All posts by mjvowles2014

Fall 2018 Creativity Roundup – 3 TV Dramas You Need To Watch!

These are some of my favorite posts to do, and at this point in my blog’s history they’re at least semi-regular. I’m always consuming media, and doing a roundup of the latest things I find inspiring has proven to be a great way for me to engage with my readers. It’s my contention that over the past decade or so, TV drama has entered a golden age. I think the overall production value, quality of acting talent, and the complexity of the writing are as good now as they have ever been. The last point is the most important one, in my opinion, as our dramas now are afforded the creative freedom to explore darker, more nuanced themes.

Here are three of my favorite shows that I’ve watched recently:


3. The Affair

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It’s hard to pick one TV series that I can definitively call my favorite of all time. Game of Thrones and The Sopranos are both good candidates, but when asked the question, the answer I most often give is The Affair.

In short, the show details a passionate, illicit affair between a struggling New York novelist and a small town waitress with a traumatic past. The setting is Montauk- a cozy resort town situated on the far tip of Long Island. For me, the show is as close to a superlative rating as anything else out there, especially the peerless first three seasons.

It brushes up on my personal criterion for perfection because it’s intriguing in layers; dysfunctional families, dark secrets, sexual awakenings, and even a murder mystery to name a few. But perhaps the thing that makes this story so unique is the way it’s told. The narrative shifts between alternating points of view that not only overlap with, but sometimes contradict, one another. This style captures the way two people remember the same events differently, so that we’re given an incomplete truth. The actual truth, as is often the case in life, remains out of reach.

 

2. The Man in the High Castle

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For me, this is a show that’s criminally underrated. I’m putting it above The Affair on this list because I was left disappointed by the latter’s most recent season. The Man in the High Castle, conversely, is a show that’s very much in the ascendency. I just finished watching season 3 and I can’t stop thinking about it. This show gets better and better with every episode, and no one seems to be talking about it.

Based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name (from which it deviates significantly, I understand), The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Axis Powers won World War Two. It’s the 1960s and the North American continent is divided between the German Reich in the east and the Japanese Empire in the west. This new world is one of the most fascinating aspects of the show, and the subtle societal changes that each half of America undergoes are explored in multiple story threads. There are the rebels in conflict with their respective oppressive regimes, there are the two oppressive regimes in conflict with each other, and there are also conflicts within each regime. What I’m trying to say is, we experience this new world through various points of view, with heroes and villains in each faction. Just because the system is evil, that doesn’t mean that everyone living in it becomes evil too. It’s fascinating because it’s a reality in which systemic evil becomes the norm, and being twenty years after WW2, many have simply accepted it. This is something that’s addressed in the show itself, with many resistance characters stressing how weird and shocking this reality is. One of the things that make this show so compelling is the fact that it takes a morally-complex approach to the conflict while still being a nightmarish dystopia. The resistance fighters aren’t flawless or morally-pure, and the fascists aren’t “monsterized”. Instead, there are just people and their choices. There are idealists trying to fight for a better world, and there are those that accept the new world order so as to remain safe, which is what happens in real life.

This is a show unlike any other on TV at the moment. It’s also very much a science fiction drama, with the German-Japanese Cold War serving as a backdrop to a mystery that every faction is trying to solve- the repeated appearances of film reels depicting a parallel universe in which the Allies won the war.

 

1. Sharp Objects

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Now I enjoyed Gone Girl as much as the next guy- but this is on another level. Sharp Objects is based on Gillian Flynn’s somewhat lesser-known debut novel of the same name. It takes the top spot in my list of TV dramas I’ve found creatively inspiring in the latter half of 2018 because it’s simply the most interestingly and effectually put together.

This dark miniseries features an alcoholic, self-harming journalist who returns to her hometown in rural Missouri to try and solve the disappearance of two missing girls. I won’t say any more than that because you should just watch it. It’s fucking brutal but also understated- which might sound like a strange thing to say, but if you’ve seen it you understand. And this brings me back to what I said above about it being the series that for me puts its pieces together in the most compelling way.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction reminds me a lot of Lynne Ramsey’s subtle approach to storytelling (particularly in her recent movie You Were Never Really Here). It’s a show that punishes the lazy viewer. You can’t give it anything less than your full attention, because one look down at the peach and eggplant emojis your Tinder match is sending you will leave you wondering what the hell is going on when you try and reengage with the narrative later. Vallée gives you the pieces in fleeting images and unspoken inferences. Nothing is spelled out or summarized for you- it’s a lot like reading the fiction of Raymond Carver. The characters aren’t mouthpieces for exposition; the story is told in a very visual way that requires an enthusiastic, active viewer. The cinematography is beautiful, and so important to how this story is told. I want to read the novel, but I also want to give myself a few years to try and forget the plot details as best I can, because there are some shocking revelations to enjoy here.

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The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

The next book I read from my “Summer Haul” was The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante. As I stated in my previous post, the novels I picked up in July seemed to anticipate my travels and my embracement of the season. They were thin books, foreign books, and all of them focused on relationships of one kind or another. I’ve been meaning to read more non-English language authors, as well as more female authors. Ferrante was the perfect choice. Her novel The Lost Daughter, in particular, is one that fits the season; it is set over a single summer, the narrator is herself on vacation, and the setting is a coastal town in Italy. But don’t get the wrong impression: this book is anything but light and cheery. It’s light in the sense that it’s easy to read, but it’s certainly not light in tone. This novel is one of the darkest, most unflinchingly-sober portraits of the human psyche and all its fascinating grotesquerie that I have ever read. And I love it. This might just be one of the greatest books I have ever read. I don’t really have favorite novelists, whose works I consume one after the other like so many Aunt Sally’s pralinettes. I drift from writer to writer, genre to genre. But Ferrante might just break this attitude of mine. I have to go back. I must go back. This person has something to say. Something unique and important. Ferrante’s insights into human nature are as cutting as they are utterly compelling. I’m going to read more of her work, and do my best not to read all her novels at once, so that I may maintain some basic semblance of variety. Even though Ferrante writes in a way completely different from Cormac McCarthy, they are alike in that they are the only two active writers that make me feel like I’m reading the work of genius. Something about them just seems- at least to me- a cut above the rest.

But who is this mysterious person upon whom I’m lavishing such praise? No fucking idea. You tell me. All that we know about Elena Ferrante is that she’s an Italian woman, born in 1943, raised in Naples, and that she has a degree in Classics. Since her literary career began in 1992, she’s opted to remain anonymous. There’s a lot of curiosity regarding her true identity, which I think is natural. But I nonetheless sympathize with the idea that everything a writer has or desires to say can be found in their work alone. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with someone trying to find out who she is- but what I don’t like is the idea of that person making her identity public. The instinct to know is fine, but the decision to violate her wish for privacy is flat out wrong. It’s egregiously offensive to publish someone’s personal details in the public sphere if they’ve requested anonymity. Besides, it achieves little of anything. We have her body of work in the public domain, and that’s all we need.

A lot of what is commonly believed about Ferrante is inferred from recurring themes in her novels. She writes about motherhood in a strikingly unsentimental way. The theme of ambivalent motherhood is very much at the center of The Lost Daughter– my introduction to Ferrante. In brief, the premise is thus: Leda is a single mom living in Florence, whose two daughters- now in their twenties- have left Italy to live with their father in Canada. At first, Leda feels like a weight has been lifted. With no responsibilities, she decides to take a break for the summer and do something for herself. She rents an apartment in a small coastal town and begins taking her books to the beach each day to study. It’s at this beach that she discovers this loud, brash, uncouth family from Naples that make her feel uneasy. A small crime is committed that brings her path and the Neapolitans’ together. As she becomes obsessed with them, she is forced to confront some dark things from her past.

You’re hooked now, aren’t you? Go out and buy a copy, because it doesn’t disappoint. The novel itself is only 140 pages long and it’s very straightforward. Like the last couple of books I’ve read, it’s not very plot-heavy. The adjective that comes foremost to my mind when describing the tone of this book is “confessional”. The events of the present are interspersed with Leda’s memories of the past. She muses on things and goes on tangents of thought, and much of it reads like an interior monologue. That might not sound exciting, but her thoughts are so raw and interesting that every page grows more addictive. I had to re-read several passages, not because I didn’t understand them, but because I found them so compelling. Every page seems to have a revelation of one kind or another. Like I said, it’s quite easy to read, for the reason that the protagonist is so forthcoming and straightforward. Nothing is dressed up in style, nothing is omitted for us to infer. Everything is conveyed in a very direct manner. But it’s no less profound or complex for being so accessible. The narrative voice suits the story. I’d like to see a creative writing professor try to tell Elena Ferrante she’s “telling and not showing” because to do so would be to invite a verbal truncheoning by every literary critic from here to Bishkek.

I loved this novel, and I can’t wait to read more Elena Ferrante and blog about it here on TumbleweedWrites. It’s a dark story, but it’s not dark in the Gillian Flynn sense of the word. The mothers of Ferrante aren’t poisoning their daughters, they’re just neglecting them. I’m just pointing this out in case you’re a squeamish type. There’s no gore here. Instead, The Lost Daughter’s darkness is manifest in its tone. It’s unsettling. It’s a powerful, challenging look at the relationships between mothers and daughters and the way the sins of the past come back to haunt the present. Anyway, I hope I’ve encouraged some of y’all to give Ferrante a read.

Let me know in the comments what you think of Elena Ferrante!

Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg

Before departing for the USA this summer, I decided to head to my local Waterstones and use up a couple gift-cards I had. My purchases really did seem like a “summer book haul”, reflecting the warm weather, travel, and sociability that was sure to come. The haul also reflected my recent reading choices and the desire to change things up. By the end of July I had just got done finishing Niki: The Story of a Dog and No Country for Old Men. One focused on politics, the other on violence. Both were written by men. Cormac McCarthy, in particular, is noted for writing terse, dispassionate, “manly” fiction, with very few female characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love McCarthy. He’s a genius. But I like to enjoy a variety of literary voices to freshen things up. Aside from the lack of female characters, McCarthy is noted for his interest in themes such as life & death, justice, violence, and he admits to having a dislike for novelists that focus on love and sex, such as Marcel Proust and Henry James. I more or less like both styles equally. My tastes in literature have become a lot broader in the last two years. I knew that I wanted a different voice to McCarthy before going back to him, but I didn’t know what I’d find when I reached the bookstore. I ended up getting several novels from a table with a sign saying “Summer Reads”, mostly by female authors, all of them foreign, and almost exclusively focusing on emotional themes such as love, desire, relationships, identity, loneliness et cetera. I tend to group these kinds of themes as being “human-oriented”, examining the human condition as it relates to individuals. The opposite approach, the way I see it, is a focus on themes such as society, power, justice, existence, politics, and all that, which I tend to group as being “concept-oriented”. They examine the human condition as it relates to groups of people and institutions. What does our political framework reveal about our nature? I don’t see either stylistic approach as being superior or more profound than the other, and what I choose really does come down to whatever I fancy in a given moment. On this occasion, as I said, I believe my choices reflected the season I was in, and my travels to come.

One of the books in the haul was a novel by the name of Pages for Her, written by American author Sylvia Brownrigg. The cover instantly caught my eye; a beautiful woman, natural-looking and unpretentious, staring off into the distance at something. The color scheme was very effective- there were echoes of pop art that accentuated the curious woman and made the book stick out from the pile. The blurb told me that the book was about a woman who reunites with the professor she had a short (but intense) affair with 20 years ago. It seemed like just the sort of thing I was looking for- something realistic and emotive that went to the heart of the soul. It was only when I got home however, that I discovered this new book (published in 2017) was in fact a sequel. I debated just reading it anyway. I’ve done that sort of thing before. But the book was promising to be a hit with me already, so I ultimately ordered the original- Pages for You– off of Amazon.

Which brings us to the topic of today’s post! Pages for You is a novel published in 2001 by Sylvia Brownrigg, that details the rise and fall of a love affair between Flannery, a curious student, and Anne, her sophisticated professor. That might sound like a spoiler, but it’s really not: it’s made clear at the beginning of the book that the narrator, Flannery, is looking back on a relationship that has concluded. In truth, Pages for You isn’t really the kind of novel you can spoil. You know what’s going to happen, and the way it happens doesn’t involve some shocking twist that subverts your expectations. So why read the book at all, if it’s a series of realistic, pre-determined events? I wouldn’t recommend this book to lovers of intricate plots. There’s no suspense here, no revelations, no red herrings. And yet I couldn’t put the book down. I breezed through it like a Liane Moriarty thriller. Pages for You is a character-driven book if ever I’ve seen one. It’s not plot-driven, but it’s no less compelling and addictive. It reads like a memoir, covering Flannery’s freshman year of college. Seeing the world through Flannery’s eyes, interpreted through her unique voice, is the greatest strength of the novel, and the reason I read it so earnestly.

Throughout the novel we are treated to an intimate account of Flannery’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts, all of which are in flux. She’s not the same person at the end of the novel as she was at the beginning. She’s a fish out of water for a start, having traveled alone from her native California to Connecticut for college. She’s intellectually-curious, impulsive, goofy, creative, inelegant, anxious, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s hungry for experiences. She challenges her self-doubt in order to explore and to learn. She’s not got any prior sexual experience to speak of. She unravels, her worldview expands, she discovers nascent truths about herself that catch her off-guard. I love the little details that highlight the clash of cultures between east and west. I love the way her impressions of New York are tied inexorably to the woman she falls in love with. Indeed, one aspect of the book that I have seen so many other readers praise, is its close examination of tiny, seemingly mundane details. Each chapter is about 1-2 pages long, and a given one might focus on her thoughts about nicknames, kissing for the first time, or simply holding hands. The minutiae of life, so often left unexamined by writers, is something that greatly interests me. It interests me because I often find myself fixated on small things, ascribing to them an inflated sense of importance. The sequence of little vignettes that cover Flannery’s freshman year each contribute to the central theme of her coming-of-age; Flannery’s journey to make sense of both herself and the world around her.

The catalyst for this journey is Anne Arden- a woman ten years her senior, whom she crosses paths with one morning in a diner. This event occurs right at the start of the book; it’s with Anne that this story begins and ends for Flannery. In short, the book is about the things Anne awakens in Flannery. Anne represents sophistication, knowledge, and confidence. She’s cultured and ambitious. She has an effortless sense of style and poise. She’s the reason the adjective “wry” was invented. She has a distinctive, mysterious, intoxicating aura that leaves people breathless and intrigued. Her sardonic remarks and sharp tongue can leave people cold, but as Flannery discovers, there’s a big heart underneath her armor. I’ve observed some readers complain that Anne seems one-dimensional, wishing that she were more well-rounded. However, I think the portrayal of Anne is justified because everything in the book is filtered through the lens of Flannery’s desire. It’s not Anne so much as Flannery’s experience of Anne, her image of Anne, the things Anne represents for Flannery. If we were to be given Anne’s perspective of events, then Pages for You would be an entirely different book. It wouldn’t be called Pages for You for a start. I’m hoping that the sequel explores Anne’s character more, because I think there is a lot to work with. It’s made clear throughout the novel that Anne has her own demons, insecurities, and troubled past. She has a life much bigger than just her affair with Flannery, a fact that becomes painfully obvious to the protagonist at the end. And as I said, that’s really what this book is about; Flannery’s affair with this enigmatic woman, and the idea that as big and special as it seems, there is an entire world beyond it.

I enjoyed this book. The format suited the theme very well. Not only did the short chapters and constant breaks help sustain my interest and increase my reading speed, but it gave the book a picaresque feel that I really liked. Each chapter had Flannery documenting a different aspect of her love affair, ruminating on it, musing about it, digesting the experience as a part of her personal growth. She has to come to terms with her obsessive, overwhelming sexual desire. Then she has to get used to the idea that she too, might be an object of desire, that unbeknownst to her she has an eroticism of her own. She describes being naked in front of someone for the first time. She discusses sleeping in the same bed as another person for the first time. She details at length what it feels like to be in a relationship, to feel anchored by someone, to be an anchor to someone. This is the heart of the book, the heart of what makes it a compelling read. What Flannery confides in us is resonant. I think we can all relate to Flannery. Her words touch our own lives and memories. The tangled mix of curiosity, jealousy, anxiety, pride, desire, possessiveness, and confusion that is the tapestry of the human experience. I encourage you to give this novel a try, especially if you are interested in character-driven fiction! I can’t wait to get started on the sequel.

Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Déry

I visited Budapest last April, and I came back with several works of Hungarian fiction in my luggage. The first author I tried from my pile was the great Tibor Déry, who lived and died in the nation’s capital.

You would be absolutely right to classify his book Niki: The Story of a Dog as both a fable and a satire. The qualities at the core of each of those genres are easily discernable to the reader as being at the core of this novel too. And even though I agree with this assessment, I can’t help but flinch upon hearing it. Not because the assessment is incorrect- but because to label the novel as both a fable and a satire seems to negate its identity as a “proper novel”. A fable has connotations of fairy tales, folklore, or grandmotherish bedtime stories based on instilling moral virtues. A satire seems to imply an agenda of sorts- more often than not political in nature- whose importance overshadows that of the novel’s other qualities. And by other qualities I mean the sensuous literary aesthetics that are characteristic of novels. A novel, as a genre, is very much its own beast. And all I’m trying to say is that Niki’s “sensuous literary aesthetics” are not insignificant. This isn’t just a satirical fable wearing the skin of a novel; it is a proper novel in its own right. But why is that worth pointing out? Because I think that if the cashier in Írók Boltja had referred to Niki as a fable or a satire, I would have had second thoughts about buying it. They’re labels that- one way or the other- color the reader’s preconceptions of the book. I may have doubted the depth of the novel’s character development or the pleasure to be had in its plot. But upon reading it I am pleased to say that the book is indeed very readable and enjoyable. It’s emotive. It’s full of wit and charm and heartache. It is a fable. It is a satire. But it’s also, in a very straightforward way, simply the story of a dog.

And this, in my opinion, is the book’s greatest strength. There is true genius in creating a work of art that can be experienced on different levels. Niki is equally effective as both a political satire and a story. In short, the book is about an unwanted pup that falls into the hands of Mr and Mrs Ancsa, an old couple still mourning the loss of their son in WW2. The setting is Budapest, Hungary, in the years after the war. At first things look promising; Mr Ancsa accepts a new job in the capital and is enthusiastic at the idea of playing his part in creating a better society. He’s a firm believer in Communism and a longtime member of the party. But after he is detained by the Communist Party for seemingly no reason, the initial hope that came with Hungary’s Soviet liberation fast becomes a nightmare. The gradual erosion of the family’s optimistic idealism is reflective of the wider population as the Soviet stranglehold tightens. The process is slow and quiet, and as the country’s would-be saviors are revealed to be nothing more than new Nazis, lofty utopian concepts are extinguished. The novel does an excellent job of illustrating how the hollowness of these utopian ideals results in a kind of societal degradation. Budapest becomes a toxic environment. Neighbors are suspicious and cold. I love how the novel focuses on the minutiae of everyday life. It explores the subtler effects of Soviet oppression, examining not the imprisoned or the persecuted, but those left behind. As the public grows more and more desperate, alienated, and paranoid, their worst qualities emerge. People are isolated and miserable. And through all of this- with her husband missing and her community abandoning her- Mrs Ancsa finds strength in her canine companion.

At its heart the novel is about the story of Niki and how she and the old woman depend on each other. It really is quite moving in some passages. I felt extremely invested in this old woman and her dog. I got emotional reading it- even volatile. The book keeps insisting that it is purely the story of a dog and nothing more. Obviously this isn’t true, and it’s amusing how the book never goes too in-depth into its political commentary. Every time it touches on politics, the narration yanks things back to focus on the dog. This is intentional; the novel is layered, but as I said above, it is genuinely the story of a dog. The behavior of the dog is captured in exquisite, very intricate scientific detail. There were so many times during my reading of the novel that Niki reminded me of the little collie that I dog-sit when I’m living in Houston, TX. I’ve written a couple blog posts about my roommate’s Border Collie mix Adelaide, and the fictional fox terrier Niki bears a striking resemblance to her. Everything about Déry’s descriptions of the pup rings true to me. The novel presents so many fascinating ways of looking at a dog’s behavior. Every scene brought back memories of my time with Adelaide. What struck me most were the beautiful passages that recount Niki’s tendency to jump up at people in joyous greeting. That’s exactly like my Adelaide. It felt like Déry was describing my roommate’s dog. I treasured those poetic extracts that so perfectly tied the dog’s spirit to her springy back-legs. Here’s my favorite quote: “It was as if her muscular, quivering little body were constantly being launched and relaunched in the air on the springs of gaiety. She would bound like a ball on to any object she coveted, her muscles regulated like the parts of some finely adjusted mechanism and her heart full of a tigerish boldness.”

In conclusion, Tibor Déry’s Niki: The Story of a Dog was a fantastic introduction into the rich world of Hungarian Literature. I am so glad I picked it up while I was in Budapest, and I will definitely continue my foray into this nation’s great body of books. I thoroughly recommend this book to all my friends and subscribers. If you prefer thrillers, then perhaps this isn’t for you. It’s not a fast-paced book. But if you have an interest in dogs or European history, then this is most assuredly the novel for you. And it will satisfy you no matter which angle you are coming from; it’s philosophically incisive, but not without good-humored, big-hearted warmth.

The Crescent City Diaries #15

As the airboat approached the docks at Jean Lafitte, our tour guide gave us some parting advice. “Listen up y’all: Bourbon Street sucks. Where y’all wanna go is Frenchman Street. It’s much better. Go to a place called Dat Dog, and get the alligator sausage po’boy topped with crawfish étouffée.”

I had already been recommended Frenchman as a happening kind of place the day before, and with my stomach grumbling as the minibus crossed back over the Mississippi, I knew that my course was set. When I arrived, I found that the street was exceedingly quiet. Sleepy– that’s the word I’m looking for. There were no buskers, no beggars, and no orators narrating tall tales of vampire-BDSM to throngs of drunken tourists. And I realized, as I searched in desperation through increasingly-aggressive slants of UV-radiation, that there were benefits to such noise. Opportunities are made abundantly clear to the solo-traveler via the whims of crowds. I didn’t see much on offer on this famous street, but perhaps I didn’t know quite where to look. I ended up going way past my intended destination and finding myself in a deserted residential neighborhood. I walked back the way I had come and found that Dat Dog was in fact near to where I had started on Frenchman.

Dat Dog was exactly the kind of place I sought after, but which I had struggled to find during my stay in the Big Easy. It was quirky, inexpensive, and it served good food. It was the kind of place perfect for a solo traveler on a budget. And I realized that the best way to find local favorites was to talk to locals. Shocking revelation, I know. Too often I had ended up at restaurants way above my price range (and scruffy demeanor), because that’s what happens when you rely on guide books and Google reviews. As I annihilated the alligator hot dog before me, I made a note to inform my future solo travels: ask locals for their recommendations more often.

With just an afternoon left with which to enjoy the city, I decided to make another attempt to get to the zoo. I tried the same streetcar stop I had waited at to no avail the day before. A trolley came along and I asked the operator if he were bound for Audubon Park. No, was the answer. I had to get the St Charles Streetcar, which was green. This, I should also note, seems to be the most historic of the city’s trolleys. To get it was a bucket list item in and of itself. So I set off at a brisk pace and saw that a green streetcar was escaping west. I attempted to chase it, but it always seemed one block ahead of me. I was reliant on the unrealistic expectation of it stopping for a long while, perhaps as some granny made her way down the aisle and tripped on the last step. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

It was hot, and after walking several blocks I had to admit the madness of my plan. At this rate I was going to end up walking the whole way, which could be a good hour or two. Remembering that fancy hotels often had taxis waiting outside, I sought out one of those big-ass skyscraper hotels. The driver was absorbed in his phone (no doubt he had just found out you can farm Bastila Shan shards and was using up his bonus energy), so I tapped on the window to get his attention.

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Within 15 minutes I was at the zoo. I love animals, but seeing them in enclosures just doesn’t capture the wonder of doing so in the wild. And just that morning I had seen a dozen wild alligators up close. I’ve never been crazy for zoos to be honest. I figured it was more of a family environment, and I’d enjoy it more if I was a kid- or if I had kids. It wasn’t overly busy; it was late afternoon by this point. I liked the Sun Bear, because I got a good view of him, and he was majestic. I waited for the orangutan, but he never showed. A guy told me that earlier the ape had been running around with a cardboard box on his head. I moved on, making a concerted effort to stop at every enclosure and read the plaques. I had to get as much out of it as I could, and justify coming all the way out here.

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When I reached the giant anteater, I was joined by a little girl and her grandma coming the opposite way. The grandma glanced at the animal, but carried on walking. I studied it for a while longer. I couldn’t tell if the little kid realized her grandma had gone off when she asked over her shoulder: “What animal is that one?”

It would be rude to ignore her right? So I answered.

“It’s an anteater,” I said, speaking in a slow, clear voice, and masking my British accent. I wanted to say it right- the burden of education had been thrust upon my shoulders- so I put emphasis on each syllable, as if anteater were two words and not one. The girl stared up at me, and I detected a tremble of fear or awkwardness in her face. Maybe she didn’t know what to say, I don’t know. Maybe I look dangerous? I offered her an encouraging smile. The girl stared at me with wide eyes as if debating whether it was right to talk back or not. Then she abruptly ran away.

At that point I hurried in the other direction, as though I had committed a crime of sorts. I felt awkward, as though looking scary was enough to convict me of something. I imagined the grandma chasing after me through the bamboo forest, pepper-spray in hand.

The zoo goes in a loop, and as I reached the halfway point, I could really feel the humidity getting to me. I was ready to go. I can’t remember ever feeling that overwhelmed by humidity. It was certainly the hottest day of my trip. I passed by a little waterpark for kids within the zoo and lamented that there weren’t such facilities for adults. Perhaps the zoo was a bad idea, I thought to myself. I don’t make much sense here, sensitive, introspective solo-traveler that I am. I should have stuck to the solemnity of museums and art galleries. I’ll come back when I’m in company and enjoy the zoo as it’s meant to be enjoyed; via the energy of social intercourse.

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As I exited the zoo I thought about how best to get back to the French Quarter. I could walk, but I’d probably succumb to the elements before I made it halfway through the Garden District. I was already feeling massively dehydrated and my feet hurt. Walking also ran the risk of getting picked off by serial killers and gangbangers. I couldn’t call a taxi because I don’t have a U.S sim card. My phone was also out of battery, so I got my map out and realized the nearest streetcar stop was on the other side of Audubon Park, which is huge. So I started walking, wondering what time I’d make it back.

The park seemed to go on forever. It was mostly deserted, but I did pass the odd shirtless maniac braving the heat to go for a run. When I reached the end of the park I saw this shelter, designed it seemed, for those like me struggling in the humidity. An intense relief washed over me at the sight of a bubbler. I was going to make it after all. After drinking my body weight in fresh water and pissing it out like a racehorse watching looping footage of Victoria Falls, I found the stop and hopped aboard the famous green streetcar. I recovered very quickly. The Garden District passed me by as a series of historic mansions and ever-so-sylvan family neighborhoods. I read the fiction of Sylvia Brownrigg, enjoying the slow ride. With my last day in New Orleans all but complete, my thoughts turned to Texas, and the long train ride that awaited me the following morning.

The Crescent City Diaries #14 – Bayou Redux

For my last day in New Orleans I booked myself a second swamp tour. I debated making an excursion to one of Louisiana’s many historic plantation homes, but ultimately decided I’d rather bask in the state’s natural beauty one last time. Oak Alley would have made for a great photo-op, but there’s a real sense of rapture I feel when I’m in the bayou. It’s an utterly unique biome, distinguished by an aesthetic that is nakedly brutal. It’s an environment that’s violent and unforgiving, and yet its cruelty is affixed with so much emergent beauty. It’s not comfy or easy real estate; it’s swelteringly hot, it floods, it endures hurricanes and cyclones every year, it’s crawling with innumerable blood-sucking and disease-carrying insects, and the sheer variety of other jungle horrors make its overflowing alligator population about as bothersome as a line of indecisive pensioners in front of you at the post office. Sure, the alligators are there in abundance- but no one takes them too seriously. If you fall victim to one, it’s more or less your own fault, so there’s no safety-talk regarding a potential encounter.

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Nothing underscored this mindset better than my tour guide- a bearded Cajun who had lived in the swamps of southern Louisiana his entire life. My guide delighted in the company of alligators, and said that he took any opportunity he could get to wrestle and play with them. This hobby sometimes left him with serious injuries, and he pulled down his t-shirt to show us his most recent scar. An alligator had bitten him in the neck, which had to be fixed up with 72 stitches. This experience didn’t put him off in the slightest, however.

“We Cajuns do stupid shit out here,” he said, showing us some other scars on his forearms.

The only thing we had to watch out for, he told us, were snakes. Just like my previous swamp tour, we were instructed not to reach up into the trees because snakes are known to leap from the branches like they’re reenacting The Last Crusade.

“I’ll do anything with a gator- I’ll swim with them, I’ll have me some fun with them. But I ain’t goin’ nowhere near a snake. If a snake gets in here y’all are gonna call me Fat Jesus- because I’ll be running over the water.”

The bayou is home to all kinds of snakes- snakes that swim, snakes that climb trees, snakes with lethal dosages of venom, and snakes that constrict. I shared the man’s fear; whenever I come to the USA, snakes are the only thing I really worry about encountering. I think it’s the stealthy nature of them, and the idea of a lightning-quick bite being enough to send me to the ground, unceremoniously foaming out the mouth as my unfulfilled dreams flash before my closing eyes. Sorry- it’s hard to resist indulging in such narcissistic morbid curiosities- especially when imagining the local papers of my small English hometown sharing headlines of badger culls and flower shows with “LOCAL BOY GOES MISSING IN SWAMP. COTTONMOUTH BELIEVED TO BE AT FAULT”. Man, what a story! I’m half-tempted to plunge myself into the murky waters just to make it happen. But like all dark fantasies, it passes and you find yourself physically recoiling, as if the imagined threat had actually been there in front of you. I’ve actually had recurring nightmares about snakes before I ever stepped foot in the bayou. What’s weird is that in every dream I have, the snakes get decapitated by a meat cleaver. Either I’m doing it in self-defense, or I’m hopelessly begging someone else not to do it, or I’m doing it to an innocent snake while in a trancelike state, unable to control my actions. There’s always the same mixture of pleasure and disgust when it happens, and I wake up with a shudder.

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Anyway that’s enough of that. What was great about this swamp tour was that it was completely different from my other one. The first one was near a private lake, more inland, surrounded by dense tropical woodlands, and we were on a larger boat that carried a good thirty people. The first tour was much more family-friendly as well. My second tour, by contrast, was on a high-speed airboat carrying only five people, as well as a guide with a much more liberal vocabulary. The setting too was different. I was south of NOLA this time, not east. I felt closer to the shore. The environment was that of sprawling wetlands, miles upon miles of low-lying swamplands whose freshwater canals drift seamlessly into the ocean. You could see for miles in all directions, and the boat was super-fast, which was very refreshing given the temperature.

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“Where are we?” I asked when I arrived at the dock.

“We are in the town of Jean Lafitte,” the man at the desk replied. “You know, like the pirate.”

I stared at him blankly.

It took us a while to reach the bayou itself. Once we got there, the guide took us at a slow speed through a natural tunnel in the trees. The trees were so tightly packed that I wondered if we could even fit into this canal. It was like going into a cave. And once inside the bayou, we were completely shadowed by a thick canopy about an arm’s reach above us. This was the part of the tour in which we had to be wary of snakes. Spiders too. The guide pointed out the gargantuan webs that went from tree to tree, and I spotted several spiders that looked big enough to down a small bird.

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We saw some alligators hanging about on land and decided to dock next to them.

“I don’t know about y’all I’mma have me some fun,” the guide said. He tied the boat to a cypress knee and hopped out. Two alligators approached him and he beckoned them closer. After feeding one a few marshmallows, he literally grabbed it by the tail and pushed it away. “Go on, git!” he said. It was the other gator’s turn. The other one approached, and after feeding it, the guide patted it on the snout affectionately.

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Then we were off again. We left the bayou and found ourselves in more wetlands. The guide called out for an alligator he named “Hops” and within a few minutes the creature approached the airboat. Tempting him with a marshmallow on a stick, the guide was able to get the alligator to climb on the boat. The woman in front of me recoiled. When the gator went for the marshmallow, he ended up biting off half the plastic stick as well, before cheekily diving back into the water.

“SHIT-ASS!” the guide hollered at it. “You broke my dang stick! Enjoy shitting that one out later. Heh heh.”

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Further on in the tour we got to ask a few questions. I asked the guy if he had ever been hand-fishing.

“Aw hell no!” he exclaimed. “No way. That there is what we call really redneck. You might get that in northern Louisiana, but not down here. You’d get your arm chewed off by a snapping turtle. Yessir. That’s some redneck shit.”

I was interested in the idea of there being different classes of “redneck” or “hillbilly” within the South. I’m already aware of the difference between the Catholic, French-speaking Cajuns of the south-Louisiana swamps and the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon “twangy-voiced” population of the northern half of the state.

The guide explained to the rest of the boat that hand-fishing, or “noodling” was the practice of getting a catfish to try to swallow your arm and pulling it out of the water. I’d read about it years ago, and had written a short story about it at university. I could have sworn it was a Louisiana thing. Perhaps it’s a northern Louisiana thing.

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The guide then revealed that he looked after baby alligators that wouldn’t otherwise make it in the wild. After raising them for a few years, he released them back into the swamps. He retrieved one from a cooler or something, and we each got to take it in turns holding the little guy.

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It was an amazing day. I had gotten to see at least a dozen gators, and as we sped back towards the dock, I felt pleased with my decision to go on another swamp tour. As I said at the beginning, it was either this or a plantation home. I’ve seen some awesome plantation homes in Tennessee and South Carolina. They’re great and all that, but there’s something really special about the bayou as a place. I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll get to see it again. It’s a voyage to an alien world. And unlike the moon, Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, or Antarctica, this strange land is teeming with exotic life. I think my decision to go back- and the “magical feeling” I get when I’m there- is down to how far removed from my background it is. It’s almost certainly the most wild place I have ever been to. It’s the kind of faraway place that hitherto only really existed in nature documentaries, observed from the comfort of my couch with a bowl of Neapolitan to hand. To be in such a wild place is breathtaking and surreal. If I think about it, upward of 99% of my life has been spent in the comfort of metropolitan areas. Even in the small town I grew up in, my bedroom views showed asphalt, brick, and concrete in all directions. I was raised in the bosom of central heating, imported goods, and soft cushions. Getting the chance to see an environment untouched by the infrastructure of human civilization was a real treat- and something I’ll endeavor to try again as often as I can.

The Crescent City Diaries #13 – Shrunken Heads & Sugar Factories

My fourth day in the Big Easy began with a steamboat tour of the Mississippi. I’d seen the large crowds waiting in line for the Steamboat Natchez several times during my walks around the French Quarter, but for whatever reason I wasn’t tempted to join in the fun implicit in the vessel’s authentic steam calliope, whose merry tunes follow you all around Jackson Square. It was on the day before, after my return from City Park, that I decided I needed to book more tours and activities, and so I took a chance on the steamboat. I’m glad I did. The ticket was a very reasonable price and I paid extra to get a buffet lunch onboard. By noon, August 6th, I was chomping down on several helpings of fried chicken inside the Natchez’s historic dining hall.

Not wanting to miss anything, I went up to the deck soon after finishing my food. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m obsessed with the industrial aesthetic. And New Orleans has warehouses, cranes, shipping containers, and tugboats for days. We passed by the immense Domino Sugar Factory in Chalmette and I marveled at its crude grandeur. It was spectacular. When the Natchez turned around I went back to the dining hall where the jazz band started playing. This was good shit, some real Nucky Thompson shit, that they had going on down here. I was thoroughly entertained.

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My aim for the afternoon was to go to the zoo. I’m not particularly crazy about zoos, but it seemed like one of the city’s main attractions. Clouds gathered, and as I stood at one of the stops on Canal Street hoping to find the right streetcar, I began to question the whole idea. I abandoned it abruptly, and headed back to the Quarter. I wandered north a little and ended up at the strangest place I encountered on my entire trip: Dauphine Street’s “Museum of Death”. An apocalyptic bang precipitated an orgy of rainfall, and I staggered into the building with my hair about my face. I asked the guy at the desk what the rules were about taking photos. He answered in an overly-calm monotone that were I to take any photos, I would be “thrown out onto the street”. I thought that such an image was a little unnecessary, but he nonetheless answered my question. No photos. So I therefore have nothing to show you from this part of my day. I asked him if his museum would give me nightmares and he replied with “That’s a risk you gotta take”.

I entered through this curtain that made me think of houses of mirrors you would see at carnivals. The museum itself is a lot like the Black Museum from the fourth season of Black Mirror (minus the cyberpunk technology). The displays included graphic crime scene photos, prison shivs, the underwear of executed death row inmates, letters and poems written by serial killers, death masks, mortician apparatus, mummified remains, human skeletons, hair recovered from a crime scene, Jack Ruby’s business card, Manson family photographs, 9/11 stuff, and a Kevorkian “suicide device”. At the back there’s a “Theater of Death” which has gory autopsy footage on loop. At this point I wondered if the whole thing wasn’t a little fetishistic, and had to double-check that no one in the back row was furiously beating their meat. The last exhibit was devoted to tribes in Papua New Guinea that engage in cannibalism and headhunting. I admit to finding this rather interesting, and there were several shields and spears on display. There was also a good number of shrunken heads from the Amazon rainforest, which, upon leaving, I decided to ask the guy at the desk about. The man was delighted that I had a question. He told me that genuine shrunken heads are very expensive, and that if I see one in a shop window, it’s probably a fake. What the tribes do is take off the skin and put hot coals or something inside to keep the shape. It was strange to think that this little head on a shelf had once been a human being, that he or she had once laughed, cried, stubbed a toe, farted loudly, fallen ill, dreamt, kissed, fucked, felt awkward, gotten lost, held regrets, and expressed their thoughts in a way entirely their own.

Outside it was still hammering down with rain. I followed the sound of jazz towards Bourbon Street. There’s something about the synergy of jazz and rainy sidewalks that seems so natural. I passed a fancy, upscale restaurant with a bar area at the front. Without really knowing why, I turned around, doubled-back, and entered it. I sat down and asked for a Hurricane. The bartender was a pretty blonde named Ashleigh. I was her first customer of the day. We ended up chatting for over an hour and she told me all about her passion for Lord Byron’s poetry and a road trip to Ohio she was about to take with her dog. It felt nice to make a friend and have an extended conversation with someone new and interesting. It’s what I always want from a solo trip to a foreign city but can rarely find. People are more interesting to me than landmarks and exhibits. Given my taste for Hurricanes, she recommended I try a cocktail called the Planter’s Punch, which I also liked a great deal.

My final stop for the day was just around the corner from my hotel- the Historic Voodoo Museum. I wanted to learn more about voodoo culture, especially all the stuff about zombies. It was an interesting museum full of beautiful voodoo art pieces- however it is pretty small. The whole thing is two small rooms, but what there is, is excellent. I stepped back onto the street to find that the rain was dying down, and headed back to my hotel. It had been a great day, and I knew that the French Quarter would be a part of me forever.