Reading and Eating, Part 1: Reading

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The kids have collected so much sea life from the shore! The buckets of hapless crabs scrabbling for exit remind me uncomfortably of a cleansing of the ghetto. How are they to know that they will be shortly re-deposited on the beach? It’s hard to gauge the thought processes of crabs. Some passively allow themselves to be lifted up, some raise their claws defiantly and try to pinch, some race nimbly amongst the rocks and settle themselves into tiny crevices. When some time has passed and they imagine themselves unobserved, they cautiously lift themselves out of the wet sand and tiptoe across the rocks for a better hiding place. Then I nark on them and the girls pounce and into the yellow plastic bucket they go. One of the children caught a very large (by tiny shore crab standards) crab and although it could have defended itself quite handily it actually seemed content to squat on her arm or hand, like a parrot on a pirate.

The Collaborator

I managed to finish another three books: Under Our Skin, by Donald McRae, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt and Cruising Attitude by Heather Poole.

On the other side of the world from comfortable Canada, where I was growing up in a country dedicated to equality (not always performing perfectly), there was a place where white men had established a bastion of white supremacy on the dark continent and although world attitudes towards race were shifting, they were stubbornly determined to maintain their dominance over the 85% majority.  The South African system was supported by a standing army of military conscripts (who were also sent into Angola to suppress black uprisings and communism there). Donald McRae grew up in South Africa in the 70s and 80s – his memoir begins with a child’s view of his world, a South Africa in which white men were rightly in charge of essentially everything, and in which the black natives were “lucky” if they got jobs as maids and waiters in a good hotel. Their own maid was happy enough, wasn’t she? As far as a 7-year-old child knew, even though he was aware that she didn’t eat with the family and had to eat off a tin plate and cup instead of the family’s china. His outlook changes as he grows up, witnesses some disturbing incidents and begins to regard his world with a more critical eye. His stance on his world culminates in his refusal to be conscripted into the army; an unheard-of attitude that army doctors suggested treating with ECT (electroshock therapy). His refusal to enter the army for his National Service partly stems from a revulsion for military life in general and partly from a reluctance to be a cog in the apartheid machine. A typical teenager, he considers his father part of the establishment, but unbeknownst to him, his father was actually instrumental in establishing programs to promote black employees into managerial positions in Eskom, the South African power utility, of which he became the general manager. His father also brought power into the townships, which had previously been completely without. McRae Junior also becomes a teacher in Soweto, but it is clear that his father did more in a practical sense to try to improve the lives of black South Africans. It is also to his credit that he and his wife tried to change the way white and black South Africans regarded each other, by treating black South Africans as equals, publicly, whenever they could. Part of McRae’s memoir deals with the detention and torture of young white South Africans who were also trying to change the system. Neil Aggett, a young doctor, was the first white South African activist to die in detention. So McRae’s stance is that of a white South African, embedded in the system, and his point of view of the struggle for equality (still not a reality in South Africa) is definitely from the white perspective, as is appropriate. There are also brief descriptions of the Steven Biko and Donald Woods story, and stories of other activists against apartheid. McRae ultimately chooses exile over conscription and emigrates to London. It was a powerful book and has made me want to investigate more South African history. On a lighter note, I discovered that the expression “sweet” comes from South Africa! I’m assuming from South African surfers coming to California as it seems to be embedded in surfer dude lingo. Amazing book. I will be looking into more of McRae’s work.

Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers has been written about extensively; it’s won several awards and totally deserves it. I loved the spare yet eloquent style – very Elmore Leonard – and the plot, back story, character development, all unfolded like a gorgeous (if blood-spattered) fan at a wonderfully timed pace – not so slow that you start flipping through the book looking for the backstory, and not so fast that you lose the edge of anticipation. I read it in one sitting and couldn’t read anything else for the rest of the day, just went around with a stunned look. A picaresque of two assassin brothers in the Wild West, circa 1880, it reminded me of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, except that the difference between Lenny and George lie in morality and not in intellect, yet even the lines there are beautifully blurred. The large soft-hearted brother is a romantic and philosopher; the wiry brother is harder, and a more stone-cold killer, yet he too has his own morality. Eli, the main character, is essentially a peaceable person and dislikes violence, yet realizes and acknowledges that his protectiveness towards his brother stirs violence in him; and that his brother uses this propensity while the blood-lust lasts. After every incident, Eli spends some time in consideration and summation of the significance of the interaction between himself, his brother, and the others with whom they come in contact. The relationship between the brothers is complex and will spark recognition in anyone with a close sibling. And I love period fiction. Anyway, I can’t even do it justice. Read it.

After two such powerful and stirring reads, I was ready for something a bit lighter: Cruising Attitude, by Heather Poole, was perfect. If you’re interested in the inner workings of the airline industry, and the life of a flight attendant, this is the book. There is also LOTS of dishing on flight attendant shenanigans and even more dish on passenger behavior. I am shocked that people still behave like boors on flights but apparently they do. Shame on you, people! Manners are for everybody. Fun read, light and entertaining.

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