rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Oct. 27th, 2016 01:15 pm)
Mary Roach’s schtick is breezy, quirky science/history of science nonfiction on odd, often gross subjects (corpses (Stiff), life after death (Spook), digestion (Gulp), in which her investigation is part of the story. Also one-word titles. Her best book, on space exploration (Packing for Mars) is the only one without a one-word title; it’s her funniest, especially the memorably gross chapters on bathing or rather not bathing (NASA’s experiment on exactly how long it takes for your underwear to rot off feels more sadistic than their chimp experiments), going to the bathroom (EWWW), and food (at one point, created by veterinarians until the astronauts rebelled at eating kibble.)

In general, her books are fun but suffer from a lack of depth; she frequently raises interesting questions and then either fails to explore or fails to write about the answers. This is most noticeable when you happen to know something about the subject, which is why Bonk, on the history of sex research, was particularly unmemorable to me.

Grunt is a mid-level Mary Roach book. I know something but not tons about the subject (the science of less-written aspects of war, such as uniforms, stink bombs, shark repellant and vehicular safety), so it was reasonably informative and generally engrossing. In contrast to NASA, which was hilariously uptight about its image and in a perpetual state of horror at Roach’s questions about zero-gravity sex and astronaut toilets, the US military was surprisingly enthusiastic about letting her write about the gross stuff. As a result, she got access to submarines, labs, hospitals, and all sorts of trainings. This part was much more interesting to me than the military history parts, which I generally already knew about.

But the issue of “go deeper” and “and then what?” remained. For example, she mentions that uniforms need to look cool because soldiers won’t wear critical items if they make them look like dweebs. She reports one unintended result of this, which is that the Navy got blue camouflage; when she finally found a Navy commander willing to comment on the purpose of this, he dryly remarked, “It’s so if anyone falls overboard we won’t be able to find them.” And that is the sum total of her reporting on that issue.

To me, this is a fascinating topic that could have been a chapter all by itself. Something she doesn’t mention but which I’ve read about elsewhere is that in a recent war US soldiers were getting a lot of eye injuries due to failure to wear eye protection. When asked, they said it made them look stupid. The Army called in Rayban to consult in designing cooler eyewear, and eye injuries went down.

How did Rayban define cool when designing military hardware? Is it even true that cool value is a significant factor in gear-wearing compliance? Did the dorky eyewear also have some more significant drawback, such as limiting vision? What would soldiers say if you got them in a real conversation over exactly what they’re thinking when they set aside their protective gear, the meaning and importance of coolness, the value of safety, and whether any of this relates to why they’re in the military at all?

The book doesn’t get into any of these questions, instead focusing, in the clothing chapter, on whether bomb-proof underwear exists (not really, but you can design undies to reduce infection in case of below-undie blast injuries) and how uniforms are safety-tested. Interesting stuff, but I’d have preferred more depth and detail. And that was my feeling about the entire book.

A book on war and specifically on the US military in a time of war has some implicit questions, namely “Is it all worth it?” and “What exactly is the point of all this?” Roach doesn’t address these questions explicitly, though the content of some chapters brings them to the reader’s mind, until the very last paragraph, where she does so with pointedness and grace. But it’s literally one paragraph. In Packing on Mars, those questions were central to the book and she asked them of a number of people she spoke to. They’re what gave that book the depth that’s missing from her others. Those are touchy issues in a military context, but they’re touchy at NASA too given that astronauts do die and the space program is constantly at risk of cancellation.

I doubt very much that Roach was banned from asking those questions while she researched this book. Maybe she thought they were too sensitive or people would shut down if she asked or she did ask but ended up deciding the answers would make her book too political for a science book. Who knows. But I wish the larger questions were more present. It might have taken the book from “worthwhile if the subject interests you” to “excellent nonfiction of general interest to anyone who can take the content.”

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
Before this becomes all Stephen King, all the time, I thought I'd do some quick write-ups of nonfiction I read a while back. All of these are survival stories of plane crashes. I am putting them in order of quality, from best to worst.

Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, by Laurence Gonzales. A meticulously researched and very readable account of the plane crash in a corn field fictionalized in Peter Weir's haunting movie Fearless. Gonzales (author of the fantastic Deep Survival) tells a gripping story of tragedy and heroism, of chance and courage and survival. I ended up skipping the chapter which gets into overly technical details of the exact cause of the mechanical failure that caused the crash, but otherwise it's a very well-done book about a tragedy that could have been so much worse.

About a third of the passengers died; if not for the quick thinking of the pilots (including one flying as a passenger who got recruited to help out), probably everyone would have; if not for their decision to try to land in a cornfield at great risk to their lives, probably people would have been killed on the ground. There are also a number of individual rescues, plus a fascinating account of the emergency response on the ground.

The book has a haunting quality, not just because of the deaths but because of the strangeness of the incident; many passengers found themselves lost in a cornfield, with the plane invisible, as if they'd been transported to another world. And like all large-scale incidents, some questions will never be answered. One man remembers a woman with perfect clarity, but no woman matching that description was on the flight. This is the crash where a man climbed back into the burning, smoke-filled plane to save a baby, whom he miraculously found unhurt in a luggage compartment. I knew that part, but there's a heartbreaking sequel that I didn't know: the baby girl committed suicide at the age of fifteen. No one knows why, or if the crash had anything to do with it.

Highly recommended, if you like that kind of thing and you're not feeling emotionally fragile.

81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska's Frozen Wilderness, by Brian Murphy is the story of Leon Crane, a WWII test pilot who was the sole survivor of a crash in Alaska, and made his way back to safety in 81 days despite virtually no supplies or wilderness training, through a combination of grit, intelligence, and some incredibly good luck involving where he crashed - even ten miles in any other direction might have led him to miss something without which he would have been very unlikely to survive.

This is biography, not memoir, and is somewhat hampered by Crane's reluctance to talk about what happened, apparently not due to trauma but to a combination of natural reticence, humility, and the sense that it was a profound experience which could not be put into words, or which words might spoil. So a lot of the story is reconstructed from second-hand accounts, yet gets into enough detail of what Crane might have been thinking and so forth that I would consider it creative nonfiction rather than strict nonfiction, as the next two books are.

If you like survival stories, you will like this. Despite some hiccups, it's generally well-written, clear, vivid, and engrossing. I would say it's good but not great.

My trade paperback omits dialogue marks apparently at random for the first few chapters; I assume this is an error, because if it's a writing choice it's inexplicable and distracting. Hopefully it is an error and your version will not have it.

Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds: The Tragedy & Triumph of ASA Flight 529, by Gary M. Pomerantz. This is similar to Gonzales' book, but tells the story of a different crash. It's good but not as good; it also has a lot of descriptions of horrific, month-long deaths by burns that I found hard to read. It's also haunting in other ways: the stewardess who saved many people's lives got PTSD and never really recovered; she had to stop flying, and while she finally did get on a plane many years later, as a passenger, she never managed to appreciate the lives she saved, but only blamed herself for the people she couldn't save.

As you can tell, I am fascinated by plane crashes. They seem to cause more and more severe PTSD in survivors than other types of accidents, perhaps because everyone but the pilots feel out of control and because survival is primarily about where you were sitting, not what you did. People don't seem to do well with terrible incidents that rub in how much chance is a factor. The freakish, unusual nature also seems to not help. (PTSD from car crashes occurs, but not that frequently. I think it's because drivers have some sense of control, and car crashes are relatively normal and common, unlike plane crashes.)

The Light of the Moon: Life, Death and the Birth of Advanced Trauma Life Support. A memoir by a man whose father, a doctor, crashed his small plane in a rural area at night with his entire family in it. His wife was killed, but his children survived with severe injuries. He was not happy with their treatment at the hospital they were initially transported to, and discovered that there were no nationwide guidelines for treating mass trauma victims. So he created and implemented them, nationwide, no doubt saving thousands and thousands of lives.

The author was a boy and unconscious after the crash, so he apparently interviewed his father to get an account of it. That part is very good. The rest of the book… Well, he's clearly not a pro author. There's endless accounts of the search for the plane which are sometimes interesting and sometimes incredibly tedious. His account of his own research as an adult into what happened is generally awful - he literally has pages and pages detailing how he googled stuff.

The parts I was really curious about - his and his family's recovery, and how his father managed to implement medical protocols nationwide - are mainly skipped over. He says that his nine-year-old brother lost ALL his memory of everything that happened before the crash. If he means his entire life, WOW do I want to hear about that and how he coped - he would have never remembered his mother, for instance. But since the author says nothing more about it, I assume it was a poorly worded sentence and he means that his brother had some degree of anteretrograde amnesia - maybe days, maybe even months - but not his whole life.

Interesting story, not told too well. Bad or flawed memoirs typically have this issue of too much filler and a failure to distinguish between what the author and reader is interested in.
Dr. Lisa Sanders is the doctor who inspired the TV show House. She is apparently a genius diagnostician and if her waiting list was not three years long, I would have already seen her. Her book is marketed as tales of medical mysteries and their diagnoses, complete with the doctor’s process of diagnosing, which is why I bought it.

Approximately 20% of the book consists of that. The other 80% is her opinion that the physical examination of the patient (as opposed to mechanical scans) has a long history, is very important, is underused and poorly taught, and needs to be taught better and done more. She’s probably right but it was incredibly repetitive. She could have summed up her thoughts on that in one or two chapters, leaving the rest of the book for the stories which is undoubtedly why everyone bought it. Annoyingly not what it says on the tin.

Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis

Any recs for books that are actually about diagnosis? (Medical, not psychological; I'm good on the psych front.)

Also, any recs for a book on antibiotics that is 1) about their current use, not their history (I'm familiar with their history), 2) comprehensible to a layperson?

I am particularly interested in learning more about how, after spending my entire life being told that antibiotics have very limited and specific uses and do not cure most things (due to doctors trying to cut down on inappropriate usage) I have recently discovered that, in fact, they have an extremely wide range of uses and "condition responds to antibiotics and, as far as we can tell, to nothing else" is nowhere near as diagnostically useful as I had assumed in narrowing down what that condition might be. For instance, d-cycloserine, an antibiotic normally used to treat tuberculosis, has cognitive effects which may make it useful in the treatment of PTSD.
Many Native Nations begin a Coyote legend with some variation of “Coyote Was Going There.” Trust me—Coyote? Still going. It’s about time ebooks caught up with that crazy Trickster.

Nolan, a Native American Storyteller and therapist, retells traditional stories he heard from his relatives, with cultural commentary, stories from his life, explanations of how he used the stories in teaching or therapy... and recipes!

Nolan has performed these stories in wildly varied settings, from Head Start programs in reservations to international psychology conferences. He interweaves the traditional stories with the stories of how and where he’s told them, and with stories of food and culture and the culture of food. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this.

I really enjoyed it. The stories themselves are great – funny, powerful, resonant—
as is Nolan’s commentary on them. In one story, Coyote orders his woven baskets to fill themselves with salmon from the river. Oh yes, Nolan explains, in those days baskets had feet. Like a duck’s. And could walk around by themselves. I am still cracking up at that image.

Nolan’s wry, humane, erudite perspective on the power of stories to illuminate and heal reminded me a bit of Jane Yolen. But I don’t think you need a particular interest the use of stories in therapy and education to enjoy this. It’s kind of “An Evening with Ty Nolan, Storyteller” in written form. Though he does not mince words when discussing injustice or loss, the overall feeling of the book is warm and uplifting.

As the preface explains, the book is arranged so that you can read just the stories, or the stories and the commentary. Some of the commentary would probably go over kids’ heads, but stories plus selected commentary would probably make a great read-aloud.

I think a lot of you here would like this a lot.

Coyote Still Going: Native American Legends and Contemporary Stories. It's a self-published e-book, so it won't be in libraries. But it's only $4.99. Support your probably-not-local author!
Fantastic analysis of how Tolkien constructed the language, world, and characters of Lord of the Rings, with particular attention to word origins and connotations. Easy to read and fascinating.


Tolkien also thought - and this takes us back to the roots of his invention - that philology could take you back even beyond the ancient texts it studied. He believed that it was possible sometimes to feel one's way back from words as they survived in later periods to concepts which had long since vanished, but which had surely existed, or else the word would not exist. This process was made much more plausible if it was done comparatively (philology only became a science when it became comparative philology). The word 'dwarf' exists in modern English, for instance, but it was originally the same word as modern German Zwerg, and philology can explain exactly how they came to differ, and how they relate to Old Norse dvergr. But if the three different languages have the same word, and if in all of them some fragments survive of belief in a similar race of creatures, is it not legitimate first to 'reconstruct' the word from which all the later ones must derive - it would have been something like *dvairgs - and then the concept that had fitted it? [The asterisk before *dvairgs is the conventional way of indicating that a word has never been recorded, but must (surely) have existed, and there is of course enormous room for error in creating *-words, and *-things.] Still, that is the way Tolkien's mind worked, and many more detailed examples are given later on in this book. But the main point is this. However fanciful Tolkien s creation of Middle-earth was, he did not think that he was entirely making it up. He was 'reconstructing', he was harmonizing contradictions in his source-texts, sometimes he was supplying entirely new concepts (like hobbits), but he was also reaching back to an imaginative world which he believed had once really existed, at least in a collective imagination: and for this he had a very great deal of admittedly scattered evidence.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

Would anyone like to suggest further reading on the subject? I'd especially like to read something that delves into Tolkien and Lewis's war service and how that might have influenced their fiction.
An exhaustively researched, non-sensationalistic, and clearly presented breakdown of the Columbine school shootings. Very informative and well-written, but solid rather than brilliant. There's a lot of value in Cullen's "just the facts" approach, but I longed for more analysis.

I read this because if anything like that ever happens within a certain area of Los Angeles, I will be called to the scene.

Nothing graphic below cut, but, obviously, discussion of mass murder.

Read more... )

Excellent reporting on a case for which that had largely been missing, but doesn't illuminate larger issues of society or psychology the way that the very best true crime books do.

Fascinating, unsettling story of three young Jewish partisans-- two women and a man-- who escaped the destruction of the Vilna ghetto and fought the Nazis from their forest hiding place. (Vilna is where my family is from. Had my ancestors not fled earlier anti-Semitic persecution, that's where I would have been during WWII. About 40,000 Jews were forced into the Vilna ghetto; a couple hundred survived.)

The heroism of women and Jews is often ignored or disbelieved, so I particularly appreciated this extensive documentation of jaw-dropping acts of courage performed as a matter of course, over a course of years, by a gentle-looking Jewish scholar and two tiny teenage Jewish girls.

While much of what the partisans did during the war was completely justified, and more falls into the "who am I to judge" category," the book continues past the war, as Abba and his allies plot what I can only describe as a horrific act of terrorism. Read more... )

Who am I to judge, given what they went through and witnessed? Who am I to not judge, given their intent?

Abba, the man, and Vitka and Ruzka, the women, were extremely strongly implied to have been a romantic threesome during the war; afterward, Abba and Vitka married, and lived next door to Ruzka and her husband in Israel for the rest of their lives. I can't help being glad that they got their happily-enough ever after ending.

The Avengers: A Jewish War Story
[Catch-up review from Goodreads]

Rich spent a year in Udaipur (Rajasthan) studying Hindi; the book combines anecdotes from her stay with tons of information on the science of learning a second language.

It starts out strong, but the parts become increasingly less integrated and the memoir sections become increasingly disorganized as the book continues. There were a number of points where she referenced something as if she'd already told that story, only to explain it 50 pages later. The information was good and her prose, as in individual sentences, was good, but it probably would have worked better as nonfiction about second language acquisition with a few relevant anecdotes than as the awkward chimera it was.

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
( Jul. 9th, 2012 01:33 pm)
A Week to Be Wicked, by Tessa Dare. Sweet, funny Regency romance in which a female geologist with a fossilized dinosaur footprint runs off with a rake with a trauma-related sleep disorder; hijinks ensue. Avoid if you're looking for realistic period attitudes, grab if you want adorable escapism. The psychological and trauma-related dynamics, however, are quite believable, which certainly added to my enjoyment.

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, by Dennis Covington. Narrative nonfiction by an Appalachian journalist who starts out covering a news story about a Pentecostal pastor's trial for attempted murder by rattlesnake, and ends up snake-handling himself. Extremely strong opening, fascinating subject, excellent prose, but it ends up adding up to somewhat less than I expected. I think it needed either a bit more introspection, or a bit more larger-picture analysis, or both. Worth reading but not quite revelatory. Incidentally, how in the world do people drink strychnine and survive? Is it tiny doses, or what?

Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, by Robert Johnson. Meh. Ridiculously unsourced. If you're going to say people in ancient India had the practice of choosing a year-king, I would like a cite for that or I'm going to think you read in The Golden Bough.

Outcast, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Solid historical about a baby washed ashore from a shipwreck and raised by a British tribe; they eventually exile him, whereupon he goes to Rome, gets enslaved, and eventually ends up on a slave galley. The depiction of the galley ship is horrific and vivid, and the section after that, which I won't spoil, is quite moving. But I didn't like this as much as I did some of Sutcliff's others. The protagonist was a bit too everyman for my taste.

This one is now up on Kindle, but several of her others are no longer available in that format. Weird.
Craziness also runs in the family. I can trace manic depression back several generations. We have episodes of hearing voices, delusions, hyper-religiosity, and periods of not being able to eat or sleep. These episodes are remarkably similar across generations and between individuals. It's like an apocalyptic disintegration sequence that might be useful if the world really is ending, but if the world is not ending, you just end up in a nuthouse. If we're lucky enough to get better, we have to deal with people who seem unaware of our heroism and who treat us as if we are just mentally ill.

This is Mark Vonnegut's second memoir. (Kurt Vonnegut's son.) The first one explains how he had a psychotic break while a young man living on a commune. Due to the circumstances, everyone at the commune just thought he'd become spiritually advanced. Eventually, his parents stepped in to rescue him. It concluded with the note that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia but apparently "recovered," which is unusual, especially given that it all went down in the 1960s. I had wondered if he'd been misdiagnosed.

His second memoir picks up many years later. He became a successful doctor... who periodically had psychotic breaks, to go with his drinking problem and falling-apart family life. But it's not primarily a story about pain and problems, but about one man's particular life. Every life has problems. Usually they don't involve being put in a straightjacket every ten years or so. But that's Mark Vonnegut's particular issue, or one of them, anyway, and he treats it very much in the manner of "everyone's got problems."

The memoir is at least as much about being a doctor as it is about having a mental illness of a somewhat mysterious nature. (He gets diagnosed with bipolar disorder later, but that might not be it either. Whatever he has, it's atypical.) It's also about life, and art, and being a misfit in a screwed-up society, and also about being his father's son (Chapter title: "There is Nothing Quite So Final As A Dead Father"). And accidentally poisoning himself with his shiny new hobby of mushroom hunting.

It's all over the place and hard to describe, but enormously funny, enjoyable, quotable, and wise. Its humane, humorous, epigrammatic tone reminded me a bit of James Herriot, and I love James Herriot. Unless you're really squicked by medical stuff or triggered by mental illness, this is the sort of book I'd recommend to just about anyone.

Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A Memoir
Brief notes on books I read a while back but never got around to writing up.

A Taste of China: The Definitive Guide to Regional Cooking (Pavilion Classic Cookery), by Ken Hom. An evocative, hunger-inducing travelogue/memoir/cookbook/food history by a Chinese-American author. A bit of a period piece now, but much of it is historical anyway, and it's well worth reading if you have an interest in the topic.

The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. The classic nonfiction book on the value of intuition: specifically, that fear - especially women's fear of men - is often based on having subconsciously picked up subtle signals of very real danger. I've re-read this book a couple times before, and it continues to be valuable: honest, easy to read, thoughtful, and very usable. One thing I'd forgotten was that de Becker himself was a survivor of childhood abuse and trauma, and is writing not only from his experience as a security expert but from his experience as a scared little kid.

This would make an excellent paired reading with Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which is also about how intuition works, but approached from completely different angles. Both books discuss false intuition based on prejudice or pre-conceived ideas versus true intuition based on the situation at hand, and how to tell the difference. Gladwell's book is more sociological, and de Becker's is more of a how-to.

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship. It's an old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and we shared that, too.

Probably the best memoir I've read all year. I read it when it first came out, and then re-read it several months later. Though Knapp's death frames the memoir, it's not primarily about that, but about the intimate, twin-like friendship between two women. Writers Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp bonded over their careers, their alcoholism and sobriety, and most of all, their beloved dogs. The structure is complex but seamless. Caldwell traces her own life story and how it paralleled and diverged from Knapp's, weaves it back into the story of their friendship, and then continues her story without Knapp, but always with her memory. It's extremely well-written, intense, and engaging, and reminded me quite a bit of another favorite memoir of mine... Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story.

It also reminded me of Ann Patchett's Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, another intense and well-written memoir about female friendship, in this case with troubled author and cancer survivor Lucy Grealy. Though Let's Take the Long Way Home, despite Knapp's early death, is a lot less tragic, since Caroline Knapp sounds like she had a lot more happiness and satisfaction in her life than poor Lucy Grealy ever did. It's also got way more dogs. In fact, it has enough dog content that I would especially recommend it to anyone who loves dogs. it contains dog death by old age, but is much more about what it's like to live with and love and train dogs.

You can click on the author tags to get reviews of the books I mentioned in comparison.
Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake. Cas, a teenage boy who inherited his dead father's ghost-killing knife and mission, encounters the first ghost who's his match - in more ways than one: the blood-soaked goddess of vengeance, the teenager who just wanted to go out dancing, the raging spirit trapped in the deadly house she rules: Anna Dressed in Blood. This YA horror/supernatural thriller has a nice snappy pace, some good ideas (Cas lives with his mom, a witch who totally knows what's going on), and Anna is a vivid creation, but the other characters, the world, and the story felt underdeveloped, like an early draft that got polished rather than deepened. I liked what i think Blake was trying to do with Cas - a beautifully polished front of teenage cockiness covering up a well of creepy, death-obsessed nihilism - but as actually shown, he just seemed to alternate between obsessing about death and being full of himself in a way that I didn't find very plausible for a teenage boy. (He's certain that all the girls will be all over him instantly because he's all that. Sure enough, they are!)

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth, by James M. Tabor. Nonfiction about what it says on the can. This has incredibly vivid descriptions of giant caves, tight spaces underground, and what it takes to explore them, and I would highly recommend it as a writer's reference for the topic. As armchair adventuring, it's pretty good too. Unusually for this sort of book, Tabor does not ignore or slight the women who were involved in cave exploration, describing how one "oozed through" a crack so tight that she had to exhale all the air in her lungs in order to compress her chest enough to get through. Yikes! As far as the quest itself, there's a lot of hair-raising exploration, and then an anti-climactic, "And then [spoiler] turned out to be the deepest, the end."

Thorns, by Robert Silverberg. 70s sf in which a fat! fat! FAT! and evil emotional vampire (did I mention that he's FAT?) throws together two tragic people to feed on their pain. One is a space explorer who was captured and surgically transformed by aliens for, uh, no particular reason, and one is a not-too-bright virgin whose eggs were harvested and given to others, and she wants her babies back. They have a hopeful yet sordid affair, while the fat vampire cackles in glee. Can two misfits find hope and happiness together or apart, even if their problems don't get "solved?" Only if they deal with the fat pain-sucker first!

I'm making this sound worse than it actually was. The storyline about the altered space guy had real emotional weight. But even apart from the fat = evil stuff, I am a very hard sell on emotional vampires who feed on pain, especially if they're not conflicted about this at all. The virgin was so childlike and naive that I briefly wondered if she was supposed to have some sort of intellectual disability, but no - just Silverberg's idea of a traumatized young woman who's none too bright, which made her relationship with the space dude, who was intelligent and worldly-wise, possibly more creepy than was intended, and lacking in the possibility of redemption through love. Also, too much 70s sf-type unpleasant sex. I read this because I do generally like stories about traumatized people building up their lives again, but this was overloaded with turn-offs.
rachelmanija: (Fishes: I do not see why the sex)
( Oct. 12th, 2011 04:57 pm)
I will make a filter for this shortly. Until then, cut to spare you, and also for sexual content including some hilarious romance novel excerpts. These are my brief notes, for my own benefit with the exception of the throbbing pistons which are for yours, on today's reading.

Read more... )
Another one of the books assigned for Human Sexuality, which I was nearly done with before I learned that the teacher had been reassigned. I finished it anyway, of course.

I have a lot to learn about trans issues, so please feel free to correct me if I use wrong/outdated terminology, or for any other reason.

Adding “in the modern western world” to the end of the subtitle would have been a good idea: the book does not even touch upon pre-modern or non-European/non-European-descended American concepts of transgenderism. I am certain that a more wide-ranging book exists, and I wish one had been assigned; I kept thinking, “Are you ever going to mention hijras? Two Spirit people? Sikhandi?” She did not.

As a history of transgender (and intersex) activism and history in modern Europe and America, though, it seems reasonably good, not that I’m an expert. Rudacille, a cisgendered woman (a term which never appears in the book), includes a number of interesting interviews with trans people. They are, however, similar kinds of trans people: all American, at least in their thirties, and people who strongly identified with a single gender and, to some degree or another, medically transitioned. Race was not stated for anyone, and was not made clear from the interviews; unless I missed something, there was no one clearly identified as non-white. Neither are there in-depth interviews with anyone who identifies as genderqueer or anything non-gender-binary, anyone really young, anyone who decided not to physically transition, etc, though some such people are quoted.

I couldn't help wondering if Rudacille, probably unconsciously, selected her interview subjects according to who she felt comfortable talking to (and who felt comfortable talking to her,) and so ended up with a bunch of people who were demographically similar to her and who more-or-less shared her beliefs. Irritatingly, sometimes she'd give a nod to diversity by quoting someone for one line, prefaced with something like, "So-and-so, 19, who self-identifies as a Radical Faerie trannyboy," and then not follow up with an interview.

Rudacille has somewhat biologically determinist and stereotypical views about gender, in the sense of believing that certain qualities, like compassion, nurturing, adventurousness, analysis, are inherently masculine or feminine. She also comes down heavily on the “nature” side of questions like “why are boys more aggressive/better at spatial relations/etc,” not to mention on the “oh hell yes” side of questions like “Is it even true that boys are more aggressive?”

The trans people she interviews mostly hold at least somewhat similar beliefs, citing their gender non-conformist behavior in childhood as an early indication that their true gender didn’t match their bodies. (It’s more complicated than that in some cases; some of the people she interviews are intersex.)

Rudacille concludes with a chapter making a case that DES and other environmental estrogen-affecting chemicals may affect fetuses, causing them to be transgender. I kept waiting for her to add, “Though of course, while that may be true for some people, it cannot be true for all, since transgender people pre-date the existence of any of the chemicals I’m talking about.” Alas, no.

I suspect that a subjective sense of gender is inborn, and that some people have it more strongly than others. I know people, male and female, who don’t have a strong sense of their own gender, and others who do. This seems to have nothing to do with whether or not you match a gender stereotype. But I would guess that the stronger the sense of your gender, the stronger the distress if you have a body which doesn’t match it.

I have always had a very strong sense of being female, but I was so gender-nonconformist as a child that it was a significant source of conflict. I liked “boy stuff.” I had “masculine attributes.” I liked to dress “like a boy.” But I never wanted to be a boy; I was just into stuff which (bizarrely, in my mind) was labeled “boy stuff.” I was so convinced that I was female, despite everyone telling me that I was in no way a proper one, that I decided that none of the things I liked could possibly really be boy things. I was a girl, and I liked to climb trees. Q.E.D., climbing trees was also a girl thing.

I mention that as an example of how biological sex, gender stereotypes, and the internal sense of gender seem to me to all exist independently of each other. They may all line up. Or some of them may. Or none of them may.

There must be some trans people who stereotypically fit the gender they were assigned at birth, and yet still feel that it’s the wrong one. (Say, a female assigned at birth who loves looking pretty and shopping, but knows that in his heart, he’s a man – a man who loves looking pretty and shopping.) I wish Rudacille had interviewed a couple of them, because that might have shaken her annoying beliefs in the inherent masculinity and femininity of abstract traits.

Any recs for something a bit more radical, less gender-stereotype-essentialist, and/or with more pre-1800 history and perspectives other than European and American-minus-Indians?

The Riddle of Gender
This book, one of the required texts for my 10:00 AM Monday Human Sexuality class, suggests that the class, while possibly lacking in academic rigor, will not lack in amusement value. I am picturing a cross between a 70s encounter group and a "Let's all draw our vulvas, watch a video of women ejaculating, and then make an offering to the Great Goddess!" workshop.

Its arrival this week was perfect timing, given that the month to date was the sort which, to completely misquote Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, left me grasping for straws of comfort like, "No matter what else happens today, at least I still like my clitoris."

This is the sort of book which has an anatomical drawing of a clitoris, and a woman pointing to it and exclaiming "WOW!"

The book has some interesting information about clitoral anatomy (the little button part is just the tip of the iceberg; a large portion of the female genitalia is made up of clitoral tissue and structures.) But most of the book is basically, "Wow! A clitoris!"

There is a long chapter on female ejaculation, in which women enthusiastically describe their gushing orgasms, with slightly terrifying details like, "And then I had to mop the floor!" The author then notes that you too may be able to teach yourself to ejaculate, if you don't already. Personally, after I am done having solo or partnered sex, the last thing I want to do is mop the floor.

Despite some dubious history and a cringe-worthy discussion of the Tao and Tantra, this book is mostly harmless. I expect it would be delightfully eye-opening to any women who aren't already familiar with their anatomy or the possible range of their sexual response. But for a graduate course... seriously? This is the best you can do? If anyone knows of more academically rigorous or up-to-date or more culturally sensitive books on female sexuality, please rec them to me, and I will rec them to the school.

I also boggle that this apparent typo in chapter one didn't get corrected through many editions: From as far back as the Kinsey report in 1953, intercourse has not been found not to be the most effective means for women to experience the full range of their sexual response, and yet, penis-in-vagina sex remains the ne plus ultra of sexual activity.

And I boggle more at this: During full-blown sexual response, clitoral tissues expand enormously. The erectile tissues fill with blood, causing the clitoris to protrude enough, as one woman put it, "to fill my cupped hand."

The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips

Hilariously pornographic cheery illustrations below cut )
A detailed, readable account of traditional acorn preparation in terms of how-to and cultural significance, by Julia Parker as told to Beverly Ortiz. Parker is a Kashia Pomo Indian who gives demonstrations of traditional arts and crafts at Yosemite museum, but her style of acorn making is from the Miwok/Paiute tradition, and was learned from her husband's mother.

The book begins with a brief account of Parker's life story, and then plunges into a step-by-step account of acorn-making, complete with anecdotes, advice, and accounts of how Parker learned it. It's an incredibly labor-intensive process, but one not seen as mere labor. It has cultural, social, and spiritual significance, and the way Parker describes it reminded me of martial artists and other traditional artists and craftspeople from many cultures, who transform repetitive, painstaking work into a form of meditation.

I would really like to try making acorn from the black oaks on Dad's property, but it could be a multi-visit process. Alas, I cannot do the traditional hot-rocks-in-woven-basket technique, as I have no basket (or none I'd want to risk ruining) and there are dire warnings about exploding rocks. Also dire warnings about boiling acorn mush exploding out of stainless steel pots, with a note that Parker usually cooks while wearing a protective leather skirt.

The book also contains instructions for easier-sounding and non-explosive traditional recipes, like manzanita cider. I might tackle that one first.

It Will Live Forever : Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation

ETA: If anyone wants a signed copy at $15.00, I am pretty sure the author will be selling them at the fair tonight, and if you speak before I leave, I could grab one for you.
Before I spend the next two years plowing through textbooks, please recommend me some books on psychology: therapy, memoirs of therapists, memoirs of people with mental illnesses, theory, anecdotes, treatment, classics which are still relevant, cross-cultural and non-western issues and theories, etc.

No holds barred! I am particularly interested in trauma, but on the other hand, that's also the area where I'm best-read. So anything goes. (Should I read Jung?)
A cookbook/food memoir, emphasis on the former, about the cuisine and associated folkways and traditions of the Syrian Christians of Kerala.

George’s family lived in Mumbai (then Bombay), but visited Kerala often, and her mother made an effort to cook in the Syrian Christian style. This gives George an unusual insider/outsider perspective. The short essays which bookend the recipe sections are evocative, well-written, and atmospheric, sometimes explaining traditions like the baths and oil massages given to new mothers by means of an account of her own pampering after the birth of her daughter, sometimes telling stories about her childhood and family.

If you like Madhur Jaffrey, you will probably like this, though George comes from a completely different food tradition. If you’re already familiar with non-Christian Kerala cuisine, the Syrian Christian version has a lot of overlap; if you’re only familiar with other Indian traditions, the food and culture depicted will be nearly completely unfamiliar. I’ve been to Kerala once, and was bowled over by the beauty of the landscape and the deliciousness of the food. Reading this book, I longed to return.

The book was published in the USA, and the recipes suggest where to find ingredients there, as well as local substitutions for ingredients that can’t be found. I didn’t try any of the recipes, but some of them look fairly easy and many of them look absolutely delicious. It’s also very enjoyable to read for pure food porn.

The Kerala Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections from the Syrian Christians of South India (Hippocrene Cookbooks)


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