Tuesday, February 28, 2012

booknotes: nearly-vacation round-up

Once again I've managed to pile up a whole stack of books that handwriting's on the wall I won't make the time to properly review. Either I don't have enough to say about them, or the thoughts are too disparate to form a coherent narrative, or I've had to return them to the library, etc. And so as Hanna and I are gathering ourselves for a trip to Michigan next week, I thought I'd pull together another list of not-quite-booknotes for stuff I've been reading.

Bright, Susie and Rachel Kramer Bussel, eds. | Best Sex Writing 2012 (Cleis Press, 2012). Susie Bright frames this year's anthology in the following way: "On one side of the current sex news we have the orgasm guru, the pleasure benefactor, the inspirational bohemian ... the writers of these pieces describe an erotic identity unfettered by shame, a marvel in all its variety, the authentic glue that keeps us going, both literally and philosophically ... [on the other side] fearmongers of our 21st-century Gilded Age are fanatical about social control through sex, largely using women and young children as bait" (viii). So, you know, she obviously has a perspective! But it's Susie Bright, so what did you expect, and for the most part I'm on board with that perspective, so I'm willing to hop on for the ride. It was a good collection, but in a lot of ways made me sad about how unable we are as a culture to talk about and appreciate human sexuality. You can check out the anthology's full table of contents, read Rachel Kramer Bussel's introduction, and watch a web video book trailer over at the book website.

Clarke, Ted | Brookline, Allston-Brighton, and the Renewal of Boston (The History Press, 2010). Growing up and living in the same town for twenty-seven years, I took for granted knowing the basic contours of local history. I've lived here in Boston since 2007 -- working at the Massachusetts Historical Society no less! -- and what with one thing and another still know relatively little about the history of the Boston metropolitan area. But I've been working on a research project recently that's actually pushed me to delve a bit more into local history. More on that eventually, when I've got the paper written, but in the meantime it was fun to spend an afternoon reading Ted Clarke's brief overview of Boston and its relationship to Brookline and Allston-Brighton, both of which I spend a lot of time in. Lack of footnotes and a bibliography make me take Clarke's historical narrative with a grain of salt, but reading his book has prompted me to consider more deeply the history of the area I now call home.

Michaelson, Jay | God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality (Beacon Press, 2011). Part of the Queer Action/Queer Ideas series edited by Michael Bronski, Michaelson's God vs. Gay, as the subtitle suggests, makes a "religious case" for recognizing queer sexuality as part of the variety of God's creation. An observant Jew with a background in New Testament scholarship, Michaelson admits up-front that he'll focus on Judeo-Christian tradition. What I like best about this slim volume is its emphasis not so much on how homophobic interpretations of scripture are incorrect and ahistorical (though he covers that), but about the religious injunctions toward lovingkindness for humanity. "Loneliness is the first problem of creation," Michaelson writes, "and love comes to solve it" (6). While this book is not likely to convince the Biblical literalist, it may give sex-positive religious folks some new, and possibly more effective, language to talk about why human sex, gender, and sexual diversity can be part of religious life rather than a departure from it.

Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth | Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children (Yale U.P., 2012). I picked up psychoanalyst Young-Bruehl's book hoping for a good systemic analysis of the social marginalization (and simultaneous idealization/objectification) of young people in our culture. Indeed, Young-Bruehl's goal in writing the book was to introduce the term "childism" as something equivalent to "sexism" or "racism" that would help us identify the patterns of age-based prejudice and stereotyping which lead to age-segregation, intolerance, and inequality. Frustratingly, this is not that book. As a therapist and theorist whose work focused primarily on children who were subject to physical and emotional abuse, Young-Bruehl's narrative actually works against her desire to convince her audience that age-based prejudice against young people is a thing in the world. Her examples are so obvious and horrific (children who were sexually abused by family members, gross neglect, etc.) that readers not already thinking in terms of inequality will say, "Yes, of course that's wrong! Children should be protected!" but likely fail to examine their own every-day prejudices about children's ability to participate in society. In addition, her rhetoric and examples are, for obvious reasons, wrapped up in psychoanalytic language and often in response to very specific developments within the professional fields in which she practiced. Hopefully, this book will speak to her fellow practitioners and shift the debate in healthy directions. However, to the non-specialized reader she comes off out of touch with the parents and activists who have been speaking out regularly on this issue consistently in online spaces and through real-world actions (like protests against the freak-outs over breastfeeding in public). For an introduction to the concept of age-based prejudice, I'd recommend Helping Teens Stop Violence, Build Community, and Stand For Justice.

Younge, Gary | Who Are We -- and Should It Matter in the Twenty-First Century? (Nation Books, 2011). English-born journalist Gary Younge explores the good, the bad, and the ugly of our identities, politicized and otherwise. I admit that I was a bit wary, given the title of this book, that Younge's thesis would be reduced to a call for the end to "identity politics" -- but Who Are We is much more than that. Even though the text wanders at times, I found his thoughtful treatment of the many ways in which we invoke our many-layered identities (and society invokes them for us, sometimes contrary to our own self-understanding) to be extremely nuanced and articulate. Growing up black and working-class in England during the 1970s, Younge has a clear understanding of how inequality shapes self-awareness: "Those who feel without identity [the powerful] do not see the need to meet people halfway and thereby fail to recognize that everyone else is doing all the traveling" (45). He eloquently treats such thorny subjects as the present-day use of the term "political correctness," questions of intersectionality (how pitting "African-American" against "woman" in the oppression olympics ignores the existence of people who are both), and the importance of honoring self-definition: "We should honor self-definition not to humor the subject but because it is infinitely preferable to allowing anyone to be defined by others" (84). I'd highly recommend this book for anyone interested in how our self-identities and community affiliations become politicized -- and how those politics can both support and detract from the quest for equality.

Nestle, Joan | A Fragile Union: New and Selected Writings (Cleis Press, 1998). A Fragile Union brings together a series of fiction and non-fiction pieces by lesbian activist Joan Nestle, one of the founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives (one of the largest community-based archives chronicling queer women's history in the world \o/). Published over a decade ago, when Nestle was with colon cancer, this work stands as a fractured memoir, bringing together pieces reflecting back into her mid-twentieth-century adolescence, the early years of gay liberation, and feminist activism, and forward into the future of queer identities and practices. Given my reading list over the past few months, I particularly appreciated the moments at which Nestle's experiences overlap and converse with the work of others in her cohort, such as Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia. And for obvious reasons, I hold a special place in my heart for the anyone who has done as much as Nestle to ensure the survival of primary source materials on queer women's lives for future generations to plunder for story-telling, history-making potential.

Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

books purchased, not yet read

Back when Nick Hornby used to write (and periodically publish anthologies of) the "stuff I've been reading" column for The Believer magazine, one of my favorite aspects of his pieces was the way he began each monthly reading report with a list of books read and books acquired. The two lists diverged more often than not, and -- as so many bibliophiles will recognize in themselves -- together the two lists made up a much clearer portrait of the whole of who Hornby was and wished he were than if one only took into account the books he'd actually read.

I thought of the The Believer last week when I came across a piece at Publisher's Weekly (via bibliofeminista) by Gabe Habash, The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books. The post as a whole is a great ode to the accumulation of books, and I highly recommend it to anyone else like Hanna and I who find books are the main thing which is pushing us in the direction of a bigger apartment. We both come by it genetically since both sets of parents have, likewise, filled every nook and cranny of homespace with books both read and unread. As Habesh writes:
There are just too many books to read. And while one might make the very good point that you could just wait to buy them when you have more room, there’s something about putting them in a row with other books, read and unread, that creates the cumulative impression of your reading self. Because, when it comes to reading, there will always be more book that you haven’t read than books that you have, and your reading ambition will always be more important than your reading accomplishments.
So for today's post, I thought I'd provide you with an incomplete and altogether random bibliography of ten books on our bookshelves which I've acquired but have yet to read. Here is a portrait of the reader in progress:

Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl by Susan Campbell

Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture by R. Laurence Moore

Days of Grace by Catherine Hall

3 Plays: The Political Theatre of Howard Zinn: Emma, Marx in Soho, and Daughter of Venus

Maternal Desires: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life by Daphne DeMarneffe

Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It's Good for Everyone by Richard Settersten and Barbara Ray

Expecting to Fly: A Sixties Reckoning by Martha Tod Dudman

I Do, I Don't: Queers on Marriage edited by Greg Wharton and Ian Philips

The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth by M. Scott Peck

A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict by John Baxter

Thursday, February 16, 2012

New Names, Please?

So here's the thing.

A few weeks ago Anna sent out a clip from, I think, a New York Times article about genre fiction or SFF on TV or something, I don't know, I don't read the NYT because, well, it sucks out loud.

Anyway, Anna sent round to me and a couple of our friends a clip from a blogger who had seen the article and wanted to talk about it and that's totally fine and the blogger (he, she, it, I don't know that either!) was complaining about how the NYT article didn't talk about women in SFF. Which is a totally legit complaint although it does indicate a certain naivete about the NYT.

The actual comment runs like this:
"But I am glad to know that science fiction has never had anything to say about simple human emotions like love. We don’t have Firefly, which is all about freedom and healing and, most of all, family. We don’t have Octavia Butler’s Kindred, with its harrowing exploration of slavery and how it twists love and what people do to survive it. We don’t have Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which is all about the love between Genly and Estraven. Star Trek talks about the importance of love so much it gets tedious. 
"You can’t even fucking say Lightsaber Stories aren’t about love, because the climactic moment of Star Wars is where Luke redeems Darth Vader through the power of love. Did this person even bother to watch to the end of the movie?"
But I want to complain about the complaint because if one more person complains that no-one talks about women in SFF and mentions Ursula K. Le Guin or Octavia Butler (or fucking Margaret Atwood or Madeline L'Engle), I'm gonna have to start shootin'.

Now, I understand that these ladies are the grand pantheon of female SFF as far as a lot of people are concerned; I understand their importance in the historical development of SFF; I have even read their stuff (although without any pleasure and solely as a historical exercise); and I have friends who love them as authors and find them deeply moving and helpful. And that's all great. They don't speak to me personally but they don't have to -- there's no rule.

But here's a thought: They aren't the only women writing SFF. (And I understand this wasn't the original blogger's point either.) It's gotten to the point when you see the article or the blog post or the commentary about "Women in Genre," you can tell who they're going to talk about without even bothering to click or listen. (It's much the same for the guys, too, but that's another rant.)

Can we talk about Connie Willis for a change? Or what about Cherie Priest? Mira Grant? Tanith Lee? Kage Baker? Caitlin Kiernan? Nina Kiriki Hoffman? If you've got to talk about SFF as a gender-divided thing (which is the stupid way to talk about it anyway), can we at least get some fucking new names up there?

Seriously, if anyone comes up with Margaret "I Don't Write Genre Fiction" Atwood again, I'm gonna have to insist on bombing Canada.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

booknotes: hound of conscience

Background research for a fan fiction series I'm working on (I know, I know) took me to Thomas C. Kennedy's The Hound of Conscience: A History of the No-Conscription Fellowship, 1914-1919 (Univ. of Arkanasas, 1981). The No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) was founded in 1914 as Britain entered World War One. It had its origins in a call put out by journalist, socialist organizer, and pacifist Archibald Brockway who published a letter in the Labour Leader in November 1914 "calling on all men of military age who would resist conscription if it became law to enroll themselves in an anticonscription organization" (43). At the time, England had an all-volunteer army, and early enthusiasm for the war meant that the military was not in urgent need of troops. Compulsory service, however, had already been broached for consideration in parliament and antiwar activists of various stripes understood they would need to band together to support each other in the event of a nationwide conscription scheme.

Kennedy's history is a fairly straightforward organizational history, charting the formation of the NCF, its various political activities, and the various ideological perspectives of its leaders. Opposition to conscription during the First World War came from a number of different fronts, from those with theological opposition to war (like the Quakers), to civil libertarians who believed no-one should be forced to serve their country, to socialists who weren't opposed to violence per se but objected to participating in a war which served the capitalist bourgeoisie at the expense of the working class. Hound of Conscience charts out the way the NCF brought together this diverse group of individuals and organized them to lobby politically against conscription and -- once it became the law of the land -- to support those who chose to become conscientious objectors.

While grounded in solid research and providing a decent amount of analysis, Kennedy occasionally gives in to a degree of moral disapproval of his subjects that seems uncalled for in the context of such a history. For example, after a lengthy quotation from the letter of a young conscientious objector just sent to prison, Kennedy writes:
Chappelow's letter is both pathetic and revolting: pathetic because of his obvious hysteria and fright; revolting because it exposes a young man so naive or ill-informed about the nature and seriousness of his actions that he appears ready to collapse under the pressure of minor inconvenience (138). 
Since the letter in question was expressing panicked fear over the prospect of solitary confinement, which Kennedy later describes as a form of "creeping physical and mental degeneration," the character assassination seems peculiar and unwarranted (182). Likewise, at several points throughout the narrative, Kennedy seems to suggest that conscientious objectors had no business protesting their treatment because regardless of what they suffered it wasn't as bad as the experience of the Western Front. Given that the COs were morally opposed to the war, and believed that no one should be punished for refusing to participate in the national war machine, there's a strange dis-connect here. Kennedy teeters back and forth between acknowledging the wholesale objection to war on the one hand, while occasionally lapsing into the treatment of conscientious objectors with a derision that seems to suggest that they should be grateful others were willing to suffer the hardships they (the pansyboys!) were not.

While it is unfair to hold a thirty-year-old study to the standards of present-day scholarship, I hope that subsequent work on the NCF has situated the Fellowship's activities more firmly in the network of organizations promoting pacifism and non-violent action as alternatives to war. As Mark Kurlansky's more recent Nonviolence (2006) suggests, resistance to war as a solution to human conflict is much more than a simple -- and, I would argue, entirely shame-free -- desire to avoid physical suffering and death. The central revelation of nonviolence as a political commitment is that violence (war included) will never result in a world of nonviolence. War always begats war -- never true peace. Once that realization has been taken to heart, the hard work of figuring out active alternatives to violence begins. Since the subjects of Kennedy's study are wrapped up in the immediate goal of opposing a specific war, it is understandable that he glosses over their deeper and wider commitments to alternatives to war. Still, I think the lack of discussion of their motivations is disappointing omission.

Hound of Conscience will probably only be interesting to scholars whose work focuses on pacifism, war resistance, World War One, and specifically Britain during the early twentieth century. Or, you know, people writing Downton Abbey fan fiction who need to construct a believable pacifist character.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

booknotes: bachelors and bunnies

About two years ago, I reviewed Elizabeth Fraterrigo's Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America (Oxford U.P., 2009), which examines Hugh Hefner's re-packaging of post-war masculinity via the highly successful Playboy magazine and still-thriving media empire. Now another historian, Carrie Pitzulo, has taken up the question of Playboy in historical context with Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2011). In Bachelors, Pitzulo argues that Playboy -- often used as cultural shorthand for sexual objectification of women -- in fact displayed a much more complex and often contradictory editorial stance on the subject of gender equality and women's sexuality than they are given credit for. To make her case, Pitzulo examines the arguments put forth in the pages of Playboy about what it meant to be masculine, what it meant to be feminine, and the nature of heterosexual relationships (both on the individual level and in the broader society). The six chapters look, in turn (and quasi-chronologically), at the gender-war language of Playboy's early years, the centerfold Playmates, the selling of masculine consumerism, Playboy's romantic values, the editorial reaction to feminist critique, and the Playboy Foundation's political activism around sexuality and women's rights.

Overall, I would say Pitzulo makes a convincing case that Playboy as a publication -- and as a cultural phenomenon -- deserves more sustained and thoughtful attention that it has received from either historians of sexuality and gender or from feminist writers and activists. For the most part, Pitzulo refrains from becoming an apologist for Hefner's (and the publication's) checked history when it comes to support or critique of feminist arguments. She opens the book, in fact, with a chapter on the virulent anti-women rhetoric that filled the pages of Playboy in its early years -- highly influenced by the post-war anxiety about the emasculation of men, who were often portrayed as victims of women (smothering mothers and demanding wives). At the same time, she finds textual and visual evidence in the pages of Playboy of a more equalizing, humanistic view of women that belied the early editorial venom. In order for the Playboy of Hefner's magazine to enjoy his version of the Good Life, it was necessary for Playboy to construct what amounted to a Playgirl: a sexually adventurous single woman. The Playmate disrupted the notion that good girls don't by depicting, Pitzulo argues, "all-American girls who enjoyed sex ... [Hefner] told his audience that women like the Playmates could be found everywhere, thereby not only popularizing his magazine but also granting sexual autonomy and desire to women" (40). Although I would point out that "autonomy and desire" isn't necessarily synonymous with "available," which is the other aspect of women's sexuality that the Playmate centerfold promotes, I do think Pitzulo makes a largely successful case for the multiple meanings of such sexual imagery -- beyond the perennial argument that sexual objectification is de facto an oppressive act.

What Pitzulo ends up suggesting is that Playboy championed a vision of gender equality that encouraged women to become a feminine version of the Playboy himself. The good life according to Hefner was urban, sexually liberated (yet responsible), economically secure, with enough time and money to gain the materials and skills necessary for successful heterosexual romance: an extensive wardrobe, a chic apartment, the ability to be a good host/hostess, skill in the kitchen, etc. Helen Gurley Brown articulated this ethic from a woman's perspective in her phenomenally popular Sex and the Single Girl (1960). Both Hefner and Brown "rejected the sexual double standard, yet still embraced heterosexual seduction and femininity" grounded in the notion of innate gender difference. Differences that were somehow fundamental to the continued success of both heterosexual relationships and the society as a whole. When feminist activists began to criticize Playboy for its sexual objectification of women and its championing of what they considered outdated and harmful gender stereotypes, Hefner (and his editors) responded on the defensive. On the one hand, they argued (somewhat truthfully) that they had a record of supporting many feminist objectives, such as reproductive rights and equal pay for equal work; on the other, they railed against "militant" feminists who sought (they thought) to "reject the overall roles that men and women play in our society," roles that Playboy  believed were both innate and desirable. The tension between calling for social equality on the one hand and championing innate gender difference on the other remained in continual tension throughout the 70s and into the 80s. Indeed, Pitzulo seems to suggest, the tension only really resolved itself when the mainstream culture at large rejected the more radical critiques of feminist activists in favor of embracing what was essentially the Playboy vision of both heterosexual relations and gender roles more generally: "American culture has largely embraced the vision of gender and heterosexuality promoted by Playboy in the postwar years, and the country continues its ... celebration of the rampant consumerism central to creating those identities" (177).

Despite Pitzulo's inevitable references to Sex and the City as shorthand for where we've arrived at the turn of the new millennium (cue Bradshaw's Law!) her re-evaluation of the messages concerning (hetero)sexuality and gender in Playboy deserve serious consideration by both historians of sex and gender and by those with an interest in deconstructing the powerful notions of gender, sex, and sexuality that still hold powerful sway in our cultural discourse. I was particularly intrigued by the anxiety with which Hefner met feminist challenges to gender difference and "heterosexual seduction," as if his entire formulation of Playboy masculinity depended upon the existence of an opposite. I wonder why this mattered to him so much, given that -- as Pitzulo demonstrates -- the Playboy and his Playmate were, in many ways, identical as model urban workers/consumers. One possible response of Playboy to feminist challenges would have been to reconfigure the notion of the ideal bachelor to be more ambiguous in terms of his sexual desires and more flexible in gender presentation (with male and female sexual partners with similar plasticity) -- while continuing to emphasize all of the material accouterments Playboy had argued all along were essential for the good life: A posh wardrobe, expensive car, chic flat, and fine dining could have been successfully packaged to gay men, stay-at-home-dads, and men with a thing for women in suits. That Hefner fell back on an insistence that the height of romance depended on opposite-sex attraction and performance of narrowly-defined gender roles speaks of something more compelling than the profit motive to maintaining a specific vision of male-female complementarity. That this same vision continue to be compelling for a significant portion of Americans today supports this notion that gender difference has persuasive explanatory power -- even in the face of social science and medical research to the contrary.

I have to say it's when I'm reading books like this that I find myself extra-specially glad that my own life circumstances have allowed me to opt out with relatively little pain from the straight-jacket of heterosexual roles that so many men and women continue to struggle with. Hugh Hefner and the Playboy editors gave scant attention to non-straight sexuality, beyond a general approval for repeal of laws punishing consensual sexual behaviors and an acceptance of Kinsey's notion of a sexual continuum (in which most people had the potential for same- as well as other-sex attractions). Beyond that, Playboy unapologetically championed straight sex. If only they'd been willing to champion a broader notion of what it meant to be male, female, and sexually desirable. It would be nice to think that American culture, as a whole, might have been influenced in a slightly more feminist (and dare I say healthier) direction.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

One of Those Weeks

Cross-posted from ...fly over me, evil angel...

You know the ones I mean.

So no time to blog this week! Instead, have my two favorite new Tumblrs:

mishagantic: I don't know what the name means either. Ask her -- she's very nice! French Supernatural fan with a serious thing for Castiel/Misha Collins in general as well Dean/Cas which warms my twisted little heart. Love this blog.

houseassbutpotionsmaster: More Spn goodness -- also random DW goodness -- just goodness all 'round really.

And a third option in case you're not into either Spn or slash (in which case what do you do with your spare time?!), Bookshelf Porn. Pretty much what it says on the label.