Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus

Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus

Brilliant book by the smart, funny, honest and intensely brave Laura Kipnis. It changed my perspective on automatically assuming that sexual assault reports were to be believed by exposing the grotesque practice of kangaroo courts of Title IX investigations on campus. Kipnis lands a goldmine of evidence from Peter Ludlow who was railroaded out of his star tenure position in philosophy by two somewhat disturbing accusations from female students that disintegrate under serious study. Kipnis encourages us to view women not just as the passive objects that we’ve become, needing to be protected by overzealous university administrators with consent rules. She even touches on that taboo subject of excessive drinking on campus and its role in attacks. Wisely, she counsels women to take self-defense classes and learn how to vehemently say NO!, unraveling the socialization of being female that has taught us to be pleasing and placid.

Kipnis gets caught in the maw of this Title IX beast when charges are brought against her by people upset about an essay she wrote, claiming that it created a chilling environment on campus. “I knew next to nothing about Title IX, but we were still living in America (or so I thought) and either the place turned into a police state without my noticing, or using a federal law against gender discrimination to punish a professor for writing an essay was something other people were likely to find outrageous too.”

It’s fierce, intelligent writing that takes an unpopular view, sprinkled with bits of Kipnis’s wit throughout. “During our interview, Ludlow tried to interest me in My Little Pony, too, insisting at one point that I watch a video clip of a bunch of winsome animated ponies cavorting in a candy-colored field, which was the longest three minutes of my life.”

Let’s teach women how to say “Get your fucking hand off my knee” instead of setting up bizarre secret courts which allow them to hogtie men for their actions with very little evidence.

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton

It’s too soon to read this book. Unless, of course, you’re ready to pull the scabs off and start digging into the open wounds again, raising your ire and fully hating Bernie bros, Comey, and the misogynist nation that barely elected Toxic T. No thanks. I wasn’t ready to deal with this, wasn’t ready to have it all condensed into a few hundred pages. Maybe in a few years.

A London Family Between the Wars

A London Family Between the Wars (Oxford Paberbacks) by Mary Vivian Hughes (1979-10-31)

Molly Hughes is the perfect traveling companion, lightening your spirits with jolly tales of life in the countryside on the outskirts of England in the 20s and 30s. It seems all of her books include a tragedy of some sort and this is no different—she becomes a widow and has to forge on by earning her keep to feed and shelter her three sons.

Beautiful language throughout, such as her description of a moonset, a term she coins, “The moon was setting among a glory of silver clouds. I stared in stupid amazement. I had seen many a fine sunset, but never before (or since) a moonset. In fact, I am coining the word, for the O.E.D. doesn’t mention it, although quite chatty about a sunset.”

She moves to the countryside and is beset by invitations to join “society” which she rebuffs by saying “I’m so sorry but I can’t join your circle. I can’t sew, or do anything useful, or play cards, or be sociable in any way; and I’m not a lady.” This gets her out of the obligatory social calls that deaden an afternoon and waste time, but she’s extremely friendly with neighbors and people who pop in to ask for things or just a brief informal chat.

She gives invaluable advice about lectures, suggesting that “unless you shock people you make little impression.” Also interesting thought about the gramophone and how she was reluctant to use it because she might put on a record once too often and thus lessen the joy of listening to it. In this age of play whatever you want, watch whatever you want whenever you want, I wonder if we have some of the same deadening.

Her tone is always funny, and she relates little tales that make you laugh, like the Irish shopkeeper who closed up shop. “What made you close down?” asked an Englishman. “Ah, we were getting too many orders.” was the reply.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less

After watching the lovely movie inspired by this book (Julianne Moore, directed by Jane Anderson, 2005) I broke my usual rule and read the book to see if there were more crumbs of the story to hoover up. Indeed there were, more bits of Evelyn Ryan’s poems and snippets from her contesting, along with the discovery after her death that she had married Kelly at 6 in the morning on a Thanksgiving in the 1930s, meaning that she had already been pregnant with Lea Anne at the time, necessitating the wedding and throwing her plans for college and writing a newspaper column to the winds.

The book treats the father much more lightly than the cartoonish character Woody Harrelson plays, and Evelyn begins to control her winnings earlier in the story than simply handing them over to the man who will drink them away. Also included is a painfully honest assessment of the family’s problems when Evelyn asks the college to reconsider their not extending scholarships to her children since she’s working part time and Kelly is retired, flat out stating that he is an alcoholic who drank up most of their money and if it hadn’t been for her contesting, the family never would have made it.

Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life

Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life (Cambridge Cultural Social Studies)

Extremely interesting sociological study of a handful of suburban groups in the late 1980s to understand why people avoid speaking about political issues. Eliasoph did her fieldwork over two and a half years, going to country and western dance halls, parent volunteer groups, anti-nuke activist meetings, and anti-drug volunteering. She shows the great lengths that each group goes to to avoid talking about the wider world and to avoid showing that they care about politics.

There’s a “spiral of silence” where people don’t express what could be an unpopular viewpoint to strangers, “sucking unpopular viewpoints out of circulation by making them embarrassing to hold publicly.” She points to other studies that show avoidance of disagreement is not universal. Israelis “use political talk the way Americans use talk about sports: to create common ground, with political disagreements only adding to the entertainment value.” This leads to political evaporation, and average Americans not knowing nearly enough about what’s going on in the world.

In group after group, she found conditions where as soon as discussion might spring up that would be enlightening, it was squashed. “One of the most important things that freely organized citizens’ groups can do that social service bureaucrats cannot do…is engage in imaginative, improvisational, creative political conversation.” But, it’s discouraged by the very fabric of engagement set up in these groups.

“Silencing public-spirited political conversation was, paradoxically, volunteers’ way of looking out for the common good… In their effort to be open and inclusive, to appeal to regular, unpretentious fellow citizens without discouraging them, they silenced public-spirited deliberation, working hard to keep public-spirited conversation backstage – though open political conversation was just what someone like Charles thought the group need to hold, in order to involve new members and address community problems.”

Discovered by way of the author’s great article about the rural whites.

One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding

One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding

I read this book not from any interest in the god-awful practice of having the government get involved in your relationship, but rather out of curiosity about Mead’s reporting and writing methods which I enjoyed in her Middlemarch book. We are of like minds on this subject—the practice of elaborate, expensive, fairy-tale weddings is ludicrous—but Mead was curious about the engine that was driving this nonsense. She dives deep into wedding planning and the billion dollar industry that supports this myth, transforming weddings into “machines for making money” and tapping into the “deepest hopes and fears of consumers to accomplish their economic goals.”

Her tongue in cheek writing style rescues some of the dreariest tales, such as when a group of women gathered for a weekend-long seminar to give them “their MBA in getting married,” Mead drolly notes that the book brides would turn to most in their education would be the checkbook.

Some eye-popping stats come up, such as the average cost of a wedding increasing 100% since 1990 with people paying ~$30k for the occasion now.

Mead wonders what it means that today’s modern woman “who has, by law, as much right as her male peers to education, to employment opportunity, to financial self-sufficiency, to political independence, and to the expression of sexual freedom should want, on her wedding day, to affect the styles and manners of prefeminist femininity?”

There’s also the pathetic couple who were so entranced by the video screen showing images of their wedding that the photographer ended up with lots of photos of people sitting around watching TV instead of having a lively event.

In the end, Mead chalks it up to the overwhelming consumerism that has overtaken American culture. This is what causes the pressures to have the perfect day. I’d venture to guess that since the book came out in 2009 there’s an entire chapter to be added about the pressures of having the event play well on social media.

A London Girl of the 1880s

A London Girl of the 1880s (Oxford Paperbacks)

Ever since sampling Hughes’ A London Child of the 1870s, I was eager to read the continuation of her tale of growing up in a jolly but poor home in London. This middle book was my favorite of the trilogy, grand adventures with her mother and detailed stories of her education. She studies at a new school for teachers at Cambridge, and names her room the Growlery after the room in Bleak House of the same name, a place where anyone could come and growl and then laugh it off.

It’s a book filled with small hilarious tales, such as the tailor who was asked to read from the Bible when he passed through town and, angry that he hadn’t been offered tea, created some impromptu verses “Cursed be the housewife that bringeth not forth tea to the tailor.”

She meets her future husband, friend of her brother Charles who unexpectedly dies (as does another of her brothers later). They traipse around Wales and Cornwall and London and have a merry old time with no money. Fun reading and a delightful peek into living conditions of over 100 years ago!

A London Home in the 1890s

A London Home in the 1890s (Oxford Paperbacks ; 402)

Molly Hughes continues the tale, picking up where she left off in the last book with her mother’s death. She’s cheered by visits to her brothers and her aunt, and returns to her work running a teachers’ college in earnest. This volume sees her venturing to America on a steamship, participating in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to pick up tidbits on education at the lectures but learning far more through casual conversations with teachers in the hallways and tearooms. She ventures to Canada, Washington DC, and Boston before sailing home from New York.

This is the volume where she finally marries Arthur after many years of engagement, his prospects finally becoming more settled as he works the Bar. They have a daughter, Bronwen, who dies young, followed by three strapping sons.

As usual, the writing it light, instructive, and cheerful. My only nitpicks are with her overeagerness to use the word “obey” in her wedding vows despite the fuss that had been made over it recently in the papers. She was also all to ready to hand money matters over to her husband and give up working.

My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch

This was a serendipitous find on the shelves of the library, nestled quite close to the book of Zadie Smith essays that I was hunting. I normally don’t stray from my proscribed list, but I had extra time on my hands on Tuesday and knew I needed to stock up on books for the week. I’m very glad that my roving eye picked this up, as it counterbalanced all the terribleness in Smith’s essays by demonstrating exactly how to do literary criticism/history/personal story.

Mead does an excellent job weaving in quotes from Eliot’s letters, journals, interviews with her acquaintances, along with Mead’s own thoughtful analysis of Middlemarch. It has me anxious to re-read Eliot’s book, which has to be at least one of Mead’s intended reactions. It’s biography, criticism, history, and appreciation all rolled into one, with the perfect dose of Mead’s own tale interwoven. This is exactly how the book should have been done.

She travels to Coventry, Weymouth, London, and haunts Mary Ann Evans’ life, tracking down her manuscript and proofs, taking us on her journey into the NYPL rare books room where she sniffs discretely at Eliot’s notebook, detecting the smell of smoke from a fireplace, perhaps from the Priory (the house Eliot bought in 1863 in St. John’s Wood). She gives an unflinching report of the drastic changes wrought on the landscape since Eliot’s time. And she gives glimpses of her own life, her young son playing in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, so vastly removed from the Victorian age.

Excellent work, highly recommended for book nerds and lit geeks. For the research wonks, it’s a great example of a very elegant way of incorporating notes at the end, grouped by chapter without tedious numbering. As usual, I’m interested in pursuing more of Mead’s work. Also, on to another read of Middlemarch!

Future reading: Haight’s biography of Eliot and Ashton’s biography

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

I raced off to the library to pick up more Zadie Smith after finishing White Teeth and ended up with this collection of “accidental” essays, rejecting two of her other novels after brief perusal. It seems like White Teeth was a bit of a flash in the pan, or a serious collaboration with a skilled editor, because the other books quickly disintegrated in my hand, beginning with a batch of emails. No one wants to read a book that begins with emails. No one.

Anyway, her essays offer a bit of consolation, and her voice occasionally rings out strong and clear. But she almost lost me in the first section on Reading, continually clanging the bell of star writers and invoking them over and over and over: DFW, Kafka, Nabokov. She devotes the entire last essay to Wallace, mimicking his “w/r/t” and overabundance of footnotes. It’s tedious.

I picked up a few book recs from her, Zora Neale Hurston’s biography by Valerie Boyd and the Kafka bio by Begley. The best essays were those on Liberia and Katherine Hepburn. Needing to fill out the book, she padded it with 30+ pages of old cinema reviews for such duds like Date Movie and Proof.

For the most part, the title is apt. I’ve changed my mind about Zadie’s writing.

White Teeth

White Teeth: A Novel

Oh Zadie Smith, where have you been all my reading life? Great fictional tale of a mixed-race (Jamaican/English) family growing up in London intertwined with an immigrant family (Bengali) due to the fathers having stumbled across each other during WWII. Masterful weaving in of teeth, whether the light bits that hint of Iris becoming a dentist or the terrible things that come out of the old man racist’s mouth when the children go to deliver apples to him as a school charity project.

Erik Satie (Biography)

Erik Satie (Critical Lives)

I’d largely forgotten about Satie, having played some of his compositions in a previous life as an amateur pianist, but was reminded of him when reading Boredom. This is where I discovered his Vexations, a half page of music intended to be played 840 times very slowly and softly, written in 1893 but first performed completely in 1963 by John Cage et al, performance time ranging upwards of 24 hours. He wrote the piece as a response to the end of an intense and brief affair with artist Susanne Valadon. It features “built-in annoyances for the performer in persistent enharmonic spellings, atonal harmonies and asymmetrical phrase structures, all of which undercuts efforts to retain the music in memory.”

You probably know Satie by his Gymnopédie No.1, frequently used in films, which Debussy helped to popularize with his own orchestration. Born in 1866, he was a middle aged bohemian during the roaring 20s in Paris, palling around with Picasso, Cocteau, etc. He was also penniless, and never let anyone into his final apartment, a single room on the outskirts of Paris. After he died, friends were shocked by the poverty. A memorable quote from age 50: “When I was young, people used to say to me ‘Wait until you’re fifty, you’ll see. I am fifty. I haven’t seen anything.”

The author describes Satie’s aesthetic as “stemming from boredom which was ‘mysterious and profound.'” (Satie’s actual quote: “The public worships Ennui. For them, Ennui is mysterious & profound.”) Yet another bridge into the modern, he frequently placed variations of popular songs in his work to connect the past to the future. He’s also the originator of the idea of Musak—music not to be listened to, or Furniture Music.

Satie also played with the relationship of music, text, and art. In a preface to Sports et divertissements, he includes a brief composition, the Unappetizing Chorale, composed ‘in the morning, before breakfast’ and states:

For the shriveled up and stupid I have written a serious and proper chorale.
I have put into it all I know of boredom.
I dedicate this chorale to all those who do not like me.
I withdraw.

My Katherine Mansfield Project

My Katherine Mansfield Project

I wanted desperately to like this book. After all, I’d ordered it up through ILL and it came wafting across the country to me, special delivery. The past few months I’ve immersed myself in Katherine Mansfield, so felt that I was particularly open to all things KM-related. That is sadly not the case.

The book came out of the author winning a sabbatical of sorts to go live in Wellington, New Zealand, and simply read and think and write about KM. Parts are good, wherein she muses about idea that writers are essentially homeless, rootless, and that they create homes out of words. KM was torn between her deep desire to get the hell out of New Zealand and her lyrical lush descriptions of that place in her stories. Perhaps we must fully turn our back on that which we want to write about.

Feminist Criticism and the Mary Tyler Moore Show

I recently started watching all the episodes from the Mary Tyler Moore show which ran from 1970-77 and have now made it to the final season. I was curious about the show after reading Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, an excellent exploration of behind the scenes of this supposed “feminist” show. Early seasons were great, but the show tanks after Rhoda leaves. Mary is then left to interact with the incredibly dull characters that remain. But as I continued to watch, it became more and more of a chore. Why was I starting to turn against the show? Bonnie Dow’s criticism helps to pinpoint some of the reasons.

Essentially, Mary’s a token character. The network was able to pay lip-service to the growing (and complex) Women’s Liberation Movement but not really make any actual changes to the way women are portrayed in the media. Although she’s single and making it on her own, all the women around her are bee-lining for husbands—poor Rhoda gets married off quickly in her own spinoff, Phyllis extols the blessedness of married life, Ted and Georgette get hitched (and then pregnant… the oohs and ahhs of the studio audience for the big reveal of a tiny baby were disgusting).

Dow brings up a dynamic I’d overlooked, that of Mary as caregiver. She kowtows to Mr. Grant (Lou), and is always bending over backwards to help people. Random interruptions are constantly happening when she’s at home. Essentially, the show took the idea of a wife/mother figure and cloaked it in her 30-something single-ladyness.

“The demands made for increased minority and female representation result in higher visibility for these groups on television, although the situations and characters through which they are depicted may implicitly work to ‘contain’ the more radical aspects of the changes such representation implies. Some limited changes in content result, but the general hegemonic values remain intact…. those who create the programming actually have made only cosmetic changes in representation of the disputed group.”

This is exemplified starkly in the role of Gordy the weatherman on the show. He’s a black man and he is given the chance to be the anchorman when Ted’s out. But quickly he fades away and is largely absent for the last 5 seasons. There was also a woman with an Afro who worked as chief of staff for an incompetent local politician, but she’s in and out appearing in only one episode.

Once Rhoda leaves, the focus of the show swings back to be entirely male-focused. And the studio audience laps up Ted Baxter’s idiocy, not realizing they have been switched over to a feed of pablum that was seen in every other sitcom of the season. It’s the only show where I pay careful attention to who wrote the episode, because when it’s written by one of the talented women, I know it will have some good bits. Otherwise, just mind-numbing stuff that doesn’t stand the test of time.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

This was a book I had to take in carefully measured sips, monitoring my blood pressure. After I finished, I exhaled a record-breaking sigh and paced the room, yanking my hair. It’s not a book for the faint of heart. Reading it is only pleasurable if you’re a masochist or a billionaire. It’s excellent, well-researched, incredibly engaging despite the sickening awareness that overcomes you as you learn how long this has been going on and how many billions of dollars has been spent to push American thought to the extreme rightward.

All of this stems from a tiny group of extremely rich men who mostly inherited their wealth (see: refutation of argument about how the poor are “handed things”), interested mainly on increasing their wealth and protecting it from taxation. They’ve been subtly influencing opinions, research, politics for decades—at least since David Koch’s failed vice-presidential bid in 1980 as a Libertarian. At that point they realized they just wanted to write the script that’s spoken, not try to be the actor.

Early days were the Freedom School, founded in 1957 by Robert LeFevre which highly influenced Charles Koch. LeFevre had been indicted earlier for his role in a right-wing movement that worked audiences into a frenzy as they chanted “Annihilate them!” in response to Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt’s names. Sound familiar? Hilariously, at the Freedom School Charles fell in love with the work of Friedrich Hayek, but only the condensed version offered by the Reader’s Digest which left out his support for minimum standard of living for the poor, environmental regulations, and anti-monopoly stance.

The book offers a glimpse into the litigious nature that led two of the Koch (Bill and Frederick) brothers into suing the other two (Charles and David) after being swindled out of millions of their inheritance. Despite being the wealthiest resident of his Park Avenue building, David Koch is known to the staff as a cheapskate, never tipping the doormen except for a ridiculous $50 check (!) at Christmas. (Worth watching: the Alex Gibney documentary, Park Avenue.)

It goes beyond the Kochs. Other asshole millionaires are also at the helm of this tragedy. They all take advantage of the tax loopholes of charitable giving by funneling cash into their own private foundations. The Olin Foundation left explicit instructions for the $370M endowment to be completely spent by 2005 out of “fear that it would fall into the hands of liberals, as he believed the Ford Foundation had tragically done.”

They infiltrated higher education and set up their own think tanks, subsidizing the next generation’s libertarians. George Mason is a hotbed of Koch cash, with an institute whose “applicants’ essays had to be run through computers in order to count the number of times they mentioned the free-market icons Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Students were tested at the beginning and the end of each week for ideological improvement.”

And then there’s climate change and the awful impact to the Koch’s bottom line that all the regulations were causing. Between 2003-2010 “over half a billion dollars was spent on… a massive ‘campaign to manipulate and mislead the public about the threat posed by climate change.'” This explains why every single Republican is a climate denier, in the Koch’s pocket owing money for their election. Koch Industries was the #1 producer of toxic waste in 2012 according to the EPA, generating 950M pounds of hazardous materials.

Betsy DeVos candidly admitted that they wanted something for their money in 1997, saying “My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party. I’ve decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we’re buying influence. I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”

How about those Astroturf movements (not grassroots, but fake)? Jim Ellis was brought in to agitate against Obamacare, having created fake movements in the past, most notably the “smokers’ rights” protests in the 1990s.

And of course, Citizens United‘s impact is a factor, opening the floodgates for dark money. Licking their wounds post-2008 defeat, they set in motion the groundwork for the 2010 takeover, first by taking over state legislatures for redistricting, then pushing their candidates into Congress. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling led to huge amounts being funneled into the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections.

The author, Mayer, was the target of an attmpted smear campaign after an extensive expose about the Koch brothers came out in the New Yorker which served as a springboard for this book. Luckily she was able to evade the false accusations of perjury and her personal life left nothing to smear her with.

I’m thinking about starting to offer book “pairings” much like wine; this one pairs well with breaks to read biographies about early pioneers in the conservation movement, or with a nice frothy fiction.