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.

 

The world’s “black dog”

Silk Screen illustration 2016 by jpbohannon.

Winston Churchill called his bouts with depression “having the black dog on his back.” This was not original  with him, but was a common saying, referring more often to moodiness than depression. One historian likened it to the phrase “getting up on the wrong side of the bed.” But nevertheless, the phrase has been attributed to Churchill and ever since been associated with depression.

God knows, the world that Churchill saw certainly could buckle the strongest man’s knees.

And so it seems to be these past few months, as well. From Paris to Brussles to Orlando to Dallas to Nice  to Turkey to everyday traffic-stops, there has just been an onslaught of horrific and discouraging news. President Obama, in his speech after the Dallas shootings, said that “this is not who we are.”

But I wonder. Not we as Americans specifically–although I do wonder about that–but we as a species.

Sure, I know the heartwarming and hopeful stories as well: from high-school kids doing serious global service to individual neighbors coming together to help another in worse shape than they, from those who put their lives on the line to those who fight against power when it seems determined to crush the weak. I know people whose every thought seems to be how to better the lives of the sick and  dispossessed, the impoverished and the abused.

And yet these past few months have been relentless.

Last week, I read two novels by Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity and Professor Andersen’s Night. Both deal with teachers–Norwegian literature teachers–at the end of their careers. They both (a high-school teacher and university teacher respectively) question the value of the literature they profess. (Both are teaching Ibsen.)  The struggle to make students realize the value of literature has been ongoing throughout their career–that is always the natural give and take between student and teacher, although both feel it increasingly worse– but now they feel that that value is questioned by society itself. From evolving technologies–and  the distractions they provide–to current pedagogical trends and goals that emphasize success in a future career, they feel out of place, like dinosaurs, supporting a cause that is no longer relevant in the ultra-modern world.

And it is easy to believe that.

As hundreds are gunned down, blown-up, crushed, drowned, stripped of their homes, it is hard to rationalize the need to read a 150 year old Norse play, or a 450 year British play , or a 2500 year old Greek. Novels, poetry, drama, short fiction…it all feels so powerless against men with efficient guns and deficient ideas.

And yet, never before has it been so important.

Study after study has linked reading literature with an increase in the development of EMPATHY. Even the youngest teenager, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, understands on the simplest of levels, the importance of “walking in another man’s shoes.” Reading has always been a way of experiencing different lives, different cultures, different ideas.  And this is what it needs to continue to do. It is our insularity, our tribalism, our fear of (and intolerance to) the “other” that is that root of much of the world’s pain and horror.

I KNOW that art, music, literature, theater, dance are more than just “nice things” for entitled leisure. They are essential to us as a species.

I KNOW these things to be true. But these days I do not FEEL it.

But I must continue doing what I do, nevertheless: read and write.

However, as I read this, the “black dog” is wagging its tail frantically and banging up against the door.

 

 

 

 

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia

Gore Vidal Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Gore Vidal
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country…and we haven’t seen them since.” Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal is perhaps one of the U.S.’s most under-appreciated writers, certainly was one of its most vocal political intellects, and truly one of its most fascinating personalities. Novelist, screenwriter, playwright, essayist, he parlayed his wit and intelligence–and his knowledge of the backrooms of politics– into becoming a favorite choice when looking for a liberal spokesman for televised debate (most famously with William F. Buckley), a panel member, or talk show guest.

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The infamous of their many debates where Buckley called Vidal a “queer” and Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” They were discussing police brutality in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Nicholas D. Wrathall’s documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of America attempts to capture the wit, the acerbity, the political thought and the literary presence of Vidal, but at last, Vidal is really simply large a figure to truly pin down in little less than two hours. So it focuses on the political.

The film tries to be chronological but it is not really historical, moving ahead and back indiscriminately in chapters set off by one of Vidal’s aphorisms.

“I heard bad news on the way over here: the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was just destroyed by fire, and, tragically, both books were a total loss. Worse yet, he wasn’t finished coloring the second one.” Gore Vidal to the National Press Club on Ronald Reagan

The United States of Amnesia is primarily focused on Vidal’s political thought–and his ultimate pessimism about the reality of the United States. The biographical part moves rather quickly. He was raised primarily by his blind grandfather, the U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, Thomas Gore, for whom he acted as page and guide, and for whom he would read out loud the senator’s voluminous reading list of philosophy and political thought. The political ideas and conversations that his grandfather was interested in had to come first through the mouth of his young grandson, and gave the young man an invaluable schooling. Vidal–who was christened Eugene Luther Gore Vidal–took the grandfather’s last name as his own and became Gore Vidal.

Even as a child, Vidal was surrounded by the powerful and famous. Not only did Vidal walk the august halls and back offices of the U.S. Senate with his grandfather, but his father was a close adviser to FDR and was, according to one biographer, the great love affair of Amelia Earhart. His mother married four times, once to Henry Auchincloss, the step-father of Jacqueline Bouvier, the future Mrs. Kennedy. Vidal also reported that she had a long “on-again, off-again” affair with the actor Clark Gable.

After service in the navy during World War II, Vidal published–at the age of twenty-one– the novel, Williwaw. Based on his military experiences, the novel was highly successful. His second novel published two years later The City and the Pillar, caused a furor of controversy because of its matter-of-fact portrayal of homosexuality. So outraged was the mainstream press, that the editor of The New York Times, Orville Prescott, refused to “read or review” any subsequent Vidal novels.  (Vidal got around this to a small degree by writing under the pseudonym  Edgar Box.)

“What is in question is a kind of book reviewing which seems to be more and more popular: the loose putting down of opinions as though they were facts, and the treating of facts as though they were opinions.  Gore Vidal

With his books banned from review from the national “papers of record,”  Vidal set out to become a screen writer in Hollywood. He wrote several television plays–the most notable being The Best Man–and several feature films, including the rewrite of the script for Ben-Hur.  

In the 1960s, Vidal returned to fiction, writing three  novels Julian, Washinton, D.C. and Myra Breckinridge. In a way, these three encompass the themes of all his later fiction–ancient history, Washingtonian politics, and broad comedic social commentary.  Importantly,  also in the 1960s, Vidal moved to the Amalfi coast in Italy.  He was not the first writer to believe he can see and comment on his native country better from a distance…and that is what he did.

Vidal’s targets were many:  American foreign policy, the militarization of America, the role of big business in American politics, the growth of religion in government.  In journals such as The New Statesman, The Nation and The New York Review of Books, Vidal spoke his mind in well-crafted, observant and illuminating essays. Indeed, it is the essays for which Vidal is most celebrated.  Always witty, always incisive, and always confident in his beliefs, the tendencies of his political thought still harkened to the populist politics of the grandfather who raised him.

It is difficult to capture all of Vidal in a movie.  In Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, we have film clips of the famous debates and talk show appearances, we have photographs of the famous and celebrated who attended his many parties, and we have talking heads reminiscing about Vidal.  Perhaps, the most rewarding of the bits is when Vidal himself remembers particular moments. An adept storyteller–often supplying different accents–he tells us of a shooting party with him, JFK and Tennessee Williams, of an encounter between Paul Neuman and William F. Buckley following the legendary “crypto-Nazi” debate, and of the pain of ultimately packing up his beloved home in Italy when he became to feeble to stay there himself.
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Poster for Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary on Gore Vidal.

The film begins with Vidal visiting the tombstone where his life long partner Howard Austen was buried and where his name is etched waiting for him to join. It ends there as well, a full circle.  It is an enjoyable two hours, filled with insight and humor and not a small bit of nostalgia for a time when non-conformist ideas and opinions were voiced in the mainstream and not lost in a sea of cable channels and internet sites.

“All in all, I would not have missed this century for the world.”  Gore Vidal