Monday, December 21, 2015

Lawrence Osborne: The Forgiven

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My list of books that I wanted to read (now wisely kept on my phone so that I have it everywhere) had gotten very short. So I went online a couple of times and stocked it up, using everyone's favorite newspapers, a couple of blogs and Kirkus reviews. In those stock-up session, I even put a couple of pieces of fiction on my list. The Wallcreeper came first and now The Forgiven. I gotta say, for short breaks between my otherwise quite depressing and serious reads, this fiction stuff isn't so bad! Plus, it gives me something to talk about with people. When most people want to talk about books they should read, they're thinking fiction or at least a memoir or history, not the 500 page book I'm reading about China or the polemic on the border patrol. Even more, it gives me something in common with said people- when they bring up a book they've read, now I have a slim chance I might have read it, since it's fiction! (I'm going to start using this as an excuse for why I binge watch TV during the offseason, too- it's so I know how to talk to people!)

Anyway, The Forgiven is a nice piece of fiction. This British couple who doesn't really like each other go to Morocco to an extravagant party hosted by a gay couple who have bought a village, basically, and restored it in their own image. As the book flap says, so I'm not spoilering anything, on the way to the party, the drunk British husband runs over a young Moroccan man. The next three days, supposed to be festive, are of course altered by this event. How they're altered and what happens, is the meat of the book, and not predictable in the least- it's mesmerizing. The husband is an unlikeable oaf who, by the end, we understand, and the wife is a likable woman who, by the end, we're not sure how much we like. For 200 pages, there's a lot going on, and the end is amazing. (Also not a spoiler- it's on a blurb on the back of the book.) Highly recommended by at least two members of my family. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

My New Favorite Thing

You've probably already seen these, but if you haven't, these videos are officially my favorite thing. Can't. Stop. Watching.

(for the rest of them:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Quick Update on Gamifying Life

I've written a couple times about "gamifying" life:

In 2011 I wrote review of Jane McGonigal's book "Reality is Broken" that encourages us to approach life as a game in order to change our lives and the world. I was on the fence, but kind of excited by the idea.

Later that year I wrote about Barbara Ehrenreich's "Bright-Sided," and decided that McGonigal's gamifying idea was pop psychology nonsense.

Well, the New Yorker has reviewed McGonigal's new book, "SuperBetter," and eloquently summed up the idea I had settled on: we can't game our through life, and pop psychology, while appealing, is really not great science. I highly recommend this review, if you've given any thought to gamification. It's a short article, for the New Yorker, and a long article for a bad book review. 

The review also makes me think long and hard about adopting the first thing we read on a new-to-us concept as truth, even if it sounds science-y and is published by a reputable publisher- I'm talking anchoring, not being gullible or good at information literacy. This may sound obvious, but if you push yourself, I'm guessing that very few of us take the time to read an alternate perspective on a new concept. We've picked our sources and are already teaching ourselves complicated new things- do we really always need to go there? I just happened to stumble on this review in my intellectual magazine of choice- I didn't seek it out. But if we don't question our new concepts, we run into trouble.

Here's where I'm at: I'm a smart person with a degree in information science- I'm pretty good at knowing what is reliable information. But when are introduced to a novel concept and it's shrouded in the trappings of reliability (here we can hark back to "Galileo's Middle Finger"), it can be hard, not only to question the new information, but to even think about questioning the new information. Why would we? It sounds good, it merges easily into our core knowledge, and it comes from a reliable source (and may even, as in the case of McGonigal's work, be backed up by what look like scientific studies). If the information is so out of the spectre of something we consider, maybe we put the book or article down and stop reading. But if it fits, the information can quickly and dangerously become part of what we think and "know." We can start telling others about it, as if it were truth (and it may be truth, but it may also not be truth, or at least half-truth). Think Gwyneth's green juice. 

I don't have an answer, just thoughts about how knowledge is formed, and how we can challenge ourselves to think before we know. That awful bumper sticker comes to mind (are all bumper stickers awful, or is it just me?)- "Don't believe everything that you think." 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

George Packer: The Unwinding

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George Packer has written a very odd book. I *think* I get what he's getting at, but I'm not sure, and I'm not sure why he picked this way of going about it. On the other hand, The Unwinding is a very readable book, and not bad for what turns out to have a giant caveat at the end: "Though this work is a work of nonfiction throughout, it owes a literary debt to the noels of John Dos Passos's great U.S.A. trilogy, published in the 1930s and overdue for a revival." This, not surprisingly, left a slightly odd taste in my mouth after thinking I was reading a book of nonfiction. (See: fact finding.) So, if one were to read this book, it might be a good idea to take into account the fact things like "the biographical sketches of famous people are drawn entirely from secondary sources... the sketches sometimes paraphrase or quote the subjects' own words [emphasis mine]." That this appears on page 431- "A Note on Sources" (a page I'm pretty sure I'm the only person who ever reads) made me a little sad. I expect more from a New Yorker author, or really anyone presenting something as a work of nonfiction.

Anyway. I think the book is trying to tell how the US lost the middle and lower class and thus the fabric of society has unraveled (unwound, if you will). Packer follows several people from different walks of society who more or less have shitty lives for one reason or another, or who lose social capital. Then he intersperses the stories with more or less relevant vignettes about famous people like Oprah, Colin Powell, Newt, and some places- Tampa and Silicon Valley. Even Alice Waters makes a (not very flattering) appearance. Maybe the vignettes are trying to be metaphors. Here's Packer on Sam Walton: 

"It was only after his death, after Wal-Mart's downhome founder was no longer its public face, that the country began to understand what his company had done. Over the years, America had become more like Wal-Mart. It had gotten cheap. Prices were lower, and wages were lower. There were fewer union factory jobs, and more part-time jobs as store greeters. The small towns where Mr Sam had seen his opportunity were getting poorer, which meant that consumers there depended more and more on everyday low prices, and made every last purchase at Wal-Mart, and maybe had to work there, too. The hollowing out of the heartland was good for the company's bottom line. And in parts of the country that were getting richer, on the coasts and in some big cities, many consumers regarded Wal-Mart and its vast aisles full of crappy, if not dangerous, Chinese-made goods with horror, and instead purchased their shoes and meat in expensive boutiques as if overpaying might inoculate them against the spread of cheapness, while stores like Macy's, the bastions of a former middle-class economy, faded out, and America began to look once more like the country Mr. Sam had grown up in."

This, I think, is what Packer is telling us in 450 pages. It's depressing, and horrible and true. The book is like the beach read version of longer, more complicated and factual versions of how we got here. Like I said, an odd book.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Kevin Kruse: One Nation Under God

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I don't put a book down very often. It's hard for me, it's like a compulsion almost to finish a book once I've started. Recently my book list got very small- small enough that the only ones left on the list are ones that I've put off intentionally because I am not sure I really want to read them- either they're fiction or they're recommendations that I *should read- or they're books I think I may already have read, or they're books that are always going to be on the list because no library has them and I'll have to request them from inter-library loan, and that's a commitment that I only want to undertake if I know I really want to read something (or risk incurring many many dollars in fines).  All this to say that I recently went through some "best of" 2015 and 2014 lists to find some new books for my list. I started with Kirkus, the trade reviewer, and found some books that sounded solid. We're not off to a good start.

'One Nation Under God' purports to be the story of 'How Corporate America Invented Christian America' (the subtitle). The idea is that now we think of the US as having always been religious, Christian, etc and that we'll never be able to separate church and state because the founding fathers put them there. Keven Kruse's book goes back to late the late '40s and tells the story of the men who actually rewrote history to nefariously implant God into the everyday life of government. This should be a really fascinating story- how the pledge of allegiance got godly, how stamps and money started including god stuff, etc., but it's tedious. Instead of the exciting parts I just mentioned being exciting, they're buried in long wordy paragraphs which are buried in long wordy chapters- oh, something big just happened? Couldn't tell. Worse, to me, and sometimes I forget that this is why I don't read history as a general genre, is the way that Kruse tells the story of the 1940s/1950s as though of course it was all leading up to this. There is no counter narrative, no other possibility. When we hear about contemporary arguments against religion in government, it's Kruse throwing in something about how even the ACLU wasn't against it. This starts to read as though Kruse found every chapter in every book that fit his narrative and strung them together. Maybe it truly is the way history went- maybe everything was leading up to Americans believing the country has always been a Christian/monotheistic nation, but somehow I don't think life is ever really that clear. There's push and pull against ideas. Change comes slowly and in fits and starts. There are no women in this story- where were they? No people of color- what were they saying? If no one but white men get a voice (at least in the first 120 pages of the book), it strains credibility that all voices are being heard in this book. Kruse has a fascinating story to tell, and I believe that we need to problematize the idea that God and religion are in the constitution- and I think we need to do it soon. I just don't think this book does it (or is anywhere readable enough to even give it a start).

Ask me how I really feel about it!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Three Quickies

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I don't read a lot of fiction. I think 'The Wallcreeper' is one of those super acclaimed books, or something. I will say that it's super odd. Nell Zink is a talented writer who created a very readable book. It's sort of strange to write this, but her story got in the way of the writing. The narrator and the beginning of the book make it hard to put down- it's only in the last third of the book (and it's a short book) that 'The Wallcreeper' gets sort of annoying- again, this is weird- but the plot gets in the way of the book. It's almost like a moral is kind of creeping in, or at least some kind of point that we're supposed to understand. The book is best when you're just floating through the odd beauty of an odd couple living in Europe. I couldn't put it down though, and if you need a strange, quick read, it's worth a shot.

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'The Sisters are Alright' is probably a very important book- a book that needed to be written, sort of to have on record. Tamara Winfrey Harris presents a narrative by black women about black women- a story that isn't frequently told: "black women illuminate the reality of their lives- a reality that has been too often and for too long obscured by biased news coverage, GOP dog whistling, postracial and postfeminist progressives, and other people looking to make a fast buck reinforcing everything the world thinks is wrong with us." The progressive bit in there is important: The book challenges even those of us who know that life as a black woman isn't perfect, that a lot of shit needs to get cleaned up, to after acknowledging the stereotypes (Mammy, the Matriarch, Jezebel and Sapphire) and how they affect black women, how they might NOT affect black women all the time, and to circle back and to remember that black women are individual women. If that seems complicated and circuitous, it's because it is. Essentially, it's easy to get caught up in the theory and believe in it and forget that people are individuals. 'The Sisters are Alright' humanizes the individuals- black women in this case- again. I would quibble with the book, however, in that the spin is a bit too positive. I'm glad that Winfrey Harris opens this dialogue. I feel like, by problematizing the problem, however, she may have gone too far. She reminds us that "These women cannot represent all black women. But that is also the point. Black women's lives are diverse. The diminishing mainstream portrait of black womanhood cannot contain its multitudes." While the book offers a new and important segment of voices, I felt a little bit like I was being hammered with empowerment literature. Still an important book, not necessarily a great read.

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I have a thing about crappy TV. I can't help it that my favorite shows are CSI and Law and Order SVU. I feel guilty though when I watch, though, which means I'm extra grateful for books like 'Lost Girls': extra-readable nonfiction that is basically SVU in book form. It's even in hardback (at the library, at least), which I'm pretty sure means it's quality nonfiction. Robert Kolker tells the story of five women who disappeared, their lives before they disappeared and their families' quests to understand what happened. The women worked as escorts and sex workers and used Craigslist to find work. Fortunately, Kolker doesn't really demonize the work, it's just a fact of their lives. Unfortunately for the reader, there's not a resolution to the case like in SVU- no suspect is charged or convicted. Fortunately for the reader, you'll be hooked for two days, or as many hours as you can stay away from work reading the book. The only problem I had was that five women and all of their family members are hard to keep track of. Some kind of headers or deliniation in the book would have been helpful as the book jumped back and forth between the women.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sami Adwan, Dar Bar-On, Eyal Naveh: Side By Side

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I have very strong opinions about Israel. So strong that I make a joke to avoid talking about it: There are two things that make me angry- the Yankees and Israel. (What better way to deflect than to bring up baseball? Pro-tip: none.) The thing is, though, that I made up that joke probably 10 years ago, and that's probably the last time I thought about Israel in any real fashion because really, I do get angry when I think about Israel. And in the United States, if you're anti-Israel, you're probably some kind of anti-Semite, even if, like me, you're Jewish. There's almost nothing more fun than being called an self-hating Jew. (Well, there are some things that are more fun.) The other way that I've avoided talking about Israel is explaining it this way- I've never seen proof that the country can exist in a way that is consistent with my understanding of Judaism, a religion that is inclusive and peaceful.  Side by Side, which presents Israeli and Palestinian versions of the two nations maybe says it better, or at least quotes the Palestinians in 1968 as saying it better: "Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation." (This is part of Article 20 of a charter by the National Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization.) I have to say, when you try to step over or past any defensiveness you might feel, it rings true. In addition to have been raised a Reform Jew, I'm most definitely culturally a Jew, as that plays out culturally in the Bay Area, and probably across the United States. But am not part of any nationality of Jews. My "homeland" is not Israel. I can't trace any ancestors there. But think about Elijah- Jews are taught to practice where they are, in diaspora- Elijah will come to us one day. That myth isn't really about him coming home, it's about him coming, one day, maybe. We think forward to Jerusalem- next year. What would we do if Elijah really did come? What would happen if the Temple were really built? Point is, I'm just not convinced. I know I'm an outlier on this.

On the other hand, there's clearly a narrative that I've been taught that I've internalized about Israel. It's hard for me to separate whether that's an American narrative or a Jewish narrative or a combination of both,  (note: this is not necessarily what I believe, but the narrative that is what I've internalized, and that I suspect the majority of Jewish Americans born after the creation of Israel as a Jewish state have internalized to some degree or another), but the narrative says that Jews deserve a state, are owed a state, that Israel is a birthright, that Palestinians are at fault for the majority of the unrest, etc. Although I don't like this narrative, I'm so busy sticking my head in the sand due to my unease about Israel that I have had a hard time learning anything else. 

I would argue that all of us- Americans, Jews, American Jews- maybe everyone- needs to read 'Side by Side.' The book is a phenomenal, novel attempt at telling the Israeli and Palestinian stories of the Israel-Palestine literally side by side. One the left side of the book (the even pages) is the Israeli narrative, and on the right side (the odd pages) is the Palestinian narrative. Each chapter covers a time span, and the chapters tell roughly the story of the same events that occur at the same time. However, you quickly realize that the stories aren't the same at all. And although the Israeli narrative roughly lines up with the history I've learned- the victor gets to write history, after all- the Palestinian version is nothing we ever hear about. The first inkling that I got that I had internalized the Israeli version of the story was when I realized I was defensive reading the Palestinian story. What right do I have, a person who doesn't even think the state of Israel needs to exist, to be defensive? None, basically. 

The book was written as a text book for high schoolers, so it's very clear and easy to follow. It was written by a group of Palestinian and Israeli teachers over 7 years- the goal was to write "a history text comprising two narratives for events that happened in the lives of the two nations... the two nations proceeded in opposition to the other and even, to some extent, at one another's expense." It is absolutely incredible to see just how true this is, and to see just how differently the same events are interpreted or even which events are seen as important over the same time span. The authors continue: "Using this book, the habitual stance of simply ignoring one another's historical narrative gives way to a process of developing mutual respect and understanding of each side's 'logic,' as a necessary (if not sufficient) step toward developing a better relationship with the 'other' and between the two peoples." The authors aren't expecting everyone to hold hands and make peace because of the text book. But the idea is that this kind of narrative prevents us from demonizing or erasing any portion of history. There is no "one" history for Israel-Palestine. The process of respecting the other narrative in a situation of conflict is itself a kind of mourning, the editors write: "Each time that one side had to relinquish a negative definition of the other, there was a crisis in the group of teachers... usually positive emotions emerge vis-a-vis your own historical account and negative emotions vis-a-vis that of the other." I don't know how to explain it other than to say that this happened to me in this case: reading these two narratives side by side, chapter after chapter was absolutely stunning. You cannot read the narratives without feeling the loss of your own narrative and the sense of tragedy of the situation. It's not the writing, it's the physical act of reading two opposing stories. You can't go home again.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Alice Dreger: Galileo's Middle Finger

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Galileo's Middle Finger is possibly one of the strangest books I've ever read. I think it's probably also a very important book, and one people should read, but man, what a way to go about it. I've been trying to figure out how to write about it (accruing library fines, as is my way).  Dreger is a science historian. She's also an activist and has been involved in a few movements (for lack of a better word) along the way. Galileo's Middle Finger is the story of Dreger's life as an intellectual and an activist as she tracks other intellectuals as their scholarship has been attacked by activists. If that sounds a little convoluted, it's because it is. On the other hand, it's very important: as free speech in the academy is in the news, it's also timely. What do we mean by free speech? What do we expect of scholars and intellectuals? What is the role of the activist in getting involved when intellectuals and scholars do scholarship we either don't like (on principle) or don't like because it's really anathema to work that feminists, queer theorists, etc. have been doing for decades- i.e. decentering the traditional white male, privileged gaze and take science backwards?

Dreger's answer: it's complicated. Dreger worked as an activist with the intersex movement for about 10 years. In the meantime she ran across a scientist named Michael Bailey, a scientist of gender nonconformity who was pilloried by the intersex movement. It turns out that his science was actually good, but was was politically incorrect- it worked directly against the intersex party line that transgendered people are people of one sex born into the bodies of the other sex. So activists who had been doing the hard work of advocating for the humanity of intersex people for over a decade where passionately aroused to fight against a prominent intellectual who had the power of the academy behind him. They decided to wage a grassroots campaign against him and succeeded in ruining his life. This worries Dreger, and should probably worry all of us: is this a form of censorship? And if activists on the side we like (causes that are important to advocating for humanity like intersex people), what happens if activists on sides we don't like- gun activists, people who don't believe in climate change- also are successful at silencing academics and intellectuals? What can we do?

Dreger thinks there is a Galileo-type personality: scientists who are willing to go out on a limb for unpopular ideas and aren't willing to back down. She spent some time researching modern day versions of these (like Bailey) and what happened to them. This would have been a pretty good book. The tricky part is that Galileo's Middle Finger is also part memoir- Dreger's journey through academia, her journey through activist movements, and then her odd foray into doing just she cautions against: getting involved in attacking a scientist. It's a little different, as she portrays it, but I imagine the scientist in the attacks would describe her experience much as the scientists that Dreger portrays as victims would describe their experiences. Dreger is roped into researching and fighting against a doctor in New York, Maria New, who prescribes medicine that is unapproved for what she's prescribing it for: fetal prevention of a particular kind of intersex condition. While claiming to the mothers that the treatment is safe, New claims to the NIH that she's researching the safety of the treatment. This sounds specious, especially the way Dreger describes it. The question that arises is whether the activists who attacked Bailey and the other case studies could make Dreger's victims sound as specious as New.

So where does this leave us? Not clear, but Dreger's book is thought provoking. There's clearly not just space for but a need for both activists and intellectuals, and some engagement between both of them. There's also a need for very thorough fact checking by scientists, and for transparency of this evidence. There's also a need for activists to be thorough before they launch into antagonistic relationships with intellectuals. I can't recommend the book, though, because it's very confusing, and the personal bits (yes, the feminist in me, who knows that feminist scholarship allows for this- maybe encourages it- says is an unfair criticism) make for a winding road that wasn't particularly enjoyable. Important, but not readable.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

David Adam: The Man Who Couldn't Stop

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I grew up with AIDS. Not *with AIDS, but around AIDS. In the Bay Area, in the 80s, with a heightened awareness of AIDS, stigma and the concept of disease. I would say that I'm reasonably terrified of the disease, even as my peers now say (ridiculous) things like, oh, you don't die from it anymore (sorry, what?). David Adam, author of 'The Man Who Couldn't Stop,' has an irrational obsession with catching HIV/AIDS, and I say that as a person who has a rational fear of AIDS and who might even say any fear of the disease is well-founded when you've watched an entire generation of men be decimated by it. That said, Adam consumed by obsessive thoughts of getting AIDS (not HIV, interestingly) and has developed a routine of compulsions he has to go through whenever he thinks he (or a loved one) might have been exposed. Exposed not like sexual contact or sharing needles or coming into contact with blood at a crime scene because he's a police officer. Exposed like, he pulled a towel out of a towel dispenser at a bathroom to dry his hands and later realized it might have had a smudge on it, and was the smudge blood and could the blood have been HIV+ and could he have gotten it when he wiped his hands? Or if his daughter falls on astroturf in the park and she scrapes her knee, could the blade of synthetic grass have had a speck of blood that could have gotten into her bloodstream and now what should he do? He suffers from OCD. I have to say that, though this may sound unreasonable to you and (in my calmer moments) does to me, as a person who a) has a heightened sense of awareness about HIV/AIDS and b) has grappled with OCD, this book actually sent me into a little bit of a tizzy. Then I came back.

We all have intrusive thoughts- this part of Adam's book is very reassuring. Maybe we all think bad things about the person sitting next to us on the bus and a wish comes into our head that they would trip on their shoelaces on the way out and always thought it was just us (maybe it's just me!). Some people, however, can't get rid of those intrusive thoughts, and they become repetitive- obsessions. This is when the smudge on the towel becomes blood, and every situation becomes a possible contamination situation (not an uncommon obsession, apparently!). In most cases, our brain either takes our unwanted and sometimes bizarre thoughts and gets rid of them. In fact, our brain needs them: "To consider all possible solutions, it's important for the mind to generate novel ideas and not immediately censor them... The cognitive idea generator does not have to anchor its responses to reality. Intrusive thoughts are what happens when the mind says 'yes, and' rather than 'yes, but.'" My brain (hopefully!) hears "damn, that dude is annoying, I should just trip him myself... but that would be wrong." A truly intrusive thought might pass the ellipses with "... and I could" or "...and that thought needs to be scrubbed from my brain with x, y, z action."

Then come the compulsions: "an irresistible internal urge to act in a way that is irrational." Again, we all have some kind of ritualistic or compulsive behavior. We all check doors that we are almost positive we actually locked. We all have an order that we get dressed in every morning. Some of us eat the same cereal for breakfast every day for years or get a little disoriented. It's when compulsions are tied to the obsessive thoughts that the OCD comes together. The compulsions seem to make the obsessive thoughts go away, but only for a short time. And, sadly, "one of the many cruel ironies of OCD is that the compulsions, the weapon that obsessed people reach for, make the situation worse... An intrusive thought silenced with a compulsive act comes back. It comes back hard."

So with that mini-backstory, 'The Man Who Couldn't Stop' is a combination mini-memoir and science book wrapped in a readability cloak. It was recommended by THB, so I picked it up. It has some insight and I learned some things about other, related disorders- tourette syndrome (it looks like I never reviewed "The World's Strongest Librarian" which was great), autism- and some back story on the history of treatment of OCD. There are a lot of case stories here- maybe too many, as it starts to feel like Adam has pulled the most exotic sufferers out of every source he used and plopped them into the book, when his argument is- and we all know- that OCD is everywhere and doesn't need to be exotic. My favorite part was the bit where scientists speculate about who is more likely to have/get OCD. Fascinating. If you're interested in a quasi-pop-science, mental health type, book, I think it's a good read. I'm going to go return it to the library now- only ... $20 in fines this time. (JUST KIDDING!)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Who's UnAmerican?

I've written often (and thought even more often) about what it means to be a patriot, or a nationalist. I especially think about this (and write about it) in the context of sports- which for themacinator obviously means baseball.

To review: I think that baseball is religion. And I think that baseball should be kept separate from both religion proper and the state. I also think that baseball (sports in general) are one of the places where we're encouraged to blindly participate in all kinds of distasteful (to me) rituals. Case in point: Atlanta, or the oblivious hosting of the All-Star Game in Arizona.

So, I was both shocked (like, has it gone this far?) and not surprised at all when my sister sent this to thb and me: the military is PAYING for displays of patriotism at sports games. I thought I was bad, but really? And the sports organizations have no good rationale (although really, what could they say?).

Monday, November 09, 2015

Alain René Le Sage: The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane

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When Phyllis Rose started reading her "Shelf," there was a tome on her shelf that was so long and tedious that she almost gave up: 'The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane.' She kept reading it, though, because of one rule or another that she had made for herself, and eventually, it became her favorite book: she read it over and over, trying out various translations of Alain René Le Sage's 1715-1735 work. She liked it so much that it became the only book from her shelf that I put on my list.

I felt the same way about the book when I started: tedious, boring, out of touch. I put it down and forgot about it till it was pretty much due back at the library. Then I fell in love with it. The book is something like 700 pages long and tiny tiny little print on big pages. And then I got an email that I had accrued $115 in fines. I didn't actually know that was a thing- $115 in fines! After speaking to the librarian, I found out that even if I returned the book, I couldn't renew it. So, after falling in love with the book, I've returned it and not even finished it. 500 pages into the thing, I will never know what happened to Gil Blas! (Well, I will, but not with my inter-library-loan'ed copy.) But in good news, my fees were waived when I returned it, so there's that.

About the book: I guess that in the 1700s (I learned this from Rose), there was a formula for writing books. In fact, Gil Blas is not terribly dissimilar to the style of Dumas- anecdote after anecdote loosely strung together by headings, probably due to the fact that the books were initially serialized. Gil Blas was a young dude in Spain who was born, left his family and went on a series of adventures and misadventures. I can't tell you what eventually happened to him, but I can tell you that along the way he met some men and women and they get to tell their stories, too, often in first person. At various points gets captured by thieves, becomes a thief, gets away from the thieves, saves a lady in distress, works for nice guys, works for bad guys, falls in love, falls out of love, serves as the middle man, etc. His friends tell their stories, the ladies he runs into tell their stories, and on and on. I can't explain it, but once you get into the rhythm of this book, it's really hard to put down. Well, it's very easy to put down if you're reading the giant hardback version that I got at the library, but, you know what I mean. Recommended, if you're willing to try something completely different.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Stephen Witt: How Music Got Free

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I finished "How Music Got Free" weeks ago and it has since been sitting here waiting for the book report, collecting fees. Stephen Witt has written a very easy-to-read, interesting, doesn't-matter-which-side-you're-on book on the history of the mp3. And the history covers both the technical side of the file type as well as why we all use the mp3 now to listen to music (and actually, why we pretty soon will be using some other format, if we're not already- note: some of you who stream media more than I do already are). The book is both timely and time-sensitive. The book opens with the heralded death of the mp3 in 1995- we all know that didn't happen- but by the end of the book when record execs were figuring out that YouTube and Vimeo were one way forward, the question is already here: what will streaming technologies like Spotify and Pandora do to iTunes and the purchase of mp3s? If record execs realized how to monetize Vimeo and Steve Jobs figured out how to sell mp3s all in the span of the 20 years between mp3s being dead then alive then THE media, how quickly will some entirely new model take over? "How Music Got Free" is a cool look at this story with implications for what's next. A fun read for people with interests in any part of this story- technology, music, copyright, etc.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Spinster: Kate Bolick

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I am pretty sure I've written this before- maybe even recently- but there's something about reading a book that you're not even sure you like actually *reading, but you know is kind of life changing while you read it. I recently read How to Grow up by Michelle Tea, which similarly, spoke to me, but wasn't a great book. Kate Bolick's Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own was different: I almost didn't like reading it, as it was too much litcrit for me (not my genre), but couldn't put it down because it was just so perfectly timed, so very true, so inspirational. Not like eating your vegetables, but maybe like that workout that you don't enjoy but not only is the best workout of your life but fills you with life-loving chemicals afterwards. (If this sounds like a backhanded compliment, it's not intended that way. Spinster is a wonderful, important book.)

And, in the way of serendipitious reading, or "themacinator sees connections where none exist," this book also followed nicely after Infidel. Where Hirsi Ali was politicized in a most extreme way by growing up a Muslim woman in Muslim countries, causing her to speak out and write about the importance (a "duh" moment, we would think) of making women, half the population, equal to the other half, Bolick's path is slightly different but ultimately comes to the same conclusion. Are women really people if we're groomed to be wives and mothers? Do we actually ever get to grow up if we're taught that we're moving from station to station as someone's something? How can we possibly envision ourselves as selves if "woman" equals daughter < wife < mother? Where is (single) woman on that trajectory?  "What if a girl grew up like a boy," she writes, "with marriage as an abstract, someday thought, a thing to think about when she became an adult, a thing se could do, or not do, depending?" Think we've come that far? It's 2015, right? Yeah, I don't think so. Single ladies (yours truly included) know that the word "single" actually means "dating" and "dating" ladies have to make it very clear to the people they date that they're not looking for either a husband or children, thus ruling out 3/4 of men (I can't speak for women) that are eligible. (Sidenote: men are eligible. Women are single.)

Since I've started writing this book report, I've loaned my copy (yup, it was a library book) to a friend (and fellow spinster), so I can't quite finish it the way I want to. The path through Bolick's literary role models is probably interesting to only us spinsters or to other people who think the current version of gender roles isn't productive or fun for anyone. I may even reread this one. If I do, I'll be sure to report back.

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.