Some Recommendations

While I’ve not posted anything here in quite a while, I have been collecting things to write about— so many, in fact, that trying to assemble some kind of essay out of them has become an overwhelming prospect. So I’m doing an old-fashioned link roundup of some recent(ish) things I think are worthy of attention.

Album: Pies Sobre La Tierra” by Mabe Fratti

This is probably my favorite album of 2019. Fratti uses voice, cello, and electronics; there are rich drones and lovely melodies in equal measure.

Album: Blossoms

And, for something completely different: this is the second record to catch my attention this year using artificial intelligence in the composition of the music (the other is Holly Herndon’s PROTO, which is also well worth checking out, and sounds totally different). They took “a collection of their existing material as well as 10 hours of improvised recordings using wood, metal and drum skins” as a corpus for the AI to work from, and then pared down the results into individual tracks.

Article: “Malfunctioning Sex Robot,”by Patricia Lockwood

I have to confess that I haven’t ever read anything by John Updike, beyond maybe a couple of essays in the New Yorker. Nothing I’ve ever heard or read about him has pushed his work any nearer the top of my “to-read” list, which, like kudzu, grows too quickly to be kept in check by anything less than an occasional controlled burn. I’ve had, in other words, better things to do. Nothing in this piece really changes my mind; there is more than one quotation here that, were I reading the novel from which it is drawn, would be sufficient to make me put it down. But this is just a fantastic piece of writing, both in its sentences and in the way it captures— performs, really— a kind of violent ambivalence (if that isn’t an oxymoron) that comes from recognizing and enjoying great ability at the same time as one despairs at the uses to which it is put. A couple of examples:

No one can seem to agree on his surviving merits. He wrote like an angel, the consensus goes, except when he was writing like a malfunctioning sex robot attempting to administer cunnilingus to his typewriter.

If you were worried that somewhere in this sweeping tetralogy Rabbit wasn’t going to ejaculate all over a teenager and then compare the results to a napalmed child, you can rest easy.

On the novel Couples:

Something chants behind the prose, even when it’s good: waste, waste, waste, waste. Sodden somehow, as if the sad Old Fashioned that Janice was drinking at the beginning of Rabbit, Run had spilled and seeped into the text. Dim, carpeted, brown, pressing our faces perpetually into the plaid of some couch. It is also the book in which Updike becomes 25 per cent more interested in feet, which is not something the world needed.

When he is in flight you are glad to be alive. When he comes down wrong – which is often – you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea. All the flaws that will become fatal later are present at the beginning. He has a three-panel cartoonist’s sense of plot. The dialogue is a weakness: in terms of pitch, it’s half a step sharp, too nervily and jumpily tuned to the tics and italics and slang of the era. And yes, there are his women. Janice is a grotesquerie with a watery drink in one hand and a face full of television static; her emotional needs are presented as a gaping, hungry and above all unseemly hole, surrounded by well-described hair. He paints and paints them, but the proportions are wrong. He is like a God who spends four hours on the shading on Eve’s upper lip, forgets to give her a clitoris, and then decides to rest on a Tuesday.

So, yeah, nothing here makes me want to read John Updike, but it does make we want to read Patricia Lockwood.

Article: “The Great, Unsolved Model Train Robbery”, by Austin Carr

In February of this year, a group of very well-prepared thieves broke into a leisure center and stole several model locomotives owned by the Gravesend Model Marine and Engineering Society. These are, to be clear, not the little trains you’d run around your Christmas tree, but serious, metal objects several feet long and weighing hundreds of pounds; they have working boilers and engines that actually run on coal. The thieves used power tools to cut into a high-security shipping container.

What’s especially strange here is that, while the models are indeed pretty valuable, they are also extremely awkward to move around, and very hard to sell— the community is relatively small, and anybody who’d be interested in buying them is also likely to recognize where they came from.

The article, though, is as much about the community around the GMMES, and the fluctuating position of model trains in society in general, as it is about the robbery.

Articles: “Carrying a Single Life: On Literature and Translation”, by Teju Cole, and “Translation’s Burden”, by Matt Reeck

Cole’s piece draws a connection between literary translation and the ongoing debates about migration and refugees; that probably sounds like a stretch, but in his hands it doesn’t feel like one. The idea (supported by etymology) is that both involve carrying something from one place to another, literally or metaphorically. He also goes into the kinds of linguistic choices involved in having his own works translated, which is fascinating, and takes a remarkably generous, respectful view of his translators. (I thought here of Susan Sontag, who seemed to think of her translators as captors who had her at their mercy).

Reeck’s piece is a review essay, pretty academic in focus, of three books about translation, all of which in some way question the concept of an original, authentic text that the translator is simply attempting to “carry over,” in Cole’s terms, to a different language. Broadly, these arguments rest on the idea of all texts— including those not being read in translation— as a kind of assemblage of different choices and assumptions and contexts, including those of the reader. From this perspective, a translated work is not really any different from that work in the original language; maybe we could say that the translation makes this process of assembling the text more visible to the reader, much in the same way that lots of postmodern works explicitly draw attention to their own construction.

I thought as I read this of Naomi Woolf’s recent embarrassment over the phrase “death recorded” in English legal records. The problem there was less that she didn’t have her facts straight than that this phrase didn’t translate across time. This raises all kinds of questions, as well, about archives as constructs, and about historiography.

Article: “Alan Lomax and the Search for the Origins of Music”, by Geoffrey Clarfield

I knew about Alan Lomax as someone who recorded a ton of music from around the world (his entire archive of over seventeen thousand recordings is online for free), but I didn’t really know anything about his biography beyond that. It turns out that in addition to collecting the music itself, he also tried to develop a classification system, called cantometrics, for all kinds of folk music, with the goal of connecting characteristics of the music to specific aspects of the broader culture that generated it. This is in line with, for example, Claude Levi-Strauss’s ideas about the structure of myths. As Clarfield says, this kind of universal, structural approach is now out of favor, and some of the generalizations that Lomax tried to make in developing it seem pretty simplistic. At the same time, he discovered some striking patterns, and recent findings from other fields have provided support for the general idea, if not the specific categories that Lomax and his collaborators proposed. I have to admit, as well, that culture and politics seem monomaniacally focused on our differences and division, I am increasingly attracted to the idea that, underneath it all, humans are fundamentally the same.

Article: “From Ball Pits to Water Slides: The Designer Who Changed Children’s Playgrounds Forever”, by Nicholas Hune-Brown

This is a sort of profile/history of Eric McMillan, whose design for a playground at Ontario Place, in Toronto, created a new, but short-lived, paradigm for playgrounds, based on exploration and autonomy, with spaces and equipment that could be used in multiple ways.

At Children’s Village, McMillan built two and a half acres of mayhem under an orange canopy – reproducing in the safety of Toronto his feral childhood spent scrabbling through rubble, with mountains of colourful vinyl and foam.

The success of his work at Ontario Place led to McMillan designing other play spaces around the world— including the world’s first ball pit, in San Diego. But soon prevailing opinion turned against his approach:

If the design for children in the 60s and 70s had been full of possibility and experimentation, the prevailing mood in the 1980s was of caution. “In the 80s, there was this real turn towards a safety culture,” says [author Alexandra] Lange. “We tamped down on a lot of innovation and a lot of the risk and reward of the children’s environment.” After a series of lawsuits against playgrounds, “liability”, not “creativity”, became the most important word in children’s design. The adventure playgrounds that once dotted North America were shuttered. The massive wooden jungle gyms in schoolyards were replaced with modest climbing structures.

What’s most interesting to me here is the broader question of what we want a playground to be— what it is thought to be for. The first ones were created simply to give poor children in cities a place to play that wasn’t dirty, polluted, and dangerous; they were defined primarily by what they did not have. Once the general idea was established, we began to expect more of them than this: that they be places where kids would learn particular skills, or get particular kinds of exercise, and so on. It’s a common joke among people my age that the playgrounds we were sent to for recess seem remarkably dangerous, by contemporary standards, but it’s not as though people at that time didn’t realize that falling on a hard surface was more likely to cause injury than falling on a soft one; clearly, there were different expectations about what children’s play was supposed to be like, and what was a reasonable level of risk for it to involve. And that, in turn, probably says something about what we think childhood should be like.

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