Feb 15, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Sales for this modern dystopian classic have skyrocketed recently, and not just because a new TV adaptation is coming out. With Republicans catering to their anti-choice constituents and threatening to defund Planned Parenthood, in addition to a cabinet full of rich Christian white men (and one rich Christian white woman), women's reproductive rights are suddenly in question once more. As that old lady's protest sign exclaimed: "I can't believe I'm protesting this same shit again."

Our nameless narrator lives in a society drastically different from our own. I hesitate to describe it in much detail; one of the joys of science fiction is being thrust into an unfamiliar world and having to put the pieces together as you read, until you finally have one complete picture of that book's universe. Suffice to say: fertile women are a hot commodity, all women are suppressed and repressed, and Christian misogyny is the cause. This is an immensely powerful story about what can happen to a society when average people are too afraid - or too complacent - to speak out. Our narrator remembers the time before, her husband and her daughter and her job, misses it and them dearly, but is already frighteningly accustomed to her new life. She is voiceless and nameless property, a tool with one specific purpose, slave to a system that is built solely for her subjugation.

I don't love the writing style, if I'm being honest. It's a bit too stream-of-consciousness for me, rife with wordplay and free association, and the time periods switch back and forth frequently. That being said, I can't imagine this novel being as powerful if it weren't written in first person, which is the only way we can feel how utterly the narrator's circumstances have changed her as a person.

Atwood's inspiration was clearly the overthrow of secular government and establishment of religious law in countries such as Iran. This isn't science fiction, she's saying, this is happening, right now, right here on Earth, and it can happen here. This book is a warning; we need to fight to make sure it isn't a premonition.

Feb 12, 2017

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, by Jessa Crispin

I probably need an advanced degree in rhetoric or sociology or philosophy to truly understand this slim powerhouse of a book and to do it justice in a review. I don't have any of those degrees, but I'll try my best regardless.

Jessa Crispin is, if you take the tenor of this book to heart, an angry woman. She's angry that women who label themselves feminists now denigrate the work done by radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin. She's angry that women who achieve money and power - the pinnacle of capitalist success - are labeled feminists simply because they have achieved parity in a man's world. She's angry that the self-help and -empowerment movement is taking feminism away from a movement that would empower ALL women, all people everywhere, in fact. She's angry that there is no room for dissent and disagreement within today's feminism, that monolithic ideology has replaced intellectual discourse and that when a woman dares to disagree, she is shamed and shunned and stripped of her "feminist" name tag.

The most salient thread that runs through these short essays is Crispin's dismay that feminism is now about finding equality within a morally bankrupt system, rather than tearing that system down and starting over again with something better. When feminism was redefined to mean getting money and power and success in romantic love, women betrayed their own movement. It's hard to deny that this is indeed the case. Women like Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg are automatically labelled feminists because they have reached up into The Man's world and grabbed money and power. But there is little digging underneath, no understanding that it's what that woman does with her money and power that makes her a feminist. Melinda Gates might be a good example; she's immensely wealthy and has spent much of her time and money on programs to help our planet's most vulnerable populations.

I'm simplifying, of course, partly for my own sake as I think about and parse out Crispin's brief but rhetorically rich manifesto. She is a much smarter woman than I, to be sure. The one thing I wish had been included is what her vision of that new, feminist society looks like, if she does indeed have a vision. It's easy to say we need to tear something down, and so much harder to determine what we can build in its place, and how.

Feb 7, 2017

The Nordic Theory of Everything, by Anu Partanen

In order to do this extensively researched, heartfelt plea for sanity in American policies justice, this review would need to be pages and pages long. Partanen, a native of Finland, fell in love with an American and immigrated to his country. Once ensconced in NYC, she enjoyed (and endured) the vagaries of American life: horribly expensive and insufficient health care, insanely expensive and failing public schools and child care, rock-bottom wages and non-existent parental leave - are you noticing a theme? Americans pay top dollar for nearly everything but get far less back for their money than the Nordic countries do. For example, we pay TWO AND A HALF TIMES what Iceland and Finland pay for health care but our life expectancy is lower and we have higher infant mortality rates. It's lunacy.

And how about the fact that free-market capitalism has apparently mandated that employers, not the government, help pay for benefits? How does that make sense? In Finland, as well as the other Nordic countries, the government (and yes, that means citizen taxes) pay for: universal health care, free public education up to and including university, mandated paid vacation time of at least 4-5 weeks per year, mandated paid parental leave for BOTH parents and protection from job loss, excellent public transportation, and extensive elder care. And for all this, they pay about the same in taxes as we do. None of this, high taxes for the wealthy included, prevents the Nordic countries from excelling in the free market. Entrepreneurship is just as, if not more, common there as it is here, because the risks and stressors of American life simply don't exist in these countries. What could you do, if you didn't have to worry about maintaining health insurance, or paying for your employees' insurance?

Partanen's arguments are all based around her Nordic theory of love: true freedom only happens when a person is unencumbered by ties of dependency on others. In America, children are utterly dependent on their parents and the accident of their birth to determine their economic status (and no, social mobility won't help them much, since about 40% of men born into the lowest income bracket stay in it); workers are dependent on their employers for (crappy) health insurance; spouses are dependent on their partners for financial stability; as we age, parents become dependent on their children to take care of them, both physically and financially. As Partanen points out, this is the exact opposite of freedom. Why do we insist on following a path that doesn't work, and ignore much more successful strategies to achieve wealth and happiness? It's so self-defeating.

I finished the book feeling, well, sorry for Partanen as she gained her U.S. citizenship. She left a land of stability for one of anxiety and stress. And given the current economic climate, the Nordic theory of love is looking better and better. I hope enough people come to their senses and use books like this to help make our country better.

Jan 29, 2017

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins

There is a certain type of writer who makes you want to write - their words are bold yet understated and flow with an ease belying the massive amount of work put into them. The facility with which they are read implies they are easy to write, and makes one think, "yes, I could totally do this." Kathleen Collins is, was, one of those writers. The copy I have is a galley, and is missing the promised forward by Elizabeth Alexander, which is a shame as I'd love to know more about this woman's life and work. Her short bio on the back of the book reads, "Kathleen Collins was a pioneer African American playwright, filmmaker, civil rights activist, film editor, and educator. Her groundbreaking film, Losing Ground, is one of the first feature films made by a black woman in America..." She sounds like a hell of a woman, and left this earth too soon at 46.

This slim collection of short stories features an array of mostly women, mostly African Americans, mostly intellectuals. How rare was it then, and how rare it is now, to be put inside the head of an educated black woman; this is proof of America's "post-racial" falsehood. Despite my wide-ranging reading, despite my good intentions, and even despite a consistent effort to seek out marginalized and rarely heard voices, the educated black woman is not a voice I can recall having heard before. Ever. In any medium. What a tragedy for us, as readers and as a society, to miss out on such work as this.

The tension of the civil rights movement finds a new light in these stories, as the inner struggle of "bourgeois black" women to understand and help fight against the plight of the poor, southern blacks, to understand their own histories as part of that struggle despite their parents' best efforts to shield them from it. And so we meet the young "Negro" college graduate whose father has a stroke upon seeing her with browned skin, short hair, heading down south to help with voter registration. We meet the two black intellectuals, so perfect for each other and yet...and yet, she cannot feel at home among his mid-Victorian pillows or upon his four-poster bed. While each story is much about the constant compromise of relationships, it's the thread of race that binds them all together. And her writing, such beautiful, powerful, quiet writing. Collins laments the awkward condition of the intellectual black woman, feet in two or three worlds, and I wonder if we can say that this condition has changed much since her death in 1988. What a perfect time to bring her work into the light and into readers' hands.

Jan 28, 2017

Shrill, by Lindy West

It's difficult to understate the importance of voices like Lindy West's, not just for fat women, but for all women, all bodies, all humans. By being incontrovertibly who she is - fat, funny, loud, smart - West opens the door for other marginalized voices and bravely challenges the status quo for assuming its in the right just because it's the status quo. Hers is a fight against privilege, and it could not come at a more decisive time.

West's humor is what makes her commentary so accessible. She is very, VERY funny. I giggled. I chuckled. I laughed. I guffawed. She is proof, too, that humor doesn't have to be at the expense of someone else to be funny. Sure, some of it is. Satire is pretty much only that. But there's truth to the notion that shock value for its own sake isn't inherently funny, and when it comes in the form of marginalizing already marginalized voices, it's okay to speak up and say it's not right. West's milieu is the comedy scene, which is notorious for misogyny and blatant sexism ("women aren't funny"). But when anyone, particularly a woman, stands up to say that no, some things just aren't funny, the trolliest trolls of the InterWebs come for her en masse, and in the most horrific ways possible. For West, that moment came because of rape jokes. Her argument: millions of women are raped and sexually assaulted each year. It is one of the most vile, demeaning, violating, soul-sucking acts that can happen to a person (man or woman). Telling a rape joke in front of an audience in which most certainly sits at least one woman who has been raped is a violent act of victimization and cannot, in any way, be construed as funny. If you got mugged at gunpoint, your friends wouldn't greet you with a toy gun in your back, because that's not funny, it's cruel. Picking out the one thing that is a person's weakest psychological link and using it for a few cheap laughs is not just harmless kidding around.

"But self-selection/free speech/thin skin blah blah blah whine whine whine!" Sure, there's some nuance. There's nuance to every situation. But when Daniel Tosh says to a woman at his show, "Wouldn't it be funny if five guys just got up and raped you right here?", that's beyond the pale. You're punching down, as West would say, victimizing the already less powerful for your own glee. And that's fucked up.

West's other battle is against fat-shaming, and her writing was an integral early voice towards the body positive movement of today. Even in the most accepting, loving households, girls in America internalize the notion that any body that isn't thin, tall, long or lean is bad. And not just ugly, morally bad. Fat people MUST be unhealthy so they're causing our high insurance premiums, they MUST be smelly and unclean because obviously they don't care about their appearance, they MUST be incapable of self-control because fat people just eat whatever they want all the time. Nevermind the fact that there are plenty of fat people out there who are perfectly healthy, or who's weight gain was caused by a physical or mental illness. Some people are just fat, and that means nothing about their moral state of being. I mean, seriously, like we think Paris Hilton and Charlie Sheen are masters of self-control and practitioners of the highest form of morality? Please.

All this makes it seem like a super serious book, but I promise you, it's completely hilarious. Lindy West is the kind of person we need more of: smart, brave, funny, thoughtful. I want to be her friend, but since that's probably not going to happen (call me, Lindy?), I'll settle for supporting her work and making as many people read her book as possible.

Jan 23, 2017

Viking Economics, by George Lakey

While my mind was certainly open to the ideas George Lakey puts forth in this fantastic book, his message has completely changed the way I view the American economy. By nearly every absolute standard, we're doing almost everything wrong. Lakey's evidence and argument for the Scandinavian model of economics, explained simply and conversationally, is powerfully persuasive. Whether those who aren't as open-minded would be convinced (or even pick up the book) is quite another issue.

Lakey takes us through the growth of Scandinavian economics chronologically at first: we start all the way back with the Vikings (important for understanding the general Scandinavian mien) and travel through the politically tumultuous 19th and early 20th Centuries, to the incredible growth of socialism (real socialism, not psuedo-fascist, lip-service "socialism"). The thread running through Scandinavian history is one of self-determination - whenever oligarchy threatened to overtake democracy, workers used every nonviolent means at their disposal to bring the government back to working for the people, rather than for the rich. When the recession hit in 2008, the International Monetary Fund tried to force its theoretically modeled policies onto the affected countries; Nordic nations, Iceland especially, fought back. Depending on real data rather than models, they increased spending on health care and education, raised taxes and offered more government services; their economies bounced back within a couple of years, while nearly a decade later, the U.S., Spain, and Greece are still mired in the aftereffects of the recession.

The ideal behind the Scandinavian economic model is what drives every decision: investment is made in the individual, who is considered a resource for economic growth. Where in the U.S. it's assumed that business owners and the wealthy are job creators, in the Nordic countries it's acknowledged that workers drive the economy. People in debt, working 80 hours a week with horrible health that they can only afford to deal with at the emergency room cost the economy real dollars. Entrepreneurship is something the U.S. prides itself on, yet "rates of start-up creation in Norway are among the highest in the developed world, and Norway has more entrepreneurs per capita than the U.S." Think about it: most students in the U.S. graduate with a mountain of debt. Those new workers are too worried about that pile of money they owe to take risks, and risk is what stimulates the economy. Not to mention, it undermines the American ideal of freedom; too much debt means you're stuck in a job you hate in a city you despise because you can't realistically change jobs or move until you're financially stable. This means people with skills that would be put to better use elsewhere can't do so, perhaps don't even know they have those talents. We're too worried about education, retirement, and medical expenses to make work more meaningful for us. And people who like their work are more productive.

So the Scandinavians have free health care, free education (including university), free job training if you lose the job you're in, free elder care, free public transportation; how is all this paid for? That four-letter word Americans seem to hate so much: TAXES. But here's the thing: according to Lakey, polls clearly indicate that most Americans think their taxes should actually be higher in order to increase government services. After all, you get what you pay for, right? In the Nordic countries, so many institutions are publicly funded so their transparency is very high. Plus since they're all run under the same system, the bureaucracy, which you'd think would be ridiculous, is actually much smaller! Multiple systems mean an obscene amount of paperwork and are very inefficient; Norway pays a little more than half for health care what the U.S. pays. And it's better care! Everyone gets taken care of no matter what job they have, allowing people to work in fields they actually enjoy, which, as we've already seen, increases productivity and entrepreneurship.

Aside from all the basic economic arguments, there's also the social goods that the Scandinavian model creates: these countries have much lower child, relative, and absolute poverty; they have longer life expectancy and much better overall health; they have already cut their carbon emissions immensely and seek to get rid of them entirely within this century; their birthrates are high and their children perform very well by international educational standards. Sure, they're not perfect - right-wing, racist anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, not to mention the winter weather leaves something to be desired. But when all is said and done, their people are taken care of (immigrants included), their land is being preserved for future generations, and their economies just keep growing and growing.

Come on, America, you can do so much better...the Vikings prove it.

Jan 17, 2017

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (Translated by Ken Liu)

At the forefront of the burgeoning translated Chinese science fiction scene is this Hugo Award-winning novel about Earth's first extraterrestrial contact. Long story short: it doesn't go so well. Rooted firmly in the incredibly difficult years of the Cultural Revolution, Liu's characters take a particularly dim view of human nature. Our main character, Ye, is forced to watch her mother denounce her father then her father murdered simply for the crime of being an academic; even carefully hiding her own intelligence isn't enough to keep from being noticed by a certain group of people, and political pressures see her giving up any hope of future freedom to work at a research base with a heavily-cloaked purpose. These scenes are interspersed with the present time and our second protagonist, a scientist working with nanotechnology named Wang, and his journey through an immersive video game called Three Body.

That's the most I'll give away about the plot, which is best left for the reader to unfold herself. While I am supremely impressed with Liu's story - the physics, the fully realized alien culture, the philosophical implications of humanity's long-noted self-destructive tendencies - the writing itself left me a little cold. As with all translated works, it's impossible to know whether this is an accurate reflection of Liu's writing or the translator's own interpretation, a frustration I often encounter when reading in translation. Though Ye's struggles are horrific, the story is told so plainly that I found it difficult to connect with her. The only character with any real life to him is Shi Qiang, a veteran police officer with a serious attitude problem, and apparently the only person in all of China (and perhaps the world) with a sense of humor. My disappointment with the writing doesn't diminish, however, the importance of this novel, both for its overarching, epic sensibility, characteristic of the most interesting science fiction, and for the role it has played in bringing Chinese science fiction into the mainstream. Ken Liu is an author in his own right, and I have his short story collection sitting on my shelf. I look forward to dipping into it.