The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

Beautiful book by James McBride about the long search to discover his white mother’s Jewish roots and untangle the story of her abusive childhood. He was the eighth child of Ruth and Andrew McBride’s, but his father died before James was born. Widow Ruth’s Jewish family had already written her off as dead for marrying a black man, so she struggled to continue to support her brood and the church she’d founded with McBride. Along came the step-father that James always called Daddy, and they added four more children to the mix.

Wonderfully researched and written, with the italicized chapters coming straight from Ruth’s perspective, growing up as a Jew in the South, working nonstop at her father’s store when not at school, being sexually molested by her father, eventually running away to NYC where her mother’s family had taken root. Top notch memoir, coming highly recommended by Annie Dillard.

Jakob von Gunten

My interest in Robert Walser got a jolt from reading Walks with Walser , so I checked out one of his novels that I had not yet read. It’s the tale of a runaway boy who decides to enroll in butler-school. Apparently there were still enough mid-level aristocrats in early 1900s Berlin to merit a school devoted to their servants. This was based on Walser’s own experience, enrolling in such a school in 1905 then going a’butlering the next year. It’s a school that teaches nothing, the teachers are asleep. The students learn obedience, patience.

When Jakob first arrives, he’s put into a room to board with 3 other boys. He revolts, gets his own room. “One is always half mad when one is shy of people.” He’s a bit full of himself, coming from an upper-class family, but wanting to completely debase himself.

“That I am the cleverest of them all is perhaps not altogether so delightful. What is the use of thoughts and ideas if one feels, as I do, that one doesn’t know what to do with them?”

Walser (and his English translator) have a way with words. “The mumbling of a grumbler is lovelier to me than the murmuring of a woodland stream, with the loveliest of Sunday morning sunshine sparkling on it.” Also, one of my favorites: “He speaks like a flopped somersault and behaves like a big improbability pummeled into human shape.” His street scenes are dizzyingly gorgeous. Oh, and “When inside I’m bursting with laughter, when I hardly know what to do with all this hissing gunpowder, then I know what laughing is, then I have laughed most laughishly then I have a complete idea of what was shaking me.”

Jakob finds extreme pleasure in all the rules. “If you aren’t allowed to do something, you do it twice as much somewhere else.”

Walks with Walser

Robert Walser had a nervous breakdown in 1929 and spent his final 3 decades in Swiss mental asylums. From 1936 – 1956, Carl Seelig (friend & literary executor) took him on long walks and recorded their conversations, which makes up this delightful volume. An inveterate hiker, Walser died alone on his last walk on a snowy Christmas day, 1956. Seelig had postponed their usual Christmas walk until New Years to care for his ailing dog. This volume is translated to perfection by Anne Posten.

It’s funny to contrast the two books I just finished: this slim volume of 138 pages has several marked passages I want to remember that are either perfect phrases or books I need to look into, but the 700 page beast of a fictionalized biography of Rimbaud was unmarked throughout (although it has plenty of lyrical writing, just nothing I needed to capture forever).

Seelig and Walser tramp about the countryside, stopping along the way to enjoy a hearty breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner, frequently imbibing beer or wine, cigarettes, but always always talking. Some of my favorite anecdotes and Walser-isms are captured below.

Upon seeing a cloister-like, baroque building, Seelig suggests looking inside. Walser: “Such things are much prettier from the outside. One need not investigate every secret. I have maintained this all my life. Is it not lovely that in our existence so much remains strange and unknown, as if behind ivy-covered walls? It gives life an unspeakable allure, which is increasingly disappearing. It is brutal, the way everything is covered and claimed nowadays.” (1941)

“In the asylum I have the quiet I need. It is time for young people to make the noise. It suits me now to disappear, as inconspicuously as possible.” (1943)

“In life there must also be troubles, so that beauty stands out more vividly from the unpleasantness. Worry is the best teacher.” (1943)

“Polite people usually have something up their sleeves.” (1943)

“Abundance can be so oppressive. True beauty, the beauty of the everyday, reveals itself most delicately in poverty and simplicity.” (1943)

“War has this in its favor—it forces people back to simplicity. Would we be able to chat undisturbed on the road, free from the stink of gasoline and the cursing of motorists, if gasoline wasn’t rationed? There is far too much traveling nowadays in the first place. Hordes of people barge shamelessly into foreign landscapes as if they were the legitimate occupants.” (1944)

“Yes, only the journey to oneself is important.” (in response to some of his lines quoted back to him: “Does nature go abroad? I’m always looking at the trees and telling myself: They aren’t leaving either, so why shouldn’t I be permitted to remain?” (1944)

“Curious how beer and twilight can wash away all burdens.” (1945)

Talking shit about Thomas Mann’s lack of grey hair: “It’s the health of success. How many are driven to an early grave by failure! Since childhood Mann had it all: bourgeois calm, security, a happy family, recognition… the Joseph novels are not nearly as good as his astonishing early works. In the later works one senses the stale indoor air, and that’s the way their maker looks too, like someone who has always sat diligently behind his desk with the account books.” (1947)

Seelig brings up the Korean war, causing Walser to rant about Americans for half an hour: “Have you seen their faces? They’re the faces of gangsters, executioners: foolishly proud, arrogant, and predatory. What business do the Americans have with a civilized society’s fight for freedom? Of course they will destroy everything with their ultramodern war machines, and they’ll win. But afterward how will the capitalist beast be driven back into its cage? That is another, more protracted question. In any case, Washington isn’t exactly full of the best and brightest.” (1950)

After being offered a lift by a passing motorist in the rain: “That has never happened to me before! But walking does one more good than driving. If laziness advances at its current pace, it won’t be long before people don’t need their legs at all.” (1952)

Authors to investigate: Gottfried Keller, whose praises Walser sings over and over, “he never wrote a superfluous line”; Marlitt, “the first German feminist, who fought resolutely against class pride and self-satisfied piety;” Tobias Smollett has a “gift for trenchant storytelling, which often slips into brilliant caricature, [and] makes for very entertaining reading;” Jan Neruda, whose tales he “found as cosy as Dickens’s stories.” Apparently Kafka was a huge Walser fan, recommending The Tanners to his boss; unfortunately, Walser was unfamiliar with Kafka’s work.

The Day on Fire: A Novel Suggested by the Life of Arthur Rimbaud

Beautiful (& completely forgotten) book by James Ullman wherein he writes the life of Rimbaud and fills in the gaps with his own fantasy. I discovered this via breadcrumbs left for me in an Annie Dillard book. Claude Morel is the reimagined Rimbaud, a brilliant poet who churns out his best, disturbing work between the ages of 16-19 before disappearing into Africa and Europe. We meet him at age 15, winning most of the prizes in school, and simply hopping a train to Paris to get away from his mother, the Black Queen as he dubs her. His first knee injury is incurred when jumping from the moving train to avoid the ticket taker at the other end; later he’s shot in the knee when soldiering for the Dutch; at the end he must get the leg shorn from the thigh down, leading to his delirium and ultimate death. On that first trip to Paris he is molested by a bum who calls him girl/boy; on another trip to Paris where he wants to join the Communards, he’s again sexually assaulted, leaving him confused and ending up in a drunken/drugged relationship with Durard (in real life: Verlaine).

Claude perpetually circles back to his mother, the Widow Morel, despite their grievances. In Africa, having given up his poet identity, he buckles down and works hard for a merchant, rising quickly and sending half his salary back to his mother. Throughout, he runs away but always returns to her.

My only real beef with the book is the usual wooden portrayal of women as either Madonna/Whore. Germaine comes closest to being a real woman, meeting Claude when they were both 16, in Paris, and “getting” his poems, no matter how disgusting they were. Claude’s African wife, Nagunda, is a savage tamed and given trinkets like candy and the rosary. They don’t speak, and she’s conveniently murdered by the conquering army before she gives birth to their “son” (Claude is convinced it must be a son).

The best recommendation I can give of this fictional biography is that I’m now interested in attempting to read Rimbaud’s poetry again.

***

Great quote from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell:

Right now, I’m damned. My country appalls me. The best course of action: drink myself comatose and sleep it off on the beach.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

I probably should have more appreciation for this collection of teachings from Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the Zen Center down the street that I’m learning meditation from. But I’m not attached to them, preferring to focus on his statement that our understanding of Buddhism “should not be just gathering many pieces of information, seeking to gain knowledge. Instead, you should clear your mind.” I am sweeping away his teaching from my mind as I tidy it. Just sit. Just breathe. That is all there is.

This collection is a bit tedious, and I like Suzuki’s own reaction in 1970 to seeing the book for the first time: “Looks like a good book. But I didn’t write it.” It’s the summary and cleanup work of some of his disciples, putting pen to paper and smoothing out his English. Instead of reading it, I recommend meditating instead.

Mindfulness in Plain English

Living a few blocks from the Zen Center is decidedly a perk of life in San Francisco. I have zero excuses to prevent me from skipping down the street to join others in meditation training, which is where I discovered this book.

Tremendously useful as you are developing your own meditation practice, or refining an existing one. Gunaratana breaks down the monkey mind into its various parts; we categorize experiences as good/bad/neutral and either obsessively grasp for the good, obsessively reject the bad, or ignore the neutral. Most of life exists in that neutral zone, so start paying attention and enjoy it.

The book teaches insight meditation, cultivating mindfulness by using the tool of concentration. Real peace comes when you stop chasing it. Vipassana meditation shows you how to be detached as you watch your thoughts rise up, see yourself reacting without getting caught up in your reaction, escape the obsessive nature of thought, examine the process of perception.

As you sit and watch your breath, the book offers great tips on counting: when breathing in, “one, one, one, one…” and breathing out “two, two, two, two…” up to 10, repeat; count rapidly up to 10 with each inhale and exhale (this worked wonders for me, keeping my mind busy with numbers); joining inhale and exhale as one count, up to five then back to one. Pro-tip: if you’re sleepy, taking a deep breath and holding it will help warm your body up and banish sleepiness.

Something I’m in desperate need of: cultivating a feeling of “universal loving friendliness.” Start by banishing thoughts of self-hatred and condemnation, then work outward to direct a flow of good intention to your family, friends, enemies, and strangers. He recommends setting this intention before each meditation session (and continuing throughout the day, especially right before bed because it helps you “sleep well and to prevent nightmares. It also makes it easier to get up in the morning. And it makes you more friendly and open toward everybody, friend or foe, human or otherwise.”)

So whaddya do about all those distractions? Anyone who’s attempted to meditate knows how easily thoughts slip in and hijack you. He recommends asking about the distraction: what is it, how strong is it, how long does it last. This enables you to divorce yourself from the distraction, step back, view it objectively. You’ll note the distraction, note its qualities, then return to your breath.

Besides sitting mediation, there’s also walking meditation, and during longer retreats you switch between the two. Walking meditation is slow, hands either in front or in back or at sides (whatever’s most comfortable), breathe in lift heel of one foot, breathe out rest foot on toes, breath in lift foot, carry forward, breathe out foot down to floor, repeat.

To practice loving friendliness:

May my mind be filled with the thoughts of loving-friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. May I be generous. May I be gentle. May I be relaxed. May I be happy and peaceful. May I be healthy. May my heart become soft. May my words be pleasing to others. May my actions be kind.

May all that I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think help me to cultivate loving friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. May all these experiences help me to cultivate thoughts of generosity and gentleness. May they all help me to relax. May they inspire friendly behavior. May these experiences be a source of peace and happiness. May they help me be free from fear, tension, anxiety, worry, and restlessness.

No matter where I go in the world, in any direction, may I greet people with happiness, peace, and friendliness. May I be protected in all directions from greed, anger, aversion, hatred, jealousy, and fear.

The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It

I had high hopes for Richard Florida’s book but they flapped to the ground quickly. A smug sense of himself oozes through the pages, insisting on his own presence in the book. Because he wrote The Rise of the Creative Class, he’s been fingered as one of the culprits of gentrification, where cities are inundated with these creative types. Specific to Toronto, where he now lives, he’s been accused of promoting a larger airport for his own convenience.

He lets himself off the hook immediately. Young white people heading to the city are not causing gentrification, apparently. And the whining that’s happening about artists getting pushed out? It’s balderdash, according to Florida. “Put bluntly, some of the nosiest controversies regarding our changing cities spring from the competing factions of a new urban elite [which includes artists]. The much bigger problem is the widening gap between this relatively advantaged class and everyone else. It’s the poor and working classes who are truly being displaced and shunted aside in our thriving cities, and the way to help them is not to turn off the spigot of wealth creation but to make their flourishing economies more encompassing and inclusive.”

Ultimately, it’s all about income inequality. There’s a fantastic quote from 1981 where an expert warns about the ill effects of gentrification on San Francisco: “At this rate we would become a place only the elite can afford. Ten years from now, unless we adopt some sort of policy to insure income integration, we will crowd out all the middle-income people. I think San Francisco is going to become a very rich living area, a lot of single and retired people who have money,k executives who work down in the financial district. It’s going to be very difficult for a nonwealthy person to live here.” 1981, people!

Anyway, the main problem isn’t gentrification, says Florida. It’s that we’re not gentrifying the poor areas as well, bringing them up to code, building transportation infrastructure and parks. The suburbs are the ghetto now, so we need to expand our cities to encompass them. His whole section on what to do about the problem is a rehash of the same tired solutions: invest in infrastructure, build more low income housing, pay people a living wage.

 

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

This was a helpful book and I can see why there’s a queue of people at the library who want to read it even though it’s been out since 2014. Great stories of actual patients dealing with trauma and the techniques used by Van Der Kolk to treat them.

The book covers the full spectrum, from brain layout and chemistry to yoga and EMDR. I inadvertently learned more about the brain than in a book that was solely about that organ. The reptilian brain develops in the womb and organizes the functions you require for basic life (breathing, eating, sleeping). It’s always alert for threats, throughout your life. The “limbic” brain evolves in the next 6 years to create a map of relation between you and your surroundings. On top of that, the prefrontal cortex develops. All of these parts are vulnerable to trauma.

One of the coping mechanisms when dealing with trauma is freezing up, numbing oneself, blanking your mind. To treat this, tapping acupressure points, rhythmic interactions like tossing a ball back and forth, drumming, dancing, to change your relationship to bodily sensations.

EMDR is a fascinating technique I’d not heard of: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing; this as a way to access memories more obliquely than head-on, and somewhat related to REM cycle/dreaming. It “loosens” something in the mind that gives people access to memories/images from the past, putting the traumatic experience into context/perspective. It also is a way to deal with trauma without speaking about it, and is a way that can help even if the patient/therapist do not have a trusting relationship.

One of the chapter epitaphs was a tremendous William James quote that stings me as I try to meditate more:

The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of the judgment, character, and will.

Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century

Monica Hesse called this book “one of the best narratives of true crime genre” in her American Fire but I hope she’s wrong for the sake of the genre. Hal Higdon does an okay job of describing the weird relationship and lead up to the intellectual crime of two deviant rich smart Jewish boys in Chicago in 1924. But please get this man an editor for the last 100 pages which involved meticulous details of Leopold and Loeb’s prison life (spoiler alert! Clarence Darrow gets them spared the death penalty), with Loeb’s eventual stabbing in prison and Leopold’s eventual parole in 1958.

Viva Mexico!

Charles Flandrau’s 1908 travel book to Mexico is entertaining and lightly written, and comes highly recommended by Sybille Bedford’s Don Otavio where she called it “most enchanting, extremely funny.”

The best parts are the sly rages against tourists, “the inability of people in general to think for themselves—the inevitableness with which they welcome an opinion, a phrase, a catchword, if it be sufficiently indiscriminating and easy to remember, and the fashion in which they then solemnly echo it, are never more displayed than when they are commenting upon a race not their own.” Even the first sentence, “Neither tourists nor persons of fashion seem to have discovered that the trip by water from New York to Vera Cruz is both interesting and agreeable… By tourists I mean persons who prefer to visit a country in bands of from fifteen to five hundred rather than in a manner less expeditionary…” Even 100 years ago, the urge to document was unstoppable: “At a distance of from ten to fifteen feet in front of him they deliberately focused their kodaks on the group and pressed the button.”

Oddly, there are Chinese restaurants along the sparsely populated railway line: “There are no dining cars; the train instead stops at decent intervals at stations provided with clean and adequate Chinese restaurants.”

A Drinking Life: A Memoir

Another tepid memoir recommended by Zinsser. At least this one had enough tiny morsels of interest to keep me flipping the pages. His late teenage years were the most interesting, dropping out of the elite Catholic school, working in the Navy Yard, having his own apartment and going to illustration school at night. Hamill comes from an Irish background and makes the case that it was inevitable that he start to drink, his life incorporating booze at an early age. He joins the Navy but avoids combat in the Korean War, stays long enough to qualify for the GI Bill and get college paid for. This leads him to Mexico to study art and writing, but he gets in trouble with the police for busting down a whorehouse door and later pummeling someone. A group of gringos heads for the beach for a vacation and rents hammocks for cheap each night, mooching off the friendly locals who provide them with food and beer. Back in NYC, Hamill becomes a journalist, enters an ill-advised marriage, has a few kids, gets divorced, dates Shirley Maclaine, and gives up drinking. No AA, just cold turkey. Yawn.

Martin Chuzzlewit

Probably the only reason to read this is for the crumbs that reveal Dickens’s rage against America. Those are the only savory bits I enjoyed, at least.

As the younger Martin arrives by boat, he’s astonished by the newsboys crying their wares, “Here’s this morning’s New York Sewer! Here’s this morning’s New York Stabber! Here’s the New York Family Spy! Here’s the New York Private Listener! Here’s the New York Peeper! Here’s the New York Plunderer! Here’s the New York Keyhole Reporter! Here’s the New York Rowdy Journal!… with all the shipping news, and four whole columns of country correspondence, and a full account of the Ball at Mrs. White’s last night, where the beauty and fashion of New York was assembled; with the Sewer’s own particulars of the private lives of all the ladies that was there! Here’s the Sewer!… Here’s the Sewer’s exposure of the Washington Gang, and the Sewer’s exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old; now communicated, at a great expense, by his own nurse. Here’s the Sewer!” A great commentary of the state of the U.S. press that slips all too closely into what today’s media is like.

Dickens let loose with all his impressions, how we’re a country obsessed by money: “It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them?”

The unending pursuit of knowledge was also pilloried as a lady is asked what course of lectures she’s attending. Wednesday is the Philosophy of the Soul, Monday is Philosophy of Crime, Friday is the Philosophy of Vegetables.

All the men Martin is introduced to are “one of the most remarkable men in the country,” so this becomes a jokey refrain. He is barraged with requests to lecture about any topic he chooses, and has to endure hoards of people coming to get a look at him. “If they spoke to him, which was not often, they invariably asked the same questions, in the same tone: with no more remorse or delicacy or consideration than if he had been a figure of stone, purchased and paid for, and set up there for their delight.”

After a failed attempt to set up a business in the wilderness and beating an illness, Martin hightails it back to England. His companion says he’d like to paint a picture of the American Eagle: “I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like a Ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud and thinking nobody sees it…”

Charming, Charles!

Optimism over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change

I’m pretty sick of reading the opinions of old white men, but I’ll make an exception for Chomsky. I could use a dose of optimism and thought it would be unusual to come from such a source. The book is the result of a series of interviews with C.J. Polychroniou between 2013-2017 and all previously published in Truthout. Yes, there are brief touches on the Toxic T administration, but life in January 2017 looks much different in August 2017 when I read this.

Spoiler alert: there’s not a ton of optimism, although at the end of section 1 (and repeated at the end of section 3), he makes the best case for optimism:

If we succumb to despair we will help ensure that the worst will happen. And if we grasp the hopes that exist and work to make the best use of them, there might be a better world. Not much of a choice.

Chomsky consistently argues that the two most pressing issues we face are climate change and the possibility of nuclear war, saying that we don’t talk enough about the latter and are way too complacent about the former. One of the problems in raising concern about global warming is the absurdity that “40 percent of the US population doesn’t see why it is a problem, since Christ is returning in a few decades.”

The other point he hammers is that the US is unusual to the extent that we’re a “business-run society, where short-term concerns of profit and market share displace rational planning.” We also have a disproportionate part of the population that are religious fundamentalists. Basically, we’re screwed. Only don’t give up! Keep trying even though there is no hope.

Another note: I did not know about the “eloquent and poignant manifesto” left by the Austin pilot who suicided by flying his plane into an IRS office in Feb 2010. Worth a read and a helluva way to send a message about taxes.

Iron & Silk

Nowhere nearly as good as the other book about China I recently read, but at least not painful to read. Perhaps the only painful part was the author photo in the back, showcasing the young author in a sleeveless t-shirt to show off his bulging martial arts muscles while eating Chinese takeout with a plastic fork. Yikes.

This came out in 1986, a record of Salzman’s two years teaching English and studying gong fu with a seemingly endless stream of willing teachers. (And yet, he protects his own time from frequent requests to give private language lessons by saying no). He also picks up a calligraphy teacher or two, and practices his sketching along the foggy river befriending fishermen who are dazzled by seeing a white man who speaks Chinese. A true Renaissance man, Salzman fixes an old lady’s piano and brings his cello to the fisherman’s home to give a concert (they’re dazzled most by the red velvet lining the case).

Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company

I will never understand the impulse to write a biography about someone you don’t like. James Mellow has little respect for Stein’s genius and his disdain comes through in sneers throughout. Maybe his purpose was to sneak an encomium to Leo Stein into a book that people would be tricked into reading, much more interested about his stunningly talented sister instead. Snide comments about Gertrude’s girth start in the first paragraph and pepper the remainder of the text. The only reason I picked this up was because it was the source of a reference in Pat Highsmith’s bio about how much Stein and Picasso adored the Katzenjammer Kids comics. I’m taking a hard pass on the remaining hundreds of pages of this travesty of a biography.