May 8, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Judith Kitchen's Half In Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate is much more than a memoir. Kitchens traces the history of both her family and her own life through a collection of snapshots, each reflected upon by the author both lyrically and with great insight.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"'Written over a ten-year period,' this prose poem, masking itself as essays, rewards a leisurely reading, with not only, as Kitchen promises, 'patterns of American immigration and opportunities,' but an experience that may open the eyes to the treasure chest of the American experience found among those stepchildren of the arts—the snapshots. Kitchen's book lets you know what a keen eye coupled with an alert and sensitive intelligence can see."
What? He wants a list of songs? For a book full of pictures? Photos to provoke memory. But then I remember that music is part and parcel of the moment remembered. So a quick look at the pieces in Half in Shade reveals to me what I had not noted—not in any visceral way—that I, too, had tracked sound. Since I like to write in complete silence, I had thought of this as a silent book. Simply visual. But "from out of the past," its opening thrums to seven years old and those "thundering hoofbeats of the great horse, Silver." It seems to me, now, the music of childhood, the excitement of discovery.
It's not long, though, before the photos are haunted by French nightclubs and music halls of the 1930s and 40s, the female voices lost in longing, and then muted by the clacking footsteps of the marching German soldiers. Here is where history rears its head. Piaf, discovered in 1935, has her own history with the war. So follow my father's family back into time, back into silence. Then listen to my grandfather as he struggles with another kind of music in the scratchy old-man's voice of Robert Frost, the enigmatic tone that somehow did not carry over into his plain midwestern barbed wire:
Or follow my father forward, to the house on the River Road, time hanging golden, each day a globe of light. 1945, and already the mood of the country has shifted. Already a new day is coming. Though it will be some time before it finds a voice—"Day, me say day, me say day, me say day."
Then there's my mother crossing the ocean, dancing to the "blarey" old Victrola, the age of the flapper nearly over. Slowly swaying in what I laughingly call her posthumous romance. Why not? No one will know. All we have left is her life on the page. All we have left is the pure notes she heard.
How do I find her again, the woman who sang in an off-key voice? Who made us listen to opera on Sunday afternoons until we rebelled. So play that tenor—the one from her era, the one from your own. And the music? It picks its way through the long-lost elms, settling in the tops of the trees, swooping in, like starlings, then sticking around. She winds the handle, and it rises again, lifting raucous from branches to fill the sky. It is summer in Italy, summer in his voice.
Those lives in the album are part of your own. They carry you into your own junior prom. The jukebox. The sock hop. The sheer bright glint of it all. Jitterbug, Rock 'n' roll, Pop. Country with its twang of vinyl regret. The dusky flip side of "Heartbreak Hotel." Roy Orbison's answering lament. The Platters, winding down your memories (Deepening shadows gather splendor) as swish . . . the spinning needle . . . swish . . . brushes away a lifetime . . . swish . . .
The photos hold us there, locked in our old-fashioned clothes, our out-of-date hairdos. Time intrudes and there's a piano pushing its way up from the past. Gone, now, and I am left with background music, watching Loië Fuller dancing her "Night Winds," the music mere accompaniment as she flares, motion in motion, tornado of silk.
Judith Kitchen and Half In Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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