Book Review: Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

At the end of last year or the beginning of this, before my focus and attention were hijacked by the circus that is American politics, The New York Times did a piece on what books people had read the previous year. There were about fifty panelists, mostly writers, but mixed with a sampling of actors, scientists, business people, and politicians. What I could not help but notice is that every third person or so listed two books by Rebecca Solnit. Not the same two books, but two books. No one, it seemed read one Rebecca Solnit book; they had always gone on to a second or a third.

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Rebecca Solnit  (photograph by John Lee for The Guardian)

I had done the same a few years earlier. A friend had lent me a copy of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Solnit’s whimsical collection of “should-be” maps of San Francisco neighborhoods, which had, of course, immediately led me to another title Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which is much more fascinating than it sounds; as the blurb says, it is a history of walking as a political and cultural activity. (Solnit has also done atlases of New York and New Orleans.)

But then I moved on to other books, to other writers, although I did not forget about her. One couldn’t; she was everywhere: her essays appearing in journals, her pieces in major newspapers, her name cited in political commentary, her books brought up in serious conversation.

This year, after reading the NYTimes piece, I realized it had been a while since I last read her, so I bought and read A Field Guide to Getting Lost in January. However, I did not immediately read another. Instead, I fell down a rabbit hole of books about walking and cities and travel: Flanneuse by Lauren Elkin, The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Scillonian, Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli and Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. This is what a good book can do.

So now in early autumn I return to Solnit once more.

Men Explain Things to Me is a menexplaincollection of seven essays, mostly first-published on the web-site TomDispatch, that focus on the reality and the dangers (and some of the absurdity) found in the patriarchy of modern civilization, dangers that include murder, violence, and rape, as well as condescension and subordination.

The opening essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” begins with the humorous anecdote where at a party a man says he heard she was a writer and asks her what she has written. She mentions the last book she has written–a study of Eadweard Muybridge and the technology of the west–and he says what a shame that it was published the same year that another book on the same subject came out. He then goes on to explain the substance of this “other book.” As he continues with his description of the book that she should read, Solnit recognizes that he is talking about her book.

Talk about mansplaining!

In an article for The Guardian this past August, Solnit wrote:

There are no signs that mansplaining is going away. An acquaintance recently told me, “A man once asked me if I knew of the Bracero program [for Mexican farmworkers in the US], and when I said, ‘Why yes, I wrote my undergrad thesis about it,’ he replied, ‘Well, I’ll tell you about it.’ I said, ‘No, I’ll tell you, fucker!’ And then the dinner party got weird.”

But the humor of such situations is more than tempered by the grisly facts that anchor these essays. For instance, in the U.S. more women have been killed by domestic violence between 9/11 and the year 2012 than the total number of people who died in the towers AND in the two wars fought afterwards

We have a war on terror…but it seems we’re concentrating on the wrong terror.

And if domestic homocide is rampant, rape is epidemic and systematic. (Just read this month’s headlines.) There is a reported rape in the United States once every 6.2 minutes.

In one essay, Solnit reports the details of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape. (He, the French head of the International Monetary Fund; she the African immigrant maid at the luxury hotel he was staying in.) It was more than just rape, Solnit states. It was a political analogy come to life. As she writes:

Her name was Africa. His was France. He colonized her, exploited her, silenced her and even decades after it was supposed to have ended, still acted with a high hand in resolving her affairs…Her name was silence. His was power. Her name was poverty. His was wealth.

For Solnit, the Strauss-Kahn rape was more than a rape of a single woman. It was indicative of an entire system built on intimidation, colonization, and entitlement.

The final essay, “#YesAllWomen,” anticipates the current trending hashtag #MeToo that has grown out of the Harvey Weinstein episode, while her essay, “Cassandra among the Creeps,” indicts a world where countless women report abuse, assault, and violence only to have those reports too often fall on deaf ears.  Again, it is the very situation that allowed the Weinstein abuses to go on for so long.

In a world where intellectual thought has become rare–where it’s very opposite is the norm–Rebeccca Solnit is an American treasure. Her breadth of interests seems inexhaustible and her thinking is clear and logical (another sadly missing aspect of our current times.) Her writing is both entertaining and provocative, and in many cases unforgettable.

I would recommend for all to pick up any one of her books. You will be enthralled and enchanted and awed. And you will certainly learn something that you didn’t know you didn’t know.

And I encourage all men to read Men Explain Things to Me. In the end, we are all in this together.

 

Review: The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien…there are wolves among the lambs.

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On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.
Epigraph to The Little Red Chairs

 

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien came out in March of 2016, her 23rd book of fiction. Late to pick it up, I finished it only this weekend, January 28, 2017. While I was reading it, the United States put a ban on refugees entering the country. I wish those who had signed the papers ordering the ban had read O’Brien’s work beforehand. The unforgettable stories of refugees–which make up a very small part of the novel–put a face and a family and a humanity on these very people trying to escape the most unimaginable horrors. And the horrors themselves become real on the page.

However, I am sure that those in power have little time or inclination for reading.

In the 1990s my extended family–a few of my sisters, my mother, my auntie–as well as a good number of friends had begun watching a BBC series called Ballykissangel. (Run on various Public Television stations.) It was really no more than an Irish soap opera in a little town in the southeast of Ireland, yet the characters were memorable and well-drawn, their village ways often intruded on by the outside world and their own insular in-fighting propeled the story.

It was this show that I was reminded of at the beginning of The Little Red Chairs:  A lovely, charming Irish village with likeable characters visited by a elegant and charismatic stranger from the outside. But in this case, the stranger is the incarnation of evil.

One night, the simple village of Cloonoila in the west of Ireland is visited by a strange man. Dressed in a long black coat and with a flowing white beard, he stops at the local pub to inquire about finding lodgings. The barman who is idle, as it is early yet for the normal crowd, chats the stranger up and finds him “an out and out gentleman.” What surprises him, however, is his business card: Dr. Vladimir Dragan, Healer and Sex Therapist.

As soon as the visitor leaves, the pub fills with a crowd asking for information about the strange and elegant visitor, and it is a crowd out of central casting: the policeman, the ex-schoolteacher, the widow, the town punk, etc. You can imagine how the fact that he advertised himself as a “sex therapist” sets this town atwitter.

But nevertheless, they are enchanted by this wonder that has stumbled into their lives.

And the doctor is truly magnetic. Everyone, particular the women, is soon charmed and fascinated by him. He wins over the local priest and his landlady, sets up shop in an out-of-business dress shop, and offers the town his services. His first customer is a relatively liberal nun, Sister Bonaventure, who has come for a “medicinal massage.” (She is too embarassed to tell her fellow sisters how electrically alive she felt afterwards.)

His most important patient, however, is Fidelma, a 40-something women, married to a much older man, who longs for a child having miscarried twice, but sees that her chances are dwindling. The two become lovers, and soon Fidelma finds herself pregnant.

But before she can tell him, however, he is discovered, arrested and brought to an international tribune in the Hague. The stranger is the notorious war criminal known as the Beast of Bosnia. (O’Brien’s fictional Vladimir Dragan is largely based on Radovan Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia, and the retelling of his atrocities are a stark reminder of the bestial, sadistic violence that humans can visit on one another.)

Immediately after his arrest, Fidelma is assaulted and left for dead by three of his compatriots. When she is found, after she has recovered, she is discarded by her husband and shunned by her town. And she understandably falls apart, not so much from love lost, but because she has been touched by such unimaginable evil.

The second half of the novel follows a lost and disgraced Fidelma in London.  She walks among the refugees, the homeless, the downtrodden. She hears their stories, but she cannot share her own. She has not been brutalized like they; she has slept with the devil. And she cannot feel clean.

Until she faces her tormentor.

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Edna O’Brien at the Irish Book Awards

Edna O’Brien has been writing for more than fifty years and has garnered most of the awards that a writer can hope for. From her first novel The Country Girl to this last she has written mesmerizing tales that look at modern life cleanly and honestly–with it all its indelicacies and horrors on full display.

On my shelf, I noticed that I have five titles by O’Brien, ranging through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. I have not read much of her in the last two decades, but I have read her a lot. It is rare for a writer to hit his/her peak at the latter end of one’s career, but this is what O’Brien has done. I can honestly say that The Little Red Chairs is a masterpiece: blending Irish charm with human depravities, human grotesqueness with the capacity for great love, the private stage and the public arena.

The Little Red Chairs is an important book, a wonderful book, a highly readable book.

 

Please Note: I decided on this book after reading the Christmas NYTimes Book Review where it interviewed various writers, artists, thinkers etc. on what books they had read in 2016. The writer Maxine Hong Kingston was one of several who had read this book. However, she noted that she had to skip over the torture parts. There are two of them, and they are difficult, but are probably not the worse you have read or seen.

Hopeful Momentum or “Accident Waiting to Happen.”

I went to see Billy Bragg last Wednesday night.

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Billy Bragg at the Union Transfer in Philadelphia 9/28/2016 photo 2016 by jpbohannon

As often is the case, my neighbors brought me, convincing me that it would be well worth going out on a “school night,” particularly given our current election season.

And they were right.

There has been a lot of momentous “politics” in the past year. Bragg apologized to the audience for his own country’s “Brexit” vote in June. (I had seen the novelist Ian McEwan the previous week who also apologized to the audience for the Brexit vote.) Bragg told us that few could foresee what would ultimately result–that most voters found the entire Brexit campaign an annoying nuisance which would right itself when the vote was finally counted.

They all were horribly mistaken.

Semi-jokingly, he stated that what Britain also lost with the Brexit vote was its “moral superiority” over the U.S.’s electoral process. However, he warned, they could gain it right back in November. And with that, he began singing his classic “Accident Waiting to Happen.”

The message was clear.

There has been a lot of fun this year at the bizarre nature of the current election campaigns. Comedians are having a ball, and water cooler conversation is more about the latest Bill Maher piece or Steve Colbert rant than anything of substance. And that might be merely because we are simply following the lead of those who want to be our leaders. It has all become performance. (The SNL season premier this week [10/1/2016] was priceless in its political skewering.)

And yet, Bragg was cautiously optimistic.

Billy Bragg, for those who don’t know, is a singer from Britain who throughout his career has taken up a variety of causes ranging from the miner’s strike during the Thatcher reign to the current refugee crisis. He is very firmly planted to the left of the American Left.

He remembered that when he first toured America, it was 1984, the “Reagan years.” No way then, he recalled, could he have anticipated that a man who labels himself a “Democratic Socialist” would be considered a major contender for the presidency in 2016.  And for that he is hopeful.

He feels there is a hopeful momentum, but a momentum that can be stopped by “he who shall not be named” as he referred to Donald Trump.  His defeat he believes is as important a vote as any the American public has faced.

And he asked us not to make the mistake that the British voters made with Brexit, not to believe that the unthinkable cannot happen.

And then he played some wonderful and thoughtful music.

 

Richard Avedon’s Family Affairs at the National Museum of American Jewish History

Subway poster advertising the Avedon exhibit photograph 2015 by jpbohannon

Subway poster advertising the Avedon exhibit.
Jerry Brown, Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan and George H. W. Bush
photograph 2015 by jpbohannon

In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola released The Godfather, the film version of Mario Puzo’s blockbuster novel from three years earlier. Four years later he released The Godfather II. Both the novel and the films were more than just extraordinary successes, they became part of America’s cultural weltgiest. They were widely honored and celebrated and they spawned scores of imitations–some good, some not so good.

And for a while there, when one heard the word “the Family,” one reference came immediately to mind: organized crime.

So it was with not a little irony that Rolling Stone published sixty-nine Richard Avedon photos under the umbrella title “The Family.” The issue was published on October 21,1976–just before the 1976 election and little after the Bicentennial celebration that summer. The mood of the country was neither particularly joyous nor overly patriotic. It had been a rough eight years.  And Avedon’s portraits were of the U.S’s elite–the most powerful men (and a few woman) in the United States. Several would later move into even more powerful and influential roles

Avedon’s portraits are stark in their simplicity. The subjects stand before a white screen. There are no props (although Katherine Graham does hold her eye-glasses in her hands.) Most are straight-on, some slightly turned. And most stare straight into the camera.

They are revealing portraits.

So it was great fun strolling through these portraits on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History and thinking of what have become of some these powerful figures. (The exhibit ran until August 2.) More than a few of the subjects have had large effects on American life since these photos were taken in 1976.  There is George H. W. Bush, head of the CIA; Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense for Gerald Ford; Ralph Nader, described simply as a “Consumer Advocate”; Ronald Reagan, at the time simply the “Former Governor of California”; W. Mark Felt, a former Associate Director of the FBI (and whom we know now was the infamous “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame); and Jerry Brown, in 1976 the youngest governor in California history. Thirty-five years later, Brown was again elected and became the oldest governor in California history.

Avedon who started out as I.D. photographer for the Merchant Marines, entered the world of fashion photography (he is the model for Fred Astaire’s character in Funny Face) and shot for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Life. While still immersed in fashion photography, he began taking portraits of those involved in political dissidence and

Avedon--Self-Portrait 2 2006

Avedon–Self-Portrait 2 © Richard Avedon 2006

social issues, celebrities and workers, the demi-monde and the hard-scrabble. While his fashion photography may be timeless, it is these “social” portraits that are the most powerful and unforgettable

Such was Avedon’s reputation, that after “The Family” shoots, George H. W. Bush–America’s chief spy-master at the time–wrote the following to Rolling Stone:

It was a pleasure having Mr. Avedon out here at CIA… .  I don’t know if he was as scared to come out here as I was in posing for the great Avedon, but he sure has a neat way of putting his victims at ease and I enjoyed our short time together.

George H. W. Bush and Katherine Graham. Promotional photo for

George H. W. Bush and Katherine Graham. Promotional photo for “Family Affairs” at NMAJH.

THE FAMILY

The following are the list of subjects of Rolling Stone’s photo-essay “The Family”. These photos were part of the National Museum of American Jewish History exhibit, Avedon: Family Affairs.

Bella Abzug             Carl Albert              James Angleton              Walter Annenberg
J. Paul Austin           Benjamin Bailar      Roger Baldwin                Daniel Boorstin
Jerry Brown              Gen. George Brown     Arthur Burns             George H. W. Bush
Earl Butz                    Joseph Califano       Jimmy Carter                 Emanuel Celler
César Chávez           Shirley Chisholm        Frank Church                Clark Clifford
John DeButts            Thomas Eagleton       W. Mark Felt               Frank Fitzsimmons
Gerald Ford               Thomas Gleason        Katherine Graham      F. Edward Hérbert
Adm. James Holloway     Hubert Humphrey     Daniel Inouye         Lady Bird Johnson
Gen. David Jones         Barbara Jordan          Edward “Ted” Kennedy
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy    Henry Kissinger     Richard Kleindienst    Melvin Laird
Mike Mansfield            Eugene McCarthy      George McGovern          George Meany
Arnold Miller            Herbert J. Miller, Jr.    Daniel Patrick Moynihan   Edmund Muskie
Ralph Nader           Thomas “Tip” O’Neill         William Paley          A. Philip Randolph
Ronald Reagan      Elliot Richardson    Admiral Hyman Rickover   Nelson Rockefeller
Peter Rodino            Felix Rohatyn          A.M.Rosenthal          Pete Rozelle
Donald Rumsfeld      Charles Shaffer         William Simon         Jules Stein
I. F. Stone                  Cyrus Vance             George Wallace      Gen. Fred C. Weyand
Edward Wilson           Gen. Louis Wilson      Leonard Woodcock    Rose Mary Woods
James Skelly Wright   Andrew Young

The Other Families

Besides the portraits from the Rolling Stone piece, the exhibit “Avedon: Family Affairs” also contained several large scale murals of other different “families.”  His portrait of the Chicago Seven is notable because of the absence of Bobby Seale, who had been jailed the day before the group shot was to be taken. There is a large mural of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” denizens, notable here for containing two portraits of Joe Dallesandro–one nude, one clothed. And there is a wonderful portrait, the largest of all of them, of Allen Ginsberg’s family. The family–celebrating the publication of Ginsberg’s father’s collection of poems–is a wonderful group, disparate like all families, but very much connected. Some hold plates with cake, some hold coffee cups, one sits, the rest stand, some stare at the camera, some look away.

It is a honest family shot of an American icon.

Richard Avedon, Allen Ginsberg's Family, Paterson, New Jersey, May 3, 1970 (1970).  Photo: courtesy of NMAJH

Richard Avedon, Allen Ginsberg’s Family, Paterson, New Jersey, May 3, 1970 (1970).
Photo: courtesy of NMAJH