Book Review: The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, Daina Ramey Berry (2017)

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

A difficult yet necessary read.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence related to slavery, including racism and rape.)

This book is written in a historical moment that historians have not yet named—a moment when black persons are disproportionately being killed and their deaths recorded. We witness the destruction of their lives via cell phones and dash and body cameras. The current voyeuristic gaze contains a level of brutality grounded in slavery. I call this moment the historic spectacle of black death: a chronicling of racial violence, a foreshadowing of medical exploitation, a rehearsing of ritualized lynching that took place in the postslavery era. African Americans and their allies respond by rejecting the devaluation of their bodies with the phrase #BlackLivesMatter. This book, however, argues that the historical record is clear: #BlackBodiesMatter.

Dear wife, they cannot sell the rose
Of love, that in my bosom glows.
Remember, as your tears may start,
They cannot sell th’ immortal part!

(A poem carved by an enslaved black man named Mingo, on the beam of his cell, as he awaited trial and execution.)

Whether it’s some rando on a plantation tour, or a nationally syndicated talk show host, it always boggles my mind when people insist that some slaves were treated well: “like members of the family.” I guess this means they weren’t flogged on the daily, forced to live in unheated shacks, or forcibly bred? Idk, given that women and children were largely considered the property of their husbands and fathers; the first case of child abuse wasn’t prosecuted in the United States until 1874; and marital rape wasn’t a thing in all 50 states until 1993, forgive me if I don’t find this argument terribly compelling. But I digress.

I may have received the same sanitized, whitewashed public high school education as everyone else – but it doesn’t take an especially critical thinker to realize that, at the end of the day, slaves were property. In the eyes of the law, they were more somethings than someones: more like a television set or CD player (or, to use more contemporary examples, a banjo or a milk pan) than a human being. Some enslavers may have been less cruel than others, sure, but that doesn’t negate the power differential one bit. To borrow an example from this text, kindly patriarch Dr. Carson may have provided medical care for his slaves, and worried about their well-being after his death, but if he had had a bad day, there was nothing preventing him from taking his frustrations out on one of them. As his property, it was well within his right to punch, whip, stab, shoot, starve, dismember, rape, or molest them. And therein lays the problem: when you dehumanize and objectify others, especially but not only by relegating them to the status of property, it excuses any and every abuse imaginable. Slaves exist at their captors’ mercy.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Becoming Unbecoming, Una (2016)

Friday, November 25th, 2016

Raw, powerful, necessary.

five out of five stars

(Trigger warning for violence against women, including rape.)

Canon Gordon Croney, vicar of Leeds, considers police-controlled houses of prostitution to be impractical. “I know it’s an easy answer, but I believe it could make the problem worse,” he said.

“If prostitutes came under police protection, then it could make a psychopath like the Ripper prey on innocent women.”

So many popular cultural monuments to Sutcliffe have been built by men. Perhaps it’s easier to see it as just another story, if you don’t belong to the group of people the Ripper wanted to kill?

So what’s the truth?
Maybe it’s something like this:

Ordinary men are capable of extraordinary violence.
Women and girls are neither virgins nor whores.

None of it is funny.

Between 1969 and 1981, Peter Sutcliffe – who would eventually become known as the Yorkshire Ripper – attacked at least twenty women, killing thirteen of them. He primarily targeted sex workers, either because he was conned by a prostitute and her pimp – or because God commanded him to. (When caught, he pled not guilty due to diminished capacity, on account of a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s currently serving a life sentence.) However, not all of his victims were sex workers; the investigators’ inability to reconcile this inconsistency is perhaps one of many reasons they bungled the investigation, for example, by ignoring important evidence from an eyewitness who survived, 14-year-old Tracy Browne. Sutcliffe was caught in January 1981 – after he was brought in for driving with false license plates. The police had interviewed him nine times at that point, and had countless “photofits” bearing his image in their files.

The author – who goes by the pseudonym Una – was just entering her teenage years when the attacks escalated. Born in 1965, Una lived in west Yorkshire; her formative years were colored by the hysteria and misogyny whipped up by the killing spree. By the police and in the media, the Ripper’s victims were deemed complicit in their own assaults; what else could women with “loose morals” expect? As his body count grew and came to include “regular” women (and girls), evidence of immorality could be found everywhere: going out drinking at night (with or without your husband), dating outside your race, arguing with a boyfriend.

No one was safe, and that’s kind of the point: Peter Sutcliffe was a misogynist and, to the extent that he targeted sex workers, it was because he felt he could get away with it. And he did, for far too long.

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Nor was the Yorkshire Ripper the only threat facing the women of England in 1977. According to current rape stats for England and Wales, 1 in 5 women aged 16 to 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Only about 15% of victims choose to report; some 90% know their attackers. Furthermore, 31% of young women aged 18 to 24 report having experienced sexual abuse in childhood. The Ripper may have been the face of violence against women in the mid- to late-1970s but, in truth, danger lurked much closer to home.

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: Rad Women Worldwide, Kate Schatz & Miriam Klein Stahl (2016)

Saturday, November 5th, 2016

Kicking butt and taking names.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Blogging for Books.)

When Kalpana Chawla’s math professor explained the concept of a “null set,” she used the example of a female Indian astronaut. There had never been one, so it was a classic case of a category that simply did not exist. “Who knows?” Kalpana exclaimed to her class. “One day this set may exist!” The other students laughed – they had no idea that their outspoken classmate would one day make history.

After the hate-fueled dumpster fire that has been the 2016 election cycle, a book like this is just what the psychologist ordered. In Rad Women Worldwide, Kate Schatz (pronounced ‘Shots’) profiles forty BAMF (you might say ‘nasty’) women, past and present, who have left their mark around the globe. They are mothers, daughters, and wives; activists, scientists, scholars, athletes, artists, and – yes! – pirates; women of all ages, races, nationalities, religions, and social classes; women who are every bit diverse as their accomplishments.

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A follow-up to 2015’s Rad American Women A-Z, Rad Women Worldwide deliberately takes a more international approach, as the title suggests. As soon as you open the book up, you’re treated to a map of the journey that’s to come. The trail hops from North to South America, Africa to Europe, Asia to Australia – and don’t forget Antarctica, too! You can follow the suggested route, or blaze your own path.

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Each woman (or group of women, such as the Guerilla Girls and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo) receives a brief, one- or two-page write up. There are quite a few names I recognized off the bat (Venus and Serena Williams, Malala Yousafzai, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie) as well as some that are new-to-me (Marta, Junko Tabei), and those that are familiar yet still unexpected (Emma Goldman, Poly Styrene). I especially loved the entry on Birute Mary Galdikas, since I was kind of obsessed with “Leakey’s Angels” as a teenager.

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Schatz’s biographies are accompanied by full-page illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl. Stahl’s artwork is simple yet striking, consisting of stark, black and white portraits set against a single-color background, which really makes the portraits pop. Among my favorite images are those of Frida Kahlo and Bastardilla, which actually breaks with the overall style by focusing on the anonymous street artist’s graffiti rather than the artist herself.

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Though the writing feels geared toward a slightly younger audience – say, middle grade/junior high – I enjoyed the book immensely. Okay, that’s an understatement. Some of the entries legit had me in tears. (I blame my raw emotional state on the election, fwiw.) This is a book that parents will LOVE sharing with their kids.

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Also, can we talk about the cover? Not only is it bright and vibrant, but the embossed artwork on the hardcover adds extra texture and interest. I mean, it’s basically a written invitation to touch, handle, and caress. I also love that there’s no dust jacket, because I tend to rip or lose those things. Between this and the thick paper stock, you know they designed this book with younger readers in mind.

The synopsis for Rad American Women A-Z features a Lemony Snicket quote that works just as well here: “This is not a book. This is a guest list for a party of my heroes. Thank you for inviting us.”

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: ‘All the Real Indians Died Off’: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz & Dina Gilio-Whitaker (2016)

Friday, October 7th, 2016

Belongs in high school libraries everywhere.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

Non-Natives thus position themselves, either wittingly or unwittingly, as being the true experts about Indians and their histories—and it happens at all levels of society, from the uneducated all the way up to those with advanced college degrees, and even in the halls of Congress. […]

The result is the perpetual erasure of Indians from the US political and cultural landscape. In short, for five centuries Indians have been disappearing in the collective imagination. They are disappearing in plain sight.

Imagining huge fields of gold, which did not exist, Columbus instituted what later became known as the encomienda system, large estates run on forced labor for the purposes of extracting gold. Las Casas reported that when mining quotas were not met by the Indians excavating the gold, their hands were cut off and they bled to death. When they attempted to flee, they were hunted down with dogs and killed. So little gold existed in Hispaniola that the island turned into a massive killing field.

He [King George] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

—Declaration of Independence

— 4.5 stars —

Native Americans should be honored to have sports teams named after them.

The Indians lost the war, why can’t they move on already?

Indian casinos make everyone rich.

Whether your ancestors were indigenous to North America or not, no doubt you’re familiar with at least a few of these myths about Native Americans. Actually, that’s an understatement, given that our culture – right down to its founding documents – is steeped in such half-truths, contested theories, and outright lies. They’re taught in our high school history books (Columbus discovered America; the convoluted and decontextualized myth of Thanksgiving), trotted out for celebrations (Native American mascots; cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes), and have been used to strip Native tribes of their lands, power, and self-determination (“real” Indians live on reservations/meet blood quantum requirements/belong to a tribe/adhere to certain spiritual practices).

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: Long May She Wave: 100 Stars and Stripes Collectible Postcards, Kit Hinrichs (2016)

Monday, July 4th, 2016

50 Unique Americana Postcards (One to Keep, One to Share!) in a Faux Book Box

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Blogging for Books.)

Okay, I’ll admit it: I mostly requested this title from Blogging for Books to satisfy my curiosity. At the time, the description was rather vague and confusing, and I wanted to know just what the heck this book was: A collection of American ephemera? An interactive book with tear-out postcards? A stationary set?

As it turns out, it’s a cross between two and three: a storage box designed to mimic a book, housing 100 individual postcards: 50 unique designs, with two of each so you can send a card/keep a card, if you’d like. Kind of neat, eh?

(Hinrichs published a similarly titled book in 2001 (with several editions since), Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag; the synopsis for Long May She Wave: Stars and Stripes Collectible Postcards that currently appears on Amazon appears to have been copied from the older title. Stars and Stripes doesn’t feature 500 illustrations, nor is it an 11″x14″ hardcover volume.)

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The postcards are all lovely, and range from the expected (American flags; items sporting American flag designs, such as quilts and costumes) to more unusual fare (a “living flag” made up of 10,000 cadets at the Great Lakes Naval Academy circa 1917; a postal flag constructed entirely of postage stamps; a prison art flag made of candy and cigarette wrappers). Each card has a brief description on the back; you could make a game out of guessing what some of the crafty flags are made out of.

The box is really handsome, too. Made out of heavy-duty cardboard, the embellishments on the “spine” and “pages” give the feel of a real book. The title’s even embossed, and the flag textured, for a rich, sophisticated feel.

If you have an amateur (or even professional) historian in the family, Long May She Wave would make an excellent gift. The box even comes shrink wrapped to prevent damage.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Harlem Hellfighters, Max Brooks & Caanan White (2014)

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Blogging for Books.)

In 1917 we left our home to make the world “safe for democracy.” Even though democracy wasn’t exactly “safe” back home.

We went by many names. The 15th. The 369th. And before going “over there,” we called ourselves “The Black Rattlers.” Our French allies called us “The Men of Bronze.”

And our enemies called us “The Harlem Hellfighters.”

Recruited in Harlem, trained in Camp Whitman, New York (and, disastrously, Spartanburg, South Carolina), and eventually deployed to the Western Front in France, the 369th Infantry Regiment – otherwise known as The Harlem Hellfighters – changed the course of history, even as its own government engineered its failure.

The 369th spent 191 days in combat – more than any other American unit, black or white. None of their men were captured by the enemy, nor did they lose any ground; in fact, they were the first men to reach the Rhine River. The 369th volunteered to stay behind in the front trenches for an expected German bombing the day after Bastille Day, 1918, even though it meant almost certain death. One of their soldiers single-handedly fended off German raiders with only a rifle and a bolo knife; for this, Henry Lincoln Johnson earned the nickname “Black Death” – and was the first American to receive the French Croix de Guerre (the Cross of War). In 2003, the US awarded Johnson the Distinguished Service Cross; his supporters are still lobbying for the Medal of Honor.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: March: Book One, John Lewis (2013)

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

“The Boy from Troy”

four out of five stars

The first in a planned trilogy, March: Book One follows the life of Congressman John Lewis (GA-5), one of the “Big Six” leaders in the civil rights movement and a former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Book One covers Lewis’s early years, where his love of education often conflicted with his duties on his family’s Alabama sharecropper’s farm. After high school, Lewis attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University (“the boy from Troy who wants to desegregate Troy State,” as MLK referred to him during their first meeting), where he became involved in non-violent protest and helped organize the Nashville sit-ins, which were successful in desegregating local lunch counters. The scenes of students rehearsing the demonstrations – and all the abuse it entailed – are especially harrowing. Along with dozens of fellow protestors, Lewis was arrested (the first in a long string of arrests; as of October 2013, when he was arrested for marching in favor of immigration reform, Lewis has been arrested some 45 times) and sentenced to a $50 fine or 30 days in the county workhouse. Lewis and his colleagues were ultimately released under the orders of Nashville Mayor Ben West.

Lewis recalls these events to a group of young visitors just hours before the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, which he and his family are to attend, thus firmly connecting past and present. The artwork by Nate Powell is pleasing and certainly gets the job done, though part of me wishes that these scenes from the past had been rendered in color instead of black and white, making them come alive, so to speak.

Though it includes harsh language (understandable given the context), I think that March is suitable for middle school readers on up. The “n word” is dropped with some frequency, but it’s important for parents to discuss the hateful legacy of this (and other slurs) with their children. Additionally, March can be a useful tool for introducing the history of the civil rights movement to middle and high school students. While it is rather light on details – this is a graphic novel, after all! – March can help teachers meet students on their level and engage them with topics in which they might not otherwise take an interest. March shouldn’t be the beginning and end of the lesson, but rather a starting point. It certainly made me hungry to know more.

I found the early scenes of Lewis tending to his family’s chickens particularly touching and poignant. Lewis had an especial affinity for those birds destined for his dinner plate; he talked to them, named them, came to recognize and appreciate their distinct personalities, and even sermonized to and baptized them. When his parents killed one for meat – chopping his head off, or breaking her neck – Lewis remained angry with them for days, and made himself scarce during these meals. Thus it was no small disappointment to see him readily dismisses the ethical implications of exploiting sentient creatures for food – not to mention, devalue the fierce bonds he formed with these beings – with a clichéd line about the circle of life.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Witch Child, Celia Rees (2000)

Monday, February 4th, 2013

“Words have power. These are mine.”

four out of five stars

Mary Nuttall was just sixteen years old when her grandmother Eliza – the only family she’d ever known – was murdered. Accused of practicing witchcraft, the old woman was tortured, stripped naked, bound, and “floated” – tossed into a river to sink or swim. Her buoyancy taken as a sure sign of guilt, Eliza was pulled from the water only so that she could be hanged in public. Once trusted to heal their loved ones, Eliza’s friends and neighbors in this rural English town proved eager witnesses to her execution.

Rescued from similar persecution by her long-lost mother, Mary is sent away to the “New World” in search of a better life. She’s to travel with a group of Puritans bound for Salem, where they’ll join their brethren and pastor. Upon arrival, the group is dismayed to discover that their kin have moved on, to the isolated town of Beulah. After much deliberation they decide to follow, forging ahead into the wilderness with two Natives – of the Pennacook tribe – acting as their guides.

Unsurprisingly, Beulah couldn’t be further from the safe haven Mary’s mother envisioned for her child. Ruled by a Puritan preacher so strict and demanding that he proved unwelcome in Salem, Mary is in constant danger, just by virtue of being a newcomer to the community. Though she tries hard to stay under the radar, her “transgressions,” real and imagined – which include befriending members of the opposite sex; spending time alone in the forest to gather food and herbs; harboring anything more than uncharitable thoughts about the “heathen” natives; and proficiency in transcription – don’t escape the notice of Reverend Johnson. When items suggestive of witchcraft are discovered in the forest and several of the town’s teenage girls start exhibiting strange behavior, Mary’s worst fears are realized.

All of this we learn from Mary’s journal, which spans roughly a year from 1659-1660. Urged to burn it by her protector/surrogate mother Martha – its opening sentences (“I am Mary. I am a witch.”) alone being sure proof of guilt – Mary instead hides its pages inside a quilt. Discovered more than three hundred years later by one “Alison Ellman” (one of Mary’s descendents, perhaps), Mary’s journal stands testament to the horrors she and her kind endured.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, Aaron Bobrow-Strain (2012)

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

American Dreamz (of “Good” Food)

four out of five stars

Note: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.

When is bread just bread? After reading White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain (2012), you’ll realize that the answer to this deceptively simple question is likely “almost never.”

Tied as it is to issues of class, race, gender, and nativism, the history of bread – which types of bread are considered the healthiest, which are the most patriotic and “American,” what methods of preparation are considered safest, which loaves are most valued by the affluent, etc. – reflects changing social mores as much as (or perhaps even more so than) it does evolving culinary tastes. Focusing on recent American history – the past 150 years, give or take a few decades – Bobrow-Strain doesn’t so much trace the history of bread as he does examine how trends in bread consumption reflect deeper cultural ideas, fears, and ideals. Accordingly, the book is divided into six primary chapters, each dedicated to a different “bread dreams,” namely: purity and contagion; control and abundance; health and discipline; strength and defense; peace and security; and resistance and status.

The mass production of (the titular) white bread in factories, for example, was initially celebrated as a safe, scientific, and superior way of delivering bread to the masses, in a time when women were otherwise tied to the kitchen and many small, family-owned bakeries were run from unsanitary basement kitchens characterized by brutal working conditions. Now derided as “white trash” food – ironically, in part due to its success and ubiquity – industrial white bread was once considered a healthier, more sanitary, even elite alternative to home-baked, locally bought, and whole wheat breads. Oh, how the times have changed! Or not. What comes around goes around – America’s current love of freshly made artisan breads harkens back to the 1800s and earlier, before bread was made by robots and procured in giant grocery chains.

So too has the maxim of “knowing where your food comes from” changed with the times. Prior to the industrial revolution, this meant getting to know your local bread baker (and, more importantly, his kitchen) – or, preferably, having mom bake all the family’s bread from scratch. (No small feat when one considers that bread has long been a dietary staple: from the 1850s though the 1950s, Americans got an average of 25-30% of their calories from bread. While this figure began to dip in the 1960s, it tends to rise in times of war and recession, particularly among the poor.) Later on, “knowing where your food comes from” was presented as a benefit of buying industrial white bread produced by faceless bakery conglomerates – an idea that seems laughable to the modern consumer.

White Bread is an engaging look at a foodstuff that, until now, hadn’t received its proper due. Recent condemnations of industrial bread aside, historical and scholarly accounts of bread’s history have mostly been lacking; with this engaging, meticulously researched, and passionate tome, Bobrow-Strain fills in the void. Especially useful to food activists, the lessons found in White Bread are important ones:

Thanks to an explosion of politically charged food writing and reporting that began in the late 1990s, members of the alternative food movement have access to a great deal of information about why and how the food system needs to change. Much less is known about the successes and failures of such efforts in the past. Even less is known about the rich world of attachments, desires, aspirations, and anxieties that define America’s relation to the food system as it is.

The history of bread in America provides countless illuminating examples of how national crusades for “better” food (however you define it: safer, healthier, cheaper, etc.), while well-intentioned, often draw upon and feed into harmful stereotypes and work to perpetuate the very oppression and inequalities they seek to eradicate. Food must be taken in context: everything’s related. Food justice, feminism, worker’s rights, racial equality, immigration, environmentalism (not to mention, nonhuman animals and veganism) – intersectionality is the word of the day.

So why the 4-star rating? Exhausted by the bald speciesism found in so many books written by non-vegan environmentalists (culminating in the particularly awful Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage), I promised myself that I’d stop requesting such items from Library Thing, no matter how much they might interest me. While I expected that meat might make an appearance in White Bread – a status symbol, the consumption of animal flesh has long been linked with class, gender, and race – I didn’t anticipate that the author would be a former intern on a “kinder,” “gentler,” “sustainable” beef ranch. Bobrow-Strain peppers the book with anecdotes about his time as a purveyor of “happy meat,” grass-fed beef, and raw milk – all of which is presented as a “radical” new way of looking at food. Uh, yeah, not so much. Exploiting animals? That’s just business as usual. But rethinking who is on our plate, and why? Now that’s extreme. (Such bold proclamations bring to mind Red Lobster’s latest ad campaign: “We Sea Food Differently.” If by “differently” you mean “exactly the same.”)

And yet, the closest we get to any mention of veganism is Sylvester Graham, the 19th century Presbyterian minister and food reformer who advocated vegetarianism, temperance, and a return to “natural” foods as a means of achieving physical and moral superiority. Unfortunately, his vision of a simpler life was predicated on the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enforcement of rigid gender roles; and, in blaming the poor for their ills and ignoring larger social structures, his philosophy was classist as well. Not that I blame Bobrow-Strain for presenting this critique of “the father of American vegetarianism.” Quite the contrary: it’s essential for vegan activists to recognize, acknowledge, and overcome past wrongs – many of which are still in operation today. But in all his waxing sentimental about animal exploitation – on a book ostensibly written about bread – it’s especially irritating that an oblique discussion of Graham’s vegetarianism is the best – indeed, the only – counter to the oppression, violence, and waste that is animal agriculture. Slow, local, organic, and healthy foods – all receive their due. And veganism? Apparently that’s so radical a notion it’s not even worth mentioning. (But yeah, vegans are the ones always shoving their opinions down the throats of unsuspecting omnivores. Riiiight.)

While I think there’s a lot that vegans can take away from this book, the speciesism is at once asinine and infuriating. If you think you can handle it, by all means.

Read with: Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism by Melanie Joy (2010).

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A page from White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf
by Aaron Bobrow-Strain (2012)
Chapter 6: How White Bread Became White Trash; Dreams of Resistance and Status
“You’re scum, you’re fucking white bread.”
– David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross

——————————

(This review is also available on Library Thing, Amazon, and Goodreads. Please click on over and vote me helpful if you’re so inclined, mkay? I have a sneaking suspicion that this piece won’t prove especially popular on Amazon.)

Book Review: The Sex Doll: A History, Anthony Ferguson (2010)

Monday, July 11th, 2011

More accurately titled “The Sex Doll: Its Origins and Functions”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Upon requesting this title from Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program, I was nervous that author Anthony Ferguson’s discussion of sex dolls would present a view largely uncritical of these increasingly popular sexual aids and, more importantly, their owners/users. (So much so that I was actually relieved when the first copy was lost in the mail!) Happily, Ferguson (a member of the Australian Horror Writers Association – a detail that seems only slightly less odd in light of chapter eleven, which turns to dolls as a common trope in the horror genre!) manages to outline the potential anti-feminist implications of sex dolls while retaining empathy for (at least some of) their users. All in all, the book manages to find middle ground, even if it is at times shaky.

THE SEX DOLL: A HISTORY might be more accurately titled “The Sex Doll: Its Origins and Functions,” as there’s more theory than fact in this volume. By Ferguson’s own admission, the history of sex dolls is somewhat sketchy – which is wholly unsurprising given society’s conservative and oftentimes oppressive attitudes toward sex and sexuality. Sex dolls present an added complication, as Western religions have historically regarded lifelike representations of the human form (i.e. dolls) with suspicion and distrust. Thus, Ferguson relies less on the historical record and more on the theories and conjectures of philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and ethicists, seemingly indiscriminately and with mixed results.

While some of the views represented are intriguing (in particular, I’m keen to read David Levy’s LOVE + SEX WITH ROBOTS after seeing several excerpts in THE SEX DOLL), others are nonsensical, offensive, and downright misogynistic. Colin Wilson, for example, is paraphrased as saying that “a subverted worship of women” drives men to rape (WTF!); elsewhere, Ferguson himself extols the “value of war in pre-technological societies as a means of channeling masculine aggression” (never you mind that physical and sexual violence against women is nearly universal, or that rape is commonly used as a weapon of war; also, gender essentialism much?). Naturally, erstwhile misogynist Sigmund Freud and his sex-obsessed, woman-hating theories litter every chapter.

Likewise, the words Ferguson chooses are sometimes problematic. For example, he uses the terms “transgender” and “she-male” interchangeably, the latter being widely regarded as a derogatory slur within the trans community. Additionally, instances of rape are often referred to using variations on the phrase “had sex with,” implying consent where there is none. (“With” suggests that the sex is a mutually shared experience, which is not the case in rape. In this vein, it’s erroneous to say that one “has sex with” a sex doll, since a doll as an inanimate object cannot consent to the experience. In this case, “masturbate with” is more accurate.)

In chapter seven, “Sex Doll Stereotypes,” Ferguson analyzes sex dolls – objectified, silent and subservient (representations of) women, the “perfect” partners, if you will – in relation to their human counterparts, namely sex workers such as prostitutes and pornographic actors, as well as other sexually exploitable women, including mail order brides and mistresses. Since each of these topics could easily fill its own volume, the discussion is necessarily brief and lacking in nuance. Rather than add to my understanding of sex dolls, I found this chapter in particular a distraction.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity comes in chapter eight, “The Vagaries of Masculine Desire,” in which Ferguson lets “doll users speak.” Whereas a demographic/psychological survey of doll users would have been incredibly enlightening – who are these people and why and how do they choose to use sex dolls? – Ferguson instead presents us with a Q&A involving just five respondents. It’s rather obvious that Ferguson hand-picked these individuals in order to represent the spectrum of users: they run the gamut, from a single, older disabled man who’s heavily emotionally invested in his dolls, to a sexually active younger man who regards them as just one of many sexual outlets at his disposal. Curiously, two of the subjects – or a full 40% – of the respondents are women, which must surely be out of whack with the actual statistics. (Although we’ll never know, as Ferguson doesn’t offer any such numbers.) Since women are otherwise absent his discussion (Ferguson almost solely focuses on male users of female dolls), their inclusion here is doubly puzzling.

Ferguson is at his best when looking at representations of sex dolls in popular culture, as he does in chapters ten and eleven (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Orgasm?” and “Revulsion, Lust and Love,” respectively). His discussion of sex dolls and gynoids (female robots) in literature, film, television, music and art is by far the most engaging section of THE SEX DOLL – although his omission of the Cylons in the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA reboot is disappointing at best. (Particularly since it’s in these chapters that Ferguson introduces the question of human-robot love and marriage. Caprica Six! Athena! Hera!) Additionally, while the Terminator franchise is mentioned in brief, Ferguson fails to examine the evolving representations of the cyborgs in this realm; i.e., the possibility of a romantic and sexual relationship with a terminator is only raised when the female cyborg Cameron is introduced in THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. This observation might have provided a nice window into the gender dynamics of sex dolls, and how they’re reflected in popular culture.

Ultimately, THE SEX DOLL concludes that the uses and functions of sex dolls are as varied as are the men who utilize them. For some men, a sex doll represents the “perfect” partner: silent, non-responsive, subservient, powerless, never aging, changing or evolving. For others, a doll is merely a sexual outlet: safe, both physically and psychologically, affordable (perhaps), convenient. It might be just one of many sex toys a man utilizes, or it could be more: a willing companion to socially isolated men. Whatever the case, the fact that feminized sex dolls are visual representations of women – real, flesh and blood women – cannot be escaped:

“Given that sex dolls are as of now still inanimate objects, they are understandably treated as lacking autonomy, and yet they represent real women and are utilized as substitutes for real women. Despite the fact that some sex doll owners seem to treat their dolls with affection and anthropomorphize them, it is the dolls’ inability to respond, react or reject which most attracts men. This objectification is mirrored historically in the treatment of women, the ‘thing’ most dolls represent.” (Chapter six, page 81, “Consumable Women”)

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser (2002)

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Sarah Palin in a Corset

five out of five stars

Though I’m not what you’d call a seasoned history buff – French history, in particular – I can confidently say that Antonia Fraser’s MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY is the definitive biography of Marie Antoinette. It’s hard to imagine that any historian can top this exhaustive look at the life and death of France’s most infamous Queen.

Fraser traces Marie Antoinette’s life, from privileged birth to tragic death, in great detail. (The story actually begins well before Antoinette’s birth, with a look back at the Princess’s ancestors, and ends not with the Queen’s beheading, but with the fate of her daughter, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte.) Fraser makes extensive use of contemporary documents, most notably correspondence between Marie Antoinette and her friends and relatives, including her mother, the politically ambitious Maria Theresa. She also cites – sometimes critically – the work of historians before her. The result is a keen, nuanced examination of the life and legacy of Marie Antoinette, to whom history has not been kind.

While Antoine was, like all people, a flawed individual, she was far from the she-devil caricature drawn by her opponents. The Queen did waste the taxpayers’ money on all manner of frivolities; but then, so did her husband and other assorted members of their royal circle. (Indeed, much of this expense went towards “traditional” or “customary” labor and favors; had she tried to do away with these French traditions, the Austrian-born Queen would have been vilified just the same.) Born into privilege, she knew little of poverty, famine, or hard labor – the lot of most of her subjects. Most damningly, she actively defended France’s monarchy, positioning herself directly opposite freedom and democracy.

Even so, Marie Antoinette was a scapegoat, a receptacle for the political unrest, violence and hatred of the time. Much of the criticism directed at the Queen was predictably gender-based: she was at once stupid and frivolous – and a political mastermind capable of manipulating and cuckolding the King; a cold, frigid lover, the source of her husband’s impotence and/or asexuality – and a ravenous, insatiable whore, who either engaged in orgies with men or women, depending on whom you believe. (At her trial, she was even accused – along with her sister-in-law – of sexually abusing her own son!) Pamphlets of the time depicted the Queen in all states of undress and sexual positions, and her physical appearance was often a topic of discussion. Naturally, her body – or rather, the contents of her womb – was also a point of public interest, as her primary “job” was to bear France the next King. Sound vaguely familiar? (Hence the title of this review, which could just as easily read “Hillary Clinton in muslin.”)

Marie Antoinette was the victim not just of misogyny, but of xenophobia as well. Prior to Princess Antoine’s marriage to the Dauphin, Austria and France were rivals. The future King Louis XV had been raised on tales of “those evil Austrians,” a factor perhaps contributing to his initial indifference towards his new wife. The Princess drew no small amount of suspicion as an Austrian upon her marriage to the Dauphin, and the hatred and discrimination only grew with her unpopularity. The Queen’s loyalties were often called into question, despite the many sacrifices she made in order to become the “Mother” of France. (Imagine being forced from your family and homeland, thrust into a strange place with no friends or allies, and treated like the state’s baby machine. The Queen may have been privileged, but she was also very much oppressed.)

At 544 pages, MARIE ANTOINETTE is a hefty book; so much so, in fact, that I probably wouldn’t have “read” it had it not been available in audiobook format. Even so, it took me also a month to finish the audiobook, which clocks in at over 20 hours. Fraser’s take on Marie Antoinette is astute, informed and fascinating. Even so, I don’t think I would have made it through the print book. English is my primary language, and with no training in French, I’m certain that I would have found the French (and Austrian) names, places, words and phrases difficult to enunciate and follow. Donanda Peters makes for an engaging and charming narrator, transitioning from French to Scottish accent with ease.

My only real complaint is in Fraser’s coverage of France’s political climate during Marie Antoinette’s reign. Fraser does talk politics, but these discussions are usually framed and presented in terms of Marie Antoinette’s life, as a sort of backdrop. With no real foundation in French history, I found this rather confusing and choppy, but again, I’m a novice – history buffs will probably come to the table with all the background knowledge they need.

That said, I think hardcore history buffs and novices alike will enjoy MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY. The book is rife with feminist undertones (Fraser seems no stranger to patriarchy blaming!), so methinks it might make great leisure reading for feminist-minded women, as well. I look forward to devouring more of Antonia Fraser’s political biographies!

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Movie Review: Marie Antoinette: A Film by David Grubin (2006)

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

The condensed version of Antonia Fraser’s biography

four out of five stars

After listening to Antonia Fraser’s excellent and exhaustive biography of Marie Antoinette on audiobook (MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY), I immediately hopped onto Netflix in search of a related documentary or two. The only one to catch my eye was David Grubin’s MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM. Try as I might, I can’t help but critique Grubin’s film in relation to Fraser’s biography.

Grubin’s MARIE ANTOINETTE clocks in at about two hours, compared to the 20+ hour narration of Fraser’s MARIE ANTOINETTE. While it might seem unfair to compare the two for this reason alone, they do share a similar story arc and cover much the same ground. In fact, Grubin includes snippets of interviews with several French historians in MARIE ANTOINETTE, one of whom is Antonia Fraser herself!

Given the time limitation, Grubin does a decent enough job of detailing the life and death of Marie Antoinette, starting with her childhood in Vienna, Austria, and ending with her death at the hands of “revolutionaries” in Paris, France. Even so, Grubin barely scratches the surface; for example, though he attempts to examine Marie Antoinette’s psychological, social and intellectual development, the audience is only beginning to get a feel for Marie Antoinette the person by film’s end. Additionally, Grubin raises a few controversial points – such as Marie Antoinette’s relationship with Count Ferson – which is unfortunate, because he’s unable to examine points of contention on anything but a superficial level. For example, Fraser dealt with historical controversies by returning to contemporary accounts of the events (diaries, letters, etc.), detailing various modern views on the issue, and then concluding with her own reasoned interpretation of the evidence. Grubin simply doesn’t have enough time to do the same.

On the plus side, Grubin’s film boasts one momentous advantage over Fraser’s (audio)book – visual aids! Grubin interlaces interviews and narration with video and stills for stunning visual effects. MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM highlights a number of contemporary images, including portraits of Marie Antoinette and her friends and family, as well as scores of pages from then-scandalous pamphlets and propaganda – much of which contains nudity and sketches of a sexual nature (thankfully, none is censored). Grubin juxtaposes modern video of historical places – Versailles, Le Petit Trianon, Vienna – with these historical images, thus allowing the audience access to the places significant to Madame Antoine’s child- and adulthood.

Additionally, I thought that Grubin’s recounting of the French Revolution was more linear and easier to follow than was Fraser’s. Fraser interspersed her accounts of the revolutionary political climate in France with its effects on Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, while Grubin offered a lean – but informative – summary towards the end of his film.

All in all, I enjoyed MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM, but coming off of MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY, felt as though I’d already heard much of Grubin’s story. Newbies will probably find MARIE ANTOINETTE: A FILM a nice introduction to the topic, while history buffs might like the film’s visuals. All in all, a keeper.

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Stupid American History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions, Leland Gregory (2009)

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

“Move over Colbert and Stewart” – are they serious!?

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

I requested a copy of STUPID AMERICAN HISTORY through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. Based on the book’s description, I was hoping that it might be a hybrid of James Loewen’s classic, LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, and The Daily Show’s satirical American history “textbook,” AMERICA: THE BOOK. Unfortunately, STUPID AMERICAN HISTORY lacks both the wisdom (not to mention, attention to detail and sources) of LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME and the snarky humor of AMERICA: THE BOOK.

STUPID AMERICAN HISTORY is really more a collection of anecdotes and (unreferenced) factoids than a comprehensive book. As such, it lends itself better to bathroom reading as opposed to a thorough, cover-to-cover reading. It might make for a cute gift or stocking stuffer – the pages are made to resemble faux parchment paper, and there’s lots of ornamentation around the text – but it’s not really suitable for a history buff. Each “mythconception,” for example, is presented on a single page – and most don’t even take up the whole page!

STUPID AMERICAN HISTORY reminds me of those little paperback books of “odd facts” I used to enjoy…in junior high school. Which is fine, if that’s what you’re after. But if you’re looking for a debunking or reimagining of American history, check out James Loewen’s LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME – or any of his books, for that matter.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby (2004)

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

The history of America is the history of American secularism.

five out of five stars

In FREETHINKERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SECULARISM, author Susan Jacoby traces the origins and development of freethought in America – and demonstrates how the history of America is intimately intertwined with the history of American secularism.

Starting with the American Revolution and working through American history up to the present day Bush administration, Jacoby offers a concise – but colorful! – overview of secularism, freethought, and the separation of church and state. Though she does discuss the secular roots of the Constitution, only a small portion of FREETHINKERS focuses on the Founding Fathers and their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Indeed, FREETHINKERS is not a treatise on the First Amendment; it does not claim to be. Volumes have been written on what sort of “wall” Jefferson, Adams, Madison, et.al., sought to erect; rather than add to the library, Jacoby offers her view and then moves on. What follows is an analysis of various social movements, such as abolition, women’s suffrage, labor rights and civil rights, with an emphasis on the role in which secularists and freethinkers played in each. Especially interesting are Jacoby’s accounts of abolition and women’s suffrage, what with all the wheeling, dealing and backstabbing that went on behind the scenes. It’s refreshing (or perhaps just downright depressing) to see how much contemporary political maneuvering resembles that of the golden days of freethought and radicalism.

As I devoured FREETHINKERS, I found myself wishing that I had been introduced to similar works during high school. Like many high school students, I found the sanitized, inoffensive history textbooks (both American and global) B-O-R-I-N-G. It wasn’t until I graduated from college and again had time for leisure reading that I discovered uncensored, true-to-life historical nonfiction – and actually took an interest in American history and politics. History doesn’t have to be boring, kids! In fact, it’s almost always as exciting, if not more so, than the latest flick that Hollywood has regurgitated onto the big screen.

Perhaps if books such as FREETHINKERS (as well as James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me and Michael Farquhar’s A Treasury of Great American Scandals) were introduced into high school curriculums, we’d raise a new generation of politically engaged and active young citizens – knowledgeable voters who, armed with a profound respect for science, empiricism, and secularism, not to mention a healthy dose of skepticism, would not have elected dubya to office (twice!), and allowed him to wage a war based on 935+ “false statements”.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Images of Civil War Medicine: A Photographic History, Gordon Dammann (2007)

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

90% Civil War Portraits, 10% Medical Photography

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Though IMAGES OF CIVIL WAR MEDICINE: A PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY sounds as though it should be packed with images of, well, Civil War medicine, it’s surprisingly light on photographs of medical procedures, instruments, disorders, and injuries. Instead, a majority of the photos are of people (soldiers, doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel) and places (make-shift hospitals, encampments, and battlefields), resulting in a less gruesome – and interesting – volume than the title would lead you to expect.

In IMAGES OF CIVIL WAR MEDICINE, authors and Civil War buffs Gordon Dammann and Alfred Jay Bollett give a brief overview of the state of medicine during the American Civil War. The written word takes a backseat to the myriad Civil War-era photos, particularly of medical staff and volunteers. Indeed, those interested in the history of photography, and Civil War photography in particular, will mostly likely find this to be an invaluable resource.

However, I am neither. I had hoped to learn more about this history of specific medical procedures, but was disappointed to find that a majority of the photos do not involve the actual practice of medicine, but rather are of medical practitioners. In fact, only one chapter (“Wounds and Diseases”) deals with Civil War medicine – and it’s the last chapter, at that! The other seven chapters leading up to “Wounds and Diseases” mostly deal with people and places – medical educators, nurses and volunteers, the US Sanitary Commission, dentists, morticians, ambulances, field hospitals, etc. While I found the topics somewhat interesting, the coverage was superficial. In particular, I thought the chapter on nursing was fascinating, but the subject was only given passing attention. This is understandable for a book that deals primarily with images; however, since I wasn’t impressed with the variety of photos, I found myself relying on the text more than I might otherwise.

Overall, I give IMAGES OF CIVIL WAR MEDICINE three stars. The volume contains an impressive number of Civil War photos, as promised; unfortunately, the variety of subjects in these photographs is lacking.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)