Sunday, 21 May 2017 – Chapters 5-10 (pages 63-164) in J Marten Troost’s Headhunters on My Doorstep

Usually, I bail on a book if I don’t like it. When I stick with a book that’s slow moving, it’s rarely good a decision. But I’m glad that I continued reading Headhunters on My Doorstep Sunday, author J Marten Troost managed to build momentum after a shaky start.

Momentum Found

Troost gets his mojo back when the freighter Aranui III reaches the Marquesas, specifically the island Fatu Hiva, which is reachable only by sea. Once on land, Troost and some of his fellow passengers go on a long hike across the island and began to experience the indigenous culture.

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Troost travels on the Aranui III

Still Complaining

To be sure, Troost does not fix all of Headhunters‘ shortcomings. At the time of the trip, he’d recently been through rehab and – like all converts to a new faith – he cannot stop talking about it. In place of drinking, Troost has taken up distance running, which he also discusses at length. A final drawback is that Troost fails to translate many of the French phrases that he hears and the reader is left wondering what was said.

Humor, Famous Travelers, & Stereotypes Found

But, on the whole, I was pleased with what I read Sunday. Troost is typical of many travelers these days – he’s seeking the authentic, the real culture of the place. But, even in the Marquesas this proves to be a challenge. In Chapter Ten he jumps ship and strikes out on his own.

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People on Fatu Hiva believe that Americans are wealthy

Humor is among Troost’s gifts (though he sometimes misses the mark). For example, many of the Marquesans believe that all Americans are wealthy. Troost writes –

“And as for your average middle-class American, I wanted to explain to the handicraft sellers hovering around me, we have this weird retirement scheme where we are more or less obliged to hand over our savings to this place called Wall Street, which is kind of like entrusting your future to a leech, and as you watch it engorge itself with your blood, you simply hope that someday in the future, the leech will give it back. Most of us – especially those under the age of forty-five – don’t have pensions like those Commie Europeans. And because leeches are not to be trusted, I wanted to add, Americans are now tightwads” (pp. 66-67).

Troost also includes long digressions on South Pacific travelers Paul Gauguin (in Chapter 8) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Chapter 9). The Gauguin material – in which Troost considers Gauguin as a man with a horrible substance-abuse problem – is quite interesting. But the Stevenson material seemed flat and padded out; you probably could get the same basic biography by surfing the ‘net.

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Troost visits Gauguin’s grave

Inevitably, the best material concerns the people – both Marquesans and travelers – whom Troost meets. In a mock prayer to God, Troost sums up this rogues gallery as follows –

“But an anti-Semitic Frenchman? An Israeli Jew with a lust for gold? Really? This is what You send me? You know that as a Gentile, I can’t touch that. What’s next? Will I be encountering a black man eating watermelon tomorrow? A Chinese guy doing kung fu? A WASP in seersucker shorts? A gay man with a lisp? You, Sir, have a very twisted view of comedy. But thanks for the cannibal. Good night, Amen” (p. 144).

Put a Number to It

So, I’ll adjust my all-important rating of Headhunters to 7/10 (up from 6/10 one day ago).

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Saturday, 20 May 2017 – Reading the first 62 pages of Maarten Troost’s Headhunters on My Doorstep

After finishing Rebel Mother Friday, I needed a change of pace. I headed for the South Pacific by starting J. Marten Troost’s Headhunters on My Doorstep. I made it to page 62. So far, I’m disappointed and would give it 6/10.

Several years ago I read Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals, which is about the five years he lived in Kiribati. Sex Lives is the best sort of travel book – a funny, insightful account that shows the reader a world that he or she didn’t even know existed.

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Headhunters opens with Troost in a bad place. Before the book began, his wife gave him an ultimatum that he either go to rehab for alcoholism or she would file for divorce. He went to rehab. At the beginning of the book, Troost somewhat-unhappily contemplates his new, sober life as he boards a French freighter heading from Tahiti to the Marquesas. It doesn’t help that the French crew makes the trip a “booze cruise” for the passengers, handing Troost a drink as he boards.

Slow Out of the Gate – with Diversions

So far, Troost has been slow to get the narrative moving. After 60+ pages, he is preparing to leave the freighter and see the Marquesas. The story thus far consists of digressions on the history of south Pacific, European writers’ portrayals of the South Pacific, and – especially – Troost’s newfound sobriety. This material is only fair – not awful, but not especially engaging.

One thing that I remember from The Sex Lives of Cannibals is Troost’s cutting wit. He can be very funny and Headhunters also amuses the reader. He includes the following description of A French passenger on the cargo ship —

“Ca va bien, Maarten?” Edgar had said after we made introductions, as he would every time we encountered each other whether in the dining hall or outside the shower stall. He was seventy-five years old… and his hair tumbled below his neck, Dungeons and Dragons style. I suspected 1974 was a very fone year for Edgar, and he had seen no need to move on. He spoke with a raspy, phlegmatic voice that suggested a pretty serious nicotine habit back in the day. In clogs, he stood approximately four foot ten” (pp. 24-25).

Troost’s writing reminds me a bit of Paul Theroux’s descriptions of people whom he meets on the road – I enjoy the writing, but I’m glad that he wasn’t describing me.

Insights on the Oceans, Island Life, & Politics

Despite my feeling of being let down with Headhunters, there are some nice insights. Troost observes that the better parts of his life have been spent on islands, not on continents. And, while trying to reset his life, the islands draw him back. Since the age of empire ended after World War II, the Pacific Islands have again become backwaters – and the ability to escape life’s pressures there appeals to Troost.

A French merchant sailor on Troost’s ship puts his finger on the Pacific’s appeal – “I came here for six months. It’s now ten years. Tahitian time. So it goes. … Out here, he said, waving toward the immensity of the ocean, you have to forget your identity. We are just people, and there are not very many of us in this part of the South Pacific” (p. 39).

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J Maarten Troost

In Headhunters, Troost is much more political than I remember him being in Sex Lives. His politics are the those of the urban liberal –

“Let a nice Mormon like Mitt Romney smoke crack a few times, or shoot dope, or be prescribed Oxys for a recurring injury, and I guarantee you that within a month he’ll be giving blowjobs in an alley to fund his habit. (Okay, maybe a year. He’s got those accounts in the Caymans)” (p. 52).

Obviously, readers will differ in their reactions to this material. It didn’t do a lot for me; Troost said that he wanted to go to the Pacific, in part, to escape life on “the continents.” Likewise, I sought out Headhunters owing in part to fatigue with our dreary national politics. But Troost has a sharp wit, and readers who are looking for political commentary with a left-wing slant probably will enjoy his barbs.

Midterm Report

So far, Headhunters is just “pretty good.” The book is short and offers enough to keep me going. But I hope that the narrative gathers momentum once Troost makes it to the Marquesas – fingers crossed.

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Friday, 19 May 2017 – Finishing Rebel Mother by Peter Andreas (pages 175 to 320)

Friday I finished Peter Andreas’ Rebel Mother (going from page 175 to page 320). It was a great, quick read and I finished it in about 24 hours. I’d give it 9/10.

The second day of reading didn’t hit me quite as hard as did the first day. Once you’ve acclimated to the world of Carol Andreas, things just don’t seem quite as shocking.

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Kidnapped 

I started reading @ one of the book’s turning points. At page 175, Peter is living with his father, Carl, in suburban Detroit. But Carol is determined to kidnap Peter and take him back to Peru. Peter reluctantly agrees to help her with the scheme, but he is pained by having to choose between his parents.

Predictably, life isn’t easy when Peter, Carol, and Raul (her second husband) make it back to Peru. Carol discovers that Raul had an affair while they were living in Denver and – as a result – she tells Peter that she is considering suicide. Andreas writes that “My mother was so self-absorbed in her woes that she seemed completely unaware that her talk of suicide was upsetting me. … Looking back at that moment, I still feel that same anger today: a mother should never tell her ten-year-old child that she’s thinking about killing herself” (p. 189). The reader admires Peter’s candor in telling this painful, personal story.

Back to the USA

Predictably, the Marxist revolution never makes it to Peru. Carol leaves Raul and heads back to Denver with Peter. For Peter, life in Denver is closer to normal, but still a challenge. Carol continues all sorts of activism, including an association with David Gilbert, who currently is serving life without parole for his part in the 1981 murder of a Brinks armored-car guard. Carol also becomes a serial shoplifter, even stealing Peter’s birthday gifts.

The Political is Personal

Though Carol transformed her life based on her politics, she could not control her sons. Eldest son Joel was the closest to her in regard to politics; the two argued over who was the better communist. Middle son Ronald angrily split from Carol and moved to New Zealand, though the two would have some limited contact by the end of Carol’s life. Ronald’s defection tormented Carol. But it made me wonder if Ronald might be more like his mother than she cared to admit. (One frustration with the book is that Peter does not tell the reader what became of his brothers or his father).

As for Peter, he gradually disengaged from his mother’s view after he left for college. For Carol, the loss of Peter’s loyalty was devastating. After her death, Peter found an April 1991 diary entry in which she says that she cannot sleep due to “Peter’s betrayal of class struggle” (p. 308).

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Peter Andreas today

Reflecting on an Unconventional Life

Peter tries to end the book on a positive note, writing of that many positive aspects of life with Carol. I found this section to be unconvincing. I thought that Peter was telling the truth about his mother, but not “the whole truth.” My sense is that he’s still ambivalent and that his decision to raise his daughters in a more-conventional lifestyle reveals some of his feelings.

In summary, Rebel Mother is a terrific book, a tale of life lived far off the beaten path. I recommend it.

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Reading pages 1-174 in Peter Andreas’ Rebel Mother after a trip to the library

My leggy wife and I walked down the hill from our house to the library. It was just cool enough to make it down the hill without breaking a sweat. Once we got to the library, our book greed was hard to contain.

I found four books –

  1. The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish
  2. Death on Diamond Mountain by Scott Carney
  3. The Fall of the House of Zeus by Curtis Wilkis
  4. Rebel Mother by Peter Andreas

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Afterward, we threw the books in the backpack and went back up the hill. We found shade where could, and remarked that it won’t be cool enough to walk for much longer.

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At night, I started reading Andreas’ Rebel Mother. It’s an amazing, true story of Andreas’ childhood with Carol Andreas, his “Mennonite-turned-Marxist mother” (p ix). The book is taken both from Peter’s memories and from diaries that Carol kept in over 100 notebooks written over 30 years.

The Narrative – So Far

The first 40 pages (labeled “I – Leaving”) speed the reader through his family’s background, as his parents marry, have three sons, and settle in Detroit. As the 1960s progress, Carol becomes increasingly radical and completes her doctorate in sociology. Her marriage to Peter’s father, Carl, fails. Eventually, she quits her tenure-track teaching job in mid-semester and moves the three boys to Berkeley, California.

In the following sections, Carol becomes disenchanted with Berkeley and moves to join Salvador Allende’s socialist revolution in Chile. Then, after Allende is overthrown, Carol and Peter escape to Argentina and settle in Peru. Along the way, Peter’s brothers, Ronald and Joel declare their independence from Carol and move out on their own – though both are still young teenagers. Throughout this time (1972-1974), Peter’s father continues to search for him to try to bring him back to Michigan.

Impressions – So Far

The interest in Rebel Mother is in the people, not the politics. Many books cover 1960s radicalism and Marxist thought. But the Andreas’ family story fascinates. The reader has a degree of admiration for Carol because she “stuck to her guns” and pursued the life that she wanted to live.

However, I found myself wondering about the costs. Carol rebelled against the idea that she had to be what other people wanted her to be. But, she attempted to do the same thing to Peter; he was supposed to be a Marxist revolutionary, because that’s what Carol wanted for him.

Also, though I’ve just read through page 174, Peter has already alluded to other costs of Carol’s choices. Peter remarked that his father “…was left, bitter and disoriented, and never fully recovered” (p. 28) from the collapse of their family.

In a letter, Carl tells Peter that Carol has “no feeling for human relationships” (p. 29). At times, the reader tends to agree. Often, Carol has sex with her boyfriends while Peter is in the same room, a few feet away. Also, in one, unforgettable scene, Peter’s hair is infested with lice while he is attending school in Peru. Peter is with a man named Esteban, whose family is paid to care for Peter while Carol attends political events. Esteban notices the lice in Peter’s hair and says that he can cure them if Peter will agree. Peter does and Esteban takes Peter outside and tells him to lean over. Esteban then dumps the urine in the family’s chamber pot onto Peter’s head and tells him to rubs in the urine. Then –

“I began to stand up, but he stopped me. ‘You need just a bit more,’ he said. There was no pee left in the chamber pot, so he unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and released a hot stream right on my head, taking care not to miss any spots. I was so drenched that even my ears were full. ‘There, that should do it'” (p. 122).

Another Departure

Rebel Mother is can’t-put-it-down good. So far, It’d give it 9/10.

I read to page 174, where Peter is back living in the Detroit suburbs with Carl after his father regained custody. But Carol is planning to kidnap Peter and take him back to South America.

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What I’m reading – Lagniappe on Luther Strange’s Ad Campaign

Mobile’s alternative newspaper Lagniappe comes out on Thursdays and I grabbed a copy after we dropped off the kids @ school. The two best pieces concerned the upcoming special election to fill Jeff Sessions’ U.S. Senate seat.

The first item that I liked was a profile of all of the candidates for the seat. It’s hard to keep up with whose hat is the ring. The second item was Rob Holbert’s “Damn the Torpedoes” column. Holbert always has a strong opinion on current events & this week’s column is no different.

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Straight from The Valley Times? No, it’s Rob Holbert’s column on Big Luther Strange

Holbert takes Alabama’s Luther Strange to the woodshed for attempting to portray himself as an advocate the little person. Strange was appointed to Sessions’ seat by disgraced “Love Guv” Robert Bentley. Strange was Alabama’s Attorney General at the time and was supposed to be investigating the malfeasance that eventually forced Bentley to resign. Instead, Luther did nothing about the investigation but did ask Bentley to appoint him to Sessions’ seat. Bentley obliged. Now, Strange wants the voters to allow him to keep the seat.

Holbert’s column is as scathing as it is funny. He criticizes the claims in Strange’s campaign ads. Particularly damning is the ads’ inclusion of fake newspaper clips from a nonexistent newspaper called The Valley Times. Of course, all of the fake clips give the impression that the newspapers love Big Luther.

The column is here and well worth a look –

https://lagniappemobile.com/fake-news-played-large-luthers-ad/

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Wednesday, 17 May 2017 – Finishing Harvey Jackson’s Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera (Chapters 13-17) and Tampons in the Men’s Room from the Chronicle of Higher Education

Wednesday I didn’t get around to reading Harvey Jackson’s Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera until the evening. But I finished the book over a couple of beers, reading Chapters 13-17 (pages 212-297). My verdict on Redneck is positive; I’d give it 8/10 and recommend it to interested readers.

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Dr. Jackson in his natural habitat – academia

The sections of the book that I read Wednesday cover the 1990s up to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Jackson’s thesis is summed up by one of the descendants of Destin’s original founders “this is what you get when you exchange nature for economic well-being” (P. 216).

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Panama City Beach, Florida – Is all of this development progress? Harvey Jackson has his doubts

To Jackson, the Gulf Coast today comes from the irresistable desire of the Gulf Coast’s business community to make money. To describe the business folks, Jackson cribs far too often from a 1970s Sports Illustrated article on the Oakland Raiders’ Kenny Stabler by Robert B Jones, who described them as “raffish Rotarians, pirates with cash register eyeballs, and hard-handed matrons” (p. 295). That’s a wicked, funny, accurate description; but I got tired of reading it.

Jackson is a retired historian from Alabama’s Jacksonville State University. Fortunately, he is a far better writer than are most academics. Toward the end of the book, he heads to his beach house as the oil from Deepwater Horizon approaches “his beach.” Jackson writes this beautiful account –

“My mood darkened. We got to the bay, the landmark that told us we were almost to the beach, the place where we always roll down the windows to smell the Gulf. What would I smell this time? I wasn’t sure. Almost kept ’em up. But I didn’t. And it hit me—salt air with a delicate bouquet of decaying marsh grass. Wonderful. We arrived at the house and saw people riding bikes, walking, jogging, just like last year and the year before. So we walked across the road and stood on the bluff, looking out over the Gulf—no slick, no sheen, no slime. Emerald green near the shore, darker further out, green again at the sandbar, then dark blue on to the horizon. There were lots of people on the beach, a few in the water. Cleanup crews walked along the tide line, picking up what had washed in. You could spot ’em. They were the ones wearing long pants. And moving slowly—it was hot” (p. 287).

Riviera’s tone is bittersweet. It’s part nostalgia/history, part musing on change. At the beach, wealthy yuppies have replaced poor whites. Much has been gained, but Jackson despairs over what has been lost. Still, “redneckery” remains. While visiting a dive bar at the end of the book, Jackson observes “Behind the bar, next to the telephone, a sign answered that often-asked question— ‘wwjd—what would Jesus do?’ ‘Jesus,’ the sign reads, ‘would slap the shit out of you’ (p. 244).

Now for Something Completely Different – The Chronicle of Higher Education on Tampons in Campus Men’s Rooms

As an academic, I enjoy reading The Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s a great resource for “what’s happening” at colleges. The editorial position of Chronicle is to the left of Karl Marx and it tends to present even the worst nuttery in academics with a straight face.

Tuesday the Chronicle reported on efforts to put tampons in campus men’s rooms. Activists state that they are advocating this policy because “not everyone who menstruates is a woman.” It was a biology lesson for me – and for anyone unfamiliar with the flavor of the month in academia.

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For much of the 20th Century, liberals dominated U.S. Politics. Some day, liberals may again push aside conservatives (who have plenty of problems of their own). But, the Left will have to find some way to focus on issues that resonate on main street. “Menstrual equity” is not going to help usher in a new liberal era.

The Chronicle piece is here, but I’m not sure how much nonsubscribers can see –

http://www.chronicle.com/article/Tampons-in-Men-s-Rooms-/240091

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Tuesday, 16 May 2017 – Chapters 8-12 in Harvey Jackson III’s Redneck Riviera and Some Musing on The Wall Street Journal’s Tuesday edition

Tuesday I read chapters 8 through 12 (pages 129 – 212) in Harvey Jackson III’s The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera (2011). The chapters that I read cover roughly the 1980s to 2000.

Jackson’s book is largely nostalgic. Most of the material focuses on the present-day Gulf Coast, but he’s always making a comparison with the way things used to be during his visits to the coast as a young man. Jackson clearly disapproves of the way that the coast has been developed, but he is fair enough to present both sides.

The author at Seagrove Beach, Florida. Photo by Anna Elizabeth Jackson.

Harvey Jackson III, presumably spending some time @ the Gulf (AKA “The Redneck Riviera”)

In one particularly telling quote, a police officer recounts what Panama City was like before the developers made it more upscale. He notes that there were many more stabbings and shootings back in the old days. To Jackson, the absolute nadirs of coastal development are the Phoenix condominiums in Orange Beach, Alabama. One observer – Dr. John Dindo from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab – refers to these condos as a “concrete jungle.”

As someone who has spent several summers at the Phoenixes, I got a kick out of those comments. The Phoenixes are far from “down home” and they completely block the view of the beach from Perdido Beach Boulevard. But they are quite nice, many units are large and they are well built with poured-in-place concrete.

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Phoenix III in Orange Beach, Alabama – one of many Phoenix complexes in the area.

As a final aside, I have to mention an anecdote that Jackson recounts. Panama City attempted to reign in rowdy behavior by making it illegal to “walk drunk, arresting pedestrians for doing so. As a result, whenever police appeared, many spring breakers would jump into the passenger seat of any available car (even cars filled with total strangers). You can’t make up this stuff.

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The Wall Street Journal had several goodies in it Tuesday. I was particularly interested an article that discussed a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. The Court ruled 5-3 that it is OK for debt-collection agencies to try to collect expired debts (those that people have no obligation to pay) during bankruptcy proceedings.

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You might not have to pay the debt that the collectors say that you owe. But the U.S. Supreme Court says that – under certain circumstances – it’s OK for the collectors to demand that you pay it.

Demanding that someone pay a debt that they don’t have an obligation to pay (and failing to inform them that they have no obligation to pay it), seems awfully close to criminal fraud to me.

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