Recorded Conversations: New Favorites from 2012

Welcome to “Recorded Conversations,” an occasional feature where all the Addison Recorder editors contribute their thoughts about a question, idea, or prompt. Everyone will chime in, and then we see where the conversation wanders.

Question: To ring in the New Year on the Recorder, we look to our recent past and ask “What new thing (or things) that you discovered in 2012 has become one of your favorites?”

I need to limit myself on this one. When this idea first trickled across my brain it was as an idea for a full-blown article, not a shorter Conversation piece, so my apologies if I try to cram too much in. I have three distinct answers, and I have no idea which would win out above the others, so…I’ll tackle all three!

1. Bluegrass (and bluegrass-inspired) music

She’s from Southern California, but damn if she doesn’t sing like she’s from a coal town in Appalachia.

I’m starting off with this because I don’t think I have ever written about music on the Recorder before. Honestly, it’s just not a medium that gets a lot of deep thought out of me. If I like the music, then grand. If not, well, why annoy myself by listening? I don’t really get far beyond that because my interests are much more tied to narrative and visual forms of expression. Music is a bit too esoteric and pattern-based for my math-hating brain to really embrace as anything but a mood-setter.

However, I spend all day at work in front of a computer, which means I have lots of time to listen to music while my brain is occupied with other things. With the aid of Pandora and Spotify this has meant that I have been noodling around with the musical genres and forms that I like, finding new artists and other albums to fill in my day. Last year, urged on by my pre-existing love for Gillian Welch and the TV show Justified (which is back TONIGHT; gadzooks, I may need to write about that), I delved deeper into the sounds of bluegrass and its associated styles.

There’s nothing hip or groundbreaking about bluegrass. It’s an old musical style, carried in a nascent form into the Appalachians by my ancestors and their kin from Scotland and Ireland. Up there in the hollers and forests it became the music of an angry, self-destructive, and mournful people who poured their whiskey-fueled spirit into the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin. So of course it’s great to listen to at the offices of a tech commerce corporation in downtown Chicago! Honestly, I have very little idea why bluegrass became the song of my soul last year. Maybe it’s just something in my blood and bones that leaps at every fiddle breakdown and sad lyric. In any case, discovering artists like Trampled by Turtles, Eilen Jewell, Huckleberry Flint, The Devil Makes Three, The Stanley Brothers and myriad others has been a wonderful, spiritual thing for me.

2. Historical fiction

That man looks ready to gut a fish or a rival, and I love him for it.

I probably need to clarify this, since it’s not like I had never read historical fiction before this year. Hell, almost everything that’s read in a high school literature class would count as historical fiction, and I suppose all my favorites (Blood Meridian, Catch-22, The Great Gatsby) could be classified as such as well. But what I am referring to here is a sudden turn in my reading habits towards reading well-researched and written novels as a way to illuminate a historical period. My reading habits in general run strongly towards history and biography (my pleasure reading before bed in grad school was Nixonland), so when I have an interest in an era, event, or person it’s to the history books I go. This was certainly the case for a lot of this year, too, but as a supplement to such material I have started picking up contemporary literature about historical periods that I am fascinated with.

Two novels in particular grabbed me in 2012: E.L. Doctorow’s The March and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The former is a 2005 novel about General William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea in the closing months of the American Civil War, set amongst the soldiers, slaves, and hangers-on who populated that vast path of destruction. The latter was published in 2009 and takes as its protagonist Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who works his way up to becoming one of Henry VIII’s councilors during the tumultuous period of political intrigue leading up to England’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church.

Of course, these settings aren’t interesting just and in of themselves. The only historical period more played out than the Civil War and Tudor England is World War II, but that may have been what made these novels jump out at me so much. Both bring new perspectives to events that seem over-worn from study by presenting history from the people who live it, rather than the perspectives of an academic’s desk centuries after the fact. Doctorow and Mantel approach their subjects with wildly different styles, but that only seemed to unite them more in my mind.

Doctorow’s work is sprawling and epic, a novel with no single protagonist but the organism that is the Army of the Tennessee in all its multitudes. Seemingly every strata of society is visited, from Gen. Sherman riding around the first truly modern military campaign on his donkey to the young mulatto slave who is freed from a Georgia plantation and has to fumble along with the Army because it represents all the freedom, responsibility, and possibility she has ever known. Reading The March one gets the feeling of weariness, fear, and wonder that must accompany those within a war. The sensory experience of campfires, tobacco, and gunpowder on a cold Southern morning is not a thing that most history texts can convey, but it is as illuminating as any study of military tactics or political scheming.

Such scheming is the dramatic impetus behind Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but her scope is much more focused than Dcotorow’s. The reader’s experiences in Wolf Hall reflect only those of Thomas Cromwell. Though not written in the 1st-person (Mantel is much too skillful in her writing for such simple declarations), the perspective of this traditional villain is the only one allowed here. Freed from the history books that condemned him for centuries Cromwell comes alive as a modern, liberal man in a time and place that is still mostly medieval and reactionary. Though the Renaissance and Reformation are blooming across Europe in the 1520’s and 30’s, all is not enlightened in grey, sodden England. So Cromwell must wheel and deal, trading his services, expertise, and advice to the pompous, lustful, and temperamental rulers of the land. He plays a dangerous game of courtly intrigue better than all comers, but not without cost. Mantel’s Tudor world is a place torn between the burgeoning trends of modernism that will make England into a global military and commercial power, and those ancient ideas that made it a place of ruinous civil war and dynastic squabbling. Seeing this era of transformation from the eyes of a man who can sense a changing current without quite knowing where it will plant him makes for fascinating reading.

3. Bob’s Burgers

This is only a hint of how bizarre this show gets. Again, I love it for that.

Finally, after all that sad music and the grim novels about people long-dead, one of my favorite discoveries of 2012 was a silly animated sitcom about a bunch of misfits and weirdos who run a failing hamburger restaurant. Though it debuted in 2011, I only caught up to Bob’s Burgers last spring and summer, and it quickly became a staple of my viewing schedule. Set in an anonymous coastal New England town, the show centers on the Belcher clan, a family of five who ran a failing burger restaurant together. Anchored by H. Jon Benjamin’s subdued, wry work as the titular Bob (a head-spinning contrast between this and the preening, world-class douche he plays on Archer), the show has become on of the best shows on TV during its 2nd and 3rd seasons which aired in 2012. I’m saving more of my thoughts on this for a later article, but I think if I had to choose just one new favorite from 2012 this show would be it. It’s as hilarious as anything on TV, especially in its use of formal exaggeration and underplayed voice-acting. But its secret weapon is the empathy with which it treats every character on screen. No one is too strange, unpleasant, or uncouth to be beyond redemption on Bob’s Burgers as long as they’re accepting  of how weird everyone else in the world can be. That’s a lesson that I think the whole world could learn as we trundle into 2013.

Alex Bean

A life-long Midwesterner, currently living and working in Chicago. Primarily writes here about television and film (which is what he accrued crushing debt to study in school), but will write about books, sports, video games, or whatever else strikes his fancy. He's the one who thinks baseball is really boring.

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