Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

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You can’t be a self-respecting feminist without reading this book. I was somewhat clueless about the inner workings of Pussy Riot and their political art until Gessen laid it all out for me. The title comes from a quote from Solzhenitsyn used by Nadya in her closing statement during the sham trial. The three women (Nadya, Kat, Maria) were charged with essentially hurting the feelings of the religious people who witnessed their action at the Orthodox church in Moscow. Kat’s sentence got commuted, but Nadya and Maria got a few years in jail, but let’s not forget that this is Russian jail, where human rights are particularly overlooked. Maria became quite the jailhouse lawyer and continued fighting for better conditions at each penal colony she was sent to. Nadya philosophized and sent out various speeches through any channels she could. Fortunately, there was enough media attention on the women and jailers were forced to treat them somewhat well. They exited the system in 2013. Sadly, my own interest in their story is heightened by the fact that conditions in the U.S. are teetering towards those of Russia, so all outspoken feminist art warriors should read this as a cautionary tale but also for inspiration.

Enchanted Islands

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Sometimes you have a bad idea that you just have to follow through on. Today’s mistake was deciding that I’d slough off on work and simply read all afternoon, which I doubled down on by consuming this not so great book in a few hours. I was intrigued by the premise when I saw the book jumping out at me from a Chicago bookstore not long ago, so ordered it up and polished it off in one sitting, despite giving myself a tummyache in the process. It’s not good writing. It’s not good plot development. The characters are flimsy and unbelievable. Yet, I persisted, driven by the idea that some nugget of wisdom about female friendship would be waiting for me at the end. Nope.

It begins at the end, when Fanny & Rosalie are tucked away in an old folk’s home in the Bay Area, then yanks you backward through their childhood growing up Jewish in Minnesota, running away from home to work as a secretary in Chicago and then fleeing for farm life/suffragette life in Nebraska (of all places) when Fanny walks in on Rosalie with Fanny’s boyfriend Zeke, in an unnecessarily graphic and extremely detailed sex scene. Then Fanny ends up graying in San Francisco as a teacher, which she eventually chucks to go back to secretarial work in her 50s for the Navy. She gets recruited to pose/become the wife of a spy and go live on one of the Galapagos Islands in the lead up to WWII. Her husband, Ainslie, is gay, the “confirmed bachelor” hints broadly ignored by Fanny up until she catches him (of course) in flagrante.

The part of the story that unfolds on the islands is the flimsiest, most improbable, and least worth reading despite what you’d imagine. There are German spies on the island, drama drama drama, then the war, and Fanny’s shipped back to SF where she finally does fall in love (Joseph) but returns with Ainslie to the Galapagos when the war is over. It’s a muddy, icky, not-worth-your-time mess and I wish the author had had the kindness to keep it tucked away in a drawer and forgotten.

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

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Bits of this were good but overall it’s not her best work. It’s an interesting attack on the bloated insistency on positive vibes, positive thinking, optimism. With this enforced viewpoint, we stumble blindly towards disaster, blithely ignoring warning signs of economic recession because of course the housing market can’t fail, etc.

The best parts of the book were the intro and the summation, and sandwiched in between were her story of wading through the pink paradise of surviving breast cancer, dealing with hyper-optimistic gurus who insist that all is cured with a flick of the mental switch, megachurches that more resemble corporations insisting that God wants you to be rich, and too much detail on the motivational speakers that made me want to crawl under the covers and never see the light of day again.

Ehrenreich discusses how positive thinking snuggles up quite closely to late capitalism’s insistence that we buy more and that corporations continue to always grow, fueling consumer society by saying that bygod we deserve newer/better electronics/cars/houses. “Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.”

The effect is seen in the economy, we spend a lot and save a little, never worrying about a rainy day that will never come. Good news– we do have “defensive pessimism” that keeps us safe, assuming that cars won’t stop at red lights or that engines may fail, otherwise we’d truly be living in a LALAland where nothing bad can ever happen (also why Ehrenreich says we were taken by surprise during 9/11 despite the many signs leading up to it).