My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey

At the age of 37, Taylor has a hemorrhagic stroke caused by arteriovenous malformation (AVM). Luckily, she’s able to call a colleague (she’s forgotten 9-1-1) who hears her grunting sounds and understands she needs help. He arrives and she hands him her doctor’s business card, which he calls to get instructions about where to take her. She becomes essentially an infant, having to relearn speech and walking and emotional responses. In her previous non-stroke life, she’s a brain scientist working at Harvard, traveling the country as the Singing Scientist to try to increase brain donations for study. Eight years after the stroke, she feels finally back to “normal” although she’s a completely different person, having had her brain rewired. Fascinating chapter as she describes what’s happening to her as she has the stroke, losing her ego and becoming “one with the universe”, not feeling like she has to be the person she previously was. Looking at objects and not realizing what they are, as her brain becomes soaked in blood from the hemorrhage. Her appendix gives a list of things she needed most during recovery, like people to realize she was wounded, not stupid, have patience, protect her energy (no TV, radio or nervous visitors), cheer her on and expect full recovery even if it takes 20 years, focus on what she can do rather than bemoan what she cannot, create a healing team to visualize success of various tasks.

The Good Girl

The only good thing about this book was the structure of how the plot unfolds, teasing bits of information before and after, from the various characters’ perspective. Borderline romance novel with mediocre writing. Lacked any kind of personality. Like the bit where they’re killing time in the cabin by listing all the crazy things in the city that they’ve seen. Kubica’s list is a limp, wet kleenex: “the homeless pushing shopping carts around. Jesus freaks walking around with crucifixes on their backs. Pigeons.” This is Chicago they’re talking about. The Second City. Pigeons? I cannot think of an author I’ve read recently with such a lack of anything interesting to say. Basic plot is that Mia is kidnapped for ransom to harass her famous judge father, only her kidnapper has second thoughts before turning her over to Delmar, who will surely torture and rape her. (Turns out Mia set the whole thing up to get her father put in prison, the weirdest weakest ending imaginable but not surprising for Kubica.) Mia/Chloe falls in love with her captor Colin/Owen. While she’s missing, Mia’s mom Eve starts losing her shit, and finally realizes that her judge husband was an awful man. Mia comes back with amnesia brought on by the chaos of Colin’s death by shootout (no explanation as to how Mia avoided any of that gunfire), and of COURSE she’s preggers (judge tries to force her into an abortion but she walks out). This is such mawkish maudlin crap I won’t go on.

Feminism is for Everybody

This is exactly the type of book to hand someone and try to awaken their cultural consciousness, to try to convert more people to feminism. hooks calls out the need for male allies (amen!) and imagines a world where we go “door to door passing out literature and taking the time (as do religious groups) to explain to people what feminism is all about.” I love her dream of having a feminist television network (this book is circa 2000) to spread feminism globally. She helps you confront your privilege (instead of shoving it in your face), and makes it clear that, historically, well-educated white women deemed the feminist class struggle unimportant once we began to achieve equal access to class power. This is something difficult to see unless pointed out explicitly. Confronting my own privilege is something I’ve become aware of over the last year, but was completely blind to prior to studying feminism. I also appreciate hooks’ calling out one of the major hurdles feminist movement has yet to overcome, the fact that “masses of heterosexual women remain unable to let go the sexist assumption that their sexuality must always be sought after by men to have meaning and value” (p 91).
hook’s battle cry for feminism to be open to everyone:

If we do not work to create a mass-based movement which offers feminist education to everyone, female and males, feminist theory and practice will always be undermined by the negative information produced in most mainstream media. The citizens of this nation cannot know the positive contributions feminist movement has made to all our lives if we do not highlight these gains. Constructive feminist contributions to the well-being of our communities and society are often appropriated by the dominant culture which then projects negative representations of feminism. Most people have no understanding of the myriad ways feminism has positively changed all our lives. Sharing feminist thought and practice sustains feminist movement. Feminist knowledge is for everybody. (p 24)

Calling for women with power to help those more powerless:

Given the changing realities of class in our nation, widening gaps between the rich and poor, and the continued feminization of poverty, we desperately need a mass-based radical feminist movement that can build on the strength of the past, including the positive gains generated by reforms… A visionary movement would ground its work in the concrete conditions of working-class and poor women… creating a movement that begins education for critical consciousness where women, feminist women with class power, need to put in place low-income housing women can own. The creation of housing co-ops with feminist principles would show the ways feminist struggle is relevant to all women’s lives. (p 43)

Women, work, and money (emphasis, mine):

While much feminist scholarship tells us about the role of women in the workforce today and how it changes their sense of self and their role in the home, we do not have many studies which tell us whether more women working has positively changed male domination. Many men blame women working for unemployment, for their loss of the stable identity being seen as patriarchal providers gave them, even if it was or is only a fiction. An important feminist agenda for the future has to be to realistically inform men about the nature of women and work so that they can see that women in the workforce are not their enemies. Women have been in the workforce for a long time now. Whether we are paid well or receive low wages many women have not found work to be as meaningful as feminist utopian visions suggested. When women work to make money to consume more rather than to enhance the quality of our lives on all levels, work does not lead to economic self-sufficiency. More money does not mean more freedom if our finances are not used to facilitate well-being. (p 53)

On realizing that men were not the problem:

As the movement progressed, as feminist thinking advanced, enlightened feminist activists saw that men were not the problem, that the problem was patriarchy, sexism, and male domination. It was difficult to face the reality that the problem did not just lie with men. Facing that reality required more complex theorizing; it required acknowledging the role women play in maintaining and perpetuating sexism… It became evident that even if individual men divested of patriarchal privilege the system of patriarchy, sexism, and male domination would still remain intact, and women would still be exploited and/or oppressed. (p 67)

In a world without birth control (shudder):

We have not amassed enough testimony to let the world know the sexual pathologies and horrors women endured prior to the existence of dependable birth control. It evokes fear within me just to imagine a world where every time a female is sexual she risks being impregnated, to imagine a world where men want sex and women fear it. (p 85)


Bland and disappointing book from the author whose meteoric rise seemed so sure with Leaving Atocha Station. Now that I think about it, perhaps you can only take reading one book from this author. His style is “poetic” mixed with realistic descriptions of what’s around him, be it Upper West Side of NYC, Brooklyn Heights, or Malfa, Texas. It’s a fairly stupid story– author’s best friend wants to have a baby with him, to decide his involvement in parenting later. They are close but not a couple, this involves his producing a stream of porn-induced semen (are men the only ones who are obsessed with sex?) to invitro-fertilize her, plus some awkward scenes of them “doing it” meanwhile he’s involved with a different woman who could care less when he “dumps” her to focus on the best friend. Tangle all that blandness in with a fake book written and the prospect of faking celebrity author emails and a writer’s retreat to peacefully disconnected Malfa, Texas. He also uses “unseasonably warm” a record number of times in 240 pages. It’s like listening to a cracked record with a slight echo that perhaps is meant to be poetic but comes off like he’s scrounging for adjectives and coming up empty. Add to this weak mix a few inflated vocabulary words to make him seem smart (I didn’t bother to look up or note any of the words, they just seemed too contrived). Hilarious, just read a review on Amazon that likens the book to a mediocre meal at the expensive restaurant- too painful to abandon, but too unpleasant to enjoy. “A miserable pretense to be an intellectual while being just pretentious.”


[amazon template=image&asin=006235616X]

In the battle of the Brontës, I’m for Charlotte all the way. Jane Eyre (Charlotte) beats out Wuthering Heights (Emily), but Charlotte’s dominance is cemented by her best work– Villette. Our incomparable narrator, Lucy Snowe, is an Englishwoman left without family or money who washes up on the shores of France, thrusting her way onto the continent to find employment. A chance meeting with Ginerva Fanshawe on board the boat crossing the Channel sends Lucy to the town of Vilette, where she becomes first a nanny to Madame Beck’s children, then joins Beck’s school as an English teacher. Lucy’s earlier years in England are described under the protection of godmother Bretton and various kinfolk. During a stint at Bretton, she sees 6 year old Polly (Paulina) Home come to stay while Mr. Home fixed his affairs and could send for her. Polly dotes on Graham Bretton, the teenaged son of the house who treats her like a pet. Fast forward to the years in Villette, and we encounter Graham as Doctor John, first helping Lucy as a stranger when her luggage is missing upon first arrival in town, then directing her to a safe location for the night (but she ends up at Madame Beck’s door instead). Eventually she recognizes him as Graham, but keeps this to herself. She’s later welcomed back into the Bretton circle after her curious illness, raving, and fainting (post-confession). Polly jumps back onto the scene as the lovely Countess de Bassompierre, still doting on her father, but now a graceful woman and terribly rich. During a panic at the theater, she is trampled on and saved by Doctor John. She and Graham inevitably end up together, but all is not lost for Lucy – she has discovered a deep respect for a true friend, Monsieur Paul Emmanuel. They stalk around each other for months, finally giving into their feelings, but the Catholic cabal of Madame Beck and the priest intervenes to prevent the Protestant/Catholic intermingling, sending Paul to the West Indies to tend to plantations. Much drama before his departure, Lucy isn’t sure she’ll see him, she is drugged by M Beck to encourage sleep but instead slips out of the house and sees that Paul is still in town, having delayed his departure for a few weeks to take care of some business. This business is the construction of an appropriate house and schoolroom for Lucy to start her own school while he is gone. They exchange letters during the three years, and he voyages back to France, but – shipwreck. This ending is somewhat softened by not emphatically declaring Paul dead (Brontë’s father asked for a happier ending), but Brontë clearly envisioned the drowning of Paul as the end.
Brontë’s words to her publisher:

With regard to the momentous point – M. Paul’s fate – in case any one in the future should request to be enlightened thereon – they may be told that it was designed that every reader should settle the catastrophe for himself, according to the quality of his disposition, the tender or remorseful impulse of his nature. Drowning and Matrimony are the fearful alternatives. The Merciful… will of course choose the former and milder doom – drown him to put him out of pain. The cruel-hearted will on the contrary pitilessly impale him on the second horn of the dilemma – marrying him without ruth or compunction to that – person – that – that – individual – ‘Lucy Snowe’.

Lucy’s attraction to the dark alley in the garden:

From the first I was tempted to make an exception to this rule of avoidance: the seclusion, the very gloom of the walk attracted me. For a long time the fear of seeming singular scared me away; but by degrees, as people became accustomed to me and my habits, and to such shades of pecularity as were engrained in my nature – shades, certainly not striking enough to interest, and perhaps not prominent enough to offend, but born in and with me, and no more to be parted with than my identity – by slow degrees I became a frequenter of this strait and narrow path. (p 119)

Lucy’s marvelous description of how she evaluates art:

In the commencement of these visits, there was some misunderstanding and consequent struggle between Will and Power. The former faculty exacted approbation of that which it was considered orthodox to admire; the latter groaned forth its utter inability to pay this tax; it was then self-sneered at, spurred up, goaded on to refine its taste, and whet its zest. The more it was chidden, however, the more it wouldn’t praise. Discovering gradually that a wonderful sense of fatigue resulted from these conscientious efforts, I began to reflect whether I might not dispense with that great labor, and concluded eventually that I might, and so sank supine into a luxury of calm before ninety-nine out of a hundred exhibited frames. (p 222)

She shockingly looks at the Cleopatra painting in all its vulgarity but is then escorted to a corner by Paul, lectured that she must instead view the 4 pictures of the life of women, their dreary lot outlined as to get married, have children, and become widows.

All these four ‘Anges’ were grim and gray as burglars, and cold and vapid as ghosts. What women to live with! insincere, ill-humored, bloodless, brainless nonentities! As bad in their way as the indolent gipsy-giantess, the Cleopatra, in hers. (p 226)

Upon discovering that Lucy is a teacher, and not a rich lady with rich friends, Paulina is dismayed. Lucy is cross-examined by Polly’s father as to why she does it:

Rather for the roof of shelter I am thus enabled to keep over my head; and for the comfort of mind it gives me to think that while I can work for myself, I am spared the pain of being a burden to anybody. (p 317)

After Ginerva finds out that Lucy has rich friends, she wonders, “But are you anybody?” and Lucy states “Yes, I am a rising character: once an old lady’s companion, then a nursery-governess, now a school-teacher.” Ginerva presses for more:

… proving, by her obstinate credulity, or incredulity, her incapacity to conceive how any person not bolstered up by birth or wealth, not supported by some consciousness of name or connection, could maintain an attitude of reasonable integrity. As for me, it quite sufficed to my mental tranquillity that I was known where it imported that known I should be; the rest sat on me easily: pedigree, social position, and recondite intellectual acquisition, occupied about the same space and place in my interests and thoughts; they were my third class lodgers – to whom could be assigned only the small sitting room and little back bedroom: even if the dining and drawing-rooms stood empty, I never confessed it to them, as thinking minor accommodations better suited to their circumstances. The world, I soon learned, held a very different estimate: and I make no doubt, the world is very right in its view, yet believe also that I am not quite wrong in mine. (p 342-3)

There’s a wonderful footnote explaining the term “bluestocking” by Helen Cooper:

A bluestocking, a term for a scholarly woman, from the informal dress and the blue wool stockings which some female members of eighteenth-century literary clubs wore in England… Nineteenth-century medical belief had it that if a woman studied or read too much her blood would drain from her womb, where it was needed for reproduction, into her head, leaving her barren. (p 577, #10)

Stumbled onto by the excellent review by Kate Millet in Sexual Politics.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

When I first dipped my toe into the creek, I wasn’t in the right mood, tossing it aside for a week to give myself time to regain perspective. Sometimes that’s all it takes, just a few days and how you respond to a book is entirely different. When I picked it up again, the clouds parted, the sunlight sparkled in, the birds chirped in my ear. She goes into the woods near her Virginia home to pay attention deliberately, reeling in the light show put on by the sun, the mountains, the trees. Fascinated by her descriptions of the von Senden book, Space and Sight, a collection of histories of cataract patients blind since birth, detailing their sense perceptions before and after operation. “Form, distance, and size were so many meaningless syllables.” There’s the patient who called lemonade “square” because it pricked his tongue as a square shape pricked the touch of his hands. Another marvels that everyone who visits her in the hospital has a different face.

I’m not sure what allows her the space and time to spend all day throughout the seasons observing the woods, but she describes it ” I have at the moment a situation which allows me to devote considerable hunks of time to seeing what I an see, and trying to piece it together.” She marvels at the strength of trees and plants, the chaos spinning around the natural world with no one minding death but us humans, “Our excessive emotions are so patently painful and harmful to us as a species that I can hardly believe that they evolved.”
Describing the wonders of seeing a mockingbird drop from a roof onto the ground:

I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do it try to be there. (p 10)

On seeing the tree with the lights in it:

Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. (p 36)

After driving for many hours, she stops at a gas station and pets a puppy, watching the sunset, being intensely present, but as soon as she acknowledges it, she’s lost it. “Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills up his cup under a waterfall.” It is this self-consciousness that hinders experiencing the present:

Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people – the novelist’s world, not the poet’s. I’ve lived there. I remember what the city has to offer: human companionship, major-league baseball, and a clattering of quickening stimulus like a rush from strong drugs that leaves you drained. I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, “next year… I’ll start living; next year… I’ll start my life.” Innocence is a better world. (p 82)

More of giving up self to spend hour upon hour motionless, observing:

(the muskrat) never knew I was there. I never knew I was there, either. For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions… I have done this sort of thing so often that I have lost self-consciousness about moving slowly and halting suddenly… I have often noticed that even a few minutes of self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves. (p 200)

Battling her monkey mind, the scenes that drift across her memory from nowhere:

All right then. Pull yourself together. Is this where I’m spending my life, in the “reptile brain,” this lamp at the top of the spine like a lighthouse flipping mad beams indiscriminately into the darkness, into the furred thoraxes of moths, onto the backs of leaping fishes and the wrecks of schooners? Come up a level; surface. (p 95)

I love this:

Somewhere, and I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” “Then why,” asked the Eskimo earnestly, “did you tell me?” If I did not know about the rotifers and paramecia, and all the bloom of plankton clogging the dying pond, fine; but since I’ve seen it I must somehow deal with it, take it into account. “Never lose a holy curiosity,” Einstein said; and so I life my microscope down from the shelf, spread a drop of duck pond on a glass slide, and try to look spring in the eye. (p 123)

Tipped off to this book’s existence by an Atlantic piece forwarded by B.

Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words

If ever a boring book appeared to be written by a pseudonym… John Man, really? Why is it so hard to write a compelling book about the origins of the printing press? First there was the historical fiction dross I read a few months ago, now this (which actually predates the dross by a decade). While I understand the difficulty (the well nigh impossibility) of reconstructing history from 500 years ago based on what various legal documents are left at our disposal, I do abhor a poorly stitched together tale that is based on puffery and assumptions and speculation. The only thing I got out of this was learning about Enea Silvio de Piccolomini, who wrote one of the earliest novels, The History of Two Lovers, which the author pleads for re-translation and modern publication. “Funny, romantic, sexy and smart, it was a bestseller for two centuries in all major European languages,” it’s a novel in Latin based on a love affair of the author’s court mentor, Kaspar Schlick.

Gone Girl

This is one of the most entertaining and smartest fictional works I’ve read in awhile. Part one: boy loses girl, wherein we meet Nick and Amy, a New York couple transplanted to the banks of the Mississippi River in Missouri. Jobless after the Great Recession, Nick and Amy flee the city after Nick’s mom reveals her aggressive cancer, returning to (ostensibly) take care of her. Nick borrows the last chunk of money from Amy’s trust fund (royalties accrued to her from her parents’ wildly successful children’s book series, Amazing Amy) to open a bar with his twin sister. They name it The Bar. Nick gets a call from a neighbor that his front door is open and the cat has escaped, so he heads back to find signs of a struggle and no Amy. He’s immediately a suspect (husbands always are), not helped by his awkward habit of smiling to make everyone feel comfortable. The chapters volley back and forth between the day of Amy’s disappearance (and aftermath) and the story of Nick and Amy meeting, coupling, marrying, moving to Mizzou, as told through Amy’s diary. Once we’re near present time, she hints at feeling unsafe with Nick and wanting to buy a gun. We also find that Nick is having an affair with Andie, a 23-year-old student in the journalism class he taught, and it’s been going on for almost a year and he’s considering divorcing Amy when she disappears.
Things look very grim for the couple as we approach Part two: boy meets girl. Wherein we find out that all the diary entries in part 1 were painstakingly faked by Amy over the prior year as she laid out a meticulous plan to have Nick arrested for her murder (which she’d also faked). Brilliant planning over the course of a year ever since she saw Nick leaving the bar with Andie, laying her revenge out diabolically. Amy reveals herself to have been playing a role, that of “Cool Girl”, which Nick fell in love with and then fell out of love with when she tried to show him who she really was.

That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

She goes into hiding with a money belt stuffed full of cash, attracting the attention of her hillbilly neighbors who then steal it from her. She watches as Nick gets pilloried by the press, and falls for his messages calling for her to come back home (this part seemed a bit thin for me– she’s going to fall for that? but then it ends up being true, so…. I dunno).

I’m not sure, exactly, how to be Dead Amy. I’m trying to figure out what that means for me, what I become for the next few months. Anyone, I suppose, except people I’ve already been: Amazing Amy. Preppy ’80s Girl. Ultimate Frisbee Granola and Blushing Ingenue and Witty Hepburnian Sophisticate. Brainy Ironic Girl and Boho Babe (the latest version of Frisbee Granola). Cool Girl and Loved Wife and Unloved Wife and Vengeful Scorned Wife. Diary Amy… I hope you liked Diary Amy. She was meant to be likable. Meant for someone like you to like her. She’s easy to like. I’ve never understood why that’s considered a compliment – that just anyone could like you.

And a little of Nick’s voice:

I don’t know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.

Going to Pieces without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness

Recommended by the 10% Happier book, this is a sing-songy work that argues for the benefits of psychotherapy with meditation, interspersing ancient stories about Buddha with tales from his own therapy practice in modern day NYC. He ends the book with a story about heading home after a 10 day retreat, sitting in his car with the engine on in the midst of a snowstorm, getting out to sweep the snow off the windows and discovering he’s locked himself out. He’s both annoyed and (with a perfection of detachment) amused, and imagines the meditation center staff joking about him, “Talk about mindfulness- that guy locked his keys in his running car.” The best parts were probably the bits from his own practice. He details one client’s inability to jump the last hurdle in horseback-riding, despite having “soft eyes”, she is given the instruction to focus on the (nonexistent) turn immediately following the jump and so focused, she’s loose enough to make the jump. Another client, a mother with 3 young-uns, has no time to meditate, but he has her use the time while washing the dishes to be mindful, to recognize what’s going on. She discovers a tense and hunched posture that’s been exacerbating her distress. Oops, I lied, actually the best part is this Dalai Lama quote:

The antidote to hatred in the heart, the source of violence, is tolerance. Tolerance is an important virtue of bodhisattvas – it enables you to refrain from reacting angrily to the harm inflicted on you by others. You could call this practice “inner disarmament,” in that a well-developed tolerance makes you free from the compulsion to counter-attack. For the same reason, we also call tolerance the “best armor,” since it protects you from being conquered by hatred itself.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader

I grabbed this from the shelves of the library after searching for something in the same Dewey range, happily thinking I’d struck gold with a collection of all of Gilman’s nonfiction. In actuality, the book turned out to be of a different ilk, but I enjoyed it all the more – the book weaves biographical information alongside snippets from Gilman’s extensive essays/books. We’ve all been schooled on Gilman’s greatest hit – The Yellow Wallpaper, but far from being a one-hit wonder, Gilman churned out massive amounts of reasoned lectures/position papers/books on all aspects of the Woman’s Movement/Feminism. She was a widely respected lecturer, speaking to groups throughout California (SF, Oakland, Pasadena) and then in Chicago, NYC and beyond. Naturally any women’s movement would be lacking without opposition from those who benefit but who are socialized not to see their oppression. She gets into a tiff with Ida Tarbell’s contention that women should get back into the business of raising children. Charlotte counters, “Woman’s main business is being human, a phase of her life of which Miss Tarbell in this series of ineffectual papers takes no cognizance whatever.” Conclusion: CPG is a bad-ass neglected by history. Read her.
From The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903)

The cowardice of women is a distinctly home product. It is born of weakness and ignorance; a weakness and an ignorance by no means essentially feminine attributes, but strictly domestic attributes. Keep a man from birth wrapped in much cloth, shut away from sky and sun, wind and rain, continually exhausting his nervous energy by incessant activity in monotonous little things, and never developing his muscular strength and skill by suitable exercise of a large and varied nature, and he would be weak. Savage women are not weak. Peasant women are not weak. Fishwives are not weak. The home-bound woman is weak, as would be a home-bound man.

A Doll’s House

I kept coming across references to Ibsen’s Doll House in Second Wave feminist writing (most recently in Millet’s Sexual Politics, “Until Ibsen’s Nora slammed the door announcing the sexual revolution, [patriarchy’s triumph over matriarchy] went nearly uncontested”), so I dug it out of the stacks at the library. Translations of the 1879 work abound, but I selected a slim pink volume translated by William Archer, stripped of the fluffery of introductions and expositions on the importance of Ibsen. The text stands alone just fine, thank you. Nora has been married for eight years, bearing 3 children, to a man who calls her his squirrel, pet, lark, twittering bird. She plays this role to the hilt, beautiful and pretending frivolousness and being accused of spending too much money by a husband that refuses to go into debt. An old pal, Christina, washes up on the doorstep to ask for her help in getting a job at the bank Nora’s husband was just promoted to manage. To widowed and childless Christina, Nora flaunts her successful life with adorable children, but then drops a bombshell of a secret, that she did not get an inheritance from her father to pay for the family’s trip to Italy (to save her sick husband, Torvald), but that she borrowed money and forged the IOU with her father’s signature (we find out about the forgery later). She’s been paying the debt off gradually with her limited pocket money, and resorted to getting copying work one winter, “I shut myself up every evening and wrote far into the night. Oh sometimes I was so tired, so tired. And yet it was splendid to work in that way and earn money. I almost felt as if I was a man.”
Krogstad is the man to whom she’s indebted, and he tries to blackmail her in order to keep his job at the bank, but fails. Things start to spin out of control, Nora sees visions of drowning herself to spare her husband the ignominy of her falseness, she dances frantically and attempts to keep Torvald from discovering the truth. Doctor Rank is a friend of the family who drops by every night; I think his only purpose in the story is to tempt Nora to the edge of asking for money but then proclaims his love for her at just the wrong moment so she’s unable to ask for help. Bizarrely, Christina reveals her love for Krogstad and is exhilarated that she has someone to work for, a home to make happy. Not sure why that needs to involve a husband, but…
The conflict comes, Torvald reads the letter detailing her “crime” and goes on a rant about the awfulness of it. “During these eight years – she who was my pride and my joy – a hypocrite, a liar – worse, worse – a criminal. Oh the hideousness of it! Ugh! Ugh!”And later proclaiming to Nora: “you have destroyed my whole happiness” and that the children cannot be trusted to her care anymore. But wait! Another letter arrives, and Krogstad has sent back the promissory note with an apology. Torvald is overjoyed “I am saved! Nora, I am saved!” Nora (one can already see her rising up, stepping back, with a raised eyebrow), “And I?” Torvald, “You too, of course; we are both saved, both of us.” Torvald professes his forgiveness and love, but it’s too late, Nora has awakened. “I thank you for your forgiveness.” She leaves, “to take off my doll’s dress.”
Torvald, clueless of the change, “Yes, dear. Try to calm down and recover your balance, my scared little song bird. You may rest secure, I have broad wings to shield you.” He prattles on about how everything is back to normal, how there is something indescribably sweet when a man forgives his wife, “she becomes his property in a double sense. She is as though born again; she has become both wife and child.”
Nora comes back in, having changed into a more sensible dress. “Sit down, Torvald; you and I have much to say to each other.” and “We’ve been married eight years. Does it not strike you that this is the first time we two, you and I, man and wife, have talked together seriously?” She lays out her plan to leave him, to take nothing with her. He implores her to keep to her “holiest duties” as wife and mother. Nora: “My duties toward myself are equally sacred.” She questions her knowledge of religion and society. “I really don’t know – I’m all at sea about these things. I only know that I think quite differently from you about them… I must make up my mind which is right – society or I.” And she leaves, the door slamming on her way out. Yes, yes, yes!

Dept. of Speculation

You’ll love this book if you have a short attention span and care about “girl meets boy/girl marries boy/couple has child/boy has affair/couple figure things out” type of stories. The flimsiness of the prose, just hunks of text with lots of spaces, no real thinking required, makes it an A+ candidate for today’s distracted readers. I finished the 180 pages in a few hours, but it felt more like binge-watching a reality show than any kind of intellectual stimulation.

Three Years in California

Published in England in 1857, this tale of time spent in San Francisco and in the mines is a detailed picture of life in 1850s California through the eyes of an Englishman (a racist who calls Mexicans lazy and greasy {p 61} while demeaning the Chinese {216 among many examples}, snipping that Jews did no manual labor {95}, and declaring that Indians should make way for their betters {236}). Fires were a constant danger in the combustible town of SF; gambling and drinking going on 24 hours a day; people would retreat to the Mission (then 2 miles outside of town) to get peace from the “universal human nature boiling over” in the city. Driving from San Jose (then the seat of government) to SF, “the country is smooth and open… but toward San Francisco it becomes more hilly and bleak. The soil is sandy; indeed, excepting a few spots here and there, it is nothing but sand, and there is hardly a tree ten feet high within as many miles of the city.”
The whole time I was reading it, I was grappling with the similarities between the original gold rush and what’s happening now (technology boom version 2). The resemblance is striking (har har!):
* Mostly dudes, women were scarce
* Worship of the almighty dollar (e.g. gold nugget) was encouraged
* Real estate speculation
* People paid for others to wait in line for them at the post office
* Out in the mining fields, lots of isolation; like the sea of techies sealed off with their headphones
* Miners were so out of it that special newspapers were drawn up containing the news of the previous fortnight – reborn today as RSS or Twitter feeds for those who can’t stay on top of the daily news.
* He describes a mad rush for food in a hotel, men pooling at the entrance of the dining hall waiting for the doors to be thrown open, the scramble & clatter & 50 men finishing their meal in 2 minutes. Similar to modern-day free food buffets for techies who pour the grub down their gullets then move back to the app mines.
* It’s all about working for yourself; “…when a man can make as much, or perhaps more, by working for himself, he has greater pleasure in doing so than in working for others.” (p 156)
* Those who don’t start their own company and work for others have “insufficient inventive energy to direct their own labour and render it profitable.” (p 157)
* “… the rising generation of California are supernaturally smart and precocious” (p 279)
* “… no country ever commenced its career with such an effective population, or with the same elements of wealth to work upon.” (p 311)
Of course, there are dissimilarities as well, the professional cook: “his wages were frequently higher than those paid to a miner.” (p 169) But then again:
“Rents were exorbitantly high… the population consisted chiefly of single men.” (p 37)
“San Francisco exhibited an immense amount of vitality compressed into a small compass, and a degree of earnestness was observable in every action of a man’s daily life. People lived more there in a week than they would in a year in most places.” (p 40)
“California was often said to be famous for three things – rats, fleas, and empty bottles; but old clothes might well have been added to the list.” (p 44)
“The few ladies who were already in San Francisco, very naturally avoided appearing in public…” (p 46)

Drinking was the great consolation for those who had not moral strength to bear up under their disappointments. Some men gradually obscured their intellects by increased habits of drinking, and equally gradually, reached the lowest stage of misery and want; while others went at it with more force, and drank themselves into delirium tremens before they knew where they were. This is a very common disease in California: there is something in the climate which superinduces it with less provocation than in other countries…
The American style of drinking is so different from that in fashion in the Old World, and forms such an important part of social intercourse, that it certainly deserves to be considered one of the peculiar institutions of the country. In England, a man reserves his drinking capacities to enhance the enjoyment of the great event of the day, and to increase the familiar feeling of repletion which he experiences while ruminating over it. Dinner divides his day into two separate existences, and drinking in the forenoon suggests the idea of a man slinking off into out-of-the-way, mysterious places, and boozily muddling himself in private with quart pots of ale or numerous glasses of brandy-and-water.
With Americans, however, the case is very different. Dinner with them forms no such comfortable epoch in their daily life: it brings not even the hour of rest which is allowed to the labouring man – but it is one of the necessities of human existence, and, as it precludes all other occupations for the time being, it is dispatched as quickly as possible. They do not drink during dinner, nor immediately afterwards. The most common excuse for declining the invitation of a friend to “take a drink,” is “Thank you, I’ve just dined.” They make the voyage through life under a full head of steam all the time; they live more in a given time than other people, and naturally have recourse to constant stimulants to make up for the want of intervals of abandon and repose.
(p 56-7)

Selling your spot in line at the post office for the equivalent of $500 of today’s money:

A man’s place in the line was his individual property, more or less valuable according to his distance from the window, and, like any other piece of property, it was bought and sold, and converted into cash. Those who had plenty of dollars to spare, but could not afford much time, could buy out some one who had already spent several hours in keeping his place. Ten or fifteen dollars were frequently paid for a good position, and some men went there early, and waited patiently, without any expectation of getting letters, but for the chance of turning their acquired advantage into cash. (p 69)

Not a reliable source for cultural material, Borthwick’s comment makes me wonder what existed of patriarchy in the native lands vs. what he was imposing with his own cultural heritage:

The branches {of a sugar pine} then spread straight out from the stem, drooping a good deal at the extremities from the weight of the immense cones which they bear. These are about a foot and a half long, and under each leaf is a seed the size of a cherry-stone, and which has a taste even sweeter than that of a filbert. The Indians are very fond of them, and make the squaws gather them for winter food. (p 154)

More ridiculousness from Borthwick in describing the lynching of a woman. There was some speculation in the margin about who this woman could be. My own investigation makes me believe Josefa Segovia was the woman in question, sexually assaulted by the miner and killing him in retribution. Of course, Borthwick claims the miner was killed for no reason. That “without provocation” makes me laugh so hard:

A Mexican woman one forenoon had, without provocation, stabbed a miner in the heart, killing him on the spot… The woman, an hour or two after she committed the murder, was formally tried by a jury of twelve, found guilty, and condemned to be hung that afternoon (182)

It’s amusing during these years of drought to read of Sacramento under-water:

Sacramento City was in as wretched a plight as a city can well be in. The only dry land to be seen was the top of the levee built along the bank of the river in front of the town; all the rest was water, out of which rose the houses, or at least the upper parts of them. The streets were all so many canals crowded by boats and barges carrying on the customary traffic… (p 228)

A tiresome joke about the SF climate:

The San Francisco summer, however, is the most disagreeable and trying season one can be subjected to. In the morning and forenoon it is generally beautifully bright and warm : one feels inclined to dress as one would in the tropics ; but this cannot be done with safety, for one has to be prepared for the sudden change in temperature which occurs nearly every day towards the afternoon, when there blows in off the sea a cold biting wind, chilling the very marrow in one’s bones. The cold is doubly felt after the heat of the fore part of the day, and to some constitutions such extreme variations of temperature within the twenty-four hours are no doubt very injurious, especially as the wind not unfrequently brings a damp fog along with it.
The climate is nevertheless generally considered salubrious, and is thought by some people to be one of the finest in the world. For my own part, I much prefer the summer weather of the mines, where the sky is always bright, and the warm temperature of the day becomes only comparatively cool at night, while the atmosphere is so dry, that the heat, however intense, is never oppressive, and so clear that everything within the range of vision is as clearly and distinctly seen as if one were looking upon a flat surface, and could equally examine each separate part of it, so satisfactory and so minute in detail is the view of the most distant objects.
Considering the very frequent use of pistols in San Francisco, it is a most providential circumstance that the climate is in a high degree favourable for the cure of gunshot wounds. These in general heal very rapidly, and many miraculous recoveries have taken place, effected by nature and the climate, after the surgeons, experienced as they are in that branch of practice, had exhausted their skill upon the patient. (p 231)

The Eternal Husband

Back to back Russian stories; after finishing Petrushevskaya’s novellas I wanted to tap into the pure spring of darkness and despair, Dostoevsky. I’ve been chasing down this story for awhile- it’s been on my “To Read” list since I stumbled onto it from (I think?) a list of Hemingway’s must reads. It sat on my list so long that I’ve lost what respect I had for Ernest in the ensuing period after seeing him raked over the coals by Dwight MacDonald, but I digress. The Eternal Husband follows Velchaninov’s descent into near-madness after he ushers the husband (Pavlovitch) of his ex-lover (Natalya) into his Petersburg flat in the middle of the night, Pavlovitch drunkenly hesitating outside the door while Velchaninov flings it open to confront the man he’s spotted a few times in town. Natalya is dead, and upon her death Pavlovich has discovered the infidelity, which unfortunately had resulted in their 8 year old daughter, Liza. At her death Pav began tormenting Liza, bringing her to Petersburg and abandoning her as he drunkenly filled his evenings and threatened to kill himself. Velchaninov swoops in and rescues Liza, installing her at a wealthy family’s estate in the country with lots of children to keep her busy… only she succumbs to a fever on the first night and wastes away within days. Pavlovich is seemingly unconcerned, sending 300 rubles to cover the funeral and medical costs. There is some oddness, one drunk evening Pavlovich shows up and demands to be kissed by Velchaninov after he puts up two fingers like two horns on his bald forehead. “He was not, however, perfectly certain that he had kissed him.” Another night, Pavlovich stays over after relating a tale where one man who’s been bested becomes friends with his usurper only to knife him in the chest on his wedding day (as best man). Inexplicably, Pavlovitch demands that V accompany him to the villa of his future bride’s family, a 15 year old girl who clearly loathes Pavlovich and tosses his diamond bracelet back at him. (Pavlovich = 50 years old, Velchaninov = 39.) V goes in his best suit and charms everyone while P lurks and leers like a lecherous old man. V falls a tiny bit in love with the 15 year old, Nadya, and the whole group of youngsters play tricks on P until P & V leave after a heart-wrenching song by V to Nadya. This night, P stays over again at V’s and assists V when he’s attacked by a liver ailment, pressing hot plates to his chest to alleviate the pain. A few hours later, (and after declaring “I loved you. You did not notice it. I was too insignificant to let you see it.”) P attempts to kill V with a razor, but V wakes in time and wrestles it away. Pavlovich then leaves town and gives Velchaninov a letter from his wife that confirms that Liza was V’s daughter. Then, 2 years later, V runs into P on a train after assisting P’s new wife against harassment from ruffians on the train platform. V laughingly accepts her offer to stay a month with them, and then taunts P saying, what if I told your wife you tried to kill me? P refuses to shake hands with V, infuriating V: “If I – I hold out this hand to you,” showing the palm of his left hand, where a big scar from the cut was still visible, “you certainly might take it!” he whispered with pale and trembling lips.

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In

Dark, bleak, humorous look at life in Russia where families separate without officially divorcing and live as roommates, backstab spouses and register their extended family to live in their tiny Moscow apartments, try to kill each other with untraceable poison via chocolates, plot ways to save their 7 year old son from the orphanage by pummeling him bloody, hide money from each other and exist on starvation diets. The first novella is the longest, The Time Is Night – a poet raises her grandson while her daughter runs away with a married department director and has a few more babies; the poet-narrator also has to deal with losing her mother’s pension when she’s carted off to the sanitarium, fend off demands for money from her released-from-prison son, beg for work from publishers and give readings of her work. Chocolates with Liqueur is the creepy story of a man who lures his nurse into marriage and after they have children, attempts to kill her with the poison he’s developed (and which he used on his own grandmother and 2 colleagues). Among Friends details the innerworkings and couple-swapping that happen among a group of friends who always meet on Friday nights, a policeman stopping by to monitor their party, ending with the child-abuse that secures her son’s future.