Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story

I’m not a huge fan of Peter Bagge’s style, but I appreciate his ability to tell the complex story of Sanger’s life within a few pages. Her work as a nurse exposed her to the many methods women used to try to control their fertility and she made it her mission to bring those to women of all backgrounds and classes. While she did marry early, she eventually split from her first husband and gallivanted about with lots of other dudes, including HG Wells (of course– he was diddling everybody back then). Her greatest achievement was getting the birth control pill funded and developed, something that has had a huge impact on women ever since.

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story

Men are mutants, as we know.  XY chromosomes are a mutation from XX (women), and this may explain part of the mystery as to why women live longer than men despite having everything stacked against them (society, childbirthing, higher pain tolerance). The flexibility of women’s immune system with fluctuations during menstruation may also contribute.

The book exposes Darwin’s sexism, the terribleness of drug trials (it’s cheaper to only study one sex—men—to the detriment to women’s health), various researchers’ obsession with proving that women are inferior (size of brain, which, if it were to matter to intelligence would make elephants/whales the dominant species), debunking lots of myths along the way and showing how social constructs effect EVERYTHING.

The sex ratio in India is skewed in favor of boys more than it was 10 years ago—7M fewer girls than boys aged 6 or younger. Yikes. But boys are actually statistically more at risk of dying than girls, which makes this stat even more staggering, the willful destruction of girl babies. “The biological risk is against the boy, but the social risk is against the girl,” says Joy Lawn, a director at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The book dabbles in this and that, blowing up the theory that men are better, smarter, etc. and pointing out the sociological ways that women are handicapped. “It isn’t just supreme feats of learning or traumatic experiences that affect the brain but more subtle and prolonged things, too, like the way girls and women are treated by society.”

Brain scans were all the rage when they hit the scene, but Gina Rippon cautions against them. “Every brain is different from every other brain. We should take more of a fingerprint type of approach.”

Mary Wollstonecraft’s quote from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, is apt: “It cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man because she has always been subjugated.”

In the Freud Archives

This was my 2nd attempt to read this and I only finished it because I enjoyed another Malcolm book, The Journalist and the Murderer. I’m not a huge fan of Freud and all the inside baseball chatter about the feud between inner and outer circles of analysts and scholars left me mentally snoring. There’s a charismatic young guy who gains access to the precious Freud Archives by cozying up to some bigwigs, including Anna Freud, and then blows his chance by trumpeting some wildly anti-Freud views in an article in the New York Times.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

Here’s a cheerful book for a rainy day. The Anthropocene is the geological era defined by humans, which, according to various accounts, began either in Industrial Revolution or with the dawn of agriculture 12k years ago or with the 1945 atomic bomb drop. Scranton relies on his combat experience in Iraq to set the stage for what living in end-times really looks like, and asks how we make meaningful decisions as we teeter toward the end of civilization. His answer is that we simply let go, of ego, of capitalism, of war, and do our best to safeguard the thousands of years of hard-fought learning to survive in the future so it isn’t lost.

The elephant in the room is climate change, and he devotes quite a bit to that topic. “The problem is that the problem is us.”

Our online overlords are not helping:

Social media like Facebook crowdsource catharsis, creating self-contained wave pools of aggression and fear, pity and terror, stagnant flows that go nowhere and do nothing.

Scranton calls out that our simply passing along articles or reactions contributes to the weakening of reflection or independent thought. “With every protest chant, retweet, and Facebook post, we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers.”

He quotes Peter Sloterdijk as saying the role of the philosopher is to be “continually self-immunizing against the waves of social energy we live in and amongst by perpetually interrupting [our] own connection to collective life.” This interruption is reflection, a sitting with, not a smashing:

We must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection.

On a lighter note, he included a part of Inger Christensen’s poem, alphabet, which I really liked:

doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death

The Journalist and the Murderer

Maggie Nelson referenced this Janet Malcolm book in her talk at the Nourse Theater last week and I scribbled the title down in the dark on my notepad. It was an excellent musing on the relationship between journalist and subject, taking for its example the betrayal of Jeffrey MacDonald  by Joe McGinniss in his book, Fatal Vision, about MacDonald’s murder trial and conviction. Joe pretended to be Jeff’s friend to maintain access even as he became convinced of Jeff’s guilt and wrote a series of letters that reveal his lies to Jeff up until the book came out. This “fraud” was then rehashed in a libel suit that MacDonald pursued against McGinniss, which is when Janet Malcolm got involved and tried to start untangling all the bits.

During this libel trial, the question of whether authors can lie to their subjects in order to get them more comfortable with spilling their story came up repeatedly. A few experts were called, including Joseph Wambaugh who later told Malcolm: “When you talk to a sociopathic criminal, you have to flatter him and curry favor with him by telling him something that isn’t absolutely true… They enjoy it. They’ll say ‘You believe me, don’t you?’ right at a point where you’re convinced they’re lying. If you say no, you could lose everything you’ve gained, including your book, your money, your time if you’re a writer, and your case if you’re a cop. So you cannot tell the truth.” This sheds some light on how the current White House is being run, in my opinion.

Also of tangential interest were Malcolm’s musings on letter writing: “But if we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that the chief pleasure of the correspondence lies in its responsive aspect rather than with that of our pen pal; what makes the arrival of a letter a momentous event is the occasion it affords for writing rather than for reading.”

She begins corresponding with MacDonald in prison, receiving his 20 to 30 page letters that “were like sledgehammer strokes in their relentless, repetitive, bombastic self-justification. When a letter came, I would put off reading it—the writing was unrelievedly windy…”

Woodswoman IIII: Book Four of the Woodswoman’s Adventures

It appears that I skimmed so quickly through the previous book (Woodswoman 3) that I didn’t bother to write up a review. In this fourth and final book of the series, Anne returns to her cabin on Black Bear Lake occasionally, appreciating the changes that have happened in the 35 years that she’s been living there and writing about it. Much like her other books, she spends way too much time digressing into tales about her pets (this time she picks up a stray kitten along with her usual German shepherds.) There’s also a somewhat bizarre tale about being a visiting professor at a Southern college trying to get her class permission to do a 24-hour nature solo trip; on the reconnaissance mission she encounters a bunch of drunk dudes on horseback who shoot at her?? It’s a quick read and now I’m finally finished with Anne’s musings on life in the woods.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

I, like Sarah Glidden, was looking for some sort of unbiased glimpse into the Israel-Palestine conflict. This graphic novel is a great glimpse into the propaganda that Israel feeds its tourists (Glidden went on a free birthright tour that Israel makes available to all Jews), along with questions that she has about what information is missing. It ends up being a pretty useful guide to understanding more about the conflict in a few hours or less.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

I will read anything Coates writes, but was a bit disappointed in this. I didn’t realize it was going to be a collection of essays he’d already published in the Atlantic from 2009-2016. This makes it a bit of a rehash that I assume was published to take advantage of post-Obama nostalgia in an age of McDonald Tr*mp. He does write intro sections for each of the essays and a recap at the end, but otherwise it’s probably material you’ve already read before (including the well-worth-another-read The Case for Reparations).

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Excellent work that will break your heart. Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard law graduate who heads south to help defend inmates on death row, especially in Alabama where they turned their execution program on overdrive with the highest rate per capita. Through his many years helping the innocent and the unjustly imprisoned, Stevenson collected a huge bag of stories that he drips before and after the main story of Walter McMillian, who was put on death row while he AWAITED trial for a murder he didn’t commit. Local authorities were angry that he’d dared to have an interracial relationship so were happy to pin the blame on him. Well written, gripping story. I had to put it down every so often just to breathe and try to calm down.

Obama: An Intimate Portrait

Taking a break this MLK weekend from shuddering about Mcdonald Tr*mp’s tactless idiocy/racism/greed to read this gem from Pete Souza. The photographer had extraordinary access to Obama during the 8 years of his presidency and captured real moments that occasionally brought me to tears. Say what you will about Obama, the man has charm, style, wit, intelligence, compassion, and that comes through in these photos. It is an absolute delight to remind yourself that outstanding presidents who don’t embarrass us have existed and will exist again in the future.

Doris: An Anthology 1991-2001

Wonderful time capsule of the 90s, packed with typewriters, anarchists, midnight bike rides, living in tree houses and squats, roaming from Asheville to Vermont to Berkeley to Eureka to NYC, advice about surviving abuse, herbal remedies, recipes, scenes from punk life, basement shows, lists of books and 101 ways to get romance, her sister Caty and farming and building greenhouses, resources for depression (including herbs: guarana, damiana, peppermint, rosemary, gotu kola). Doris is one of my favorite zines and I was lucky to be able to catch up on these early issues via the anthology. Amazing amazing amazing.

The Allure of the Archives

This book will delight anyone who has spent any time doing research. Translated from the French by Thomas Scott-Railton, this was originally published in 1989 before the vast digitization of archives had begun in earnest. Farge leads us through the Parisian archives of criminal complaints from the 18th century, peppering her account with scenes from her own time—racing other researchers to get the best spot, shivering with the cold, hoping that the lights stayed on. She also brings to life those characters she encounters on the page, the man who embroidered a letter to his wife on a handkerchief while in jail, a packet of seeds that had not been opened in 2 centuries.

What the Trees Said: Life on a New Age Farm

This book got me thinking that books need some sort of a rating system like movies, but to warn people of the level of male smarminess/privilege inside. Works by Mailer or Roth or Kerouac (and this) would score in the toxic red zone and thus sensitive readers could avoid them. Alas, this warning label did not exist and I took seriously Jenny Odell’s recommendation that this was her new favorite book, so read it.

If you’re lucky, you’ve never heard of Stephen Diamond, author of this 1970 remembrance of the hippie farm he and a bunch of dudes lived on in Massachusetts. Oh I guess there were a few girls there, but they get slighted in the story until they do something like bitch about how they’re doing all the cooking and cleaning of dishes. Diamond’s words are a poor man’s Kerouac, he attempts to free associate and lacks any of Jack’s sparkle or rhythm.

Against Everything: Essays

I have a theory that Greif founded n+1 because no one else would publish his writing. This collection is a group of essays he first put forth in that publication, launched in 2004. The only solid essay of the book was the first one he published, Against Exercise, in 2004. Maybe he worked hard at polishing it, and then once n+1 launched, his attention was diverted to managing the magazine instead of honing his writing. Besides tearing apart our culture of exercise, he touches on our food obsession, sexualizing children, Octomom & Bernie Madoff taking the brunt of anger during the financial crisis (woman & Jew, the usual targets instead of those who actually inflicted damage). There’s an embarrassing section wherein he muses about music, from Radiohead to Tribe Called Quest, cataloging his attempt to learn to rap as a Jew from Boston. Add in an overly boring section on reality TV, a dash of the trailer park near Walden Pond, a nip of police and Zuccotti Park, and you’ve got the book of essays.

In Against Exercise he calls out that what used to be private is now on display, gym rats obsessing about their numbers and enslaved by the routine. Another observation is that jogging is “a direct invasion of public space…. One thing that can be said for a gym is that an implied contract links everyone who works out in its mirrored and pungent hangar. All consent to undertake separate exertions and hide any mutual regard, as in a well-ordered masturbatorium. The gym is in this sense more polite than the narrow riverside, street, or nature path, wherever runners take over shared places for themselves. With his speed and narcissistic intensity the runner corrupts the space of walking, thinking, talking, and everyday contact. He jostles the idler out of his reverie. He races between pedestrians in conversation. The runner can oppose sociability and solitude by publicly sweating on them.

A later essay, The Concept of Experience, takes aim at readers and writers: “Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books… Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures.”

Girls Gone Old

Fiona Helmsley’s collection of essays is sometimes satisfying. Best are the recollections of her first experience of writing on the internet for Livejournal in 2002, early pioneer blogging, creating a new identity from her mom’s home in Connecticut as she detoxed from drugs. Also the essay on the power of saying no, w/r/t Elliot Rodger and his idiotic manifesto and massacre because women wouldn’t sleep with him. Overall, it wasn’t terribly inspiring. I think I’d like it better couched as short stories, reality masquerading behind a thin film of fiction.