What I’m Reading Now

neon

My dad introduced me to the James Lee Burke mysteries. At one point I read a couple because they were set in  New Iberia, Daddy’s hometown. Last summer I borrowed the audio version of Creole Belle to keep me entertained on a car ride where radio reception disappeared.

At that point I realized Burke wrote with a keen understanding and sympathy for Vietnam combat veterans. His protagonist Dave Robicheaux and partner Clete Purcell each suffer variations on the theme of PTSD involving survivor’s guilt, flashbacks, gruesome deaths, and in Clete’s case a lost love.

Creole Belle motivated me to start the series from the beginning. The Neon Rain has the Robicheaux signature of extreme violence. It opens with a conversation between Dave and a guy who goes to the electric chair just hours later. There are painterly descriptions of the weather, which can turn as violent as the people, and enough action to keep me reading till 2 a.m. Dave and Clete bear the moniker of “the Bobsey Twins” from homicide in the New Orleans Police Department. Characters who orbit them include even more corrupt law enforcement folks, mobsters, drug dealers, and other low-lifes in the city and surrounding parishes. Plus, there’s always a vulnerable female in Dave’s life.

One odd parallel between Creole Belle and Neon Rain – the hook is the same in both. Dave  goes on the hunt when the body of a young woman floats up encased in ice (Creole Belle) or surfaces in the bayou (Neon Rain). Both women are what the rest of the world calls Creole and the bayou folk call mulatta. And the cause of death in each case is not drowning or freezing but heroin.

The Vietnam experience stays on the back burner for Dave and Clete in Neon Rain. Plus Dave has seen clear to quit drinking away his demons as the book opens.

Despite the violence, Burke adds depth with philosophical takes on the state of the world. I’m learning more about where my dad grew up from these books than I ever did from him.

These visits to the bayou have given me a powerful craving for the food. I’d recently made jambalaya. This time I tried dirty rice with veggie sausage. It turned out OK except the sausage needed garlic. Next up: oyster po’ boys, though I’m not going to add fried shrimp., I’m drinking chicory coffee but skipping the beignets. I’m surprised Dave and Clete haven’t dropped dead from clogged arteries long before they joined the NOPD. Plus I’m wondering, don’t these people eat any vegetables?!

Tea Again

TeaRoses_228_363

As most readers here know, I inherited a love of tea from my mother. It helps me keep my sanity (what’s left of it). In copious amounts. Generally black, though green on occasion when I need to mellow out. My favorite at the moment is my friend Peggi’s Tea Roses blend, which she sells at Tea Roses Tea Room. It is one of the regrets that Mother never had the chance to experience it with me.

Tea Roses is Peggi’s own inspired creation, a full-bodied black brew perfumed with just the right amount of rose petals and rose essence (I think, maybe it’s just petals). Her motto is “Sit, Sip, Relax,” and Tea Roses always resets mind, body, and soul.

Another perennial favorite has always been Twining’s Prince of Wales. It’s less aggressive and smoother than English Breakfast but has about the same body. The local Stop & Shop sold it and stopped. Now I have to mail order it. It has joined Luzianne coffee (chicory, yum!) and potato/kale/quinoa soup as a casualty of Big Grocery. Why do the processed food shelves keep encroaching on the healthy stuff?

If I want a tea that’s light and truly soothing, there’s Jeju Island Green. Teavana seems to be the only American distributor of this slightly grassy Korean delicacy, which has tiny curled leaves. I violate the 45-second brewing instruction and let it sit for about two minutes.

For a true voyage to calm city, the White Lavender is perfect. Peggi sells it, so I know it won’t have to come via UPS. Its ingredients are simple: white tea and lavender. On the hierarchy of caffeine, white falls lower than green, meaning that it’s a bare whisper. The results are sublime.

RIP, Susan Wasch

susan
Susan B. Wasch

A light went out of the world  when Susan B. Wasch died. She never drew attention to herself but managed to bring out the best in others – and to share the best of herself.

Someone asked recently how long we’d known each other. I couldn’t remember, but it felt as though it had been all my life. She was one of those people who was endlessly enthusiastic about whatever projects or ideas were percolating in her community.

A first impression of Susan always was of energy of the high octane sort. She had more than most people half her age. I knew she was an passionate gardener and environmentalist but had no idea she was also a tennis champion.

Like my mentor Ellen “Puffin” D’Oench, Susan didn’t go right from high school to college. They both took off to raise children (four each) and support their husbands in high-powered careers, Derry D’Oench as a newspaper owner and editor, Bill Wasch as head of alumni affairs at Wesleyan. Puffin was in her forties when she graduated. Susan had attained retirement age by the time she finished at Smith. I never had a chance to tell her how much I admire people – women, in particular – who give up a life of comfort and ease to pursue rigorous academics.

Bill and Susan also mentored any number of young people, in a quiet way of course. One had been a young undergraduate at Wesleyan  who got into serious trouble. The next time I heard about him, he was working for them.

Susan of course bore her illness with grace and managed to appear glamorous even when she was undergoing chemotherapy. The treatments slowed her down, but her radiant smile never dimmed. When we spoke just before Christmas, Susan had her old energy back. The chemo treatments had stopped for the holidays.

We spoke because of the incredibly generous gift she and Bill gave to the James Family Letters film project. It remains to date the single biggest donation apart from the CT Humanities grant. Ash, Kathryn, and I are grateful and humbled by the gesture.

Susan, it will be to my eternal regret that I never told you how much I admired and continue to admire your beauty, grace, energy, and sensitivity.

The world is a lesser place without you. Thank you for being the person you were and for sharing your gifts with the rest of us.

What I’m Watching Now

paradiso

Another in an occasional series and one I’m sorry it took so long to watch. Cinema Paradiso rightfully won all sorts of awards when it came out in 1988. Salvatore Di Vita (“Toto”) embodies passion at every stage of his life. He falls in love with the cinema, sneaking out of the house he shares with his mother to watch as films arrive at his Sicilian village in the days after the World War II. More than that, Toto loves the mechanics of winding the film, adjusting the focus as instructed by his dear friend and mentor Alfredo, the projectionist for the Cinema Paradiso.

As a teenager, Toto’s passion of course expands to “the new girl,” but the adult Toto finds satisfaction only in directing cinema.

The genius of the film is the interweaving of  clips from classic movies in a way that reflects the feelings of the people in the village and illustrates the changing technology that allowed the medium to evolve. The sub theme of cultural change makes for an amusing counterpoint as the village priest and resident censor can no longer prevent the audiences from watching on-screen kisses. By the time Toto is ready to leave, naked flesh rules the day.

The acting doesn’t feel like acting. Toto is played with equal ferocity and passion by Salvatore Cascio (child), Marco Leonardi (teen), and with adult ennui by Jacques Perrin.

His emotional mother, Maria, who carries a secret of her own, remains gorgeous from her early years as played by Antonella Attili and as a neglected old woman (Pupella Maggio). Philippe Noiret’s Alfredo embodies all that is rustic and uncomplicated – as well as passionate and intense.

Part of the charm of the movie is its great beauty – of the countryside, the narrow passageways of the town with its classic village square, occupied by “the village idiot.” Even the men and women, more rough-hewn than Alfredo, have their singular beauty.

Cinema Paradiso is a much watch.

What I’m Reading Now

invisible

Here’s part two of a review of The Invisible History of the Human Race, written while I was reading it. This work bears no relationship to what I thought it would be. It is touted as DNA as family history, but in early pages, it’s a highly engaging history of genealogy, full of anecdotes about the author’s family. The big issue it avoids because no one has answered is why? Why do people find digging into their past so intriguing, addictive even?

Christine Kenneally more or less answers her own question as the descendant of a man consigned to Australia over the theft of a handkerchief. It’s a family with a continuing mystery about the identity of her grandfather. Who wouldn’t want to know more?

My personal answer as to why I do genealogy is: because my ancestors are there. They’re a mystery that needs solving to round out who I am. My mother did some excellent fiction around both sides of her family. We have the Lanes arriving in Hartford by boat from “Jersey” with the patriarch jumping to the dock, yelling, “Throw the baby down to me” when he thinks the boat is about to head back down river; there’s Bill Hod (Willis Howard James) who smuggled Chinese immigrants from Canada and ensured his own safety by wrapping them up and tying rocks to their feet in the event immigration stopped his boat. Who wouldn’t want to know more? So I dug in. Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters was the result.

On the other hand, my father’s story remains pretty much of a mystery. Like Kenneally, he didn’t know who his grandfather was – well, I think he did but wasn’t allowed to speak of it. Invisible History is satisfying my need for personal answers in the meantime.

A Plea

W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois

It’s late, and I’ve been on the run so here’s a link to a great article on how not to “celebrate” Black History Month.

My favorites:

“DON’T Ask the Only Black Person On The Team To Coordinate Something For Black History Month.”

“Invite [experts] to your company to do a lightening talk about their work. Be mindful in your invite. Do not say: ‘Hey! It’s Black History Month! And since you’re black, do you want to come speak to us?.’ ”

A corollary: If you invite someone, do it before February 1, ideally in November or December. It shows you are serious and have thought about the issue.

Also, do not ask these experts to speak gratis. They deserve respect, and compensation is one excellent way to show it. You don’t work for free, Neither should they.

 

 

 

What I’m Reading Now

invisible

Another in an occasional series and another that’s headed back to the library tomorrow. The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shaped Our Identities and Our Futures is not at all as advertised: It promised to be an in-depth, science heavy study of the human genome. It is in depth, but Christine Kenneally has written a lively and engaging portrait of the human race from before we left Africa and mated with Neanderthals to a look at promises for the future to cure or eliminate a variety of illnesses. Despite the science, Kenneally maintains a jargon-free tone.

Among the surprises are the notion that traits such as selfishness may be passed on, not by “nurture” but by nature; that migration stories are far more complicated than we previously thought; that number of cultures sanctioning and even encouraging marriage between close relatives can be staggering.

The only drawback: Invisible History is Euro-centric – not surprising considering that Kenneally is an Australian and fascinated by the convict history of the country’s white colonists. She spends much time among those folks and among the residents in obscure islands off the Scottish mainland.

Nevertheless she does an expert job with the Jefferson-Hemings connection. She also approaches the mystery of the Melungeons, the group in Appalachia who denied its African heritage – until DNA came along. That section has a fascinating discussion of how family stories and sociology play a big part in establishing and solidifying our identities.

The ethical issues surrounding DNA testing and its uses receive a thoughtful review. The debate will continue but would benefit from careful consideration of the observations in Invisible History. 

The most poignant section involves the attempts to use the rapid developments in DNA science to spare families the scourge of Huntington’s disease. Kenneally leaves us with many rays of hope, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Working

Family copy 3

So I’m juggling projects:

  • a writing/research project to be announced later
  • updating prospective donors on the James Family Letters film project and correcting the transcript from the scholars’ meeting
  • putting the finishing touches on my presentation for Transgressing Hartford’s Color Line: The Life of Painter Charles Ethan Porter  on February 16 at the Hartford Public Library
  • outlining “An African American Family in Connecticut: From Slavery to Triumph” at the Wasch Center at Wesleyan
  • preparing to conduct a writing workshop on “Listening to the Voice Within” for Artists for World Peace
  • beginning to plot out a talk for Essex Meadows’ Arts and Exploration series

Back to work!

What I’m Watching Now

water

Please excuse: Preview is still disabled, so mistakes may slip through.

Like Water for Chocolate should have been called The Wages of Repression. I watched it during the Bluehost outage. Here’s a fuzzy analysis that includes  an abbreviated version of what I wrote as I read the book in 2009.

As the youngest daughter, Tita lives to serve her mother, an autocrat with a secret. The film mixes the increasing harshness of life for the upper classes during the Mexican revolution with the magical realism of Tita’s escape.

Part of the problem may have been that I was reading the book when I watched Pan’s Labyrinth. The two ran together in my dreams and in my head even though the book is set in Mexico around 1900, and the movie takes place in Franco’s Spain.

The book drew me because of the recipes that begin each chapter. This despite the fact that I could eat maybe two (the hot chocolate and the wedding cake). The rest are made with copious amounts of lard or pig innards, or both. Recipes lacking such ingredients start, “Two days after killing the turkey…” The narrative includes flocks of birds and fire materializing out of nowhere, a huge wedding gathering reduced to tears, mass vomiting, deaths and disappearances without logic. Most of those events involve Tita’s ability as a chef to evoke intense and passionate reactions.

The movie was much heavier on the magical with a resulting lack of realism. The acting fulfilled its promise in most cases except for the seriously overblown young American doctor (named John Brown) who pursues Tita and whose name evokes an image of a firebrand who sought to free the slaves. This J.B. is most definitely not a firebrand even if he’s trying to free a woman in bondage.

Aside from the mother and her vitriol, the character who shines is Gertrudis. This middle sister is so hot she burns down the outside shower and then rides off naked with the rebel Juan. And she saves the movie from being a tale of female oppression by returning as a general in the rebel army.

Final opinion? Good but not great. The film serves as another example in which the book is far superior. Despite gorgeous photography, the visual representations of sensuality – food, heat, violence – become attenuated compared to the written narrative. Or maybe it’s just my imagination.