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.