Monday, December 28, 2009

Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine

Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine
I've been reading this book off and on for the last 6 months or so having it picked up at my school on a whim and then having it be required reading for my current food therapy class. Although I think a lot about health and wellness I have never connected evolutionary analysis to the health crises many face so acutely until reading this book. So many people respond to illness with "how can I not feel this?" not "why is this happening?" thereby not really looking at the root source of the issue and only temporarily quelling the "problem".

A few of the things I pulled from the book which I thought were neat:

"Many primates and other mammals can make their own vitamin C, but we humans cannot. Our ancestral shift to a high-fruit diet, rich in vitamin C, had the incidental consequence about 40 million years ago of allowing the degeneration of the biochemical machinery for making this vitamin. "

"It makes no evolutionary sense, for example, for the human developmental process to cause a large proportion of the population to grow incisors in malfunctional positions and to suffer so many problems with wisdom teeth. If a large proportion of modern children need orthodontia and then later some require expensive and painful surgery on wisdom teeth, it implies that there is something wrong with their environment. One possibility is a deficient demand for jaw exercise … meals would have required far more prolonged and vigorous chewing than is ever demanded of a modern child."

"Sitting for hours on chairs in classrooms is unnatural and nothing of the sort was ever demanded of stone age children. When they were sedentary, they would have been squatting not sitting… and would have been able to shift from squatting to kneeling to walking or running. Might it not be that today’s sufferers from lower back pain owe their distress to the hours of abnormal posture imposed during childhood?"

There are ton more like this and sections I found particularly interesting on morning sickness, allergies, cancer and tons more. It's not the sort of book you sit down and read in one sitting, well not for me anyway, but definitely great to get into in stretches of down time. I've got more like this coming so get psyched!!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Trosper's summer reading roundup

Prologue: I wrote most of this back in August. It’s just a few blurbs on what I read over the summer.

This summer has been a fairly successful season of reading for me. After I finished my school obligations in June I scrambled to quickly engage myself in a reading regiment. The very mention of school here has meaning, as my academic and personal interests collide in books and I was careful to be selective in my choices. Basically, why read something in my free time that I might have to be forced to read otherwise? On the other hand, why not enrich my future academic endeavors by sampling material I might need to be privy to? Then again, why not devour whatever book I lay eyes on, regardless of content, useful or otherwise? This last inquiry hopefully steered the course of the season.

I began reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I had picked up a copy at “Blintzapalooza” earlier in the year and it has been on my mental queue for at least a few years. In a nutshell (and this is mostly what I do here…), it is about how the US Government (and of course its corporate interests and benefactors) tried to “control nature” by wiping out unwanted insect populations with toxic chemicals. Naturally, this did not work in many ways. It was written in the 60’s, after a successful career as a government scientist and well-known coastal/marine life guide book author. Read this if you want to be shocked and appalled by the policies of the US Department of Agriculture (of which I’ve been an employee!) at this time. Also, it’s a good primer on ecological principles containing some really nice prose. In real life, Carson was persecuted by the government and corporations for her writings and then died of cancer, not so ironically. Some say this is one of the most important books ever written by an American.

Next up is Hermann Buhl: Climbing Without Compromise by Reinhold Messner and Horst Hofler. OK, well if you don’t know who Reinhold Messner is, look him up, but he is probably the “greatest” mountaineer of all time (yes, if there is such a ridiculous thing). Anyway, Messner put together this book about his idol Buhl: the toughest, most insane of climbers previous to himself. Well, I was excited to read this even though I find Messner’s writings somewhat dull. I would say that this book is for fans of Messner, Buhl, WW 2-era climbing, and Himalayan expeditions. But, I mean fans, and not casual interest readers. I still haven’t finished this but still want to read the Nanga Parbat treatment. Otherwise this is mostly diary entries directly from Buhl—quite dry and germanic. I must say I was interested in exploring his eccentricism and that didn't come across, so either it was my own confabulation or he is really just a typically boring Teuton. Also, his apathy towards the war (he "fought" on the German side--actually he spent the war skiing) was weird but probably typical of a lot of Alp-dwelling Austrians. But, he was truly obsessed, which is usually the case with athletes who bother to write about their doings. And there are cool pictures (very stylish!).

Along this mountain reading came along Pickets and Deadmen by Bree Loewen. This is the account of a woman climbing ranger on Mt Rainier (during the 2000’s). I can recommend this for anybody interested in climbing Mt Rainier or ranger life. The bullshit she goes through is pretty interesting, which is not surprising considering the ultra-machismo of the climbing world. I can only say that probably some of the people she worked for and with were probably a little annoyed with her take on things. And sometimes she just seemed like a snotty, jaded outdoors person, but none the less her perspective from a female in a male dominated profession and hobby is rare and refreshing (and the book is short and to the point).

Next up is Three Fingers-The Mountain, The Men, and a Lookout by Malcolm S. Bates. I came across this somehow at the library while looking for some other stuff. Since I like lookout-lore I couldn’t resist. It is a kind of goofy written personal memoir and history of a particularly precarious lookout in the north-central Cascades of Washington. This is for Forest Service, Cascade, and lookout history buffs only. The way they managed to construct it is amazing. But this is quite an obscure book indeed.

The book I was looking for when I found the last one is A Wilderness Original: The Life of Bob Marshall by James M. Glover. Well, if you are an U.S. environmental history nerd like myself you ought to know who Bob Marshall is. If not, look him up. He is most famous for his hiking ability (30+ miles a day in tennis shoes) and for being probably one of the most successful advocates for the setting aside of public land for wilderness. He was also less famous for being an early civil rights advocate, socialist, and Jewish. He had a PhD in plant pathology, was independently wealthy, obsessed with Alaska, and died at the age of 39 (theoretically from hiking too much…). He is a really interesting character.

Somehow I suckered myself into reading a more academic tome about Marshall and others called Driven Wild by Paul Sutter. The basic idea is that the US wilderness movement was “fueled” by the reaction of some individuals against the increasing motorization of America and the effect it was having on recreation, landscapes, and national character. It’s a great overview of this period between the two world wars by a thesis driven history grad student. It covers Aldo Leopold, Marshall, Benton Mackaye, and Robert Sterling Yard, all founders of the Wilderness Society and all fairly weird (except Leopold, whom was just a regular old genius).

Polar Journeys: The Role of Food and Nutrition in Early Exploration by Robert E. Feeney. OK, well this, by title, may sound boring and academic, and it is too. BUT, it was probably one of the more interesting books I read over the summer. It is chock full of gruesome adventures where the reader can fill in all the blanks left out (after all, it covers well over a century of ill-advised adventures in the Polar regions). The thrust of the book lies in the history of development of nutrition science coincident with exploration. If there were one word to describe it, I would say “Scurvy.” My favorite conclusion from the book was that the English were generally so racist/colonialist that they refused to adopt customary technology from Northern-living peoples and therefore died in their thin, woolen nationalist garments, often groveling over contaminated jars of slime driven oblivious to the vast landscapes of ice surrounding them. The most successful explorers borrowed/stole ideas from Inuits and Scandinavian Laplander cultures in both food and dress. Duh, right?

The Book of Job translated by Stephen Mitchell. It is the Book of Job from the Bible translated by a trusted scholar of comparative religion. It has a lofty introduction that illuminates the text. I guess what makes this interesting is that it isolates the writing from the Bible and so, in a way, stands apart as a work unto itself. If you think about it, the Bible is a loose collection of writings from various authors of antiquity, much of it poetry, and not authored by God (sorry to break it to ya). Anyway, read Job if you feel persecuted. He is this great, rich guy that loses everything and then gets really pissed off at God. His friends tell him to quit whining and face the “reality” of God. He eventually does and God basically gives him everything back. I think the way it ends is a wee bit fairy tale/Hollywood and confusing. But there’s plenty of beautiful blasphemous poetry if you’re into that.

Wildlife Wars: The Life and Times of a Fish and Game Warden by Terry Grosz. I had to mention this one because of it’s ridiculous entertainment value. Terry Grosz, (the game warden, not the NPR host) is this 6’6” 300 pound guy who loves all of God’s little creatures and he beats the crap out of redneck scumbags all over northern California. Some people argue that poaching is done by poor folks who need to eat, but this is a myth, as there is a huge market for illegally hunted game (at least that’s the justification herein, and I agree btw). Some of the stories are outrageous and hard to believe. I would recommend this for people who dislike evil rednecks and animal rights thinkers that want a ripping, adventuresome yarn. It is a wee bit cheesy and if you really don’t like cops, he is one. But you know, he loves the USA, his wife, God, and all the animals. You should admire my courage for admitting that I read this.

The Curtis Creek Manifesto by Sheridan Anderson. I just had to mention this. This was written by this weird cartoonist who was a fishing bum San Francisco counterculture-type. Anyway, he illustrated a couple of obscure rock climbing manuals and was infamous around Yoesemite in the 60’s. Word has it that he introduced Yvon Chouinard and some other famous climbers to the art of fly fishing and the rest is history (Chouinard now sells some of the poshest of fly fishing gear from his Patagonia company). Anyway, Anderson, self-proclaimed "Angler, artist, wander, eternal foe of the work ethic," withered away under alcoholism and general bumness and died truly obscure, but left this brilliant comic book/fishing how-to. It’s one of the best selling fly fishing books of all time.

Last but not least is The Pine Barrens by John McPhee. McPhee is one of my very favorite writers and the first one I recommend to people who may not be interested or know anything about natural history. He really is the quintessential National Geographic-type journalist-writer. I say this because topically he covers just about anything you would read in there, e.g., cultural geography, natural history, political economy and so on. For example, he wrote a book about oranges as well as a hefty tome on American historical geology. This book is what I would describe as a historical geography of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. It is a discrete natural area that by virtue of its discreteness created a little known American subculture. Minutes away from densely populated metropolitan areas existed this backwoods Appalachian-type world of shacks, bogs, and gun-toting weirdos. McPhee immersed himself in it and brought critical attention to the importance of the preservation of the land and its inhabitants. I would say this is a fine read just like anything else I've read by him.

Honorable mentions:
How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman.
Forest Primeval by Chris Maser.
Trout by Ray Bergman.
To Know a River by Roderick Haig-Brown.

Epilogue: Winter break is here and I have a decent queue of stuff to read before heading back to the trenches. Wish me luck!

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Way Home by George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos writes stark sentences. I like to read them. I also enjoy the fast-pace of his books, the political themes (race/class/ethnicity in contemporary American society), the fact they take place in Washington DC and his skillful, suspenseful storytelling. He is a good writer and his books are compelling. But his work is deeply flawed and limited by prejudice.

Like many of my favorite writers who utilize this style (Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammet, John Fante) his stories are sexist to the point of distraction. There are few female characters. Predictably, when they do show up, they function as symbols and only exist in relation to men, who dominate the story and propel the action. His depictions of women usually involve describing their body from the point of view of one of the male characters, particularly the ass, and rarely do any female characters appear who are not mothers, whores or wives. Also like Hemingway, Hammet and Fante--his work is about masculinity--but not just any variety. He writes about a particular kind of patriarchal, straight-guy world that only seems to exist in movies and books; a world in which women are cliches and guys are heroic.

I wonder if, like me, he was drawn to his chosen writing style because he hates flowery, descriptive prose--or if he was drawn to it because he hates women (despite his love of the ass). I read 4 or 5 other Pelecanos books before I got to this one, all within a couple months of each other but The Way Home put me over my threshold. I actually don't think this one is more sexist than the others, maybe it's just not as good. Whatever the reason, I was over it. Because really, why be this sexist? Is it ignorance, stubborness, pure-hate, fear? I don't get it. On one level I liked the book, but can I recommend it? No, not truthfully, because while you might think that you can block it out and it's just harmless--it's not cool and we shouldn't have to put up with it. If you think you're up for reading a sexist dude's account of a father-son story that deals with the criminal-justice system, then go for it, but don't say I didn't warn you when you have to tolerate a bunch of ridiculous, annoying, tedious, predictable crap about women. I don't think that his sexism is incidental, I view it as central to his work, and to this writing style in general, unfortunately.

After finishing this one I was unable to get through the last book in the Derek Strange series (though I still plan on it) until I had researched and read some "feminist noir". I hope I can find writing I like as much written by a woman (or even an anti-sexist guy). I like crime fiction as a working class genre. It deals with working people, the underclass, justice/injustice and is largely a critique of society. There's usually a dichotomy between the amoral 'crook' and the pious world of the square. The worker is commonly depicted as a man (or woman) of the law, but often is corrupt or struggling with his/her own moral code and dilemma. Economics is generally a major theme. I've always loved mysteries and suspense, particularly detective novels. I like trying to solve the crime and keeping track of the different plot-lines and possible motives. Usually the characters are sharp and well-formed like they are in a comic strip. Quick-witted dialogue, the shadowy underworld, tragic twists of fate--all good and present here. I enjoy reading Pelecanos for these reasons. He is good at the craft and I appreciate his polemic use of fiction. But by the end of The Way Home, I'd had enough for awhile.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

In the United States of Africa

In the United States of Africa
by Abdourahman A. Waberi
translated by David & Nichole Ball

I first read about this book on Laila Lalami's blog that also led me to her full review at The National's website.

I think the only thing I'd like to add to the review linked to above is that this novel is not only worth reading for its complete inversion of eurocentrism but because the author (and translators) have created so many beautiful sentences.

"Wherever they may come from, children do not belong to their progenitors, their parents. They belong to themselves, that's all."

"Every passing day brings its share of dead leaves granted by the wind to hardened city people like you..."

"All the flowers and all the poisons in the world come to meet in the garden of our taciturn heroine."

Women of Color and Feminism by Maythee Rojas

hey bumpidee readers, this book came out this month on Seal Press:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Odd Girl Out, the Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons

When Rachel Simmons , a white middle class rhodes scholar, was eight years old she was bullied by another white middle class girl. while attending Vasser majoring in political science and women's studies she kept finding herself distracted by her childhood experience with her bully. So she decided to research girl on girl aggression and came up with next to nothing. Noticing that there where mountains of research on boy aggressions she found herself confused and at more of a loss. So she sent out an email asking women to describe there own experiences and a day later found her email box full from women recounting their personal horror stories. Next she began researching the culture of (white middle class) girl aggression by interviewing girls age 10-14 at different private and public schools.

This book is woven together by Rachel's interviews, one story after the other of girls describing how they are bullied. I found it interesting because i could relate to many of the stories and it made my own current experiences not seem so crazy. I kept thinking about Rachel being in a canoe with a ruler and pencil trying to map out an ocean that has never been charted before. Her in a union suit alone in a human powered water craft with simple means and tools trying to map out a massive and powerful body of water.

I'm glad i read this book, it was a place to turn to when trying to understand and manage dealing with white middle class grown women that have under developed emotional intellect and an inability to be assertive and direct. It gave me clues to how and why most grown white middle class women behave and socialize the way they do and it layed before me many of the problems that we face having relationships with other women. seriously a heavy read.

Friday, November 27, 2009

INAMORATA by Joseph Gangemi

I'm not one to read fiction very often. Especially historical fiction, but this book caught my attention because it is loosely (not so loosely) based on the story of Mina Crandon, one of the many mediums to come from the occult and spiritualism craze of the early 20th century. Since I was way younger I've had an obsession with this period in history because It was America's attempt to socialize death in a way that was seperate from mourning. While I appreciate a modern attempt to re create this most interesting time period through narrative, I did not find the book to be that good. 
Even though I'm not super into it, I decided to write about this book because recent events have caused me to think a lot about death and mourning. I recently was talking to a friend about the emotional processes of grief and how unique it is from every other emotional state. She made an excellent point stating that there's not much room for grief in our culture; traditionally the funeral and memorial services are finished in a day (depending on your religious background obviously)  and then thats the end of the collective grief. In the early twentieth century there was a movement being promoted by entertainers and literary figures (i.e Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Houdini) to speak to the dead, within the home, in a socialized setting. During this time many mediums surfaced and many were proven wrong. Mina Crandon was one of those psychics. She would claim to talk to her dead brother Walter, who would become violent occasionally. Mina was  a lot more radical than most mediums at this time. She would sometimes perform her seances in the nude and shoot ectoplasm from her vagina. 
 The female lead, on who the book was based on, was done a huge injustice with her role in the novel. She is portrayed as a weak, over-sexual manipulator. She isn't central to the narrative whatsoever; she is mostly just being sexually objectified by the male lead, who narrates the book from a first person perspective. This character is one of the investigators for  the Scientific American which comes to ultimately discredit her. I think it is a TRAVESTY what they have done to her in this book. Even the aesthetics of the cover suggests the kind of  exploitation thats happening, her face unattainable as all these male hands reaching for it, so to speak. During this time there were so many women psychics with the "ability" to speak to the dead (i.e. The fox sisters, Mina Crandon, Leon0ra Piper) that were being investigated by 'science', which at the time was incredibly male dominated. Maybe this was a reflection of what was going on between the sexes politically at this time.... or maybe not. Regardless there was an obvious separation of the sexes within this realm. Even the men that were apart of the movement were ultimately out to exploit this underground sensation. Or maybe Im projecting and rambling.  Regardless, my point is its not very clever for someone to write a FICTIONAL novel about a very interesting time in history and use it to create some sort of jack-offery for male readers is it? Its not worth reading, but Mina Crandon is worth some investigation. 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

And Here's The Kicker by Mike Sacks

In this collection of interviews with 21 top comedy writers - a couple of notable things emerge. Producers of humour it seems are most likely sufferers of OCD and possibly have a science background. As a comedy writer myself, I rejected these sweeping generalisation until I remembered that I tend to do most of my writing sitting on the exact same bench in Highgate Woods and when I was young I did want to be a vet and so did take all the sciences in high school. Add liberal doses of depression and yes, perhaps I am cut out to be a comedy writer after all.
There is a definite tone to this book - and not a lot of laughs. The world of comedy is a frustrating one. Executives rule the roost and executives are all idiots. It didn't matter how many Emmys Arrested Development won, not enough people watched it so it was killed. It's creator Mitch Hurwitz is one of Kicker's interviewees and took this destruction with a shrug. He's a veteran of Golden Girls, Ellen and The John Larroquette Show, so the cruel and unfathomable activities of the network higher-ups must have been painfully familiar by then. The book is full of this kind of pain. Bob Odenkirk's frustration in the SNL writing room, Jack Handey's joy in the SNL writer's room, but frustration at everyone thinking he doesn't really exist, Robert Smigel's ill-advised first sketch on the Dana Carvey Show, which featured Bill Clinton suckling a puppy with his own milk filled teats, Harold Ramis's shame about Caddyshack II. As Steve Martin noted, 'Comedy is Not Pretty'.
Certainly if anyone has an interest in writing comedy, this book is an excellent deterrent. Many of the writers advise trying something else. Annie Hall co-author Marshall Brickman implores prospective writer's to learn CPR and enter health care. Bruce Jay Friedman echoes Grace Paley's advice to 'keep a low overhead'. Wings and Becker scribe Ian Gurvitz describes the process as 'propeller blades that you are about to walk into'. You only do it if you have to do it. If you have some almighty compulsion that forbids you from trying anything else. It helps to be a comedy nerd, ambitious and to have an uncle that works at the William Morris agency. Don't even start if you think you're about to spear a particular cash cow or drown in golden statuettes. It's a book that is both inspiring and disheartening in equal measure. But it's good to hear that even the mighty George Meyer, the man responsible for The Simpsons comic sensibilityand along with Michael O'Donoghue my comedy writing hero, finds writing scripts 'usually traumatic'.
Anyone interested in the creative process, or possesses the misconception that comedy writing must be really fun, will take something away from this illuminating compendium. As The Onion's head writer Todd Hanson notes 'you don't have to be a genius to figure out that humour is connected to pain'. I'll remember that when I'm on my bench, trying to make with the funny.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Grunge by Michael Lavine

Old School Olympia Skate Rats: (left to right) Randy Rice, Chris Gray, Ted Motz, Eric Greenwalt, Mike Blair, Chris Barwick. This was taken in 1984. The first half of this book is full of beautiful photos of Olympia/Seattle street punx, skaters and mods. The logic being, this is where Grunge came from I guess? More soon!

Codependent No More by Melody Beattie

This is not the kind of book I would normally read. I have an aversion to psychological analysis, maybe especially self-help, because it tends to focus on the individual, or the family, rather than on the larger socioeconomic picture. This book is limited in scope for these reasons but was conditionally recommended to me by a friend as something that might be helpful for dealing with the impact addiction has had on our lives.

In recent years, starting with Jigsaw #7 (1999), I have written a bit about loss, substance abuse and self-destruction. A lot of friends have died too young and many comrades struggle with varying degrees of addiction and related problems. It got to the point in the past few years where I really couldn't be around it anymore and had to make some changes. This was unfortunately inspired by more self-destructive related tragedies happening to people I loved dearly.

While I have never been someone who enjoys hanging out in bars or getting wasted all the time I did get to that point socially where I would find myself in a bar out of pure boredom on a regular basis. Witnessing the damage this routine has inflicted on people I care about and "the scene" in general, I finally stopped going out just for the sake of seeing people. I made some rules at the beginning of the year and stuck to them. For the most part I avoid bars unless there is a reason to go, i.e. a show or the rare DJ night that can't be missed. If I do go out I will have 1 or 2 drinks max, often none. If the reason for being out is social and not related to music, I'll stay for an hour or two, or just leave as soon as I start to feel bored rather than sit there and order another drink or whatever I used to do.

This has been really productive for me personally. I find I am less depressed and have a lot more time to do things I enjoy doing that are meaningful to me, such as writing, playing guitar and reading books. It has made me more isolated, but I have more energy to spend on things that enrich my quality of life like cooking, going to the Y, listening to records, doing yoga and working on research projects. I find that the internet is a good way to stay connected to people, but I do miss hanging out in real time, which is something I'm going to work on for next year. Really this has been pretty easy because being around drunk people and not drinking is not that fun. People start slurring and repeating themselves and they get too close to you and touch you too much and start pointless arguments and they stop listening to each other. There really isn't much of a point.

Unfortunately, the problem of addiction and its impact on people I care about has not gone away and this still effects me as much as I try to ignore it and detach myself from the culture that surrounds it. This book offers 12-step type advice on how to do that more effectively. After reading it for a few short hours, I found it to be very helpful and jotted down some concrete strategies for dealing with codependency caused by addiction. However, the writer IS religious and talks A LOT about the "higher power", well way too much for my own me this is a real, big serious bummer and flaw in the book. I understand that this works for many, many people, but I also know that it is not working for me. I have been an atheist for my entire life and while I have learned to be somewhat tolerant of other beliefs, I really can't take this kind of thinking seriously on a personal level. I can't just skip that part! So that is troubling.

I would also like to see a critique of consumerism included in the analysis of addiction. I am somewhat uncomfortable with the individualism and related assumptions in the book as well. Maybe this is me being "codependent" or "in denial" or something, but some of the behaviors that are identified as problematic and unhealthy in the book don't necessarily seem totally negative to me. I understand it is written for someone who needs to establish healthy boundaries in order to take care of their own needs but personally I'd like to see an approach that values nurturing, care-taking and connectedness as well. I am also interested in reading about harm reduction and more radical anti-capitalist strategies for dealing with addiction. My understanding is that the 12-step program claims addiction is a disease based in the family structure. I am not sure I see it this way, though I understand it can be a useful metaphor for some and I want to respect that this approach does work for many people.

Regardless, this book offers practical advice for someone who has been involved with addicts on how to move forward by taking responsibility for your own life and setting boundaries. I would recommend it to someone interested in examining this stuff, specifically how addiction effects your relationships with people on a psychological level and negatively impacts your daily life. But if you are not a "true believer" it can be a little hard to take at times.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Rogues Eccentrics and Villains by Willie Donaldson

The remarkable thing about Willie Donaldson’s “Rogues Eccentrics and Villains – An A-Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages” is that the thing exists at all. The late Mr Donaldson easily fell into all three of these categories himself – enjoying a feverishly scolded life of debtors, drug abuse and an expensive peccadillo for prostitutes. Before his crack-ridden body was discovered alone in a squalid London flat, allegedly slumped over a pornographic lesbian website – he had squandered at least three fortunes, had been responsible for stage productions involving Beyond the Fringe and Bob Dylan, had affairs with Sarah Miles and Carly Simon (Donaldson is in the running for being the subject of You’re So Vain), become homeless in Ibiza after the disastrous purchase of a glass-bottomed boat and wrote a great deal, like Balzac, out of necessity rather than love.

The book concerning Donaldson’s life has the remarkable title “You Cannot Live as I Have Lived and Not End Up Like This”. It is recommended. Like fellow rogues Jeffrey Bernard, Oliver Reed and Keith Moon, (who all have entries in Rogues Eccentrics and Villains) Donaldson represented the sort of drunken reprobate that is slowly eroding out of British cultural life. Wastrels that were happy to drink their lives away leaving a stream of tattered marriages behind them and yet possessing enough charm to squeeze another drink out of whichever poor unfortunate was within mooching distance at the bar.

Rogues Eccentrics and Villains collects the lives of many of these men and women, from every conceivable age. Murderers, witches gangsters, forgers, village idiots and violent aristocrats are collated and misrepresented by Donaldson, who joyfully assassinates the characters of those he feels deserve it (i.e. the entry for Oliver Reed begins: “bibulous show-off, known as the ‘hell-raiser’s hell-raiser’, a title that is thought to have gone to him because no one else wanted it). Donaldson seems perfectly happy in this company, gangsters in particular are presented with a rosy glow. Tricksters too are described with glee. Donaldson was an arch trickster himself, making his final fortune with the publication of The Henry Root Letters, in which he wrote annoying letters to celebrities and published the pompous results.

Like all writers, Donaldson hated writing and was forced to meet deadlines practically at gunpoint, which makes the creation of this 690 page compendium all the more remarkable. I’m sure many tears were shed and threats levelled before the manuscript was delivered. It was his last great effort. Donaldson’s disgraceful life ground to a halt in 2005. Sadly there are few contenders to take such a mans place.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Alternatives to Forward Motion--reading Thomas Bernhard

Frost is the second novel I’ve read by Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard. The first was The Loser, which, written in initially-frustrating-yet-ultimately-captivating long, long clause-ridden sentences, describes the (fictional) relationship between two former music students and their colleague, Glenn Gould. The plot, as it exists, moves ahead by accumulation, rather than discrete action; the magnificent sentences loop forward and back and around again, picking up information in their wake and depositing it on the page. The reader either jumps in, or s/he doesn’t. I mention The Loser first because I was expecting something similar from Frost—written before The Loser, I’d thought I’d find at least nascent evidence of that book’s style. But while one could certainly point out similarities, Frost asks something different of the reader.

The basic premise of Frost is this: a young medical student is sent on an assignment by his supervisor-mentor to go, essentially, spy on the mentor’s aging brother, a former painter who’s taken up residence at a dismal inn in a grim mountain town in the Alps. The student, who narrates the book, is meant to pose as a law student and befriend the painter Strauch, take notes on him, and report back to the brother. We never find out the exact motivation for the mentor giving this assignment—maybe he feels guilty about having fallen out with the brother, maybe he wants to examine his mental decline as a sort of medical case study. It doesn’t really matter. What the book, essentially, ends up being, is at least 50% of the painter’s monologuing about his life and philosophy, which tends toward the idea that we’re all damaged people, living in the thrall of death and decay: “You are standing in a square, and everything is black, suddenly everything inside you and outside you is black, no matter where you look at it from, black and stirred smooth, and you don’t know what stirred it, and everything is broken…” (It is worth noting, too, that the painter expresses some pretty hardcore misogyny—I reconcile it by deciding I don’t need to like the painter as a character, but that might be a bit of a cop-out.) The narrator interjects, every once in awhile, to describe a brief reaction to the painter, to explain a walk the two went on, to paraphrase the painter, or to reveal some details about his own life. (I’ll get to those parts in a minute.)

The painter’s monologues/musings/insights/rants are difficult to get through. They’re repetitive, and grim, and often make very little immediate sense. For awhile, however, they’re oddly compelling, and the student gets caught up in them, too; through his brief interjections, we start to get the idea that some of the painter’s gloomy madness is permeating the student’s own thinking. It was around this point that I started to realize that I wasn’t really trying to comprehend the painter’s words anymore; I was just blazing through them, assuming I knew essentially the points he was making, letting them wash over me, waiting for the next oasis when the student’s voice entered the scene.

At first, I felt guilty about this—I’ve always read way too quickly, often concerned more with getting through a book so I can get to the next one that really taking the time to contemplate and savor. Then, a shift happened in the book. The student was starting to doubt the painter too, to get sick of him, to want to find some way out of his grasp. And I realized that, perhaps, the way that I was reading the book was in fact the way that Bernhard intended. Through the sheer abundance, incoherence, and pessimism of the painter’s speeches, Bernhard has created a text that many readers will find at some level interesting, but also difficult and insufferable, and the reader will push through, plug his/her ears, pick up lucid bits where s/he can, but, overall, just keep going. After all, this is what the student is doing, eventually, too. Not all books are meant to be read in the same way, and the ways in which we read are an essential part of the way we make meaning out of a text. There are different ways of entering the world of a novel, different kinds of readerly intention. Frost illuminates the fact that reading is always an (inter)active process.

I should say, too, that the rarer moments when we get to hear the student’s voice are lucid and beautiful, and not just in contrast to the painter’s chaotic ranting. Here he is on the joy he got out of doing manual labor—

“Down on the building site, I remembered the time I used to go over the big bridges in blue workmen’s clothes. The air was fresh, and the noise wasn’t roused yet. Morning came down off the mountains into people’s houses, where they were saying their goodbyes for the day…The rest of the world that wasn’t working on building sites struck me as crazy, and those people who weren’t standing in holes in the ground I looked at with sympathy.”

—or on the crisis of confidence he begins to suffer, as the painter’s ideas begin to get to him: “My future’s like a stream in the forest, of which there are many precise descriptions, but nothing more.” Or, one of my favorite moments in the book, which sums up the student’s reaction to the painter’s ramblings. Though this is the student speaking about the painter Strauch, it could just as easily be me, as a reader, speaking about Bernhard, in Frost, himself: “His sentences are oar strokes that would propel him forward if it weren’t for the powerful current.” The trick is to realize that unbridled forward motion isn’t the only mode of navigating.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NYT Book Review Picks Best Children's Books of 2009

this one looks really cool! read their picks here more here


Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day

Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day by Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor

I picked this up when I went to North Carolina and it was the perfect cottage cheese for the brain book for reading while traveling. Nothing puts me into a more comfortable, contented state than reading about a music scene.

The title pretty much gives you an idea of the scope of the book... which is a pretty broad history really. It is one of those oral histories that is entirley composed of quotes: no introductory statements for the individual chapters, no background information or context to place the interviewees... The author/editors keep in some conflicting statements - different memories, interpretations - but I also wondered if they basically knew the story they wanted to present and just culled the quotes they needed to do that...

I've listened to a lot of the music, saw the bands on tour and read some of the zines at the time, but a lot of the context of the scene was totally new to me... I never knew anything about The Farm, never went to the Vats, etc etc. Someone from DRI lived in a tree? My band played in the bay area a fair amount in the 90s including at Gilman a couple times but according to what I read my assumptions about the scene surrounding it were pretty far off base.

The most interesting image I was left with was that two of the big forces shaping and instigating things were older guys - much older than the teen and twenty-something punks - Lawrence Livermore of Lookout records and Tim Yohannon of Maximum Rock-n-Roll. I'd like to read some sustained reflections about that... Was this involvement of an older generation part of punk and hardcore in a lot of scenes? What does it mean when a "youth moment" is intergenerational? I wonder what some of the contributors to the bumpidee reader think about this too? When is perspective, experience etc a productive thing and when is it just the past imposing its ideas on something that's emerging according to different experiences?

In "On the Lower Frequencies, a Secret History of The City" Erick Lyle sings the untold and unsung

In Erick Lyle's "On the Lower Frequencies", which Mike Davis calls a "ghetto-blaster of a book" we are in fact, "blasted" by the audacity of the author and his approach to living and writing. Out-takes from the criminal how-to zine, Scam, the polemic street newspaper and gossip rag, Turd Filled Donut, interviews, letters and other writing are combined to tell a multi-layered, socio-economic history of "The City". In spite of the blasting, the tone and scope of this book are often lushly cinematic and tersely hilarious in their portrayal of the punks, squatters, activists, criminals, homeless and working class residents of the they struggle, protest, create, rage, party, cry and just try to survive. The setting is San Francisco as the Dot Com era turns to the Dot Bomb era and then explodes and roils in the years of the current Afghanistan and Iraq wars. However, This is not a strident, romanticized voice of the victimized. In full acknowledgment of the criticism leveled by haters of cultures of resistance and punk rock, that they offer only critiques but not solutions and certainly not road maps for sustainable change, this book offers chapter after chapter of true examples of "being the change that you want to see". Because as Erick repeats mantra like: "What you're for is what you'll get!".
Erick tells his and a whole spectrum of others' stories about surviving the tumults of history of 11 or so epic years with it's familiar hopes, struggles, wars, losses and somehow...expectant, impossible hope emerges again from the disaster, tragedy and common greed known to all eras of a city. Erick frames his story in that continuum of history while remaining in the specific perspective of "Now"...lending his immediate, yet human, journalistic style of writing a vivid newsreel quality. The cast is Erick and legions of San Franciscans that enact a world, with a raw strategic approach, that seems like it should be as effective as the Salt Marches in bringing down an the city awakens to another tomorrow...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Eye Mind: The Saga of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators, the Pioneers of Psychedelic Sound, by Paul Drummond

Texas genre-defining psychedelic garage rockers the 13th Floor Elevators have a wild and tragic back story most fans are familiar with. It's a story of drugs, mental institutions, and some of the most crazed rock'n'roll sounds to come from the crazed druggy rock'n'roll of the 1960's. In his book, Paul Drummond searches further inside the history of this group than any previous writings, and comes up with one of the most engaging and even-handed, yet full of the excitement of a true fan, rock biographies around. The moment I finished it, I went back to page one and started again!

The history of the band goes as deep as the sounds they produced with their songs. It's a psychologically deep history. The musical roots of the main instrumentalists and vocalist come from a shared love of early rock'n'roll and the ensuing British Invasion sounds, with a little Texas hillbilly thrown in the mix giving them a touch of regional flair. The music, however, was only half of what made this band so special. The other half was their lyrical and spiritual searching for the keys to existence. We learn in the book that each of these elements was not only artistically, but also physically half the band; main lyricist/electric jug player Tommy Hall, and vocalist/guitarist Roky Erickson were dedicated to the spiritual quest of the band. The rhythm section, which consisted of a couple different drummers, though for most of the band's existence was John Ike Walton, and a small handful of bassists, was generally far more dedicated to their musical craft than the spiritual quest the band was supposed to be about; some even felt it detracted from the music. Although common legend has it that the whole band performed every show while on LSD, Walton took the drug only twice; the second time was at an early band rehearsal, where he had a hellish trip, and never touched it again. Quite possibly this was a good thing for the musical power of the band, as his performance at that rehearsal was noted to be very off-time. Finally, guitarist Stacy Sutherland, a man torn in two by his own emotional conflicts and demons, spent the entire history of the band vacillating between the two differing schools of thought within it.

This is the kind of tension that is infinitely important to the creative output of many of the greatest bands. There are certainly exceptions, but the groups who don't get along fabulously seem more likely to create art with greater emotional and psychological depth than a group of great comrades. With the Elevators, this tension, including a fair amount of resentment against Tommy Hall for his attempt to be the leader of the band yet hardly being a musician, along with the psychoactive drugs at the core of their disagreements, gave the world a candle that burned viciously bright for a brief time before slowly flickering down from both inner and outer pressure. The outer pressure came in the form of constant police surveillance and busts. Roky's grasp on reality loosing itself more and more was the real nail in the coffin for the Elevators.

The book handles this last subject very deftly, voicing the author's own opinion on the matter, pieced together from the interviews he prints within the book. Which brings me to the thing I most appreciate about his writing. He writes from the standpoint of both a huge fan of the 13th Floor Elevators' wild garage rock sounds, and a true appreciator of the importance to the band of their spiritual quest. This book could have easily been written by someone who would dismiss the latter in favor of the blinding amazingness of the former; or by a crazed acidhead who doesn't quite get the power and fervor of their music. Drummond handles all points of the band's history with an even hand, yet still with the excitement of a genuine fan. He shows clearly how the depth of the Elevators' acid-informed lyrics were head and shoulders beyond the merely presentational psychedelic lyrics of their contemporaries. Through his exhaustive interviews with every available person in the band - Sutherland died in 1978, but is well represented by an in-depth 1973 interview - and dozens of their close friends, fans, and family, Drummond's style of using unaltered quotes from these interviews, interspersed with his own piecing together of the story, pushes the tale along at a perfect pace. All the details you could ever be curious about are in here, including the secret to Tommy's electric jug, and the jazz influence he was trying to bring to the band through it. Their three month stay in San Francisco in late 1966 left me dazzled at how much they accomplished and changed as a band in such an amazingly short time.

Even if the whole book were about that stay in San Francisco, you'd have a well-encapsulated history of the band, written in a balanced yet engaging hand. But the book covers every corner of the Elevators' existence, from their earliest, locally well-respected cover bands through interesting where-are-they-nows and personal reunions. When I learn a great deal more about an artist or group than I had previously known, I often feel that too much mystery has been taken away, and no longer have as much interest in them. With this dense of subject matter, Eye Mind does not reveal enough to take away the mystery of the 13th Floor Elevators. This is no slight on the book. It illustrates how vastly deserving this group is of the in-depth look Drummond has given us.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (translated by Joanne Turnball) is a collection of surreal short fiction written in the 1920's but published posthumously. I don't know too much about this guy, but his writing is absolutely incredible. I have faith that pretty much anyone who reads this blog would not find spending the short amount of time it takes to read one of these stories to be a waste and that many of you, ok at least some, would find this to be as good as the best fiction you have read. I am taking it slow, savoring each story, because I don't want it to end.

Here's what the New York Times has to say:

Newcomers to this author will appreciate the guidance Turnbull provides in her introduction, which serves “to exgistolate the gist” of the stories, as the author might say. In “Quadraturin,” a man who lives in a communal apartment building “loses his way in the vast black waste of his own small room,” which has been magically enlarged by the application of a “proliferspansion” ointment. “The Bookmark” features an Eiffel Tower that “runs amok.” In “The Branch Line,” a commuter ends up in a place where “nightmares are the reality,” while in “Red Snow,” a dejected man “comes across a line for logic but doesn’t join it.” A “sociable corpse misses his own funeral” in “The Thirteenth Category of Reason.” And in the title story, the man with the time machine “gets a glimpse of the far-from-radiant Communist future.”

Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are more like dream diaries than fiction. Quite intentionally, he blurs the line between sleep and waking, real and unreal, life and death. While his translators admirably convey the whirligigging quality of his narratives, Krzhizhanovsky’s peregrinations demand unstinting focus and frequent compass checks. His characters often seem half, or wholly, asleep. Sometimes, as in “The Thirteenth Category of Reason,” they are dead — which doesn’t stop them from boarding city trams and chatting with commuters. “Alive or dead, they didn’t care.” Their only concern is whether such conduct is “decrimiligaturitized” — that is, legal. “In “Quadraturin,” the man with the proliferspansion ointment never exits a state of benumbed grogginess. Lying on his bed, “unable to part eyelids stitched together with exhaustion,” he tries to sleep through the night, “mechanically, meekly, lifelessly.” When inspectors from the Remeasuring Commission drop by to make sure he hasn’t exceeded his allotted 86 square feet of space, he hovers, terror-stricken, at the door, hoping they won’t spot his infraction. It’s an archetypal nightmare, reminiscent of Kafka.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Valencia by Michelle Tea

I forgot I had asked for Michelle Tea books for Christmas when I got Valencia on my birthday this year, but it was a welcome surprise. I had checked out Rose of No Man's Land from the library after seeing her read from it at Homo A-Go-Go (or was it Ladyfest) and loved it but had never owned a copy of that or any of her other books. I feel like I've given them away as presents after I had a big party to celebrate my 40th, my boyfriend and I drove around Hood's Canal and went camping...for the next few days I read on the beach until dark and then continued to read by the fire and then in the tent with the flashlight. There's a funny picture of me reading this one by the fire with the headlamp on, which is why I even remember all this.
Also it's relevant because it's a funny book to read on your 40th birthday on a camping trip with your boyfriend in the woods. I guess I wished I had read it when I was 20, because I totally would have loved it then. I still thought it was pretty great. The kinetic energy of her writing, the speed of her thoughts, her stream of consciousness sentence structures, the rambling nature of her days, the way she is searching and experimenting and discovering so much about herself and the world and needing with urgency to leave a record of it...all this reminds me of youth and of living like a young person. I guess some people never get to the point where they experience that degree of being alive and open to whatever you feel compelled to do regardless of the consequence--to live on desire alone, from one sexual encounter to the next, falling in and out of love without the kind of hesitation you develop as you get older...or should I say should develop. I guess I won't turn it into a judgement....just that when I was reading this I was glad to be reminded of what it's like to be young but also glad not to be young anymore, sitting there in the borrowed camping chairs, sleeping in a tent, cooking on the camp stove, hanging out with my grown up boyfriend. It felt alright. It was nice. I was happy to be alive, I was happy to be under the stars...I was happy to be in a serious committed long term monogamous relationship with someone I can communicate with and not back in the late 80's/early 90's all confused and at war with the world. I was happy to be me and not any of the characters in the book...this is not to say they aren't likable--I did like them. My younger self would have been thrilled to have found this book. It would have meant everything to me in 1989. But I think reading it made me even happier to be 40, if that makes sense.
So's a good book, highly recommend it! She's a great storyteller, really good at description and has interesting observations about the world, but what I think she really really excels at is creating an energetic, expressive text that can't be easily digested or contained. She simply must be read. Most of you have probably already read all of her books but I had somehow missed this one. I guess it's a memoir/novel hybrid, right? Not sure.

Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music by Greg Prata

This is another one I got for my birthday and read on my camping trip. I was going to review it at the time and I realized that I had been asked to be interviewed for it but never got around to answering the questions. So then I wrote to the author to ask if it was ok to post my answers here and he said he'd rather I not do that, since I hadn't bothered to turn in my interview. Fair enough, but then I never finished the book...but here's what I remember:
Old school Olympia/Tacoma scenester/punk photographer Tracy Marander is interviewed in the book, which is cool because she was a big part of the early "grunge" scene in the late 80's/early 90's. Donna Dresch wasn't interviewed, but Kathleen Hanna and Allison Wolfe were, which seemed a little weird...since Donna's music fits more into the "grunge" category than Kathleen or Allison's does...but really it's cool to hear some female voices in there.
There's a lot of stuff by bands I don't care about at all, like Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam...I liked reading about Malfunkshun, who I really thought was a great band and Mother Love Bone, who I never saw. I also enjoyed learning about Soundgarden who I did see often but never liked and know very little about. The author is not from Seattle, but the book is done in the Please Kill Me style so it doesn't really matter. It has some cool interviews with the guys from Mudhoney in it and it's always interesting to read a version of history that you were a part of.
I guess the major criticism I have, is that I am only really interested in the Seattle rock scene insofar as it is a small part of the whole history of NW music, which would include writing on Olympia, Tacoma and Portland well as Vancouver....that book LOSER does that a little better, but there are so many factual errors in that one point I wrote down a page worth and those are just the facts I knew were wrong.
It's not really that exciting, but neither was that particular scene/era of music if you ask me...not a lot of conceptual ideas and nothing that great really happened...some people got famous, a few of the bands were good, one of them was great and they got more famous then everyone else, that impacted the local economy/music scenes and then things got weird/bad. But even that amount of context is missing from this book, which fails to really capture the larger setting all these events happened in. They do talk about fame, drug addiction and that kind of thing...but really what is there to be said about any of that that hasn't already been said?
I guess I kind of missed out on a lot of the exciting time period because I didn't turn 21 until halfway through 1990 and I moved away in I was around in '87 (or was it earlier) when Nirvana first starting playing shows and then I was back in 89, but I still couldn't get into bars and there were all ages shows happening locally and in Tacoma so I'd see these bands if they played an all ages show, but that really didn't happen that often. In 1991 I moved away again and by the time I moved back at the end of 92, things had gotten pretty weird...anyhow, yeah.

Check it out from the library if you are a local music obsessive like me.

Cat Power: A Good Woman by Elizabeth Goodman

This is another book I didn't go out of my way to seek was on the new book shelf at the library. I love Cat Power, especially the records she has made in the past ten years. I saw her play a few times in the late 90's/early 00's and it was...bizarre. I mean, seriously strange performance style. I was told that it was not an act, that she was having some problems. I also don't know very much about Chan Marshall, so I decided I would read the book. I met her at a Matador festival in London one night when everyone was very drunk. Members of Comet Gain, Unwound, Emily's Sassy Lime, Sleater-Kinney, Huggy Bear and whoever else was around got talked into going to this "Indie" night at a disco. The flyer listed several of our bands on it as records the DJ was going to play, so the logic was that if we could just get everyone to this club, which was across town, then we could just explain that they need to let us in free. I don't remember if Chan came with us or not, but I have a bunch of pictures of her boots and there are some very strange pictures of both of us, where our faces seem to be made of silly putty. We were, silly putty drunk. I remember a bunch of boys peeing into mail slots and the cops coming and then running to the train station and crawling on hands and knees to bunk fare (this is english slang for not paying to go on the subway) and then having to pay to go to the club and members of certain bands hailing expensive cabs and then ....well...some things are better left as memories. Anyhow, this kind of zaniness is what I associate with Cat Power and if the book is at all to be believed this would be a typical kind of situation for her. She probably just went back to her hotel room actually, but she seemed just as crazed as everyone else, which is kind of intense for someone on tour.
I should say, the book is UNAUTHORIZED and therefore it's probably unethical for me to write about it or for you to read it. Well if you are interested you will probably read it anyways. I think she's a great songwriter/performer who makes good records and someday we'll get the real story about her life. This author is shitty and I actually think she hates women. She pretty much says as much at one point. She also comes across as a disrespectful, sycophantic parasite. I wouldn't put it past her to have made this whole story up. So whatever. It's a story, she's a public figure....but that really doesn't mean ethics go out the window, right? Someday I'll stop reading this kind of thing.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Woman's Inhumanity to Woman & I'm So Happy For You

How do women perpetuate sexism? Are there ways in which some of us benefit from patriarchy? I know some people are still fond of that old riot grrl saying, "there's no such thing as reverse sexism". I understand this as a strategic position aimed at redirecting the discussion to a more constructive (in theory) examination of power; the imbalance is societal and there is a difference between discrimination and institutionalized oppression. But is it really true that women can't be sexist? If we really want to dismantle oppression, don't we need to take responsibility for how we, as women, also participate in this crap? For example, how do straight women put pressure on men to live up to a patriarchal ideal of masculinity? That is something I have witnessed my whole life and I think it's really damaging to men and women.

But these are hard conversations to have with men who have power over you on some level. It's often too exhausting and unproductive to sustain this kind of dialogue. Plus it might require giving up something that makes you feel powerful or even gives you real power, especially economic power. For example, if a man is "the breadwinner" in the family, the bills are more likely to get paid. If a woman tries to be the breadwinner, on average, she will make less money than a man. Statistically, if she has children she will make even less money. For reasons like this, some women tend to be more open to talking about "internalized sexism" or sexism between women. For some of us it's easier to confront. For many of us it's less risky in really concrete, material ways. This is not to say that this lets us off the hook.

I still think both of these things ("there's no such thing as reverse sexism"/ saying "internatlized sexism" instead of sexism) at least slightly fall into the "victim feminism" category, meaning this way of thinking assumes we are victims and not responsible for our own actions. I mean, even though ideology exists, power exists, institutionalized oppression exists--we do have free will, we do have agency--at least to some extent. I'd like to believe that anyway. So if we are going to be feminists and hold others accountable, we also need to be accountable for how we choose to live our lives.

Thinking about how women are sexist towards each other, I picked up a book at the library called Woman's Inhumanity to Woman by Phyllis Chesler. Woah. It certainly made me think re-evaluate some of my own behaviors. For example, why is it sometimes easier to deal with guys "being jerks" than it is to deal with women who are being mean, controlling or dramatic? I think I tend expect less from men, so really I don't let it bother me so much when they fuck up. But by being harder on women than I am on men, I may also be perpetuating sexism towards women. I know this is something that people talk about a lot, but to see it in your own relationships with people is intense.

The book itself is not great. It suffers from that kind of second-wave feminist tendency towards universalizing. It draws examples of "woman's inhumanity to woman" across cultures without situating them adequately. Additionally, the book seems to be driven by personal vendetta. Chesler is angry about several incidents that happened to her in the woman's movement and by writing this book she seems to be trying to call people out on their shit without naming names. I realize the personal IS political, but at times it feels like reading someone's chap book from middle school where they write what they really think about you--the ostensible logic being that only you will know they are talking about you--the reality being EVERYONE you both know will know EXACTLY who the shit talk is directed towards. Ironically, as a result, the book itself feels like a catty act of revenge. Sure maybe there are some legitimate grievances here. But if you are gonna call someone out, call them out! What good is served by talking around the issue? For me it got confusing and tedious and I didn't finish reading it. This is not to say that feminists shouldn't talk about this stuff, but if we are going to talk about it, let's talk about it clearly and directly so that it makes sense and is constructive. I realize this is hard to do and I think this attempt is better than nothing.

Around the time I picked it up I ran across a "not-your-ordinary chick-lit" novel by Lucinda Rosenfeld called I'm So Happy For You. It might not be typical of the genre, but compared to the male-dominated George Pelacanos novels I've been reading lately, it is pretty female-centered. Unfortunately it's also pretty mediocre and there are some really...dare I say "sexist" undercurrents? The plot revolves around two best friends from college who are at different points in their lives and become "frenemies". Everything is fine, from the protagonist's point of view, until her friend starts getting her shit together and living her own life. As soon as the friend is no longer a complete fuck up, things gets weird in their relationship. So while this is an interesting theme to explore--how friendships between women can get competitive and bad when one is perceived as having more power than the other--the book was pretty depressing and ultimately disappointing. Although the book seems to be about cattiness it also uses cattiness for entertainment value and does not explore what it means that women are catty to each other--it just shows us how awful it can be and kind of normalizes it.

On one level, I enjoyed reading it. I think I read it in one evening from start to finish. It is a page turner. But there was this annoying hipster-turned-yuppy who lives in Brooklyn type "identity" or maybe "niche market" that was trying to be sold to me that was ultimately conservative. The main character works for an ineffective leftist magazine but spends her days reading entertainment news on the web. While this was funny at times and maybe also realistic, it seemed to endorse a kind of post-everything why-bother version of reality. There is an acknowledgment that we are at war with Iraq, but the characters feels disconnected from world events. Is the reader supposed to then feel absolved from her own complacency? Why even mention politics if you aren't going to say something interesting? It's more than a little annoying. It reminded me of that terrible film Away We Go and I kept hoping no one makes a film of the book. Maybe it was meant to convey "realism"? Not sure.

I'm also not sure if the book has anything revealing to say about female friendships. It depicts them realistically on some level--you will recognize the cattiness and weird games straight women often play with each other--but it also makes this kind of thing feel somewhat inevitable. I guess the author is absolved because she has a "touching" ending where a mother and daughter who didn't like each other discover a deeper connection? I don't know. Anyhow don't be surprised by this book being kind of crappy if you do decide to read it. It's the kind of thing that would be good to read on the plane. I really felt the author dumbed down her characters because she wants to market the book to Hollywood or something. I mean really, they come across as cliches, and the story centers around the demographic that has the most money to spend on stuff like books and DVDs. So maybe that's cynical of me but I felt there was a market driven motive for the book that was noticeable and distracting. Is cattiness marketable? Yes. Sexism sells.

So how would someone write about this stuff without perpetuating it?

Awhile back I did some research on the 70's "woman's novel", a genre I vaguely remember from high school. This was possibly my first introduction to feminism. I tried re-reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and Woman On The Edge of Time by Marge Piercy and didn't get very far, though I still really liked The Golden Notebook. I had better luck with The Woman's Room by Marilyn French, which I had never read before. I liked it but it was limited in scope. This is something I will continue to explore....maybe someone can recommend a book similar to Shelf Discovery about 70s/80s feminist novels? I know there's a lot of Sci Fi, which I'd love to read about more than re-read...

Here is something a former colleague of mine forwarded me when we were discussing this stuff via email. It's called "Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood". It probably deserves it's own post. It was written by Joreen for Ms. Magazine in 1976.

Friday, November 6, 2009

It's Raining: Shelf Discovery

Dear Readers,

Well the rain is here, which makes me happy. Not only will I no longer feel guilty for just wanting to stay home and read, but I am finally motivated to sit down and type out a log of what I've been reading these past few months. A recent library hold came in last week for Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading by blogger Lizzie Skurnick. There are some other writers listed as well and it says A Reading Memoir underneath the title. I didn't realize this initially, but the book appears to be a collection of reviews that first appeared as a regular blog feature on Jezebel. You can read more about it on the author's own website here.

I am more than thrilled about this book because I read so many wonderful young adult novels in the 70's/80's and I have forgotten most of them. I remember some of them well, such as From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg --who could forgot Claudia Kincaid's scheme to run away and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art! But I don't remember whole, wonderful sentences that are quoted here, like this one:

She didn't like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes.

When I read that sentence, I was back in 5th grade again. I remembered the visual I had of this book. I read it several times and thought it was totally great.

One I had totally forgotten but was pretty into, is called Happy Endings Are All Alike. The plot centers around two teenage lesbians who are in a relationship. The mom is a feminist and there is a realistic rape scene. Of course an adolescent girl would be intrigued by this book. I had forgotten it even existed.

What I did not realize, even at the time, is that this book was written by the same author who wrote Suzuki Beane, my favorite childhood picture book. Suzuki Beane haunted me for years. One day I was a kid who didn't read picture books anymore and I went to look for it and it was gone. I tried to ask my parents where it went but they didn't remember. I would search for it but after awhile I forgot what it was called and I don't think I ever knew the author's name, Sandra Scoppettone.

What's also really cool is that lately I've been reading a lot of hard-boiled detective novels and enjoying them a lot except for their sexism. I was wondering if there was any feminist noir...well it turns out Scoppettone writes detective novels that just might fit that description! How exciting and weird, right?

A few other books I remember reading and am enjoying revisiting through this book:

A Wrinkle in Time -totally my favorite series of young adult novels
Harriet the Spy -more on this later, a HUGE influence on me in every way, also this author, Louise Fitzhugh, illustrated Suzuki Beane. another weird connection I hadn't realized!
Farmer Boy -the Little House book about the little boy Laura marries in the end
Danny the Champion of the World -by the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author, Roald Dahl
Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself -my favorite Judy Blume novel

I really recommend this if you read this stuff as a kid--or if you have kids yourself. Each book has a synopsis and an analysis and the criticism is pretty cool so far.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"summer recap"

I've been trying to read books that are kind of like classics, not like actual classics but the ones that are assigned at school so most everyone has read them. I've read to kill a mockingbird and one flew over the cuckoos nest. I really liked to kill a mockingbird and read it really quickly. It took a while for me to get into one flew over the cuckoos nest. I got through the last chunk pretty fast, the ending was depressing. While I read one flew over... I reminisced on high school reading. I kept wondering if this was one of the books that mainly the boys like. Like I remember in school that most of the girls hated beowolf and most of the boys loved it.

I've been reading almost entirely fiction for the past few months which is highly unusual for me. I read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Ok, I already love dystopian fiction but I looooooved this. One of the elements that I intially hated but then I loved was the refrences to durrent technology, like blogging and texted and social networking sites, fast food and such... The internet plays a pretty big part in the storyline. Most of the dystopian fictions I read are kind of old, so to read a story that has teenagers texting in it... it made it feel more current therefore actually possible, interesting because Atwood has stated that she doesn't write science fiction but speculative fiction. I also read a Handmaids tale by her. It was good, doubly depressing because it's mainly about the governments oppression of women (first their bank accounts are frozen, then they are sent home from work, and so on worse and worse). Oryx and Crake was far more gnarly. I liked it a little better. I also just read that Atwood will be making it into a trilogy.

Somehow all this fiction reading makes me feel dumb (I don't know why), I need to get back into a non-fiction loop. I've been thinking a lot about collective unconciousness. suggestions?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Corner

Before David Simon and Ed Burns made The Wire-- they wrote The Corner. Its brilliant, of course. And it shares many themes with The Wire. But its also more focused then The Wire. The 600 pages of The Corner focus on a year in the life of a handful of real people who lived near the corners of Fayette and Monroe in East Baltimore in the early 1990s.

A consequence of this focus is that the physical, cultural and allegorical world of the corner that Simon and Burns depict- in their words "an existential crisis rooted not only in race-- which the corner has slowly transcended-- but in the unresolved disaster of the American Rust-belt" where "an increasingly draconian legal system's inability to mitigate against human frailty and despair, against economic neglect and institutional racism, against a failed educational system and the marginalization of America's urban populations "- is personalized.

The people caught in this world are humanized. You identify with them. You hope for them. You cry for them. You live in awe of them. Coupled with Simon and Burns extended and brilliant discussions of how the corner has developed, how its economy functions, its culture, the failure of the war on drugs, wellfare and the institutional abandonment of the underclass, you are given an intimate connection to people forced to live under conditions where

"To see it in retrospect, to look backward across thirty years on the Fayette streets of this country is to contemplate disaster as a seamless chronology....cursed as we are with a permanent urban underclass, an unremitting and increasingly futile drug war, and Third World conditions in the hearts of our cities, the American experiment seems, as the millennium to have found a limit."

Yet, in the people who make it out, who make something where all others fall tragically to the corner- in the unbelievable example of Ella Thompson- who following the murder of her 12 year daughter against all realism holds runs the local community centre- or Fran Boyd or Tyreeka Freamon, you gain some hope. For, on The Corner "no ending is certain and hope itself endures.' Even as "The Corner is, itself, immutable." That is until we "acknowledge[ing] honestly the depth and complexity of the problem." In other words, we face what has created the corner in its own image- capitalism- and transcending it before it is too late.