Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Salt-Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara

One would run the back roads to the woods, not jogging in unpaid outfits, trampling shoots, not moving in with tents, dope, and bombed-out playmates mouthing off about "We're into nature," not hiding out in Wordsworth or Kerouac, excusing the self from social action, but running to the woods in hopes of an audience with the spirits long withdrawn from farms and gardens all withered and wasted, bringing eagle-bone whistles or gourd rattles or plaster saints or rakes and seeds or gifts of soap or sacks of cornmeal or sticks of licorice or cones, anything one had to place on a tree-stump altar or a turned-rock shrine to lure the saving spirits out to talk and be heeded finally. Stumbling through the thorns and briars, following the rada rada big booming of the drums or the weh weh wedo riff of reed flutes, running toward a clearing, toward a likely sanctuary of the saints, the loa, the dinns, the devas. And found, would open up and welcome one in before the end, welcome one in time to wrench time from its track so another script could play itself out.

Velma Henry sits in a room in the Southwest Infirmary in Claybourne, Georgia, being treated by a healer after slitting her wrists and putting her head in a gas oven. The healer, Miss Minnie, is arguing with her spirit guide, an old friend she calls Old Wife, while the loa--the spirits of Vodou--gather around. Outside in Clayborne, a Mardi Gras festival is going on, where the organization Velma has committed her life to, a social justice outfit called the Academy for the Seven Arts, may be planning an attack with a cache of stolen weapons on the insidious Transchemical plant where Velma has been working as a spy. A dozen or so other characters--members of the Academy, chemical engineers, bus drivers, and doctors--go on about their business, unaware of the way in which their lives are interwoven with Velma's as she fights--or doesn't--for life.

One of the remarkable things about The Salt-Eaters is that the entire novel takes place over a couple of hours at most; it seems to sit on the head of a pin. Bambara floats freely from one consciousness to another, hopping from Velma's brain to Miss Minnie's to all the others. It has the feeling of the quiet stillness before a storm, and a storm does come, a sudden outpouring of thunder and rain that's somehow associated with the loa, and which may usher in a new world, free of racism, capitalism, patriarchy, and ecological disaster. The Salt-Eaters, for all its experimental weirdness, is a book that's really about the drudgery and praxis of social change. It's factionalism, opportunism, and inefficacy in her movement that has driven Velma to despair; in her memories we see bus drives, petition drives, fights over parliamentary rules. Bambara seems to suggest that real change is possible in a world where social organization is married to spiritual awakening of some kind.

I'll tell you, I didn't expect this novel to be what it was. I like to teach some of Bambara's stories, including "The Lesson" and "Raymond's Run," which are typically about black children in urban environments. Those stories are persuasive bits of social realism, but The Salt-Eaters explodes all that in favor of shifting viewpoints, disorienting narratives, and disjointed time. It's sort of a glorious mess; I loved reading it though I'm not sure I understood half of it on a real literal level. A more conventional narrative might have helped me follow the track of what Bambara's saying about social change, but it probably would have made for a much more ordinary reading experience, and wouldn't have resounded with life, as Bambara's Claybourne does.

Friday, April 24, 2020

We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders | Book by Linda Sarsour, Harry ...

We Are Not Here To Be Bystanders. By Linda Sarsour

Soon the streetlights came on, illuminating the faces of people I had grown up with in my beloved Brooklyn, and the two women who now marched by my side.  As I made my way through the roar of the crowd toward my sisters, my own fist pumping in the air, no one but God heard me whisper:  This is where I belong.

I met Linda Sarsour almost 20 years ago, when my wife first met her through work.  She lives a few blocks from me and most of my interactions with her have been as a friend and neighbor.  She is a warm, kind and enthusiastic person, strikingly pretty and strikingly forthright.  As she points out on a regular basis, she is a kind of walking stereotype of the Brooklyn girl who is all attitude and confidence.

However, the fact that she is a good neighbor is not why she has a major publisher putting out her memoir. She is also a nationally known activist, a key advisor to Bernie Sanders, a spokesperson for Black Lives Matters and one of the three chief organizers of the 2017 Women’s March following Trump’s inauguration – the largest public demonstration in American history.

I am happy to say that We Are Not Here To Be Bystanders gives us both sides of her – as warm, funny Brooklyn neighbor and political activist.  She does not even seem to see them as two sides – they are both part of who she is and they are inseparable in this memoir.

Sarsour grew up in Sunset Park and attended the old John Jay High School in Park Slope.  Her father ran a small bodega in Crown Heights named, in honor of her birth, “The Linda Sarsour Spanish and American Food Store.”  She credits her father with building her own sense of community.  He knew and cared for all his customers and she recalls a moving incident in which he caught a young man shoplifting a snack cake and quarter juice and scolded the boy for shaming his parents, then gave him the cake and the juice and told him that if he was hungry all he had to do was ask.

She makes clear that her growth towards political activism did not come from some intellectual analysis of the American system, but from her life as a Muslim woman in a strong and vibrant Muslim community.  There are several chapters dedicated to her relationship with Basemah Atweh, the founder and first director of the Arab American Association and a cousin of Sarsour’s who recruited her to volunteer at the AAA , an experience that steered her away from becoming a high school English teacher.  There is graphic and moving account of the car accident Sarsour and Atweh were involved in that killed the older woman.

She recounts her experiences in high school with anti-Musliim prejudice but spends more time recounting stories of teachers she loved and friendships she and how those have affected her sense of community.  Her career as an activist developed gradually, as part of her concern for her growing family and the embattled Brooklyn Muslim community.  This becomes much more the focus of her life and thinking after 9-11.  Sarsour recounts deciding to wear her hijab after the attack and it becomes clear that a straightforward support of her heritage is her bedrock political stance.  She recounts debates with other Muslims who argue for playing it safe and staying quiet and is clear in her rejection of that advice.

For the most part the book is strikingly positive.  Sarsour is a believer in non-violence and recounts several stories in which she and her allies have reached out to those who disagree with her in an attempt to form some sort of community.  She speaks a great deal about her friends and allies and for most of the book says very little about those who disagree with her.   However, since the success of The Woman’s March, Sarsour has been the subject of daily hate mail and death threats, with a good deal of the danger being aimed at her family.  When recounting recent controversies in her life she is unsparing in her criticism of people who have contributed to this harassment.

Most of her discussion of family is intrinsically woven in with her activism – she recounts several stories when her busy schedule has kept her from her kids and the pain that has caused her.  There is a poignant story of her being in Washington DC in the days before the January 2017 march and finding out that her son had gotten his first college acceptance letter and the pain it caused her to be away from him at that moment.

This is the story of a very human radical activist.  It does an excellent job of portraying her place within a religion, a culture, a neighborhood and a family as the source of her activism.  In doing so she turns the two-dimensional figure of controversy that sometimes appears on the news into a full-blooded woman – a daughter, a mother, a Muslim and a Brooklynite.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

"Let me explain it to you, let me see if I can explain it to you," I said.  The brandy was really working now.  "We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery.  We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves.  So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle--which he never does.  Because even though he wants to change it, and maybe even tries to change it, it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind.  So he, too, must run away if he is to hold on to his sanity and have a life of his own.  I can see by your face you don't agree, so I'll try again.  What she wants is for him, Jefferson, and me to change everything that has been going on for three hundred years.  She wants it to happen so in case she ever gets out of her bed again, she can go to that little church there in the quarter and say proudly, 'You see, I told you--I told you he was a man.'  And if she dies an hour after that, all right; but what she wants to hear first is that he did not crawl to that white man, that he stood at that last moment and walked."

Jefferson, a young black men, has been sentenced to death for killing a white storeowner.  He's innocent, a bystander, but it hardly matters in front of a white jury.  Even his lawyer tries to defend him by saying that he's too stupid and inhuman to be responsible for what happened; to kill Jefferson would be, the lawyer says, like killing a hog.  Grant Wiggins is a schoolteacher in the same Louisiana parish, and Jefferson's godmother, a friend of Grant's aunt, wants Grant to visit Jefferson on death row to teach him one more lesson before the date of his execution--that he is a man, and not a hog.

Grant is resistant to these claims being made on him, that he can, or should, try to teach Jefferson anything.  Grant is a bitter man and a bad teacher who hates his job, hates living in the South, and dreams only of moving away to California when his girlfriend, Vivian, is finally able to secure a divorce.  His aunt, Jefferson's godmother, to Grant they want him to do something that would entail reversing hundreds of years of history.  But he goes, and finds that Jefferson is just as recalcitrant as he expected, and refuses to talk to him.  At one point, he brings a dish of Jefferson's godmother's food, which Jefferson eats on the floor with no hands--like a hog.

It's not hard to see where this novel is going, where, in fact, it has to go: Jefferson opens up to Grant, and Grant is able to help him walk toward his fate with dignity, but Jefferson too turns out to have something to teach Grant.  (The ambiguity is baked into the title, yeah?)  I often felt like A Lesson Before Dying moved with a kind of cinematic necessity.  The voice of black and Creole Louisiana is powerful and effective, but I often felt the heavy hand of Gaines behind it.  (It's hard to put that critique into the right words; I don't doubt that everyone in the parish is thinking constantly about Jefferson and the date of his execution, or thinking through it in sophisticated and traumatic terms, just that the scriptlike directness of the dialogue detracted from the sense of place and atmosphere.)

The best part of the book, I felt, was when Jefferson gets to speak in his own words, writing his final thoughts down, diary-style in a notepad that Grant's bought him:

i just can't sleep no mo cause evertime i shet my eyes i see that dore an fore i get there i wake up and i dont go back to sleep cause i dont want walk to that door no mo cause i dont know what back o there if its where they gon put that cher or if it spose to mean def or the grave or heven i dont know

The rawness of Jefferson's language, contrasted with Grant's proud and educated voice, rings forth with a truth and pathos I wanted more of from A Lesson Before Dying.  Jefferson is terrified, brave, dignified, human--no hog.  It's hard to read his words without thinking of the nearly three thousand people on death row in the United States right now, whose dignity and humanity, like Jefferson's, have been taken from them--no matter whether, like Jefferson, they are innocent.  And though the novel is flawed and little less compelling than I'd hoped, it didn't have to do much to evoke rage and despair from me.  A Lesson Before Dying captures the stifling social borders of the mid-century South--it drives you nearly insane to see the way the intelligent and accomplished Grant is abused and minimized by white power-holders.  It would be comforting to think of it, like Green Book, as a historical snapshot of a time past which we've progressed, but Jefferson's story is sadly timely.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Giant by Edna Ferber

Bigger.  Biggest ranch.  Biggest steer.  Biggest houses.  Biggest hat.  Biggest state.  A mania for bigness.  What littleness did it hide?...

So the big men strode the streets, red of face, shirt-sleeved, determined.  Their kind had sprung from the Iowa farms, the barren New England fields, from Tennessee.  Their ancestors had found the land too big, too lonely, it had filled them with a nameless fear and a sense of apartness, so they set out to conquer it and the people whose land it was.  And these, too, they must overcome, and keep conquered, they were a constant menace, they kept surging back to it.  All right, let them work for us, let them work for a quarter a day till the work is done, then kick them back across the border where they belong.

Jordan "Bick" Benedict is in charge of Reata Ranch, one of the biggest cattle ranching operations in the entire state of Texas.  The ranch spans across millions and millions of acres, surrounding whole towns, and employing thousands, from the skilled vaqueros and ranch hands to the nameless Mexican laborers who live in dirt-poor shacks.  It's a big operation in the biggest state, and Bick's dreams are only to make it bigger and better.  Into this unique American landscape arrives his new Virginian bride, Leslie, for whom Texas is a strange and foreign country that seems intent on keeping her at arm's length.  She reads books, she walks the ranch--a strange concept to those who live there and traverse it on horses or automobiles--but she despairs that she'll ever truly be a "Texian."

Man, I needed a book like this right now.  I enjoyed the tricksy experimentalism of Bearheart and Event Factory, but you just kind of skate over the surface of books like those, which are sometimes nothing but surface.  I really needed a big, thorough realist book to help distract me from the isolation we're all dealing with at the moment.  Giant is a book like that, an exemplar of a certain kind of mid-century social realism with few tricks up its sleeve.  But like Texas, Giant's realism is a bigger, more heightened type, and it veers often to a satisfying, soapy melodrama, like an episode of Dallas.  This is a book, after all, with a character with the ridiculous name "Jett Rink"--the cantankerous drunken ranch hand who swears one day he'll be a millionaire, and then he'll get revenge on the Benedicts for the way he treated them.  (This is the James Dean role from the movie.)  It's also a book where Bick's imperious sister Luz is thrown and--spoiler alert--killed by a racehorse brought by Leslie from Virginia named My Mistake.  ("How terribly strange and terrible," Leslie thinks, "that it should have been My Mistake.")  It can be gloriously silly.

Leslie, Bick, and the other characters of the book never stop talking about Texas.  They talk about the Alamo, they talk about Santa Ana, they talk about Bowie, they talk about the Davis Mountains in the west and the Panhandle in the north and the Gulf of Mexico--somehow, Reata seems to touch all of these.  Ferber clearly is in love with the bigness and strangeness of Texas as Bick, but Leslie's appearance injects a much-needed cynical eye into the ranch: it's Leslie who insists on visiting the Mexican ranchers' shacks, despite Bick's injunction; it's Leslie who sticks her nose in the shady politics that Bick uses to keep the county commissioners on his side.  This is never clearer than when Leslie, visiting Bick's uncle in the "Western" division, discovers a migrant hiding in a shed, fresh from the Rio Grande.  Bick's uncle feeds the boy and lets him go, but Bick, he says, would have transported him back over the river himself.

Giant is a book that revels in some of our national myths at the same time that it punctures them.  Bick's operation relies not just on the spirit of Texas but the underpaid labor of thousands, and "that's the way it is in Texas" is not enough for Leslie, or for Ferber.  National myths, I guess, tend to cover up a lot of hard labor and suffering.  Ferber also does a great job of depicting a Texas on the verge of great change: oil has arrived to replace the ranchers, and it's the malicious Jett Rink, of course, who's in position to capitalize.  Can Bick survive a changing Texas?  Is the idea of Texas--static, bigger than life--a lie worth preserving?  Everything's bigger in Texas, but, as Leslie puts it, "what littleness does it hide?"

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The agent shrugged as though it was of no consequence to him, and Nadia, who had not considered the order of their departure until that moment, and realized there was no good option for either of them, that there were risks to each, to going first and going second, did not argue, but approached the door, and drawing close she was struck by its darkness, its opacity, the way that it did not reveal what was on the other side, and also did not reflect what was on this side, and so felt equally like a beginning and an end, and she turned to Saeed and found him staring at her, and his face was full of worry, and sorrow, and she took his hands in hers and held them tight, and then, releasing them, and without a word, she stepped through.

Saeed--quiet, pious, thoughtful--meets Nadia--brash, rebellious, adventurous--in an unnamed city where a violent crisis is unfolding.  Hamid pointedly keeps the city and the country unnamed, even in a novel where other geographical markers are quite explicit, to turn Saeed and Nadia into Middle Eastern everymen, but rightly or wrongly, I read them as Syrians.  Their budding relationship is slow and uncertain, but slowness and uncertainty are luxuries that war zones cannot afford, and soon Nadia has moved into Saeed's house with his father, filling the space left by his mother, who has died in the violence.  Saeed and Nadia love their familiar city, but it is changing, disappearing, and soon they find themselves with no other choice than to do what thousands of others have already done: make use of the mysterious black doors opening up all around the city that lead to other places in the world.

The doors inject a bit of magical realism into the story of the refugee.  The pair finds themselves transported immediately to Mykonos, where they struggle in a refugee camp, then through another door to London, and finally to San Francisco.  It's tempting to say, the conceit of the doors is actually sort of useless: it brings the refugees to their next stop instantly, but it doesn't actually change the progression of their travel or the alienation they feel when they get there.  (This is at least in part the way I felt about the literal train in Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.)  But I appreciated the interstitial passages where Hamid breaks away from Saeed and Nadia's story to give vignettes about how other people have used the doors.  A suicidal man escapes the drudgery of his life; two elderly men from different sides of the world fall in love.  (I found these stories honestly more interesting than the couple, who bear too much of a burden to be an avatar for all refugees.)  The doors are not just a symbol for refugeeism, but for all the ways the world is shrinking in the 21st century.  Hamid imagines a world where refugees and migrants make up even larger percentages of cities like London than they do now, and provoke greater backlash and unrest, but it seems likely that this vision is less a fantasy or an exaggeration than an image of a near future.

It was interesting to read Exit West alongside Event Factory, which use very different strategies, neither very realistic, to capture something about the alienation of moving from place to place.  Both are good reminders that it is the alien who is truly alienated, and that the nativist fear of a changing home is never comparable to the migrant's sense of loss.  "We are all refugees in time," Hamid says, encouraging us to accept the changing demographics of the places in which we live and he is, of course, right.

Billy said he thinks that Hamid's writing is beautiful and deliberate, and I think deliberate is just the right word: Hamid spins out long but careful sentences, like the one I quoted above, that are tiny marvels in that you never get lost in them.  Combined with the deliberate vagueness around Saeed and Nadia's particular cultural position, and the bird's eye view perspective that avoids immediate action and dialogue in favor of descriptions of longer periods of time, I felt like the writing became aloof, and turned the story into something of a fable.  I found myself skating across the surface of it, wanting to get inside and not quite being able to.  But I did think Exit West was both imaginative and vital to the present moment in a way that few books are able to accomplish.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Event Factory by Renee Gladman

I had a dilemma about entering.  My accent was pretty good at that point; I knew I would be understood.  But there was a gesture I was to make upon entering a place that was already peopled, something between "hello," "sorry," and "congratulations I'm here," and I could not remember what it was.  As subtly as I could, I bent here and there trying to jog my memory: was I to do a shake, a roundoff?  I kept thinking, "How great it would be to enter."  If only traveling were about showing off your language skills, if only it did not also demand a certain commitment of body communication, of outright singing or dancing--I think I would be absolutely global by now.  In Ravicka, I was barely urban.  A child approached me and asked if I were sleepy.  Why it was this question that recalled the missing gesture, I shall never know.  But there it was: you folded your body as though you were taking a bow with your legs spread far apart, and then, after holding that posture for several seconds (depending on your age) you brought your legs together quickly.  I stepped inside the door; the patrons turned toward me; I performed and was right.

An unnamed narrator arrives by plane in the yellow town of Ravicka.  She's studied the language, she knows about the culture, and yet the city is strange and forbidding: it's difficult to tell what people's intentions are, and every social circumstance demands not just the right word but a complicated gesture, from entering a shop to having sex.  Sorry, I'm not quite making this sound as strange as it really is: the city, and the people in it, are like something out a Fellini film, where human intention and conversation are aestheticized, robbed of sense.  Ravicka is a maze, a yellow--whatever that word means when applied to a whole city--maze, beset by some kind of nameless crisis.  Underground, a group of rebellious dissenters speak a language made only of air.

Renee Gladman's Event Factory is something like a hyperexperimental version of Olga Tokarczuk's Flights, about the satisfactions and bewilderments of travel.  The nameless narrator wants badly to be integrated into the fabric of Ravicka--she even spends a few days working as the concierge in her hotel, when the original concierge disappears--but Ravicka remains essentially unknowable and inaccessible.  The experimental aspects of Event Factory put us in her place; the novel, too is difficult to break into.  The language looks like something familiar, but is unsettlingly strange in ways that are difficult to explain entirely.

I enjoyed the weirdness of Event Factory, but I'm not sure what else there is to say about it.  I get the central idea of it, I think; experimental art is always in some respect about alienation, and this particular alienation is the alienation of being in a new place, or perhaps any kind of place at all.  But taking it apart and trying to put it into regular English words seems beside the point; the words might work, but what's the right gesture to make it communicable?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?
-Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

It sounds, in retrospect, a little whiny, but at the time it was an earthshaking query
-Gail Collins, “Introduction to the 50th Anniversary Edition.”

It is neither fair nor accurate to suggest that Friedan’s seminal work has not aged well.  But to read The Feminine Mystique in 2020 is to look at truths we now take as beyond self-evident when they are first being thought through.  Her view of role women should be encouraged to play in society is as true as air now – we simply breathe it and take it for granted.  While feminism has not achieved the goal of an equal society, the pre-feminist culture Friedan is arguing against seems ridiculous and foreign.  The shock of non-recognition comes through on virtually every page – for instance, when she lists some of the stories in a woman’s magazine she reads - “Femininity Begins at Home,” “It’s a Man’s World Maybe,” “Have Babies While You’re Young,” “How to Snare a Male,” “Should I Stop Work When We Marry?” “Are You Training Your Daughter to Be a Wife?” “Careers at Home,” and “Do Women Have to Talk So Much?”  One doesn’t need to think that Self or Cosmo or Vogue are somehow edifying to understand that this list of stories would never get consideration today.

As Gail Collins points out in her enthusiastic introduction, when reading a book that has provided such an accepted truth at this distance, it is almost easier to find its faults – its strengths simply point out what has become self-evident.  There were times when I was reading this that I thought it was over-wrought, claimed too much for its thesis and ignored too many aspects of the problem.  

The structure of the book is to tear at the notion that the highest goal of femininity was the role of mother and suburban housewife by examining it from a variety of angles.  There is the stunning chapter on the role of women’s magazines.  Friedan began to work on The Feminine Mystique after becoming disillusioned with the opportunities to write complex, interesting work for these magazines.  My mother was an editor at Woman’s Day for most of my life and this portrait rang largely true with what I remember of her stories.  My mother simply didn’t think it was the job of a magazine to supply anyone’s identity that fully.  The notion of chasing some perceived least-common-denominator was more of a game for her.  Friedan quits and begins the research that will lead to one of the most important books of the 20th Century.  

There are sections on a variety of topics:  consumerism – bemoaning the way women are taught that their sense of self is to come from their dish detergent or their appliances; education – noting the prevalence of women who go to college only to search for husbands; housework – a scathing attack on its boring, trivial quality; sexuality – containing lengthy arguments claiming that career women have more and better orgasms than housewives. 

I know that Friedan has come under a good deal of criticism for the limitations of the book.  Some of them seem obvious – she claims at one point that the emergence of a more public gay community in the early sixties is an outgrowth of too many boys being raised by insecure women, and there is no discussion regarding how female consumerism fits into what was (and is) a society-wide phenomenon.  One can sense the outrage of Phyllis Schlafly and her followers begin to boil over as Friedan belittles housework and anyone who claims it is important.  At the same time, it is stunning how little discussion of men there is – her proposed solution to the problem of maintaining a family home and having a fulfilling career does not include getting your spouse to do more of the work:  she suggests that it can simply be done in an hour and a half before and after work.

The most serious criticism I have heard is that her work focuses too narrowly on the plight of upper-class, educated women.    The criticism of the class limitations of the book is totally accurate, but perhaps unfair.  Friedan makes no claim to be discussing anything but the plight of those well-to-do educated women who should have had the most opportunities in 1963.  It is as if she wants to eliminate any complexity that might give those who wanted to argue against her a chance to muddy the waters.  She freely admits that the seed of the project was a questionnaire she sent to her sister members of the Smith College class of 1942 – hardly a representative sample of American women.  She refers throughout to “suburban housewives,” and makes regular references to “an eastern suburb,” to Westchester, Rockland, Bergen and Nassau Counties and occasional references to Connecticut suburbs.  The women she discusses have tried therapy, painting classes, beach clubs, volunteer work and a variety of other activities closely tied to class.  It is difficult to read her discussion of how few married women work outside of the home, knowing that even in 1963 tens of thousands of women worked because their income was necessary – Friedan is exclusively interested in career as a form of self-actualization, not as a road out of poverty.  She is talking about women who seem to have a choice and feel trapped by that illusion.

The same blind spot exists for race and ethnicity, and it is similarly purposeful.  I only noticed one case when Friedan thought that a woman’s status as trapped was related to her religion – she seems to have been in an orthodox Jewish community.  Friedan does not specifically exclude race as a factor, she simply never takes it up.

In the end, if one reads this as a contemporary discussion of feminist ideas, disappointment is inevitable.  But it was never meant to summarize or even advance a movement.  From Friedan’s perspective, there was no women’s movement to speak of in 1963 – she is trying to start one.  She consistently refers to “feminism” as a thing of the past – referring to the suffrage movement that was forty years past reaching its goal.  Collins points out that it was not only legal to discriminate in hiring, it was ordinary practice:  most newspapers had separate job listings for men and women.  In most states a woman could not apply for a credit card without a male co-signer and in many states, if a married women did have a job, her husband had legal control over her income.  Friedan is not trying to describe the movement: she is trying to start it.

About a year after the book was published, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed sex discrimination. However, that aspect of the law was not immediately taken seriously.  Many commentators believe that including sex with race, religion and national background was meant to scuttle the bill – so many believed that gender discrimination in the workplace was right and proper.  Friedan and other women went to Washington to push for a more serious enforcement.  After a day of frustrated meetings with male legislators and aides, they met for breakfast in Friedan’s hotel room and started the National Organization of Women.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles by Gerald Vizenor

The silver convertible continued creeping up the hill.  So loaded with bodies and firewood, the rear tires exploded.  The sound seemed to panic the whitepeople who started cursing and fighting.  Several whitepeople used sticks of birch and oak as clubs to beat a path to the red padded wheel.  Faces and ears were crushed under the blows of firewood.  Slivers were sticking from the heads of the whitepeople.  Noses were broken and teeth were smashed.  More and more whitepeople tried to pile onto the convertible.  The rear bumper was dragging and the plush seats were torn and broken.

Bigfoot and Pure Gumption managed to crawl through the whitebodies struggling for the wheel.  The tribal pilgrims ran ahead of the car up the school hill road.  The seven clown crows flapped and hopped from tree to tree following the mass of whitepeople beating each other for less than half a tank of gasoline.

In the near future, the United States of America has literally run out of gas.  The country has become something out of Mad Max: an apocalyptic wasteland of freaks and weirdos traveling across a collapsed and ruined landscape.  In Minnesota, Proude Cedarfair, the Ojibwe protector of a band of cedar trees, is pushed out by federal agents who want to ransack his trees for fuel.  He joins with his wife, Rosina, and a host of other pilgrims, to travel across the United States to the safety of the pueblos of New Mexico.  The other pilgrims include: an enormous transwoman deprived of her hormones, a bishop who says everything three times, a woman who has sex with her two boxers, a man with huge feet who is in love with a bronze statue, two dogs, one of which glows, a couple other people, and seven helpful crows.

The pilgrims' movement over the land is an ironic reenactment of manifest destiny: this time it's "mixedblood" Natives moving west, and backwards in time to the oldest inhabited places in North America.  Through their pilgrimage, the Natives seek to reverse the proliferation of a culture that has led to ecological, spiritual, and psychological death.  In Iowa, they confront an evil gambler by the name of Sir Cecil Staples who gambles travelers' lives against five gallons of gasoline; hideous and cloistered, Sir Cecil is the avatar of the dying age, which Vizenor positions as the third age of the Hopi, who believe a fourth and prosperous age is yet to be born.  But the dying culture throws up its challenges and pitfalls--not only Sir Cecil, but a walled town of poisoners, a restaurant that hangs witches, a mysterious lightning field, and all sorts of other ornate phantasmagoria.

The country is suffering from what Vizenor calls "terminal creeds"--ideas and beliefs that lead to disintegration and death because they have no adaptability, no capacity for change.  Most of them are held by "whitepeople," but the "mixedbloods" suffer from them, too, as when the character Belladonna Darwin-Winter Catcher speaks up to insist on her superiority as an Indian by blood.  For Vizenor, most claims of indigeneity seem to be a kind of terminal creed also, a rigid way of defining the self against others that leads to stagnation and paralysis, and which are opposed to the spirit of fluidity and play that characterize the pilgrims, who are often called clowns, a word which makes a lot of sense when Vizenor describes them all cramming into or spilling out of an automobile:

The doors on the truck cab and trailer opened and out flew seven crows, out leaped four dogs, one glowing, out stepped a mammoth and a giant and a child and an old couple with braids and a woman wrapped in a constellation quilt and a bishop dressed in his ceremonial vestments and velvet dalmatic.

Bearheart is an exceedingly strange book, unlike anything else I've ever read in form, content, or execution.  The closest thing to it is the otherworldliness of William S. Burroughs, but Vizenor also seems inspired by some of the wordplay of Barthes and the Oulipo movement.  Like Burroughs, Vizenor's vision is comically violent and extremely sexual.  And like Burroughs, the sexuality, even with its anti-conformist and comic elements, often seems to put a special burden on the female characters.  Why does Lilith Mae need to have sex with dogs?  Why does one of the most sympathetic characters rape Proude's wife at the end of the novel, and why do I have to pay attention to the violent and sticky details?

(On that note, I was completely unconvinced by the afterword by Choctaw-Cherokee scholar Louis Owens, which talked about being reported to his dean for assigning Bearheart.  "In the end I realized it wasn't the novel's irrepressible sexuality, not the violence or bestiality, not the transsexual shape shifting that upset my students.  It was the novel's outrageous challenge to all preconceived definitions, which Bearheart calls 'terminal creeds.'"  Are you sure?  Are you sure they weren't complaining about the scene where a band of roving "cripples" tears the woman Little Big Mouse apart for her body parts?)

At its most ingenious, Bearheart seems admirably unafraid and entirely new.  But at its worse, it feels unforgivably retrograde, in thrall to a style and ethic that once seemed avant garde but now seems painfully dated, even as it cobbles something wholly unique out of that style and ethic.  I couldn't tell you whether I liked it or not; it's one of those books that just doesn't seem to care whether you do, even though the characters themselves seem to be having a whole lot of fun on path through apocalypse.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

It was not clear as to what it was that Mrs. Morris had seen coming, but I decided that we had talked enough about it.  Was I then to marry Julian?  Was that what she had seen coming?  Would he propose to me, after a decent interval, of course, and should we make a match of it and delight the parish?  It sounded ideal, but somehow morning had not brought any more enthusiasm than the night before.  I still thought of myself as one of the rejected ones and I could not believe that he loved me anymore than I loved him.  Of course I liked and admired him, perhaps I even respected and esteemed him, as Everard Bone did Esther Clovis.  But was that enough?  In any case, it was indecent, wicked, almost, to be thinking of such things now.  There must surely be some practical help I could give.

Mildred Lathbury is a thirty-something spinster who lives a quiet life.  Her social calendar includes visiting with the vicar Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, and organizing church jumble sales.  She has never really been in love, and finds spinsterhood satisfying enough; being single allows her maximum freedom to help the church and other people.  All that is thrown into disarray--a very polite and mild disarray, a very British disarray--thanks to a series of upheavals: Julian's engagement to a suspicious interloper, and the arrival of the Napiers, a tempestuously married couple, in the apartment upstairs from Mildred.

Excellent Women is the story of all the myriad ways that Mildred gets taken advantage of.  Julian and his fiancee are keen on kicking Julian's sister Winifred out of the small apartment where they've been living and having her move in with Mildred.  The Napiers, Rocky and Helena, put Mildred in the middle of their spats, even to the point of convincing her to manage a battle over furniture after they inevitably separate.  Helena's friend Everard, a prickly anthropologist, shows up outside of Helena's office without warning demanding lunch dates.  And every other person in Mildred's orbit is certain that she'll eventually get married, though their opinion differs as to whether she "belongs" to Julian and his fiancee has rudely usurped her, or whether she's destined for Everard Bone, or perhaps even in love with the dashing but shallow Rocky.  Mildred never gets more than inwardly piqued about the way that others presume on her good will, and always does whatever she can to help.

You hear Pym compared to Jane Austen a lot, and if this were a Jane Austen novel, you might expect that Everard Bone really is a Mr. Darcy type, and that eventually he'll soften up and declare his love for Mildred, but instead he asks her to come over and cook a roast for him.  There's at least two couples I assume are secret lesbians, including Everard's mother and her mysterious (and never mentioned again) friend "Miss Jessop."  Maybe instead of wondering why she doesn't feel love for Julian, when everyone thinks they're a perfect match, Mildred ought to be examining how much she misses her old friend Dora, who's moved out the country?  I think you probably could read this as a very blackhearted satire on the way that patriarchy enlists women into their own ill treatment.  The irony is buried deep, but so, I suppose, is Mildred's sense of self, beneath layers of social conditioning.

But when the irony is buried so deep, it's easy not to notice it at all, and the experience of reading Excellent Women can seem superficial and provincial: a novel mostly about making and having tea.  It certainly feels like a genteel little comedy of manners about a criminally uninteresting woman.  My favorite part is a throwaway bit about how Everard's senile mother hates all birds and thinks they're conspiring against people.  ("'The Dominion of the Birds,' she went on.  'I very much fear it may come to that.'")  I would have enjoyed a novel about Everard's bird-hating lesbian mom much more, i think.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Magic Kitten: Firelight Friends by Sue Benton

Flame's bright emerald eyes sparkled with anger. "This kingdom is mine by right! Perhaps I should face my uncle for it now!"

When you have children who are just starting to enjoy reading, they'll often ask you to read books that they enjoyed. It's difficult to read books written for young children unironically, but I've tried to do that in this case.

There is something very impressive about the bait and switch performed here. Looking at the cover above, you'd never suspect that the kitten in that picture is actually Prince Flame, a mighty magical lion, and that he's transformed himself into a magical kitten and is hanging out at summer camp, performing routine mischief like impromptu rainstorms and dessert mishaps, to avoid his evil uncle Ebony, who's trying to kill him in order to take his throne. Sort of like Hamlet but with magical kitten kings.

The royal intrigue mostly serves as a prologue and epilogue, and, at one point, a plot convenience to remove Flame from the story briefly to allow complications for the protagonist, Kara. Kara is at her first summer camp, where she's met a couple new friends, Cherry and Felicia. She's trying to have a good time and relax in spite of her horse, Amber, having injured her leg only days before camp. Her situation is complicated further when a couple boys, Dan and Nathan, decide to bully her and her friends. And into this setup comes the magic kitten. Flame's magic is not so much a plot driver as a plot resolver: he causes Nathan to pour pudding on his head, ending some harassment; he dries and replaces sheets soaked by the boys, soaking them in the process, and, of course, in the end, he heals Amber's leg. I was impressed, however, that Benton successfully orchestrates a setpiece involving a beloved teddy bear, a canoe trip, and Flame in such a way that Kara herself has to resolve the situation. It made sense and was even a little exciting.

Aside from the plot, there's not a lot to talk about in books like this. I did wonder if the royals plot is something that will actually be resolved at some point, given that this is the 10th book in the series, and it bookends this story without actually progressing at all--perhaps it functions only as a framing story to allow the series a little more tension than it would otherwise have. The writing is fine and functional and my 8-year-old loves it. There aren't any toxic messages about race, class, weight, or sex, and there's a lot of friendship stuff. Overall, it's pleasant fluff, like Flame, even if it does have a lion prince at the center.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Courtship of Eva Eldridge: A Story of Bigamy in the Marriage ...The Courtship of Eva Eldridge by Diane Simmons

This is a fascinating story that Simmons (whom I knew many years ago in graduate school) has built into a compelling examination of 1950s America.  Simmons grew up on an Eastern Oregon farm; Eva Eldridge was a neighbor, a glamorous woman when Diane was a little girl.  They stayed in touch and when Eldridge died she named Simmons as executor of her will.  As a result, Simmons came into possession of a large trove of letters and began to explore her friend’s life.

Eldridge grew up on an Eastern Oregon farm during the Depression.  She came from a deeply religious family and was expected (and fully expected herself) to be married with a family by the time she was 19 or 20.  Mother and housewife were simply the only occupations considered worthy and moral for women.  But World War II intervened:  her fiancĂ© was sent to Europe and Eva moved to Portland to work in a shipyard now desperate for women laborers.  In the city, with an independent income, Eva discovered a different kind of life.  She enjoyed going out, dating different men, living in her own apartment.  Her fiancĂ© returned from the war with what we would call PTSD and demanded she give up her independence to take care of him.  She decided not to give up her independence.

However, as the war ended, the world around her changed.  Marriage was once again the only worthy goal for a woman.  This stricture was enforced culturally – by magazines like Good Housekeeping and The Ladies Home Journal as well as by movies with Doris Day and others.  But it was also enforced economically.  Shipyards and factories that had begged women to work in 1942 began laying them off within days of VE Day.  Soon, whole sections of labor were once again reserved for men and women who tried to get or keep such jobs were labeled disloyal – there were returning veterans who needed employment.  The Courtship of Eva Eldridge tells the story of how an independent woman tried to navigate that new world.  

Simmons skips a bit on the details of Eva’s life immediately after the war.  She remains single, working in the hotel industry, is briefly married to an alcoholic veteran, but generally navigates her independence despite the disapproval of society in general and her mother in particular.  The most dramatic element, and the main focus of the second half of the book, is her 1958 marriage to Vick Virgil.  Eva is already 35 years old – an old maid rescued by true love.  The couple seems deeply in love, but eighteen months after the marriage, Vick disappears.  Eva comes home and finds the closet empty and the bank account light.

In the course of searching for the husband she is still devoted to, Eva discovers that Vick has been married before.  Simmons ultimately turns up 10 marriages, one after the other over the course of nearly two decades.  Virgil would not divorce these women, but simply disappear and within a few years marry again.  He was a con man, but monetary gain was not high on his agenda – he stole money and cars from his wives, and left three of them with children to raise, but he did not seek out wealthy women and did not go out of his way to bankrupt them.  He seems to have thrived on attractive working class women who would feel like he was a prize.  He sought out the feeling of perfect love, from a woman who would treat him like a hero.  When that honeymoon was over, and the day-to-day reality of marriage set in, he was gone. 

Simmons skillfully weaves scholarly looks at psychology, social history and pop culture into these biographies and through this very dysfunctional couple gets a riveting picture of what she calls the “marriage-mad fifties.”  What struck me most strongly about this was the way she was able to place those fifties into the culture of the decades that came before and after them.  The way deprivation colored the dreams of teenagers in The Depression, the way the upheaval of the war changed women’s view of their place in society, the extreme pressure to change back in the post-war era, and the cracks in that view of the nuclear family that began to form in the 1960s.  

I personally found Eva much more interesting than Vick.  Though his case was dramatic, he simply embodied a stereotype we are all familiar with – he was literally a love ’em and leave him sort of guy.  The fact that he seemed to come as close as he could to actually loving these women makes him more complicated than a thousand characters in country and rock songs, but he is still totally recognizable.  Eva is not nearly so unique at first glance, but Simmons gets into her head and places her in context very effectively.  She becomes a lens through which to examine the American family in both its idealized form and its reality.

We never forget that Simmons knew these people – she was the flower girl when Eva married Vick and kept in touch with Eva for decades after that marriage.  As the book goes on, she becomes more prominent, with much of the second half narrating her own search for the truth of Eva’s past.  She is a restrained presence, however.  We understand her reactions to events she is uncovering, but the focus is always on Eva’s reaction – or Simmons’ best understanding of that reaction.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980's by Richard Beck

Some ritual abuse skeptics have explained the panic as a simple failure of reason, a sudden and violent collapse of the  country's ability to distinguish fact from fiction.  Those failures were real, and it is important, from a forensic and judicial perspective, to identify and remedy them.  However, it hardly explains anything at all to point out that people got their facts wrong.  The more pressing question has to do with the source and cause of this eagerness to mistake a decade-long waking nightmare for the truth.  Of course, the hysteria played on people's fears about the social changes that began to work their way through American society at the end of the twentieth century: the reorganization of private life and the slow but still probably--hopefully--inexorable breakdown of the country's sexual hierarchy.  But people also actively wanted these social changes to take place, even if they often found this was a desire they could not bring themselves to acknowledge, whether in public or in the privacy of their own homes and heads.  The hysteria drew its special character in the 1980s and 1990s from the difficulty people had recognizing this desire and acknowledging that many areas of life were already being transformed to accommodate it.  The difficulty persists today, and as a result, so do the hysteria's effects.

At first blush, Richard Beck's book We Believe the Children seems like a retread of familiar ground.  Beck is clearly familiar with Debbie Nathan's expose on the child abuse scandals of the 1980's, Satan's Silence; he draws frequently on Nathan's work and uses the pseudonyms she establishes.  Like Nathan, Beck focuses most of his attention on the McMartin Preschool trial that became the country's longest and costliest trial and resulted in zero convictions.  (Danny Davis, the lead defense counsel, Beck explains, drew the trial out intentionally, believing--correctly, it seems--that a long trial would outlast the hysteria and outrage around the McMartin allegations.)

But there are two things that make We Believe the Children, and the first is that it's just the most skillfully written of the books I've read on the Satanic panics of this time period, which include Satan's Silence and The Devil's KnotNathan brings a journalist's clarity and reliability to the McMartin story, knowing that the details need do embellishment to seem ludicrous, but Beck uses a freer hand, and often knows exactly the right detail to make the absurdity of the McMartin trial, and others like it, come alive.  Sometimes these details are funny: "I see it's Anus Awareness Week again," says one observer of the trial, after the umpteenth slide show of supposedly "abnormal" conditions of the alleged victims' anus and genitals.  Sometimes the details are heartbreakers: Beck details how defendant Peggy Buckey kept a list of things she was grateful for in a notebook during the trial, beginning with the banal ("God," "Love," "Truth"), stretching to entries like "Seeds," "Fog," Surf boards," and "Trucks."  The last item was "Children."

The other thing that distinguishes We Believe the Children is its efforts to put the McMartin trial in a wider cultural and psychological context.  I appreciated Beck's thorough account of Freud's "Seduction theory," a pre-Oedipal conflict account of suppression and trauma rooted in prepubescent sexual abuse.  Freud abandoned the theory, but modern, often feminist, thinkers have accused Freud of not being willing to face just how widespread such abuse was; these ideas provide the context for the expanded attention to child abuse in general and panics like these specifically.  Beck does a great job finding the parallels between the McMartin case and others, like the tragic family collapse documented in the HBO movie Capturing the Friedmans and the bizarre self-hypnosis of Paul Ingram, a cop who seems to have convinced himself that he molested his daughters.

Beck also makes a convincing case that the roots of sexual abuse panic is rooted in divided attitudes toward the sexual revolution and the dissolution of the American family.  Many of us, Beck theorizes, secretly crave release from the stifling institutions of marriage, family, and the sexual hierarchy, but the strength of social conditioning also produces immense guilt around those cravings.  It explains why the abuse panic centers on daycares, who act as surrogate parents: we desire deeply the freedom that professional daycare provides, but our shame for abandoning our children causes us to lash out.  Ritual and sexual abuse panic, according to Beck, is the conservative id emerging to chastise and punish.  The strength of We Believe the Children is that it forsakes journalism for cultural criticism, and makes the panic of the 1980s sensible rather than merely shocking.  It also makes it clear that, while panic in this specific form seems to have run its course, the conditions for panic, including a retrenched conservative fear of changing moral attitudes, remains very much with us.