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.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Jill Leovy: Ghettoside

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This is the book of my reading year, and the one I think everyone should read. I loved Love, Nina, and it's a great read, but it's not a MUST read. Thank You for Your Service was last year. Jill Leovy's Ghettoside: this year, must read. It's short and readable, so you have no excuse, really. The only fault I found, really, is that the writing is a tad uneven, which is a strange thing for a book that's so hard to put down. It's almost like a couple of times I felt like I was reading something I had already read in different words a few pages before. This doesn't happen very often, and maybe it was just me. I read the book in under 24 hours.

Jill Leovy is a reporter from Los Angeles. She reported on crime in the Seventy-seventh Street Division which includes Watts and the famous "South Central" areas for about 10 years, including years of time when she was actually given a desk in the station with the detectives. She knows what she's talking about. For awhile, she had a blog called "The Homicide Report" on the LA Times website that had a daily accounting of every homicide that occurred in LA. She did three things (and probably more): she kept data on the killings, and she learned about the police who solved (or didn't solve) the cases) and she met the people involved in the murders- the victims, the suspects, the doers, the families, the witnesses, etc. And what she learned, and what is so important and clear in this book is that one of the main ways that our system is broken is by not catching people who kill other people.

It is not polite, she says, to discuss black on black crime. (Read my twitter feed right now, and you'll see that this is true- black twitter, rightly, is pushing back on white people on twitter who are dismissing discussion as "oh, black people kill black people.") But Leovy wants to talk about this more. While there are certainly people and police offers who think that black people in the ghetto killing other black people in the ghetto is [insert offensive/ridiculous/not worth retyping thing that signifies okay/appropriate/etc.], Levoy says that this attitude, this failure to catch the doers of violence, "the state's inability to catch and punish even a bare majority of murderers in black enclaves such as Watts was itself a root cause of the violence... perhaps the most terrible thing in contemporary American lie. The system's failure to catch killers effectively made black lives cheap." She goes on: "Where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic." Basically, it is true, she says: black people in poor black areas like Watts ARE killing each other at a terrifying rate. She's not going to argue with the numbers; she's even tracked and created her own numbers over ten years of reporting. But what she is going to argue with is any concept that this is a black-people-problem. It is a systemic problem, and that problem is that the state isn't doing it's job. 

#blacklivesmatter has mostly focused on police violence towards black people. It is a huge and hugely important topic. Leovy's book came out in 2015, but the way publishing works, I'm sure that the hashtag wasn't as prominent when she was writing it. I think reading this book importantly expands the concept without saying it: she quotes Weber's concept of the "state monopoly on violence": "the government's exclusive right to exercise legitimate force. A monopoly provides citizens with legal autonomy, the liberating knowledge that the government will pursue anyone who violates their personal safety." That monopoly is broken where people don't believe that the government will protect their personal safety. Places like Watts, East and West Oakland, etc. Places where black people have routinely been treated like property or chattel by the police, places where the police routinely shoot when they could arrest, etc. As Leovy notes, police have routinely been busy using strategies of "control, prevention, and nuisance abatement rather than responding to victims of violence." Then the courts punish black people at different rates for the same crimes- heavier for black on white than for black on black. The media takes more notice of "awful" or "heinous" or "unusual" crimes: crimes where white people are the victims. Black lives don't matter. 

Again, Leovy points out that this is a difficult argument to make: most people know that the penal system is unfair to minorities, specifically black men. But what she's saying is that the two issues go hand in hand: the police don't want to solve the serious crimes, or to take back control of the state monopoly on violence, so they bring in black man after black man on trumped up drug charges, then cycle them through a shitty prison system. What they don't do is "fail to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate." You don't have to believe this incredibly short and inadequate summary of Leovy's amazing book- take three hours and read it yourself.

Oh, also, there's a plot, so you won't be bogged down in this kind of theoretical stuff. Following the plot, you will learn and believe this way better than I could ever explain. Leovy has some protagonists from both the LAPD and from the troubled, boiling streets of Watts. A long time LAPD officer's son is killed- they live in Watts and many other LAPD officers feel like it had only been a matter of time. The detectives in the area are flawed but serious characters that you can't help but liking- they don't care who the victim of a crime is, they believe that they deserve justice, and that the killer needs to be found. Witnesses and family members- they all have stories and opinions and lives, just like us. Like, they're human beings, too. I read this book right before I was called to jury duty for a murder charge, which I may write about later. I wondered about the police officers that caught the subject. I wondered if they really cared about the victims (who were not black) or about the accused (who is black). I wonder about the #blacklivesmatter movement and if it can step out to make the unpopular argument that black on black violence is a thing, and that that doesn't mean that black people as a whole are responsible. I wonder if society can hear that argument without resorting to our old, tired, antebellum notions of inferior black people. I wonder if society can think complicated thoughts about policing. A book that makes you think this many things is absolutely a must read.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Irving Kirsch: The Emperor's New Drugs

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Irving Kirsch believes that antidepressants don't work and that we are doing society a giant disservice by selling the public a line (and a lot of drugs) that depression is a chemical imbalance and that medicine is the way to fix it. His argument is well thought out and backed up by a lot of science, but it's a hard one to swallow (yes, I did that on purpose). He knows that, and he has taken his lumps (of sugar pills) from the scientific community. The lay reader (like me) has a hard, if not impossible, time though, knowing what to believe since it's kind of a crazy argument- or, at least one that goes counter to everything we've been told for decades- and, as he said, no one in the scientific community agrees with him, either. So is "The Emperor's New Drugs" the well-written screed of a lunatic/agitator/fringe guy or is it the beginning of a new and accurate trend in how we think about mental health/illness?

I have no idea what the answer is to that question. What I do know is that Kirsch has laid out his case very clearly and knows what he is up against. He gets off to a good start as the first piece of his analysis was done in the mid-90s when he and a colleague did a meta-analysis of the placebo effect in the treatment of depression. He was roundly criticized, pretty much from every side. Not only did people not believe him, they also didn't believe that meta-analysis was a thing. Now meta-analysis is very much a thing and the main argument left is that there's no way that the placebo effect could be what's causing people to get better in these clinical trials of anti-depressants. Only, according to Kirsch's analysis of the data (and his analyses of the analyses), the placebo effect is almost as strong as that of the anti-depressants, and so close that you can't disregard it. And, importantly, he did a Freedom of Information act for the many, many unpublished studies, as only the published studies were the ones that most doctors were basing their opinions on. The published studies still didn't show much difference between the real pills and the sugar pills- the unpublished studies showed even less. But the practitioners, scientists and academics aren't having it.

Placebos work because on depression because we want them to work, he says. And so do anti-depressants. We join clinical trials on treating depression because we're depressed, but also because we kind of want to get better. When we're in a clinical trial, there is a hope- an expectation- that we CAN get better through the treatment. And when we're in a blind trial (neither the patient or the clinician know what the patient is getting), anti-depressants have more likelihood of success for one main reason: they have side effects. We may try not to guess whether we are getting the placebo or not, but when we start to have headaches, nausea and sexual dysfunction, we're going to be pretty sure that we're getting the Real Thing, at which point we are going to get pretty excited- maybe this is it- the treatment is right for us! And this, to Kirsch, is the only thing that accounts for the difference in effectiveness between medically active pills and sugar pills. I am not going to go through all of the reasons and studies, but it's pretty convincing stuff. And pretty scary stuff that makes your mind want to go "nope, no sir," like all of his critics have.

I will say that the one thing that made me think, "oh, maybe they're right" is his emphasis on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Kirsch has a string of ideas on thinking past the chemical imbalance theory and using anti-depressants for the treatment of depression, but they rest heavily on the wide availability of CBT. I don't know much about this treatment, but what I have heard about it isn't particularly positive. I don't think I've ever done this before, but I'll send you right to the wikipedia section on criticisms of CBT. There are lots of them, and they are varied. Say what you will about talk therapy, but this isn't what Kirsch is about. He's not really about getting at the root of the problem, but about fixing things. Again, his idea is radical and would involve rethinking our current understandings of how depression works, so I'm not sure that he's wrong, but I got a little wary at this point in his conclusion.

This is a fascinating book by a man who has been ripped to shreds by his scholarly community and lived to tell the tale. He's not apologetic and wants us to understand where he's coming from. The book is certainly mind-opening, if not mind-changing, at least for me.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Some Book Reports

Couldn't Read:
David Halperin: How to Be Gay. This is a really awesome project and I really wanted to like it, which is why I kept reading and reading and reading and then finally stopped. About 10 or 15 years ago Haperin taught a class at the University of Michigan (I think, I forget now) with this title and there was general uproar. He wasn't, in fact, teaching students how to be gay (obviously), but discussing what it means to be gay. He writes "That distinctively gay way of being [italics in original- he does this a lot and it's kind of annoying], moreover, appears to be rooted in a particular queer way of feeling. And that queer way of feeling- that queer subjectivity- expresses itself through a peculiar, dissident way of relating [see what I mean?] to cultural objects ... and cultural forms in general..."  The class and the book "set out to explore gay men's characteristic relation to mainstream culture for what it might reveal about certain structures of feeling distinctive to gay men." I think this is kind of cool and awesome. He basically outlines how even when gay men weren't allowed to be outwardly gay, there were things that they (and others) identified with and as queer- musicals, for example. And when, post-Stonewall, it was more okay to be queer, these things stuck. Then, in the 80s, when it was about respectable identity, cultural idiosyncrasies were downplayed or even denied. But when he polled his students, or even just talked to them, some things were still obviously relevant to them as gay males, and not just the literature by and about queer men. What's that about? That's the project. The book, however, is way too repetitive and high-faluting and not enough camp, if you will, not IN the material but about what the material might be. Lit crit gone wrong. Skip it. Good title, poor execution.

Niles Eldredge: Why We Do it. You can also file this one under "don't fall for the title." Although I knew this one was about the science behind sex, I didn't realize exactly what the subtitle "Rethinking sex and the selfish gene" was about. This entire book is basically a refutation of Richard Dawkins selfish gene theory, which I haven't read. (If you want, you can read the whole thing here.) The selfish gene theory is very influential, but honestly, I am not a science person and don't really care. So I *really don't care about a guy who REALLY cares about it enough to write a book-length rebuttal. Damn.

Now for the surprises- I recently discovered that I really like Alexandre Dumas! Who knew? My education largely skipped the classics, especially those by dead white men (which may be all of the classics, who knows. I read the Count of Monte Cristo- one of the abridged (translated obviously) versions and man, I really liked that thing! I fell into the romance of it and the cruelty of it, and what's not to like (except the fact that this purist was reading a translated and abridged version...) and I liked it so much that I then read the Black Tulip and I loved that, too! Like Thomas Hardy, there's something addictive and sweetly nostalgic about these old books that are still resonant today.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Nina Stibbe: Love, Nina

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I believe that THB may have called "Love, Nina" the book of the year the year he read it. The year is still young, but if my books continue to be so ho hum (or if I keep making bad choices), this could definitely be it. Love, Nina is definitely shooting for best sleeper/surpriser/who knew? book.

Nina Stibbe was a nanny in the very early 80s in London. It turns out that she worked for a family of literary types who turned out to be movers and shakers in the literary world. I'm not sure that Nina really knew that, then, or that she herself was quite a writer. She hadn't gone to college- she had moved from her town (which sounds small) to London to nanny for some boys. The book consists of her letters home to her sister, signed, of course, Love, Nina. She tells of her days with the literary movers and shakers as though they are just your average quirky families on the street, because to her, they are just that. (To be honest, without Google, they are just that to your average California reader, which is fine, too, because her writing is so great.) The letters home are hilarious, dry, quirky and funny. She is a bit self-deprecating, but more, she portrays her faults through snippets of less-than-flattering dialogue of the family about her. She loves the boys she cares for, and their wit and personality comes through as though they were little men living in the house with you, not with her.

This book actually made me laugh out loud- I can't remember the last time I said that. I also can't remember the last time I recommended a book to so many people. To be fair, though, that may be the nature of the type of book I read, not the comparative amazingness of this book over the others. (Hard to tell people to read a book about how humanitarian aid is fucking up the world... It's weird how no one else likes to read footnotes...) Highly recommended, to pretty much anyone!