From my portfolio

My Review of Books I read on our Aug 2015 Reading Weekend, Great Barrington, MA

Posted on 08 September 2015 by Barbara Beckwith (0)


The Meursault Investigation, by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud (The Other Press, 2015; first published in 2014 in France). Stunningly told in the 2nd person, from the perspective of Musa, the brother of “the Arab” killed by Meursault in Camus’ novel L’Etranger. Musa  talks to whoever will listen in a bar, Ancient Mariner-like. He is haunted by what he sees as the acclaimed French Algerian author’s  ignoring the humanity, even the name, of the man he killed for no reason.  The reviews I read after our reading weekend talk of Daoud’s “revenge” plot but ignore (except for Irish Times) what I saw: the confusing conflation of Camus as author and Camus ‘s character Meursault.

I saw it as a brilliant recreation in Musa of the same anomie as Meursault; the same existentialist view, the same godlessness, inability to act, and unjustified killing. The “voice” is compelling: it makes me want to read more novels written in the 2nd person. I am reading Daoud again, and L’Etranger, as well, and have ordered Camus’ autobiography Le Premier Homme (but in English).

Narrative Non-fiction:

Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe (Scribner, 2009). I finished this book I’d been reading at home. The author follows four talented and smart girls through high school, focusing on their struggle to go to college and get professional jobs. The book makes clear that the two “without papers” are hampered and hemmed in at every turn, while the two who “have papers” face challenges as well, including to their friendships.  The girls’ struggles to fulfil their potential seem heroic to me.


Lost Among the Baining: Adventure, Marriage, & Other Fieldwork, by Gail Pool (University of Missouri Press, 2015). Loved this book, which appears to be but is more than an account of an anthropological expedition, more than a travel book, more than a memoir. I can relate to Gail, a woman who “follows her husband” Jeremy as I did when Jon  worked in labs abroad (London and Cambridge, Paris and Naples). Jeremy wants to study gender roles among New Guinea’s Baining, a little studied group, but his expectations of the studiable aspects of their lives prove elusive: they don’t seem to have gender roles, myths, rituals, religions. Gail slogs with him through the jungle, then struggles with what to do when they get there. They argue. They cope. After 16 months, they return to the U.S. Disillusioned, Jeremy abandons anthropology, goes in to computer work. Gail has children and struggles as a writer, haunted by her experience in her 20s but unable to put it into a novel. In 2008,  Jeremy is invited to New Guinea for a conference. They take an even more onerous (they are now in their 60s) boat/jeep/walk back to the Baining, which gives Gail enough perspective to write this book. Pool writes in the first person, which adds immediacy to her story. She ends with this reflection:

“What a mark these quiet people made on our lives. How they awed and angered and frightened us with how little they seemed to need, threatening everything we thought, even thinking itself. There was a before and after the Baining, and after, nothing felt the same. There we are at the end of our field trip, running in fear and anger from what the Baining seemed to have revealed about life and ourselves….We can’t change the past, but we have given it a different ending, which has changed the story itself. We are no longer afraid, we are no longer angry, and we are no longer running. We see no need for judgments – one culture against another – and no choice between them that we ever could have made. From here, we no longer blame the Baining for not being who anthropologists thought they should be. And from here, we no longer blame this journey for leaving us in exile, which now feels like a place of our own. We aren’t Baining. We have never quite come home. But our battles – with the Baining and one another – have ended. And somehow everyone has won.”

The Theft of Memory: On Losing My Father, One Day at a Time, by Jonathan Kozol (Crown, 2105). Kozol describes his parents’ later years (they live to be 102), as his mother becomes frail and his father, a former neurologist,  struggles to communicate despite Alzheimers, often writing in the form of doctor’s memos.

“Repair repetitions. Hope: Advise and continue treatment plan. Hope: in catastrophe. Legs: Recovery. Continued recent status of. Note: Loss of Certain Figures. List: History of HLK poses a number of several histories and multiple fine retardants.”

Kozol’s father reveals, at age 88, his cognitive problems to his son but doesn’t let his wife know until long after. A broken hip sends him to a nursing home, where he stays for 6 years, after which Kozol,  who’d for years been largely absent, writing and traveling extensively, moves his father back into his parents’ Cambridge home, to be cared for 24/7 by a series of wonderful caretakers (well, one not wonderful). When $ for caregivers ran out, Kozol makes up the difference. Kozol discovers as he looks through his father’s papers, that his patients included Eugene ONeil and that he’d evaluated Albert DeSalvo (The Boston Strangler) and Patty Hearst. He ponders his relationship with his parents over the decades, and, ever the institutional critic, describes the bad care his father got from his geriatrician (and at MGH).

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 2105). Coates writes this book to his teenaged son; it’s as fiery and eloquent as James Baldwin.

[On school] “The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending free. Slowly, I was discovering myself.”

It began to strike me that the point of my education, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness.

For “people who think they are white” [Coates uses this identifier throughout his memoir], forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of the theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them the suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down hear with us, down here in the world.

My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

Perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered.

Forgiving the killer of Prince Jones [young black man killed by Virginia police officer who claimed Prince had tried to run him over with his jeep] would have seemed irrelevant to me. The killer was the direct expression of all his countries beliefs.

I knew that Prince George County police had killed Elmer Clay Newman, then claimed he’d rammed his own head into the wall of a jail cell. And I knew that they’d shot Gary Hopkins and said he’d gone for an officer’s gun. And I knew they had beaten Freddie McCollum half-blind and blamed it all on a collapsing floor. And I had read reports of these officers choking mechanics, shooting construction workers, slamming suspects through the glass doors of shopping malls. And I knew that they did this with great regularity. These shooters were investigated, exonerated, and promptly returned to the streets, where, so emboldened, they shot again.

Our current politics tell you that should you fall victim to such an assault and lose our body, it must somehow be your fault. Trayvon Martin’s hoodie got him killed. Jordan Davis’s loud music did the same. John Crawford should never have touched the rifle on display. Kajieme Powell should have known not to be crazy. All of them should have had fathers—even the ones who had fathers, even you.

Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra – “either I can beat him or the police.” I understood it all – the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that American made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.

This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contributed to the fast breakdown of our bodies. It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country.

I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers  the way the light falls in one particular spot in the wood, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite seasons who excels at dressmaking and knows, insider herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

I wanted you to have your own life, apart from fear – even apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.

Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God, and Real Estate in a Small Town, by Sarah Payne Stuart (Riverhead, 2015).  I had started this book and read the last half this weekend. Stuart’s sardonic and overgeneralized view of WASPy Concord, MA, verges toward the snarky, although she mocks herself as much as she mocks what she sees as the town’s pervasive WASP/Pilgrim mores, and her parents’ enthusiastic collusion with them. Her memoir starts:

If you come from New England, the creeping certainty that you are a bad person is always with you.

I had been taught as a child not to want things – as my mother and the Concord matriarchs would call anything new and unnecessary.

We were not a present-y family – our discomfort tracing back to the Puritans who made a point – though what point I do not know – of treating Christmas like an ordinary day.

I might have welcomed the Indians attacking, so guilty was I about my bragging. l “Materialistic, mercenary, “house-proud” – the damning adjectives of my parents’ generation ran accusingly through my brain.

And yet she kept buying houses (a photo of each starts each chapter), repeating the failings she sees in her town and family:

My identity has been a poor one – based on a silly family pride that has not deserved itself for many generations, on raising my children in houses we can’t afford, on having my parents at hand to monitor my successes and failures.

He too [her husband] had been weaned from milk bottle to gin bottle on the icy Calvinistic belief that you were either good or bad, with no recourse to the comfort of priest or confessional.

One frosty morning, a brigade of ferociously frill-less women in L. L. Bean coats descended upon us. These were the women of the Concord Historic Districts Commission and just about every other commission in town (on the census they list their occupations, terrifyingly, as: volunteer). … Suddenly we doubted ourselves: why were we spending money on our house instead of saving it? Why, for that matter, had we never saved anything? These women had saved throughout their entire lives – they were saving now. They carpooled to get here; they don’t touch the guest towels in my powder room, but emerge shaking their hands dry. They’ve saved on clothes, on face creams, on Scotch tape, on Christmas presents, on wrapping paper, on demonstrations of affection.

I don’t know whether I want people to think I’m rich or I’m poor, frugal, extravagant, or generous. I feel miserable when I spend money and sad when I don’t.

Stuart weaves in Concord’s famous authors Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and especially Louisa May Alcott and the reality of the beleaguered author of Little Women: “As much as I delight in hating Bronson Alcott, the sad truth is, when it comes to houses and the deeply shallow joy we take from them – we are one.”

She mocks her own family:

Somehow it was my mother who was always the center of our disdain. My mother whom I aped doing the jerk or the twist at a jazz party, churning up and down like a corkscrew with gritted teeth; my mother, whom we laughed at, manufacturing chores for us that would have been easier for her to do herself; my mother who, we laughed, stupidly trusted me with my pot-smoking brothers at the house when she and my father were away for a weekend.

A professional photographer had been engaged at hideous expense to take a hideous photograph to be hideously framed or each member of the family – only three years hence to be tossed in attics due to sundry uncoupling.

She recounts, in her persistent sardonic tone, the mental problems of her mother, her brother, and her son. And yet I do admire snarky sentences of the kind I would never think to write, like this, describing what’s in her deceased mother-in-laws’ dresser drawer —  “a writhing snake pit of old panty hose.”

And her description of her own self-pride and downfall upon publication of her first book :

I sauntered around town, modestly smiling at everyone….. when[the esteemed Concord matriarch] addressed me [in the supermarket], not by my childhood nickname, but at last, at last (!) by my writing name – “Sarah Payne Stuart!” – I had whirled around aglow, only to hear her exclaim, “You have my cart.”

Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow (Houghton Mifflin, 2105). NYT columnist describes being raised in Louisiana in poverty by a mother (his father was mostly absent) who raised five boys, eventually earning degrees that allowed her to support them. Blow fantasized about boys; but could never say so; the worst thing a black kid could be called was a “punk” (gay). He was traumatized and further silenced when his mother berated him for his walk, when his older cousin abused him and then threatened to say he was a punk, when an uncle groped him. All this made him feel that HE was wrong, not those who had wronged him. He became known for his athletic and intellectual brilliance, and at his historically black college, joined a fraternity after torturous hazing that the then allowed to continue when he became the frat’s president. By the end of his memoir, he is married with kids, and comfortable as a bisexual.

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