Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Beyond the Forest Q&A with Loli Kantor

To mark the start of Hanukkah, we asked photographer Loli Kantor to answer some questions about her new book, Beyond the Forest: Jewish Presence in Eastern Europe, 2004–2012. Kantor is the daughter of Polish Jews who met and married in Munich after the war. Born in France and raised in Israel, she has spent the last thirty years living stateside in Fort Worth, Texas. In the early 2000s, she was compelled to set out in search of her roots. In the book's introduction, Anda Rottenberg sets up the devastating details that spurred Kantor's travels in Eastern Europe over an eight-year period:
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"The face of her mother, who died in childbirth, is something familiar only from photographs. Of her father, she knows his place of birth and his short, professional CV, most likely written for the U.S. State Department and thus omitting the details of his war experiences....she knew little of the historical landscape from which her parents emerged, the territory of Central-Eastern Europe—stretching from the western borders of prewar Poland to the line connecting Leningrad, Smolensk, and Kursk in the east, Tallinn in the north, and Crimea in the south—and aptly described by Timothy Snyder as the 'bloodlands.' From 1933 to 1945 this region witnessed the deaths of 14 million innocent people, including women, children, and the elderly. Up until 1948 it also experienced mass forced displacement of whole populations (Jews, Roma, Poles, Germans, and Rusyns), as well as the “voluntary” exile of those who hoped to save their lives or improve their fate."
Kantor's photo-essay is a very moving account of her personal journey to reconcile incredible loss with hope, faith, and community. Given recent events in the area, we took the opportunity to ask her about what Jewish communities now under Russian rule  in the Crimea region are coping.

We wish you and yours a Happy Hanukkah. Chag Chanukah sameach!

Q: The plates in the book progress from stark black-and-white images to colorful, people and food–filled scenes, almost winter to spring. How does that evoke what you experienced in your travels and time spent in these communities?

The transition from black-and-white to color, from stark to bright does reflect my disposition at the beginning of the project. I made my first trip in November 2005, purposefully to have this stark, cold, and snowy atmosphere in the works, using black-and-white film. This was partly intentional and was also my state of mind about the place of Jewish presence and absence in Eastern Europe.

Block 11 | Auschwitz, 2005 | Poland
I also happened to be a black-and-white photographer at this stage and this was my natural choice for film. As time went on, and as I returned to some of the same places, I realized that this subject needed to be approached from a place of observing the presence of Jewish life. I began using color in a digital format in addition to black-and-white film. There is also a practicality component; I needed a backup to the film in case something happened to it in transit as I traveled in all sorts of ways and carried at least 100-plus rolls of film with me on these trips.

As time went on, I knew that using black-and-white film to photograph Jewish subject matter is already a statement pointing more towards the destruction, giving the viewer a premonition of absence and loss. Instead, I wanted to show the normalcy, what was “ Jewish” and just a “scene”; I wanted to depict a reemergence of Jewish life. This is how the book progresses to a more universal and realistic point of view to include the people, their places, and their things – in highly saturated colors.

Hanukkah Luncheon | Mukachevo, 2009 | Ukraine
Passover luncheon | Boryslav, 2008 | Ukraine
Q: Your story is a courageous example of how to sort through tragedy, grief and feeling unmoored from your origins. What are your thoughts on how faith and cultural arts can both heal personal wounds and sustain a community?

I believe that art and culture are the most important components in keeping a nation and a people alive. This is what I found so compelling in my work in Eastern Europe. To some people, faith corresponds with religion and a God. For others, it represents conviction and hope. I connect strongly with my past and my personal history through my Jewish cultural roots, reflected through music, literature, and visual and performing arts, as well as food… all of which are manifested in my photography. This is what helps keep me going in dealing with extensive loss in my personal life and in dealing with the Holocaust that touched my family so closely.

My Parents, Zvi and Lola Kantor. Munich, Germany, 1946
Q: What do you think are the challenges and tensions felt by Jews in Ukraine given Russia’s aggression in the region?

My understanding is that the Jews of Ukraine in the Crimea region have been facing uncertainty and fear with the war threatening their lives. Many of them fled to western Ukraine, to Kyiv and Khariv, or to Israel.

Dr. Alexander Elkin, a board member of the Jewish Community Center in Kharkiv, gave me some insight into the situation. Elkin tells me that the younger generation of Jews in Ukraine feels a strong national connection to being Ukrainian. They are integrated into the society and, depending on the area in conflict, the situation varies. From the new Lugansk Donetsk independent region in the east (Noworussia), they are moving to Kharkiv and Kyiv, and there is a large number of Jews immigrating to Israel. “The lines of Jews waiting for visas to immigrate to Israel are very long these days,” says Elkin. Many Jews are in the camp of the Ukrainian nationalists regarding the events that took place in Maydan Square in Kyiv last November. Many are now taking part in the initiatives to implement reforms. Seventy percent of the Jews in Donetsk fled to Israel or to Kiev and Kharkiv. Many elderly displaced Jews are still there, either because they cannot leave due to ailments, are reluctant to make the change, or are being cared for by the welfare organization Hesed, still operating in the area. On a political level they are comparing their situation to that of Israel; like Israelis, they are living in a war zone but are still hopeful.

Bronitsia Forest | Ukraine | 2005

Thursday, December 11, 2014

5 Things You Need to Know about "Boyhood"

**Update: Congratulations to the entire Boyhood team for the three Golden Globe wins! **

To celebrate Boyhood's five Golden Globe nominations, here are five very important things that you need to know about Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Congratulations to Rick Linklater (nominated for Best Director, Best Screenplay), Patricia Arquette (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), Ethan Hawke (nominated for Best Supporting Actor), and to the entire cast and crew for the Best Motion Picture, Drama nomination. We'll be watching on January 11!

The Beatles' The Black Album is real. Late in the film, Ethan Hawke’s father character presents Mason (Ellar Coltrane) with “a family heirloom that money couldn’t buy,” The Beatles’ The Black Album. A three-volume mega mix-tape that collects the best of McCartney, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr from their solo careers. Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater collaborated on making the track list of The Black Album a reality. Here’s a sample of the first few songs:

     Disc 1: 
1. Paul McCartney & Wings, “Band on the Run” 

2. George Harrison, “My Sweet Lord” 

3. John Lennon feat. The Flux Fiddlers & the Plastic Ono Band, “Jealous Guy” 

4. Ringo Starr, “Photograph”

For the complete list check out Indiewire’s full write up on The Black Album: The Post-Beatles Black Album From Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Follow us on Spotify for our 3-part playlist! 

There's more to the haircut scene than you might think. In preparation for a scene midway through the movie, Richard Linklater asked Ellar Coltrane to refrain from cutting his hair for a year. In a pivotal moment for the development of the stepfather character he forces Mason into the barber’s seat to have his hair completely buzzed off. As viewers, we see a powerful and convincing amalgamation of anger, vulnerability, and sadness overtake Mason as the barber gets to work. However, Ellar Coltrane was actually thrilled to finally be getting a haircut. How about that for some strong acting? Patricia Arquette on this moment: 

Boyhood challenges its audience to be aware of the narrative expectations that years of movie watching has conditioned in us. A thread of tension between portraying the reality of everyday life and our expectation for cinematic drama runs throughout the film; when a drunk father/stepfather gets behind the wheel with a car full of kids we expect the scene to end in a violent accident, or when teenage boys are playing with saw blades at a construction site we expect, at the very least, stiches in their future. These perilous climaxes never come and their absence in the film isn’t something the film’s director Richard Linklater thought twice about. When asked about this topic he said, “You get through childhood and most of the time it [the perilous climax] doesn’t happen.”

For more from Linklater on this tension and other interesting commentary on the film, read this great interview from The Dissolve: Richard Linklater discusses the 12-year journey to Boyhood

Richard Linklater wrote twelve different scripts for what he considers as the twelve seperate movies that make up Boyhood and he’s stated that over time the characters took on personalities tied more closely to the actors who portray them in the film.

The photographer hired to capture behind-the-scenes stills of the movie is responsible for all of the portraits and progression spreads (like the one below) used to promote the movie, but he wasn’t hired to do them. After being hired to shoot behind-the-scenes stills, Matt Lankes asked if he could setup an area to take portraits of the actors each year. The producer, director, and lead actors all liked the idea and he went ahead with it. A few years into filming, Ethan Hawke suggested Lankes collect the photos in book form when the project was finished, something Lankes had been considering himself. That collection, Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film, published by UT Press, is out now. You can find more information on it here: Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film

Photographs by Matt Lankes, Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film

For more from Matt Lankes about his experiences chronicling Boyhood, listen to Emily Donahue’s thoughtful interview with him:  Like the Movie, This Boyhood Book was 12 Years in the Making

Thursday, December 4, 2014

My Life in the Bronx by Martin Dones

The Bronx of the 1970s and '80s is not the Bronx of today, but the issues affecting urban youth—poverty, drug abuse, violence, and police aggression—haven't magically gone away. Recent racial tensions between police and minority communities in the aftermath of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have brought widespread media attention to the problematic ways some law enforcement behave in urban neighborhoods across the country.

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Photographer Stephen Shames' new book Bronx Boys includes an arresting essay by Martin Dones, a Puerto Rican kid who insured Shames gained the trust he needed to photograph life in the Bronx. Dones painfully articulates the truth of trying to survive and have a life in a rough area rife with gang violence. His story is a powerful account of the brutal cycle the young and marginalized find themselves trapped in: no money, little access to quality education, and no trust in the police. We have excerpted part of his essay below. There is much more to his story, and an additional essay by José "Poncho" Muñoz in the book.

We're so proud that Bronx Boys was named one of the 27 photobooks that defined 2014 by Time Magazine: TIME Picks the Best Photobooks of 2014 

My Memories
By Martin Dones

I don’t know if you remember this cop from the Bronx named Officer Jet. President Clinton gave him an award. Well, it was in the news and everything. A journalist ran around with him. The New York Times Magazine wrote an article about our block and they gave them all nicknames, like Beefcake, Beefhead. He told how bad they were. He said that they made $100,000 a week. They made enough money, but not that much. He told the story the way he thinks the story went. It’s just what he assumes.

This is the real story on how everything happened. How they cut the crack. How the drugs came out of LO’s mother’s house. About their machine guns—their AK47s and M16s. How they had their hands on some real high-power ammunition. How they had enough for a war if anybody came down for it.

This is my story. I’ve been on the street, got tangled in drugs, been in the gangs. I lived through violence—murder, stabbings, fights. The streets helped me learn all the mistakes that I had to learn. I’m sorry that I had to learn them that way, but I had to.

I was a dead man who got lucky.

It’s hard to get out of the ghetto. The ghetto could be fine. You could be raised there and go to college. It’s just the violence—the way things evolved from fistfights to gunfights. Eventually it soaks into you. You learn what you live.

My childhood contributed—the drugs that my mother did. To this day she does drugs. I don’t have a mother. I just have a “mother” who gave birth to me. I have a father, but I’ve only known him since I was twenty-three. As a kid I was mad at my mom. I was mad at the things around me. I’d go out in the street, knowing that I can’t hit my mother, and want to punch somebody in the face—just to get the anger off of me. It’s like you’re locked in a room and you have to do something.

Then again, I had people who were showing me go to school. Telling me, “Do what you have to do. Forget about the streets.”

I’ve known Steve since I was ten years old, and I’m forty-five now. He played a major part in keeping me alive. So did my godparents, Rocky and Connie of the Boys Club, teaching me woodworking and magic, taking me into their home, sometimes giving me the only meal I had that day.

So I had two directions. I had to choose which way I wanted to go. Whether I wanted to go to jail and die or live my life and be happy with my family.

I chose to go with my family and just be a normal person.

Connie once told me, “That’s what life is all about. We’re doing nothing else in life but collecting memories, because after all is said and done, when we’re gone, what do you remember?”

These are my memories.

My First Memory

My first memory is still as clear as a picture: my cousin being murdered. I didn’t actually see him being murdered, but I heard the thud of his body hitting the pavement. That death sound is the first thing I remember. Thud. I jump awake, startled, and everybody is screaming. My mother lies disheveled next to me on the bed, fainted. Everybody is on top of her: “Give her air.” I hop out of bed and run toward the window. That’s where all the action is.

My four-year-old eyes see the playground of the school I will soon attend, every day walking past my memories. A white blanket lies on the black asphalt. A cop lifts the blanket off a body and my cousin’s face, black and blue and all swelled up. He is naked. My mother screams, “Get away from the window.” That is all, but it is enough to fill my head. I still dream about it.

It comes like a flash, without warning while I’m watching TV or walking. Flash. I see his bruised, swollen face, his naked body as the cop pulls off the blanket. It will be with me till the day I die. It is my first memory, one of my highlights growing up.

Years later I learn he was murdered because his brother robbed this gang’s little nightclub. Since they couldn’t get the brother, they got him.

They invite him up to the roof to smoke a joint. He climbs the stairs with the group, joking, jostling with them, and anticipating a good time, getting high with the guys. He feels the cold, refreshing, not quite winter wind as the door opens.

Pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head. He notices the moon, a few stars, the city’s glow, and the dark, mysterious shapes of buildings, some with little yellow lights and others completely dark, as he steps onto the roof.

They surround him. The big one with a scar on his cheek thumps him in the nose. He feels a sharp pain, hears the crunch. Someone wraps an arm around his throat and squeezes off his air supply. More punches. He falls in a fetal position. He is kicked with hard black boots, hit with a baseball bat. He loses consciousness. His clothes are torn off. Dozens of hands hold him down. He wakes up screaming as a box cutter slices his legs from the upper thigh straight down. Like you might slice a chicken before a barbeque. Two shots in the head conclude this episode.

He’s tossed off the roof. His body has to clear a fence. They swing him so his body arcs up and out, like a diver, before gravity carries it down to the schoolyard.

The cops never caught them. The 135th Street Boys of the South Bronx did it, but we never found out for sure which ones.

People said, “It was maybe him, maybe not, maybe this one, maybe not.” The crazy thing is they all died eventually, one by one. One had his penis cut off. The next was thrown under a car. Another was shot.

Right after my cousin was thrown from the roof, other cousins torch my building. We escape as the third floor explodes and falls on the lower floors. The building whimpers and then collapses. I stand in the cold and watch all of our stuff fly away.

I’m sad. I got a new monorail track that morning for Christmas.

My mother’s boyfriend is an alcoholic. They drink, party, talk, and sing Spanish songs. Pretty much, they just drink and argue. And me, at age four, I just want to escape from the noise.

I open the front door and walk out. Nobody even knows I’m gone. That’s how drunk they are. I walk up, past the fourth, the fifth floor, up to the roof. Well, not the roof, because the door is locked. I go to the last step. Crunch into a little ball. Lay down and try to sleep.

Another time, my mother pours lighter fluid on her boyfriend, then torches the bed. My brothers and I try to put it out. He barely escapes with his life.

One day my mom finds hickies on my sister’s neck and chest. So my mother beats her up and then calls her father. He arrives from Spanish Harlem, takes an extension cord, and wraps it up around his hand. I hear my sister screaming as her father gives her marks all over her body. He’s not my father. I have a different father from my four brothers and sisters. One time I called him by his real name. He grabbed me by my arm: “You don’t ever call me that. You call me daddy.” But I never called him daddy.

I knew he wasn’t my father. Shortly after that, he was shot six times in the hallway by his sister.

. . .

Like Gods

I love looking out my third-floor window after school. The afternoon sun slices Decatur Avenue into long patches of light and dark. Mothers leave the corner bodega balancing babies on one hip and their purchases on the other. Young men lean on parked cars, sip beer out of paper bags, and casually hiss at passing schoolgirls. I see all that, plus shootouts and fights.

Mostly, I observe lines of forty people, older people, waiting against the wall like kids. When the guy comes with the drugs, they swarm him like he is this god. The dealer curses the older people: “Get the fuck in line. Hurry up, hurry up! Give and go, give and go.” The line evaporates in ten to fifteen seconds.

One time the cops did such a huge drug bust, they came in an ice-cream truck. The truck screeches around the corner with cops hanging on the back. I can’t believe this is happening right in front of me. This is coming out of a TV program. There are vans and paddy wagons. They just had the entire street blocked. Every single person who is on the street from 193rd to 194th gets arrested.

Another time. This guy from the neighborhood beats the shit out of an undercover cop. I mean literally kicks him in the face. The cop is out cold. The guy takes his badge, gun, and runs off. Detectives are all over, knocking on doors, asking questions. I told them, “I didn’t see anything.” You always tell the cops that. Then you don’t get killed. Your family doesn’t get threatened. It was all there. It happened right across from my bedroom window.

. . .

It’s Just the Way the Cops Act in the Ghetto

Eight or ten of us are hanging out on the corner just talking, bullshitting. My brother is in the middle of the street looking at his friend’s radio. A cop driving through the intersection tells them to get the fuck out of the street. My brother tells him, “Ah, fuck you. You can’t tell me to get out of the street like that.”

So the cop says, “What did you say?”

The cop pulls over real quick. Gets out. My brother doesn’t want to get beat up so he runs inside his ground-floor apartment. This cop chases after him. He actually starts kicking the door to his apartment. I mean kicking, trying to kick it open. I go over. “Officer, you can’t be doing that.”

The cop says, “Who the fuck are you?”

I reply, “Who the fuck are you?”

He came out with a racist remark: “You spick bastard.”

I replied, “Fuck you. You guinea bastard.” He chocks me. Handcuffs me in front of everybody. Throws me in the car. Smacks me two or three more times on our way to the precinct. They give me a ticket for obstructing traffic on a sidewalk.

It’s stupid. It’s just the way the cops act in the ghetto.

It’s Always a Struggle for Money

It’s always a struggle for money in the ghetto. Not education. Nobody thinks about getting an education. They think they are smart enough to make money on the street. That’s what I felt. That’s what the younger generation thinks. They see the kids older than them making money selling drugs. They see the nice cars, the beepers, the money, all the toys that they want when they get older. They think, “I can hang out on the corner and get these things. Why go to school? Why go to work for somebody when I can work for myself?”

They think they won’t get murdered. They won’t get killed. The new generation always believes they are smarter. “He got murdered because he was greedy.” Or, “He got murdered because he had a big mouth.” “He got murdered, not me.” But when you got all that money, you think you control everybody. But you don’t. There is always somebody who wants to rob you. There is always somebody that is going to hurt you. The ghetto is like scavengers. Everybody wants what you got. They all try to take a bite at you. If you can keep them down, okay, but if you can’t . . . That’s where the cycle keeps going and going. And it never ends. It never ends.

Martin Dones at a recent gallery opening of Shames' work

Listen to Stephen Shames on our podcast:

To hear more stories from the Bronx, listen to José "Poncho" Muñoz and Stephen Shames talk to Leonard Lopate.

See the surviving 'Bronx Boys' and their friends as adults on the book's Facebook page.


Friday, November 28, 2014

Go with the Flow: Our Guide to Giving Books

We are all being bombarded with enticements to buy as holiday sales and the shopping season ramp up. Don't get overwhelmed! Get books for everyone on your list this year. Don't know where to start? Use this handy flowchart to find the best gift books for your family and friends (or for yourself! That is allowed.)

All books on our website are 33% off. Always. To ensure books arrive by Christmas Day, order by December 1 for international delivery and by 
December 15 for domestic delivery. Happy Shopping!

hristmas came early for us this year! See if you can spot our incredible cookbook in Barnes and Noble's holiday ad.


Monday, November 24, 2014

The World as Seen Through Turkeys

By Nicolas Trépanier

If Thanksgiving taught me anything, it is that the United States is a foreign country. They do things differently here.

When I moved across the border from my native Québec in order to pursue my doctoral studies, I brought with me a firm conviction that I would find myself in known territory. I had already spent a quarter century consuming American cultural products, after all, and I was relocating only a few hundred miles from my hometown. Later that Fall, as Thanksgiving was approaching, I did not expect much more than the Thanksgivings I was used to: a day off school, a meaningless but welcome hole in the collective schedule just when I had a 

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term paper in desperate need of being written.

But what I actually ended up encountering was one of the highlights of the annual calendar, a celebration with well-established rituals and social obligations that emptied the graduate dorm where I lived and that caused much pity to be cast upon us, poor international students who (as we suddenly discovered) were expected to feel deeply depressed to be away from our families on such a special occasion. Thanksgiving, I realized, was completely new to me.

And why should it not? Thanksgiving might be the most American of holidays, both because of its gravitational pull in our calendars and because it does not have a real counterpart outside Anglophone North America. This strongly regional character, in turn, means that a deep look at Thanksgiving can yield a lot of insights about the culture that created it. It’s a way to look over America’s shoulder as it waits in line to cash out at the supermarket, and to draw all sorts of conclusions on the way it lives its private life.

Looking into a culture’s shopping cart and drawing all sorts of conclusions about it is also what I do in my book Foodways and Daily Life in Medieval Anatolia—except that it involves another kind of Turkey. Looking at a region that was about to become part of the Ottoman empire, the book examines the various ways people interacted with food (growing it, buying it, eating it or avoiding it for religious reasons) in order to reconstruct the texture of daily life in a culture far removed from our own, far from the bird turke and from cranberry sauce.

Food can be a pretext to document almost anything. Let’s take the way that food enters a house and reserves are managed, for example. Fourteenth-century sources include a number of anecdotes where men, after several days of deep immersion in religious rituals, are suddenly snapped out of their devotions by worries about supplying their homes with bread and meat. In another set of anecdotes, we encounter devout young women who, having taken bread and oil from the house to feed a wandering dervish, have to bear the wrath of their sinful mother-in-law, herself blinded to sainthood by her jealous management of the food pantry. These, and a host of other anecdotes, superficially center on food provisioning. But they also paint a vivid picture of the distribution of power and responsibilities among genders and generations, the collaborative and conflictual character of their interactions, and the contrast between the ways social roles played out outside and inside the house.
The fact that these anecdotes pertain to saintly figures and religious practices is no coincidence. Unlike today’s Thanksgivings, which might be slightly too well documented for some of us, not much more than a dozen original texts and three dozen archival documents remain from fourteenth-century Anatolia. In other words, the five or ten million people who lived there and then have left us with fewer traces than a typical small town of nineteenth-century America.

Given these conditions, I had to draw from all the sources I could find, from official chronicles to archaeological excavation reports. Along the way, I realized that hagiographies are unexpectedly useful when researching food practices. Unlike modern biographies, that follow a character through a single, flowing narrative, these texts are essentially collections of independent anecdotes showcasing the bons mots and miracles of the Sufi masters whose sainthood they try to demonstrate. And as it turns out, many of these anecdotes involve details of daily life that come in contact with saintly powers, such as the ability to read the mind of (and provide money to) a man who worries about feeding his family, or the multiplication of a household’s olive oil reserves after a woman makes a pious offering.

Medieval authors are also interested in what stands out and rarely refer to things typical, making them rather problematic for a project that seeks to investigate the texture of ordinary life. I often had to read between the lines, to look at the shape of the holes in the text. Take for example this passage, where the daughter of a religious master notices a cat that regularly visits her father’s grave, so she decides to offer it the pasty sweet called helva. This, of course, does not mean that mourning cats were all over the place in medieval Anatolia. In fact, it is precisely because a mourning cat was so unusual that the medieval author thought it was worth reporting (or perhaps even inventing). Indeed, it is possible to extrapolate on the parallels it would have brought to the mind of its intended audience, by noticing that the female character was, essentially, reacting to the atypically humanlike behavior of that cat by giving the animal an atypically humanlike treatment. In other words, this anecdote suggests that it was common practice to offer helva to people in mourning. This interpretation indeed fits quite nicely many other scenes depicting the consumption of helva and, as I realized later on, a funeral practice that is still common in today’s Turkey.

Helva in Mahneh Yehuda market by deror_avi
The challenges that came with this research project pushed me in other, less expected directions. In order to contextualize and understand the data I collected, I had to become familiar with a range of areas that seldom find themselves in the same project, from the way soil composition differently affects wheat and barley to the status of nonprofit foundations in Islamic law and from the diversity of Turkish, Persian and Arabic terms used to refer to honey to the respective histories of red and white wine.

Comparing the lives of medieval Anatolians to ours also led me to question aspects of our lives so obvious to us that we seldom realize they could be different from what they are. Take meals, for example: limited cooking fuel, long preparation times and tight social rules made them essential to the middle ages, but is it possible to imagine our eating habits doing away with these regularly scheduled, collective feeding rituals? It was also interesting to observe the way people connected diet and health in a culture that accepted the galenic theory of humors, a theory that presents sickness as the result of imbalance between the four bodily humors (blood, yellow and black bile, phlegm). We tend to ridicule this perspective, which infamously gave us bloodletting as a medical practice. But to someone seeing health as a state of equilibrium (rather than, as we do today, considering it as an ideal, “apex” state), a given food item such as garlic could cure some illnesses and worsen others, depending on balance of humors in the eater’s body. Medieval Anatolians, in other words, would cast an incredulous glance at our compulsive attempts to identify superfoods (açai, quinoa, kale or whatever else is becoming popular this month) that, we are told, can solve all health problems if we only consume them in massive quantities. I tend to think this is not such a bad thing.

A myriad of challenges and even more numerous strategies to overcome these challenges forced me to take a rather circuitous route in order to come up with a general picture of what life was like in medieval Anatolia. The one element that remained throughout the process, however, was the conviction that examining food and the ways humans relate to it can tell us about a whole lot more than just food.

Thinking back on what I didn’t know about the United States before I began my doctoral studies at Harvard, I realize that a parallel exercise could be performed using Thanksgiving rather than food, and today’s America instead of medieval Anatolia. A book about Thanksgiving could have told me about the incredible geographical mobility of Americans, so many of whom are crossing state lines to gather with their families this week. It would have illustrated the depth of division between political orientations, that remain hidden by the politically segregated communities that are Facebook accounts until they find their expression in yelling matches over tables decked with stuffing and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. It could have taught me about social and cultural changes like the growth of consumerism, rarely more obvious than in the scheduling efforts invested in Black Friday shopping, or the influence of YouTube and celebrity chefs over culinary culture, as can be seen in the explosion (sometimes literal) of the practice of deep-frying turkeys. It could also have prepared me for the way in which selfless values such as gratitude survive and sometime thrive in a country whose population I found to be tremendously welcoming, a country that offered me the best education imaginable and a job for which I’m glad I can express my gratitude here.

Originally from Québec, Nicolas Trépanier earned his Ph.D. in history and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University in 2008. He is now an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi, where he teaches history.


Monday, November 10, 2014

A Flatlanders-Inspired Driving Mix by John T. Davis

A car stereo, a great music mix, and a good long drive can put everything into perspective and nobody knows this truth better than West Texas musicians. Why? Well, let music writer John T. Davis explain through this ultimate West Texas driving mix inspired by the subject of his latest book, The Flatlanders: Now It’s Now Again

A West Texas Driving Mix
By John T. Davis

Route 66…That hard-assed Amarillo Highway…the Loop…the Strip…the Lost Highway…the Eight’r From Decatur…

Roads aren’t just strips of asphalt in West Texas—they are lifelines and metaphors and escape routes and the promise that lies somewhere over yonder. In a dusty and isolated landscape where so much seems fixed in place, there’s healing power in movement. Terry Allen, the artist and musician who has spent his creative life in a love/hate relationship with the Texas Panhandle and the South Plains once said, “No one with access to a car and a good radio station should ever need a psychiatrist.”

The Flatlanders, whose personal and musical journey I’ve chronicled in a new book, The Flatlanders: Now It’s Now Again, grew up driving the highways, ranch roads and farm-to-market byways that surrounded their home in Lubbock, Texas. The “road,” both literal and metaphorical, has always informed the music made by the group and by its three central figures—Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Even today, says Joe Ely, when he needs musical inspiration, he’ll take off and drive the grid of tiny back roads that thread their way across the empty plains. It’s a big, blank reservoir of silence, begging to be filled with music.

In that spirit, I’ve put together a mix tape for driving across the plains of West Texas—it’s been a long day behind the wheel, the sun is finally beginning to set and the lights of a small town glimmer on a distant, ruler-straight horizon. The road, as Tom Russell likes to sing, it gives, and the road it takes away.

Access the playlist on your Spotify account here.

“Amarillo Highway”—Terry Allen (from Lubbock On Everything): “I’m a high straight in Plainview/Side bet in Idalou/And a fresh deck in New Deal,” sings Allen against a honky-tonk piano and steel guitar. “Some call me high hand/And some call me low hand/But I’m holding what I am—the wheel.” US Hwy. 87, about which Allen was singing, has been supplanted by modern Interstate 27, but the groove is still the same.

“Rave On”—Buddy Holly (from the album The Buddy Holly Collection): Because, duh. Lubbock native Holly set the template for the modern rock band, scored huge hits, inspired the Beatles (and the Flatlanders) and became the first rock ‘n’ roll martyr, all by age 22. Roll down the window, crank it up and let ‘er rip.

“All Just To Get To You”—Joe Ely (from Letter to Laredo): “I have run from St. Paul to Wichita Falls/Called you from sunny Baron Rouge/I hocked everything from my watch to my ring/All just to get to you.” Ely’s sunny rocker about making his way home to his baby is one of the great window-down, stomp-on-the-gas sing-alongs in modern Texas music. And oh yeah, that’s Bruce Springsteen singing along his ownself on the chorus.

“I’m A Long Gone Daddy”—Hank Williams (from The Ultimate Collection): The Flatlanders were inspired by myriad and diverse musical genres. Williams was every bit as influential as Bob Dylan and Elvis when it came to informing their music. And anyway, no driving mix is complete without the Drifting Cowboy singing about the lost highway.

“Moanin’ of the Midnight Train”—Butch Hancock (from Eats Away the Night): Hancock employs his Dylan-esque harmonica and best alliterative wordplay to put a fresh face on night train = lost love: “Sweetheart, your heart is loaded down with useless burdens and bones/I can tell by the tear-stains on your letter you wrote me from the twilight zone/You ask if I miss you, yes of course I miss you, I miss you every night or two/When I hear the moanin’ of the midnight train, it reminds me so much of you…”

“Lonesome, On’ry and Mean”—Waylon Jennings (from Lonesome, On’ry and Mean): Jennings’ music has somewhat fallen into eclipse since his death, and that’s a damn shame. This cover of a Steve Young song sums up what makes the onetime deejay (and Buddy Holly sideman) so great: That unmistakable guitar style and tone, Jennings’ gunslinger baritone and attitude to burn. If you only know him from the Dukes of Hazzard theme song, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this album or his classic Honky Tonk Heroes disc.

“Out In the Parking Lot”—Guy Clark (from Keepers): A marvelous, meticulous honky-tonk still life from a Texan who has taught master classes in songwriting for decades: “I’m sittin’ on the fender of someone else’s truck/Drinkin’ Old Crow whiskey and hot Seven-Up…You can hear the band playin’ right through the walls/Ain’t no cover charge, ain’t no last call/Out in the parking lot.” 

“Levelland”—James McMurtry (from Where’d You Hide the Body): Sooner or later, everyone who lives in West Texas gets a bellyful of it—the wind, the dust, the isolation conspire to grind down even the sunniest soul. Most folks get over it, but McMurtry (son of novelist Larry McMurtry) captures that feeling when you’d like to just burn the whole place down—all the while still yearning for a lost, perfect moment.

“Cool Water”—Joni Mitchell (from Chalk Marks In A Rainstorm): An avant-gardé take on the old Sons of the Pioneers classic. There’s a spacy, ethereal quality to this track that invokes the vastness of the West Texas sky and linear, sometimes intimidating flat and minimalist landscape. Water, in the form of rain, or lack thereof, is the ubiquitous topic of conversation (along with football) in every social strata, so why not sing about it too? Big props to Mitchell for bringing in Willie Nelson for a guest vocal.

“Ramblin’ Man”—Jimmie Dale Gilmore (from One Endless Night): Gilmore’s bouncy honky-tonk cover of a Butch Hancock song may be the best highway song Hank Williams never cut: “I’m your ramblin’ man and I can go where I choose/And if you sing me a song, mama, make it a midnight blues”.

“Marfa”—Don Santiago Jimenez (from His First and Last Recordings): Tejano and Hispanic culture are as much a defining part of West Texas as they are in the rest of the Lone Star State. This peppery little tune, commemorating the Trans-Pecos town of the same name, by one of the founding masters of the conjunto accordion, is a three-minute road trip to the border.

“Oh Pretty Woman”—Roy Orbison (from Oh Pretty Woman): The big beat married to Orbison’s otherworldly, operatic voice makes this 1964 hit a force of nature. Orbison was by no means a teenage idol to look at, but when he growls “Mercy!” you can hear the girls’ hearts race across the room. This rocking classic is the ultimate West Texas riposte to the British Invasion.

“Tumbleweed”—Toni Price (from Hey): This lovely, bittersweet country-folk lament by the Austin-based chanteuse is all about picking up and leaving, something every youngster in West Texas has to confront sooner or later. Stay put in the familiar home country or light out for the territories? As Price sings: “When someone asked me where was I going/I tore the map up, I flipped a coin/And it landed somewhere a long, long way away”.

“(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”—Nat “King” Cole (from Stepping Out of A Dream): There’s a million versions of this road trip chestnut, but I like Cole’s urbane, jazzy take--with its tinkling piano, walking bass and jazzy guitar, coupled with Cole’s smoky vocals—because it’s such a stark contrast with the dusty expanse of cattle ranches and small towns that mark the one-time Mother Road’s traverse through the Texas Panhandle.

“Take Me Back To Tulsa”—Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys (from Anthology 1935-1973): Turkey, Texas, native Bob Wills didn’t invent Western Swing, that feisty fusion of house party country fiddle music, blues licks, pop flourishes and hot jazz improvisation, but he took it to the world. Wills embodied the freewheeling synthesis of disparate musical styles that has always characterized the best of West Texas music.

“To Live Is To Fly”—Townes Van Zandt (from Rear View Mirror): “Days up and down they come/Like rain on a conga drum/Forget most, remember song/But don’t turn none away/Everything is not enough/Nothing is too much to bear/Where you been is good and gone/All you keep is the getting there.” The hard-living folk/blues Texas poet Townes Van Zandt was an enormous influence not only on the Flatlanders, but also on other Lone Star bards like Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark.

“Heard It On the X”—Los Super Seven (from Heard It On the X): When the Flatlanders were teenagers in Lubbock, they and their friends tuned in each night to the big clear-channel stations out of Mexico like XERF that beamed big city blues and rhythm and blues to captivated young listeners all over West Texas and far beyond. This grainy, greasy cover of the ZZ Top song by Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven conveys some of the allure and mystery of those magic nights.

“Amarillo By Morning”—George Strait (from Strait From the Heart): Country music’s greatest hitmaker (and native Texan, y’all) does what he does best—rendering a deceptively straightforward, fiddle-laced tale of a rodeo cowboy taking a broken heart on the road (“Everything that I’ve got/Is just what I’ve got on”) with effortless craft and conviction. He makes it sounds easy, but when Strait is on point, nobody can do it better.

“The Long Way Around”—Dixie Chicks (from Taking the Long Way): Chicks vocalist and Lubbock native Natalie Maines became a lightning rod for criticism after criticizing Pres. George W. Bush. But this song, written after the firestorm, is an rocking, enduring anthem to friendship, going the distance and staying true to oneself: It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself/Guess I could have made it easier on myself/But I, I could never follow…If you ever want to find me, I can still be found/Takin’ the long way around.”

“One Road More”—The Flatlanders (from The Odessa Tapes): From the Flatlanders’ earliest recording, at Butch Hancock song with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, singing what might as well be the band’s mission statement: “Lord, I ain’t got a lick of sense, I got a crazy mind/’Cause I don’t want to leave and I don’t want to stay behind/But at the end of this one last road they say there’s always an open door/So I guess my bare feet will have to carry me one road more.”