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Story Time

September 11, 2014 | by

fm3a

From the cover of a “Fun with Music” disc.

Ann Rachlin, storyteller, MBE, and pioneer of music appreciation, has been working for years—she’s now eighty—but she really came to prominence in the mideighties, when she started teaching little Prince William. I wonder if that’s when my mom bought her records. Whatever the reason, her “Fun with Music” series was in heavy rotation at our house, and the distinctive, lilting rhythms of her idiosyncratic narratives was the sound track of our childhoods. I think if you’d asked me between the ages of four and six which celebrity I would have most liked to meet, the answer would have been Ann Rachlin. (Well, Ann Rachlin and Jeff the mannequin from Today’s Special.)

The records (and later tapes, for playing in the car) featured narration over classical music pieces. Sometimes, as in the case of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, or the deeply distressing Swan Lake, Rachlin based her tale on a preexisting story. Others were wholly original, and often unabashedly bizarre. (I am thinking especially of Lost Coin in a Fountain, set to Respighi.) To call Rachlin’s style “expressive” is a vast understatement: her voice rises and falls dramatically, she takes on all characters with gusto, she evokes laughter and tears and bafflement. She is so wholly uninhibited that it’s shocking even to a child. Maybe especially to a child. And while her tales are all designed to capture a child’s imagination, she does not shy away from sadness and even, occasionally, tragedy. (See: Swan Lake.) Read More »

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Robert Lowell’s “Epilogue”

September 10, 2014 | by

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Photo: Elsa Dorfman

If you write, and you are not a journalist, and you don’t write fiction, people want to know why. These are hard questions to answer. Sometimes one admires fiction too much to attempt it. Sometimes one lacks the gift for invention. No one gets at the particular challenges of the fact/fiction relationship—or indeed, the exigencies of the creative process—better than Robert Lowell. Especially the poem “Epilogue.” Lowell’s work may be a monument to unapologetic narcissism (an artistically necessary narcissism, defenders could say, or at the very least indivisible from either his genius or his illness) but here, it seems to me, there is only enough self to propel the project at hand. If you listen to him read it, he sounds downright humbled by the weight of creative challenge. As a friend pointed out, it is interesting that his stepdaughter should title her memoir—so full of his destructive recklessness—Why Not Say What Happened? After all, this poem is more introspective, less destructive, than so many others. That is for her to say, of course. In a way, it’s the best memoir title in the world. Read More »

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Conscience for Boys and Girls

September 9, 2014 | by

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William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853

Scrolling through Retronaut, you might run across a 1927 pamphlet called “Examination of Conscience for Boys and Girls,” which the site resurfaced last year. It’s a Catholic publication by a Jesuit brother named A.J. Wilwerding, distributed by something called “The Queen’s Work” in Saint Louis. The first few pages are pretty straightforward—the author defines different kinds of sins and helpfully distinguishes them by typeface: venial, venial (at risk of becoming Mortal), and MORTAL. Did the child DENY he was a Catholic? Did he curse? Did he misbehave in church? And then you reach the fourth page:

II

And maybe you cry, and you think that these are not bad rules to live by. Not just for kids. Certainly not just for Catholics. And that it’s not easy; as Morrissey said, it takes guts.

Of course, then you keep reading: Read More »

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Border Control

September 8, 2014 | by

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The queue for customs was long, and very disorganized. People kept trying to cut—or they cut inadvertently, and were yelled at. But really, it was hard to tell what was a line, and who was in charge, and what they wanted from you. You could only do wrong. It was like being a child in a Roald Dahl story, arbitrary and potentially magical, if you are in the business of silver linings.

And then suddenly a new officer appeared. He didn’t seem to be standing anywhere official, exactly; I mean, there were no dividers or ropes or podium sorts of things around him. He had just chosen an arbitrary spot kind of near the exit. But he was wearing a uniform and radiated great authority. “New Line!” he shouted. “I AM A LINE!”

I was pondering what it meant to be a line—I was very tired—when he beckoned me forward. “Now!” he barked. And then, “STAY BACK. DO NOT RUSH FORWARD.” And then, “IF YOU HOARD ME, I WILL LEAVE.”

“If you hoard me / I will leave.” Read More »

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Food for Thought

September 5, 2014 | by

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From the UK National Archives, 1939

When you’re traveling, you understand what you really need, or want, or find comforting—what you can do without and what’s essential. In my case, traveling illuminates an addiction to cookbooks.

People have written beautifully about their love of recipe reading. Laurie Colwin’s “Why I Love Cookbooks” is a classic explanation of the genre’s comforting appeal. Writing in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik explains it differently:

A kind of primal scene of eating hovers over every cookbook, just as a primal scene of sex lurks behind every love story. In cooking, the primal scene, or substance, is salt, sugar, and fat held in maximum solution with starch; add protein as necessary, and finish with caffeine (coffee or chocolate) as desired. That’s what, suitably disguised in some decent dimension of dressup, we always end up making. We make béarnaise sauce by whisking a stick of melted butter into a couple of eggs, and, now that we no longer make béarnaise sauce, we make salsa verde by beating a cup of olive oil into a fistful of anchovies. The herbs change; the hope does not.

Whether the goal is comfort, aspiration, association, curiosity, research, it’s clear; people love to read cookbooks. Even Gwyneth Paltrow has claimed to be a bedtime cookbook-reader; of this, make what you will. Read More »

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The City and the Pillar

September 4, 2014 | by

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The vaguely familiar sock monkey.

There are lots of interesting things to see right now at the New-York Historical Society: a delightful exhibit on Ludwig Bemelmans’s New York, a look at the role of cotton in the Northern war effort, a moving show called “ ‘I Live. Send Help.’ 100 Years of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.” All of these are worth seeing. None of them is what I want to discuss right now.

Swinging through the gift shop post-visit, my eye fell upon a sock monkey–making kit. This is not in itself so noteworthy; the gift shop contains an enticing selection of educational toys for young nerds, including a “My First Tatting” kit, a loom, and a mobcap. What was interesting, rather, was the image of the finished sock monkey displayed on the label. He looked vaguely familiar.

It took me a long time to realize the resemblance. It came to me hours later, in fact, when I was in the basement laundry room of my apartment building, cleaning the lint trap of the dryer: Read More »

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