In the past couple of weeks, I completed four books. To be fair, I had a pretty good start on two of them. Sadly, this will not be a reoccuring experience. I wanted to write about them last week, but with a crazy schedule due to my conference it was near impossible.
Book One: My First Thirty Years by Gertrude Beasley. I first became aware of this book skating around Skate Country during a Big Easy Rollergirl practice with my hand on Vandal O’Riley’s ass (aka Veronica Russell) and then switching to colliding into her with powerful shoulder hits while trying to not tumble over myself. Between grabbing ass and knocking shoulders, we talked. Veronica was an actress from Texas with long red hair, and had a voice that carried over the farthest corner of the skating rink, the gift to not look snobby in clothes that we wore out dancing while she just wore to skate in at 7AM on a Saturday morning, and the ability to speak democratically about firey situations while not offending you as she also inevitbaly insulted you and/or your opinion. She was too just damn funny and sharp to get mad at. And regardless of your stance, one had to almost always (begrudgingly or not) admit that she made sense. Anyway, as Veronica and I squared our shoulders against each other, she told me about an out-of-print book she discovered. It had been published in Paris in 1925 and banned in the United States. It was the memoir of a woman growing up as poor as dirt in Texas. In fact, Larry McMurty wrote that it was the first “genuinely realistic picture of the Southern poor white trash.”
Beasley wrote unapologetically but not without ruminating on her surroundings, her family, and the community around her. Raised in abject poverty with her 12 siblings, a mother she despised yet pitied and a father who was the “meanest man” to ever live – she endured rape at the hands of her older brothers, recpriocal incestuous experimentation with her other brothers near to her age, and an understanding of the dead-end expectations that enclosed her. From an early age, it was established that she, like her worthless family members, would never amount to anything. But Beasley was smart, and proud to the point of critical vanity. She became a schoolteacher who mentally and physically taught with whips and sticks to beat into her students lessons from books and lessons from life. She embraced socialism, traveled, and above all educated herself to an almost dogmatic extreme. Through it all, she tried to hide her past at the same time, and not make peace with it as most memoirs do, but vent her frustration over her family members whom she believed did little or nothing to better their situation.
Veronica had written, acted, directed, and produced a one-woman play based on this obscure book. And years later, I sat in a crowded Bywater theater (can’t remember the exact one) and watched her perform it. Veronica was mesmerizing. Truly. And I felt the same way when I saw her perform it two other times over the next few years. When I discovered that the book was now available on kindle (yes, I am admitting I have a kindle) I immediately downloaded it after Veronica’s last performance. Previously, it was hundreds and hundreds of dollars, if you were even lucky enough to find one in a used bookstore.
I read the book because I was interested in the story after seeing Veronica’s performance so many times, but also because as an artist, it always fascniates me how someone interperts someone else’s work. What did they change, edit, cut? The book was very long and at some points tedioius, and I believed Veronica’s cuts and condensing were wise.
The beginning of the book about her upbringing was brutual, phyiscally and spirtually. But Beasley still handled it not as a victim, but more as an observer who questions not out of self-pity, but out of curiosity the way life tilts its hand. Toward the end of the book, when she was teaching and earning her graduate degree, it took on a more “list tone”: and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. Mainly about how so-and-so pissed her off at school, about the lack of money she made, and details on random men who flirted with her. The description of the flirting men depressed me a bit, because it seemed to be some sort of validation of her decision to be “serious” and eschew men and marriage. It reminded me of when I was in boarding school and we had a social with the Air Force Academy. The boys were nice enough, but no one really interested me. I just danced and laughed and teased them about their short haircuts. This one girl, “Cheryl,” was extremely nice and immensley intelligent but not the least bit at ease around people, particularly boys. I asked her how her night was going and she said, “Great! 5 boys have talked to me!” She was including the ones who asked her where the bathrooms were, or said “excuse me” when they tried to move past her in the crowded lounge area. Cheryl was grasping, but she was trying. At the time, she had neither the social skills nor the conventional looks that made teenage boys look at her as anything more than a roadblock to their destination – be it the bathroom, the punch bowl, or another girl. While Cheryl was merely excited about her inventory of male conversation, Beasley’s list of men who complimented her or “tried to make love to her” made me feel like she was trying to impress me, the reader. Beasley tried too hard. It was the one tedious section of the book. But the beginning of Beasley’s book (roughly the first ¾) was gripping. Although I attached Veronica’s “voice” to it, that voice was well-defined, dauntless, and laden with the confliction that only comes when you are truly honest with yourself. I highly recommend it but…. Unless you have hundreds of dollars and hundreds of hours to hunt for it in used bookstores, you gotta go kindle.
Book Two: Different Seasons by Stephen King. I have never read Stephen King. Never. Never had the urge, but after seeing “The Shawshank Redemption” for the umpteenth time, and vowing to find the short story it was based on and read it, one late night, I actually did. King’s book is actually four novellas and I was thrilled to find another one I wanted to read based on another movie I loved, “The Body,” which became “Stand By Me.” I was also familiar with “Apt Pupil” from seeing it in movie reviews, but have never actually watched it. I read them in order: “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” “Apt Pupil,” “The Body,” and “The Breathing Method.” All solid, but “Apt Pupil” had the most impact on me.
I was vaguely familiar with the movie staring Brad Renfro and Ian McKellen (one of my favorites actors) but knew only the premise. A boy discovers that a man in his neighborhood was a wanted WW2 criminal and blackmails the elderly former Nazi into telling him stories and teaching him his ways while studying his character. What is truly terrifying about this is how masterfully King presents what I believe to be one of humanity’s greatest fears: we never know what goes on in someone’s mind. Sometimes, the ones we love, the ones we trust – unbeknowst to us – are evil. King’s use of a second-person narrative to establish the boy’s inner monologue as well as his parents’ was brilliant. What both were presenting versus what they were REALLY thinking. King didn’t need give an explanation on why the BOY was the way he was, and this lack of explanation did not make the story flawed. Indeed, it was this lack of character clarification that was central to the horror of the story. There is no reason. It just was. It was not bad parenting. It was not drugs. It was not some tramautizing experience. And the inability to justify or rationalize evil is, at the base level, the most paralyzing of any anxiety because it leaves you with a sense that everything you know or feel is worhtless. If instinct and experience are futile, how can you safely navigate your own life surrounded by others? You can’t. And that is terrifying.
The fourth novella. “The Breathing Method,” I found a tad boring. Perhaps the metaphor was lost on me, or perhaps I didn’t care, but “Apt Pupil” was the clear diamond.
Overall, I prefered the Shawshank movie version over the novella (but hey, the movie had Morgan Freeman), the Body was a tie between movie and book, and now I need to watch the movie version of “Apt Pupil” (with a friend because I am a big weenie). And maybe now I will read some more Stephen King.
I also read this on my kindle…
Book Three: New Orleans in the Gilded Age: Politics and Urban Progress 1880-1896 by Joy Jackson. I have written about this book before. And I have read many chapters individually for research but never actually read the whole book. And now I have. And it is good. And it is full of mistakes. And it is but a brief outline. But it’s a great tool to use for further research, and Jackson offers a lot of insight based on her studies. Her theories aren’t portly with pretense (now that sounds pretenious). It’s an important book about New Orleans’ history and I acknowledge that it was the first book of its time to focus on that time period.
Book Four: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. Louis Zamperini’s story is nothing short of a miracle. A “punk” in training from birth, Zamperini eventually channels his fire from fighting, thievery and pranks to compete in track in the Olympics. He looks to be the first person to conquer the mile in under four minutes when World War II arrives. Zamperini enlists in the air force, is shot down, and surivies at sea in shark-infested waters for 47 days with no rations, only to be captured by the Japanese. And then the real hell begins.
As a POW of the Japanese during the war, the Geneva Convention has absolutely no bearing on his circumstance. Zamperini endures daily torture (mental and physical), starvation, disease, and worse – various humilations. It’s the constant degradation that bears the most difficult with Zamperini and he becomes enemy #1 to a sadistic and violent prison guard nicknamed “The Bird.” All of these complete breakdowns of the body and soul occur with the knowledge that any moment, on the mildest whim, his life could end. His life not his own, and worse, is run by individuals who view Zamperini and his fellow captors as subhuman. Zamperini witnesses many of his fellow prisioners die from the barbarity that unfortunately appears to be a prerequisite of war. The horrors he endures is unimaginable – like a list written by the devil himself, Zamperini survives one abomination after the next only to have each break or mild reprise quickly soiled by another series of beatings and mental abasement. When he is finally released, Zamperini, like many of his fellow POWs, suffers from extreme PTSD. To cope with the nightmares and flashbacks, Zamperini turns to alochol, and his life, once filled with incaluclable possibility, appears headed for a final tragic chapter as failure after failure occurs. And then he finds Billy Graham and God, in that order, and Zamperini forgives his captors and focuses his life on helping others.
What I took from the book was this: in those kinds of atrocious situations you need at least one or both of these two mental characteristics to survive – the will to live and/or the pride to live. Of course, Zamperini had the will to live, and of course the desire to see his family and friends again was strong, but I believe he was fueled even more by pride. Stripped of all dignity and laden with illness, Zamperini’s self-worth and stubborness were what sustained him. Pride was how, despite the odds being so slim they were almost not even a factor, he continued to exist – they will not break me. They will NOT break me. Over and over again this singular thought went through his mind as he suffered closed fists, rancid food, and even the cruelities of nature. Pride has its power. That gives me comfort. I can not tell you how many times stubborness is the only thing that sustains me. And while it may not be the most enduring character trait – I am still here.
Hillenbrand does an excellent job of not only telling Zamperini’s story but framing it with other characters’ stories. Of course, reading the acknowledgments at the end I could not help but be envious. Hillenbrand conducted over seventy-five interviews with Zamperini, who not only had an excellent memory, but was also a first-class pack rat (left over from his thieving days). One of his scrapbooks from 1917 to 1938 weighed SIXTY-THREE pounds. Oh, what a historian could do with that. A dream! One of the most difficult things about research is deciding what to include and what to exclude, but I would much rather have a bounty of data at my hands to pick and choose from then scrape and dig for mere snippets of information (which is what I am doing now).
At times, the book was difficult to read because of its graphic subject matter, but it was worth it. And it leaves you in awe of Zamperini and the human spirit.
On to food…
Food One: I put tofu in a soy-ginger marinade and grilled it. I thought it was simply okay, but my friend loved it. Not sure I will try it again. Perhaps my tofu grilling technique needs work.
Food Two: I was mainly in Chicago for this week, so it’s kind of a cheat. I will have to go with something I have not made in a long time. Tuna Fish Salad. I made my famous tofu mayonnaise and combined it with tuna (out of all the brands I prefer the generic brand “Best”), hard-boiled and chopped up egg whites, dried onions, and pickles. My tofu “mayo” is enough to last me through about three or four batches of tuna fish salad (which equals about 3 to 4 cans each). It’s an amazing substitute for any recipie that calls for mayo – and is a combination I concoted from about three other recipies. I know, time to get ambitious for next week but damn, a power pack of protein!