Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #71: All over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg

Having first read Ava’s Man, Bragg’s story of his larger-than-life grandfather, which honestly blew me away, I must confess I was a bit less excited by his memoir.  All Over but the Shoutin’ starts out telling the story of his beloved mother, a long-suffering heart-of-gold backwoods gal who stayed tethered to her abusive drunkard of a husband far too long, thereby condemning her three little boys to grinding poverty and herself to a life of unimaginable self-sacrifice. The first half of this book dovetails nicely with Ava’s Man, since the setting, characters and many of the anecdotes are the same and, by knowing the story of the grandparents, the reader actually gets useful insights and a better understanding of succeeding generations and, most specifically, of the author. So I am glad that I read Ava’s Man first.

It is when the book turns properly into a personal journey of how the “white trash” little boy from Alabama became a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, that I discovered that the deep-seated pathos and humor at the golden heart of Ava’s Man was too muted in this earlier work. Instead, the latter half of this memoir turns into a self-deprecating and yet self-justifying account of the author’s life, with mixed results. We are taken with Bragg into riots, into gang warfare, into the tragedies of crime victims and into the hell that was—and remains—the island-nation of Haiti as he learned how to draw on his roots to get to the human element behind the stories, and turn out award-winning features. Bragg also offers us fascinating glimpses into the role of religion in America, into the unique and driven life of a journalist, into the nature of alcohol addiction (his father’s), into the life of a town devastated by a tornado, and much more. And while Ava’s Man was entirely based on life in the rural south during the depression years and beyond, All Over But the Shoutin’ expands our view into urban centers like Miami, Atlanta and New York where Bragg worked during the 80s and 90s, with less satisfying results.  The humor is still there, the writing is still compelling, and yet there is something missing, something which Bragg managed to find and weave so powerfully into his next book.

Bragg spends a great deal of the concluding chapters of his book explaining why it took so long to buy his mother a house and why he never settled down with anyone, and he gets a little more drippy about his mom in each succeeding chapter. This book is absolutely worth reading, but if you want to fall in love with Bragg’s writing, start with Ava’s Man.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #19: Black Venus by James MacManus

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Black Venus is a fictionalized account of the relationship between French poet Charles Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval. Baudelaire is recognized as the greatest poet of the French language whose classic work Les Fleurs du Mal was banned shortly after publication in France in 1857 due to its “obscene” content. Jeanne Duval, an immigrant from Haiti whose mother was a slave and whose father was a French plantation owner, was his lover for 20 years and the inspiration for Baudelaire’s best known work.

As the novel begins, Baudelaire is a 21-year-old “dandy” living off of his mother’s money. Baudelaire wears the latest fashions and haunts the trendy cafes with his friends, accruing debt while expressing disdain for the bourgeoisie and support for revolution. While drinking at a working class dive, he catches cabaret singer Duval’s act and is immediately attracted to her. Duval was tall, shapely, olive-skinned and had long dark hair. She was also quite independent for her time, having escaped Haiti at the age of 14 and making her way to France. A 20-year dysfunctional relationship ensued, involving  alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, debt and an obscenity trial. Baudelaire’s mother and friends blamed Duval for Baudelaire’s downward spiral, but MacManus shows Baudelaire as someone who willingly went down that path. His dark side is evident throughout the novel — vain, selfish, drawn to many vices and unrepentant about it. It is the dark side of man that is the focus of his verse and what set him apart from the romantic poets of his age.

Little is actually known about Jeanne Duval. She did not write, and accounts of her from Baudelaire’s contemporaries are unflattering (she was the whore who supplied him with opium). Duval, as depicted by MacManus, was an independent minded woman restricted by her sex, race and class. She used her talents as a singer, her own intelligence and her looks to support herself and her predilection for fine dining, gowns and jewelry. Baudelaire’s mother offered her money to stay away from him, while his publisher Poulet-Malassis offered her money to get back with him so that he would write again.

The Baudelaire/Duval relationship, as depicted by MacManus, was a train wreck and reminded me of some of the celebrity relationship disasters that you might find in today’s tabloids. They go from lust to hatred and back again. They do drugs and drink to excess and spend extravagantly. Baudelaire calls her a whore and his “black Venus,” a term that Duval detested since her skin was light. She also resented the way Baudelaire portrayed her physical body in verse and sketches — all big breasts and buttocks, with the inscription “Quaerens quem devoret” (seeking whom to devour).

Duval Baud

Neither one seems to understand what attraction it is that they have for each other, but it is undeniable and similar to their other addictions.

Duval seems to have been able to weather their break-ups better than Baudelaire. She continued to take lovers (as she had even while with Baudelaire), including Manet, who painted her portrait.

Duval Manet

MacManus’ Duval does not admire Baudelaire’s poems or understand his fascination with the slums and seamy side of Parisian city life. Given her early life as a slave in Haiti and the violence of the revolution there, plus her personal experience of poverty in Paris, this makes sense. For MacManus, Duval’s dream was to leave Paris and start life anew in the American West, where she imagined her father living. Unfortunately, her dreams were thwarted but MacManus allows her one great act of selflessness and compassion before her death from tuberculosis.

This was a pretty good book. The history is solid and the story behind the banning of Baudelaire’s verses is interesting if you are unfamiliar with it. Overall, the creation of a story for Jeanne Duval and her relationship with Baudelaire was satisfactory.