Recreational reading


From the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

On Oct. 27, 1984, a headline on Page 14A in The Plain Dealer read: “Disgusted judge gives repeat offender 30 years for rape.”

The story followed standard newspaper protocol: In it, the victim was anonymous.

In this version, the victim has a name. I am Joanna Connors, and I am telling the story I kept private for 23 years. I’m doing it for all of the others who have survived sexual assault in silence, ashamed and afraid to tell their stories

Such an interesting story and compelling presentation — and a testament to the continuing power of the stodgy old “mainstream media.”

(Image from the Tuol Sleng museum in Phnom Penh.)

And have lots to recommend from it, including Sichan Siv’sLast Breakfast in Cambodia,” a meditation on the future of the country only now beginning to recover from the implosion of the ’70s. An excerpt:

Cambodia today is not unlike the Cambodia of my youth — there is deep poverty and enormous wealth, side-by-side. There is unrest beneath the surface, the unrest that helped to make the horrors of the last century possible. And so, as I walk from one memory-filled place to another, I pray for a new year in which Cambodia’s leaders will find a way to bring about peace and stability.

Just stocked up at the library; also digging into Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth for my book group. But read an intriguing review in the Times, and so my list grows to include Mad, Bad and Sad: Women and the Mind Doctors by Lisa Appignanesi.

The reviewer, Kathryn Harrison, writes:

One of the consistently fascinating and disturbing aspects of [the book] is Lisa Appignanesi’s assiduous tracking of the modishness of what might be mistaken for a sui generis discipline. Of course, as anyone who has visited a psychiatric hospital — or ridden the subway — can attest, crazy is what we call people who refuse to conform to accepted norms of behavior. And the definition of nonconformity must change in step with styles of conforming. …

As Appignanesi observes, “Patients could well find themselves the victims of a doctor’s prejudice about what kind of behavior constituted sanity: this could all too easily work against women who didn’t conform to the time’s norms of sexual behavior or living habits.” That diagnoses conceived by male doctors would be subject to men’s changeable views of women — romantic, patronizing, idealistic, misogynistic: the choices are limited only by the imagination — comes as no surprise; it’s the meticulous and exhaustive account of these theories offered in “Mad, Bad and Sad” that is sobering.

Highly recommended: “Working Life (High and Low),” by Steven Greenhouse, adapted from Greenhouse’s book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, which weighs the challenges workers face across the country. This article excoriates Fed Ex’s ill treatment of a woman who was fired when she requested a leave of absence to battle cancer for the third time; it lauds Patagonia and employers like it that offer employees flex time and attractive health-care and other benefits.

Unintentionally laughable: “Bear Stearns’s New Hires Become Job Seekers,” by Louise Story. Poor unemployed MBAs; use that $50,000 signing bonus, which you get to keep though you won’t actually perform any work, to keep you warm. An excerpt:

They polished résumés; they sweated interviews; they landed dream jobs. But now a small group of college and business school students are discovering that their careers at Bear Stearns ended before they began. JPMorgan Chase, which bought the beleaguered investment bank last month, rescinded many of their job offers.

Yashoda Khandkar, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, is among 250 Bear hires who now find themselves unemployed in one of the worst financial job markets in years.

“The worst part about the entire situation is that it’s a really hard market for us to look for other jobs,” Ms. Khandkar said. “We probably can’t get as good of jobs as we would have had.”

Ivy Leaguers like Ms. Khandkar have more options than most, of course. And for now few of them have mortgages, unlike millions of Americans who are struggling just to pay the bills.

But instead of starting new jobs at Bear, these students are now hunting for work along with a growing number of bankers and brokers.

God, imagine if they actually had to suffer injustices like … oh, not having money to put food on the table, or needing to apply the welfare … or going to a state school!

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In celebration, visit my new (tertiary) blog on Garner’s Modern American Usage. Gooooo Bryan Garner!

(Above: My new (old) cat Smokey (aka the Smokestack, Smokey Dokums, Smokey-wheres-the-bandit) ponders the wisdom of Bryan Garner.)

Nicholson Baker has an interesting essay in the New York Review of Books about the politics of Wikipedia — its creation, additions, deletions, defacement, and preservation efforts. It amazes me that Wikipedia has only been around eight years and has yet flourisehd, sending a million tiny shocks through the world of academia, pop culture, and information management.

I don’t normally turn to the Times for my pop culture news, but I found “Boys Will Be Boys, Girls Will Be Hounded by the Media” a rather interesting take on the media circus surrounding Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton, and the like — as well as the noted lack of said circus around men spiraling out of control.

“By the time I learned what I was really supposed to be afraid of in New York, I knew better—which isn’t to say that there was nothing to be afraid of, because, as all of us know, there are always dangers, everywhere.

But even now, at a much more wary and guarded age, what I feel when I am told that my neighborhood is dangerous is not fear but anger at the extent to which so many of us have agreed to live within a delusion—namely that we will be spared the dangers that others suffer only if we move within certain very restricted spheres, and that insularity is a fair price to pay for safety.

— Eula Biss, “No-Man’s-Land,” The Believer, Vol. 6, No. 2

This weekend, my mother brought up her discomfort with my plan to go to Guatemala alone for Easter. “Isn’t it dangerous there? And what are you going to do, anyway?”

I tried to placate her by talking about Antigua’s tourist police, and noted that I had hacked it alone in Delhi for quite some time — not to mention the fact that I’m navigating New York living with relative aplomb. But what I really wanted to do was launch into a tirade about American ideas of safety and danger, comfort and discomfort, abundance and want. Biss does so much more eloquently in this essay, which “expos[es] the delusions and hostility of the American fear of ‘bad’ neighborhoods, from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Chicago’s North Side.”

On my former blog, I wrote about Art Garfunkel’s awesome reading list, which chronicles the books he’s read since 1968. Nick Paumgarten’s written a lovely piece in The New Yorker about Garfunkel’s literary habits; it’s a nice juxtaposition to Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Books,” an essay that examines reading habits in America and the possible repercussions of our increasingly digital lives.

It’s mere happenstance that on Martin Luther King Jr. Day I am reading Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name, the fictional narrative of a slave in the eighteenth century. But it’s no surprise that I’m captivated by the absorbing story of Aminata Diallo, which Hill chronicles with a deft sensitivity I didn’t entirely expect from a middle-aged man.

The Times’ glowing review focuses on the power of language to undermine great social ills. But rather than being overtly political, the text strikes me as a testament to the importance of independent voices echoing in the night:

If I live long enough to finish this story, it will outlive me. Long after I have returned to the spirits of my ancestors, perhaps it will wait in the London Library. Sometimes I imagine the first reader to come upon my story. Could it be a girl? Perhaps a woman. A man. An Englishman. An African. One of these people will find my story and pass it along. And then, I believe, I will have lived for a reason.

Much has been written on the place of witness and testimony in creating a case for change; what is so compelling about this book (and others like it) is that it asks for nothing directly, but rather allows the narrator’s voice to ring clear as a sounding bell, audible long after the the gong is initially struck.

A side note: Anyone have suggestions for similar narratives about non-African slaves? I’m particularly interested in reading something similar about the experience of indentured servants from India in the Caribbean. Looking into reading The Counting House (David Dabydeen), Maharani’s Misery (Verene A. Shepherd), The Last English Plantation (Jan Lo Shinebourne), or Bechu (Clem Seecharan). Tips or insight?

 

An interesting review of Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became an Illness over at Spiked; an excerpt:

[T]he range of ‘healthy behaviour’ is being increasingly narrowed. ‘Our quirks and eccentricities – the normal emotional range of adolescence and adulthood – have become problems we fear and expect drugs to fix’, Lane writes. ‘We are no longer citizens justifiably concerned about our world, who sometimes need to be alone. Our affiliations are chronic anxiety, personality or mood disorders; our solitude is a marker for mild psychosis; our dissent, a symptom of Oppositional Defiant Disorder; our worries, chemical imbalance that drugs must cure.’

Also worth checking out is Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield’s The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder.

The culturally specific treatment of mental illness (which in the U.S. seems to have manifested itself in the dogged belief that merely popping a pill can cure any ailment) is particularly stark if you’ve spent any time overseas. Combine that with the absolutely ridiculous prices of prescriptions (for example, in the U.S. — if I were not covered by insurance — I would pay about $400 a month for two prescriptions I’ve been taking for several years; in India, I could buy their generic equivalents for less than $5 a month), and it’s difficult not to be skeptical about the way in which we sketch the lines circumscribing normal and abnormal (albeit “treatable”) behavior.

(And, a postscript with a bonus link to an intriguing essay by Eric G. Wilson, “In Praise of Melancholy.” In addition to touching on some of the issues surfaced above, Wilson writes:

I for one am afraid that American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

Well, well said.)

I fully support women fixing things themselves. I have my own hammer, screwdriver, and pliers, and I have a few odd boxes of nails and screws in case anything is amiss. I mounted my own curtain rods and installed some shelves in my kitchen and bathroom. If anything, I’m ferociously self-sufficient.

I guess I just sort of assumed that we were past an era in which we had to call attention to the fact that women are capable of slinging the old hammer around. But apparently not: according to the Wall Street Journal, tools as accessories, that’s the trend:

The home-improvement industry has always been a no-woman’s land known for its drab aisles lined with nail bins and mysterious steel objects whose purpose was understood only by grunting guys in flannel shirts. Now it is going designer pink. Companies such as Tomboy Tools, Barbara K Enterprises and Girlgear Industries are offering the female do-it-yourselfer fabulous pink hammers and saws in stores and on the Web. These items usually fit snugly inside a smart satchel of the same hue, the tool box as it might be interpreted by Sarah Jessica Parker.

Now, WSJ’s never been known for its progressive views, but this is so …. hackneyed? Lazy? Old-fashioned? Toward the end of the article, she gets so heavy-handed that a crushing blow to the crown would be preferable to the stodgy, regressive preaching:

The only thing to give pause in the pinkhammer revolution is the occasional whiff of ideology that emanates from its leaders. Hang around the movement’s Web sites and before long you’ll hear rhetoric that implies that learning to install a dimmer switch is not simply a practical means of increasing domestic pleasure; it’s a Radical Statement for Women’s Progress. “It’s more about Empowerment with a capital E,” reads the toolgirls.com manifesto. Most of the rhetoric is more Oprahesque heavy breathing than Steinem-style fuming, but it still may not be the most suitable tone to take around people preparing to take up potentially lethal tools. “My true desire is to inspire women to become more self-reliant and confident in their abilities,” Barbara K! writes on her Web site. “We all have ‘it’ within ourselves to do things we never imagined we could.”

Well, maybe. But the truth is that while women may want a lovely home, most of them would also like a good man to share it with.

Self-confidence? Quelle horreur! Wrest that power drill from her disgusting feminist hands! And get me a man with six figures who can patronizingly indulge the little woman’s whims! I don’t know what’s more obnoxious: the fact that we’re supposed to think it’s quaint that women are finally taking to tools, or the fact that a well-regarded paper would print such myopic tripe and pass it off as news.

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(Photo from NYT, courtesy the man’s family)

The New York Times began a new series today, “War Torn,” that focuses on crimes and wartime experiences of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed killings (or been charged with them) after coming home. The first piece, “Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles,” is a heart-breaking, provocative, and essential piece of reportage. The paper also offers multimedia case studies, a slide show, an audio interview with a psychiatrist, and an excerpt from a related book.

 “Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories [of violence committed by veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan]. Lakewood, Wash.: ‘Family Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife.’ Pierre, S.D.: ‘Soldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress.’ Colorado Springs: ‘Iraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings, Crime Ring.’

Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities. Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.

The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killingi n this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems — appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction.”

This story hits home for me, having two brothers that have spent time fighting in both countries. I don’t see either very often, and when I do, the subject is off-limits. Occasionally, something about their time there will slip out — one Christmas, right after Saddam had been captured by the U.S. (“like a rat!”), one of my brothers kept mentioning how he swore he saw Hussein driving a taxi around Baghdad, and how he should have just shot him in the fuckin’ head right there, while he had a chance, how he always regretted not shooting the driver in the fuckin’ head. Another time, when someone asked if he had killed anyone, my brother got quiet, then noted that people there got killed all the time, but that the military was very respectful, that he had helped bury dead combatants in mass graves as soon as possible out of respect for Islamic mores and customs.

It’s hard to hear these stories, and even harder to figure out how to process them (imagine how hard it must be for my brothers themselves). As I’ve begun writing this, I’ve gotten…increasingly agitated, simply because I don’t know how to make sense of it all, or how to work my concern for my brothers (and people I went to high school with, and other acquaintances) into everyday life. But as I continue to ponder the subject, looking forward to the next story in the series, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Brockton D. Hunter, a criminal defense lawyer:

“To deny the frequent connection between combat trauma and subsequent criminal behavior is to deny one of the direct societal costs of war and to discard another generation of troubled heroes.”

It’s difficult to make sense of stories in which there may be no winners, only losers, only gaping holes where pieces of ourselves used to be. But it’s important to review them and cast a critical eye on them — and I applaud the Times for highlighting this important issue.

The New York Times reviews a public toilet — and no, it’s neither as sexy or as dirty as it sounds. Also, I can’t tell if this article is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, evidence that the Gray Lady does indeed have a sense of humor, or whether they just knew that the story would score huge coverage in the blogosphere, never remiss to pass up an easy poo joke. The world may never know.

 (Also, they had a “first flush” ceremony. I’ll never look at my beloved Darjeeling the same way again.)

Ratan Tata’s done it: the Rs 1 lakh (about $2,500) car (the Nano! We’re not at all trying to capitalize on the cache of Apple!) is born. Read all about it at the Indian Express, and then ponder what this all means for the environmental movement, for Delhi and Mumbai’s already-intolerable traffic, and for the spirit of the subcontinent’s rising middle class.

Oh, and because it never gets old, Indian traffic!:

I just finished Dave Eggers’ latest, a fictionalized account of one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” Valentino Achak Deng.

(Aside: Does anyone want to go to a reading by Zadie Smith — with cameos by Vendela Vida and Maggie Gyllenhall — on Jan. 16? It’s a benefit for Eggers’ nonprofit, 826NYC, which offers writing support to kids and teens.)

And I loved it. For a lot of reasons; first and foremost, it’s just a compelling story with just about every dramatic element out there — war, violence, love, faith, politics, great evil and tremendous good. But it’s more than that, so much more. It challenged the way the mainstream media reported the story of the displaced. It captured the ambiguities surrounding international aid and its utility. It reflected the frustrating curse of relative wealth, the way in which every struggle abets a new struggle, and the universal difficulty of puzzling out an identity in a constantly changing world. Above all, it offered a bleak sense of hope and affirmed the power of connecting, simply connecting, to those around us, even when we’re hurt, even when we’re broken.

While I was reading it, my thoughts inevitably turned to the unrest in Kenya, the country in which many of the displaced Sudanese (and Somalis, and Burundians, and Ethiopians …) settled. I don’t even know how to begin unpacking my thoughts; what does the situation in what is considered one of Africa’s beacons of light mean for the continent? Is it fair to even pose that question, with my meager American knowledge of life there, societies there? What next? What now?

Today’s rec reading is, inevitably, Gloria Steinem’s piece in the New York Times, in which she argues that “gender is the most restricting force in American life.”

I’m not sure I agree with her assessment (nor do others; my favorite critiques are at Slate and Feministing); I’m not sure you can isolate elements of an individual (race, gender, age, physical ability, wealth, appearance, etc.) and say unequivocally that, by mote of sex, a woman can never be a political front-runner, but I am glad that Steinem is continuing to challenge the subtle pervasiveness of sexism. Because, let’s be honest, Obama getting misty-eyed would be considered genuine and winning, while Hilz’s “emotional” answer to a voter’s question about how she manages everything made four front pages, all musing on the continued viability of her campaign. Harumph.

Violence in the tea-growing region of Kenya, just another piece of the country’s election-fallout story: “Kenya’s tea city Kericho hit by tribal violence” (Telegraph)

An interesting piece about the human toll of sourcing products from low-cost countries: “In Chinese Factories, Lost Fingers and Low Pay” (David Barboza, NY Times). I think this passage should send shivers down the spine of anyone buying cheap toys from Wal-Mart:

“I work on the plastic molding machine from 6 in the morning to 6 at night,” said Xu Wenquan, a tiny, baby-faced 16-year-old whose hands were covered with blisters. Asked what had happened to his hands, he replied, the machines are “quite hot, so I’ve burned my hands.”

Equally if not more resonant was J. Adam Huggins’ documentation of Indian steelforgers contracted to make manhole covers for Con Edison. Barefoot and sweating so we can save some dollars … it just doesn’t seem quite fair.

(Password/logins may be required; I used BugMeNot to bypass it.)

Interesting piece on intra-Asia politics with regard to education: “Losing an Edge, Japanese Envy India’s Schools.”

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