Category Archives: Books

Book review: Whipping Girl (Julia Serano 2007)

Rating: 5/5

Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl details the author’s perspectives on gender. Serano describes her journey from awkward teenage boy, through crossdresser, and through her transition to a transgender woman. She discusses what gender means to her personally and her experiences in society. She discusses gender roles, myths about trans people, and the role of trans people in the feminist movement.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Transgender lives are political. 2016 saw the passage of North Carolina’s  HB2, the “bathroom bill”; 2017 started with 5 more states proposing similar legislature. These bills say that individuals born with male genitalia endanger people in the women’s restroom. I never believed that, but discussions of trans people made me realize how little I knew. With Whipping Girl, I sought the transgender story.

THE GOOD

Whipping Girl is a fabulous book. I read Whipping  Girl because I wanted to better understand life as a trans person, but it makes so many great points about gender for the rest of us. Part of the strength of Serano’s narrative is the fact that she has lived on both sides of our gender divide. Sometimes the success of Jewish entertainers has been attributed to their ability to be both insiders and outsiders; perhaps transgender women like Serano have an analogous experience with womanhood.

I can’t possibly cover all the things I liked about this book. It’s the rare book that makes me consider my own life differently.

Serano asserts the societal belief: most believe that men and women are equal, but many do not believe that masculinity and femininity are equal. We consider masculinity strong, natural, and unpretentious. Because masculine and feminine are opposites, we believe femininity to be weak, artificial, and pretentious. It’s a restatement of familiar arguments; masculine women are penalized for failing to fit the model of a woman, and feminine women are penalized for being feminine. I realized that I hold some of these beliefs. I have congratulated myself for rarely wearing make-up; I have sneered at female friends that dress up. I heard these messages growing up a lot. They are rooted in seeing femininity as a failing.

Serano describes how these societal beliefs complicate gender transition. She describes how mtf transgender people are viewed with suspicion. If masculinity is superior, someone who “trades down” voluntarily must have suspicious motivations. She describes how media shows many more mtf people than ftm. I hadn’t noticed, but it is true. Many of the roles with mtf people show them either as succubi seeking to entrap and damage men or as pitiful, funny failures. She cites a bunch of examples that I don’t know. My media experiences are with Orange is the New Black and Transparent. Hopefully that’s a sign of progress in the decade since this book’s publication.

Serano discusses nature versus nurture. Some believe that men are born masculine and women are born feminine (and thus, gender is nature). Some believe that we only exhibit gendered behaviors due to societal influences (and thus, gender is nurture). Serano argues that women are more likely to be feminine and men more likely to be masculine, but with a distribution of traits. In her model, gender expression is like height; on average, men are taller than women, but many individual women are taller than many individual men. Women, on average, gravitate towards stereotypically feminine behaviors like chattiness, but many individual men are more naturally  chatty than many women. Femininity feels natural to most women, and masculinity feels natural to most men, but not all.

Serano talks about the process of seeing herself as transgender. Since childhood, she had experienced feelings that she was a girl. She calls it gender dissonance. She experimented with a lot of different gender expressions, eventually leading her to the trans identity. When she started taking hormones, that felt right. She describes it as her brain believing her body to be female. We don’t fully understand the relationship between brain and body, but to me, this seems similar to the so called “sixth sense” of proprioception, the awareness of one’s body in space.

Serano also discusses the horrifying history of transgender people and medicine. It’s full of icky stuff like doctors rating their patients’ attractiveness, and seeing society’s comfort, rather than their patient’s, as the most important outcome of transition. Trans people were forced to leave home and assume a new life to make others comfortable, meaning that they were forced to leave their families and support networks. Today’s bathroom bills fall into that history of putting society’s discomfort above the health of an individual.

 

THE BAD

The book is a decade old. Although mine is a 2016 second edition, the guts haven’t changed much. Whipping Girl is still super informative, but a decade changes much. For example, DSM V was published in 2013; it’s treatment of transgender issues vary substantially from the DSM IV discussed in the book.

The second half of the book discusses trans theory and feminist theory. Some other reviews of the book suggest that she is unfair to the feminist movement; I have no idea. Still, the first part had a real immediacy that the second part didn’t. It probably would be well-suited to the classroom, but didn’t add much for me as a reader  just wanting to understand a different perspective better.

OVERALL

Whipping Girl is an essential read if you want to understand trans people better. It’s also a great dissection of gender in society. I came away from the book wishing that people could be more supportive of one another. Trans people aren’t bathroom predators, they’re people in a tough spot. We are obsessed with men being men and women being women, and we mostly don’t even notice. Trans people challenge that obsession, and we see that some people would rather punish others than question their assumptions.

Book review: Death in the Haymarket (James Green 2007)

Rating: 5/5

James’ Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America tells the tale of the Haymarket Affair. The introduction gives a peek into the morning of May 5, 1886, the day after the eponymous Haymarket Affair, a bombing that killed seven police officers. The first chapter begins after the death of Lincoln in 1865. We follow the labor movement in Chicago for the next twenty-one years, through massive change and upheaval. Chicago more than quadrupled in size during this time period, burned in 1871, and went through two depressions. Immigrants composed more than 40% of the population during this time, and the industrial revolution led to capitalization and massive changes in labor practices.

Death in the Haymarket contains a lot of startlingly relevant themes: police brutality, terrorism, income inequality, xenophobia, protests that sometimes contain violence, political corruption, and economic turmoil. Interpretations of the Haymarket Affair have swung wildly more than once since they occurred 130 years ago. The Haymarket bombing was the first red scare (at this time, referring to anarchists rather than communists); four men were hung for their connections to the event. Green presents a humanizing thought-provoking narrative that suggests his sympathy to the men of the 1880s labor movement, but gives the reader plenty of tools to come to other conclusions.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I didn’t know anything about the labor movement. I certainly like my 40 hour work week and my safe working conditions, but I didn’t know how they came about. Haymarket doesn’t get into those details, but it certainly demonstrates what a long and bloody fight it was.

Between criticisms of teachers unions, passage of right-to-work legislation, and the increase of anti-employee policies like contractor status and cuts to benefits, we are seeing the erosion of some accomplishments of the labor movement. I knew that people were once passionate about these issues. I wanted to step back into that time. Haymarket fulfilled this goal.

THE GOOD

There’s a lot of great stuff to say about Haymarket. It tackles a boatload of complicated topics in a modest 320 pages. It introduces compelling and exciting characters, heros and villains and a lot of in between. It practically follows a novelistic arc; we begin with the optimism of the post Civil War labor movement, followed by political engagement, the suppression of that engagement by monied interests, the radicalization of the movement, the tragedy of police brutalities and slaughters at protests, the retaliation through terrorism, closing with further suppression following the bombing, and regrouping.

Haymarket tells a story of humans through individuals; my favorites were Lucy and Albert Parsons. Albert was orphaned a young age, raised by an enslaved woman, and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War at the age of 15. After the war, he went to Texas as a Republican enacting Reconstruction. There, he married Lucy, who appears and was believed to be African American; she always maintained that she was Native American. Albert worked for a printing press in Texas. Albert lost his job and faced violence numerous times fighting for the rights of freed slaves in Texas. Eventually, he moved to Chicago and fought for the rights of workers. He and Lucy became famed speakers. Lucy continued for over 50 years.

Haymarket tells a story of humans through the immigrant communities; Chicago in the late 1800s was second only to Prague in quantity of Bohemians. My great-grandfather came to this country from Bohemia in the early 1900s and became a coal miner in southern Illinois. These battles affected him. We know nothing of him other than the vague strokes of tragedy that made it to the public records; he was widowed, gave up his children around the time he was declared insane, and died shortly thereafter. Haymarket describes wage earners being slowly squeezed to death in a dehumanizing machine of class warfare. These were the vices that led men to face death for better working conditions.

Haymarket made me wonder how many families suffered tragedies like our family. It made me grateful for what I have today. It was a cautionary tale for how very far there is to fall.

THE BAD

Haymarket introduces a dizzying array of characters. I couldn’t keep track of them all. We meet politicians, police officers, German anarchists, American anarchists, various socialists, wives, rich men, judges, writers and more. Green creates such good characters, and I was annoyed to keep forgetting. A reference would have be really helpful.

Secondly, I found the early chapters spent in the 1860s and 1870s less interesting. They mostly didn’t contain the characters that occupied the later chapters. Although they were really helpful for context later on, they were slow for me.

Finally and most substantially, Green carefully tells how perception of the Haymarket Affair morphed with time, swinging back and forth a couple of times. But although Green is clear about his own contemporary feelings of the events, he does not give voice to other contemporaries. Is Green’s opinion the widely held one? If not, what faults does Green suggest in the evaluations of his contemporaries? We learn that the event is still fraught enough with symbolism that commemoration of the Haymarket Affair remains thorny today. But we also learn that the “Chicago Martyrs,” the men hung for the Haymarket Affair, are still remembered by laborers around the world. Part of understanding an argument is the refutation of counter-arguments; this is absent in Haymarket.

OVERALL

This is a solid, well-written book about a topic you probably don’t know well. As our country debates over the relationship between employer and employee, this glimpse into the past offers insight into today’s arguments. Haymarket is an exciting nonfiction read with a great set of characters and a strong sense of place.

Movie/Short Story Review: “Arrival”, “Story of your Life”

If you love science fiction, you should see “Arrival” and read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Each is a lovely representation of the genre.

I don’t normally review movies on this blog, but since “Arrival” is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, it seems like a good time to make an exception. “Arrival” is a good science fiction movie based upon a good science fiction short story “Story of Your Life.” It’s been about 5 years since I read the story, which was published in 2002. Before seeing the movie, I didn’t know it was based on this story, but it was faithful enough that I figured it out relatively early in the movie. For those of you who have seen the movie, imagine my surprise that I already knew how events would unfold. =)

“Arrival” is the story of an alien arrival. Numerous obelisks appear around the world, to the dismay and fascination of humanity. Our protagonist, Louise, a linguist, is recruited to attempt communication. She and a physicist make up the pair of experts on the American team. Louise’s efforts to translate the alien written language is the primary focus of the movie and the short story.

The Movie

The movie has received great reviews, with 93% on rotten tomatoes and 81% on metacritic. If you like science fiction movies, you should go see this one. I generally don’t like science fiction movies, and I liked this one. “Arrival” has good world-building, good science, and good thinking. This is a story that can’t be told without the tools of science fiction. It is a question of humanity, not of technology. The techniques of movie-making allow the story to unfold visually in a way that complements the print story.

How the story and the movie line up

Both the movie and the story play with their timeline. In the story, I found it distracting; In the movie, it felt more organic. I enjoyed watching a literary device play out on screen. For me, the biggest difference between the movie and the story was the role of the physicist—he makes some neat mathematical insights in the story, but he’s basically useless in the movie. As a mathy person, the math in the story was very compelling, but probably most movie goers won’t miss it.

I think the text version may address the Big Reveal of the story better than the movie, but it’s hard for me to judge. The story and the movie approach the Big Reveal in different ways—we see it unfold in the movie in a way that isn’t possible in text.

In Short:

As I said at the top, you should read and see this story. I know of no other example of a work that performs so well in print and motion; while I think the print version is a little better, the movie addresses certain aspects better. The movie is 2 hours, and the story is 55 pages, so you can put forth modest effort for great science fiction rewards.

 

Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter: Election Reflections

On Tuesday, I reviewed Madeleine Albright’s affecting and informative Prague Winter, about Czechoslovakia from 1937-1948. Tuesday night, the United States elected Donald Trump as the president. Prague Winter is about a nation facing nationalism and uncertainty in the face of global change.

The first Czechoslovak Republic was mostly the victim of larger circumstances. Based upon the choices made by Germany, Great Britain, and France, Czechoslovakia lived without liberty for 50 years. The Czechoslovakia of 1938 and United States of 2016 are not similar; for one, the US controls its destiny. But in both 1938 Europe and 2016 USA, I see anger diminishing people’s respect for basic human liberty and respect. Early Wednesday morning, Nazi graffiti marred the walls of my campus.

Liberal or conservative, we must stand up for our neighbors. We are still a phenomenally blessed nation. Stand for humanitarianism, not nationalism.

Book review: The Bank War- Andrew Jackson, Nicholas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance (Paul Kahan 2016)

Rating: 5/5

Paul Kahan’s The Bank War is about President Andrew Jackson’s (1829-1837) battle to destroy the Second Bank of the United States. The First Bank of the US was founded in 1791  under Alexander Hamilton’s guidance and dissolved in 1811. The second was chartered in 1816. The banks were founded to try to stabilize currency and establish a good fiscal reputation for the fledgling US with other countries. The banks’ opponents, including Jackson, thought they were an overreach of federal power.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I have no particular interest in banking or finance. I chose to read The Bank War out of curiosity about the era and the fact that Bank War was recently published. After the recent discussions about whether Jackson should be removed from the $20, I knew a little about Jackson’s animosity to the bank—just enough to be curious. (Personally, a century of depiction on currency seems like plenty. We have such a rich history, but always the same five-or-so dudes on our money.)

THE GOOD

The Bank War details the battle between President Andrew Jackson and the president of the US Bank, Nicholas Biddle. It did what good non-fiction should do: it introduces the reader to the people and the era with enough background but not too much. Nonfiction, especially about topics like policy and finance, can be long and intimidating, and this book is neither. It’s academic but approachable.

The Bank War has some evaluations of Jackson’s and Biddle’s characters, but these evaluations arise from specific events and discussion of other historians evaluations. Jackson was and remains controversial. A lack of commentary on his tempestuousness would stand out. This is the man that drove the creation of the two political parties during his presidency as basically For Jackson and Against Jackson. I found him fascinating and repulsive.

This book distilled unfamiliar and complex topics into a compelling narrative. In 160 concise pages, I learned about the early monetary policy of the country (without too much jargon), about Jackson, about the development of a two party system, and more.  The early history of paper money was great and surprising. Having read about metallism policy such as in the election of 1896 with William Jennings Bryan, I had believed that our money was based on bullion until the 20th century.

THE BAD

Two small criticisms:

  • A few times, the brevity of the book is a little unsatisfying, for example where Kahan introduces the faction of the Democrats called the locofocos without any explanation as to the meaning of the name (a self-lighting cigar, wikipedia informs me). What a charming detail to omit!
  • The introduction details his motivation to write the book— the financial crisis of 2008 bringing attention to the role of the Federal Reserve. I hoped the epilogue would contain some synthesis of the two topics but it did not. Perhaps as a historian he left that to others but I would have been curious as to his views, seeing as it was his motivation.

Bacigalupi’s “Water Knife” revisited: Considering “Cadillac Desert” and “Collapse”

A few months ago I read and reviewed Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. It’s a semi-apocalyptic view of water shortages in the not-too-distant future American west. Although I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t buy into the central crisis of the book—a water crisis severe enough to send states practically to war with one another. Then again, I’ve lived most of my life in Missouri, New York, and Virginia; I knew nothing about water scarcity. After The Water Knife piqued my interest, I read two nonfiction books about societal collapse and the history of water rights: Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert and Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

The Water Knife is clearly a call to action. It begs the reader to read Cadillac Desert (which I reviewed here). The 1986 Cadillac Desert (with a 1993 addendum) details water-related shenanigans too absurd for science fiction. It details the construction of the LA aqueduct using mules; it reveals the snail darter controversy as a boondoggle of an evil bureaucracy; it details the pissing contest between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers. Did you know that our largest desalination plant is far from any coast? The Yuma Desalination Plant on the Colorado River ensures that the water we send on to Mexico satisfies international treaty. Thousands of miles of irrigation makes the water almost toxically saline by the time it reaches the border. It’s hard to pick the most breathtaking farce detailed in Cadillac Desert—is it the river sent over a 2,000 foot mountain to reach southern California? Is it the Teton Dam, which collapsed immediately and eliminated several towns because the engineers chose not to worry about the caves in the rock next to the dam?

I read The Water Knife wondering all the while how plausible its central conflict was. The Water Knife provides none of the lurid water history that Cadillac Desert did, just a strong message to go read that book. Usually I resist exposition in fiction, but The Water Knife ended up feeling ungrounded to me without more education. Its insistent references to Cadillac Desert were an appeal to an authority I lacked any knowledge of. Most of the United States population lives in wet parts of the country without knowledge of water rationing. After reading Cadillac Desert, the lack of detail felt even more disappointing. Many of the tales of that book, especially of the CAP (Central Arizona Project), would have provided easy fodder. Books about Mars colonies explain how colonists find oxygen with some scientific exposition; The Water Knife should have included a little exposition to orient us naive easterners.

Cadillac Desert expounds upon the ecological damage, financial waste, and altogether pointlessness of many western water projects, but it doesn’t speak much of pending disaster. It showed me how absurd and illogical the western water structure is, a point that The Water Knife relies upon. The book I read next contained a vivid reminder of the fragility of the American west. That fragility has ruined lives and cities before.

Jared Diamond’s Collapse details why a variety of civilizations collapsed, including the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico. Diamond explains how deforestation in the fragile desert ecosystem combined with a drought eventually led to widespread collapse of the civilization. I visited Chaco Canyon three months ago. It’s a strange place—a dozen massive ruins in a remote desert canyon. One can’t help but wonder how or why anyone lived there. Again and again, Diamond details how civilizations over exploit their natural resources, face adversity, and often collapse in the face of that adversity.

I don’t know if I believe that the southwest will collapse into a post-apocalyptic hellhole in the nearish future. As a new transplant to the west, The Water Knife strikes a frightening tone. But like the book about colonists on Mars, it need not be literally possible or true, it tells a fun story and kindles the imagination about the future of the American west. I enjoyed The Water Knife. But I was better able to feel its message after  supplemental nonfiction reading. I think The Water Knife would have affected me more if it supplied more of that information within the book. And to any other reader of The Water Knife patient enough to add another 1000 pages of reading to their list, Cadillac Desert and Collapse are excellent supplementals to The Water Knife.

 

Book review: Cadillac Desert (Marc Reisner 1993)

Did you know that the longest waterway in California is man-made? Did you that there’s a 300 mile, $4.7 billion, canal from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson? Did you know that Tennessee’s Tellico Dam was deemed economically unsound even when it was 95% built, but it was still completed? Did you know that two bureaucracies, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, basically waged a war of influence in the west, building scores of unnecessary dams along the way? Over the objections of republican and democratic presidents, western congressmen pushed water projects, trading them like currency, trying to tame the west.

Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert exhaustively covers water management in the west from the late 1800s until its publication in 1986. A brief addendum brings the reader up to 1993. Along the way, he details the good (hydroelectric power surpluses for manufacturing during WW2), the bad (taxpayer subsidy of billions of dollars to wealthy corporate farmers) and the ugly (the failure of the Teton Dam eliminating a valley).

Cadillac Desert encapsulates the ways that US government goes bad when we let ideology stand in for sound economics. It’s a tale of bipartisan conspiracy to fund impractical projects for special interest groups. It’s a tale of ecological Manifest Destiny; if rain doesn’t follow the plow, then sheer spending will irrigate the desert into a new Eden. Cadillac Desert is one of those rare wonderful nonfiction books that reframes the world; I finished reading a week ago and I’m still thinking about it, processing it. Any American knows the term porkbarrel; Cadillac Desert reveals the gears that turn it out. It’s a tale that ought to inspire bipartisan furor—billions of dollars spent ruining pristine rivers and driving people from their homes to subsidize often ill-conceived farming endeavors. Farmers in Wyoming subsidized by millions to grow crops that eastern farmers are paid not to grow. But Cadillac Desert makes clear that water projects, at least until 1986, remained treasured in the south and west, even as they court various ecological calamities.

Reisner convinces the reader of these substantial political accusations through example after damning (damming?) example. He details the manipulations and lies that brought the Owens River water to LA via an aqueduct that had to be built with mules. He details the divvying of the Colorado River water, and the projects dreamt up by Wyoming, Colorado and Arizona simply to maintain claim on those apportions, leaving practicality as an afterthought. He describes the unbuilt Colorado Narrows Dam, which was opposed by the state engineer and water lawyer; it was thought to be in danger of collapse, unable to provide water as claimed, likely to damage ecological sites in Nebraska, and it was still almost built. It would have been five miles long and cost $500 million. For various projects, he describes the ecological effects, the hydroelectric production, the salinity challenges, the water table challenges. Several times, he describes beautiful rafting rapids that have been lost forever, buried under reservoirs. He argues that the best dam sites were all occupied by 1960, and all projects built after that have been increasingly unprofitable, pushed by local interest, horse trading, and bureaucratic power games.

So what about since 1986? Reisner’s afterword brings the reader up to 1993. He suggests that the public appetite for projects had waned. I’ve done my own reading trying to understand sentiment in the following twenty three years.

I don’t know how to compare water project lust in 2016 to 1986 or 1950. Today’s projects seem less federal. As a new westerner, Cadillac Desert was an essential read. For those further east, water management is still a nexus of bureaucracy, pork barrel politics, and ecological damage. For the dams we have today, there are questions of maintenance, updating, or removal. Like our under-maintained bridges and highways, dams are one more massive bill to pay, even if we build nothing new. Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, though over twenty years old, is still important and thought provoking in a lot of ways.