Top Picks of 2014

My reading pace became frenzied in the last months of the year as I read 35% of the 132 books in November and December (26 books this month so far!). But it’s not about quantity, it’s about immersing yourself in the work and coming away with deeper knowledge or appreciation of writing. The range of books consumed was wide this year, so I’ve broken the list into categories, limiting to top 3.
Biography
Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) by Breanne Fahs
Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall
Art and Poetry
Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt
Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems, 1991-1995 by Hayden Carruth
Short Stories
Beauty Talk & Monsters by Masha Tupisyn
Speedboat by Renata Adler
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel
Contemporary Lit
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My Struggle: Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett) – Book 1 was also good, but Book 3 a disappointment.
Classics
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman – no really, read it.
Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Philosophy
The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861
The Wisdom of Life by Arthur Schopenhauer, translated by T. Bailey Saunders
A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros, translated by John Howe
Society and Culture
Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain by Dwight Macdonald
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel J. Boorstin
The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine by Henry Giroux
Feminism
Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness edited by: Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran
SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
History
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson

My Struggle: Book 3

A very disappointing third installation of what was previously an engaging and gripping poetic work. Clearly in this volume we see the pressures of success bear down on the author… must match the success of the previous two volumes! But ends up failing miserably. A hollow and bleary-eyed reminisce purely about boyhood, not shot through like the other two books with present-day scenes that make us actually care about the narrator. Purely resting on laurels from other volumes, assuming that you care about this vague and sketchy nimrod. Troubles with his dad continue, of course. Comics, soccer, reading, school, it all has a hollow ring and a rushed feel. For those in a bit of a hurry to read the complete series, no harm in completely skipping this one.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice: A Novel

Terrible attempt at historical fiction that I persevered in finishing. Ostensibly telling the story of the invention of the printing press thirty years later through conversations between Peter Schoeffer (the apprentice) and Abbot Trithemius. Coarse, pedestrian prose. Ridiculous inclusion of bath maids giving Peter handjobs in the bathtub and overwrought descriptions of his first love – both of which are not worthy of including in the actual conversation between Schoeffer and Trithemius, so why does she include them in the book at all? A meager attempt to paint Peter with a bit of humanity by detailing out schlocky carnal scenes? This one wins a prize for the worst book I’ve read all the way through this year.

Sense and Sensibility

Fittingly, the book begins by exposing the great injustice of the English laws of inheritance that leave women helpless unless kindly gentlemen intervene with offers of cottages for rent. The economic question of female/male relationships is never far off page in this book, always nipping at the tea table and tapping at the window. When Mr. Dashwood dies, he leaves the bulk of his estate to his son with clear instructions to take care of his sisters and their mother. The son’s wife persuades him not to settle any amount of money on them, so the three Miss Dashwoods and Mrs. Dashwood trundle off to a cottage on her cousin’s land in Sussex. Naturally, the story involves romance intrigues of the usual Austen sort– lovers who will be cut off without a cent if they don’t marry the person with the biggest fortune, skeletons in closets, the older gent whose constant and enduring love finally breaks through after the ill-fated affair of Willoughby and Marianne. Elinor, the oldest, frets graciously about Edward, especially after she learns of his secret engagement to Lucy. After being cut off by his mother, Edward intends to marry Lucy reluctantly, but Lucy has schemed her way into his brother’s heart, marrying Robert instead (the one with the fortune). Another usual theme for Austen– Edward goes into the church and makes his living on a small parish furnished by Colonel Brandon (the old man who’s in love with Marianne, Elinor’s sister). And of course there’s a major illness and recovery from near death that get everyone’s juices flowing. Austen’s pen and wit never fail to delight and entertain.

A View of My Own: Essays in Literature and Society

I came to Hardwick by way of Cynthia Ozick and am not entirely smitten. Her essays cover a wide range: Mary McCarthy, William James, Christina Stead, George Eliot, Eugene O’Neill, Dylan Thomas, Simone de Beauvoir and more. She’s not afraid to say what she thinks, eviscerating and praising in equal part, always with pleasant writing that soothes the eye. She does become tedious in parts, like her takedown of the city of Boston or with her first and second glimpses of David Riesman’s writing and thinking chops.
While I’m conflicted about her tepid review of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, I did enjoy parts of her scathing:

The Second Sex begins with biological material showing that in nature there are not always two sexes and reproduction may take place asexually. I have noticed in the past that many books strongly presenting feminine claims begin in this manner, as if under a compulsion to veil the whole idea of sexual differentiation with a buzzing, watery mist of insect habits and unicellular forms of life. This is a dramaturgy, meant to put one, after a heavy meal, in a receptive frame of mind. It is the dissonant, ambiguous music as the curtain rises on the all too familiar scene of the man at the hunt and the woman at the steaming pot; the scene looks clear enough, but the music suggests things may not be as they appear.

The Subjection of Women

My quest to better understand the cultural factors that drive present-day misogyny led me into the arms of one of the first feminists, philosopher John Stuart Mill and his 1861 tract, The Subjection of Women. You can almost see his wife (Harriet Taylor) hovering over his shoulder as he writes, urging him on, providing examples and facts for his pen. He admits as much:

Who can tell how many of the most original thoughts put out by male writers belong to a woman by suggestion, to the man only by verifying it and working it out? If I may judge by my own case, a very large proportion indeed. (p 77)

Hardly anything can be of greater value to a man of theory and speculation who employs himself not in collecting materials of knowledge by observation, but in working them up by processes of thought into comprehensive truths of science and laws of conduct, than to carry on his speculations in the companionship, and under the criticism, of a really superior woman. (p 64)

I had to go back to the mid-nineteenth century to appreciate how far we’ve come. In the old laws of England, a husband was literally the king of his wife, so if she murdered him, it was called (petty) treason and penalty was burning to death. When Mill was writing this, women did not have the right to vote or work, their only destination was marriage, and marriage deprived them of rights to property and identity. Some quick quotable bits followed by more extensive notes.
* “But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?”
* “Women who read, much more women who write, are, in the existing constitution of things, a contradiction and a disturbing element…”
* “So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.”
* “It must be remembered, also, that no enslaved class ever asked for complete liberty at once.”
* “The power of earning is essential to the dignity of a woman, if she has not independent property.”
* “The ladies of reigning families are the only women who are allowed the same range of interests and freedom of development as men; and it is precisely in their case that there is not found to be any inferiority.”
* “Women cannot be expected to devote themselves to the emancipation of women, until men in considerable number are prepared to join with them in the undertaking.”

In early times, the great majority of the male sex were slaves, as well as the whole of the female. And many ages elapsed, some of them ages of high cultivation, before any thinker was bold enough to question the rightfulness, and the absolute social necessity, either of the one slavery or of the other. By degrees such thinkers did arise; and (the general progress of society assisting) the slavery of the male sex has, in all the countries of Christian Europe at least (though, in one of them, only within the last few years) been at length abolished, and that of the female sex has been gradually changed into a milder form of dependence. But this dependence, as it exists at present, is not an original institution, taking a fresh start from considerations of justice and social expediency — it is the primitive state of slavery lasting on, through successive mitigations and modifications occasioned by the same causes which have softened the general manners, and brought all human relations more under the control of justice and the influence of humanity. It has not lost the taint of its brutal origin. (p 11)

The clodhopper exercises, or is to exercise, his share of the power equally with the highest nobleman. And the case is that in which the desire of power is the strongest: for everyone who desires power, desires it most over those who are nearest to him, with whom his life is passed, with whom he has most concerns in common and in whom any independence of his authority is oftenest likely to interfere with his individual preferences… Every one of the subjects lives under the very eye, and almost, it may be said, in the hands, of one of the masters in closer intimacy with him than with any of her fellow-subjects; with no means of combining against him, no power of even locally over mastering him, and, on the other hand, with the strongest motives for seeking his favour and avoiding to give him offence. (p 16)

When we put together three things — first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; secondly, the wife’s entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character. (p 21)

What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing — the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others. It may be asserted without scruple, that no other class of dependents have had their character so entirely distorted from its natural proportions by their relation with their masters… (p 27)

We may safely assert that the knowledge which men can acquire of women, even as they have been and are, without reference to what they might be, is wretchedly imperfect and superficial, and always will be so, until women themselves have told all that they have to tell.
And this time has not come; nor will it come otherwise than gradually. It is but of yesterday that women have either been qualified by literary accomplishments or permitted by society, to tell anything to the general public. As yet very few of them dare tell anything, which men, on whom their literary success depends, are unwilling to hear. Let us remember in what manner, up to a very recent time, the expression, even by a male author, of uncustomary opinions, or what are deemed eccentric feelings, usually was, and in some degree still is, received; and we may form some faint conception under what impediments a woman, who is brought up to think custom and opinion her sovereign rule, attempts to express in books anything drawn from the depths of her own nature. The greatest woman who has left writings behind her sufficient to give her an eminent rank in the literature of her country, thought it necessary to prefix as a motto to her boldest work, “Un homme peut braver l’opinion; une femme doit s’y soumettre.”1 The greater part of what women write about women is mere sycophancy to men. In the case of unmarried women, much of it seems only intended to increase their chance of a husband. Many, both married and unmarried, overstep the mark, and inculcate a servility beyond what is desired or relished by any man, except the very vulgarest. But this is not so often the case as, even at a quite late period, it still was. Literary women I are becoming more free-spoken, and more willing to express their real sentiments. Unfortunately, in this country especially, they are themselves such artificial products, that their sentiments are compounded of a small element of individual observation and consciousness, and a very large one of acquired associations. This will be less and less the case, but it will remain true to a great extent, as long as social institutions do not admit the same free development of originality in women which is possible to men. When that time comes, and not before, we shall see, and not merely hear, as much as it is necessary to know of the nature of women, and the adaptation of other things to it. (p 31)

The general opinion of men is supposed to be, that the natural vocation of a woman is that of a wife and mother. I say, is supposed to be, because, judging from acts — from the whole of the present constitution of society — one might infer that their opinion was the direct contrary. They might be supposed to think that the alleged natural vocation of women was of all things the most repugnant to their nature; insomuch that if they are free to do anything else — if any other means of living or occupation of their time and faculties, is open, which has any chance of appearing desirable to them — there will not be enough of them who will be willing to accept the condition said to be natural to them. If this is the real opinion of men in general, it would be well that it should be spoken out. I should like to hear somebody openly enunciating the doctrine (it is already implied in much that is written on the subject) — It is necessary to society that women should marry and produce children. They will not do so unless they are compelled. Therefore it is necessary to compel them.” The merits of the case would then be clearly defined. It would be exactly that of the slave-holders of South Carolina and Louisiana. “It is necessary that cotton and sugar should be grown. White men cannot produce them. Negroes will not, for any wages which we choose to give. Ergo they must be compelled.” (p 33)

Lao Tzu : Tao Te Ching : A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way

One doesn’t write a summary about this book, one simply notes that this is an excellent and approachable translation by Ursula Le Guin, perhaps one includes a snippet that was enjoyed (#33):

Knowing other people is intelligence,

knowing yourself is wisdom.
Overcoming others takes strength,
overcoming yourself takes greatness.
Contentment is wealth.
Boldly pushing forward takes resolution.
Staying put keeps you in position.
To live till you die
is to live long enough.

The Company She Keeps

Oh my. I’m dipping my toe back into Mary McCarthy’s writing and enjoying it hugely. The last time I read her was over ten years ago, gulping down Birds of America, The Group, and Intellectual Memoirs (which I dismissed as “Memoirs of a Trotskyite Who Slept With Lots of Men”). The Company She Keeps is a collection of six stories involving the same woman, with different angles in the mirror. Cruel and Barbarous Treatment is an intense story that promotes a lot of drama among characters that are never named, just noted as “she”, “the husband”, and “The Young Man”, along with the chorus of friends who witness the deterioration of a marriage. At the end, she’s on the train to Reno for her divorce, chagrined to find that her hubby has been receiving invitations for social engagements and intent on breaking things off with The Young Man, envisioning herself as a Young Divorcee and evaluating the male options in the club car.
Rogue’s Gallery is a somewhat tedious story following the employment of the woman for a crooked gallery owner, Mr. Sheer. She’s never paid, he sells art objects that he doesn’t own and thus scrambles to give the money to the rightful owner, making no profit. Eventually he loses the gallery and becomes a top salesman at another gallery, sending him into a spiral of success that he’s uncomfortable with, preferring to meet Meg/Margaret (the now named woman) for lunch to rehash old days.
The gem of the collection is The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt, painting an excruciating picture of a one night stand on a train as Meg heads west on another train, post-divorce, to tell her aunt in Portland about her upcoming second marriage. I’m reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s A View of My Own, in which she covers Mary McCarthy and sums up this story as “a sort of parable representing many a young girl’s transgressions, even if it does not concern itself with the steps in the sinner’s rehabilitation… The psychological fastidiousness and above all the belligerent mood of the surrendering girl are the essence of the story.”
The last three stories are deeper plunges into Meg’s Trotskyism and affairs, finishing up on the therapist’s couch at her second husband’s behest and revealing deep scars from her aunt’s strict (abusive) Catholic upbringing. I love the way McCarthy speaks truth about what her characters are thinking as they dance delicately towards courtship, the bland indifference of Meg, the keyed-up “I love you” sprinkled in the mouths of all the men who yearn for the physical connect. Despite my earlier intolerance, perhaps I’ll check out some of her other memoirs.

My Struggle: Book 2

Knausgaard’s words wash over me, coming in sets of waves, the day to day life of raising three children co-mingled with reminiscing about the past. The ever-present struggle to write, to find enough alone time to write and immerse himself in his work without being a bad father/husband. It’s inspiring to see him elevate the common bits of life (taking out the trash, washing dishes) and then plunge into a delicate piece musing on the nature of human relationships. He exposes his whole being– consumed artist, dutiful father, pal who goes drinking, respectful son. NYT book review has a great quote– “Why would you read a six-volume, 3,600 page Norwegian novel about a man writing a six-volume, 3,600 page Norwegian novel?” It’s intense and addictive; I’ve already got Book 3 waiting on the table.

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else always undermined my efforts. What was the problem? Was it the shrill, sickly tone I heard everywhere that I couldn’t stand, the one that arose from all the pseudopeople and pseudoplaces, pseudoevents, and pseudoconflicts our lives passed through, that which we saw but did not participated in, and the distance that modern life in this way had opened up to our own, actually inalienable here and now?

What would it have been like to live in a world where everything was made from the power of your hands, the wind, or the water? What would it have been like to live in a world where the American Indians still lived their lives in peace? Where that life was an actual possibility? Where Africa was unconquered? Where darkness came with sunset and light with the sunrise? Where there were too few humans and their tools were too rudimentary to have any effect on animal stocks, let alone wipe them out? Where you could not travel from one place to another without exerting yourself, and a comfortable life was something only the rich could afford, where the sea was full of whales, the forests full of bears and wolves, and there were still countries that were so alien no adventure story could do them justice, such as China, to which a voyage not only took several months and was the prerogative of only a tiny minority of sailors and traders, but was also fraught with danger. Admittedly, that world was rough and wretched, filthy and ravaged with sickness, drunken and ignorant, full of pain, low life expectancy and rampant superstition, but it produced the greatest writer, Shakespeare, the greatest painter, Rembrandt, the greatest scientist, Newton, all still unsurpassed in their fields, and how can it be that this period achieved this wealth? Was it because death was closer and life was starker as a result?

“The nihilistic world is in essence a world that is being increasingly reduced, which naturally of necessity coincides with the movement toward a zero point,” Jünger wrote. A case in point of such a reduction is God being perceived as “good” or the inclination to find a common denominator for all the complicated tendencies of the world, or the propensity for specialization, which is another form of reduction, or the determination to convert everything into figures, beauty as well as forests as well as art as well as bodies. For what is money if not an entity that commodofies the most dissimilar things?

What I want to do is travel, see, read, and write. To be free. Completely free. And I had a chance to be free on the island… I headed out there, where there wasn’t a soul. I didn’t understand myself, I had no idea who I was, so what I resorted to, all these ideas about being a good person, was simply all I had. I didn’t watch TV, I didn’t read newspapers, and all I ate was crispbread and soup… I started doing push-ups and sit-ups. Can you imagine? How desperate do you have to be to start doing push-ups to solve your problems?… The worst of it is that I can understand: that need to rid yourself of all the banality and small-mindedness rotting inside you, all the trivia that can make you angry or unhappy, that can create a desire for something pure and great into which you can dissolve and disappear. It’s getting rid of all the shit, isn’t it?

Harlem of the West – The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era

Local historians tell the story of the bustling years when the Fillmore district was bursting at the seams with jazz, music clubs flourishing, black-owned businesses thriving. Maya Angelou gives us a peak at this era in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, but the researchers dive a lot deeper in this book. Filled with photographs and interviews with people who lived in the area during that time, it’s a great resource for capturing the wisps of history that were about to flit away into forgottenness as the residents age and pass away. Tragically, this area was the target of the ill-fated Redevelopment effort that razed Victorians and plopped down a 6-lane highway (Geary), essentially destroying the community. It’s mesmerizing to look at the photos and see everyone dressed to the nines to go out, a strong self-supporting black community with obvious pride in itself. The feeling from the photos does evoke Harlem. The interviews and snippets were a bit too scattered and piecemeal for my taste – every few sentences I was getting jolted about to someone else’s perspective, and having to read that person’s quick bio sketch. Other pain point is the grammatical error (I know, I know) in the dedication. Pepin dedicates it to her husband “who’s love makes all things possible.” I guess the only thing it doesn’t make possible is a competent editor.

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works

Recommended for anyone who’s bandied about the idea of meditation but haven’t clicked with the practice. Written by a host of Nightline and Good Morning America, I did not expect such a well-written, entertaining book with incredibly helpful tips. Meditation is not breathing practice, it’s mindfulness practice. It’s a game of bringing your attention back, of recognizing and naming the thoughts flashing past. It’s a necessary exercise for the brain, to improve awareness, mindfulness, compassion. You feel a thought, but can examine it without letting it influence your behavior (someone cuts you off on the freeway, you think you’re pissed but you let it pass). Practicing compassion helps your body handle stress. He has a great section detailing the agony and bliss of a 10 day retreat with no talking allowed, no eye contact, just sitting and walking meditation, and nightly dharma talks.
Tips on meditating:
* Sit comfortably. In a chair, on the floor, cross-legged, whatever. Keep your spine straight but not strained.
* Feel your breath, the in-out. Really feel it.
* When you get lost in thought, return to the breath. “Forgiving and starting over is the whole game. Beginning again and again is the actual practice…”

Leaving The Atocha Station

Surprisingly good book about a poet’s fellowship in Madrid, fraudulently attempting to make sense of the Spanish Civil War via literature and also the Iraq War unfolding around him. He gradually masters the language, but it’s the spells where he details what is going on around him that draws you in. His morning ritual at the Prado, lingering for over 30 minutes with his coffee in front of Van der Weyden’s Descent From The Cross, then heading back to his foundation-subsidized apartment to eat, jack off, read Tolstoy. Why modern authors feel the need to interject their ejaculations into our thoughts, I briefly grimace at but move on. He pops through his sunroof, smokes hash, walks through the Retiro, interfaces with folks from his language school (meets Isabel). One night he tires of hearing the commotion outside and mingles with the crowd, standing just outside a circle of friends and getting welcomed into the crowd by a latecomer. Thus he meets Arturo and his sister Teresa, who then go on to translate his poems into Spanish. Ridiculous stories of his mom being dead (untrue) to gain sympathy. A trip to Granada without seeing the Alhambra. A trip to Barcelona and getting lost on his way back to the hotel. The attack on the train on March 11, hundreds dead, marching, protests. IM’ing with his pal in Mexico and then stealing his pal’s story of enticing a girl into the river where she’s swept away and dies, failed CPR minutes later.
***
Rec’d by the Penguin Books peeps based on my likes/interests, but this is the first out of three they’ve recommended so far that I’ve actually enjoyed. 33% success rate!

Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas

If you’d like to feel physically ill about the charades that went on in Washington almost 20 years ago wherein Clarence Thomas was shoved down the Senate’s throats and confirmed to the Supreme Court, this is your book. It is incomprehensible that Thomas can exist– pulling the ladder up after him and cutting away voter protections and affirmative action protections that helped his career. The judge most unprepared, least experienced for nomination, served up by Bush to appease two various groups– the far right (where Thomas’s ideals leaned in extreme tilt) and those who wanted to see Thurgood Marshall replaced by another black man. The book goes into the backroom deals leading up to his confirmation hearing, while exploring the parallel line of what Thomas’s early years were like, his dealings with women, and detailing Anita Hill’s life. Hill was conflicted about coming forward with her report, rightfully so if viewed with the brutal harassment she felt at the hands of the politicos; she was contacted by members of the Labor Committee who were following up on tips they’d received and agreed to talk to them. The information sat bouncing around Washington for weeks like a hot potato, no one wanted to touch it. Finally, Hill became exasperated that her information was going nowhere and agreed to go on record as a named accuser. That Joe Biden’s handling of the procedure was clumsy is an understatement. He allowed the conversation to be restricted to Hill’s accusation alone, barring information about Thomas’s pornography habits and other relevant bits. And Biden gavelled the hearings closed before the other women who had been harassed could come forward, Angela Wright waiting in the wings. The only hint of positivity about the entire affair was the response of Washington’s women to take this seriously.

Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness

Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness

I got tipped off about this book in the footnotes of Divided Lives, but had no idea what a powerful collection of essays, plays, dialogs it would be. From the very first entry, “Pretty” by Alta, through the scholarly and witty retorts of Millet, Ozick, Nochlin, into the wildness of Lamb’s plays, each page articulates thoughts that have been half-formed in my own mind. Published in 1971, it is a fierce collection from the 2nd wave, required reading for anyone with a brain.

My favorite essay was Cynthia Ozick’s The Demise of the Dancing Dog where she details the horrors of teaching English to mediocre college students and proves that men and women’s minds are equally idiotic, all while giving us the Ovarian Theory of Literature. She questions whether one can tell that something is written by a woman or man, her class is flummoxed after learning that Flannery O’Connor is a woman, their perceptions shift immediately. And it’s not just the students– her fellow instructor tries to convince her that style is influenced by physical makeup by saying that Keats was battling tuberculosis and his poetry couldn’t be unaffected by this. Ozick’s reply is classic, “Ah, but you don’t suppose that being a woman is a disease?” Her best tirade is against people who equate giving birth with creativity. “It is insulting to a poet to compare his titanic and agonized strivings with the so-called ‘creativity’ of childbearing, where – consciously – nothing happens… The woman’s body is a vessel, thereafter, for a parasite. For the presence of the parasite she is thereafter no more responsible than she is for the presence of her intestinal tract. To call a child a poem may be a pretty metaphor, but it is a slur on the labor of art.” More disturbing, she recounts a debate held recently at her college “Should a Woman Receive a College Education?”, the auditorium packed with co-eds who laugh along with the “fiercely bearded professor of psychology (ostentatiously male)” as he makes a mockery of the subject. Laughing at the futility of an educated woman.

This is our “problem” – the problem of a majority’s giving its credence and its loyalty to a daydream. And it is a bigger problem than any other we know of in this country, for the plain and terrifying reason that we have not even considered it to be a problem. Whenever the cliche-question is put, “What is the number one problem in America today?” the cliche-answer comes: “Civil rights – the Black Revolution.” Scarcely. The solution to that problem is there – we have only to catch up to it, with all our might. If the debate at my college had dealt with civil rights it would have been serious, passionate, argumentative. We had a Vietnam teach-in: it was serious, passionate, argumentative. But until now no one has been serious and passionate, and certainly no one has been argumentative, concerning attitudes about woman. Once a problem has been articulated, the answer is implicit; the answer is already fated. But this problem was never articulated; there was no answer, because no one ever asked the question. It was a question that had not yet found its Baldwin. Its substance was, on every level, the stuff of primitive buffoonery.

A culture which does not allow itself to look clearly at the obvious through the universal accessibility of art is a culture of tragic delusion, hardly viable; it will make room for a system of fantasy Offices on the one hand, and a system of fantasy Homes on the other, but it will forget that the earth lies beneath them all. It will turn out roleplaying stereotypes (the hideousness of the phrase is appropriate to the concept) instead of human beings. It will shut the children away from half the population. It will shut aspiration away from half the population. It will glut its colleges with young people enduringly maimed by illusions learned early and kept late. It will sup on make-believe.

Linda Nochlin’s tremendous piece, Why Are There No Great Women Artists?, pops a pin in the balloon that floats that question, unmasking the underpinning assumptions that goad it into existence. “The fact of the matter is that there have been no great women artists… or any great Lithuanian jazz pianists, or Eskimo tennis players…. in actuality things as they are and as they have been in the arts, as in hundreds of other areas, are stultifying, oppressive and discouraging to all who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle-class or above, males. The fault lies… in our institutions and our education.” She raises the question of what conditions are generally productive of great art, and shows a correlation between great art and having a father who was an artist. “What if Picasso had been born a girl? Would Señor Ruiz have paid as much attention or stimulated as much ambition for achievement in a little Pablita?” Never mind the problems that women faced in getting actual training– forbidden to draw the nude body, male or female. Found out about Aphra, a feminist literary magazine in the 1970s, and will put JS Mill on my reading list. More from Nochlin:

The question of the availability of the nude model is but a single aspect of the automatic, institutionally maintained discrimination against women… One could equally well have examined other dimensions of the situation, such as the apprenticeship system, the academic educational pattern that was almost the only key to success; regular progression and set competitions which enabled the young winner to work in the French Academy; this was unthinkable for women and they were unable to compete for the prize until the end of the nineteenth century, when the whole academic system has lost its importance anyway… Deprived of encouragements, educational facilities, and rewards, it is almost incredible that a certain percentage of women actually sought out a profession in the arts.

It is no wonder that those who have privilege inevitably hold on to it, and hold tight, no matter how marginal the advantage involved, until compelled to bow to superior power of one sort or another… As John Stuart Mill pointed out more than a century ago: ‘Everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.’

… art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, “influenced” by previous artists and by “social forces” but art… occurs in a social situation, is an integral element of the social structure, and is mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of divine creator and artist as he-man or social outcast.

Kate Millett’s piece on Prostitution: a Quartet in Female Voices is one of the smartest things I’ve read on the subject. She weaves her voice alongside the voice of two prostitutes and a legal defender, the material culled from a summer of rap sessions. “… prostitution is the very core of the female’s social condition. It not only declares her subjection right in the open, with the cash nexus between the sexes announced in currency rather than through the subtlety of a marriage contract, but the very act of prostitution is itself a declaration of our value… it is not sex the prostitute is really made to sell: it is degradation.”
The collection of essays begins with a one pager by Alta. Here’s the last bit of “Pretty”:

drove me to cover my face with makeup, eyeliner, lipstick, mascara. drove me to curl and bleach my hair, drove me to diet, drove me to sit with my fists clenched so no one could see my nails. tell me i’m not oppressed. ask me what i want. tell me you don’t like my methods. listen to my life and see that it has been intolerable and leave me the fuck alone.

Myrna Lamb’s two plays, But What Have You Done for Me Lately and The Serving Girl and the Lady would be tremendous to see live. BWHYDFML details the aftermath of a surgery where a woman in surgical smock informs the man that he is pregnant. Protestations and bemoaning ensue, demanding options (we’re still a couple years away from Roe v Wade). Role reversal at its best.

Vivian Gormick edited this collection (along with Barbara Moran), and submitted her own essay Woman as Outsider.

Only a brief look at the cultural and religious myths and the literary projections of woman that surround the female existence – smothering it, depriving it, manipulating it, and in the final irony, creating it and then reflecting it – will instantly reveal the essential outsided-ness of woman: her distance from the center of self-realizing life, the extremity of her responses to experience, her characteristic femaleness incorporating (very much as a black man’s blackness does) a distillation of human behavior that grows directly out of the excluded nature of her destined life. Further, a look at culture and literature will confirm that the life of woman, like the life of every outsider, is determinedly symbolic of the life of the race; that this life is offered up, as every other outsider’s life is offered up, as a sacrifice to the forces of annihilation that surround our sense of existence, in the hope that in reducing the strength of the outsider – in declaring her the bearer of all the insufficiencies and contradiction of the race – the wildness, grief, and terror of loss that is in us will be grafted onto her, and the strength of those remaining within the circle will be increased. For in the end, that is what the outsider is all about; that is what power and powerlessness are all about; that is what inclusion and exclusion are all about; that is what the cultural decision that certain people are “different” is all about: if only these Steppenwolfs, these blacks, these Jews, these women will go mad and die for us, we will escape; we will be saved; we will have made a successful bid for salvation.

I am not real to him. I am not real to my civilization. I am not real to the culture that has spawned me and made use of me. I am only a collection of myths. I am an existential stand-in. The idea of me is real – the temptress, the goddess, the child, the mother – but I am not real. The mythic proportions of woman are recognizable and real; it is only the human dimensions that are patently false and will be denied to the death, our death. James Baldwin once wrote: “The white man can deal with the Negro as a symbol or as a victim, but never as a human being.” … the same understanding is granted to women.

Jessie Barnard deconstructs the paradox of happy marriage, first quoting de Tocqueville’s observations at length “In America the independence of woman is irrevocably lost in the bonds of matrimony…[women] make it their boast to bend themselves to the yoke, not to shake it off.” She then quotes Mary Roberts Coolidge’s Why Women Are So, claiming that over the past century, women were “broken” by marriage and lost the power to think or decide for themselves. Then dives into lots of research data and tables comparing happiness levels of married/unmarried men/women. Naturally single women and married men scored tops.

Una Stannard’s The Mast of Beauty ravages the beauty myth and its place in culture, “Glittering and smiling in the media, looked at by millions, envied and ogled, these ideal beauties teach women their role in society. They teach them that women are articles of conspicuous consumption in the male market; that women are made to be looked at, and that females achieve success in the world by being looked at.”

The cult of beauty in women, which we smile at as though it were one of the culture’s harmless follies, is, in fact, an insanity, for it is posited on a false view of reality. Women are not more beautiful than men. The obligation to be beautiful is an artificial burden, imposed by men on women, that keeps both sexes clinging to childhood, the woman forced to remain a charming, dependent child, the man driven by his unconscious desire to be loved and taken care of simply for his beautiful self. Woman’s mask of beauty is the face of a child, a revelation of the tragic sexual immaturity of both sexes in our culture.

Marjorie B. U’Ren on the low opinion many women have of their own sex: “Individuals generally adopt the attitudes of their culture even when these attitudes are directed against their own kind. Experiments show that preschool children learn very early to discriminate against themselves. Given a choice of white and black dolls, for example, and asked to pick out the prettiest, both black and white children in our culture choose the white doll.”

Elaine Showalter’s Women Writers and the Double Standard is another standout essay that exposes the change in tone critics undergo once they learn a book they were praising was written by a woman. Pseudonyms and the desperate Victorian game to unmask anonymous writers. The unnatural competition fluffed up by reviewers trying to pin Bronte vs. Gaskell, “women writers were thus forced to be rivals.”

Roslyn Willett’s Working in a “Man’s World” is a terrific depiction of the horrors women have been encountering in the workforce. Particularly appalling was the male-only executive flight from NYC to Chicago that United ran through the 1960s and into 1970. After complaining about discrimination to the Civil Aeronautics Board, they said it was a promotional event and if women wanted an all-female executive flight, they’d put one on. Willett suggests “they tell black people that they were not discriminated against on most flights, but on one flight a day only whites were to be permitted and if blacks wanted an all-black flight all they had to do was create effective demand.” She details how the presence of women help balance out the aggressive/fantasy nature of men, but that men when threatened immediate go apoplectic. “Blunt, straightforward talk and action and ad hoc responsiveness to real-world situations are very characteristic of women. But it is precisely because men do not want or expect directness – and often do not get it from each other, particularly in the white-collar world – that they find it incomprehensible. They prefer fantasies…”

Catharine Stimpson’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Thy Neighbor’s Servants”: Women’s Liberation and Black Civil Rights details the long and twisted history of the women’s movement and fighting to end slavery and achieve equality for blacks. “Both blacks and women are highly visible; they cannot hide, even if they want to.” She quotes Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech in 1860 before the New York State Legislature, “The prejudice against color, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against sex. It is produced by the same cause, and manifested very much in the same way. The Negro’s skin and the woman’s sex are both prima facie evidence that they were intended to be in subjection to the white Saxon man.”

Blues City: A Walk in Oakland

Published ten years ago and bemoaning the destruction that Mayor Jerry Brown is wreaking on the town, it’s both current and yet a time capsule to simpler days where the invaders were the ’99ers from the dot com bust. The overflow from SF grips Oakland even tighter today, as the ex Mayor watches from his perch as governor of California. Reed goes on walking tours around the city, getting to know history and neighborhoods he was unaware of in his bubble of land near Emeryville. A lot of the content is quoting these volunteer guides and museum docents. Great beginning chapter where his first attempt to land in San Francisco fails, so he heads back to New York and becomes famous. Too famous, too easily, so he decamps to California, settles eventually in the East Bay.