3.27.2010

Flow, by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

Flow
Flow
I picked up Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation purely out of curiosity since, as the authors point out (a lot), it's not something that most people talk about. Ever. I took those health classes in junior high and learned the basics, but that was about the last time that I ever read anything about the subject.

Flow aims to tell the "cultural story" of menstruation and, for the most part, it hits the high points. The book starts out with a long discussion, ironically enough, about why people don't talk about it. Nowhere do they mention the most obvious reason: because it's pretty icky. Another big chunk of the book has to do with advertisements. They reproduce ads for what they dub "femcare" through out the book that span the last century and the author's deconstruction of the ads was the best part of the book. It's amazing what ad writers could say without actually saying anything.

This deconstruction also leads into their other major point, that companies are medicalizing what are, essentially, natural processes. Some of the products that were sold even as recently as the 1970s that were dangerous, like super absorbent tampons that caused toxic shock syndrome or Lysol douches that lead to an increase in infections. A lot of these ads, when they used words, preyed on women's fears and embarrassments and gaps in our knowledge. Interesting and horrifying all at the same time.

I think when I picked up this book I was expecting a Mary Roach-caliber book. While I have no doubt that the authors did extensive research, I wish it were easier to trace their sources. A lot of their examples of bad medical sciences were glossed over and summarized to the point where it was hard to see what studies they were talking about. Further, instead of Roach's intellectually curious tone, the authors of Flow were a little too obvious about being matter of fact. So, instead of being matter of fact, they actually wrote after some paragraphs stating a common belief or an alarming study, they'd actually write something like "Or did they?" or "But is it really?" It was like having the author's constantly winking at you or having a conversation with a particularly pushy pair of aunts with no boundaries.

But, did I learn anything? Yeah, a few things. Mostly, I learned about the fine art of advertising. I really enjoyed all the reproduced ads. And I learned what women used before "femcare" and, boy, do I pity my grandmother and my female ancestors. Flow was a very interesting read.

3.19.2010

A Spectacle of Corruption, by David Liss

Once again, I have started a series in the middle. I was so sure when I bought A Spectacle of Corruption that it was the first book in the series. Turns out that its the second book in a trilogy. Fortunately, I didn't need to know much about the first book to enjoy this one.

Spectacle of Corruption
A Spectacle of Corruption
In A Spectacle of Corruption, Jewish thief taker Benjamin Weaver gets caught up in a web of conspiracies and convicted of a murder he didn't commit. Literally a web of conspiracies. There are so many plots and plans going on in this book that it takes a long time to get it all sorted out. I love books that keep me guessing all the way 'till the end.

We meet Weaver in court, being tried for the murder of Walter Yate, a porter. Since Weaver doesn't have an advocate (they didn't have such things as defending attorneys in eighteenth century England), he has to question the witnesses against him. Even after he finds out that the witnesses were paid to testify against him, things go against Weaver when the Judge pretty much orders the jury to find against the thief taker. As he is being taken away to Newgate Prison, someone slips him a file and lock pick. Weaver makes a daring escape from the prison and then the hard part starts: figuring out how the hell he ended up in prison in the first place and clearing his name. Once he starts asking questions, Weaver discovers that what started as a matter of some threatening notes was really just the opening salvos between the Whigs and the Tories (and some Jacobites) before the election season.

The best part of this book is the history. I'd forgotten what a wild place the eighteenth century was. In high school, I learned about the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions that was about it. When I got to college, in my literature classes of all placed, I learned that there was a lot of things going on behind all those philosophers' books. The eighteenth century was a crossroads between the Renaissance and the modern world. As the empire expanded and the industrial revolution was getting started, things ran ahead of the law and ethics and it was really easy for people to get trampled by progress.

Two things in particular struck me as I read through the book: the prisons and the election system. First, the prisons. Newgate prison was a prison for about 700 years. A lot of the people in jail were there because of debts. And the debts got bigger the longer they were in prison because the jailers charged people for better food, private cells, mail, privileges, etc. Prisons were hugely corrupt, but there was a pretty firm belief that prisons should be harsh to discourage recidivism. In reading up on prisons of the age, I learned that Newgate Prison was rebuilt in 1782 in the architecture terrible style that was design to psychologically intimidate and depress. Prison reform didn't really get started until very late in the nineteenth century. It's kind of shocking that it didn't get started earlier, when there were people like Jonathan Wild around. Wild (who appears in the book) was an actual thief taker of the time. He was a bit more proactive than most people would expect. He actually paid thieves to break into people's houses and then sold the victims' belongings back to them. Not unsurprisingly, he could boast a pretty high recovery rate.

But the most interesting thing was the election system. Elections have been a part of the modern world for hundreds of years but universal suffrage has only been around for less than 100. In the eighteenth century, only men of property could vote. And not only were their votes courted with dinners and drink, but during election season, election managers and their agents would visit voters houses and take them out to the polls. Votes were sold for money or for favors. There were actually things like voting clubs which sold votes in bulk. Sometimes, election managers or their agents would arrange for people to riot at the polls or intimidate voters. Interestingly, there were two parties just like in the United States right now. Tories, the conservatives, and their opponents, the Whigs, who claimed to be progressive. Their brand of progressivism was still pretty conservative by modern standards.

In addition to all the great and interesting history, I have to say that the book is incredibly well written, too. David Liss is one of the few authors I've read that can really pull off writing in period style. He doesn't just through arcane vocabulary and grammar around. He uses it naturally, without shouting at the reader. Not only is it well written, but it's well plotted, too. What with the daring escapes and chases and disguises, I was hooked right from the beginning. Coupled with the mystery and the conspiracies, I was on tenterhooks the whole time. This book was a pleasure to read.

3.06.2010

The Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose

Unlikely Disciple
The Unlikely Disciple
Kevin Roose, a student at Brown University, did something that I would never, ever do. He attended a Christian college for a semester. In this case, Roose transferred to Liberty University for a semester when he was 19, to try and better understand evangelical Christians. Roose is, nominally, a Quaker, from a liberal family. I would never be able to let go of my cynicism and social convictions enough to make it through more than one class or one prayer meeting. So I have to tip my hat to Roose for showing just how open minded a liberal can be. The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner at America's Holiest University is Roose's chronicle of his time at Liberty.

Liberty University was founded by Jerry Falwell in 1971 as a place for his brand of evangelical Christians to get an education while practicing the Liberty Way, a collection of rules that govern everything from what students where to how much couples can touch each other to the words that they're allowed to say, i.e. no swearing. Somehow, this school has managed to get accredited and, unlike some other religious schools, degrees from Liberty count. Even though its founder has died, Liberty is apparently still going strong.

The Unlikely Sinner follows, roughly in chronological order, Roose's semester from orientation through final exams. (If you're curious, Roose got two As and four Bs.) At first, Roose reports feeling a lot of guilt and trepidation about what he's going to do. To blend in as much as possible and to try to get as authentic an experience as possible, he participates in the Bible studies and prayer meetings and goes to church every Sunday--even going so far as to sing in the choir. But the guilt comes from the fact that he's planning on writing this all down and publishing it later on. He frequently compares himself to an anthropologist, but wishes that he could remain as detached as a fully fledged anthropologist or sociologist could be. He worries when he feels caught up during the sermons and the prayers and wonders if he's inching closer to being converted.

The most entertaining and worrying parts of the book are, in my mind the classes. Not only are Liberty students taught literature and history and math, but they're also taught how to argue with atheists and evolutionists and the rest of the secular world. Unlike most other liberals arts colleges, where students are taught to see more shades of gray than ever before, students and Liberty are taught to think and believe the way Falwell and the administration want them to. Alternate interpretations and questioning are frowned on--though the rules apparently loosened up after Falwell died. At the beginning of the book, Roose quotes the History of Life (the anti-evolution class) syllabus:
This course is designed to aid the student in the development of a biblical worldview. This will involve an introduction to critical thinking, and evaluation of contemporary moral philosophies, and an affirmation of absolute truth. (32*)
The cognitive dissonance in those sentences almost gave me a headache when I read them. Doesn't teaching someone how to think critically meant that they won't be able to accept an absolute truth? I suppose, if you believe there really is an absolute truth, there's no problem with the statement.

As I read the descriptions of the History of Life lectures, I kept thinking of all my old questions about why some varieties of Christians are so opposed to the idea. I remember once, in my high school advanced biology class, a friend turning to me after a discussion of evolution and saying that she just couldn't accept the idea that we came from monkeys. It's not impossible to think that, if there is a God, that he/she/it might have used evolution and physics, etc. to develop the world as we know it. Personally, the older I get, the more wondrous I find it that it all developed without a god or an intelligent designer.

Partially, the resistance to the idea of evolution stems from the evangelical and fundamentalist Christian belief that the Bible is infallible and that it's meant to be interpreted literally. In History of Life, Roose and the other students are taught young earth creationism and the seven days described in Genesis (the first chapter, not the creation in the second chapter) were seven, 24-hour days. Roose comments that further along in the class, they're taught a lot of mind bending and complicated refutations of evolution. Back to the earlier point though, Roose's descriptions reminded me of another one of my old questions. Why is it so important that the Bible be taken literally? To my way of thinking, the Bible is the work of men. Fallible men. That doesn't mean that there's nothing of worth in the Bible. It just means that it was written by people who couldn't conceive of something like the Big Bang or evolution. They had a history that was filtered through their consciousness and experiences. I'm not saying they were stupid either. The Old and New Testaments are beautifully written, rhetorically sophisticated. But they were written a long time ago and a long way away. Interpreting them literally doesn't make sense and I don't see anything wrong with picking and choosing. Christians already do this by eating bacon and cheeseburgers and wearing clothes with mixed fibers.

Another thing that bothered me about the Liberty experience was the amount and kind of praying that was going on. Liberty student pray for everything, no matter how frivolous it might seem--like praying for God to help out with grades or parking tickets. If there is a God, he/she/it has more important things to worry about. Prayer is a lot of Liberty students answer to situations. Some of the students Roose encounters pray and wait for situations to resolve themselves instead of thinking and talking with each other and working out the problem.

Roose did a clever thing in this book by treading carefully around the political issues like homosexuality, abortion, gender rights, etc. If he talked about them too much, I know I would have lost any sympathy I felt for the Liberty students. He and some of the students mention the fact that Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes and other ne'er-do-wells. Jesus--in my reading of the New Testament--didn't judge. But there's an awful lot of judgment going on at Liberty. Roose, in order to get the full experience, went on a proselytizing trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, during spring break. I hadn't realized it before, but evangelicals stake out places like Daytona to try and save souls. Roose learns that on these trips, students are taught to start asking if people are saved or not when they meet them.

That said, Roose is also careful to show pockets of subversiveness, students who don't swallow the party line, hook and sinker. Like I said, Roose was more open minded than I would have been able to be. I would have blown my cover--assuming I would have gone in at all--by asking those questions that used to make people uncomfortable in Sunday school and Confirmation class. I would have poked and prodded at people's beliefs, but Roose was admirably able to blend in and let people talk to him about what they believed and thought. This is a good book. Not just because it was enjoyable to read, but because it has good intentions, to get people to see that no matter how monolithic they might appear, Liberty students are all different.

Now what we need is a Liberty student (or someone like one) to go the other way, so that The Unlikely Disciple can have a companion. While it's important to see the humanity in Liberty students, evangelical Christians need to learn that just because we aren't saved, it doesn't mean that we're hellbound sinners who are out to destroy their way of life. This is the problem with like minded people gathering together. They forget that there are other perfectly valid ways to think and believe and live. I would have really liked to see Roose spread the seeds of doubt, but that's not what he was there for. I wanted to see a real dialog.

Still, I enjoyed reading this a lot. I laughed and I thought. What more can you ask from a book.

* This quote is from the 2009 Grand Central Publishing hardcover edition.

3.04.2010

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Hundred
Thousand Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms caught my interest right away and I read the entire thing in one day, on Sunday. N.K. Jemisin's world building and prose remind me a lot of Brandon Sanderson's work in that, while it has a few of the hallmarks of epic fantasy, it has a life and an originality that you don't ordinarily see. This was a very enjoyable read, and I very much look forward to the next installment when it's published this fall.

Jemisin is skillful in balancing world building with story. She has a recursive style that follows the protagonist's thoughts back and forth through the plot and into Yeine Darr's memories. The story opens with Yeine on her way to Sky, the world capitol, after being recognized as a long, lost heir to the throne. One there, Yeine struggles to find her place in the hierarchy and adjust to cruel customs. What makes this book special is its magic. Rather than a magical system, all the supernatural stuff comes from gods who lost a war against other gods.

My favorite part of this book was Nahadoth, the god of the night. While I don't pretend to understand all of his actions and motives (the love story seems a little thin until certain details are revealed towards the end), I had the most sympathy for him, since he seems to have suffered the most. Jemisin's world has a complicated and fascinating mythology--another reason I'm looking forward to the next book; I want to know more.

The other thing I liked about this book was that Jemisin didn't let herself fall victim to the temptation to leave loose ends to be wrapped up in subsequent books. Yeine and Nahadoth's stories end at the end. (A surprisingly novel concept for some writers.) I've seen part of the first chapter of the second book in the series and, judging by what I saw, it centers around totally different characters and begins some time after the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. This means that this book had an unusually satisfying ending. Very good book.