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August 15, 2016

Book Notes - Teju Cole "Known and Strange Things"

Known and Strange Things

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Teju Cole's essay collection Known and Strange Things is thoughtful and lyrical over a variety of subjects, yet another outstanding book from one of the finest writers working today.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"On every level of engagement and critique, Known and Strange Things is an essential and scintillating journey."

In his own words, here is Teju Cole's Book Notes music playlist for his essay collection Known and Strange Things:

Known and Strange Things ranges widely. The essays unfolded over many years. Looking at the book now, I see how essential music was to my experience of the places I went to, and my interpretation of the things I thought about.

In Leukerbad, a remote town in Switzerland where I'd gone to research a story about James Baldwin ("Black Body," the essay that opens the book), I listened to some of the music Baldwin had brought with him in the fifties. I began with Bessie Smith singing "I'm Wild About That Thing," which I describe in the book as "a filthy blues number and a masterpiece of plausible deniability: ‘Don't hold it, baby, when I cry / Give me every bit of it, else I'll die.'"

Fats Waller is very funny. Here he's singing "Your Feet's Too Big." Another from Baldwin's playlist.

In Leukerbad, I was very conscious of the continuities in the African American musical tradition, and the beautiful variety in it. Bettye Swann, one of the under-recognized voices from the generation of Aretha Franklin, is stupendous in "Now You Can Tell Me Goodbye." I discovered the song through my friend Leah. I often play this track for other friends who don't know Swann, and they never fail to be moved by it.

That first essay mentions quite a bit of music, because music served as a bridge for my thoughts to Baldwin and his time in this village that had never seen a black man. On my playlist that summer was "Play It Off" by the Seattle hip hop trio "The Physics." I love Pacific Northwest rap. Childish Gambino's "3005" was on the playlist too. Big hit, that one.

I was surprised to walk into a fusty old Swiss restaurant and hear them playing Whitney's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." Black America is everywhere. This song always makes me think of my friend Suzie.

"I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl": another sweetly NSFW selection from Bessie Smith.

"I cannot rate the blues below Bach," I wrote in my Baldwin essay, which is fair both to the Blues and to Bach. I love what Bach can do with speed, as in the fast movements of the Cello Suites. This courante, from the fifth suite, is performed by Anner Bylsma, whose set is definitely a desert island disc for me. Rephrasing the same argument, I also wrote that there's no world in which I'd prefer "chamber orchestras playing Baroque music to the koras of Mali." Perhaps the greatest of the many great kora albums was Toumani Diabate's collaboration with Ballake Sissoko, "New Ancient Strings," from which this is the first track. The inner logic really is Bach-like, intricate but with a celestial edge to it. A real revelation for anyone who hasn't heard it before.

But enough of Leukerbad, and on to other essays. Even though I don't mention it in my review of her book "Wave," Sonali Deraniyagala played "There Is A Light" a great deal after she lost her family in the 2006 tsunami. I loved the song before, but now strongly associate it with her.

Arvo Pärt's patient and oneiric music always seems to me to be full of submerged energy. The sense his music gives you of being pulled along by something invisible and irresistible makes me compare him to Tomas Tranströmer in my essay on that great poet. "Pari Intervallo" always gives me an out of body experience.

The strangest essay in "Known and Strange Things" is called "Unnamed Lake." It's an account of insomnia. In March 1942, in Berlin, Wilhelm Furtwangler conducted Beethoven's 9th Symphony for the Nazi leaders. The same month, in a camp in Belzec, Poland, the gassing phase of the Holocaust began. You can hear, in this recording, the audience coughing. But the music, the twenty minutes of this sublime Adagio: I've never heard so much life and death compressed into one stretch before.

My essay on Michael Haneke's "Amour" is one of my favorite pieces in the book. The protagonists of the film are piano teachers, and they love Schubert's Impromptus and Beethoven's Bagatelles. The unfolding horror of their decline (they are an old couple) is set against the limpid perfection of this music, which Haneke very judiciously deploys in the film.

I wrote an appreciation of the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe for the New Yorker. Here are three tracks by him, all rather melodious, though I'd encourage listeners to also seek out his longer, thornier works. I love the way Sculthorpe sounds, to my ear, like what I saw of Australia's landscape.

My favorite film of all is Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Red," and I wrote an essay to try to understand why. The film's musical theme is a haunting and repeated "Bolero" by Zbigniew Preisner. I've put two versions here.

Eartha Kitt is one of the genre-breaking wonder women that the artist Wangechi Mutu's "nguva" project reminded me of. Kitt, like Josephine Baker and Grace Jones, is feral, feline, and fantastic.

My essay "The Reprint" is about November 4, 2008, the complicated and confusing day Barack Obama was first elected president of these United States. That day, I mostly listened to "Aaj Bazar Mein," a ghazal by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, sung by Nayyara Noor. "Let us go to the bazaar today in chains / let's go with hands waving / intoxicated and dancing / let's go with dust on our heads and blood on our sleeves."

On the day of the election, I ran into a crowd singing "We Shall Overcome." But years later, I was to visit Selma, and the performance here is by workers in Selma at a mass for Jimmie Lee Jackson, a man of God beaten and then murdered by police for participating in a peaceful protest in 1965.

"The keening saxophone line, built over rolling piano chords (like a congregation's murmuring), was a paraphrase of the eulogy Martin Luther King, Jr., gave after a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, killing four girls." One of the ways I've tried to think about Black Lives Matter is by visiting the places of the Civil Rights Movement. In this book, that essay is called "In Alabama." I went to Birmingham, and listened to Coltrane's "Alabama" while I was there, and I've listened to it countless times since.

Teju Cole and Known and Strange Things links:

the author's website

Guardian review
Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review

Guardian interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Open City
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
New York Times column by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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