movie: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Again thanks to my mother’s urging, I watched this introspective film online the other night. It was odd, slow-moving in that way that art films often are, but visually beautiful, thoughtful and poignant.

Jimmie Fails is a little bit obsessed with the family home – that is, the house that his family lost some years ago. He and his buddy Mont hang around and work on the house when they can get away with it – the white lady who lives in it now is apt to throw croissants when she catches Jimmie touching up the paint on the trim. Jimmie lives with Mont and his blind grandfather as sort of a charity case, in an outlying part of the city. A group of young men hang out on the sidewalk outside Mont’s house, talking shit as the pair comes and goes. There’s less action to this movie than there are scenes, even montages. Mont works at a fishmonger’s; we see him killing and wrapping catfish. Jimmie works at an old folks’ home. They wait on the bus. Jimmie rides a skateboard. The men on the sidewalk talk their shit. And Jimmie worries over the house.

Jimmie’s grandfather built this house – “the stairs, these windows, the columns, the archways, the witch hat, the balustrades, the fish scales, this balcony… all of it by Jimmie Fails the First with his own two hands.”

the house in question (click to enlarge)

And Jimmie’s determined to have it back. Accompanied by the eccentric (but who isn’t?), loyal Mont, he’ll get back there.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco showcases footage of the city and one completely extraordinary house (with a built-in organ in the front hallway, a hidden room behind a bookshelf, and all the flourishes), and takes time and attention with faces and personalities. Again, just visually, it’s a striking series of studies. See the white men in full haz-mat suits cleaning up sidewalks where Black children play among street preachers and those sidewalk loiterers, who form a Greek chorus of sorts… Jimmie and Mont spend as much time standing, sitting, riding, and musing as they spend in action, but their actions are momentous. Jimmie is driven, single-minded. Mont is an artist, a writer, and an unusual soul. When Jimmie asks why he’s lovingly drawing the sidewalk guys, who are basically bullies: “I shouldn’t get to appreciate them… ’cause they’re mean to me?”

Obviously, this movie is a commentary on race relations and on gentrification, the plague on San Francisco in particular but on many or all of the cities in this country. It’s about class and exploitation and how we value history, and family relationships. It’s also about friendship: the friendship between Jimmie and Mont is something really special.

I was fascinated to learn the backstory on this movie. Jimmie is played by the real Jimmie Fails, whose life story closely matches his character’s. (The house is not his family’s house, though.) Director Joe Talbot is his longtime best friend; together the two decided to tell this true story in fictionalized film form, and it’s genius. It also means that actor/character Jimmie has bared his soul in a pretty big way. Mont is played by Yale-trained Jonathan Majors, and I’ve seen indication in two different places that he both is and is not based on a real-life friend of Jimmie’s. Whatever the case, he’s an indispensable part of this story, as Jimmie’s foil, and partner both in musings and in action. His artistic inclinations move the plot along and allow for important commentary.

I’d say the only criticism to be made here is pacing, and that’s a qualified criticism; it’s just got that art-film thing where there’s plenty of space and time for ideas to expand, which is not for every viewer. But this movie is beautiful, thought-provoking, important, wise, and funny. I do recommend. Bonus points for SF lovers, of course; and for those of us with strong commitments to place, check out Jimmie’s line: “you don’t get to hate [the city] unless you love it.” Indeed.


Rating: 8 brush strokes.

The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg

A keen, thoughtful inquiry into relationships, place and the forces that contributed to a 1980 crime.

In The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia, Emma Copley Eisenberg offers a true crime story as well as a painful look at misogyny and estrangement; a gorgeously rendered memoir of human relations; and a sensitive, perceptive profile of a misunderstood region.

In 1980, two young women were hitchhiking to a Rainbow Gathering (one of a series of events that attracted as many as 20,000 hippies) when they were killed and left in a remote clearing in southeast West Virginia’s Pocahontas County. A third young woman had parted ways with her hitchhiking companions just before they died. Eisenberg’s title points toward her fascination with this character: the one who, apparently by a stroke of luck, lived. Locals told conflicting stories about what had happened. More than a dozen years later, a local man was tried and convicted, then later won his freedom in a new trial. An imprisoned serial killer claimed responsibility, but was considered a less-than-reliable source and was never tried for these crimes.

The Third Rainbow Girl is an incisive, thoroughly researched work of true crime reporting. Eisenberg visits those close to these events–the accused, witnesses to the trial, lawyers, police investigators and local bystanders–and forms her own loose theories, while acknowledging how much will never be known. The book’s mastery, however, is in how much more it accomplishes. “If every woman is a nonconsensual researcher looking into the word ‘misogyny,’ then my most painful and powerful work was done in Pocahontas County. It could have been done in any other place, because misogyny is in the groundwater of every American city and every American town, but for me, it was done here.” Importantly in this region that is oft maligned, Eisenberg lived in Pocahontas County for a time, forging relationships and grappling with her place in the world; she begins to bridge the differences between Appalachian insider and outsider. Part of her work is indeed to study misogyny, the relationships between genders and the responsibilities and challenges of those, like herself, who wish to enter a troubled place and “do good.” This book is as much about gender and political and social relations as it is about a specific crime. In brief sections, it also contains an outstanding account of the historical forces that shape present national attitudes toward Appalachia.

Eisenberg’s gaze is unflinching, whether turned on a traumatized community, an unlikeable but probably innocent man or upon herself and her own tendencies. Her prose is incandescent, precise, descriptive and often lyrical: a medical examiner testifying at trial has “a face so pink it looked slapped” and her first time spent
working in West Virginia at a camp for girls is “dense and crackling.” The narratives of the murders, of the investigations and trials and of the author’s Appalachian life intertwine and comment on one another. The result is a subtle, steadfast examination of the sources of pain and trauma.


This review was written for Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade, but is published for the first time here.


Rating: 9 music nights.

One of the things I appreciated here is that Eisenberg was sensitive to the local perspective and her position as outsider (because even after months or years here, you go easy declaring yourself to be an insider). Unlike Ramp Hollow, this book cites sources from within the community (like Sugar Run!).

Educated by Tara Westover

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories.

Last Friday, I briefly reviewed Tara Westover’s talk at West Virginia University. Now here’s her book.

It’s a hell of a book. I’ve written about this before: every book has the two layers, the content itself – the story it tells – and the telling of it. Sometimes one or the other clearly dominates. I read a lot of books in which the telling, the lovely lyric or literary or weirdly styled telling of it, trumps the story itself (man comes of age, meets woman, ho hum). And I read some that are very much about the story, where the telling is just serviceable. I sometimes remark when they both align to a remarkable level. This one is noteworthy because the story is so outrageous: truly, it would stand alone as a sensational tale (which is not altogether a good or a bad thing, although rather maligned in memoir). But it doesn’t rely on the shock value of its story to carry it; the telling is also elegant, and Westover makes some wise observations along the way.

As I wrote the other day, Westover was raised by some pretty extreme isolationist Mormons. She was not allowed to go to school or to a doctor. Her father seems a little nuts; he is a religious zealot, insists upon total control in the household, is prone to wild mood swings, and late in the story, becomes something of a cult leader. He makes his living by scrapping metal from his junkyard(s) and doing odd building jobs. His seven children are expected to work as part of the family business – with him, or with their mother, a midwife and homeopathic healer. This latter was not her idea, but his, so that the family would not need doctors, and as a way to serve God. She is a reluctant student but eventually finds her stride and gets serious about faith healing (which involves something she calls muscle testing, clicking her fingers and whatnot). It’s all pretty far out for me. Because Dad is crazed about the junkyard/scrapping work, and because he lives in a bit of a fantasy where nothing bad happens to the righteous, he is opposed to safety measures, actively forbidding gloves and protective eyewear (etc.) and using ludicrously dangerous equipment. So the family suffers quite a few serious injuries. They do enter the hospital a time or two, but also treat third degree burns over a large percentage of the body, and head wounds involving exposed brains, at home. So, the first sensationalist point of this story is the extreme isolation, zealotry, and risk-taking the Westover family lives.

The second is abuse. Young Tara is absolutely placed in mortal danger by her family, repeatedly and constantly, and this is a form of abuse. But the greater issue is with one of her older brothers, who beats and tortures her as a matter of daily life when she is a teenager. He inflicts sprains and I think one broken bone. “I found myself cleaning the toilet every morning, knowing my head might be inside it before lunch.” He laughs at her, taunts her, calls her whore until she knows deep within herself that it is so, and he gaslights her into feeling that she’s imagined all of the above. I can’t do the trauma justice here. Talk about shock value.

The abuse extends from here. She and a sister try to confront the family about the brother’s abuse (which apparently extends to several of his siblings), but this results in a range of lies and false fronts, and no change. Eventually, it results in each whistleblower being invited to recant and be received back into the fold, or be disowned, which is Tara’s fate. At the time of the book’s writing, she is not in touch with her parents or most of her siblings.

But again, her book does not rely on these events for its impact – or at least, not entirely. It’s hard to think about her life without concentrating on these stories (as I have here in this review). But meanwhile, Tara gets an undergraduate degree from Salt Lake City’s Brigham Young University; travels to Cambridge on a Gates scholarship; receives an MPhil from Trinity at Cambridge; studies at Harvard; and gets her PhD back at Cambridge. This would be a remarkable academic journey for the most privileged among us, but especially so for someone who never set foot in a classroom until Brigham Young, who had no support at home for her education, and who battled mental illness and extraordinary obstacles and gaslighting from her family at every step along the way. For dog’s sake, she takes school breaks at home where she is gaslit and physical abused, then returns to the school grind. It’s quite bizarre and almost unbelievable.

So, let’s mention the whiff of controversy. The Westover family is divided: some of Tara’s siblings back up her story, while others (and of course her parents) deny what she has written. I’m not especially concerned. If they are the people we’ve read about in these pages, we expect them to react in these ways. It’s hard to confirm such a story, but she does seem careful to consult the memories of others (those siblings she’s in touch with), and why would they support her if indeed this were fiction? I tend to believe her at this point.

I don’t think Tara’s done growing and learning – she’s just in her early 30s now, and I appreciated her comments at WVU last month, that she doesn’t know what’s next for her. (Nothing more arrogant than thinking we know what’s coming next! Or maybe that’s just the van-dweller in me.) I don’t think she’s done integrating the lessons of her spectacularly weird upbringing; we probably all still have a lot to learn, from her and from ourselves. But I think her telling of this story is careful, thoughtful, and compelling. She throws no one under the bus; even the abusive brother, even her enabling, turncoat mother, even her possibly mad father, get compassion, second-guessing, the ambivalence of a narrator who knows she doesn’t know everything. I found her someone I’d be glad to be friends with. She has a curious mind, and is still investigating what’s happened to her (although she’s come a long way in protecting herself).

There are other elements here to appreciate as well. For example, Tara’s attachment to her family is also inextricable from her attachment to place, the mountain where she’s grown up exerting a hold on her (and you know I like a sense of place). She meditates on the value of education, and its different definitions – the value of open-mindedness, and of knowing there is a larger world out there than your own particular mountain.

I am left quite impressed – by what Tara has lived through and overcome, by her journey and her accomplishments, and by her thoughtful, precise, contemplative, considered, literary telling of it. And I am curious about what she’ll take on next. I’m very glad I read this book. (And very sorry to miss the second book club meeting on it, but that’s another story.)


Rating: 7 tinctures.

Appalachia North by Matthew Ferrence, in Still: The Journal

Following my earlier review, I am so deeply pleased to shared with you today this review in the Fall 2019 issue of Still: The Journal.

Matthew Ferrence’s Appalachia North is both memoir and outward-looking examination of place: what it means to be from somewhere, how our relationship to home can change, and the complicated and too-often negative role Appalachia plays in the national imagination, and in its own.

Ferrence was forty when he received a life-changing diagnosis…

Please click over to read the full review. Look for my interview with Matt on Friday. And many thanks again to the Editors at Still for considering and accepting my work.

The Witch Elm by Tana French (audio)

I have read and loved several books by Tana French now, although I think The Likeness has been my favorite. Like I’ve done with a few, this one I listened to. These Irish mysteries are just so lovely done in the appropriate accent, that lilting, musical, rhythmic speech.

The Witch Elm is no exception: Paul Nugent’s reading is dramatic and gorgeous and full of character. I got everything I wanted out of the audio format here.

As a book, I have some pros and cons. Some of what Tana French does best is in full evidence. There is an overwhelming, overarching atmosphere of foreboding and gloom. The narrator, Toby, refers almost immediately to how everything changed, went horribly wrong, starting with “that night.” He talks almost immediately about the Ivy House, about how lucky he was to have it, how it scarcely seems possible it was ever more than a dream. When he starts his story with “that night,” then, and when we first encounter the Ivy House, the foreshadowing could hardly be heavier. This sort of thing could be overbearing, but I don’t find it so; I love Tana French’s style, and this is an important part of it. There is an underlayer too of nostalgia, of a yearning appreciation of a beauty just out of reach, that melds nicely with foreboding; this feels to me like French’s signature.

The mildest of spoilers here: Toby is somewhat an unreliable narrator. I think you feel this early on. For one thing, his admitted lucky, golden-boy aura and life experience makes him quick to wail about the slightest wrongs he suffers, and minimize his own agency in certain events. But that’s not exactly what I mean by unreliable narrator. I mean that classic, delicious literary feature wherein we’re not sure if we should trust the story as it’s told to us, because the narrator might be lying, or mentally ill, or confused. I love this stuff.

The plot, too, was strong, and I think this is another of French’s greatest talents. (I am still reeling at The Likeness.) I enjoyed its complexity, and the sense throughout that there was something I couldn’t see or understand, yet, that was just around the next corner. Certain connections that Toby insists upon are never proven, but this is part of his frustrating unreliability as narrator.

All good so far, right? My biggest criticism of this book is in its length and pacing. Look, I enjoyed it all the way through. But for a good stretch, in the second half, I felt that things could have been sped up more than a little bit. There is a delicate balance between drawing out suspense and letting it hang too long in midair, and I think it’s been poorly handled here. I enjoy French’s characteristic gloomy atmosphere, and the music of Nugent’s reading, enough that it didn’t bother me too much; I think readers with less investment will be bothered still more. We could have moved things along without losing anything. This feeling was exacerbated by Toby’s self-pity. While I think less-than-likeable lead characters are an interesting and often fruitful artistic choice, a whiny one who is allowed to spend too long wallowing can begin to grate. After writing these lines, I’ve checked a few reviews; most find The Witch Elm expertly crafted, but this Washington Post review is more in line with my own reactions:

It’s very eerie; it’s also quite hefty and static for long stretches. Whether you find the novel satisfying will probably depend on how much you care about action vs. atmosphere. French expertly crafts a cloud cover of thickening menace throughout this extended narrative, but the storm doesn’t break until the very end. By then, even the most patient reader may be excused for being exhausted from all the bleak moodiness that preceded it.

I love action and atmosphere, and I did enjoy this book, but again, I counsel caution for all but the most French-devoted reader (or one who knows she’s ready for a long, atmospheric build-up). (Bonus: the WaPo review is written by Maureen Corrigan. What fun.)

French’s characters tend to be a strength, but I think they waver slightly here. Toby is well developed (although not terribly likeable). His cousins and Uncle Hugo moderately so; there is enough meat there (if you’ll forgive the usage) to appreciate them. His girlfriend Melissa is a weakness, though. Her entire reason for being here is to serve as a ray of sunshine for Toby; she is indefatigably peppy and optimistic, which I find annoying in real life and less than credible on the page. The cops, on the other hand, feel quite real. (Recall that French often writes from their point of view. Hmm.)

A final qualification for this book: it’s tricky to give a trigger warning with a novel of suspense, like this one, and I rarely deal in trigger warnings anyway. But here I do think it should be said: if you deal with trauma regarding serious, terrorist-level stalking, heads up.

Despite my criticisms, I am here for more Tana French and on the whole enjoyed this one quite a bit. Look for me to get into The Trespasser sometime soon. As for a recommendation on this one, it depends on your capacity for patience and your commitment to French’s distinctive style. If you do read/have read The Witch Elm, I’d be very interested in your opinion!


Rating: 6.5 candlesticks.

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

I recently went to the local library and checked out a mystery novel just because I felt like it. The last time I got to do this was (I checked) October of 2016. Glorious.

So, I chose an old favorite, Michael Connelly, and just grabbed one I hadn’t read, starring a character I’d never met. LAPD Detective Renée Ballard works the night shift, or the “late show,” as punishment for raising a complaint when she was sexually assaulted by a superior. (Timely and timeless, this story.) One night at the station she finds a stranger rummaging through a filing cabinet whose lock he’s just picked; hand on her gun, she asks him for ID, and that’s how she meets mostly-retired Detective Harry Bosch. I immediately felt right at home.

Chapters alternate between the close third-person perspectives of Bosch and Ballard as they team up, rather off the record, to take on a cold case. In the Bosch tradition, it’s a case no one especially cared about even at the time, as the murder victim was one of those deemed society’s trash; but as we know, with Bosch, “everybody counts or nobody counts.” Action, high adrenaline, close calls, a twisty case, and problems with authority, all set to a dramatic and unmistakable LA/Hollywood backdrop: this is classic Connelly and what I came for. Nothing much has changed and I am so glad. Funny how the mystery novels I love can sort of do the same thing over and over again and still entertain me. I hope Bosch lives forever. (Also, it was nice that I was relatively fresh off the Bosch television series, especially since a recent case was referenced here.)


Rating: 7 green flight suits.

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll

I read this socio-historical study of Appalachia in part to investigate my new homeplace (however temporary) in central West Virginia.

It is quite good. Steven Stoll takes a wide-angle view of “the ordeal of Appalachia” (centering on West Virginia), which he sees as a social, political, economic, ideological problem that fits into global patterns. He compares the experiences of Appalachians with those of other groups across time and place: in particular, English peasants in the 1600s, American Indians in the early 1800s, and Malian smallholders in the 2000s. As he draws these comparisons, he is careful to note that “no two dispossessions are the same.” On the other hand, “historians emphasize the distinctness of the stories they tell. They tend to make few observations across places and times,” and Stoll I think does us a service by making those observations. For one thing, I find it makes each story clearer to have analogies to draw from. For another, as he shows in these pages, the story of Appalachia has been told in a way that oversimplifies, and blames the poorest people with the fewest options for their own situation. To contextualize those experiences within world history and within patterns makes it clear that this is a story about humans and their systems and about capitalism, not about a specific race of holler dwellers.

At the risk of simplifying, again, what has been well communicated in nearly 300 pages here… Stoll argues that what has gone wrong in Appalachia, what has resulted in devastating extractive industries, wealth flowing only outward, the impoverishment and degradation of local residents, environmental destruction, and damage to a culture, is about the forced movement from makeshift agrarian economies to capitalism and industrial scales. (The term ‘makeshift’ for household economies is not intended to be disparaging. Stoll spends time with this. What he refers to we might call subsistence living: a combination of small-scale agriculture and husbandry, hunting and gathering, and local and regional trade that yields a sufficient or comfortable living with no stockpiled profit. It does not indicate an absence of currency.)

The enclosure of the commons is a central element in this shift. The ecological base that used to be used in common by all for timber, hunting and gathering, fodder for livestock, and rotation of small garden plots was enclosed and divvied up as private property following the American Revolution, largely to absentee landowners. Later lumber and coal mining industries robbed that land of the richness that had once provided, so that now if we were to return to the commons model (something Stoll cautiously recommends, with a drafted piece of legislation late in the book) that base will not yield what it used to. Part of that shift as well involves a shift from makeshift or subsistence economies – I make what I need, plus enough surplus to feel secure – to growth-at-all-costs capitalism – make as much as you can and then make more by any means possible; seek efficiencies; clearcut. And part of that is a move from largely self-sufficient households to currency-based wage-earning ones. (Again, Stoll is careful to point out that there never was a makeshift household that provided all its needs – trade was always a component of any system – and that currency is not in fact absent from, for example, barter economies.) Well, these 300 pages do a better job of it than this paragraph does. But it’s a gist.

I appreciated the breadth of history, sociology, politics, economic theory, and more that Stoll employs to teach these lessons. It’s a broad and rich book. And I appreciate as well that he consults so many outside sources, and not just academic ones. While the tone and style of this book is still rather dry and textbook-y, its reference points include fiction and the visual arts as well as primary sources, journalism, and fellow academics. I dig the interdisciplinary result: that one can see policy unfold alongside environmental change, social history and the arts. The writing style is no-nonsense informational, lacking the personal perspective that I prefer, and with no especial sense of fun. It’s better than the classic history text in style. But it still took me longer to read, in smaller pieces, than my usual fare.

I regret that Stoll doesn’t appear to have invited local opinion or sought specifically Appalachian experts. His back-of-book blurbs are all from professors at either Columbia or Yale. And one characteristic of this region, one of its challenges, is the tendency of outsiders to judge; Appalachia, in my observation, is sensitive about that. I wish Stoll had sought a blurber from within the region! It’s not like there aren’t academics from Appalachia, and I know it would have earned him credibility in these parts. I guess that wasn’t a priority; I don’t think he’s writing for a specifically Appalachian audience, and that’s fine, but this oversight I fear means he’s written for an audience from everywhere but Appalachia. [Please note that I make these observations as an outsider, myself; these opinions are my own and do not reflect those of etc. etc.]

On these lines, a very brief section of this book is likely (again, from what I’ve seen) to raise hackles here: he devotes about a page to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, mostly nodding in agreement, although he does acknowledge that “it might be construed as saying that the tragedy of Appalachia is the sum of its individual failings or the insularity of its families.” Here’s a tip: praising Vance within Appalachia will make you no friends.

I also note that Stoll doesn’t address the nonhuman community that Brian Doyle and Terry Tempest Williams and my father and I recognize: he worries for the fate of people, chiefly, and I appreciate that he wants better for a disadvantaged population which has been taken advantage of. He seems concerned as well for the rich and biologically diverse hills and mountains of a unique geographical area, but I think this concern is chiefly for what that land could offer people. I would personally rather he also cared for rivers and cougars and mushrooms for their own sake, but his is the majority perspective, that’s for sure.

While I wanted to note these issues I found with Ramp Hollow, I admire it and I learned a lot and I do recommend it as a way to put “the ordeal of Appalachia” into a larger context and understand some of what’s challenging here, and why it’s not the fault of the people here who are unfortunately characterized as lazy, backwards, or primitive. This book is well researched, with over 50 pages of notes and a thorough bibliography. I consider it a great introduction to a lengthy and complicated history, and I’m so glad I read it. Thank you, Doug, for my copy.


Rating: 7 morels.
%d bloggers like this: