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Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind

4/5. A three-strand narrative. A young woman in the fourteenth-century learns to paint from her artist father and is sent to a convent. In 2015, a girl goes with her artist father to China on a business trip while mourning her mother and working on her own art – hand-sewed jean jackets. In the twenty-second century, a young woman returns to the parthenogenic household she shares with her sister to take a job at a restitution institution, whose goal is to resurrect the reputations of women artists unfairly suppressed by history.

So I spent the first half of this book a bit bored and confused by it. Someone – I was pretty sure – had told me it was brilliant, but maybe I was misremembering? This writing was so plain, these scenes so straight-faced, these threads so disconnected.

Then a switch flipped and I sat up and said "Oh, it is brilliant."

It is. There is such a complex, folded structure underneath all that simplicity. About women's art and women's work and women's spaces – the convent, the cloistered partho household where multiple generations of women bear children without men's input. It all lines up not directly, but at unexpected angles, creating strange intersections of thought. And these three women, spaced over eight hundred years, are positioned to tell us with the shape of their lives about a change in women's places and spaces over time. It is far from a triumphalist story of women's liberation, but also not quite 'the more things change the more they stay the same.' But something complicated in between.

And over it all, this book is about the mind sliding off women's work and women's art. Dismissing it, downplaying it, ascribing it to men, contextualizing it by men. And to do this, the book's mind slides off women's work, too, in a way. A deliberate, telling way. This incredibly plain writing is so subtle, I very nearly missed it entirely.
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Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

4/5. I backed this collection on Kickstarter and got an early release copy. Took me a while to get through it, though, so it seems to be out now.

The introduction to this collection specifically notes it is not intended to be a full survey. Which it isn't, and shouldn't be. It's just unfortunate that – and I knew this going in – the Vandermeers and I have very different tastes. They really like the Weird and the surreal, and I often don't. I spent the full first third of this collection sighing a lot in boredom and complaining to my wife about stories whose entire purpose is to turn women into thematically significant animals or objects. You know the sort of thing. It's not my thing. Those of you who do enjoy it, I wish you well of it.

Anyway, I still enjoyed this, and do recommend it. This introduced me to a lot of authors I was only peripherally aware of before, and made me think. Some brief story notes on a few pieces that jump out as I look back.

Ursula K. Le Guin, "Sur" – One of my favorites. Tale of the women who were secretly first to reach the South Pole. Beautiful and restrained and warm and cold at the same time.

Susan Palwick, "Gestella" – This story of a werewolf aging at a different rate than her (misogynist) husband was the most viscerally upsetting in the whole collection, to my mind. I almost didn't read the last page, but ultimately made myself. I owed it to the protagonist.

Nalo Hopkinson, "The Glass Bottle Trick" – A Bluebeard story, told, frighteningly, from within his home.

Joanna Russ, "When It Changed" – Another version of 'men arriving into a society of all women.' And a good one. Not particularly subtle, but the thing is it needed to be unsubtle, because the patriarchal assumptions it is pushing against are too pervasive for many readers to see around without a lot of help.

Octavia E. Butler, "The Evening the Morning and the Night" – Hm. I had a lot of issues with this story of living with impending disability, and ultimately I shook my head over it. But I was engaged, I'll give it that.

Hiromi Goto, "Tales from the Breast" – One of the few Weird stories that really worked for me. Hallucinatory and disturbing story of post delivery and breastfeeding.

Carol Emschwiller, "Boys" – Hm. Sort of interesting (post apocalyptic? Unclear) story of a gender-separated society, that gets less interesting the more I think about it, because the more I think about it the more I realize the story doesn't work unless you base it on a lot of gender essentialist assumptions before the first word was in place. Which might have been part of her point. Or not. Also unclear.
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Past Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy, and BirthPast Due: A Story of Disability, Pregnancy, and Birth by Anne Finger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A lovely memoir of Finger's pregnancy interspersed with recollections of coming into her political identity as a disabled person. How her political activism worked with and against her personal activism of being a disabled woman having a child.

This book was hugely helpful to me in processing things it has nothing to do with. This book was about Finger's planned home birth, and how it went so terrifyingly wrong, and her son's first six months, and the way she had to reconcile her political beliefs with how she viscerally responded to the possibility that her child would be disabled. And I read it, and I thought about the conversation where my sister was talking in a restrained, wistful way about how she still wasn't pregnant, and how even if she could be, there was a pretty big question about whether she could ever safely carry to term. And without thinking even for a second, without stopping at all, I blurted, "I'll carry for you." And I have wondered in some astonishment ever since, through everything (carrying someone else's baby is not as easy as they made it look on Friends, shockingly), why I said it. Not regretting, just -- why? I'm a self-centered career woman with a hugely draining and important job, and I didn't know it back when we first talked, but I was about to go through a couple years of unrelated low-grade personal hell. Dedicating my body and my time and my hopes and my care for months and months to make another person's dream happen is not something I should have volunteered for like that, in that instant of course way. But there it was.

And this book really helped me figure it out. I won't go into the whole damn thing because really, this box is not that big. And also, this book deserves better than my tangent, because it is rich and interesting and very cool in its own right. It's a little sad how much it isn't dated -- there's a weird bit where Finger comments on how new ultrasonography is as a technology, and is it really safe to use on pregnant women? But then nearly every other political moment in the book was painfully real and true. Like when she stood up at an abortion rights meeting and said, "yes, I am with you, I support this cause, but don't you think the way this movement talks about how important it is to abort fetuses with disabilities is really problematic?" And the viciousness and hostility she was met with….yeah. There's nothing dated about that.

Anyway. I highly recommend to many of the mothers of my acquaintance who have thought about their ownership of their bodies in relation to motherhood, or who have considered motherhood to be a political act for whatever reason, or who have looked at their baby and thought, what if you are disabled?

Random pull quotes that helped me in my thinking:

"But I think too that we do our best work politically when we do the work that really tears at us."

"People who aren't disabled never seem less than human to me. But they sometimes seem to be missing a dimension, glib and easy, skimmers over the surface of life, not quite as real."

When I was pregnant I used to get so sick of people saying, "you won't care if it's a boy or a girl, as long as it's healthy." So sick of the assumption that health was all that mattered. But I sometimes used to say, "I don't care if it's healthy or not as long as it's a girl." It's not a joke I would make again.

Health, physical well-being does matter. It's my own internalized oppression that makes me fear having a disabled child, but it's not just that. It's the knowledge that being non-disabled is easier than being disabled. … But to admit that disability and illness are hard doesn't mean that they are wholly negative experiences, meaningless.

I had a child because I wanted something perfect to come out of me. I got just the opposite of what I thought I wanted. I don't believe in God or any version of God, any hand of fate or karma that was out to teach me a lesson. But my child's potential disability did teach me that I don't own my child, he's not an extension of me, not there to reflect me, not there to heal my past.




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The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from ViolenceThe Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have a long-standing . . . psychological investment, let's say, in the science of violence: classifying it, predicting it, recovering from it. This book spent a bit of time talking about the epidemic of violence, which needs very little more illustration than to say that three out of every four American women will in their lifetimes be the victim of a violent assault, and a large portion of those assaults will be sexual. This is not something I need convincing on. I often find myself in a packed and silent elevator car down to a train station, or sitting around a boardroom table, and I'll listen to the men around me (hello, massively male-dominated field in a male-dominated profession) and think, which one of you is a rapist? Which one of you has beaten someone unconscious? Though to be statistically accurate, I should often be asking how many, not which one?

Anyway. Rambling. This book is about the prediction of violence. The things you -- mostly women -- can do to avoid being the victims of assaults, rapes, robberies, kidnappings, beatings. And not in the way where it's telling you how to dress or where to walk, but in the way where we can all be smarter about the things we notice, and how we react to them. Most of this was old ground for me, but it's presented here more effectively than I've seen anywhere else.

It's not perfect though. A few of the more obviously problematic things that jumped out at me:

*De Becker doesn't really get socialized gendered compliance, at least not all the time. He'll go from this incredibly smart discussion of how the ways women are socialized to say no to men -- "I don't want to be seeing anyone right now," rather than "no, I don't want to date you," -- can be very dangerous because they open the door to negotiation. De Becker will be making the sharp and correct point that women aren't actually allowed to say no in many scenarios, but that it's engrained so deep, we don't notice. But then he'll turn around in another chapter and say that he can't give a checklist for how to behave if you are in the power of a violent offender, just use your intuition, it will save you. The first part is true enough; there are too many scenarios at play, too many variables, and the need for appeasement in one situation can be the need for hard, relentless resistance in another. But the second part? Hang on. We know women have been socialized to react in maladaptive and often dangerous ways to men, and yet we're supposed to rely purely on reflexive response in moments of great danger? Intuition may be smart, and it may in extremis be smarter than social conditioning, but how many of us actually know how to respond to that intuition?

Don't get me wrong, it's happened to me. That moment where your brain disconnects and your body moves all on its own and you are not afraid. You aren't anything. You aren't even you. And you only think later after it's over, I could have died. That is really powerful shit, right there, and De Becker's right, it's smart. But it's not a given, and forgive me if I suspect that people who have been trained from birth not to credit their own wants and needs might be capable of smothering the reactions that could save their lives.

*De Becker really misses the boat in his section on distinguishing fear from worry. Fear being the useful, smart, intuitive impulse and worry being the habituated, often projective and pointless activity that just makes us needlessly paranoid in situations where we don't have to be. He really wants to divide things up into clean, accurate, instinctive fear at the sight of a particular threat gesture, and learned, socialized fear that is not driven by unconscious data. Okay, sure.

But in which category do racially-motivated fears go? Studies consistently show that white Americans have a physiological fear response to the sight of African-American men in particular situations. Hell, some of the subconscious word association trials show a prevalence of fear associations just at the micro-visual flash of an African-American face on a computer screen. And you don't need a study for that, you just need to go into any major city with a couple of comfy white habitual suburbanites.

So, seriously, what category does that go in? It's not very smart or useful. Aside from just being shitty, I mean. African-American men might commit more violent crime than their white peers (I know, it seems like the sort of statistical assertion that should be arguable, but it turns out it's not) but that violence is directed overwhelmingly at other African-American men. Most people, in most circumstances, are in far more danger from a member of their own race.

But we have a racially-motivated fear response. So how are people supposed to tell the difference between that sort of pre-conscious racist social conditioning and true, useful intuition? De Becker doesn't say, and actually given the nearly pathological lack of race discussions from this book about violence, I suspect he doesn't know.

*I laughed out loud when De Becker confidently proclaimed, in discussing post violence analysis of pre-violence indicators, that "if it is in your head now, it was in your head then." Ahahaha *gasp*. Oh, God, that is hilarious. And so amazingly wrong. Eye witness accounts are notoriously inaccurate, and victim witness accounts are noticeably worse. In fact, one of the physiological results of high-adrenaline for many people is blurred perception and memory. Add that to the understandable and overwhelming impulse of victims to explain it, to tabulate all the ways they should have seen it coming, and you have a recipe for incredibly unreliable recollections.

De Becker's right -- a lot of violence is not senseless, and most of it is predictable if you process the signs. If you see them in the first place. But sometimes we don't see. And the way De Becker tries to teach readers to process in-the-moment what he can only reconstruct in example post facto strikes me as pretty problematic.

Still. It's a great book, and I do highly recommend it. It's just the race thing. He doesn't deal with it -- I suspect he can't -- and that's a pretty big flaw.




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Her Smoke Rose Up ForeverHer Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


John Clute said, “I felt that simply to read a Tiptree story was to yank it, bleeding, from its dark home.”



Tiptree herself said one of her pieces was “screaming from the heart.”



I had these two sentences up on the screen all day, and I finally realized I wasn’t reviewing because I was hoping they would give me perspective, a master key to this book so I could talk about it as a whole. Respond to the chorus these stories are. But I can’t yet. So the disconnected things I do have:



Thematically, you could pick a Tiptree story out of a lineup in about three sentences. It’ll be the one about biological drives winning out over fragile psychology. It’ll be the one delivered in a calm, reporting style while something screams underneath until its voice breaks. It’ll be the one about how sex and death are two sides of the same coin. It’ll probably be the one where most of the human race bites it.



It’ll be about men and women. It’s bizarre to say of a science fiction collection, but my immediate association is Virginia Woolf. Tiptree and Woolf had the same preoccupation with thinking about the sexes as . . . distorting gravitational pulls on each other (mostly men on women, obviously). The sort of gender essentialist thinking that is obsessed with counterfactuals – what if all men died out this way? Or that? And all the time they’re talking about “women,” you’re just like, “oh, sweetie. It’s okay. We know you’re talking about how you hurt.”



Anyway. This book blew my mind. Not every story – not even most of them. But the ones that did . . . I came to myself last Saturday, standing out at our elevator bank with an armful of recycling and my pulse going at 150, with no memory of how I’d gotten there. All I remembered was the last ten minutes of “The Screwfly Solution” playing in my ear, and I couldn’t breathe.



Right. Some actual stories.



“The Screwfly Solution” – The one that really socked me. This is classic Tiptree with all the letters and reports layered between the reader and the screaming, bloody thing that’s happening. It is I think the story that gets most keenly, most viscerally at those things I was talking about up there – sex and death, biological imperatives, dying and dying and dying. And a way of talking about gendered violence that Tiptree picked up, looking around her 1970’s world and reading her 1970’s newspapers, and mimicked down the years to me, where it sounds . . . well. It’s dead accurate, okay? Read it here.



“A Momentary Taste of being” – A long space opera colony ship thing. I spent the first 80% thinking it was nice, but wondering what the hell all these cogs and gears were doing, because I couldn’t see the structure. And the structure put itself together as fast as a Marine assembling his rifle, and then it did other things. And I said “oh,” very meekly, and went away. Nihilist was invented for this story.



“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” – a story that would have been a sentimental offensive mess from someone else. But Tiptree hit the style, the telling so right. This is about a depressed (and possibly disabled) girl in an underground bunker, living the dream life through a corporate designed body. Of course she falls in love. Of course. As the narrator says, “you really can skip this part.” But the narrator lies.



“And I have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways” – Ick. A total didactic flop, all frustrated academic rage and bureaucratic restraints on research.



“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” – I have very mixed feelings about this one. Utterly absorbing to read, but one central premise – that a women’s only society would be different in those particular ways – struck me as nonsense. But there is something here that is psychologically true and screwed up, and the execution is, of course, flawless.



I’ll stop now.



Except no, wait, have one more. The Women Men Don’t See.





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James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. SheldonJames Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Alice Bradley Sheldon. In rough order: she walked over a thousand miles through then uncharted Africa, was a society debutante, eloped, enlisted and then worked her way up to an army Captain in World War II, was a painter and an art critic, became a chicken hatcher and then a CIA analyst, traveled the world, became a doctor of psychology, wrote some of the most searing and extraordinary science fiction short stories I have ever read, played out a complex gender identity shell game with her male pseudonym, had an epistolary affair with Joanna Russ, shot her husband and then herself.



Damn I wish someone else had written this book. I would seriously pay cold hard cash for Hermione Lee’s version. Because this is an extraordinary story about someone with a rich, turbulent life, with complicated and contradictory ideas of gender, and who maintained multiple personas and voices. Phillips had access to Alice’s papers, conducted extensive interviews, and is a deft writer. And I could not trust her.



The overarching problem is her lack of critical tools. The best biographers have all the intensity and knowing of a spouse, but the coolness of a surgeon. They have to love the subject, know her flaws, and be able to cut her open and let her entrails steam in the same sentence, without ever changing tone.



Phillips didn’t have that. She is untrustworthy in that hard-to-spot way where she rushes or elides things that make her uncomfortable. Like, okay, you can’t give me half a paragraph on an incident from Alice’s tumultuous twenties where she apparently turned to prostitution and barely escaped a knife-wielding customer with her life, and then trot hastily on to the next thing, determinedly never looking back. That would be absurd in any biography; in the biography of this woman, who wrote so much about sex and violence and gendered sex and violence, it’s fatal.



Things like that. And her lack of consistency or control with questions of gender. I mean, you i>cannot write a biography of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr. without bringing an educated, consistent, interrogated framework of gender to the table. Or so I thought.



And the lack of critical faculties sometimes betrayed Phillips into total fail. She takes Alice’s late-life account of the sexual advances her mother made on her when she was a teenager at such unquestioning face value that she actually says that Alice acknowledged some responsibility for what happened, and then blithely carries on for the rest of the book accepting that as true. Because obviously if the fifteen-year-old victim of what was at the least sexual predation victim blames herself, well whatever she says goes, right?



I just, argh. I’m harping. But this book could have been so brilliant. The subject is so extraordinary, the material so rich. And I really enjoyed it for everything I learned about Alice. But all the ways Phillips failed just kill me.





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Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman

Ah-ha, there it is. I've been looking for this book for about five years now. Not this book, I mean, but a book that frames a discussion of post trauma pathologies with feminist discourse without being . . . what's the word I'm looking for? Annoying. This book does that. It's fascinating, actually, starting in with the history of trauma's emergence into public consciousness in connection with successive political movements (secular humanism, postwar relief, feminism). Then on through symptomology, case histories, and treatments. There are two central arguments. The one about trauma research and treatment as politically charged acts isn't particularly new to me, but it's one of those things that doesn't so much need repeating as shouting from the rooftops. And the argument that the complex post traumatic response to prolonged violence is pathologically distinct from classic single-trauma PTSD is also familiar, but nicely presented.

The whole thing is solid, deftly told, agonizing in places. And she talks about soldiers and battered women in ways that are illuminating, rather than pat or oppositional. This is one of those books about gender that spends all it's time talking about people, if you know what I mean. The only flaw isn't actually one – this was written in the mid-90's, so it's missing both a boatload of pharmacological and neurological data and insights on the most recent developments in the political aspects of trauma.

Highly recommended.
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Holy discourse, Batman! It's a book with the word "feminist" and the word "disability" in the title, and it didn't piss me off. For the last couple of years just one has been a bad sign – clearly I wasn't reading the right stuff.

Pretty much what it says on the tin: a compact but thorough unpack of how feminist theory – treating gender as the social construct of biological difference – can illuminate disability theory – treating ability as the social construct of the biological difference between well and disabled bodies. Mostly free of the stuff that has been pinging my discourse bullshit radar for the past few years. There's an entire chapter on body transcendence that I found interesting and thoughtful, not stupid. And actually the best parts, for me, got really down and dirty with why feminist theory and disability theory actually sit very uneasily against each other, because yes yes yes thank you.

I think what makes it so good is that it's the perfect amount of personal. There's a whole section on why discourse shouldn't subsume the reality of bodily suffering. And Wendell tells this joke that's really only okay to laugh at if you've been there. "The good news is that it doesn't kill you. The bad news is that it doesn't kill you." Yeah, pretty much.

Actually, I'd recommend this as an intermediate primer – the introductory chapters are excellent background, and the rest is erudite without being impenetrable. I say that having read a fair amount of feminist theory, but that was several years ago.
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The final Lord Peter book, the complete collection in short stories, and a spontaneous reread because I just couldn’t help it, in that order.

Sigh! Lucky for me, I’m not actually quite through all the Peter – I just picked up the handful of books I couldn’t find before at a used bookstore, and I’ll go back and fill in the gaps in the series. But it will be strange to return to the younger Peter, Peter before Harriet. I’ve heard some vague mutterings about Busman’s Honeymoon, and I flatly don’t understand that. I all but wriggled with glee through Peter and Harriet’s wedding, their hasty flight to seclusion, the discoveries of married life. One of which turns out to be a corpse in the basement, naturally. Unashamedly and gorgeously romantic, sly, a little sad around the edges.

Then the short stories, polished off with a nebulously obnoxious critical essay. I have to admit I like Peter much better in novels than short stories. Novels get the smug out, some, and the self-righteousness.

And then back to Gaudy Night. Different from the first time, as you might think. Last time I was breathless and giddy by the end. This time, knowing the way, I could watch the turns a bit more. I think this is the sort of book I will continue to read, every few years, and each time I do it will illuminate some strand of my life. Last time it was Harriet’s lesson to Peter, that demanding someone love you is the best way to get them to recoil (I’d very recently failed to get that one across to someone). This time it’s Harriet and Peter’s shared devotion to the sort of integrity that admits no personal pain. Integrity in work, I mean, in doing the thing you set out to do (take a wild guess what that's about). I wonder what it’ll be in another few years?

Okay, now the real question: what poor book has to follow Peter?
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edited by Victoria A. Brownworth and Susan Raffo (1999)

An anthology exploring -- well the technical term is 'intersectionality,' though no one ever actually uses that word. Pretty solid throughout, with obviously careful editing and selection. Standouts for me were Nicola Griffith's (yes, that Nicola Griffith, who is apparently both a dyke and a gimp) erudite and clever essay on the history of female art with sidetrips to disability and the modern conservative movement, and Sharon Wachsler's clever essay on retaining her femme identity after CFIDS and MCS stole lipstick and dancing and all her other personal marks of femme-ness. Victoria Brownworth offers a fascinating (and deeply problematic) recollection of early life in a convent school before she was disabled, with layers of commentary on women, disability, and Catholic imagery of mortification of the flesh.

It's not a perfect anthology -- I skipped a few bizarre or just annoying entries -- but generally solid. Definite flavor of its time, though, or possibly just the editors's available cohort. It took me several essays of confusion to realize why everyone was forever going on about particular lesbian community issues that we just don't worry much about anymore. I mean, we certainly still talk about health care, but a lesbian is much less likely these days to refuse psychological treatment for fear of institutionalization for her sexuality, and the entire flavor of the community response to AIDS has changed in less than a decade.

Worthwhile, for those with an interest in the niche.
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I’ve been pushing this book at pretty much everyone I saw this past weekend, so a lot of you have already gotten an earful. For the rest of you: find this book, read this book, give it a long hard mull. For it is awesome.

Right, so. The first half of this book deals with the way American law and culture addresses – and mostly fails to address – sex and children. From the unsurprising indictment of sex-ed to the discussions of the misogyny and powerlessness perpetuated by statutory rape laws, it’s a grim but utterly fascinating picture. The second half of the book offers up alternative solutions, snapshots of successful pilot programs, memorable and pointed anecdotes. This book is frank, inclusive, nuanced. Levine is entirely unwilling to leave anything to implication, and her frankness about the reality of the sexualized behavior children display as early as two or three is only part of the reason her road to publication was so rocky, as outlined in the introduction. This is a book about sex and culture and parenting, but it’s also a vicious but controlled screed against conservative politics, social inequality, sexism. It’s about all the things we aren’t doing that could help American children grow up into respectful, responsible sexual partners, and it’s also about all the things we are doing which perpetuate gender inequality and lead to unsafe behavior and even kill our country’s kids.

Levine is a powerful writer, with a real knack for picking effective, thought-provoking statistics. The second half of the book is far more anecdotal than prescriptive, which I didn’t really mind. Partly it’s that this book was -- and is -- groundbreaking as a holistic, unified treatment of the topic, and the research data for some of the suggestions simply doesn’t exist yet. Levine does make some odd stylistic choices – I would have reversed the presentation of the sex-ed material and the chapter on pedophilia and child sexual predators (that’s child predators, as well as the adult kind) but I can see her reasoning. I also would have liked a more complete treatment of child sexual abuse within the family, but honestly that’s not what this book is about.

What this book is about is information. The kind we receive as children is inadequate at best, flat out harmful at worst. Levine argues in concert with a long-held instinct of mine, and she has the research to back it up: exposing children to a saturation of sexual images and information which is positive, diverse, and inclusive is not only healthy, but absolutely essential for saving them grief, pain, and possibly death. And we might just make life better for women and minorities while we’re at it.

Seriously, read this book. Not everyone will agree with all of it. I certainly didn’t – I made a bet with myself halfway through, paused to look up Levine’s biography, and went ‘yep, thought so,’ when her Libertarianism popped up. But this is the sort of book which is meant to sew discussion, and the thought behind it, and maybe some action.
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Well now. These are the first three in the Mary Russell series of period mysteries. We begin when fifteen-year-old Russell – a very bright young lady – literally stumbles across one Mr. Sherlock Holmes out in the fields observing bees. This is an older Holmes, years after much of the Doyle canon, semi-retired to the country with his experiments and cocaine. He and Russell strike up a friendship, a teaching relationship, and then a partnership (yeah, that kind too, eventually). The mysteries are very Holmesian – the first involves a twisted plot of revenge, the second a cluster of suspicious murders around a feminist temple, and the third an explosive archaeological find and a troubling death.

King has the language down beautifully, the rhythms of Holmes’s quick mind and quicker tongue. And the mysteries are truly delightful artifacts of the style. The stories are also packaged appropriately – not Doyle recounting Watson’s tales, but King publishing Mary Russell’s manuscripts. It’s beautifully constructed derivative fiction, but King is also unafraid of exercising the powerful and alternative lens she has in Mary, a feminist, a scholar of theology though not a believer, a mind to match Holmes’s in a way Watson never did.

Holmes and I were a match from the beginning. He towered over me in experience, but never did his abilities at observation and analysis awe me as they did
Watson. My own eyes and mind functioned in precisely the same way. It was familiar territory.

So, yes, I freely admit that my Holmes is not the Holmes of Watson. To continue with the analogy, my perspective, my brush technique, my use of colour and shade, are all entirely different from his. The subject is essentially the same; it is the eyes and the hands of the
artist that change.


All around well done, sly, sometimes funny stories. And I should mention that I literally squealed aloud in the middle of the train when who but Lord Peter Wimsey should make a fabulous, chatty cameo in A Letter of Mary -- let’s hear it for expired copyright!

I have reservations, of course. Holmes’s rougher edges are smoothed a bit too much for my taste, both his wild moods and his substance abuse. And the romance, though both beautifully and hilariously written, didn’t do much for me emotionally. Still, a good time all around, and I just admire this sort of enterprise on principle.
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“Captain Ahab was not my first husband nor my last.”

Oh come on. Of course I had to quote the first line.

This book is derived from a single, glancing reference in Moby-Dick to the beautiful young woman Captain Ahab has married. This is Una Spencer’s story, in her own words. The book is massive, complex, written as a companion, a tribute, an argument, a twentieth-century female response to a nineteenth-century male book. It’s couched in the Moby-Dick style, from the choppy chapters to the capital R Romantic school of writing and its dedication to individual power in the face of society, to natural ideals, to characters who are both individuals and avatars.

As derivative fiction, this is brilliant. From that first sentence, this book plants its feet solidly bestride the old classic and takes a broader view from a new height. Una’s story encompasses Ahab’s and surpasses it; it must to draw a complete portrait of the unusual woman who would capture driven Ahab’s love. Obviously, I find fanfiction on this scale absolutely delightful.

I admire the hell out of this book: the scope, the layered, image-saturated prose, the philosophy and the art of it. And Una is a powerful narrator and person – agnostic, abolitionist, thinker, mother, sailor, seamstress, lover. She dresses as a boy and goes to sea, and finds herself in the path of a number of famous people like Margaret Fuller and Maria Mitchell and, glancingly, Henry James. It’s a broad and faithful portrait of the times and of the style, but laying some of it out here, perhaps you see the problem. I feel as if this is sometimes a book before it is a story, if that makes sense. Una is extraordinary in ways that, yes, some women of the 1840’s probably were, but this book is as much about holding up the prism of Una against the nineteenth century as it is about holding her up for her own sake. But I can’t really put the teeth into this to make it criticism, because even it is faithful to the style, and Naslund is absolutely deliberate and controlled in what she is doing:

In the quest of writing, the heart can speed up with anticipation as, indeed, during the very chase of whales. I can swear it, having done both, and I will tell you though other writers may not. My heart is beating fast. I am in pursuit, I want my victory that you should see and hear and, above all, feel the reality behind these words. For they are but a mask. The mask that conceals, not a mask that I would have you strike through as mere appearance or worse, deceitful appearance. Words need not be that kind of mask, but a mask such as the ancient Greek actors wore. A mask that expresses rather than conceals the inner drama. But do you know me? Una? You have shipped long with me in the boat that is this book.


I do think that this book can stand alone, both from Moby-Dick and from literary and social history, though maybe not as much as the author wishes. But knowledge of both adds and explains a whole lot – I rather suspect that the casual reader, who did not know that Moby-Dick was dedicated to Melville’s good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, would find Una’s encounter with a strange veiled man on her walk to see her friend Margaret Fuller nearly inexplicable. This book puts the literary back in literary fiction, and I think it would be helped a great deal by a proper introduction and overview of the relevant historical and literary movements. And even with a solid grounding in the period, like I have, it’s still hard to fathom why in the world Naslund made a few particular stylistic choices (when you don’t really know until page six hundred why the absolute first person narration was briefly broken by a small chapter in script format at page three hundred, maybe there’s some rethinking that should happen).

Still, this is damn impressive for its vision, its thought, its very existence. It’s about the woman standing at home on the widow’s walk, about how she is not passive, about how as time passes she stops looking out to sea and starts looking up at the stars. It’s fanfiction to a particular work, to a place and a time, to the female experience, to history itself. And yes, if you couldn’t tell, it raised more intellectual admiration in me than emotional resonance, but to be fair, this really isn’t my favorite genre. This is exactly the sort of thing you will like, if you like that sort of thing, which I leave each of you to judge for yourself.
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I hesitate to call this ‘a Lord Peter book.’ Peter is here, certainly, though in lesser proportion than you might expect, considering he changes in quiet but extraordinary ways. But this book is rightly and greatly Harriet Vane’s, as she returns to the Oxford college of her education to do some academic work, write her next novel, and investigate some nasty disturbances around the college.

Oh. For Oxford alone, which I love, I could love this book. Luckily, however, there are any number of other reasons. This is a book about pain, about the heart and the mind working in opposition, about academia, about the perils of being an intelligent woman, about the perils of unthinking feminism, about mistakes, about love. Harriet has been trampled over by the world and left in the mud, and I love how Sayers understands the way she would snap and snarl at the first hand that reached out to help her, and resent its very kindness. Harriet wants to stop hurting, and she thinks she knows how.


If only one could come back to this quiet place where only intellectual achievement counted, if one could work here steadily and obscurely at some close-knit piece of reasoning, undistracted and uncorrupted . . . abolishing personal contacts, personal spites, personal jealousies, getting one’s teeth into something dull and durable, maturing into solidity like the Shrewsbury beeches, then one might be able to forget the wreck and chaos of the past, or see it, at any rate, in a truer proportion.


It’s a beautiful thought, and it’s all the ways that academia is not like this that will keep me away.

In this book it’s a more painfully direct question, given the social climate of the times, between academia and marriage. It’s a practical result of separated colleges, of course, but also a more fundamental observation about the ways that female achievement can become a barrier in and of itself. “. . . the rule seemed to be that a great woman must either die unwed . . . or find a still greater man to marry her.” And though the exact correlations of virginity and academia do not apply to us today, the idea of woman having to choose between achievement and relationships still resonates eighty years later. Hell, just ask Time Magazine, apparently.

But it’s more complex for Harriet, who tried living by the heart once before, with disastrous consequences. This book is about her learning to use her heart again, but to do it in balance with the mind. She is coming to know that passion and reason are not antithetical, that applying the second to the first makes them both greater, not less. Peter is learning the same thing from the other side of the coin, as Harriet refuses his proposals again and again and again and he comes to know that simply wanting and asking are an exercise of privilege, and not the extent of love.


“It’s the pressure of other people’s personalities that does the mischief.”

“Yes. . . .You may say you won’t interfere with another person’s soul, but you do merely by existing. The snag about it is the practical difficulty, so to speak, of not existing.”


They both know how awful love can be when it is all heart or all brain, when it presses and demands and makes sacrifices and then says “now what will you do for me in return?” They are both just growing into the awareness that there is another way.

I think, above all, the thing I admire most in this book is the way it practices what it preaches. Sayers’ brain is here, as it always has been, but for perhaps the first time, her heart is too. Harriet, her partial avatar, is also learning that the heart is required in equal measure in writing as in love – in any work of importance.


“You would have to abandon the jigsaw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.”

“I’m afraid to try that, Peter. It might go to near the bone.”

“It might be the wisest thing you could do.”

“Write it out and get rid of it?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll think about that. It would hurt like hell.”

“What would that matter, if it made a good book?”


I won’t go into Sayers’ biography here. But as Peter says, “you can’t keep the feeling out.” The beauty of this book is the way Sayers is here, unashamedly, honestly, with enough distance to be lucid and thoughtful, but enough heart still in it to hurt, and to matter. And that’s the point of the book – writing like that Is writing well, and living like that is living well.
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As the title suggests, this is an anthology of erotica about zaftig people (usually women) and their lovers. The stories which stand out for skill and real thematic depth are Corbie Petulengro’s “In Season” about a young femme finding the power of personal competence after fleeing from a violent partner, and Hanne’s “Denial” about an overweight man’s discovery that his diet coach lusts for him. Much of the rest hover in some other classification like monologue or vignette or open letter, or even prose poem in paragraph form. They range from a sweetly infatuated ode on a beloved to a frankly bizarre story about a woman getting a blowjob from a stranger on a sausage fake penis, and through many lands and degrees of quality in between.

Which isn’t surprising. Though writers of erotica are a very experimental bunch (in terms of form, geez!), I bet there was a very small pool from which to draw this anthology. And it shows. Most of these pieces do triangulate female desire, big bodies, and food/eating/consumption. But they’re a jumble not a chorus, and the book fails to be an anthology in that the works are not in real conversation with each other. And as much as I like her personally, Hanne’s introduction adds nothing to draw these diverse and sometimes strident threads together.

But taking off the academic hat, it is a book of erotica. And these stories are, indeed, erotic, though I found most bemusing rather than outrightly arousing. I’d like to think this is because I’m not generally engaged by short form erotica -- I need to actually care about the people getting their jollies, and short stories aren’t sufficient to make me do that.

One thing I will say for these writers collectively, though, is that many of them have guts. And I’m not talking about their subject matter – though a few of these stories are bizarre and revealing – but a sort of prose guts. They go on wild figurative fancies full of vaginas with teeth, lesbian goddesses, explosively purple passages. And you’ve got to admire that sort of unbridled enthusiasm.
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Okay, so did you guys know that witch hunts throughout history actually constitute a pattern of political oppression upon women? Didya? Didya? Because according to this 1992 book, no one has ever figured this out before.

Seriously though, this is a great example of how to do good history badly. The authors present a brief but compelling case about how witch trials from Joan of Arc to Salem were a male dominated society’s way of controlling women of influence like physicians and midwives and saints, or resolving financial or property disputes. They use primary sources well, backed by some scant but effective history of the printing press and other related matters. However.

However, this is all they do. And I’m sorry, but you cannot propound a “new” theory to explain witch hunts without ever addressing some of the existing models and placing yours in context. In particular, yes you really have to deal with the apparently thorny issue of witchcraft as a symptom and product of superstition before the scientific revolution. You don’t just get to make casual but snide references to “blindly staggering Europe” and the misfortunes in infant mortality and other trials which caused frustrated blame and fear to fall on the heads of successive out groups, and then carry on as if neither accused nor accuser ever actually believed in witchcraft. Which, uh, both usually did. And simply listing alternate models in one sentence with no context or explanation or integration doesn’t cut it. Especially in cases like the fascinating ergotism theory, which actually could have helped the thesis. Grar. Most irritating.

Unrelatedly, it is clear that Diana Gabaldon and the Pratchett-Gaiman team did at least a little research on the history of witchcraft – apparently the witch Mrs. Duncan was a real person, as were the Devices and Nutters.
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Post-mastectomy reflections and journal entries from the former Poet Laureate. This is gorgeous, unsurprisingly. It's raw and pained and unapologetic about
both. But it also bothered me on a fundamental level, which I finally identified as the same place that will never be able to align itself with traditional feminism. Lorde's story is partly about a woman who refused to settle for prosthesis after her breast was removed, who believes that women don't need to have two breasts to be beautiful, that we don't need to conform to make everyone else comfortable, and further that immediate reconstruction or replacement ducks the fundamental need for healing and acceptance after cancer and surgery. And yep, she's absolutely right, and her stories of the chilly response
she received from her own doctor, who told her to wear a falsey because she might make the clinic look bad, really pissed me off. However, Lorde is also one of those feminists who never turned the critical eye back on herself, who never stopped to think that perhaps a false breast is important to some women. Maybe wanting to have two breasts again isn't bowing to the misogynist pressures of a domineering society, but is a simple, healthy need to reclaim part
of a lost and damaged self. In short, she's one of those feminists who is absolutely certain that every woman should stop unquestioningly believing in the male hegemonic propaganda, and start believing in hers. You know what I'm talking about, don't you?

And then again, on a more personal level, this book made me revisit my memories of my mothers battle with cancer, and of her reconstruction. And it made me wonder a little bit if the immediate recourse to a fake breast isn't part of the deep, inconsolable wound that she carries to this day. There are parts of her that have never recovered from cancer, that believe wholeheartedly that she will never be attractive again, and that wither a little more every
time she looks down. And yeah I wonder, if her doctors and everyone hadn't automatically assumed she wanted a reconstruction the very second her breast was removed, would she have had time to heal just a little bit?

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