We Are Not Ourselves

A gorgeous torrent of words for 600+ pages carefully winding you through the life of Eileen Leary, husband Ed, and son Connell (named after Evan Connell from her friend Ruth’s copy of Mrs. Bridge left at the hospital, if that tips you off about the author’s influences). Eileen is a tough kid, caring for her parents at too early an age (her mom joining AA and then wondering on her deathbed if it had been worth it not to drink all those years), sucking it up and becoming a nurse’s administrator instead of a lawyer, a politician (this theme recurring through the work). She meets Ed on a setup for New Year’s Eve and she falls for the brainy lab assistant, marrying him and working hard to put him through graduate school and get him on a tenure track. She’s always dreaming of a better life, one where she doesn’t have to work so much, and yet she’s the constant jackhammer of progress in their lives. Ed starts to act strangely, silencing the world with headphones as he works through his stack of unlistened-to records, falling apart in the classroom when Connell visits (repeating himself), his condition worsens and weirdens until we find he’s got full blown Alzheimer’s in his early 50s. He managed to keep it together and hide it as long as he could, and then eventually he just collapses into the disease. Meanwhile, Eileen has uprooted them from their Jackson Heights apartment to a fixer-upper house in Westchester, not realizing his condition (keeping things familiar would have helped his memory). The son goes through various stages of athleticism, hoodlum-ism, and studiousness, eventually going to college as far away as possible so as not to have to deal with the reality of his father’s condition. Eileen is a tower of strength, caring for Ed at home as long as she could, eventually securing the services of Sergei to help care for Ed while she’s at work (romance eventually ensues). There’s a particularly heartbreaking Christmas scene after Ed’s in the nursing home, Connell thinks he’ll surprise his mom by bringing Ed to the party she’s throwing, instead he’s intercepted at the door by friend Ruth who is aghast that he’s about to do this to his mother. It’s a failure, Ed drooling in his wheelchair and destroying the party Eileen had so desperately needed. He eventually dies, Connell flying home to see him one last time but arriving too late and flirting with his airline seatmate. Most disturbing to me were the thoughts it unleashes about one’s own mortality– what happens if I reach that state? It’s a good book in that it engenders these thoughts, makes you empathize with the characters, and is well written. The only thing that sticks in my craw is the role Eileen plays in it, dutiful wife who is aware she is constantly throwing away her own dreams in order to create a life with Ed. I think if written by a woman, Eileen’s character might have more bite, a little more perspective and pain in tossing aside those dreams, instead of taking for granted that they are disposable.
Reco’d by Maggie

Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women

This should really be classified in Political & Social Sciences, subcategory Horror. A frank and bleak investigative report exposing the culture war against women; the mass media pumping the same tired headlines of grim marriage statistics after a certain age, crooning over the unhappiness (completely untrue) of working women, pushing images of marriage as the Goal (I just mistyped as gaol, also fitting), the beauty myth, the disappearance of strong and smart women from Hollywood, TV, even broadcast journalism. Faludi uncovers the most rabid anti-women brigade in the white lower-class men whose lot in life was worse off than their fathers, looking for scapegoats for their predicament. The backlash against the Second Wave feminists in the 1980s was particularly virulent in attacking reproductive rights, so many heartbreaking descriptions of lives gone wrong after forcing women to have the babies they do not want. “All of women’s aspirations – whether for education, work, or any form of self-determination – ultimately rest on their ability to decide whether and when to bear children.” I am in desperate need of a palate-cleanser book to cheer me up.

Meditations: with selected correspondence

Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of the Roman republic between 161-180 CE. His book of meditations are assumed to have been written whilst on an extended campaign against rebels on the German border; the notebooks seem to be advice to himself, repeating the same Stoic maxims over and over, almost tediously: life is short, give up judgement and your troubles go away, be true to your spirit, fate has determined your lot in life so be content with it, strive to be virtuous and kind to others. Only the first book of meditations has a coherent theme that unites each entry – he appreciates the gifts he’s received from various people in his life: mostly named men (Verus, Diognetus, Apollonius, Catulus, etc.) but two women (mother, wife both unnamed, tiresomely his wife is “so obedient, affectionate, straightforward”). The rest of the books are made up of fragmented thoughts that circle exhaustingly over the same Stoic ideas, little written gut punches to himself. Some of my favorites, below.

If you accomplish the task set before you, following right reason and with dedication, steadfastness, and good humor, and you never allow secondary issues to distract you but keep the deity within you pure and upright, as if you might have to surrender it at any moment; if you hold to this, awaiting nothing and fleeting from nothing, but remaining satisfied if your present action is in accordance with nature, and if all that you say and utter accords with the truthfulness of an earlier and purer age, you will live a happy life; and no one can stand in your way. (3.12)

Do away with judgement, and the notion ‘I have been harmed’ is done away with; do away with that notion, and the harm itself is gone. (4.7)

Quoting Democritus at the beginning of this:

‘Do little,’ he says, ‘if you want contentment of mind.’ Would it not be better to do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a creature that is sociable by nature prescribes, and as that nature prescribes it? For this will bring not only the contentment of mind that comes from acting aright, but also that which comes from doing little; for considering that the majority of our words and actions are anything but necessary, if a person dispenses with them he will have greater leisure and a less troubled mind. You should also remember to ask yourself on every occasion, ‘Is this something that is really necessary?’ And we should dispense not only with actions that are unnecessary, but also with unnecessary ideas; for in that way the needless actions that follow in their train will no longer ensue. (4.24)

You have seen all that? Now consider this. Do not disturb yourself; strive to be simple. Someone is doing you wrong? The wrong is to himself. Something has happened to you? That is good and well, for all that happens to you from the whole was ordained for you from the beginning and spun to be your fate. In short, life is brief, and you should profit from the present with prudence and justice. Be sober and yet relaxed. (4.26)

You are a little soul carrying a corpse around, as Epictetus used to say. (4.41)

… Never cease to observe how evanescent are all things human, and how worthless: today a drop of mucus, and tomorrow a mummy or a pile of ash. So make your way through this brief moment of time as one who is obedient to nature, and accept your end with a cheerful heart, just as an olive might ripen and fall, blessing the earth that bore it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth. (4.48)

Is one afraid of change? Why, what can come about without change? And what is nearer and dearer to universal nature? Can you yourself take a hot bath unless the firewood suffers change? Can you be nourished unless your food suffers change? Can anything else of value be accomplished without change? And do you not see, then, that change in yourself is of a similar nature, and similarly necessary to universal nature? (7.18)

A glowering expression on one’s face is utterly contrary to nature, and if it often reappears, the grace begins to die from one’s face, until, in the end, it is wholly extinguished, and can never be rekindled. (7.24)

Watch the stars in their courses as though you were accompanying them on their way, and reflect perpetually on how the elements are constantly changing from one to another; for the thought of these things purifies us from the defilement of our earthly existence. (7.47)

As if you had died and your life had extended only to this present moment, use the surplus that is left to you to live from this time onward according to nature. (7.56)

Human beings have come into the world for the sake of one another; either instruct them, then, or put up with them. (8.59)

Banquet (Symposium)

The scene is a banquet at the house of Callias who promises to Socrates and his pals that he will show himself worthy of hanging out with by engaging in dialog after the feast. It is a mixture of mingled raillery and serious discussion.
Socrates, after watching the deft and difficult maneuvers of the dancing girl keeping 12 hoops whirling in the air, “This girl’s feat, gentlemen, is only one of the many proofs that woman’s nature is really not a whit inferior to man’s, except in its lack of judgement and physical strength.”
The men then jab at Socrates, saying if that’s the case why not educate his wife, Xanthippe, “the hardest to get along with of all women there are… or all that ever were or ever will be.” Socrates takes this in stride, replying “Because I observe that men who wish to become expert horsemen do not get the most docile horses but rather those that are high-mettled, believing that if they can manage this kind, they will easily handle any other. My course is similar. Mankind at large is what I wish to deal and associate with; and so I have got her, well assured that if I can endure her, I shall have no difficulty in my relations with all the rest of human kind.”
Phillip the buffoon mimics the dancing and flails about, making everyone laugh and get thirsty. Socrates’s wisdom on imbibing:

“Well, gentlemen, so far as drinking is concerned, you have my hearty approval; for wine does of a truth ‘moisten the soul’ and lull our griefs to sleep just as the mandragora does with men, at the same time awakening kindly feelings as oil quickens a flame. However, I suspect that men’s bodies fare the same as those of plants that grow in the ground. When God gives the plants water in floods to drink, they cannot stand up straight or let the breezes blow through them; but when they drink only as much as they enjoy, they grow up very straight and tall and come to full and abundant fruitage. So it is with us. If we pour ourselves immense draughts, it will be no long time before our bodies and our minds reel, and we shall not be able even to draw breath, much less to speak sensibly; but if the servants frequently ‘besprinkle’ us with small cups, we shall not be driven on by the wine to a state of intoxication, but instead shall be brought by its gentle persuasion to a more sportive mood.”

The idea goes around that everyone must talk about what they are proud of in themselves. Callias is first – he has the power to make men better. Niceratus – has memorized all of Homer and can recite the Iliad and Odyssey by heart. Critobulus – takes greatest pride in beauty. Antisthenes – greatest pride in his wealth (yet he does not have a penny or any land). Charmides – “my pride, on the contrary is in my poverty.” (Socrates replies, “A charming thing! It seldom causes envy or is a bone of contention; and it is kept safe without the necessity of a guard, and grows sturdier by neglect!”). Socrates – proud of the trade of procurer (everyone laughs; “procurer” = pimp?) Lycon – pride in his son Autolycus, Autolycus – although he has won a prize at the Panatheniac games is not most proud of that, but of his father. Hermogenes – the goodness and power of his friends.
Then everyone goes around and defends their answers. Niceratus calls up lines from The Iliad, describing the drink Hecamede mixes for the men in Nestor’s cup: “she set a basket, braided in bronze with onions in it, a relish for the drink” (<-- this from the Fagles translation of the Iliad). Niceratus' recollection is "For Homer says somewhere: 'An onion, too, a relish for the drink.' Now if some one will bring an onion, you will receive this benefit without delay; for you will get more pleasure out of your drinking." Critobulus shows through his devotion to Cleinias' beauty how powerful it can be, how he'd do anything for Cleinias. "Madness is in those people who do not elect the handsome men as generals; I certainly would go through fire for Cleinias." He pokes fun at Socrates' looks, who rolls with the punches ("You sound like you think yourself handsomer than me.") He then admits to having a clear image of Cleinias in his heart that would enable him to paint a realistic picture if he was a painter. Socrates then guffaws, "Why do you annoy me then and keep taking me about to places where you can see him in person if you possess so faithful an image of him?" Charmides explains why poverty makes him proud:

So much, at least, every one admits, that assurance is preferable to fear, freedom to slavery, being the recipient of attention to being the giver of it, the confidence of one’s country to its distrust. Now, as for my situation in our commonwealth, when I was rich, I was, to begin with, in dread of some one’s digging through the wall of my house and not only getting my money but also doing me a mischief personally; in the next place, I knuckled down to the blackmailers, knowing well enough that my abilities lay more in the direction of suffering injury than in inflicting it on them . Then, too, I was for ever being ordered by the government to undergo some expenditure or other, and I never had the opportunity for foreign travel. Now, however, since I am stripped of my property over the border and get no income from the property in Attica, and my household effects have been sold, I stretch out and enjoy a sound sleep, I have gained the confidence of the state, I am no longer subjected to threats but do the threatening now myself; and I have the free man’s privilege of going abroad or staying here at home as I please. People now actually rise from their seats in deference to me, and rich men obsequiously give me the right of way on the street. Now I am like a despot; then I was clearly a slave. Then I paid revenue to the body politic; now I live on the tribute that the state pays to me.

After everyone defends their arguments, Socrates expounds lengthily about the nature of love – body vs. spirit love – and the nobility/staying power of each. As the party breaks up, Lycon tells Socrates that he seems to have a truly noble character; interestingly, Lycon will be one of Socrates’ prosecutors at his trial for corruption of youth/atheism/non-Athenian gods.
Xenophon also wrote a quick piece on Socrates’ defense to the jury which doesn’t go into the same depth about the trial as Plato’s, but emphasizes Socrates’ decision to die in order to avoid the plagues of old age.

The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire

A varied collection of essays and notes delving primarily into globalization and militarization with a feminist lens. Her intro section definitely gets you thinking, prompting us to become “curious about curiosity and its absence,” using the example of “cheap labor” that we unflinchingly toss about without questioning who makes the labor cheap and how. She demonstrates the reliance of authoritarian regimes (South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam) on women to fulfill low-wage jobs that attract Western investment, using Nike and Reebok as the poster-children of globalization, moving their factories as soon as the women workers unionize or strike for better working conditions and protection from assault. I found it refreshing to hear that she was somewhat late to a feminist awakening, blithely toiling away in studying and teaching international political science without thinking about the gendered view. Spontaneously rejecting (or seeing through) the leaden walls of our acculturation seems to me to be about as hard to accomplish as waking up one morning and being a fluent speaker in a foreign tongue.

Being curious takes energy. It may thus be a distorted form of “energy conservation” that makes certain ideas so alluring. Take for instance, the loaded adjective “natural.” If one takes for granted that something is “natural” – generals being male, garment workers being female – it saves mental energy. What is deemed natural hasn’t been self-consciously created. No decisions have been made. The result: we can imagine that there is nothing we need to investigate. We can just feel sympathy with women working in sweatshops without bothering to figure out how they got there or what they think about being women sewing there.

Just Kids

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Great portrayal of life in the Chelsea Hotel, the back room at Max’s after Warhol got shot, life as a penniless kid in NYC in the late 60s and early 70s. Smith gives a lot of attention to Robert Mapplethorpe, her partner in crime during these years. She claims to have rebranded him “Robert” after he introduced himself as Bob. They begin as lovers and end as friends, she supporting him as the breadwinner so he can focus on his art, nursing him back to health when he’s near death with trench mouth (?!), high fever and gonorrhea. Mapplethorpe encouraged Smith to let people her her voice, just as she encouraged him to take his own photos instead of using others’ work for his collages. She says that she learned to focus and concentrate on her work during marathon drawing sessions the two of them would do. After one snide comment about her hair, Smith goes home and snips away, creating her signature style and immediately getting different attention from the back room crowd at Max’s. Mapplethorpe eventually settles in with the super-rich Sam Wagstaff who funds his art, but he admits, “Patti, you got famous before me.”

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Applicable beyond its original focus of the women’s movement in 1970, it helps clarify some of the pitfalls the Occupy movement encountered. There is no such thing as a “structureless” group, Freeman argues. If there’s no visible structure, then its a hidden one, usually controlled by an elite group of friends. Women’s groups were moving out of the consciousness-raising phase and into political action, needing to accomplish tasks and stymied at every step by the accusations of power-grabbing. Structured groups allow everyone to participate equally, without having to be a part of the elite.

Continue reading “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Orwell is a breath of fresh air, his tremendous writing pokes you in the gut with jabs of anti-capitalist hypocrisy. In this tale, we have Gordon Comstock, last scion of a once-briefly-noble family, toiling away in a bookshop and writing poetry at night in his wretched rented room where he sneaks cups of tea and tiptoes down the stairs to dispose of the used tea leaves. He’s (self-proclaimed) moth-eaten, and has declared a War on Money, living on £2 a week and later on about half of that after he’s fired from his job after one reckless drunken evening where, celebrating the receipt of a £10 check from a magazine printing his poem, he gets drunk and (among other things) socks a policeman.

The story follows him hungrily stalking the streets, spying aspidistras on window sills everywhere, bemoaning the dead existence of modern life, slaves to capitalism, eager to have drinks with his rich friend Ravelston but only if he can moan about poverty and buy the first drink while Ravelston fronts the remainder. Throughout the story, he’s haunted by the looming specter of penury, aspidistras, and the odd advertisement for Bovex with Roland Butta. Orwell shows us a penniless life amidst advertisements and more prosperous citizens; Comstock quit his decent job as an advertising copywriter in order to focus on poetry, the beginning of his war on money. Money jangles in his pocket and his brain– preventing him from having a decent outing in the country after he and his girl, Rosemary, end up at an expensive hotel for lunch and haughtily order a meal that costs everything he has (this after borrowing money from his sister to cover the train fare to the country).

He is ashamed to take money from anyone but family, and nearly dies of embarrassment in having to have Rosemary cover their train ride back (and tea, always that necessary British afternoon tea). One interesting note about the trip to the countryside – the reactions of the city-folk (Gordon/Rosemary) to basic country delights (smooth tree bark, rabbits, a feather from a jay, fungi on trees) struck me as similar to country-folk reactions to the city; we bemoan tourists’ “absurd enthusiasms” over regular city things we take for granted. After the drunken escapade, he lets himself go, wanting to sink further into the mud, truly enjoying the wretched and dirty attic garret he ends up in, giving up literature for the crappy books he loans at the lending library. He’s jarred from this rut by news of Rosemary’s pregnancy (that old shopworn plot point), and after mental anguish, serves himself up for his old job, marries Rosemary, gets respectable. “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is a rallying cry to chin up and pretend the world is normal as is spirals toward another devastating war, as it descends blindly into the clutches of capitalism.

He went back to the front room. The Nancy had put his book back in the wrong shelf and vanished. A lean, straight-nosed, brisk woman, with sensible clothes and gold-rimmed pince-nez – schoolmarm possibly, feminist certainly – came in and demanded Mrs Wharton-Beverly’s history of the suffrage movement. With secret joy Gordon told her that they hadn’t got it. She stabbed his male incompetence with gimlet eyes and went out again.

Sister of The Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha

Not an autobiography but more of an amalgamation of three women’s lives told through the noted Hobo-ologist, Dr. Ben Reitman. Once you accept the level of truth to the tale, it’s a believable account of many years of research and listening and riding the rails. Boxcar Bertha follows in her mother’s hobo footsteps, falling in with socialists and anarchists, prostitutes and thieves. She watches her lover Big Otto’s death by hanging (murder during a stick-up job). She gets pregnant and diseased after servicing 1500 men in a brothel while hating herself for falling for her pimp. She meets a statistician on a train who ends up getting her a respectable job (where the story ends, she gets off the train and greets her 8 year old daughter, finally able to settle down and “let her daughter raise her”). The first years of her daughter’s life are spent in Home Colony, WA, where communal raising of children is the norm, so she can slip off and ride the rails to Chicago, New York, Alabama.

The House of Mirth

Re-read this after a decade of letting it moulder in the memory banks. Truthfully, as I read, it was as if I’d never turned the pages before, everything brand new and fresh. Another great Wharton work, this one a bit more maudlin than Age of Innocence, as Lily Bart dies in the end (intentional overdose of the drug she used to sleep?). The book is a catalog of the wearing away of a charming and beautiful (yet unmarried) lady who must live by her wits since her allowance from her aunt doesn’t cover all the expenses of a modern girl (namely, her gambling debts from bridge and extravagant dress bills). The presence of Lawrence Selden through the book is supposed to work as an anchor, to bring her back to remembering that this life she’s chosen is hollow and meaningless, but she has no other choice, women had only one way to survive – through marriage to a rich man. She works against her best interests, luring rich Percy Gryce only to throw him away so she can sleep in (instead of going to church) and have an afternoon walk with Selden. She begins to borrow money from her friend’s husband, who thinks she owes him affection in return (scandal!). Gradually the invitations to friends’ houses decreases, and shockingly she is expelled from the Dorset yacht in Monte Carlo near midnight with nowhere to go (women not allowed to check into hotels, she must scurry to the protection of her cousin Jack, who reluctantly grants it). Lily is in possession of the means to take down Bertha Dorset (she purchased love letters that Selden had trashed but continues to protect him) but refuses, she is too much a lady to stoop to such secret blackmail. The Dorset expulsion causes her aunt to leave her with a fraction of the sum she had intended to inherit, and her options wane as she bounces from friend’s house to hotel to finally boarding house. She attempts to become a working girl, making hats, and is fired from that job. The night she dies, she receives the $10k from her aunt and promptly writes a check to pay off the debt to her friend’s husband, leaving her with nearly nothing again.
For fun, here’s my silly and short review from 2004.

The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution

I’m continuing to work my way through the major hits of the 1970s Second Wave, and Firestone does not disappoint. Her intellectual energy is a clear blue light cutting through calcified structures of society. Originally put off by the continual undertone of “the revolution is right around the corner”, I was appeased when Firestone puts a more realistic timeline in place of 100 years. Perhaps she’s right, although it appears on many fronts that we’re backsliding and backlashed yet again. She begins by pointing out that the weakness in Marx/Engels was their not digging deep enough into psychosexual roots of class. While she credits Marx for being “onto something” with the observation that the family contains in miniature all the antagonisms that develop within society and state, she pushes further and analyzes class distinctions with biological division of the sexes: women saddled with birthing/raising children, men focused externally on adventure/earning. In a later chapter she eviscerates Freud and psychoanalysts, noting the confusion when asking those in therapy whether or not it actually helps (Firestone cites studies that show that in fact it harms). She puts particular slashes through Theodor Reik, the “prototype of the crackerbarrel layman’s Freud, exemplifying the crassness and insensitivity of psychoanalysts to the real problems of their patients,” by quoting him at length and summing up: “It reads like a Freudian jokebook.”
There’s a great chapter on the history of the women’s movement in America, detailing the hard push for suffrage and why it turned out to be a bugaboo – “Long channeling of feminist energies into the limited goal of suffrage depleted the [movement]… Three generations had elapsed from the time of the inception… the masterplanners all were dead. Women who joined the feminist movement to work for the single issue of the vote never had time to develop a broader consciousness: by then they’d forgotten what the vote was for.” Ok, so they got the vote. Then what happened? Firestone posits that the 1920s were the beginning of the cultivation of style & glamor (a “cultural disease still dissipating women today”). The search for a unique personal style replaced old emphasis on character development through responsibility and learning experience. The 1930s, Depression era, women get serious but can’t complain about things b/c they got the vote; joined the Communist party (“they empathize mightily with the underdog, unable to acknowledge that the strong identification they felt with the exploited working class came directly from their own experience of oppression”). 1940s – war effort and women got substantial jobs for the first time in decades. 1950s – disillusionment once women were let go from their jobs and whisked into diaper-land in the suburbs (Feminine Mystique). 1960s – “chicks” are “culturally immunized by the antifeminist backlash” and afraid to make any moves to reduce their own oppression, so they join the Peace movement (“harmless because politically impotent, it yet provided a vicarious outlet for female anger”). Firestone footnotes a 1968 women’s peace march of 5,000 women in DC that was totally ignored, “women’s claim to being an oppressed group is seldom taken even as seriously as that of any minority group, indeed women are not even on the political map: we are politically invisible.” She claims that women who went South to fight for civil rights were more likely to move toward radical feminism than the peace movement women, “the issue of slavery spurred on the radical feminism of the nineteenth century, so the issue of racism stimulated the new feminism: the analogy between racism and sexism had to be made eventually. Once people confront their own racism, they can’t deny the parallel.”
One of my pet peeves is the continuation of the grouping of “women and children” in everyday life. Firestone attacks it head on, stating that the special tie between the two groups is no more than shared oppression. Her chapter on childhood is enlightening, detailing the recent development of the patriarchal nuclear family with its special stage of childhood. In the Middle Ages, children were miniature adults, indentured servants headed off for an apprenticeship at early age. There were no special toys, games, clothes or classes designed just for children. (Most of her analysis is based on Philippe Aries’ Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life).
Firestone also takes on the subject of art, saying modern art was a “desperate, self-defeating retaliation for the evaporation of its social function, the severance of the social umbilical cord, the dwindling of the old sources of patronage. The modern art tradition… is not an authentic expression of modernity as much as it is a reaction to the realism of the bourgeoisie. Post-impressionism deliberately renounced all reality-affirming conventions to lead eventually to an art-for-art’s sake so pure, a negation of reality so complete as to make it ultimately meaningless, sterile, even absurd.”
On catcalling and demand for smiles:

Because the class oppression of women and children is couched in the phraseology of “cute” it is much harder to fight then open oppression. What child can answer back when some inane aunt falls all over him or some stranger decides to pat his behind and gurgle baby talk? What woman can afford to frown when a passing stranger violates her privacy at will? If she responds to his, “Baby you’re looking good today!” with “No better than when I didn’t know you,” he will grumble, “What’s eating that bitch?” Or worse. Very often the real nature of these seemingly friendly remarks emerges when the child or the woman does not smile as she should: “Dirty old scum bag. I wouldn’t screw you even if you had a smile on your face!” “Nasty little brat. If I were your father I would spank you so hard you wouldn’t know what hit you!” The violence is amazing. Yet these men feel that the woman or the child is to blame for not being “friendly.” Because it makes them uncomfortable to know that the woman or the child or the black or the workman is grumbling, the oppressed groups must also appear to like their oppression – smiling and simpering though they may feel like hell inside. The smile is the child/woman equivalent of the shuffle; it indicates acquiescence of the victim to his own oppression. (In my own case, I had to train myself out of that phony smile, which is like a nervous tic on every teenage girl. And this meant that I smiled rarely, for in truth, when it came down to real smiling, I had less to smile about. My “dream” action for the women’s liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their “pleasing” smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them… Many men can’t understand that their easy intimacies come as no privilege…. Imagine this man’s own consternation were some stranger to approach him on the street in a similar manner – patting, gurgling, muttering baby talk – without respect for his profession or his “manhood.”

Other notes:
* Learned about the Nelson Pill Hearings which looked into concerns about side-effects of the pill, but which only had men testifying about the safety of the pill (obviously none of the men had taken the pill)
* She cites Orwell’s 1984 and Technocracy to talk about “cybernation” that will eventually take jobs away from people; the alternative could be a return to “Single professions” – a single life organized around a chosen profession (they’re on the decline – celibate religious life, court roles of jester/musician/page/knight, cowboys, sailors, etc. The roles were never open to women; most single female roles (spinster, aunt, nun, courtesan) still determined by their sexual nature.
* “Only in Manhattan is single living even tolerable, and that can be debated.”
* Far-fetched idea that technology will eliminate the need for work, granted annual income from the state.
* Prescient about the internet – “Amount of rote knowledge necessary will be vastly reduced, for we shall have computer banks within easy reach.”
* She bemoans the lack of information about key suffrage players like: Myrtilla Miner, Prudence Crandall, Abigail Scott Duniway, Mary Putnam Jacobi, Ernestine Rose, the Claflin sisters, Crystal Eastman, Clara Lemlich, Mrs. OHP Belmont, Doris Stevens, Anne Martin, Fanny Wright, Harriet Stanton Blach, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Dear Life: Stories

A hit or miss collection. The hits include Corrie – a single woman left an inheritance and a limp whose married lover pretends to be blackmailed so she ends up slipping him envelopes of cash; In Sight of the Lake – an older woman struggling with her memory goes to the town a night ahead of time to figure out where her doctor is, only we find out she’s already in a nursing home and dreaming about the past; Train – a soldier returning from the war jumps off the train and makes a life for himself on a farm he walks past, later abandoning the woman and farm in a hospital in the city and becoming a property manager (which he later abandons); and Gravel – a woman leaves her husband with her two daughters, one eventually drowning in the waterlogged gravel pit beside their trailer. Of the worst parts, perhaps the last section, marked by Munro as Finale, four works that aren’t quite stories but the first and last things she has to say about her life.

Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness

This felt like a dime-store read – thin, scraggly, nearly meaningless – which was the opposite of what I’d hoped for. The fault lies mostly in the “interpretation” of the text, which Lebell loudly shouts to us, “it’s not a translation! it’s an interpretation!” I’m left wary and reluctant to even post up some of the bits that snagged my attention. I’ve heard good things about the Robin Hard translation of Epictetus’s Discourses, so will look to get my paws on a copy of that for deeper reading. The Stoics are all about accepting what you can’t change and changing what you can; the whole tome very reminiscent of all the reading I’ve been doing about meditation, Tao, etc. React mindfully to events – if someone yells at you, react with patience, do it over and over to build habit. If someone provokes you, your response is what’s irritating you, don’t react in the moment but take a wider view. “Who exactly do you want to be? What kind of person?… it’s time to stop being vague… explicitly identify the person you want to become.”
Some relevant words on avoiding popular entertainment:

Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people’s weaknesses. Avoid being one of the mob who indulges in such pastimes. Your life is too short and you have important things to do. Be discriminating about what images and ideas you permit into your mind… It is the easiest thing in the world to slide imperceptibly into vulgarity. But there’s no need for that to happen if you determine not to waste your time and attention on mindless pap.

How to use books:

Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.

The Blind Assassin

Thick plots swirl through this tremendous work, layers and layers of story to peel away. Impossible not to get swept up in the details, twists unfolding across decades, you bob along carried by the rush of dramatic current. Stories within stories, all delicately unfurled and gleaming. The story of the blind assassin told between lovers in various snatched moments, then repackaged and sold as Laura Chase’s posthumous tale. Iris and Laura meet Alex Thomas at a button factory picnic, an event that changes the course of their lives. Iris later sold into marriage to her father’s competitor, Richard Griffen, an unhappy time finally mended after Laura drives a car off a cliff and Iris finally has the ammunition to leave Richard (evidence of his philandering with Laura). All of this recounted by Iris as she inches toward death, an old woman with a heart condition who makes strategic walks into town (the donut shop) that have bathrooms available, eager to read the latest graffiti dialogue. Absolutely stunning work of art… how have I neglected Atwood for so long?

The Age of Innocence

The best book I’ve read this year, har har. In serio, an amazing work. For some reason, Wharton’s reputation is made up primarily of the wretched Ethan Frome, but this work is powerful and heart-wrenching stuff. When I finished, I clasped the book to my chest, closed my eyes and dwelled dreamily on the last lines, eventually re-reading them. She opts for the strong ending, avoiding the decent into maudlin, she sends Newland Archer back to his hotel room as an old widower who sat at the foot of the Countess’s windows and avoided the meeting he’d desired/shunned for 30 years. Most books end on a whimper or an afterthought. Wharton ends with a strong line: ” At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” YES! Makes me want to revisit House of Mirth for a re-read after 10 years.
** Update ** After re-reading House of Mirth, I realized it’d be useful to add some plot points here to aid the memory. Newland Archer is fervently in love with his fiancee, May, until he meets her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who is fleeing a bad marriage in Europe. He becomes enraptured with the Countess, frantically travelling to the country where she is staying with friends, roaming to Boston when she’s there for a secret ferry ride and lunch. They never act on their passion, keeping it hidden (somewhat) from Archer’s now wife. Archer pops out a few kids, and it is with one of his sons that he is in Paris watching the windows of the Countess but not going in (despite May’s being dead).