Sunday, January 31, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Door by Magda Szabó, excerpt seven)

from The Door by Magda Szabó:

In my student days, I detested Schopenhauer. Only later did I come to acknowledge the force of his idea that every relationship involving personal feeling laid one open to attack, and the more people I allowed to become close to me, the greater the number of ways in which I was vulnerable. It wasn’t easy to accept that from now on I would always have to consider Emerence. Her life had become an integral part of my own. This led to the dreadful thought that one day I would lose her, that if I survived her there would be yet another addition to those ubiquitous, indefinable shadow-presences that wrack me and drive me to despair.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Door by Magda Szabó, excerpt six)

from The Door by Magda Szabó:

On the day of my outing Emerence arrived at dawn (much earlier than usual) to take a sleepy Viola for his walk. While I was getting ready she never left my side. She found fault with my hair, my dress, everything. My nerves were in shreds. Why was she interfering and ordering me around, as if I were off to a royal ball? As she pulled and twisted my hair, she told me she hadn’t been home since ’45, and then she went there and came straight back again on the next available train, after trading a little food for various bits and bobs. In ’44 she did spend a full week there, and didn’t enjoy it, but in those days her people were in a miserable state. Her grandfather had always been a tyrant, and the rest of her family on her mother’s side were unsettled because of the circus. “Circus,” in Emerence’s vocabulary meant national disasters – in this case the Second World War – all those situations where women become neurotic, grasping and stupid, and men go berserk and start knifing people, as happens in the wings of history’s theatre. If it had been up to her, she would have locked the youth of 1848 away in a cellar and given them a lecture: no shouting, no literature; get yourselves involved in some useful activity. She didn’t want to hear any revolutionary speeches, or she’d deal with them, every single one. Get out of the coffee houses, and back to work in the fields and factories.

Friday, January 29, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Door by Magda Szabó, excerpt five)

from The Door by Magda Szabó:

In the days leading up to the lecture we carried on as before. Emerence dusted the bookshelves, took delivery of the mail, listened whenever I spoke on the radio, but she passed no comment, she wasn’t interested. She took note when we dashed off to a conference, meeting or presentation by some literary group, or occasional language lessons. She saw our names on the books. She returned them to the shelves duly dusted, as she would candleholders or matchboxes. They were all the same to her, misdemeanours that might be overlooked, like eating or drinking to excess. Some childish ambition made me want to win her over to what I saw as the irresistible enchantment of classical Hungarian literature. I once recited Petőfi’s My Mother’s Hen to her. I thought this poem might appeal to her because she loved animals. She stood there, staring at me with the duster still in her hand, then gave a dry, grating laugh. The stories I knew defied belief. What is a stone? What was that about? What is a stone? And what was this word thou? Nobody spoke like that. I left the room, choking with rage.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Door by Magda Szabó, excerpt four)

from The Door by Magda Szabó:

The stream of cherries tumbled into the cauldron. By now we were in the world of myth – the pitted cherries separating out, the juice beginning to flow like blood from a wound, and Emerence, calmness personified, standing over the cauldron in her black apron, her eyes in shadow under the hooded headscarf.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Door by Magda Szabó, excerpt three)

from The Door by Magda Szabó:

My husband returned, bearing a large pile of newspapers. He had walked his anger off, and come back to a peaceful apartment. He searched each room to see if the offensive items had been removed. The kitchen was a surprise, but by then he had pretty much calmed down, and he realised that that area was beyond help or hurt. Ever since we’d moved in, my playful nature had been collecting the most impossible objects – it would have made no difference if we’d suspended a stuffed whale from the ceiling, like something in my great-grandparents’ vast emporium. The madly staring woman and the ducal water heater merely added to the general air of an occupational therapy museum made to look like a kitchen-diner. Luckily he failed to spot the gnome lurking in the shadow of the U-bend. At last order was restored. And once again I had misread the calm before the storm. I was enjoying it, even though Viola’s head was drooping miserably. His listless demeanour should have warned me that something was brewing.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Door by Magda Szabó, excerpt two)

from The Door by Magda Szabó:

She yanked open the hall cupboard, took a screwdriver from the toolbox and set to work on the boot. She stood with her back to me, facing the light, cursing me without pause. It was an unusual experience for me. I was never scolded as a child. My parents’ method of punishment was more refined. They hurt me with silence, not words. It upset me more if I was made to feel I didn’t deserve to be spoken to, asked questions or given explanations. Emerence tucked the boot under her arm, as if she were intending to take it home with her, and flung the spur she had removed down on the table top.

“Because you’re blind and stupid and a coward,” she continued. “God knows what I love about you, but whatever it is, you don’t deserve it. Maybe, as you get older, you’ll acquire a bit of taste. And a bit of courage.”

Monday, January 25, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Door by Magda Szabó, excerpt one)

from The Door by Magda Szabó:

That morning I was given a lesson in where the two of them went for their walk. Viola ran me through Emerence’s district. Half-blinded by the falling snow and gasping for breath, with Viola setting the pace, I was hauled to each of the eleven houses where she cleaned, hurtling from one to the next in a mindless Peet Gynt dash. Finally he tugged so hard he managed to pull me over. But we had reached his destination. We’d found the person he was looking for. Emerence was standing with her back to us, so he jumped up at her from behind, nearly knocking her over as well. However she was strong – ten times stronger than I have ever been. She turned, saw me kneeling there in the snow, and instantly realised what had happened. First she yanked the dog firmly by the stray end of the leash; then, whenever he started to whine, she hit him. I hauled myself to my feet, feeling thoroughly sorry for the animal.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

the last book I ever read (David Orr's The Road Not Taken, excerpt seven)

from The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr:

The difficulty is that if the self is something we make (like a business), it’s hard to see how it can also be something we can find (like a chest of doubloons). The metaphors are in considerable tension, if not contradictory. Do we take the less traveled road because doing so will reveal the glitter of the True Self? Or do we take that road because doing so somehow creates the True Self? What is interesting is that people seem generally happy to ignore this tension, shifting frictionlessly from one model of selfhood to the other, sometimes within the same sentence. If Wayne Dyer tells us that we are the sum of our choices, he is also perfectly willing to say that “letting the ego-illusion become your identity can prevent you from knowing your true self.” So we are the sum of our choices, but there is also some “true self” that remains hidden. By the same token, while one hates to pick on Eleanor Roosevelt, I should point out that when I quoted her earlier saying “we learn who we really are,” I could have added that she immediately followed that remark with “and then live with that decision.” So we find our essence by . . . deciding what it is? She also asserts that “we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die.” Can I “really” be something that I am also choosing? And if so, who (or what) is this “I” person?

Friday, January 22, 2016

the last book I ever read (David Orr's The Road Not Taken, excerpt six)

from The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr:

This is in part traceable to a single book. In 1978, M. Scott Peck published The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, a guide to reforming oneself that drew heavily on Peck’s career as a psychiatrist and his somewhat unconventional religious views. (His final book, published in 2005, was a memoir about exorcisms.) The Road Less Traveled languished for several years, but by the early eighties, word of mouth and Peck’s assiduous courting of reviewers had turned it into one of the foundational texts of modern self-help. In a 2012 article, the Christian Science Monitor declared it to be among the ten greatest self-improvement books ever written (placing it in company with those of Benjamin Franklin and Dale Carnegie), and according to Peck’s website, The Road Less Traveled “has sold over 7 million copies and remained on the New York Times Best Seller List longer than any other paperback book.” As with many self-help guides, the book itself is a kind of olive loaf composed of corn-fed common sense (“The process of listening to children differs depending on the age of the child”) liberally seasoned with nuggets of kookiness (“Moreover, were I ever to have a case in which I concluded after careful and judicious consideration that my patient’s spiritual growth would be substantially furthered by our having sexual relations, I would proceed to have them”).

Thursday, January 21, 2016

the last book I ever read (David Orr's The Road Not Taken, excerpt five)

from The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr:

We also, one might say, create a deception. But this seems a little harsh. Better, maybe, to say that we create a narrative that works for us, and that we can live with. It’s interesting, in light of this, to think about the phenomenon scientists call confabulation. Confabulation isn’t lying, as you might suppose, but rather the invention of explanations or stories on the basis of information that is incomplete, incorrect, or manipulated (as in an experiment, for instance). A person who is confabulating may be saying something thoroughly ridiculous, but he doesn’t actually know that it’s absurd. He’s simply expressing the best available conception of the world as it seems to him, and he believes in that conception unswervingly. “Confabulation,” writes the philosopher William Hirstein, “ . . . .is a sort of pathological certainty about ill-grounded thoughts and utterances.”

Of course, certainty about “the world as it seems to him or her” will seem especially strange if the person in question has suffered some kind of neurological damage. This is why many of the best-known studies of confabulation involve a parade of unfortunate medical conditions like Korsakoff’s syndrome (sufferers have lost short-term autobiographical memory), anosognosia (in which a paralyzed person appears unaware of his condition), asomatognosia (the sufferer denies ownership of his own body parts), and the legendarily bizarre Capgras syndrome (in which a person believes friends and loved ones have been replaced with physically identical impostors). In each of these cases the patient will, with perfect confidence, provide explanations for various occurrences that are, on their face, impossible—for instance, a person suffering from Korsakoff’s might, if asked what he did yesterday, answer by reciting events that occurred to him twenty years ago.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

the last book I ever read (David Orr's The Road Not Taken, excerpt four)

from The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr:

“Cautious”: not a word Frost would have liked. In his personal life, he was anything but, as is demonstrated by his nearly monomaniacal courtship of his wife, to say nothing of his decision to move to England at age thirty-eight on the basis of a coin toss. (He was much bolder in this regard than almost all of his modernist peers.) And the word seems equally inapplicable to his strongest writing, which is audacious in its willingness to engage multiple audiences (and be judged by them), as well as in its determination to display its technical wizardry in a way that was certain to be initially underestimated. It takes tremendous nerve to be willing to look as if you don’t know what you’re doing, when in fact you’re a master of the activity in question. Even in 1915, for example, it was far from “cautious” for an ambitious poet to open his first book by deliberately rhyming “trees” with “breeze,” a pairing so legendarily banal that it had been famously singled out for derision by Alexander Pope two hundred years earlier. True, Frost became tremendously successful by writing in the way he did, but success in a tricky venture doesn’t make the venture itself any less risky.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

the last book I ever read (David Orr's The Road Not Taken, excerpt three)

from The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr:

It’s important to remember that while “The Road Not Taken” isn’t strictly “about” Edward Thomas, it was, at least, strongly associated with Thomas by Frost. And as the scholar Katherine Kearns rightly notes, Frost “by all accounts was genuinely fond of Thomas.” Indeed, “Frost’s protean ability to assume dramatic masks never elsewhere included such a friend as Thomas, whom he loved and admired, tellingly, more than ‘anyone in England or anywhere else in the world.’” If you admire someone more than anyone “anywhere else in the world,” you probably aren’t going to link that person with a poem whose speaker comes off as either obnoxious or enfeebled. But you might well connect him with an exquisitely sensitive and self-aware speaker who thinks of himself—probably incorrectly—as fundamentally weak, and likely to behave in ways that will cause others to lose patience. “But you know already how I waver,” Thomas wrote to Frost in early 1914, and “on what wavering things I depend.” This is the figure who emerges between the two more common interpretations of “The Road Not Taken,” and his doubting yet ardent sensibility is the secret warmth of the poem. This is what is, or can be, “absolutely saving.”

Sunday, January 17, 2016

the last book I ever read (David Orr's The Road Not Taken, excerpt two)

from The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr:

Edward Thomas was one of the keenest literary thinkers of his time, and the poem was meant to capture aspects of his own personality and past. Yet even Thomas needed explicit instructions—indeed, six entire letters—in order to appreciate the series of double games played in “The Road Not Taken.” That misperception galled Frost. As Thompson writes, Frost “could never bear to tell the truth about the failure of this lyric to perform as he intended it. Instead, he frequently told an idealized version of the story” in which, for instance, Thomas said, “What are you trying to do with me?” or “What are you doing with my character?” One can understand Frost’s unhappiness, considering that the poem was misunderstood by one of his own early biographers, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant (“Thomas, all his life, lived on the deeply isolated, lonely and subjective ‘way less travelled by’ which Frost had chosen in youth”), and also by the eminent poet-critic Robert Graves, who came to the somewhat baffling conclusion that the poem had to do with Frost’s “agonized decision” not to enlist in the British army. (There is no evidence that Frost ever contemplated doing so, in agony or otherwise.) Lyrics that are especially lucid and accessible are sometimes described as “critic-proof”; “The Road Not Taken”—at least in its first few decades—came close to being reader-proof.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

the last book I ever read (David Orr's The Road Not Taken, excerpt one)

from The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong by David Orr:

The books are scathing toward Frost and, worse, are scathing without quite seeming to want to be so. Thompson wasn’t a stupid man, nor did he want to write a bad biography; he understood that he wasn’t fond of the poet and that he needed to guard against his own biases. Yet as the scholar Donald Sheehy has demonstrated by reviewing the biographer’s source notes, Thompson became convinced that Frost was neurotic—this his personality, in fact, nearly dovetailed with a theory of neurosis developed by the psychoanalyst Karen Horney, whom Thompson had recently encountered—and under the cover of that diagnosis, his own antipathies bloomed. To show the general slant of the books, it’s become customary among Frost critics simply to list some of the subheadings under “Frost, Robert Lee” in the index to any of Thompson’s volumes: “Anti-Intellectual,” “Baffler-Teaser-Deceiver,” “Brute,” “Charlatan,” “Cowardice,” “Enemies,” “Hate,” “Insanity,” “Jealousy,” “Murderer,” “Rage,” “Revenge,” “Self-Centeredness,” “Spoiled Child,” and so on. As Thompson tells it, when Frost played baseball as a boy, it was because the sport permitted him to sling objects at other people’s heads. When his daughter, distraught after the death of her mother, reproached him for selfishness, not only did this demonstrate a “habit of vindictiveness she had acquired from her father,” but Frost also probably deserved the abuse (and Thompson hastens to suggest that Frost would, of course, soon seek out people who would reassure him that these accusations were more than he really should be asked to bear).

Friday, January 15, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, excerpt ten)

from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma:

It must have been less than an hour later that I heard a door open and a movement in the sitting room. I felt the movement reach behind my chair, then, I felt his hand shake me, first slowly, then forcefully, but I did not even stir. I tried to make faint noises with my throat, but as I was starting, Father moved and there was a sharp movement behind my chair—perhaps my brother ducking. Then I felt him crawl slowly back to our room. I waited a while, and then opened my eyes. Father’s posture struck me. He was asleep, his head tilted sideways against the chair, and his arms hanging loosely by his sides. A steady stream of light from the bright yellow bulb from our neighbour’s house, which often shone into our house from above our fence, rested on a fraction of his face through the parted curtain, giving him the appearance of someone wearing a double-sided mask—one black, one white. I watched Father’s face for a while until, convinced my brother had gone, I tried to sleep.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, excerpt nine)

from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma:

He took a smaller jug from inside the big black drum and began washing me. The drum reminded me of how Boja, after he got saved at a Reinhard Bonnke evangelical convention, persuaded us to be baptized else we’d all go to hell. Then one after the other, he coaxed us into repentance and baptized us in the drum. I was six at the time, and Obembe, eight, and because we were much smaller, we both had to stand on empty Pepsi crates to be able to dip into the water. Then one after the other, Boja bent our heads into the water until we began to cough. Then he would lift our heads, his face gleaming, hug us and declare us free.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, excerpt eight)

from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma:

Spiders built temporary shelters and nested in our home as the Igbo people believe they do when people mourn, but they took their invasion a step further and invaded our mother’s mind. Mother was the first to notice the spiders and the bulging orbs clipped by thread-like fangs to the roof; but that was not all. She began seeing Ikenna spying on us from the carapace of the spiders hanging in the orbs, or saw his eyes looking through the spirals. She complained about them: Ndi ajo ife—These beastly, scaly, terrifying creature. They scared her. They made her weep, pointing at the spiders, until Father—in a bid to soothe her, and having been mightily pressed by Mama Bose, a pharmacist, and Iya Iyabo to harken to the voice of a grieving woman no matter how absurd he might consider her request—dislodged every webbed abode in the house and smashed several spiders dead against the walls. Then, he also drove out wall geckos, and drew battle lines against cockroaches, whose proliferation was fast becoming a menace. Only then was peace restored; but it was a peace with swollen feet and a limp in its gait.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, excerpt seven)

from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma:

It was the week in August when Nigeria’s Olympic “Dream Team” got to the final of the men’s football. In the weeks before that, marketplaces, schools, offices had lit up with the name Chioma Ajunwa, who had won gold for the ramshackle country. And now, the men’s team, having beaten Brazil in the semi-final, was now in the final with Argentina. The country was mad with joy. As people waved the Nigerian flags in the summer heat in faraway Atlanta, Akure slowly drowned. Thick rain, armed with a fierce wind, which had left the town in a blackout, poured through the eve of the night of the final match between Nigeria’s Dream Team and Argentina. The rain dragged into the morning of the match, the morning of August 3rd, and pummeled zinc and asbestos roofs until sunset when it weakened and ceased. No one went out of the house that day, including Ikenna, who spent most of the day confined to his room, silent except for times when his voice rose as he sang along to a tune on the portable cassette player that had become his main companion. His isolation had, by that week, become fully formed.

Monday, January 11, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, excerpt six)

from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma:

Abulu and his brother grew up without their father. When they were kids, their father went on a Christian pilgrimage to Israel and never returned. Most people believed he was killed by a bomb in Jerusalem, while one of his friends who’d gone on the same pilgrimage said he had made his way to Austria with an Austrian woman and settled there. So Abulu and Abana lived with their mother and their elder sister who, by the time she was fifteen, took up whoring and moved to Lagos to practise her trade.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, excerpt five)

from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma:

“So, what happened?” she asked after a short pause. “Tell me, eh, my princes, Obembe Igwe, Azikiwe, gwa nu mu ife me lu nu, biko my husbands,” she pleaded, employing the heart-melting endearments she bestowed on us in times like this when she wanted to obtain some information from us. She’d bestow royalty on Obembe, ascribing him the title of an igwe, a traditional king. She’d confer the name of Nigeria’s first indigenous president, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, on me. Once she called us these names, Obembe began staring at me—an indication that there was something he did not want to say, but which—nudged by Mother’s entreaties—he was wholly ready to say. Hence, Mother only needed to repeat the endearments just once more before Obembe spilled it, for she had already won. Both she and Father were good at digging into our minds. They knew how to burrow so deep into our psyche when they wanted to find things out that it was sometimes difficult to think they didn’t already know what they were asking about, but were merely seeking to confirm it.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, excerpt four)

from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma:

Once Ikenna’s metamorphosis became cataclysmic and began to threaten the repose we had been living in, Mother became desperate for a solution. She asked questions. She prayed. She warned. But all to no avail. It seemed increasingly obvious that the Ikenna who was once our brother had been bottled in a tightly sealed jar and thrown into an ocean. But on the day the special calendar was destroyed, Mother was shaken beyond words. She’d returned from work that evening and Boja, who’d sat in the midst of the charred bits and pieces, weeping for long, gave her the remains of the calendar which he’d swept into a plain sheet of paper, and said: “That, Mama, is what our M.K.O. calendar has become.”

Friday, January 8, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, excerpt three)

from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma:

Boja set the petrified cock down on the chosen spot, and took the knife that Obembe had brought from our kitchen. Ikenna joined him and together they held the chicken in place, unshaken by its loud squawks. Then we all watched as the knife moved in Boja’s hand with unaccustomed ease, a downward slit through the rooster’s wrinkled neck as if he’d handled the knife several times before, and as if he were destined to handle it yet again. The cock twitched and made aggravating movements that were restrained by all our hands holding it firmly. I looked over our fence to the top floor of the two-storeyed building overlooking our compound and saw Igbafe’s grandfather, a small man who had stopped speaking after an accident a few years earlier, seated on the large veranda in front of the door of the house. He had the habit of sitting there all day and he used to be the butt of our jokes.

Boja severed the cock’s head, leaving a jolting outpouring of blood in its wake. I turned away and returned my eyes to the old mute man. He appeared like a moment’s vision of a faraway warning angel whose warnings we could not hear owing to the distance. I did not see the rooster’s head fall into the small hold Ikenna had dug in the dirt, but I watched as its trunk palpitated violently, spurting blood about, its wings raising dust. My brothers held it down even more firmly until it gradually quieted. Then we set off with the headless corpse in Boja’s grip, the blood marking our trail, unshaken by the few people who looked on in awe. Boja flung the dead rooster over the fence, blood spitting around as it careered in the air. Once it was out of sight, we felt satisfied we had had our revenge.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, excerpt two)

from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma:

Father was an unusual man. When everyone was taking up the gospel of birth control, he—an only child who had grown up with his mother lungful for siblings—had a dream of a house full of children, a clan from his body. This dream fetched him much ridicule in the biting economy of 1990s Nigeria, but he swatted off the insults as if they were mere mosquitoes. He sketched a pattern for our future—a map of dreams. Ikenna was to be a doctor, although later, after Ikenna showed much fascination with planes at an early age, and encouraged by the fact that there were aviation schools in Enugu, Makurdi and Onitsha where Ikenna could learn to fly, Father changed it to pilot. Boja was to be a lawyer, and Obembe the family’s medical doctor. Although I had opted to be a veterinarian, to work in a forest or to tend animals at a zoo, anything that involved animals, Father decided I would be a professor. David, our youngest brother, who was barely three in the year Father moved to Yola, was to be an engineer. A career was not readily chosen for Nkem, our one-year-old sister. Father said there was no need to decide such things for women.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

the last book I ever read (The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, excerpt one)

from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma:

Mother ended the night with this passage from Proverbs—the most frightening I knew of in the entire Bible. Looking back, I realize it must have been the way she quoted it, in Igbo—imbuing the words with venoms—that made it so damning. Aside from this, Mother said all else in English instead of Igbo, the language with which our parents communicated with us; while between us, we spoke Yoruba, the language in Akure. English, although the official language of Nigeria, was a formal language with which strangers and non-relatives addressed you. It had the potency of digging craters between you and your friends or relatives if one of you switched to using it. So, our parents hardly spoke English, except in moments like this, when the words were intended to pull the ground from beneath our feet. Our parents were adept at this, and so Mother succeeded. For, the words “drowned,” “everything,” “exist,” “dangerous” came out heavy, measured, charged and indicting, and lingered and tormented us long into the night.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

the last book I ever read (Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan, excerpt fourteen)

from Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan:

My dad’s raptness at the boat rail wasn’t just raptness. It was Parkinson’s. The symptoms came on slowly, then not slowly. The disease carried him away from us, mentally. His life became a torment. He didn’t sleep for a year. He dies in November 2008, in my mother’s arms, with his children around him. They had been married for fifty-six years.

My mother was flattened, as I had never seen her, by my father’s final year. Always thin, now she was gaunt. She resumed going out—to concerts, plays, movies—with friends, with me. She was still an enthusiast—I remember how intensely she liked Winter’s Bone, how thoroughly she hated Avatar—but her lungs began to fail her. She had bronchiectasis, a respiratory disease. It causes, among other things, shortness of breath. It sapped her strength. A lifetime of Los Angeles smog was implicated. We took her on vacation to Honolulu, renting a house in the old neighborhood near Diamond Head. Her room looked out on the water. Her three granddaughters curled up on her big bed with her. She could not have been happier, she said.

Monday, January 4, 2016

the last book I ever read (Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan, excerpt thirteen)

from Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan:

Jardim, for all is beauty, was a melancholy and fractious place. There were family feuds. There was a bearded woman, mentally impaired, always barefoot. In her youth she had been, I was told, sexually abused by men and boys. One night she fell off the cliff near the point, landing on the rocks in a sitting position, dead. Some people thought she had jumped. There was a young woman, bright and frustrated with village life, who angrily rebuked me for walking on the shore, under the cliffs, to Ponta Pequena. Her brother, she said, had been killed by falling rocks on that path. A cheap homemade sugarcane rum known as aguardente took a toll on the village, particularly on unemployed men.

The only really prosperous family seemed to be the Vasconcellos. They were the traditional overlords of Jardim. The family’s members all lived in Funchal now, or Lisbon, but they had run the place for centuries. All of Madeira had been divided up and handed out, complete with serfs and slaves, to factions and individuals on the lower half of the Portuguese crown’s long list of toadies. Old Jardimeiros remembered when villagers were required to carry priests and rich people up and down the mountains in hammocks. This was before the road was built down from Prazeres, in 1968. There had been a fat priest whose visits were particularly dreaded. And the island’s history only got darker the farther back you looked.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

the last book I ever read (Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan, excerpt twelve)

from Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan:

The thing to be feared most, I believed, was a two-wave hold-down. That was a drubbing so prolonged that you didn’t reach the surface before the next wave landed on you. It had never happened to me. People survived it, but never happily. I had heard of guys who quit surfing after a two-wave hold-down. When someone drowned in big waves, it was rarely possible to know exactly why, but I believed it often started with a two-wave hold-down. The biggest single reason I was so frightened by the third wave in that monster set that broke my leash was because the wave had two-wave hold-down written all over it. It was a rare slabby specimen for Ocean Beach, like the worst kind of inside-bar dredger—except two or three times the size. I didn’t understand where on the bars it was breaking or why—I still don’t understand it—but with its ultra-thickness I knew as I swam under it that there would not be much water left in front of it, meaning that it was very likely that if I got sucked over, I would have at least once encounter, possibly catastrophic, with the bottom, as well as an extremely long, possibly fatally long, hold-down. I didn’t know about the interval of the swell, but had gathered from the first waves we saw that it was exceptionally long. A two-wave hold-down in extremely long-interval waves would be, for obvious reasons, very long indeed.

Forty or fifty seconds underwater might not sound too bad. Most big-wave surfers can hold their breath for several minutes. But that’s on land, or in a pool. Ten second while getting rag-dolled by a big wave is an eternity. By thirty second, almost anyone is approaching blackout. In the worst wipeouts of my experience, I had no way of knowing afterward precisely—or even imprecisely—how long I had been held down. I tried to concentrate on relaxing, on taking the beating, not fighting it, not burning oxygen, trying to conserve energy for the swim to the surface once the flogging ended. I sometimes had to climb my own leash to the surface, my board being more buoyant than I was. My worst hold-downs were always the ones that I thought had come to an end—one more kick to the surface—before they actually had. The unexpected extra kick, or two, or three, still without reaching the surface, made the desperation for air, the spasm in the throat, feel suddenly like a sob, or a stifled scream. Fighting the reflex that wanted to suck water into the lungs was nasty, frantic.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

the last book I ever read (Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan, excerpt eleven)

from Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan:

My fever alternated with chills. A headache was constant. I was taking chloroquine, a popular malaria prophylaxis, unaware that it was useless against many local strains of the disease. Indonesian villagers often asked for pills without specifying what kind. Vitamins, aspirin, antibiotics—there seemed to be a general faith in pills. At first I thought the requests might be for sick relatives or friends, or for stockpiling against illness, but then I saw perfectly healthy-looking people pop whatever was handed over, no questions asked. It would have been funny if it weren’t so ominous. Now that I was sick, people left me alone. Babies wailed. I listlessly read a collection of Donald Barthelme stories. Lines stuck in my head. “Call up Bomba the Jungle Boy? Get his input?” Boney M’s execrable, inescapable “Rivers of Babylon” wheezed from a village teenager’s tape deck.