Monday, May 29, 2017

Inferior by Angela Saini

It's common, nowadays, to hear news reports proclaiming that there are too few women in STEM fields.  With such a feminist consciousness-raising of women's and men's equality being proven time and time again, how could this be?  Angela Saini, in her deeply researched book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story, provides historical information, current research of sex/gender, and personal & anecdotal evidece to contribute to the discussion of why women may have been excluded from the sciences. 

The book is divided into eight chapters, each of which focuses on different focuses of gender research over the years.  In Chapter 1 - "Women's Inferiority to Man", the author discusses the blatant sexism of such preeminent researchers as Charles Darwin and others who laid the foundation for what would become sex/gender research.  Darwin explicitly believed that women were intellectually and physically inferior to men, and in his grand theories of evolution, he viewed men as more evolved than women.  Chapter 2 - "Females Get Sicker but Males Die Quicker", looks at the longstanding preference in some cultures for male babies, the differing average lifespans between men and women, and why men are thought of as the stronger sex.  The chapter opens with a personal story from a hospital administrator in India that illustrates the endemic desire for male offspring, and the horrific lengths to which her husband's family abused her when she was pregnant with twin girls."

Chapter 3, "A Difference at Birth", focuses on whether males and females are born distinctly different from each other, or if the differences are learned or acquired during the course of interaction with the environment.  Based on the research presented, although differing positions abound, often what is observed and intuited to be biological is in fact due to bias and preferences which are reinforced and passed down over many generations.  Chapter 4 - "The Missing Five Ounces of the Female Brain" is externally concerned with research studies that found, on average, women's brains are 5oz smaller than those of men.  Internally, it looks at cranial and structural differences between the brains of the sexes, and what (if anything) can be learned from studying them.  Spoiler Alert: When brain size measurements are corrected for differences in size of their human containers, the size differences truly disappear.

In Chapter 5 "Women's Work", the author looks at research surrounding the types of societal duties that humans and other animals perform, by gender, to see if there are commonalities or differences, and what those findings could illuminate about our experience.  Chapter 6 - "Choosy Not Chaste" examines the differences in expressions of sexuality between females and males.  Why are women supposed to be demure, virginal, and faithful to one partner while men are allowed be playboys, have many sexual partners, and enjoy their bodies to a great degree?  The author also dives into cultural stereotypes, religious dictates, and the various double standards that exist for men and women when engaging in the same behaviors.   

Chapter 7 - "Why Men Dominate" turns its gaze to the preconception that men are superior to women because they, on the average, are stronger and more aggressive.  Since the stereotype is that women are seen as having always been subjugated by men, the thinking leans toward there being some kind of evolutionary reason for it being so.  In fact, there are many societies - human and animal - where the culture is a dominated by females (which I call a matriarchy), which puts holes in the common narrative.

The final chapter, Chapter 8 - "The Old Women Who Wouldn't Die" examines what happens to women as their fertility decreases, in particular - menopause and its discovery are investigated.  Some historical researchers have come to the conclusion that, because a woman's role is the production of offspring and furthering the genetic line, once she is no longer able to perform that job she is essentially of no value.  It was fascinating to learn that many of the symptoms that most American women experience during menopause are not universal to all human females.  Therefore, there may be some cultural constructs that go into the felt experience of such a biological process.  The chapter also discusses the attitudes that societies have towards its older females, and how those attitudes may be based on stereotypes and unfounded biases.

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story is a fascinating read, whether you are a woman or not, and whether you are interested in STEM or not.  Its focus may be science, but the book is full of tenets that are applicable everywhere - feminist generalities that encourage readers to think more critically about the way they view the world around them.  Through the direct interplay between personal anecdotes, interviews, and research, the argument is made that unfounded human biases, not biological inferiority, are the reason for why there are so few women in STEM.  The scientific process, historically and current, is not perfect.  By increasing our awareness of our own flaws and shortcomings, strengths and similarities, we can make progress towards a more full and robust knowledge of ourselves and the world around us.

Librorum annis,

Thursday, May 25, 2017

May Book Haul

May was a banner month for bringing more books onto my shelves.  I already showed you the books that I acquired during Independent Bookstore Day (which you can read about here), but I also received a few books from publishers, placed my first Powell's order, received two books that I pre-ordered way back in January, and spent money at some local indie bookstores.  Here are the books!


Envelope Poems by Emily Dickinson
Urgent, Unheard Stories by Roxane Gay
Spring and All by William Carlos Williams  
The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell
How to Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak
Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez
Look: Poems by Solnaz Sharif

Invisible Beasts by Sharona Muir
The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff
Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

God Went to Beauty School by Cynthia Rylant
The Heidi Chronicles: Uncommon Women and Others & Isn't It Romantic by Wendy Wasserstein
Translations: A Play by Brian Freil
It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Now it's on to June...let's see what book-finding adventures await!

Librorum annis,

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The Radium Girls is a brilliant, shocking, humanistic, and enraging story about young women who were unknowingly poisoned with radium at their jobs as watch dial painters during and after WW1.  The companies knew that radium was a dangerous substance, but never disclosed that information to the painters.  When the girls began complaining about strange pains, growths, and bone problems, they were either fired from their jobs, or were told that the symptoms were syphilis, hysteria, or some "female" complaint.  What follows is an exhausting story about a massive and long-lasting cover-up scheme undertaken by the radium companies, and how the girls fought against it.  The end result brought about the creation of a new governmental department, focused solely on protecting workers health and safety.

The companies - United States Radium Corporation in Orange, NJ and the Radiant Dial Company and Luminous Process Corporation in Ottawa, IL - enjoyed lucrative contracts with the US government, providing glow-in-the-dark watches and other products for use during wartime.  The substance that they used to create this glow was the newly-discovered radium.  When mixed with other substances, it created a radium paint that could be applied using thin brushes.  The companies needed workers to do the painting, and advertised in local newspapers - specifically requesting young women - and offered the opportunity for large wages.  They paid by the piece, and the girls' earnings were limited only by how many watches they could paint during their shift.  Most of those who applied were working-class girls, in their mid/late teens and early twenties, who were delighted to have the money; some even out-earned their fathers.

Each was provided a limited quantity of radium paint for their shift, but some radium particles hung in the air around the workroom.  No protective clothing or shields were provided to the workers, because they were told that there was no risk in working with the radium.  In fact, many girls ate their lunch at the workstations, ingesting radium on their food, along with bringing it home in their hair, clothes, and shoes.  At night, even after vigorous washing, the girls literally glowed in the dark from the residual radium.

Painters were instructed in the "lip, dip, paint" technique, through which they applied radium paint to their brushes, twirled the brush between their lips to make a fine point, and then applied the paint to the watch.  If there was leftover paint, sometimes the girls would paint their eyelids, lips, teeth, fingers, and other exposed areas with the paint, as a way to surprise boyfriends during evening dates.  Although a single day's quantity of paint contained only a slight amount of radium, the cumulative effect of this exposure would prove catastrophic.

Some girls left their painting jobs to get married and start families.  Others left for work opportunities elsewhere, but some stayed for five years or more.  All of them began experiencing frightening symptoms, especially considering few of them had reached 30 years old, including soreness in joints and bones, strange dental pain and sore teeth, fatigue, and general weakness.  These progressed to tooth loss and bone disintegration, with some women having to have their entire lower jaw removed because the bones had shattered and the gums were highly infected.  Others experienced unusual and large growths on their shoulders, spines, or legs.  Some women noticed that one leg was getting shorter than the other.  Others had repeated miscarriages or babies born with strange conditions.  None of these women believed what was happening, and it took many years for medical professionals to begin to suspect it was related to their jobs as dial painters.

Because news wasn't as widely disseminated in the early twentieth century as it is now, these two groups of women didn't know about each other, and their shared health issues, for quite a long time.  In fact, it wasn't until some of the workers at the Orange, NJ factory filed a lawsuit and took legal action against the US Radium Corporation, that any widespread attention was paid.  Once it was, it influenced a group of women from Ottawa, IL to take similar action, and it was their case that, led by a brilliant and highly sympathetic lawyer Leonard Grossman, changed workplace regulations in the US forever.

The Radium Girls is really two books in one.  The first focuses on a few of the individual women who worked at the radium factories, their families, and their legacies.  It describes the friendships they shared, the ways they assisted each other, and their particular health struggles as the radium took hold in their bodies.  It truly and deeply brings humanity and specificity into a very abstract situation.  It's not just about the dial painters as victims, but as human beings.

The second is concerned mainly with the vast cover-up work done by the radium corporations, and the subsequent legal battles between them and the sick/dying workers.  The extent to which the corporations mislead their workers, the US government, and the public about radium's danger is mind-boggling.  Because there were few regulations in place to protect people against hazards in their workplaces, the companies had no incentive to provide truthful, safety information.  When studies were done on radium, and researchers found it to be very harmful, the corporations took action to suppress the publication of these studies, or hired their own "experts" to refute whatever data they didn't like.   When some of the women died, corporation representatives were present at the autopsy and confiscated the radioactive bones so that they wouldn't be accounted for later.

When workers decided to file suit against their employers, they had a very difficult time finding representation.  Not only were these huge, well-funded corporations with robust legal teams but there were complications regarding the statute of limitations in New Jersey and Illinois.  Often, the symptoms of radium poisoning don't appear for months or years, or even longer, so the corporations argued that it couldn't have been their fault.  Or they argued that the women were already sick when they were hired (which they weren't), and that should exempt the company from compensating them.  Although all the painters were instructed in the "lip, dip, paint" technique, the company contended that the only workers who painted that way were the women filing suit, so it was their fault that they got sick.  They also strongly argued that radium was not poisonous.

It was through sympathetic judges and competent legal council that the women were able to receive some compensation for their injuries.  However, by the time they finished trying to appeal the decisions, the companies had either gone bankrupt or had re-formed in new states, thereby excluding them from having to actually pay the designated monies.  In fact, the son of the Luminous Process Corporation, Joseph A. Kelly Jr., still owns a radium process concern that can be traced back to his father's legacy in Ottawa, IL.

The extent and depth of research in The Radium Girls is astronomical.  The author has spent time with the families of these women, with the many case files from the legal disputes, newspapers, and many other sources.  Midway through the book, there are a set of reproduced photographs, some showing the debilitating effects of the radium on the girls' bodies.  While the work itself is tremendous and very informative, I was a bit off-put by the writing style.  Instead of just linking the facts together, which is compelling enough story, the author introduces her own opinions and assumptions into the work.  Her imagery was sometimes so pained that it was uncomfortable to read.  I wish there was a way to retool the story of these amazing women without adding such unnecessary flourishes.

The Radium Girls is a true David-and-Goliath story, and the reader spends a tremendous time getting to know the many Davids and their incredible lives, most cut too short.  It is a shocking story about the extent to which corporations will easily sacrifice their workers in the name of greed.  It also shows that there can be justice for those who have suffered from this greed, and that justice can benefit countless numbers of others.  These radium girls are true heroes, and I'm so thankful to Kate Moore for providing this detailed record of them.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A Visual Tour of The Midtown Scholar

Have you ever been to Harrisburg?  A little more than an hour away from Philadelphia, and right next to Amish land of Lancaster/chocolate mecca of Hershey, the capital of Pennsylvania is a strange place.
Image from Sperling's Best Places
It's surrounded by farmland.  It's the seat of powerful, government action.  There is tremendous wealth here, but also extreme poverty.  There is a strong vein of conservatism among many of the residents, but Harrisburg also hosts a burgeoning arts and cultural scene that promotes and celebrates diversity, inclusiveness, and empathy.  One actor in this progressive trend is Midtown Scholar Bookstore.

While they have an active, but slightly clunky, website with tons and tons of books that ship anywhere, the true experience requires setting foot into their physical bookstore.  1302 North 3rd Street used to be a department store and a theater, but I can't imagine it being anything other than this book lover's utopia.  There are so many nooks and crannies, hidden spaces and curated areas that you could easily spend all day here.  Since they serve food and drinks, you literally could!  Here's a pictorial tour of the Midtown Scholar, showing off some of my favorite areas.

When you first walk through the door, you'll find tables of small press books, new releases, and books for visiting authors.  In the past year, Midtown Scholar has definitely upped their book tour game, with local and national authors stopping by a few times every month.

On one side, you'll find the cash register and the cafe.  I don't know about you, but if there is coffee to be had while book shopping, I will have it.  Thinking about coffee and books must engage similar synapses in my brain.

The other side of the room is shelving of curated collections, graphic novels, and social awareness books.  So far, these books have all been new, but the rest of Midtown Scholar is made up of high quality used books.  Just beyond that area is the amazing Famous Authors section.  There are SO MANY shelves full of books by/about well-known authors including Margaret Atwood, Geoffrey Chaucer, Zora Neale Hurston, and Evelyn Waugh, among hundreds of others.  If you're looking for Classics of the Western Cannon, this is the place to check out.

In between two of the Famous Author shelves is a doorway into the Children's book section and the cookbook/food writing books.

At the back of the main floor is a set of stairs up to the Art Books section, which has massively tall shelves replete with a library ladder.  I've wanted so badly to jump on the ladder and coast around the stacks, but haven't gotten up the courage yet.  Afraid of making a fool of myself?  Definitely.

Leaving the art section, there's a walkway around the upstairs side, with shelves that sometimes hold fiction or other in-transition sections of books during re-shelving.  Continuing along the walkway, you run into the Quiet Area section, where screens are not allowed.  Ex-library pews await, arranged for your peaceful, reverent, reading pleasure.

On the other side of the sitting area live the music/dance/film/drama/poetry areas.  From the edge, you can peer down and spy on what the other shoppers are browsing.  A perfect people-watching spot!

At the end of this area (which is the beginning of the poetry section), walk down the steps to find yourself at the back of the cafe area.  Keep going toward the Art section but instead take the steps down.  Here's where the main non-fiction section of Midtown Scholar lives.  Right in front of you is the Local Interest shelf, with books about the Harrisburg area, small-press books from local authors, and other interesting things.  Beyond, there are so many sections, broken down into even smaller subsections, that it behooves you to just wander up and down the rows.

Continue down the next set of steps, to even more non-fiction goodness.  On the floor, you'll notice stickers directing you toward Robertson's Rare Books room.  Follow those stickers, to find a beautiful room stocked with Ex Libris bookplates, antique books, prints, and other fascinating objects.

Around the corner of the Robertson's area live the antiquarian books, with older titles in great condition mixed with very, very old books in the most interesting bindings.

Just when you're sure that you have entered another time zone, you'll find the very last section of Midtown Scholar.  There are small rooms for exercise, humor, social studies, and travel.  Before my first trip to The Netherlands, I unexpectedly found a book here called My 'Dam Life by Sean Condon.  Serendipity certainly abounds at the Midtown Scholar.

Now, all you have to to is retrace your steps to head back upstairs and to the cash register, to purchase that mountain of books you've gathered during your excavation adventure!

If you ever find yourself in southern Pennsylvania, do plan to stop by and have a browse!  You'll thank me.

Librorum annis,

Monday, May 15, 2017

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood - Book Review

Priestdaddy is a memoir of the author and her relationship with both the Catholic Church and with her father, who is a Catholic priest.  Yes, you read that right - a Catholic priest who is married and has children.  This is just the first in a lifetime of unusual facts and events that have shaped Patricia Lockwood, and makes for a raunchy, hilarious, and poignant work.

The book starts off with the author, as a late teenager, running away with a man she met on the internet. When Jason, the man who would eventually become her husband, has some expensive health issues, they realize that they cannot afford to live on their own.  They return to live with her parents, and Patricia is thrust headfirst back into the craziness that had been her childhood.  She documents the daily interactions she has with her parents, and draws from past occurrences to write this book.  In fact, there are chapters where the act of documenting people's utterances are discussed, making this work a bet meta in places.

The players in this memoir are almost unbelievably animated, especially her father.  He's this larger-than-life character - a priest who spouts horrifically conservative rhetoric yet loves to play electric guitar in his underwear.  He refuses to contribute toward college educations for his daughters, but easily spends huge sums of money on musical instruments.  A man who found his religious calling on a submarine, while watching The Exorcist, is truly unusual.  He's an enigma, and you can see the author struggling with that.  There are so many situations where Patricia tries to square her familial love with the deplorable things he says, does, and believes. 

For an anniversary of the church where her father is the priest, the area's Bishop, Robert Finn, comes in his official capacity to participate in the services.  The author comes across an article about a local priest, Shawn Ratigan, who was sentenced to 50 years in prison for child pornography.  Long before Father Ratigan was arrested, rumors about and evidence of his proclivities were rampant, leading him to attempt suicide.  Instead of reporting him to authorities, Bishop Finn sent him to a convent to receive evaluation and ordered him to have no further contact with children.  When Father Ratigan began photographing children he met through that church, he was eventually charged and plead guilty.  More than five months passed before the police were notified, and they charged Bishop Finn for his role in covering up the whole affair.  The Bishop was later forced to resign by Pope Francis.  In response, the Patricia Lockwood's father wrote an article explaining how he believed that the whole child molestation situation was a conspiracy to arrest religious leaders for their conservative beliefs, and that the prosecution's lawyer had ties to "the abortion industry".  These are the kinds of situations that give the author pause, and bring about the reflection and questioning that occurs throughout Priestdaddy.

Having been raised Catholic, but seeing the world in a more progressive way, the author is unique in her exploration of serious issues affecting the church and its teachings in today's world.  Child sexual abuse is not the only serious issue discussed here.  Abortion, suicide, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and many other topics come up in the book.  For each, she lays bare the hypocrisy, fear, and false beliefs that are rampant in the teachings of the church. 

There is darkness in Priestdaddy but there are also moments of joy and hilarity.  The author's sister has a low tolerance for alcohol, and when she drinks she does things like attack garden weeds like they're mortal enemies.  When she and her mother go on a road trip, they find a suspicious stain on the bedspread.  Her mother, who will worry about any illness or injury that could possibly happen to anyone anywhere, is convinced that the stain is ejaculation.  The priest-in-training who lives with the family for a few months even has some hilariously bizarre behaviors and catchphrases.  There is The Grindup, a large van once the possession of a local rap star, but now belonging to one of the author's sisters, that features in a few chapters.

The book is hilarious because it's bizarre, but it's bizarre humor that pervades throughout.  It was hard to distinguish if the humor was meant to offset some of the fear and sadness that permeates, or whether the opposite was true.  There is so much tragedy, but so much joy and love.  Eventually, Patricia and her husband move out to their own home, but the time spent with her family has imprinted on them in unimaginable ways.

Librorum annis

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Fragile Freedom - Book Review

When most US students, myself included, learn about our nation's early history, our education focuses on a few main events/people - the Founding Fathers, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War.  The city of Philadelphia features heavily in the earliest part of this history, being the location where the Declaration of Independence was signed and where George Washington served as the first President.  With regard to the period between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, we are presented with the opposing ideologies of "The North" (no slavery) and "The South" (slavery), but not much more than that.  In my own schooling, I cannot remember any discussion or serious mention of slavery existing above the Mason-Dixon Line.  What Erica Armstrong Dunbar has accomplished in her groundbreaking book A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City is, through extensive research and analysis, to examine the culture and climate of the city of Philadelphia during the Antebellum period.  The facts she presents, through primary research and other source review, has permanently altered the way I think about our nation's history, and just how little has changed between then and our problematic society of today.

While the focus is on the historical period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the author begins with a cursory history of the initial entry of slavery into America, and how vital the trans-Atlantic slave trade was in providing the labor that built this country.  Clearing forests, constructing buildings, farming the land, and performing household duties were tasks that required slaves to accomplish, because the economy and population levels in the area weren't robust enough to support the work of free men.  In this way, slavery is at the heart and backbone of the United States, especially in the North, where most of the colonial activities took place.

According to the author's research, it was the gradual awakening of some sects of the Quakers that began to change opinions about the nature of slavery and whether it was compatible with religious teachings.  Along with the earliest slaves came stereotypes of laziness, an animalistic nature, and barbaric society.  Slavery was considered by many as a way to break Africans of their base qualities.  It was necessary for them to be enslaved, so as to save them from themselves.  Most Quakers owned slaves; working on their land, in their shops, and toiling in their homes; and it took a long time for the holds of slavery to begin to ease in the minds of these people.  Once it did, however, many became staunch abolitionists, although there was division between whether slaves should be immediately emancipated and left to their own devices, or freed and then bonded as an indentured servant for a period of years.  Ultimately, indentured servitude became the order of the day, which is really just a "slavery light" because although technically "free", they were still under the order of a white overseer, often performing the same tasks they did when they were enslaved.

As some slaves were fully emancipated, or were able to save enough money to buy their freedom, they began to organize into communities within Philadelphia, which afforded them some semblance of social stability and legitimacy.  It's important to remember that "freedom" is not the same as "citizenship".  African Americans were not yet granted citizenship, so they were not regarded the same as white Americans under the law.  Also, slave catchers would regularly try to capture and enslave free African Americans, transporting them to the South for profit.  Those who were able to accumulate some wealth grew into what the author calls the "black elite".  They, and subsequent generations, were able to contribute to their community through the creation of churches, like Mother Bethel A.M.E. (founded in 1794 and still a robust congregation today), mutual aid organization, which provided assistance to those who were most desperate.

No matter how desperate or prosperous, African Americans were still subject to widespread and, sometimes, violent racism.  This was a reality everywhere in the North, although certainly not every non-African American would have believed in it.  It was, however, the dominant perspective at the time.  This is the most eye-opening and disillusioning part of the book, for me.  I had grown up believing that life in the Northern States was equal for all, regardless of race.  As my education has become more focused and sophisticated, I certainly realize that notions of absolute equality were ludicrous, but it's still disheartening to read about the depth and extent of the violence and false assumptions that African Americans dealt with on a daily basis.  The author provides some samples of political cartoons that ran in local newspapers, with black women drawn in horrifying, grotesque, ape-like ways.  Realizing that the ways we regard people of color now isn't so different at all from how we treated them two hundred years ago, it's a bitter pill to swallow. 

It was in the face of this rampant racism that the African American community placed such importance on respectability, especially church culture.  Because they were fighting against such horrid stereotypes, African Americans had to live their lives without blemish in order to be seen as just barely human, whereas the white residents (admittedly, men) could engage in all sorts of behavior and their status was never questioned.  Margot Jefferson discusses this same phenomenon in her book Negroland.  Despite being wealthy and well-respected Chicagoites, Margot's family was regarded as second-class.  She told of her mother holding her children to very high standards, because she understood that they would have to work twice as hard, and accomplish twice as much, to be on par with their white peers.

People of color in Philadelphia were vulnerable as it was, to slave catchers and the whims of law enforcement, but misbehaving people of color could endanger the whole community.  Therefore, church culture extended not just to the congregation during worship times, but to public and private aspects of their everyday lives.  Communities centered around the social and education activities that the churches and aforementioned mutual aid societies provided.  These groups enacted court systems that would punish members, even suspending or banishing them, for infractions.  To be a laboring African American, in need of assistance just to be able to keep out of the poorhouse or away from enslavement, this was a serious incentive to avoid alcohol, fighting, or any other behaviors that were deemed immoral. 

While religious life worked to improve the standing of African Americans, it also laid bare another social ill that was overt and rampant during the Antebellum period - sexism.  Women were active in their churches, but were actively discouraged from becoming pastors or other religious leaders.  When some women expressed dissatisfaction with this, they were openly chastised by their community.  Women were expected to remain in the domestic sphere, with control of their lives being under the dominion of their fathers and, eventually, husbands.  The author discusses what may be considered the infantile inklings of the feminist movement, but it had a long way to go (far beyond the scope of this book) before it would gain any measurable, social traction. 

A Fragile Freedom is an absolutely stunning book, for its depth and breadth of research, the quality of the writing, and the paradigm shifting material it presents.  Through this exploration of slavery in the Northern state of Pennsylvania, important inroads can be made into where the US has come from, and where it is going.  It demonstrates that the racism, sexism, and classism of America today was alive and well in the America of the Antebellum period, even in Philadelphia - the city of brotherly love.

Librorum annis,

Monday, May 8, 2017

Handmaids in NYC

While we were in New York, my partner and I took a stroll on The High Line, which is an elevated walkway and park near the Hudson River.  It's quite popular with tourists, because it allows great views of the cityscape without having to worry about traffic, panhandlers, or narrow sidewalks.  It's full length is almost a mile and a half (2.3km) long, extending from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street.

High Line at 20th Street (photo from Wikipedia)

One of the landmarks that the High Line passes is Chelsea Market.  While you can't directly enter the market from the walkway, there is a staircase and elevator that leads from the park to its 16th Street entrance.  In that same area, there are a lot of food and craft vendors set up, so you could buy an ice cream, sandwiches, art prints, and more.  For this weekend alone, commemorating the release of Hulu's adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, an art installation was set up in this area.

You can see the bonnets in the very left side of the lefthand photo.

Created by Paula Scher and Abbott Miller, the piece combines dark, repressive messages with inflated language and imagery to frightening effect.  There are bright, red images of handmaids, topped with lamp-like bonnets.  Beside each handmaid is a panel of slats, representing floor boards.  There are "missing" boards that display glowing phrases of resistance, including the most well-known "don't let the bastards grind you down".  In the cubbies created by the missing floor boards, were copies of The Handmaid's Tale that were free for passersby to take. I was lucky enough to walk through, not long after books had been re-stocked, so I snagged a copy! 

The book, with the Hulu promo cards that were being handed out around the art installation.  

In addition to the installation, there were also handmaids roaming the streets and subways of New York.  I came across a group of them around Chelsea Market, walking in pairs and groups.  It was really amusing to watch how passersby interact with the exhibit and the actors.  Some people had a clue of what was happening and why, but many others were completely befuddled. 

Considering how timely this story is, and how much I love The Handmaid's Tale, I'm definitely going to check out the TV series.  I'll probably wait until all of the episodes are released, however, so I can binge the entire thing over a weekend.  Since that won't be until mid-June, I'm going to try and plan a re-read of the book in late-May or early June, so it's fresh in my mind.

I was really fortunate to be in NYC at the time this campaign was going on, and I'm so thrilled to be able to get a commemorative copy of one of my favorite books!   Did you see the High Line installation, or what do you think about it?  Are you reading and/or watching The Handmaid's Tale?

Librorum annis,

Thursday, May 4, 2017

My Indie Bookstore Day

It just so happened that the weekend my partner and I were in New York City was the same weekend of Independent Bookstore Day.  I only get to the city once or twice a year, so with the whole of Manhattan at my fingertips, I knew that I had to visit a few bookshops.  I almost always pop into The Strand, because it's so huge and full of nooks and crannies that are just perfect for browsing, but this time I decided to seek out other indie bookstores.  Of course, there were so many that I wanted to visit, but just didn't have the time.  Here is a rundown of my bookish adventures:

Posman Books, Chelsea Market

In the hustle and bustle of Chelsea Market - chocked full of restaurants, tourist shops, craft stalls, Food Network - there exists the bright and modern Posman Books outpost.  It's actually a bit cavernous, with low ceilings and a long space, giving shoppers the impression that it goes on and on and on...and I wish that it did.  Especially inviting was the whistle seat in the children's section, which is at the very back of the store.  If there hadn't been a pre-teen curled up there reading, I might've tried to squeeze my adult self into it.  Maybe next time.

The store is clearly and conveniently laid out, with tables of books in the front, organized into neat stacks, and more books on shelves against the wall.  In fact, my clumsy self was very conscious of those tables, with books stacked many volumes tall, for fear of knocking them to the floor.  I had visions of myself bumping into a stack, and sending an entire table of books to the floor, like displays of navel oranges in a grocery store.  Thankfully the store wasn't too packed, and I (and the books) survived unscathed. 

Housing Works Bookstore & Cafe, SoHo

Part of the Housing Works charity organization, this bookshop sells new and used books, movies, and music; hosts a diverse array of literary and community events; and provides employment and volunteering opportunities.  The space is large and very inviting, with dark wood shelves, spiral staircases and plentiful lighting.  In fact, it looks just like my dream home library.  This is a place I could easily spend all day browsing, and I hope to someday be in town to attend one of their events.  

There is a cafe in the back that sells coffee, tea, baked goods, sandwiches, beer and wine, and other tasty treats.  It was a very hot day when we stopped in, and we were grateful for the free water dispenser.  All of the proceeds from the bookstore and cafe go back to the philanthropy, so giving them your money is good for you and the community.  An added perk was that all items were 30% off for Indie Bookstore Day, so I definitely didn't walk out of there empty handed.

The aims of Housing Works are to end the plights of HIV/AIDS and homelessness through advocacy, entrepreneurial businesses, and community services.  Read more about Housing Works here.

McNally Jackson Books, SoHo

Literally just around the corner from Housing Works is McNally Jackson Books, a modern and crisply organized bookshop, with an unbelievable range of books.  There are extensive Staff Picks, a whole shelf devoted to chapbooks, and even a hilariously tongue-in-cheek section of recommendations by contentious political figures.  My favorite was Steve Bannon recommending Sinclair Lewis' satirical, anti-fascist novel It Can't Happen Here with "challenge accepted".

I was gobsmacked by the depth and breadth of international and translated works that are stocked at McNally Jackson, organized by country/area of origin, making it incredibly simple to choose books from just about anywhere around the world.  The bookshop also has a full-service cafe and hosts a wide variety of events.  There are also quite a few autographed copies of books available, so if that's your fancy you would be many options from which to choose. 

Three Lives Books & Company, Greenwich Village

Walking into Three Lives & Co. is like passing through a portal into another world - civilized world, where calm and sensibility prevail.  The city melts away and you're in a piece of heaven, with dark wood shelves, exposed brick, and a masterfully curated library.  My ideal of what a bookstore can be, and a true gem in this neighborhood.  Despite its small size, I could easily spend hours perusing the shelves and finding books I've never seen before and can't possibly live without.  There are works from small presses, interesting editions of classic books, and thoughtful collections of poetry, among many other books.  There's no coffee, no food (although someone had brought in a plate of brownies for Indie Bookstore Day), just books books books! 

I had a really fantastic time, visiting some new-to-me bookshops around Manhattan.  There are so many more that I want to visit, the next time I have a weekend in the city, but I can't help but think I'll be back to visit some of these as well.  I just love how each shop is curated and arranged so that it has a personality and character all its own.  Everyone, go out (or go online) and support independent bookshops!  As for the books I truly couldn't live without, here they are:

  • Six Decades at Yaddo by John Cheever, Malcolm Cowley, Eleanor Clark, Alfred Kazin, Hortense Calisher, Gail Godwin - Six authors provide brief, personal essays of their time spent at the artist's retreat Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY.  I spent a few years in Saratoga Sprints, and visited the beautiful Yaddo gardens often.  While I doubt I'll ever be accepted for a residency there, the colony is a place that will always be fascinating to me (Yaddo)
  • The Little Buddhist Monk & The Proof by Cesar Aira, translated by Nick Caistor - Two short stories in one book, comparing East and West.  The cover photo is of a pile of french fries, so how can it be bad!  This will be my first Aira, and I'm so excited to dive in. (New Directions)
  • Notes on My Dunce Cap by Jesse Ball - A revolutionary pedagogical text, encouraging the reader to re-think traditional, hierarchical power structures in the classroom.  I'm planning on reading this in tandem with a re-read of bell hook's Teaching to Transgress, for my own classroom use. (Pioneer Works)
  • Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski - If I see a Persephone Books edition out in the wild, and I don't already own it, there's a good chance I'll pick it up.  That's the case with this one - a used Persephone Classics edition that is in fantastic shape. (Persephone Books)
  • Such Small Hands by Andres Barba, translated by Edmund White - Not a book about Donald Trump, in case you were wondering!  Mariana arrives at the orphanage, very different from the other girls, and has difficulty finding acceptance.  The story is told, alternately, from Mariana's perspective and from a collective chorus of the other orphanage girls. (Transit Books)
  • Olio by Tyehimba Jess - Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection that incorporates song, story, fact, and narrative to talk about African American entertainers who worked during the Civil War era through World War 1. (Wave Books)

Did you visit any bookshops during Independent Bookstore Day?  Which did you visit, and what books did you find?

Librorum annis,

Monday, May 1, 2017

April Reading Wrapup

April was a busy month for bookishness.  National Poetry Month, National Library Week, World Book Day, and Independent Bookstore Day all happened this month.  I was also able to squeeze in two author events.  All of this, and I read a total of 13 books!  April was a rather winning month, indeed.  Here are the books!

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (poetry)

This book exists in the Venn diagram of "humanity" and "nature".  Whether it's a fig tree growing miraculously in Philly's Italian Market, a bird hitting a windshield, or lying on the grass during a sunny day, the author beautifully captures the joys and sorrows of when the natural world and the human experience come together.

Never Caught: The Washington's Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar (non-fiction)

It may come as no surprise that, being wealthy Southern farmers, the Washington's held slaves.  Hundreds of them worked the fields, kept the house, and served the owners of Mount Vernon long before our first President was elected.  This book presents the biography of one of those slaves, Ona Judge, and her experience serving Martha Washington until her escape near the end of George Washington's presidency in Philadelphia.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (short stories)

This is a fascinating collection of short stories that were compiled posthumously by Stephen Emerson.  What is particularly fascinating about them is that, although the individual stories were published in various places during her lifetime, when put together they feel linked.  It's almost as if there is a larger story that the author was trying to tell - the story of her life.  The editor graciously includes background information on Berlin, and after reading it (which I would recommend doing AFTER finishing the collection) the reader can clearly see how the characters in the stories were inspired by her own life experiences.

In Spite of Everything by Curtis Robbins (poetry)

The poet lost his hearing at age 1, and has gone on to a successful academic career - teaching deaf culture and American Sign Language.  This poetry collection entirely centers around the deaf experience, the ways in which it is similar and different from hearing experiences, and profiling some prominent, deaf writers.  If you are interested in learning about deaf culture and perspectives, I would highly recommend this collection.   

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker (poetry)

One of the most ambitious and amazing poetry collections I've ever read.  It's surprising in its scope and also the depth and breadth of emotions it evokes.  It brilliantly mixes pop culture, social justice, and inter-sectional feminist topics with a deep rhythm and bright energy.  The wordplay is whip smart and packs a serious punch.

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail (novel)

A novel (originally published in 1925 and republished by Persephone Books in 2002) that gives readers a glimpse into the first few months in a generally happy marriage.  There are no issues of infidelity or any other serious temptations that might draw partners apart.  Instead, Ian and Felicity represent a devoted couple who are still figuring out how to be adults and how to live with each other successfully.  It's light, delightful, and very sweet.

An Age of License: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley (graphic memoir)

During this graphic memoir, we follow the author on a whirlwind European trip that turns out to be so much more.  She is initially asked to attend a Comic Con in Norway, to talk about her experiences as a graphic artist and memoirist.  She decides to dovetail trips to Sweden (a love interest), Germany (friends' honeymoon), and France (mother's holiday with her friends) onto this trip.  We follow her as she stresses about making arrangements and packing, and dealing the unpleasant people she has to sit next to on flights.  She's also experiencing that ennui that many mid-20's aged people feel; she's between relationships, uncertain about her career, and constantly comparing her situation to those of her friends.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (novella)

In this book, we are introduced to Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez (aka "Highway"), a factory worker-cum-auctioneer in a suburb of Mexico City.  He is also a collector - of objects, educational courses, stories, and ideas.  He has an ex-wife, Flaca, and an estranged son, Siddhartha.  This son appears later in his life, in a very sinister and surprising way.  Highway narrates 1/2 of the book, and tells the audience his story.  The next 3/8 of the book is narrated by Highway's "dental autobiographer", Jacobo de Voragine.  The final 1/8 is a chronology of historical events (called "The Chronologic") written by Christina MacSweeney.

Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe (non-fiction)

What the author does masterfully is to take complex, often technical, ideas and explain them in the most simple language.  This allows people of all language and education levels to learn and appreciate the concepts.  You won't need an advanced degree in engineering or chemistry to be able to understand this book.

Big Mushy Happy Lump by Sarah Andersen (graphic novel-comics)

A hilarious and completely self-conscious look at modern, female life.  Whether it's stealing your significant other's clothes, posting cat photos on the internet, or dealing with your monthly issues, this book covers it all.

Footnotes From the World's Greatest Bookstores by Bob Eckstein (non-fiction)

This is a beautifully crafted book, and would be a lovely gift for a lover of books, but especially for a lover (and visitor) of bookshops.  The author has curated a collection of diverse bookshops around the world, provided a brief overview (at most, a few sentences), some testimonials from authors or other bookish people, and a beautiful drawing of the building.  I found myself flipping through the book, picking out the ones I've visited and noting the ones I want to visit.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli (essay)

For those who aren't well-informed about the realities of immigration, this essay will be an awakening.  The dominant political rhetoric in the US does not at all reflect the truth, and actively avoids admitting culpability in the root causes for this immigration...which should really be called "seeking asylum".  These children are fleeing their home countries because there is no future without violence and poverty.  They are willing to risk everything for a chance at a better life.  If that isn't the American Dream, then I don't know what is.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (fiction)

The book centers around the modern day Black Lives Matter movement, but also gives some history and background information of what came before it.   It doesn't shy away from the hardships experienced by disadvantaged people, but gives those people the humanity that media outlets often don't. People are people; we all deserve justice, fairness, and truth - no matter our outward appearance.  That is the message of this novel, and this message is vital for us all to hear.

I'm looking forward to what May has in store!  Happy reading!

Librorum annis,