing every tail he saw. Her own early rejections were brutal one casting agent wrote over her photo, “Talented. Who needs another Jewish broad?” When she invited her mother to watch her perform a particularly moving scene in acting class, her mother told her to give up and take a typing job.

Until then, her name had been Barbara. But she decided that there were a million Barbaras, and if she removed the ‘a’, only one Barbra.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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“Fight or Flight” – Sonya Kitchell (mp3)

“Lucifer” – Sonya Kitchell (mp3)

Sonya-Kitchell

In Which We Knew A Wizard Once And He Was A Dick

Dumbledont

by ETHAN PETERSON

The Magicians
creators Sera Gamble and John McNamara

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 8.32.05 AMFor one magnificent moment, The Chronicles of Narnia is mysterious, frightening, and full of possibilities. Then it introduces Jesus, a lion. At least, when those white kids entered that wardrobe, there was the possibility something entertaining would come out of it. The Magicians, adapted from Lev Grossman’s trilogy of the same name, does not even have that.

How boring is The Magicians? Well, let me get your take on how much you care about the emotional problems of white Ivy leaguers, who are the central characters of The Magicians. OK, so you know that doofus Rory Gilmore was dating whose father owned a newspaper? His name was Logan Shewterprince or something like that. That guy was a selfless, altruistic champion compared to these people.

My professors — not at any Ivy League-affiliated institution — used to tell me that I used too many rhetorical questions in my writing. When I asked them why this was a problem, they explained they weren’t sure, but they had been told it was a sign of bad writing. Well, if they were telling the truth then both myself and the writers of The Magicians have a lot to answer for, since seventy percent of the dialogue in this thing is questions, and no one has the answers.

Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) is a white guy with big problems. Driving a car makes him nervvies, so he Narnia-enters a magic liberal arts college in upstate New York, Brakebills, to study magic. (The campus looks vaguely like Columbia.) It is emphasized that few of the students or faculty are very good at magic, except for a blonde woman named Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) who wears skirts that end at the midpoint of her thighs. Alice can’t really act very well, so it is good The Magicians will write her off the show basically after the first season.

And there will be future seasons. Despite the fact that The Magicians spends a lot of time hinting at satire of C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling, holding back the criticism just enough to ensure none of the jokes are actually funny, The Magicians is at least better written than most of the trash that has made its way to the execrable SyFy network. This is maybe not saying very much.

The scenes with Coldwater at his school are pretty bad. Ralph is a good-looking fellow, but an incredibly low energy actor and he more whines than delivers most of his lines. He makes two other white friends and starts vibing with the blonde girl. No indication is given why any of these people care for him at all; he is the male Mary Sue and don’t you forget it. In a much more amusing subplot, Quentin’s muggle friend Julia Wicker (the super-charismatic Stella Maeve) is denied entry to his magic Cornell and starts learning these arts in a cult where tattoos mark the levels of achievement involved.

College and the process of education is not only ripe for satire, but this journey can also feature a tremendous amount of satisfaction for the viewer. Within moments of Quentin’s entrance to Brakesbill, we are told that the university is not very important, the faculty are shit and no one has a terribly great grasp of what magic is or how to operate it. At least we got the sense that Hogwarts was an important place where lots of smart, important people walked the halls. Brakesbill might as well be a homeless shelter with a bar.

Even avoiding parody, The Magicians cannot succeed on its own enthusiasms. Magic in The Magicians is wacky, pointless, stupid and ill-defined. Without extended explication, we can never know what any of the stakes are in this battle over what being white and privileged really means. Recently, some universities revealed they were sending students to a white privilege conference, where they could fully fathom the meaning of their advantages. Some white idiot is always trying to do good and he ends up doing bad or worse, insignificant. This is the only moral of The Magicians.

In order to test Julia’s magical aptitude, a white man locks her to a radiator in the women’s bathroom of a bar where whites go to congregate. I am not joking, there are two people of color in The Magicians. The black character has his eyes torn out and the Indian-American named, for some reason, Penny (Arjun Gupta) experiences unprotected sex and summons a demon from an alternate reality. This is just in the first episode! Was this show executive produced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

The only interest here lies in the future of Julia Wicker, who quite clearly should have been the protagonist of The Magicians. At her birthday, Julia thinks she is about to be raped in the bathroom by a guy (David Call) who looks like the genetic cross between Ryan Gosling and Peter Dinklage. He chains her to the radiator in the squalid restroom. She chafes at her constraints and breaks them. Her master is so impressed by this move that she is subsequently locked into a walk-in freezer in Brooklyn. Unbeknownst to Julia, her companion in the cold is the master of this coterie, a ginger woman (Kacey Rohl) who explains in a squeaky voice that she is impressed with her.

Julia is looking for some kind of meaning from life, since now that she knows there is magic, she no longer has the slightest bit of interest in Yale Business School. She ignores her white boyfriend and spends all her time brooding about how she wasn’t accepted at the university Quentin Coldwater gained admission to after performing a few card tricks in front of the admissions committee. It’s a good thing neither of them were Asian, Latino or black, since they would not have had chance at Brookbills to begin with.

Ethan Peterson is a contributor to This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about The Dark Forest.

“Until We Go Down” – Ruelle (mp3)

In Which We Monitor Everything About Your Young Life

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to justhardtosay@gmail.com.

Hey,

My boyfriend Kirk received a Christmas gift from his brother. It was a FitBit, and apparently it is an extremely advanced model, since Kirk feels the need to discuss it at every single moment. It monitors his sleep, his resting heart rate, and a variety of other bodily functions. I’m surprised at this point that it doesn’t estimate the amount and variety of his shits.

The amount of focus on what is going on in Kirk’s body is in some sense healthy, but I’m not sure how much longer I can talk about this. I’ve thought about just smashing the FitBit in a trash compactor or giving it to Goodwill. Is there any way to make this madness end?

Amy B.

Dear Amy,

There is no reasonable solution to your problem. Setting back technology will only retard the progress of the human race. Soon your boyfriend will be driving an electric car, reading Kant on a holographic display, and guesstimating the number of his pubic hairs at any given time.

The best practice is to give him another hobby, since men can rarely enjoy more than one at a time. He sounds like a do-gooder, so perhaps he would enjoy a pasttime which benefits those less fortunate than himself, like synagogue or the Bernie Sanders campaign?

If he simply won’t move from this state of hyper self-focus, trying talking about the things you like a lot: The Bachelor, Amber Rose’s fashion sense, and how cream cheese is actually made.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

Hey,

I have been dating my boyfriend Pelle for around six months. (We met on Tinder.) Previously to this, I had a somewhat tumultuous thing with another guy who pretty much ghosted, leaving me with a lot of unanswered questions and anger towards him. I don’t feel any residual attraction or desire for this asshole, but it’s hard to not keep thinking about it, especially when we do things in the same city, in my same apartment. I find myself getting depressed because of this, and I am unsure how to explain it to Pelle without making him question what we have. Is there any remedy for this?

Lauren E.

Dear Lauren,

Jesus, this whole thing sounds like an Elliott Smith song, and didn’t his significant other stab him with a knife or something? I recall reading that in Spin.

Bad, failed past relationships haunt us all, especially Christie Brinkley. People will tell you it goes away with time, but for those of us with excellent memories, this luxury is more difficult to come by. Some of these horrid individuals from our past are not terribly effective at giving us closure, either, popping up out of nowhere for reassurance or penetration.

It sounds like you have a good thing going with your new boyfriend, By no means tell him about your ex for any reason, this would be disastrous. Everyone gets depressed sometimes, and most reasonable people find this an attractive quality, given that it allows them to do something for you; e.g. make you feel better.

If there are aspects of your current surroundings that remind you of your ex, change them. If they cannot be physically altered, replace them with a new specific memory — but not one with Pelle, since if you break up with him because he sleeps with your friend Justine, this would just mean the trigger would be doubly awful.

“Strangers” – Monica Lionheart (mp3)

“Taylor” – Monica Lionheart (mp3)

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In Which Chip Baskets Has Lost A Considerable Amount Of Body Fat

Renwah

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Baskets
creators Louis CK, Zach Galifianakis & Jonathan Krisel

Chip Baskets’ mother (Louis Anderson) has these plants in her house with large fronds. She won’t trim them because it would be like doing harm to something she loves, no matter how much they get in her way as she attempts to ascend the stairs of her home. This is the kind of compassionate, dispassionate attitude assumed by virtually everyone in the brilliant new FX series Baskets, except for its central character: a California clown named Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis). Unlike the rest of the people in his life, he knows exactly who he is.

Chip’s identical twin brother Dale runs a correspondence degree mill that pumps out certificates in occupations like middle management and cell phone repair. He is used to his brother coming to him for money, and doesn’t really resent the imposition. Chip asks him for $40, money he plans to use to fund the HBO subscription of a French woman who no longer has any interest in him.

Louis CK recently released the painful first episode of Horace and Pete, a three camera comedy that stars himself and Steve Buscemi as white brothers running a bar. You can feel CK’s presence in Baskets, but it is more in the subtle diassociation from reality.

CK has not received enough credit for bringing some of the character of live theater to television; in Horace and Pete this melding such a disaster the show feels like a parody of Death of a Salesman. On his own HBO series, Louie, this unique feel to the television product made it seem vaguely otherworldly, and the same effect is achieved by the marvelous Baskets.

Chip Baskets’ world is Bakersfield, California, which consists of the places he ventures as he rollerblades from the rodeo to his home base and back again. He only goes somewhere else when he is escorted, since he cannot afford a car and a bee caused him to crash his scooter.

Galifianakis is at his best when he is not playing too weird. The fact that he is about half the man he once was made him look like a turtle without his shell in recent performances. By now we are used to the slimmer version. At base, Chip Baskets is the kind of good-natured simpleton, but Galifianakis plays Chip with a depth the character sorely requires and maybe does not deserve. As Chip fails out of French clowning school because he amusingly speaks no French whatsoever, we have quickly finished sympathizing with his naivete: the man is no charity case, he simply needs to figure things out.

To set him on the garden path, his mother purchases him a Costco executive membership from Chip’s only friend, a woman named Martha (Martha Kelly). The role of Chip’s buddy is written exactly to suit the stand-up comedian, whose deadpan, unenthusiastic delivery never exactly made her a roaring hit onstage. Some of the ways Chip dismisses Martha seem a little too pat, but Baskets works better as a personal journey rather than a love story anyway. Chip responds well to Martha’s understated nature and tries to ape it in his clowning, and eventually in his life.

Although Chip performs at a rodeo, lots of obvious jokes are avoided in favor of more personal storylines. In the show’s second episode, Chip takes an interest in the clowning career of a Juggalo (Adam William Zastrow) with no experience in the art. Through Chip’s intervention, the young man is able to pursue a fruitful career as a cashier at Arby’s. Amidst the dark humor involved with Chip’s maudlin existence in Baskets, there is an inspiring undercurrent about what positive things we can absorb from other people without even meaning to do so.

This is maybe not the hilarity audiences would expect from Zach Galifianakis as a clown, but who cares? There has not been a comedy as good as Baskets on television for a long time. Watching other comedies becomes the observation of a race towards a singular joke. Once achieved, the entire paradigm is thrown away for some other gag. Angie Tribeca, a horrid series which recently premiered on the equally unwatchable network TBS, at least attempted to turn this into a Mel Brooks-type zaniness.

Unfortunately Mel Brooks is not funny unless you are under ten years old or substantially more interested in puns than you ought to be. Rashida Jones is wasting her career as the titular detective, and honestly she was never really cut out for these sorts of gagfests anyway.

What comes across in Baskets is the same sort of basic humanity that is represented in everything Louis CK admires. He honestly appears to respect regular people a lot more than he does his actual friends and peers, so he casts them in the roles of working class individuals. Horace and Pete descends too far in this direction; it is too obvious that the entire cast not who they appear to be. The show even makes Rebecca Hall resemble a regular person, forcing her to kiss Louis CK on the lips as part of the show’s opening moments. Although this dull sense of normalcy is more deftly done in Baskets, on the whole this humbling is a welcome change.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

“You’re Mine” – Lola Marsh (mp3)

In Which We Never Though Beowulf Would Return To Be Consumed By Us Again

Forget Dorne

by DICK CHENEY

Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands
creators James Dormer, Tim Haines & Katie Newman

Would you possibly be interested in hearing about a show that is exactly like Game of Thrones except actually good? Life is filled with imitations better than the real thing. Bernie Sanders is like Jimmy Carter except with an IQ soaring north of 100; Marco Rubio reminds me of a Mirror Universe Scarface and Angelina Jolie is a more incestuous and sexually adventurous Jane Fonda.

In a bizarre move, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands thefts Game of Thrones’ theme song wholesale. It is very, very important that you are reminded that this is GoT except Lynne will not have to spend half the episode pausing the DVR and asking me if Ser Jorah Mormont is illiterate. “No,” I scream, “that is the sea captain that Stannis Baratheon uses as his consigliere. Now get me some fucking canteloupe!”

Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands makes Game of Thrones seem completely low rent in comparison. For some reason HBO has never been keen on spending money on their signature series. The special effects budget is limited to about 30 seconds of CGI per episode and the sets are starting to look like the same castle. The direwolves have basically been written out of the plot entirely, and the dragons have had about twenty minutes of total screen time in the entire run.

In contrast, the special effects in Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands are eyepopping and the art design of the so-called mudborn puts the lame fantasy tropes of GRRM’s series to shame. Esquire network is bringing this British series from broadcaster ITV to America, and thank God for that.

Superior production is not the only advantage Beowulf has over its predecessor. It helps Beowulf tremendously that it does not fall into the trap of making a swords and sorcery setting a whitewashing. There are people of all shapes, sizes and colors in Beowulf’s hometown.

The entire cast is fantastic. Beowulf was a really boring poem, so James Dormer constructs a rather loose adaptation. Most interesting is the relationship between Beowulf (Kieran Bew) and his half-brother Slean (Edward Speelers). Bew’s wig is kinda distracting (if that is real hair, I shudder) but he makes a terrific Beowulf, the sort of man who is alternately naive and adept at the same time.

Beowulf returns to the Shieldlands after learning of his father Hrothgar’s death. We know nothing of his mother yet, but his father’s wife resented having Beowulf at court so he was sent away from home when he was merely a boy. Within the first moments of his return, Beowulf is framed for a murder and sentenced to execution.

Beowulf’s best friend Breca (Gísli Örn Garðarsson) is the only person who cares enough to help him. After flirting with her smith daughter Vishka (Ellora Torchia), Breca marries a lovely woman named Lila (Lolita Chakrabarti) in a drunken evening of debauchery. It is an astoundingly simple subplot, but like much of what happens on Beowulf, it feels original and sensitive. Every single action has a consequence on Beowulf, and unlike Game of Thrones, that result need not always be death.

Beowulf is a decently fun hero, but the show would feel insubstantial without the presence of the ethereally talented Joanne Whalley, who plays Rheda, the wife of Hrothgar (William Hurt). Hurt only gets scenes in flashbacks, but we do not really miss him since it is a lot more fun to see Whalley stumble and get up from adversity as a female yarl ruling a council of male-focused tribes. Eliot Cowan is stupendous as her main political adversary, as both seem to be attempting to one up each other simply by the breadth of their costumes.

James Dormer’s writing for all these wildly diverse characters is just as it should be. In a large cast it is supremely important that actors do not sound and talk alike, a distinction David Benioff seems to have forgotten while he was trying to coax GRRM to finish the next volume before Peter Dinklage drinks himself to death. Dormer excels at giving his actors physical, nonverbal moments: we watch them move and sway, sit in repose or at making or working. This is as much an aspect of who they are as what they say and do.

This is the best version of Beowulf ever done, but it is not really just Beowulf. Dormer draws from the influences of classical Greeks and Romans as much as from the epic poem. In truth, dragons are the last thing we want to see in this story, since the magnificently humanoid creatures of Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands offer mysteries beyond those available to a woman who birthed them out of a mysterious egg after Jason Momoa ended her period.

Revenge, hatred and violence is what drives most of Martin’s characters, but Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands proves there are far more compelling motivations. It is sedutively simple for us to know the mind of a man who kills his father on the toilet, but why Beowulf should love his father and yet be twisted by the lack of public acknowledgement as his son makes for a deeper story. Dormer is reminding us that characters have a drive, but human beings can be many things at once.

NB: A lot of you have been asking me my predictions for Iowa. A Donald Trump-Bernie Sanders contest will ensure that old white men are the dominant ruling species for all time. I’m starting to miss President Obama already.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

“You’re So Good To Me” – M. Ward (mp3)

“Temptation” – M. Ward (mp3)

In Which We Wonder If The Book Will Last Long Enough

the original pic

Total Stranger

by SARA BLACK MCCULLOCH

This sentence is full of asides, parenthetical remarks, parentheses, dashes, illuminations, reconsiderations, revisions, addenda, corrections, augmentations, digressions, qualifications, erasures, deletions, and marginal notes. The sentence, in other words, attempts to be exhaustive, to capture every nuance of a piece of reality, and yet to be correct–to reflect Proust’s entire thought. To be exhaustive and correct is of course an infinite task. More can always be inserted, more event and more nuance, more commentary on the event, and more nuance within the commentary.

—Lydia Davis, “The Architecture of Thought: Lydia Davis on Proust.”

The world for us is a work in progress. And what we understand of it we understand by cobbling these pieces together—synthesizing them over time.

—Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read

Back in December of 2014, Christie’s auctioned off 75 first-edition books, “each a unique object that has been annotated with words and/or illustrations by its author,” as the New York Times put it. The proceeds went to the PEN American Center. Philip Roth, Angela Davis, Lydia Davis, Shirin Neshat, and Toni Morrison (to name a few) revisited their earlier works and filled the blank margins with illustrations, notes on intent, feelings, or small corrections. The PEN American Center’s First Editions/Second Thoughts raised $1 million. Philip Roth’s annotated version of American Pastoral brought in $80,000 alone. One of the annotations that struck me was Alice Walker’s, in The Color Purple. “I was mistaken,” she wrote, “There is nothing more for me to say about this book!” The appeal of the auction was not only to have renowned writers look back on their previous work, but also to make annotating more performative and social. I can’t decide if Walker didn’t want to talk the book or had nothing more to say about it to the public. This isn’t an issue of private or public here, but that she just had nothing to say about it, as if she had moved on already. Marking up a book with your notes already says so much about you.

Annotating a book, we are told, is proof we’ve really engaged with the material, but it’s supposed to be a solitary act, too. It’s the main point of contention for every single e-book detractor: why read a book if we can’t physically do something to it? In 2010, when Sam Anderson was asked by The Millions, to contribute to their “A Year in Reading Series,” he submitted, instead, scans of book pages he had inscribed with personal comments. “Right on the border of stoner existentialism,” he scrawled next to a paragraph of Don Delillo’s Point Omega. “OMG! Rolling EYES so HARD!! Someone needs to protect F’s art from his editorializing,” he penciled in next to a Franzen-esque rant about Twitter in Freedom. (“There was plenty of tweeting on Twitter, but the chirping and fluttering world”—you understand.) Of course, we don’t annotate to jot down our eye rolls or all-caps tirades just as much as we don’t annotate with always an audience in mind.

When Sarah Kessler interviewed a Kindle designer about marginalia, he stressed that Kindle’s version of marginalia was less comparable because it didn’t capture the reader’s state of mind as swiftly—anything from anger to tears on a page. The subject of marginalia is always framed through this e-book lens: publish digitally and marginalia will perish. I enjoy writing in my books, but too often we confound digital publishing as having less of a human touch because of physicality—as if books themselves aren’t written for readers to begin with. The discussions about marginalia are much more morbid as they’re preoccupied with permanence; will this book last long enough for someone else to find it, read it, and remember us?

Ander Monson’s Letter to a Future Lover is a series of lyrical essays that lean on the past in order to hinge on some hope for a future. The one thing that challenges the permanence-ephemerality binary is memory itself. Our memory is imperfect because it constantly encodes information differently; some memories become fuzzier over time while others become more resonant (not without their flaws, of course). Monson considers the relationship between writer and reader and how both are so interdependent on each other: the book relies on a reader so that it has some kind of value (cultural or otherwise), while the reader depends on the book in order to survive (by engaging with it; annotating it). The reader’s notes can survive if the book is still intact. These all become tools for remembering, especially as we begin to forget and misremember things from the past.

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One of things I remembered most when I played piano was how my teacher would play through a piece, and stop intermittently to scribble notes and highlight changes in tempo, or fingering. She would stop a few times, and repeat sections, testing out different finger combinations. Nearly every note in Bach’s Minuet in G had been assigned a finger number, for instance. She would remind me always, at the top of the page, that left-handed needed to ease up on my left hand, because the melody carried over from right hand to left. The annotations bridged notes to hand movements to the sounds they would create. They were instructions on how to understand something in order to perform it.

Years later, when I was having some problems with memory, I would relentlessly write in the margins of my textbooks. The only way I would realize I had read the material was through notes—my own—peppered all over the page. From the different colors of the pens used, I realized I had read things more than once. My annotations proved I had been there, an active reader, but in the present I drew a blank. When I sat down to read, I wrote all over the page only to forget, a week later, when and where I had penciled in my notes. Taking notes is supposed to help you encode the information in a different way; it’s supposed to help you remember.

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…the ways in which our lives are reduced to their component parts—blame that less on the ways in which we break and more on the ways in which our social selves are told that we might break. We are not so imaginative as we would hope.

—Ander Monson, Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries.

And so then why are there so few of them [masterpieces]. There are so few of them because mostly people live in identity and memory that is when they think. They know they are they because their little dog knows them, and so they are not an entity but an identity. And being so memory is necessary to make them exist and so they cannot create master-pieces. It has been said of geniuses that they are eternally young.

—Gertrude Stein, What Are Masterpieces?

In his essay “Crime of Omission,” Monson explains how we value product over process — how our livelihoods, reputations, careers, identities, depend on what we make and how we present ourselves. Monson opens the essay with a scanned image of a passage from Steve Orlen’s unpublished manuscript Crime of Omission. It ends with “live in the present.” The undercurrent of the chapter is less about change and vocation; it becomes more about how we hope we’re remembered when we’re gone. We live again through the objects we leave behind, as the objects are triggers for memories too. Monson goes through a garbage bag filled with Orlen’s drafts and unpublished manuscripts. He reflects on writing, how it’s seemingly a solitary act, but also, in a way, something a reader will interact with in the future.

But it’s Monson, now, who has to decide what, in the garbage bag, matters, and he doesn’t know. He finds a pack of Lucky Strikes from 1948 that he eventually keeps as a shrine to Orlen. I wonder how often, when we become the subject of someone else’s memory, how close or distanced we are from it. Do memories make us who we are? Are we the ones who make people remember us a certain way? I wonder how many times we try to dismantle an identity, only to have others impose our own pasts on us in the present. What even makes a book or publication last?

There’s a fascination always, with how we read: psychologists time saccades while art directors invoke the principles of human perception to better layout and display information. There is a question, however, about how people read us; the discordance between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Joe Brainard’s I Remember is defiant, because not only is every memory significant, but it’s specific: it’s a season, a feeling of rejection, a situation:

I remember trying to figure out what it’s all about. (Life.)

I remember the “dum-da-dum-dum-dum” from Dragnet.

I remember looking at myself in a mirror and becoming a total stranger.

I remember when twins dressed alike.

What Monson points to, as he nears the end of the book, is how we seem to remember more significant places and people. What do we miss for the big picture, he asks:

The is the problem with the future, how to use what we think we know right to lever open an idea into understanding, knowing all the while that this is not knowledge but a best-fit line among the scatter plot in view of what we think we know, and not much of one at that.

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When my memory became a problem, I had to get it evaluated. One of the key neuropsychological tests is the Rey-Osterrieth Complex Figure. You study a drawing with a complex arrangement of lines—some lines connect to make squares or crosses or triangles. The drawing is taken away and after a “short delay” (this evaluates short term and working memory), you are asked to reproduce it. I could barely do so.

i hirjeojfcs

After about 20 minutes, you are asked, again, to reproduce the image. I could barely remember what the picture generally looked like. The key to succeeding is chunking the details instead of trying to remember each one; it’s less taxing (it’s how you can remember more). If you can organize your memory and recall the spatial arrangements, the structure, the direction of the lines, then you can remember the image pretty well. Most people do this automatically.

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Annotating is personal and intimate, but it also gives someone a context to the reader. What does the reader fixate on and why? There’s a constant appeal to withdraw, but to also get inside everyone’s heads. Recently, Rap Genius relaunched as Genius, a website that will attempt to annotate everything from a Kanye song to “The Wasteland.” It’s billed as an “interactive guide to human culture.” Rick Rubin already annotated Kanye’s “Only One”:

Kanye is a combination of careful and spontaneous. He’ll find a theme he likes quickly, and then live with that for a while, not necessarily filling in all the words until later. At the end, he’ll fill in all the gaps.

He was upset at one point when I said that he wrote the lyrics quickly. He’s right — they percolate for a long time, he gets the phrasing into his brain, lives with it, and then lines come up. It definitely starts from this very spontaneous thing.

On “Only One”, a lot of those lyrics came out free-form, ad-libs. The song is essentially live, written in the moment. Some of the words were later improved, but most of it was stream of consciousness, just Kanye being in the moment.

It gives us less insight into Rubin, although he admits that Kanye’s cautious spontaneity used to make him anxious; it gives us a bit of context to the making of the song. I wonder if annotating is just another way to remember the reading, to contextualize a small detail in the bigger picture. There are annotations from a small pool of people some would pay for, so I wonder, ultimately, how many of us, just like certain memories we don’t need, are pushed aside for the more important voices.

Sara Black McCulloch is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Toronto. She has written for The New Inquiry, The Hairpin, Gawker, Bitch, Little Brother Magazine, and The National Post. You can find her website here and her twitter here.

sara author photo

“Desperado” – Rihanna (mp3)

“Love on the Brain” – Rihanna (mp3)

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In Which Nearly Everyone Has Been A Lesbian At One Time Or Another

Road to Somewhere

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Carol
dir. Todd Haynes
118 minutes

The movie of The Price of Salt gets boring just when the book gets interesting. Patricia Highsmith always explained her novel about being a lesbian as inspired by some old blonde woman she saw in a department store. This explanation was ridiculous. In reality, she was that ebullient codger who secretly believed there was no chance a young, beautiful woman would ever want to be with her — so she invented a novel about how there could be a reason, even if there really wasn’t one.

Highsmith was a reprehensible person and a second-rate writer. Her prose itself ranged from choppy to mediocre, and The Price of Salt is far from her best work. If it were not for the lesbian angle no one would probably give it a second thought. There were a million novellas written exactly like it, only less boring, during the 1950s. Highsmith’s own style is non-existent: whether in her prose or her characters, she was never terribly good at what captivated normal people since she was not one herself.

Enter Todd Haynes, a director who practices humanity like it’s part of his morning routine: empathy, coffee and a bagel. Yet Carol is so flimsy that even he cannot elevate it above dull. The plot concerns a divorced woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett) who seduces a young photography enthusiast (Rooney Mara) after Therese sells her a train set at a department store.

The best part of the movie is the seduction itself; for various reasons the novel was extremely subtle about this part, and Haynes apes the slow-moving pace of The Price of Salt. By the time Carol and Therese get around to making it with each other on a Thelma & Louise type road trip that includes absolutely no fun whatsoever, we have all waited far too long to care.

Mara’s only acting training has bestowed upon her ridiculously clear visage a wide-eyed innocence popping out of an understated stolidity. She can manage no other expression or emotion, but fortunately Carol is not really that deep of a story.

Carol’s husband finds out about his ex-wife’s many relationships and makes it an issue in the custody of their child, even hiring a private detective to record the conversations of the two women. There is no moral ambiguity whatsoever; the men are just monsters and women, even those scorned by Carol in her pursuit of Therese, are inviolate as they band together in her defense.

Blanchett tries to save the movie by letting her eyes flit from place to place, constantly, as if instructing us where to look. Her relationship with her daughter and ex-girlfriends is more amusing than the mostly sexual attachment she has with Therese; guess where Highsmith puts all the attention and drama? Then again, a novella about an upper-class lesbian breaking a bunch of middle-aged womens’ hearts probably would not have been made as a theatrical feature.

Carol is the better character, but Therese has the more compelling journey and experience. Unfortunately, Highsmith used a young, attractive woman only as a means to an end. She saw Therese as nothing more than an unusual name and perfect body — Haynes tries to remedy the inadequacy in the source material by emphasizing his protagonist’s scenes with a boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), who inexplicably wants to stick around despite the fact that he realizes he is dating lesbian.

Richard is upset by the fact that his girlfriend is gay, but maybe not as much as he should be. “I never asked you for anything,” he yells at her helplessly. “Maybe that’s the problem,” she replies before meeting up with Carol.

Visually, Carol is in line with the aesthetic popularized by Haynes’ idol Douglas Sirk, who demanded colorful, detailed interiors that complemented the rough, vibrant world beyond. Sirk’s style shimmered at the time, but the overall look is more familiar to us since it was adopted for the entire run of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men. Still, Haynes chooses wonderful sets which seem to match the various moods of Carol and Therese as they shunt through a sometimes forgiving but always alien world.

As a thriller, Carol is a mildly compelling effort. As a character study, Cate Blanchett has virtually nothing to sink her teeth into and Rooney Mara can’t bring much life to Therese because of her own inadequacies. As a political film, the story may have been unusual in the fifties but we demand more from this subject matter now.

Therese is often taking pictures of Carol with her camera. Every time she frames her shot, Carol demurs and acts embarrassed, then goes on to pose for her, a repeated moment that keeps on occuring several times as Carol unfolds. Maybe they didn’t realize it would be ridiculous for Carol to adopt this attitude whenever she sees a lens. This empty banters leads us to suspect there is no actual engagement between these women, only an observation of each other’s beauty. It reminds us that Highsmith had no actual grasp of what draws one person to another besides infatuation.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

“Fighting a Sandstorm” – Sia (mp3)

“House on Fire” – Sia (mp3)