Book Review: Hellraiser by Robert Sellers


Author: Robert Sellers
TitleHellraiser
Illustrator: JAKe
Publication Info: London : SelfMadeHero, 2011.
Summary/Review:

This graphic biography tells the exploits of the Irish & British actors Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Peter O’Toole.  I’ve long admired the work of Harris and O’Toole, and familiar with Burton by reputation, but Reed was new to me.  What they have in common is that they were part of new class of post World War II actors who were gritty and real, and lived a wild and hardscabble life off the screen and stage.  The book focuses on the legendary exploits of the quartet’s drinking and partying but also their feelings of inadequacy and failed relationships.  It’s common to romanticize their wild lives, but the book does not shy away from the harm they caused, the violence, the sexual harrasment, and general arrogance. Cleverly, the author ties their stories together by having the Burton, Harris, Reed, and O’Toole appear as ghosts to a character named Martin who is drinking his life away. The four hellraiser actors are able to help Martin to focus on his life and family. Oddly, when I checked this book out, the librarian told me he’d read the book and said it was “good, clean fun.” I’d say it’s anything but, a cautionary tale more than anything else.  Burton, Harris, Reed, and O’Toole lived lives of reckless abandon so that you don’t have to.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Zimbelism (2015) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “Z” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “Z” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.

Title: Zimbelism
Release Date: September 2015
Director:  Jean François Gratton and Matt Zimbel
Production Company: Bunbury Films | Ready to Shoot Studio
Summary/Review:

This biographical documentary focuses on the life and work of freelance photographer George Zimbel.  From the 1950s to the present, Zimbel has taken evocative photographs of celebrities and ordinary people.  Some of his most famous photographs feature Marilyn Monroe, John and Jackie Kennedy on the campaign trail, Harry Truman in his retirement years, and street scenes from gritty old New Orleans.

The Monroe photographs are particularly interesting since they are from a promotional event for the Seven Year Itch with the famous moment of Monroe standing over a subway grate. Zimbel’s photographs are different in that he stands back a bit and captures the sea of other photographers taking their photos, as well as capturing Monroe in a quiet moment thinking to herself between photoshoots.  Zimbel’s street photography of ordinary people is also quite excellent.

One flaw with this movie is that it’s framed with the reading of a series of letters Zimbel exchanged with The New York Times regarding the ownership of a print of a photo of the Kennedys.  The long, snarky letters add nothing to the story and both Zimbel and the Times come of sounding like petty jerks. Oh, and Zimbel really hates digital photography.  He’s entitled to that belief, but until I have the money and space for my own darkroom, I’ll stick with my digital camera.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Finding Vivian Maier tells the story of a street photographer who, unlike Zimbel, received absolutely no recognition during her lifetime.

Source: Hoopla

Rating: **1/2


2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero
Q: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family
R: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
S: Soundtrack for a Revolution
T: Titicut Follies
U: Unforgivable Blackness
V: Virunga
W: Waking Sleeping Beauty
X: Xavier
Y: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Movie Review: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (2004) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “Y” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “Y” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Yellowstone: The World’s First National Park.

Title: You Can’t Be Neutral ona Moving Train
Release Date: June 18, 2004
Director: Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller
Production Company: First Run Features
Summary/Review:

This biographical documentary covers the basic moments in the life of historian and activist Howard Zinn:

  • grew up in working class Brooklyn
  • first job at Brooklyn Navy Yard where he’s exposed to labor activists and socialists
  • enlists during WWII to fight facism
  • disturbed by being part of a napalm bomb attack on a German holdout in France that had no strategic importance, only a demonstration of the USA’s new weaponry
  • after the war becomes a professor at Spelman College
  • supports students active in Civil Rights protests and becomes and advisor for SNCC
  • after fired by Spelman, joins the faculty at Boston University
  • becomes a leader in the movement against the Vietnam War
  • publishes A People’s History of the United States to offer perspectives from oppressed people on the nation’s history
  • also focuses on his personal life including his long marriage with Roslyn Shechte

The film follows the typical format of interviews with Zinn and others like Alice Walker and Daniel Berrigan, mixed with archival photographs and video.  It’s a good introduction to Zin if you don’t have time to read his books.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Even this is a movie about Howard Zinn, he has a way of redirecting the discussion to the front line activists in whatever cause it’s being discussed.  It’s a good lesson in using one’s talents and privileges to elevate others.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Read the autobiography this is based on, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.  And read some Zinn classics like A People’s History of the United States and A People’s History of American Empire.

Source: Hoopla

Rating: ***


2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero
Q: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family
R: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
S: Soundtrack for a Revolution
T: Titicut Follies
U: Unforgivable Blackness
V: Virunga
W: Waking Sleeping Beauty
X: Xavier

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Movie Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “J” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Other “J” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Jane.

Title: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Release Date: June 11, 2001
Director: David Gelb
Production Company: Magnolia Pictures
Summary/Review:

I am not interested in sushi, or fine dining, or tv/movies about cooking, so I strongly resisted watching this film.  But it was hard to find any other “J” documentaries that were well-regarded.  This film documents Jiro Ono, at the time an 85-year-old sushi master who owns the Tokyo restaurant  Sukiyabashi Jiro.  Jiro focuses on the traditional sushi practices of making fresh pieces for each customer and presenting them on a counter.

The restaurant is in a basement adjacent to a subway station and has only 10 counter stools.  A meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro can be completed in 15-30 minutes.  Nevertheless it has received the coveted three stars from Michelin, requires reservations months in advance, and the 20-piece tasting menu costs ¥30,000 (equivalent to $270 in US dollars at the time of writing).  Jiro is presented as fulfilling the stereotypes of a Japanese person who is a reserved workaholic and perfectionist with his whole life focused on making better sushi.  Very little of his personal life is revealed, and he mentions that when he sleeps he literally dreams of sushi.

Jiro’s elder son Yoshikazu works in the restaurant and is slated to take it over from Jiro (and since Jiro will likely never retire it will most likely be after his death).  Yoshikazu goes to fish market to meet with the wholesalers who are dedicated to the different types of fish and sea life that Jiro can serve.  Yoshikazu and a team of apprentices do much of the food preparation at this point, although Jiro still presents the sushi for the customers to eat and watches as they do so.  This is said to be an intimidating experience by many people interviewed. Jiro’s younger son Takashi operates a mirror-image restaurant in another part of Tokyo.  This restaurant received only two Michelin stars but is also said to be a more relaxed experience.

Many shots in the film focus intensely on food preparation at the restaurant and the fish market. Close-ups of seaweed being heated over an open flame, fishing getting chopped, and the shaping of a perfect portion of sushi (painted with a brush of soy sauce at the last moment) are strangely mesmerizing.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

At my age I should know that something I don’t want to do is probably going to be something that’s pleasantly surprising.  While I still have no interest in sushi or fine dining, I did enjoy the movie. What I liked best about the documentary is that it is an appreciation of craft.  We live in an age where entrepreneurship is celebrated and people who do the same thing day after day are belittled.  While Jiro is always trying to make his sushi better, he primarily does so by using the same practices he’s worked on throughout his life. And he’s certainly not trying to do anything trendy.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Well, if you really enjoy this movie, then you may just want to go Tokyo and at Sukiyabashi Jiro.  The website has detailed instructions of what you need to do to prepare, and is a fascinating read in itself.

Source: Netflix

Rating: ***1/2


 

2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Movie Review: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice (1989) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “I” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “I” documentaries I’ve reviewed are I Am Big Bird and I Am Not Your Negro.

Title: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
Release Date: 1989
Director:William Greaves
Production Company: William Greaves Productions for the American Experience
Summary/Review:

Ida Bell Wells was born into slavery during the Civil War.  After emancipation her parents were active in politics during the Reconstruction period before segregation laws were established. When her parents died of yellow fever, Wells became a teacher to support her siblings. A turning point in her life came in 1884 when Wells was asked to leave the ladies car and go to the crowded smoking car on a train.  She was dragged from the train as white women passengers jeered her.

Wells became a journalist and wrote articles about anti-segregation and began investigating lynching.  The stories of lynchings of black men insisted that they were killed in response to their sexual assaults on white women.  Wells uncovered that in reality the victims of lynching owned property that white men desired or ran businesses that competed with white-owned businesses.  Wells received so many death threats in response to her investigative journalism that she relocated to Chicago.  There she continued to remain a journalist and activist against segregation and for women’s suffrage.  In fact she was a gadfly even to prominent African-American activists like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois

This documentary is a straightforward, low-budget approach that features historic images and commentary from contemporary experts (including a descendant of Ida B. Wells).  The best parts of this production are excerpts from Wells’ writing read by Toni Morrison.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This documentary was made 30 years ago, but Wells’ life and mission are still not as well-known as they deserve to be.  In the past few years, there have been efforts to bring Wells’ legacy into the broader cultural consciousness.  This movie is a good primer on her life and signifigance.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Look into the project to build and Ida B. Wells Monument in Chicago, and perhaps make a donation.

Source: Kanopy

Rating: ****


 

2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Movie Review: Amy (2015) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “A” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “A” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Ai Weiwei: Never SorryAfrica: The SerengetiAmerican Experience: Blackout,  American Experience: Into the Amazon, and American Experience: Walt Disney

TitleAmy
Release Date: July 3, 2015
Director: Asif Kapadia
Production Company: Film4 Productions
Summary/Review:

This documentary traces the life of singer Amy Winehouse from her first steps into the music business as a teenager, to her tragic death at the age of 27.  The movie is almost entirely made up of home videos made by Winehouse and her friends and colleagues.  These offer occasional moments of startling intimacy, but also can be quite awkward as most people – even brilliant vocalists – generally say empty things to the video camera.

These clips to show, though, an amazing talented vocalist with a clear vision of the creative path she wants to follow. She’s not quite developed her performance skills yet, but the raw talent and drive is unmistakable.  She can be sharp in her options, yet alternately very shy.  Especially, in the first half of the film, lyrics of her song are projected on the screen, unfolding in parallel to her life experiences, and her interior struggles.

The second part of the film inevitable focuses on Winehouse’s struggles with depression, substance abuse, and bulimia, as she spirals out of control towards her early death.  Winehouse’s addictions are reinforced by her on-again off-again relationship with boyfriend, and then husband of two years, Blake Fielder.  They bring out the worst in one another.  Footage from the latter half of the film is clearly from the same papperazi who constantly stalked Winehouse and made her life a living hell. As a viewer, it makes me feel complicit in the exploitation of Winehouse’s despair.

There’s one very sweet moment near the end of the film in footage of Winehouse recording a duet with Tony Bennet.  She is clearly starstruck to be working with her idol while simultaneously struggling with her own sense of inadequacy.  Bennet graciously – and correctly – recognizes her own amazing talent.  But what others could recognize in Winehouse was clearly not enough to get her to come to terms with her mental health problems.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

The parts with the lyrics on the screen are illustrative of the creative process of writing and composing a song and bringing it to life.

The overall theme is an indictment of the celebrity culture that devours a human being for the enjoyment of the masses, and we all play a part in that.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Listen to Back in Black, Amy Winehouse’s gift to the world.

Source: Netfix

Rating: **


2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Book Review: Dylan Goes Electric! by Elijah Wald


Author: Elijah Wald
Title: Dylan Goes Electric! Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties
Narrator: Sean Runnette
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and How the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll : an alternative history of American popular music
Summary/Review:

Elijah Wald is one of my favorite music writers for his ability to break down commonly held beliefs about popular music and show the reality of musicians and their music in the context of their time.  Dylan Goes Electric! does the same for the notorious moment at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan played amplified rock music, the crowd was outraged, and Pete Seeger tried to cut the cables to his amplifier with an ax.  Pretty much everything told about that night is incorrect, or at least incomplete.

Dylan’s performance, significant as it was, could not provide enough material to fill an entire book.  What this book is instead a history of the Folk Revival in the 1950s and 1960s with a focus on key figures like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie among others.  Wald also traces the history of the Newport Folk Festival and how it grew and changed in the years from its origin in 1959 to 1965.  Finally, Wald also details the early career of Bob Dylan, from his early influences in blues and R&B, to his quick rise to becoming a widely-renown folk musician, and his discomfort with fame and being the “voice of his generation.”

At the heart of all three stories – the Folk Revival, the Newport Folk Festival, and Bob Dylan – is a conflict between the ideas of authenticity and music for music’s sake, and the lowbrow ideas of pop music and commercial success.  Wald details that the Newport Folk Festival welcomed performances of electric blues and R&B bands while being uncomfortable the collegiate pop-style folk music of the Kingston Trio.  And while the festival promoted workshops that presented the music of rural folk performers, it was the young, urban and pop-oriented folk musicians drew the largest crowds.  As a result of the conflict over the meaning of folk music, new genres such as folk rock and singer/songwriter emerged.

Bob Dylan’s electric performance turns out not just to be a defining moment in Dylan’s career but part of a bigger story within American folk music, and a conflict that in many ways continues to this day. The stories of what actually happened that night are so disjointed, because the meaning of what happened is different to many of the people involved (and those who hear about in later retellings).

Recommended books: Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years by Eric Von Schmidt, Where Have All the Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger
Rating: ****

Book Review: Fire on the Prairie by Gary Rivlin


AuthorGary Rivlin
TitleFire on the Prairie : Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race
Publication Info: New York : H. Holt, 1992.
Summary/Review:

Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago, is center to this narrative of big city politics in the 1970s and 1980s.  Rivlin establishes the background by detailing the rise of machine politics under long-time mayor Richard J. Daley.  The Chicago machine makes what I know of similar operations in Boston and New York look like amateur hour, and machine politics persisted in Chicago under Daley decades after it died out in other cities.

While Daley was responsible for perpetuating the segregation and inequality of Black Chicagoans, he was also wise enough to bring leaders from Black wards into his machine, thus making it difficult for a reform candidate to gain support among Black voters.  In 1979, Daley protege Jane Byrne ran an anti-machine campaign for mayor and upon election turned her back on reformers and the Black community.  This set the stage for Harold Washington to make his historic run in 1983.

Rivlin details the ins and outs of the Democratic primary among Washington, Byrne, and the young Richard M. Daley, running for the first time to follow in his father’s footsteps.  After Washington squeaks out a primary victory, the Democrats failed to support his campaign in the general election, with many white voters rallying to lift up the previously moribund campaign of Washington’s Republican opponent.  With a massive turnout of Black voters and the help of Latin and some progressive white voters, Washington once again eked out a victory.

Jesse Jackson is an interesting figure in all of this as the most prominent African American leader in Chicago.  He proves to actually be somewhat unpopular among Black Chicagoans both for his shameless self-promotion (several times he tries to get himself into a prominent spot to be seen on tv with Washington during the campaign) and his lack of knowledge of local concerns.  Jackson actually performs poorly in the 1984 Democratic primary in Chicago compared to other Black Democratic cities.

The celebration of Washington’s victory was short as a block of 29 city councilor’s organized to oppose his every proposal.  The Council Wars dominate much of Washington’s first term. Many of the strategies used to disrupt Washington’s agenda are very similar to what Republicans would later do to Barack Obama.  The Black community is also frustrated by Washington’s commitment to reaching out to white Chicagoans and being “fairer than fair” rather helping them take the share of the spoils they’d been so long denied.

Nevertheless, Washington is able to make some progress and win a second term in 1987.  Sadly the momentum and the council majority were cut short by Washington’s sudden death in November 1987.

I was a bit disappointed that this book largely focuses on the political horse race.  I would’ve liked to learn more about Washington, his accomplishments, and legacy in Chicago.  Nevertheless, this is a compelling narrative of city politics and the racial conflicts of Chicago.

Recommended booksThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream by Thomas Dyja, and Eyes on the Prize by Juan Williams
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser


AuthorCaroline Fraser
TitlePrairie fires : the American dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Publication Info: New York : Metropolitan Books, 2017.
Summary/Review:

Like anyone else who grew up in my generation, I watched and loved the tv series Little House on the Prairie as a kid. In fifth grade we read a section of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie and I was entranced.  I immediately read all the books in the Little House series in sequence (except I skipped Farmer Boy because I had no interest in Almanzo).  The earlier books were my favorites and I read Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek multiple times. This was an important time in my life as a reader because up to that point I was rather finicky and found it hard to finish books, especially fiction.

Of course, I knew that the books were highly fictionalized stories of Wilder’s life and the tv show even more greatly removed from reality.  It was interesting to read this biography to learn the true story of Wilder’s life. Fraser’s research and writing is especially good at establishing Wilder’s story in the context of historical events – conflicts with Indians, financial crises and depressions, political movements, and even climate change. The period of Wilder’s life covered in her 9 books is just a small portion of her long life and is covered in the first 150 pages of the 500+ page book.  For all her romance of life on the Great Plains and the admiration of the rugged individualism of farming, Laura and Alamanzo Wilder were not able to find stability and success in life until they left the West for the South (specifically the Ozarks of Missouri) and found work off the farm.

Laura Ingalls Wilder established herself in Mansfield, MO through her activity in local clubs and working for Farm Loan Asssociation, a federal agency that made small loans to farmers.  Wilder also worked as a writer and editor, eventually creating a popular column in a publication called The Ruralist. Wilder’s entry into writing was inspired by a key figure in this biography, Rose Wilder Lane, who lived in various parts of the country working as a journalist (albeit specializing in “fake news”) and freelance writer, and eventually writing novels and political treatises.  Fraser is barely able to contain her contempt for Lane, who admittedly is an awful person, but nevertheless its surprising when someone is so bad that a historian can’t keep a neutral tone

Wilder writes the Little House books during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s and early 1940s, with the current events informing her reflections on the past. Since the books were written for children, Wilder naturally sanitized some of the darkest times of her childhood, elided events, and created composite characters.  But she also chose to use the books to hide her family’s deep poverty and multiple failures while idolizing her parents as exemplars of independence. This means leaving out parts of their lives when Charles Ingalls skipped out of town to avoid a debt or when the family had a miserable time working at a hotel in Iowa.

Lane served as an editor for her mother’s writing, and the surviving manuscripts includes notes back and forth, of what to retain and what to cut.  Fraser indicates Wilder fought to retain many of her own ideas and writing against Lane’s edits and suggestions and the finished novels have the same style as Wilder’s handwritten manuscripts.  Some scholars believe that Lane ghost wrote some or all of the novels, but Fraser use this evidence to attest that Lane mainly did the editing while writing an occasional interpolation. Lane’s increasingly radical right wing, libertarian ideology also influenced her mother’s political leanings and the underlying messages of the novels.

Fraser also examines the cultural effect of the Little House stories, both as a response to the New Deal when the books were published and in the post-Nixonian era of the television.  In both eras, Little House played the role of offering a rose-tinted view of a patriotic past where Americans took initiative and supported themselves through hard work.  Ironically, Wilder created a fictional version of her parents as independent farmers by erasing their poverty, their inability to survive as subsistence farmers, and the times they benefited from help of the government.  In fact, if the government is to be blamed for an of the suffering of the Ingalls, Wilders, and thousands of other pioneer farming families it is when they acted on laissez-faire and libertarian policies that someone like Lane would support. Examples include the US government ignoring their own scientist’s research that showed the Dakotas should not be opened to farming because it was too arid, and state governments offering little aid to farmers suffering from plagues of locusts and droughts because they did not wish to create “dependency.”

This is an excellent work of biography and history.  While offering a look at the exceptional life of a successful and beloved author, it also is a glimpse into the lives and dreams of many Americans in some of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history. Amazingly the book contains contrasting ideas of what it means to be American and the best way to govern this country that are still relevant to the current political debate. If you love the Little House books, this is a good way to deepen your understanding of their author and the books’ place in our culture.  But even if you have never read or watched any Little House material, this is still a great biography that I’d recommend.

Favorite Passages:

“The New York Times asked recently, ‘Why Do People Who Need Help from the Government Hate It so Much?’  It was no mystery to Wilder.  As she knew too well, people who are poor are ashamed.  It’s easier to blame the government than to blame yourself. Wrestling with shame was one of the reasons she wrote her books…” – p. 511

Recommended booksThe Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

Rating: ****

Book Review: Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston


Author:  Zora Neale Hurston
TitleBarracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo
Publication Info: Amistad (2018), Edition: 1st Edition, 208 pages
Previously read by the same author:

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography
  • Mules and Men
  • Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston

Summary/Review:

This recently published biography/ethnography is by the great author, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, based on interviews she conducted in 1927.  Her subject is Kossola, also known as Cudjoe Lewis and by other names, who was the last known survivor of the African slave trade.  The Constitution outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, but slave traders were able to smuggle in enslaved people from Africa without consequences right up to the Civil War.

Kossola was born in West Africa in what is Benin in the present day around 1840. In 1860, he was captured by the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey and sold to American slavers on the ship Clotilda.  Hurston expresses Kossola’s story in his dialect, allowing him to tell his story.  He talks of his childhood in Africa, capture, passage across the Atlantic, and enslavement in Mobile, Alabama.  After Emancipation, Kossola and other former captives of Clotilda pooled together money to buy land near Mobile from their former captors and created a self-contained community called Africatown.  There he tells stories of his marriage, children, his unsuccessful lawsuit after a train crashed into his buggy, and the death of his son, also in a train crash.  Kossola became known as a storyteller, and the appendix includes a sample of his stories.

The book is an interesting piece of overlooked American history.  It’s also a glimpse into the ethnographic practices of the time, good and bad, as Hurston relates her visits to Kossola and the negotiations that went into planning their interviews. More than once Hurston uses terms like “primitive” to describe Kossola, a shocking judgement for an anthropologist and African American. Critics of the work suggest that parts of Kossola’s narrative are fictionalized – either by himself or by Hurston – and note that she plagiarized and earlier interviewer’s work in an article she wrote about Kossola.  Nevertheless, this is a valuable historic document to read both for Kossola’s story and as an addition to Hurston’s work.

Favorite Passages:

Here is the medicine: That though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, also. And because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going. It may be true, and often is, that every person we hold dear is taken from us. Still. From moment to moment, we watch our beans and our watermelons grow. We plant. We hoe. We harvest. We share with neighbors. If a young anthropologist appears with two hams and gives us one, we look forward to enjoying it. Life, inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go. Ours is an amazing, a spectacular, journey in the Americas. It is so remarkable one can only be thankful for it, bizarre as that may sound. Perhaps our planet is for learning to appreciate the extraordinary wonder of life that surrounds even our suffering, and to say Yes, if through the thickest of tears. – Alice Walker March 2018

From 1801 to 1866, an estimated 3,873,600 Africans were exchanged for gold, guns, and other European and American merchandise. During the period from 1851 to 1860, approximately 22,500 Africans were exported. And of that number, 110 were taken aboard the Clotilda at Ouidah. Kossola was among them—a transaction.

Hurston’s manuscript is an invaluable historical document, as Diouf points out, and an extraordinary literary achievement as well, despite the fact that it found no takers during her lifetime. In it, Zora Neale Hurston found a way to produce a written text that maintains the orality of the spoken word. And she did so without imposing herself in the narrative, creating what some scholars classify as orature. Contrary to the literary biographer Robert Hemenway’s dismissal of Barracoon as Hurston’s re-creation of Kossola’s experience, the scholar Lynda Hill writes that “through a deliberate act of suppression, she resists presenting her own point of view in a natural, or naturalistic, way and allows Kossula ‘to tell his story in his own way.’”

Kossula was no longer on the porch with me. He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. He had forgotten that I was there. He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke.

“Poe-lee very mad ’cause de railroad kill his brother. He want me to sue de company. I astee him, ‘Whut for? We doan know de white folks law. Dey say dey doan pay you when dey hurtee you. De court say dey got to pay you de money. But dey ain’ done it.’ I very sad. Poe-lee very mad. He say de deputy kill his baby brother. Den de train kill David. He want to do something. But I ain’ hold no malice. De Bible say not. Poe-lee say in Afficky soil it ain’ lak in de Americky. He ain’ been in de Afficky, you unnerstand me, but he hear what we tellee him and he think dat better dan where he at. Me and his mama try to talk to him and make him satisfy, but he doan want hear nothin. He say when he a boy, dey (the American Negro children) fight him and say he a savage. When he gittee a man dey cheat him. De train hurtee his papa and doan pay him. His brothers gittee kill. He doan laugh no mo’.

Rating: ***1/2