Thursday, October 01, 2015

Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Infidel

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If One of Us was the story of fanaticism grown in a sea of political tolerance, Infidel is the story of political understanding grown in a sea of conservatism, which some might and do call fanaticism. The books segued nicely into each other though, as usual, I had no master plan when I read the books back to back. One of the joys of being a voracious and somewhat indiscriminate- while also particular- reader is the "mash ups" that happen. One of Us followed by Infidel is one of those mash ups.

The other thing about Infidel is that it's one of those books, like The Emperor's New Drugs, is both totally readable, totally convincing, and totally against everything you think you know to be true. I think it's a good thing to read things like this. In Infidel's case, the book is exceptionally moving (not so much with The Emperor's New Drugs) and hard to put down. You'll want to recommend it to your friends. You'll want to talk about it with your friends. And your friends might look at you like you're at least half mad.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (she's famous so I'm not spoiling anything) was born in Somalia and lived there, Ethiopia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia as a girl. She was raised Muslim in Muslim countries and was a believer. Eventually she sought and received asylum in Holland, where she eventually stood for and won political office. After about 10 years she left Holland and now lives in the United States. From the beginning, according to Hirsi Ali's memoir, and we all know that we are the heroes of our own movies, so who knows how early this consciousness really came to her, Hirsi Ali realized that it sucked to be a woman where she lived, as a member of the religion she believed in. Women were second class citizens- her grandmother describes a "woman alone [as being] like a piece of sheep fat in the sun." A distasteful class of person, to be sure. Hirsi Ali's mother made some bold and dangerous choices- divorcing her first husband and marrying for love. This didn't work out so well for her or her family in many ways, even though it seemed a potential modern path. But she also wanted to (and did) bring her family to Saudi Arabia, believing this was the land of true Muslims, which young Hirsi Ali found eminently stifling. She beat the crap out of Hirsi Ali and her younger sister. From an early age, she raised Hirsi Ali to be an adult woman: cooking, cleaning, etc. In Ethiopia, she paid little attention when Hirsi Ali's religious teacher gave her such a beating that she nearly died.

Hirsi Ali first began to think critically and then slowly began to rebel against her religion, which she had taken up wholeheartedly, even donning a hidjab when she didn't have to. She resisted "women's traditional subjugation... Even as a child, I could never comprehend the downright unfairness of the rules, especially to women. How could a just God-a God so just that almost every page of the Quran praises His fairness-desire that women be treated so unfairly? When the ma'alim told us that a woman's testimony is worth half of a man's, I would think, Why?" She goes on:
A Muslim woman must not feel wild, or free, or any of the other emotions and longings I felt when I read [romance novels]. A Muslim girl does not make her own decisions or seek control. She is trained to be docile. If you are a Muslim girl, you disappear, until there is almost no you inside you. In Islam, becoming an individual is not a necessary development; many people, especially women, never develop a clear individual will. You submit: that is the literal meaning of the word islam: submission. The goal is to become quiet inside, so that you never raise your eyes, not even inside.
Eventually, Hirsi Ali decides this isn't for her. She develops a sense of self, gets college educated, etc. She stands up for herself, gets her arranged marriage nullified, etc. She also realizes that she is a single-issue politician: she would fight for women's rights. And as her internal voice grew in strength, it also began to be heard. When 9/11 happened, she was horrified: everyone in dear, well-meaning, politically correct Holland (think Oakland/Berkeley on politically correct PEDs) was saying that Islam had nothing to do with it. Hirsi Ali didn't think so: "it is about Islam. This is based in belief. This is Islam." Eventually she went on to leave her religion, but this was a defining moment for her:
It was not a lunatic fringe who felt this way about America and the West. I knew that a vast mass of Muslims would see the attacks as justified retaliation against the infidel enemies of Islam. War had been declared in the name of Islam, my religion, and now I had to make a choice. Which side was I on? I found I couldn't avoid the question. Was this really Islam? Did Islam permit, even call for, this kind of slaughter? Did I, as a Muslim, approve of the attack? And if I didn't, where did I stand on Islam?

Delving into what she's been taught (and what the readers have learned, if they're following along), Hirsi Ali explains that, in her interpretation and the interpretation of her family, neighbors, countrymen and teachers, Islam is about obedience to Allah: "We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mind-set of the Arab desert in the seventh century. We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves." She realized that most women in Holland were living post-Enlightenment European lives, while Muslim women in Holland were not: they were covered, couldn't leave home without the permission of the men in their lives, were excised on kitchen tables, and were in arranged marriages. And yet, she was shut down by her adopted-countrymen when she brought this up. She lived under armed protection for months (years?) due to the immense reactions to her statements. She is hated by many on the left for suggesting that religion- a specific religion- is a problem and that tolerance and avoidance of the issue are also at fault.

This is a new, unsettling idea for me. I can't condone it, but I can't, after reading Hirsi Ali, condemn it, either. I was a religion major for a reason: religion is this giant driving force that drives so many (maybe all) of the people in the world, whether as individuals or as societal groups, that so many of us in "liberal," modernized societies don't want to look at or talk about or touch because we're modern and liberal. We've "separated" religion from the state, so we're uncomfortable thinking about how religion might actually influence the state or the people. And yet it does, so very clearly. And as Hirsi Ali argues, a hands-off approach can have dire consequences for individuals and for the state. This book is a must read. It will shake you and leave you thinking.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Åsne Seierstad: One of Us

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In June of this year I went to a talk at the Berkeley Book Festival about the "Roots of Violence." I went because Mac McMclelland was speaking and Adam Hochschild was moderating. The panel discussion was mediocre but one of the panelists,  Åsne Seierstad, was amazing. She framed her talk in the context of #blacklivesmatter, though her story had little to do with the current upheaval. She told the story of the 2011 mass shooting in Norway and how Anders Behring Breivk, the shooter, was captured alive. Not only that, but Norway doesn't have the death penalty: Breivk will die a natural death and possibly be free after the maximum sentence of 22 years. (It turns out the sentence can be renewed, but I didn't know that until reading her book.)

As I left the book talk and looked at twitter, like I do, my feed was blowing up with the story about an officer involved shooting: the Oakland Police Department had shot a man in his car near an offramp by Lake Merritt. As of this moment, it's still not clear why this happened: the man appears to have been passed out, whether due to drugs or sleep, with a gun in the passenger seat. Whether there was an alternate way of safely disarming him or not, the point Seierstad had made was clear: in Norway, a maniacal, homicidal, fanatical man who had killed approximately 80 people was captured alive and given his day in court. In Oakland, a man who had not killed anyone was shot and killed. I had a hard time breathing.

I was eager to read "One of Us" and was not disappointed. The book is fast-paced and hard to put down. There were a couple spots where I felt some discrepancies between the book and the talk, but if you missed the talk, you won't notice these. I was surprised as I felt the talk exaggerated slightly the amazingness of the Norwegian response to Breivk. It's possible that he was captured alive not due to the well-meaningness of the Norwegian police but rather, due to their ineptitude. During the talk, it sounded like Breivk's mother was a psychotic woman who really broke her kid. In the book, it sounds more like he may have been what they now call "on the spectrum," and that mom was emotionally brittle and, by the time of Breivk's terrorist attack, totally off her rocker. In all, the story is a devastating portrait of a man's sad trajectory from poorly performing to fanatically murderous. "One of Us" shows how even the most perfect places can be torn apart by this type of madness.

Monday, September 14, 2015

So Sayeth The Queen

These two books have exactly nothing to do with each except that I just read them both. At least the books on The Shelf were related by proximity- I can't even pretend that. I mean, I guess they were both in the Berkeley Public Library, along with a bajillion other books. But mostly, I just read them both, and I need to return them both, so I'll write about them both. I'm also going to make a VERY tenuous connection: they both discuss very beautiful women. It's my blog, I'll do what I wanna.

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I didn't know this but Gwyneth Paltrow apparently gives lots of health and beauty advice. You probably did, especially if you're a woman, but I'm not shy- I'm one of the most out of it girls around. I recently, in fact, had my first DIY adventure and applied coconut oil to my skin. It felt fantastic, and, although I think I read this book while I was trying this experiment, I'd probably say that it helped. I also know that it most likely didn't, and I can say with 100% certainty that rolling around in the sand cured my skin bumps and that the exfoliating scrub I made with the coconut oil and sand has not stopped the skin bumps from coming back. I can also say that I continue to try, even with evidence aplenty that it's not working.

Duh, Timothy Caulfield writes. Why, Timothy Caulfield asks? Why do we (especially women) listen to celebrities (I just listened to what other people suggested, probably celebrities) and buy/try/do crazy things? Why won't we listen to science, even when we know we're doing the wrong/useless/foolish/overpriced thing? "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?" is Caulfield's attempt to answer this question. His answer, unsurprisingly, is basically, yes. He tries her advice and anecdotally, it doesn't work. He also looks at the science behind it, and disproves it. He talks to experts, who without fail roll their eyes. Here's one expert when asked about Gwyneth's very popular master cleanse: "By considering weight as a chronic condition [themacinator notes, for context: not being OVERweight, just having a weight], and lifestyle changes as its treatment,... you can never abandon the treatment or the weight will return." Caulfield continues: "If the maintenance of weight loss is your goal, you'd better like your 'treatment.'" Ultimately, no one is going to live on the ingredients of Gwyneth's cleanse (lemon juice and cayenne) forever- so the weight is going to come back. This is just one of many many examples.

The problem is, our time and society tells us to be young and "healthy" (read: skinny). "Popular culture is completely drenched in images of young, thin women. In many ways, the dominant image of modern popular culture is young, thin women." (I would add young, thin, white women, but Caulfield never really deals with race- one major flaw of his book.) With social media, we feel extra close to "our" celebrities, and we have also developed into a society with even more (if it's possible) focus on what can be shared in a two dimensional selfie: we are all on all the time. (I have some hilariously awful stories about my most recent trip to Hawaii and girls posing basically everywhere for selfies. I just wanted to tell them to chillax and enjoy the ocean. I tested it out by taking a selfie- my first. It felt Very Very awkward.) Worse, we compare upward and find ourselves (and everyone else) lacking: "Popular culture acts like a cruel, constantly operating dissatisfaction machine."

Caulfield also discusses how important celebrity has become in our culture, and what an outsized, improbable role it plays for us. Basically, you're never going to be a celebrity- you're just not going to make it in sports, music, fashion, whatever. It's not going to happen. But the numbers are scary: When I was growing up (and before, obviously) 25 years ago, here are the top five career goals for grade school kids: "teacher, banker, doctor, scientist and vet." Now? "Sports star, pop star, actor, astronaut, and lawyer." Another study found that more than half of 16 year olds had "fame" as their career goal. What does that even mean? What do you want to be when you grow up? Famous. FAMOUS? There are so many problems with this, not least, that statistically, you're not going to make it. How sad to have this ambition that is Never Going To Happen. Further, how bad for the psyche to think you can do it, when statistically, you just can't. Even worse, the ambition is something that can't happen with hard work- I can be a vet if I want to go back to school and work hard (not going to). But I can't be a model or an athlete, no matter what. My genetics won't let me, and models and athletes are models and athletes because of a fantastic combination of genetics and good fortune. People who make it, and many more people who don't, sacrifice time and money and time and money that they could be putting in on real, likely careers.

This is a good book. It's a depressing book, and written in a funny, humorous, readable way (which can sometimes get annoying). Most people won't believe what Caulfield is saying, which I think he knows. Those of us who do believe him, probably already believed him, which, again, I think he knows. But with all the emphasis on celebrity in our lives, the work is important.

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Then I read my next Dumas book. Unlike the other books that I've read by Dumas (there are 300, if I read them all, I won't blog them all, I promise), Queen Margot is a saga- the story of some French kings and, of course, Queen Margot of Navarre. I kind of loved Margot- a hilarious, strong female character with a strong, silly female best friend. Margot and her husband, Henri, the King of Navarre have an understanding: they can each have their own love (and sex) interests, but stay together in ambition, even when that means conniving against her (pretty atrocious) family. I loved sagas as a kid- this one wasn't the best ever, but, originally published in the mid 1800s, it was a lovely period piece of the 1500s. Ride in a litter, anyone?

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Eula Biss: On Immunity

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Eula Biss has written a beautiful small book about the currently hot topic of vaccines without actually writing about current events. Instead, she takes a broad view, as her title says, and looks at immunity- what is behind the new fear of vaccinations? What is behind vaccinations and the concept of immunity? This isn't just a medical book, though, it also deals with literature and Biss's personal narrative as a mother and a scholar. "On Immunity" is an odd book, for sure, but a beautiful and thought provoking one.

At the outset of the book, when Biss is first placing her journey to understand the questions of inoculations and immunity in context, she discusses the idea of trust. At the time of writing, trust in the government was (is) at a low due to ongoing ludicrous wars and corporations seem no better: foreclosures and layoffs were (are) at all time highs. Biss was repeatedly urged to trust herself as a mother and to have "consumer confidence." She was disturbed by the constant refrain among other new mothers; the "worldview they suggested: nobody can be trusted." She contrasts this to her thoughts about trust: "Even now," she writes, "years after my son's birth, I remain interested in the precise meaning of trust, particularly in legal and financial terms. A trust- in the sense of a valuable asset placed in the care of someone to whom it does not ultimately belong- captures, more or less, my understanding of what it is to have a child." What does it mean to be a mother, to have the trust of bringing someone into the world placed upon one of us, but not be able to trust anyone else? Further, do we have responsibilities to others undertaking this process? Or are we only concerned about our own bodies, our own children, when we're talking thinking about who to trust?

Biss makes an important historical comparison: Debates over vaccination are often couched in the language of slavery and are discussion of power. I recently walked by a protest outside of Berkeley City Hall where a small group of white people was protesting with signs about the Tyranny of Mandatory Vaccination. Historically, this has also been the case: in the 1850s, anti-vaccinators drew on the "political, emotive, or rhetorical value of the slave, of the colonized African." But when push came to shove, this constituency was really concerned with white English citizens. Are modern anti-vaccinators now truly concerned with the concept of tyranny? Do they worry about dictatorships or slavery? Are they also concerned about the dangers that they, unvaccinated, pose to others? As Biss puts it, "It might be just as meaningful now for the rest of us to accept that we are not purely vulnerable. The middle class may be 'threatened,' but we are still, just by virtue of having bodies, dangerous. Even the little bodies of children, which our time encourages us to imagine as absolutely vulnerable, are dangerous in their ability to spread disease." She describes an unvaccinated child who spread measles to 11 other children, 3 of whom were infants too young to be vaccinated. Whether we want to admit it or not, our bodies are not merely innocent receptacles under the yoke of a terrible, untrustworthy government.
This is a radical inversion of the historical application of vaccination, which was once just another form of bodily servitude extracted from the poor for the benefit of the privileged. There is some truth, now, to the idea that public health is not strictly for people like me, but it is through us, literally, through our bodies, that certain public health measures are enacted.
If we are going to put trust in things, it means imagining ourselves as part of the larger whole. It means that our bodies aren't independent beings; Biss's sister points out that independence is an illusion. It is a distinct disconnect how down-to-earth communities like Berkeley with such understandings of the relationships between all living things, of ecosystems, of the necessity of recycling and have such a disconnect about the fact that we, as human beings, need to work together as embodied beings towards public health.

There's a lot of great stuff in here- I could go on. Without getting hysterical (and in fact, while getting poetic), Biss refutes arguments that you might not even know are arguments against vaccinating. Did you know that people really think that medical companies are getting rich on vaccinations? They're not. There is also a TON of misinformation about a) what's in vaccines and b) if it's really bad for you. People in places like Berkeley and Marin have a lot of time to worry about this: "Wealthier countries have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford."

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Michelle Tea: How to Grow Up

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Michelle Tea has written a lot of memoirs, which is interesting since she's in her 40s. Many people write one memoir of their childhood, or one late in life of their whole life. Somehow for Tea, this works, though. For awhile I read everything Tea put out, but slowly fell out of touch. I'm not sure what inspired me to read "How to Grow Up," but I'm glad I did. While not the best book ever, "How to Grow Up" hit home. Watch out, personal(ish) post coming up!

Tea is honest (and has been honest) about her crappy, rebellious childhood and her decades of substance use and abuse. "How to Grow Up" is about the rest of it- when she realized she liked life as a sober, self-loving adult. I'm not Michelle Tea- I didn't have a crappy, rebellious childhood (at least, not like that!) and I don't have decades of hard living under my belt. But I felt like Tea was speaking to me on page two: "I have spent the past decades alternately fighting off adulthood with the gusto of a pack of Lost Boys forever partying down in Neverland, and timidly, awkwardly, earnestly stumbling toward the life of a grown-ass woman: healthy, responsible, self-aware, stable." It took Tea finding bugs IN the fridge to realize that she was ready; it took my remaining two grandparents dying (and me surviving the grief) to realize that I had arrived. I feel warmth towards Tea again on page 3: "I type to you from a marginally clean home-  no longer do roaches scamper under cover of darkness!" See, I've achieved that! I even have laundry going, such an adult Sunday evening activity, along with writing book reports! Tea doesn't really define exactly what being a grown up is, but I like this: "Through repeat failures and moments of bruised revelation, I have mastered the art of doing things differently and getting different results." A poke at the "stupidity is doing the same things over and over and getting different results," us grown ups (yes, me!) learn from our mistakes (except that I *did go to that Safeway again today and no, they STILL did not have everything I wanted to buy and yes, the line was still longer than it should have been. I don't think she meant ALL of our mistakes.) "At the end of it all," she writes, making me feel better, "we're all just kids playing dress-up in our lives, some a little more convincingly than others."

Right before Tea realizes she can't put her Thanksgiving dish in a fridge with bugs (they were IN the fridge!!), she realizes something: "sometimes you're so caught in old ideas about yourself, it takes another person to show you who you actually are today. And the person you are today is a lot more grown-up than last time you checked." Has this happened to you? It has happened to me. This line is in the chapter titled "You Deserve This," and though I don't quite find myself saying that too often yet, I have been checked a lot lately- I find that things I was CERTAIN I knew about myself are outdated, or that rules that I needed to get through life aren't really necessary and have to be rethought or let go of. Maybe I'll need a new set of rules: Tea has come up with her own rules like "Beware of Sex" and other rules for love- no, this book report isn't going there- but it's a poignant chapter where Tea walks through how her addictive personality intersected with the wild world of single-ness and sex. And even better, she's got some great tips on how to break up! None of these tips are meant to be read as an instruction manual: Tea is explaining how, as she became a grownup, she had to devise new rules for herself. This rings true.

I can't recommend this book for everyone. It's not that amazing, and through her many memoirs, it becomes a little voyeuristic to look so closely at Tea's life. But if, like me, you're going through or have recently gone through, a growth spurt (so to speak), this is really great.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Recent Reads

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Before I read this book, I thought I read everything I could on immigration, but obviously, I just read everything I can on the Mexican border. The conversation in the United States, or at least on the West Coast, is so focused on the border, the wall and Mexicans, that the dialogue often ignores the other people trying to enter the country and the discrimination that they face. Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story of Chinese immigration through the Golden Venture- a ship bearing hundreds of Chinese immigrants that crashed (intentionally) on the shores of Queens in 1993. (You can read the New Yorker article that became the book here.) He explains the history of why the Chinese people were on the boat in the first place and where they went afterwards. And tells the story of the mastermind behind much of the illegal immigration at the time- a female "snakehead" (like a coyote) named Sister Ping.

One of the interesting things about this book is that, while the conditions aboard the Golden Venture and other ships like it were deplorable, the people aboard chose to come and, in fact, paid hefty sums ($13,000+). Sister Ping was a well known "human smuggler" and had many tricks to get people from her home province of Fujian to the United States. Often, I think, we conflate human smuggling and human trafficking, though these two are not the same. Further, although Sister Ping was certainly getting rich through her smuggling business, she seems to have truly believed that she was doing something for her people- helping them get reunited with family, for example, or helping them earn a living. For the most part, Keefe portrays this complexity, but when Sister Ping appears to have gone off the rails a bit during her trial at the end of the book, he loses some of the empathetic view point and just depicts a crazy lady, lost in delusions that allow her to do anything for money. At its best, this book allows us to see not just a vicious woman trying to steal from poor, naive immigrants, but a complex picture of people trying to get from one place to another for economic and personal reasons, stymied by circumstances created by two world powers making policies who could care less about the individuals they are affecting. At its best, this is the story of immigration that I knew nothing about. At its weakest, this is an overlong New Yorker article about a boat.

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Talk about overlong. Michael Brandow has written a book (A Matter of Breeding) that has been hashed and rehashed on dog forums, among shelter works, among dog fanciers and the general public alike, but, as far as I know, has not had been written about in a published, non-scientific form. Breeds- are they real? Are they for good or evil? What should we do about them? I'll tell you one thing- if we should write books about them (and I think we should- I've thought about it myself), we should not write this book. Sorry, Mr Brandow, but this isn't it. The subtitle of this book is "A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and the How the Quest for Status has Harmed Man's Best Friend." Awesome, the reader might think, a book that deals with how we've fucked up dogs into biting monsters by making them look like something, that also has a sense of humor. As far as I could tell by reading the first 150+ pages of this book, the "biting" is an excuse for Brandow to be snide and sarcastic and homophobic. Brandow thinks he can get away with making fun of muscular gay men with an overbred frenchie (he exaggerates both the muscular gay men and the frenchie's weaknesses to the point of stereotypical lack of credulity) because he's a gay dog walker. It just comes across as crude. He goes over how breeds came to be, which might be news to someone without my background or interest in dogs, but somehow I doubt that anyone who picks up this book will lack that basic information. There is some interesting material in here about the relationships of dog shows to colonial America and Britain and about the class relationship between the two that I didn't know, but it's all shot a little bit by his (mis)use of the term "bulldog" without explaining which exact bulldog he means. I *think he's referring to the dog that eventually became the pit bull, but the average person doesn't understand that breed history, and since he repeats ad naseum that breed histories are all fantasies anyway, his insistence on the bulldog's import while conflating various bulldogs is a bit... maddening. And if you're going to write about breeds, let's call a wheaten terrier a wheaten terrier: it is NOT a Wheaton.

The other maddening part (besides repeating himself chapter after chapter) is the PETA-esque nature of the book. We get it: Brandow doesn't like the history of purebred dogs. Many of us feel the same way. Mutts are better (though, unless he gets to it later, he seems to subscribe to the theory of hybrid vigor, which is quite controversial, even contested by UCDavis), breeding is bad, people who want a purebred are boneheaded, knuckleheaded snobs. We all start there or go there at one point in our ideological animal welfare careers. Then we learn to see grey. Hopefully before we write books.

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"It's Not News, It's Fark" falls under the "good idea, poor execution" category. Fark is a word Drew Curtis made up in the 1990s to embody the concept of "news that is not really news." To get a sense of this, check out the website. Or don't even check out the website- pull up any local news website or newspaper and look for any story that might fall under one of these categories: Media fear mongering, Unpaid placement masquerading as actual article, Headline contradicted by actual article, The out-of-context celebrity comment, Seasonal article, Media fatigue or some other type of Lesser media space filler. Curtis divides up the ridiculous stories that make up this highlights of Fark book into these chapters- it turns out the book really is a best-of book combined with a media criticism book, which is probably why it doesn't really work. And the stories are really ridiculous, and they are really exactly the stories you read in the news every day, if you bother to read the news, or see on twitter if you follow any news outlet, or can't help hearing if you live in the world. The only interesting and meaningful bits are the two pages at the end of each chapter telling you WHY it's important and awful that media focuses on these things. For example, at the end of a few articles demonstrating how media gives "Equal Time for Nutjobs," Curtis explains that in theory, this is harmless. "The problem is that a Mass Media mention gives them instant credibility. The media audience automatically assumes that Mass Media wouldn't give coverage to anything they knew was patently false." So when media gives coverage to people who think they found Noah's ark or saw aliens or anti-vaxxers, even if they then disprove the "science," they've given credibility to the patently false things they disprove. And, as Curtis shows in other places in the book, most Mass Media is lazy: once it's printed one place, it's going to printed elsewhere, without an iota of fact checking. He goes on: "Equal Time for Nutjobs is exceptionally dangerous because ... the vast majority of people read only headlines. People have a reasonable expectation that Mass Media won't run wildly inaccurate headlines like 'Discovery Could Rock Archaeology.' The headline implies that the discovery actually WILL rock archaeology, ... Mass Media likes to throw up its hands and pretend that people know better. They don't."

Since reading this book, several stories of this sort have taken over the news: Laughing While Black, Jared from Subway is a child molester, and some crap about Pumpkin Spice M&Ms."It's not News" would work if it had given one or two examples and then delved into this kind of work: Curtis clearly has gone through thousands of articles more than anyone else over the last 15 years and knows what he's talking about. Instead, he bludgeons the reader with Fark that we don't want to read, comments from Fark-reading commenters and his own crude language and stereotypes (ala Brandow above).  Skip it.

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I've found my new Thomas Hardy in Alexandre Dumas. "Georges" is a fascinating read- both ahead of its time and a sign of its time. The title character is a mulatto from the island of Mauritius during colonial times. Similar to the Count of Monte Cristo, he is dissatisfied with himself and spends 14 years away from the island turning himself into a man he believes can get rid of the prejudice that rules the island.

I haven't read about Dumas- I don't know where he stood on colonialism or slavery or really anything, but I do know that he makes his characters who fight prejudice much more likable than those that don't: Georges's childhood (and adult) enemy Henri is an icky, unlikable momma's boy who "needed no further education; he already knew the most important thing: Colored men, all colored men, were born to respect him, and to obey." While the reader is following Georges self-improvement and heroism, it's hard to like Henri and his pompous ways. On the other hand, Georges's father, also a mulatto, is a slave owner, and there is clearly a difference in Dumas' attitude towards "real" black people and mulattoes. Georges's father is described as a wonderful, generous master whose slaves are thrilled to be owned by him: "They were well fed, well clothed, and fairly treated, and they adored Pierre Munier as the best mulatto in the colony; a man who was humble with the whites and never cruel to the blacks." When Georges arrives and gives them a little speech about how their conditions will improve even further now that he is back, he essentially says, you won't want to run away because you're so happy here, but does not grant them their freedom till later until in the book. Dumas notes of the small concessions that Georges grants the slaves that "It will doubtless appear quite alien to those sixty million Europeans whose happy fortune it is to live in constitutional freedom, but it was the first charter of its kind ever bestowed in that colony." We are to be grateful for the small favors that the mulatto grants his Negroes.

To make matters even more complicated, Georges's brother is a slave trader! So here is the noble mulatto, son of the humble mulatto, enraged at his brother who is complicit with the system and feels like it doesn't matter because he's earning a sweet living. As Dumas says, "By a strange coincidence, Fate had reunited the family made up of a man who had spent his entire life suffering from prejudice against color, a man who had made his living by exploiting it, and a man who was ready to die fighting it." Georges falls in love with a white woman (guess what- she's betrothed to the white enemy mentioned above), leads a slave rebellion, escapes a certain death and goes on to lead us through a romping entertainment. This could be a very dull book, if not for the intriguing way that Dumas has laid out the racial aspects of the tale. Written in 1843, "Georges" is a fascinating look back at colonial times through the lens of an author who does, in fact, seemed to be trying to make sense of colonialism, slavery and race through literature.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What's the Deal with Virginia Woolf?

 One of the days that I was at jury duty last week, we were given a 3 hour break. I was downtown, so of course I went to the main library. Who wouldn't spend all morning at the library? I found one of the books on my list that has about 108847 holds on it at the Berkeley Public Library and read about half of it at the library. I also found a book on the new books that I didn't have on my list, which is funny- serendipity brought me to the book- and the book is about serendipitiously finding books. The books have nothing in common except that randomly, about half way through, they both spend a chapter dwelling on Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. I get it- this is an important book. Seminal, probably. It's one of those classics that I haven't read and probably should. There are entire courses taught about her, plays and movies asking who's afraid of her, and like, I don't know, gazillions of women inspired by her. But the two books are NOT about Virginia Woolf, and it's like the authors needed somewhere to publish their thoughts on Virginia Woolf or they wouldn't be able to sleep at night, so their editors humored them. Let me tell you something: it doesn't make me want to read anything else by Virginia Woolf, if that's what they were going for. It just made me skim those parts.

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I am not a huge Rebecca Solnit fan. (She did just go up greatly in my esteem, however, when I went to her site and noted that amazon is not one of the places linked to purchase her books.) I remember reading one of her books many years ago- maybe Savage Dreams- and really liking it, and then being steadily more disappointed every time I picked something up. Sorry, it's true. However, Solnit was a speaker at the recent Berkeley Book Festival, and Men Explain Things to Me was prominently displayed at the author's books tables. I didn't buy it- it's a tiny volume and I felt like it was a risk that I wouldn't like it- but I added it to my list- who DOESN'T want to read about mansplaining? (Oh, men.)

It's a fabulous book. Rebecca Solnit? I take it back. You're amazing. In 2008, before the coining of the term "mansplaining," Solnit wrote an essay for TomDispatch (which I had never heard of) with the eponymous title. You don't have to read the book, but do read the essay here. With humor, but also with persuasive fortitude, she explains what it's like to be a woman, even a successful, accomplished woman:
"Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t. Not yet, but according to the actuarial tables, I may have another forty-something years to live, more or less, so it could happen. Though I’m not holding my breath."
She makes links between this silencing and violence- the seeing of women as less-than-human and the ability to destroy them and not think twice. It's a valuable and empowering (for women) argument. Hopefully it's a valuable and humbling argument for men. Hopefully they read this book.

I have two main arguments and a quibble with this book. First is the aforementioned Virginia Woolf chapter. Um, what's it doing there, Solnit? We're friends now, in my mind, so I feel I can ask that. It doesn't fit, I want it gone. Second, there are these nice images at the beginning of each chapter by an artist who then gets a chapter that also doesn't fit- Ana Teresa Fernandez. The literary criticism and the art theory are nice, but maybe belong in another book. The quibble- the feminism here is brilliant. Sometimes Solnit backtracks though, apologizes. Says things like "I'm not talking about all men," or "men are making good strides as allies" (my paraphrases). Yes! Absolutely! But in doing this, she's been silenced again. I recommend this book, even if you read just a few of the essays. Read the essay on how marriage equality threatens the . Read the essay on colonialism. Or read the whole thing and tell me what I missed in that Virginia Woolf essay.

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I found The Shelf on the "New" books shelf near the front of the library. I think Phyllis Rose would have liked this- she closes her book with the hope that her book "sends [people] onto the stacks of libraries to find favorites of their own and to savor the beauties of what I hope is not a vanishing ecosystem." As someone who visits the library at least once every two weeks and sometimes more, and who conquered #onlineschool because she believes the same thing, I have a kindred spirit here. (Oh, and she was a professor at my alma mater. The in-person one.)

The premise of The Shelf is a sweet one: Rose decided to pick a shelf of fiction at random and read all of the books on it. She came up with some arbitrary rules for herself and landed on the LEQ-LES shelf at the New York Society Library- a small, members-only library. She didn't end up reading *all of the books on the shelf, but a set number by each author. The shelf is as much a story of a year of reading and literary criticism as it isa story of the authors and their works. I ended up adding only one of the books to my list but may go back and add another.

Rose was an English Professor. She is a literary critic. She also just loves to read. She is both non-sentimental (she reads on a Kindle!!) and sentimental- she checked out a couple books on the shelf knowing that meant that they wouldn't be weeded for a couple of years, even though she didn't really plan on reading them. Saved- the books were saved! I really liked this book, and I liked Rose's commitment to the project that she had set for herself. I never did finish my project to finish all the books that I haven't read on my shelf, though I've been MUCH better about not buying them. I also liked Rose's honesty- she's an honest literary critic: "There is no way to read a text putting aside who one is and what one has experienced. In this sense, as many twentieth century literary critics came to understand, every reading of a book is the creation of a new book. Every reading is a misreading." That might be a little pomo for you, but when you read The Shelf, it makes sense. Rose even reads one book (that she doesn't like very much) a few times in a few translations, and at the end, reads it again, realizing that she's a new person.

Like Solnit, Rose grapples with the issue of male privilege, this time in the realm of literature. In the chapter "Women and Fiction: A Question of Privilege," she takes on the question of what it means to be a "woman writer," or a woman reader, or to be taken seriously be Readers- whether easy going readers or by Readers of import. She cites a study done in England- "Between [the ages of] 20 and 40, many men we talked to openly showed an almost complete lack of interest in reading which drew them into personal introspection, or asked them to engage with the family and the domestic sphere." And yet, or because of this, literature by women which deals with this kind of material is considered trivial. And women who write about this are looked down on- they must be privileged- they have time and money to do write about that- isn't there something more important? More manly, perhaps? Well, maybe. As Rose writes, "many of us- male and female- learned to read men's novels as though they were larger and deeper than novels by women." Though Rose's book is pretty much nothing like Solnit's, reading them back to back led me to do a lot of head nodding and comparison drawing. As she says, we can't take the reading out of our lives.

There was a lot more about this book that I liked. Not everyone will like this book. I think readers will like this book, but not all readers will like it- Extra Serious readers might not, and readers who don't want to think about what they read certainly will not. But I liked it- it was both funny and serious, poignant and sharp. And Phyllis, if you're out there, this Common Reader thinks you're swell.