Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Zora Neale Hurston tried to get this published in her lifetime to no avail, and here it is almost 100 years later that it finally gets printed. She interviewed Cudjo Lewis (Kossola, his African name), the last survivor of the final shipment of the illegal slave trade right before the Civil War broke out. The best parts of this were when Zora inserts herself into the story, obliquely, unobtrusively. She ends up bringing him gifts like peaches and ham and watermelon and they become friends chatting in the shade of a hot Alabama afternoon as he leads her down his memory hole to what life was like in Africa, how he was captured, what life became for him in Alabama. The hardest part for her was coming to grips with the fact that Africans themselves sold out other Africans to the slave trade.

Everything is Flammable

Is Gabrielle Bell always this whiny? I’ve read several of her graphic novels which detail her autobiographical dilemmas, best of which is Truth is Fragmentary: travelogues and diaries, but I don’t remember feeling annoyed by her tone in those. Maybe it’s my mood.

There are good parts, like the bus ride wherein she’s trapped with an ex-con who’s a bit too talkative and her seatmates all combine to ignore this guy, “as if the 3 of us were arbitrarily given the task of babysitting a large, unpredictable, scary, nasty child who should have been aborted.” The story tips from coast to coast as she travels from New York to northern California to help her mom after a fire wiped out her mom’s cabin. Luckily her mom’s community comes to the rescue, and she’s donated clothing and various supplies. Gabrielle helps her find a tiny home and the guy who’s living on the lot helps her build a bathroom extension. There are bears and dogs and PTSD from abusive relationships in California and tomato plants and homeless bikers camping in her backyard and friends who donate dish racks that are carted across the country in New York.

Why Art?

Eleanor Davis pokes and prods at the question of why we need art in a book you can zip through in 20 minutes, introducing us to various artist types and then spinning a world wherein the creators are manipulating their creations but to what end? Not a book for anyone looking for a meaty answer, more of a frothy jaunt contemplating this major question in the manner of a daydream.

Noah’s Compass

A sixty year old man is pushed out of his teaching job and downsizes his home to a shoddy apartment to make ends meet. On the first night at the new apartment, he’s burglarized and wakes up in the hospital without knowing what happened (he was conked on the head). A swirl of family eddies around him, his three daughters and an ex-wife, his youngest daughter Kitty coming to live with him. He becomes obsessed with the fact of his lost memory of the night, then becomes obsessed with a helper woman who “keeps the memory” for her older employer. He arranges to bump into them, and begins seeing the woman, Eunice, who’s 22 years younger and (oops!) married, but he only finds out about the marriage after he’s behind her mother at the grocery and introduces himself as someone who’s dating her daughter. In the end, it’s happily ever after on Christmas Day, alone in his apartment with a good book, a chicken warming in the oven, slippers on.

Saint Maybe

Thank you, Anne Tyler, for giving me something to take my mind off the drama swirling around, something to sink into away from the day-to-day. This one is her usual formula of good writing and likeable characters. The point of view shifts as it usually does in her work from one character to the next. It’s set, as usual, in Baltimore. The story begins with a happy family, a beloved son who gets married to a woman with two kids and soon has one of their own, only his brother raises questions about the legitimacy of the baby one drunken night when the father ends up suiciding his car. Ian, the brother, ends up raising all the kids after the mother kills herself. Weird plot twist to make Ian turn super religious, but the other characters stay a very healthy skeptical. We see the kids grow up, come back to take care of Ian.

Digging to America

Anne Tyler is excellent when she writes what she knows, even when it’s colored with highlights from a foreign culture, like this one. An Iranian-American grandmother navigates her son’s life, dealing with her daughter-in-law and their adopted Korean baby, along with the Donaldson family who they met on Arrival Day with their own Korean adoptee. Maryam is the widowed mother, fiercely independent, who ends up falling for the grandfather of the other baby, but has an awkward rejection of marriage because she can’t imagine being married to an American. Delicious.

A Patchwork Planet

The blurb on this describes the narrator, Barnaby Gaitlin, as a loveable loser trying to get his life in order. What exactly qualifies him as a “loser”—is it the fact that he lives in a basement and owes his parents $9k and has a handyman-esque job?

Tyler is at her best describing the old people that Barnaby helps in his “Rent-a-Back” job. “I’m telling you: don’t ever get old! Before I started at Rent-a-Back, I thought a guy could just make up his mind to have a decent old age. Now I know that there’s no such thing… I must have seen a hundred of those sunporch sickrooms, stuffed wall-to-wall with hospital beds and IV poles and potty chairs. I’ve seen those sad, quiet widow women trudging off alone to their deaths, no one to ease them through the way they’d eased their husbands through years and years before…. those retirement watches old people consult a hundred times a day, counting off minute by minute! Those kitchen windowsills lined with medicine bottles! Those miniature servings of food, a third of a banana rewrapped in a speckly black peel and sitting in the fridge!… The reminder notes scotch-taped all over the house… the sudden downward plunges they make: snappy speech one day and faltering for words not two weeks later; handsome, dignified faces all at once in particles, uneven, collapsing, dissolving. The jar lids they can’t unscrew, the needles they can’t thread, the large print that’s not quite large enough, even with a magnifying glass… They walk down the street and everyone looks away from them. People hate to see what the human body comes to—the sags and droops, splotches, humps, bulging stomachs, knobby fingers, thinning hair, freckled scalps. You’re supposed to say old age is beautiful: that’s one of those lines intended to shame whoever disagrees. But every one of my clients disagrees, I’m sure of it… I doubt they want to be young again, but I’m positive not a one would turn down the chance to be, say, middle-aged.”

Conversations with Kafka

Gustav Janouch’s beautiful and odd memoir of his walks around Prague with Kafka when he was a young boy and his father worked alongside Kafka at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institution. Janouch was a budding writer himself and took careful notes of their meetings which later resulted in this book. Naturally you can’t assume these aphorisms dropped perfectly formed from Kafka’s lips into this book, but his spirit infuses this naturally flawed account of their relationship. Translated by Goronwy Rees, it’s choc-a-bloc filled with pithy sayings and wisdom. Apologies in advance for cribbing so much to paste in here.

Speaking of the writer Paul Adler, Janouch asks Kafka what his profession is. “He has none. He has no profession, only a vocation. He travels with his wife and the children from one friend to another. A free man, and a  poet. In his presence I always have pangs of conscience, because I allow my life to be frittered away in an office.”

“It’s not Treml, but I, who am in the cage… not only in the office, but everywhere. I carry the bars within me all the time.”

“For human beings the natural life is a human life. But men don’t always realize that. They refuse to realize it. Human existence is a burden to them, so they dispose of it in fantasies.”

“The false illusion of a freedom achieved by external means is an error, a confusion, a desert in which nothing flourishes except the two herbs of fear and despair. That is inevitable, because anything which has a real and lasting value is always a gift from within. Man doesn’t grow from below upwards but from within outwards..”

“You don’t realize how much strength there is in silence. Aggression is usually only a disguise which conceals one’s weakness from oneself and from the world. Genuine and lasting strength consists in bearing things.”

“Can one predict how one’s heart will beat tomorrow? No, it’s not possible. The pen is only a seismograph pencil for the heart. It will register earthquakes, but can’t predict them.”

Discussing poetry vs. literature, “Poetry is a condensate, an essence. Literature is a relaxation, a means of pleasure which alleviates the unconscious life, a narcotic… Poetry is exactly the opposite. Poetry is an awakening [that tends towards prayer].”

“We live in an evil time, that is clear from the fact that nothing is called by its right name any more… It’s as if ideas had lost their kernel and were simply manipulated like empty nutshells… We live in a morass of corroding lies and illusions, in which terrible and monstrous things happen, which journalists report with amused objectivity and thus—without anyone noticing—trample on the lives of millions of people as is they were worthless insects.”

“Most men indeed don’t really live at all. They cling to life like little polyps to a coral reef. But in doing so men are far worse off than those primitive organisms. For them, there’s no firm barrier reef to ward off the breakers. They haven’t even a shell of their own to live in. All they can do is to emit an acid stream of bile, which leaves them even weaker and more helpless, because it divides them from their fellows.”

I’m always interested in how authors/philosophers overlap, so I loved what Kafka said: “Schopenhauer is an artist in language. That is the source of his thinking. For the language alone, one must not fail to read him.”

On whether people matter as individuals: “The level of the masses depends on the consciousness of individuals.”

“We are going through a hopeless decline. One look out of the window will show the world to you. Where are the people going? What do they want? We no longer recognize the metaphysical order of things. In spite of all the noise, everyone is dumb and isolated within himself. The interrelation of objective and personal values doesn’t function any more. We live not in a ruined but a bewildered world. Everything creaks and rattles like the rigging of an unseaworthy sailing ship. The misery [that you see] is only the surface expression of a much deeper distress.”

On Taylorism, the measurement of time and division of labor as enslavement of mankind: “Such a violent outrage can only end in enslavement to evil. It is inevitable. Time, the noblest and most essential element in all creative work, is conscripted into the net of corrupt business interests. Thereby not only creative work, but man himself, is polluted and humiliated. A Taylorized life is a terrible curse which will give rise to hunger and misery instead of the intended wealth and profit… One can say nothing. One can only scream, stammer, choke. The conveyor belt of life carries one somewhere—but one doesn’t know where. One is a thing, an object, rather than a living organism.”

“As a flood spreads wider and wider, the water becomes shallower and dirtier. The Revolution evaporates, and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. The chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape.”

“Language clothes what is indestructible in us, a garment which survives us.”

“Lying demands the heat of passion. For that reason, it reveals more than it conceals. I am not capable of that. So for me there is only one hiding place—the truth.”

“Happiness does not depend on possessions. Happiness is a matter of attitude. That is to say: a happy man does not see the dark side of reality. His sense of life suppresses the gnawing woodworm of the consciousness of death. One forgets that instead of walking, one is falling. It’s as if one were drugged.”

“It’s a direct offense to be asked after one’s health. It’s as if one apple asked another apple: ‘How are the worms which the insect bites gave you?’ Or as if one blade of grass asked another: ‘How are you withering? How goes your esteemed decomposition?’… Inquiries about one’s health increase one’s consciousness of dying, to which as a sick man, I am particularly exposed.”

On his job at the Insurance Institution: “That is not an occupation, it is a form of decomposition. Every really active purposeful life, which completely fulfills a man, has the force and splendor of a flame. But what do I do? I sit in the office. It is a foul-smelling factory of pain, in which there is no sense of happiness.”

“The buttresses of human existence are collapsing…. Our consciousness is shrinking. Without noticing it, we are losing consciousness, without losing life… We all live as if each of us were a dictator. And thereby we sink into beggary.”

“My imagination is always breaking out of the four walls of my office. But that doesn’t make my horizon any wider. On the contrary, it contracts. And I with it. I’m just a bit of waste matter and not even that. I don’t fall under the wheels, but only into the cogs of the machine, a mere nothing in the glutinous bureaucracy of the Accident Insurance Institution.”

“The most valuable thing [about travel] is that one should be forced, even for a short time, to cast of the chains of one’s old habits—to present an inventory of the much depleted portfolio of one’s life. Wherever one goes, one only travels towards one’s own misunderstood nature.”

Dickens was one of Kafka’s favorite authors, “for a time the model for what I vainly aimed at.” What did he like about Dickens? “His mastery of the material world. His balance between the external and the internal. His masterly and yet completely unaffected representation of the interaction between the world and the I. The perfectly natural proportions of his work.”

“Flaubert’s diaries are very important and very interesting.”

“Let evil and unpleasantness pass quietly over you. Don not try to avoid them. On the contrary, observe them carefully. Let active understanding take the place of reflex irritation, and you will grow out of your trouble. Men can achieve greatness only by surmounting their own littleness. Patience is the master key to every situation. One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything, but at the same time remain patient and forbearing.”

The Accidental Tourist: A Novel

Every time I flash this book around someone tells me that it’s also a movie. It’s curious because this isn’t the best of her work that I’ve encountered, but something about it triggered a screen adaptation. Macon is a stodgy forty-something man separated from his wife after the freak murder of their son in a botched robbery. He’s addicted to systems, and when Sarah leaves him, he decides to do a bunch of weird things like shuffle around the bath with his laundry while he’s showering, sewing his sheets into a bizarre “envelope” so it’s fresh every day. He changes the dryer exhaust tube so the cat can use it to enter and exit the basement and decides to use the coal chute for the dog’s kibble. He works from home writing guidebooks for traveling businessmen to make their stay as much like being at home as possible. Rushing off to get tips for a new edition, he parks his dog in a kennel and meets Muriel, who pursues him relentlessly. They take up a relationship and Macon helps raise her son Alexander, then Sarah enters the picture again. There’s a weird trip to Paris at the end where Muriel books a ticket on the same flight, but Macon’s back goes out and Sarah comes over but he ends up with Muriel in the end?

Columbine

Dave Cullen unravels the myths and falsehoods that swirled around the 1999 school tragedy that ushered in a new era of terror for children. For those of us who haven’t followed the twists and turns over the years, you probably have the idea that the media pushed at the time, a couple of loners who were angry at the jocks and wanted to shoot them all. Well, no. Eric Harris was a certifiable psychopath who had been planning an even bigger bombing than McVeigh’s OKC event, and he pulled Dylan along with him, the poor depressive kid who had planned on killing himself before the event actually came to pass. (Evil Eric and Depressive Dylan is how I’m keeping them straight in my head).

Beyond the inner workings of Eric’s mind, we see things that set the plan in motion in the months leading up to April 20: E & D steal things from a van and get caught, have to do some sort of juvy probation program, start stockpiling weapons, but still find time to go to prom and pick up chicks. Yes, they had bowling class but that’s not what they did the day of, sorry Michael Moore. Meh, overall, unless you’re completely nerding out about gun control and just want to feed your frenzy.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

This story was more bonkers than I realized. Besides the willfully deceptive insistence that their fake product worked, there are seamy tales of hiding the bizarre relationship of Holmes and her much older, pudgy, Indian boyfriend from the board, the strained relationship of grandfather & grandson Schultz, the egg on the face of many pseudo-respectable figureheads on the board who were mesmerized by Holmes, a suicide prompted by impending grand jury testimony, and direct consequences to patients who had tests done by these fake pinprick sticks. Despite what seemed to be excellent reporting by Carreyrou, I can’t help feeling like there’s a bit of smacking of the lips, people enjoying this story a bit too much because of the meteoric rise and fall of this woman. Surely the Travises have participated in similar fraud? The investigative reporter must have mentioned Holmes’ preternatural deep voice over a dozen times. Bonus points for the fact that the fraud charges continue to pile up as everyone flips the pages of this book.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Another one from Deep Focus’s Novel Approach to Cinema wherein writers deconstruct, analyze, roll around in the playpen of a particularly kitschy film (see previous post where Jonathan Lethem takes on They Live). This covers the hastily put together sequel to the classic Bad News Bears, a 1977 movie where the team hits the road to play in Houston’s now exploded Astrodome.

I’d have to say that the author’s father was my favorite part of the book, reaching through the telephone to dump doom and gloom on his son when he was looking for a personal recollection of how they dealt with the 1977 NYC blackout but instead his dad talks about the limits of capitalism and how the global economy had reached the end of its post-war boom in 1977: “The mid- to late-1970s were the beginning of an unstoppable decline.”

Wilker picks apart all the continuity mistakes, the new actors cast into roles that rolled over from the previous movie, the flimsiness of the sequel itself. I think this is a less interesting book than Lethem’s mostly due to the movie comparison; They Live is a commentary on what we’re dealing with now whereas Breaking Training takes us back to a simpler time where racism and misogyny were normal and kids could play unsupervised even to escape in a custom van on the road.

Celestial Navigation

Another beautiful book by Anne Tyler (how is it that I have never heard of her amazing writing before?!). This one from 1974 shifts the narrator among a handful of people, beginning with Amanda in 1960, gone home to Baltimore with her sister Laura to help their brother Jeremy bury their mother. Once she discovers that her mom left her house to Jeremy, the sisters depart and are only shadows in the remaining story. But we get a glimpse of Jeremy in her story, a man incapable of leaving the house to visit his mother in the funeral home, a man lost in his own world spending hours creating art in his upstairs studio while letting the elderly boarders roam around the rest of the house willy-nilly.

We get a chapter with Jeremy as the main focus but he never achieves first person narration. Next up in the narrator’s slot is Mary, a woman who arrived at the boarding house with her four-year-old daughter in tow, escaping a husband and intent on marrying another man. Her husband refuses divorce, the other man loses interest, Jeremy is blinded by her dazzling looks and comforts her as best he can. When he comes across her crying, “his voice wavered, as if he might start crying himself. Sad people are the only real ones. They can tell you the truth about things; they have always known that there is no one you can depend upon forever and no change in your life, however great, that can  keep you from being in the end what you were in the beginning: lost and lonely, sitting on an oilcloth watching the rest of the world do the butterfly stroke.”

Jeremy pseudo-marries her (they pretend to get married, since she can’t, because the husband won’t divorce her) and they start to churn out babies. His art thrives, he becomes successful. The house hums along in orderly fashion with Mary at the helm. And yet, the sounds of the children and Mary’s household questions starts to overwhelm him. Eventually Mary’s husband divorces her, Mary suggests that she and Jeremy get married for real, she proposes a date and reminds him and reminds him but he never leaves his studio, so she leaves with the kids to an abandoned shack his art dealer has for his boat. Jeremy comes out once, is overwhelmed by her competency, goes back to his art and to the other elderly boarder, Miss Vinton, who shows her own predilection for solitude: “If you were to ask my vision of the future back then, my favorite daydream, it was this: I would be reading a book alone in my room, and no one would ever, ever interrupt me.”

 

Ladder of Years

One of the joys of reading several books by a writer is picking up the patterns between them. This one expands on the interesting scene that happens in Breathing Lessons where a woman leaves her husband’s car during a spat and imagines setting out a new life for herself. Ladder of Years begins with the ominous news clipping about the disappearance of a Baltimore housewife and we learn that Delia simply walks away from her unappreciative family to slip into a new life. First she gets a room in a boarding house and is a secretary to a lawyer in town. Then she answers an ad for a live-in woman to care for a young son and a bachelor ex-husband. Letters from her mother-in-law arrive with more sympathy than nagging to get back to her own husband. Her grumpy teenage son shows up in town one day looking for her, but she’s disappointed that husband Sam never makes much of an effort to win her back. Eventually, her daughter Susie gets married and she heads back to Baltimore for the festivities, slipping back into her old life. The writing is incredible and almost timeless—I was jolted by the appearance of a computer in the lawyer’s office, otherwise this could have been set in the 1950s or 60s. Delia’s father had died the previous year, leading to this poignant thought:

Didn’t it often happen, she thought, that aged parents die exactly at the moment when other people (your husband, your adolescent children) have stopped being thrilled to see you coming? But a parent is always thrilled, always dwells so lovingly on your face as you are speaking. One of life’s many ironies.

 

The Perfect Nanny

An easily digested beach-read-y type book that was actually quite good for the nanny genre it’s in. This French novel (translated to English by Sam Taylor) was a re-telling of the real life nanny murders that happened in NYC a few years ago, but Slimani shapes the psyche of Louise the nanny in such a way that doesn’t cheapen her motives, doesn’t suggest envy of her employers’ barely middle class possessions, but rather her complicated child-like state and total neglect of her own life subsumed by her employers’ kids. As Jessa Crispin noted in her Baffler review of the book, “But if one can’t reach a person’s inner world via journalism or a court of law, fiction seems like the ideal place from which to attempt radical empathy and reach a consciousness that is capable of monstrous acts.” It is “a novel about internalized post-feminist anxiety,” when women try to have both successful career and happy family.