Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I finally got around to reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. I should have read it a long time ago. Her linking of sexual exploitation and abuse with the abuses of world politics is particularly thought-provoking. Her writing is clear and has a pleasing movement. I won’t play spoiler here except to say that so many of the examples she presents remind me over and over again of experiences most of us have experience and continue to face on a regular basis. I am left with the sinking feeling that so many things just don’t seem likely to change. Solnit’s pep talk in the last essay about progress being undeniable is inspiring, yet not convincing at this moment. How can I feel that way in the age of Trump?

I imagine that many powerful men (most recently the chair of CBS) manufacture the helpful myth that their sexual aggression is really all about their innate irresistibility and that the undeniable fact of their power is the beside the point. Except that power is never beside the point, especially for powerful people. It’s more like a narcotic drug, and it is time for them to go to rehab.

Solnit’s opening essay is about mansplaining, and it is brilliant. In a particular niche market, am I the only one who has noticed that when doctors and dentists have you in a position where (1) you can’t talk and (2) they can readily inflict a lot of pain on you or otherwise do harm, their sexist comments grow exponentially? Whether it’s being told “Atta girl” by the dentist doing your root canal or the self-promoting surgeon working on a facial skin cancer and telling you (at great length, of course) that because women talk so much he always has to instruct women patients to curb their talking because of potential scarring, that particular power play is getting really old.

Solnit’s discussion of rape culture is brilliant. Every day we need to fight against the relentless propaganda that it is simply up to women to be careful and not tempt the wrong sort of person, etc. To that end, Solnit provides magnificent insight and innumerable practical observations and suggestions for every day life. Discouraged or not, she’s right that we need to be hopeful and we certainly can’t let down our guard. Our daughters and everyone else needs to know of our unwavering support for equality.

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Queen Victoria, the Matchmaking Grandmother

For royalty buffs and people who like to view history through personalities and relationships, Deborah Cadbury’s Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking — The Royal Marriages that Shaped Europe is highly entertaining and informative. There is a soap opera quality to Victoria’s avid, prying interest into the marital prospects of her numerous royal grandchildren. Much as Victoria tries to identify potential highly suitable mates and head off dangerous ones, sometimes her grandchildren just didn’t listen. These are great stories, wrapped up in 19th century Euro politics. There is the drama of the highly unsuitable Kaiser Wilhelm’s nasty development and then there is the awful foreboding of the Nicholas and Alexandra courtship. Victoria desperately tried to head off what she saw as a horrifically dangerous match in a Russia headed for catastrophe, but love prevailed over Victoria’s clear-headed analysis. That is just one of the these highly personal stories — again, a bit of a soap opera on a global scale, and well worth reading. You will be informed and entertained — the perfect combination.

Beauty by Raphael Selbourne

Raphael Selbourne’s Beauty is captivating. I loved this novel and resented all interruptions, particularly during the last 100 pages or so.

Set in Wolverhampton, a city in central England, Beauty tells the story of Beauty, a young, abused Bengali Muslim woman, trapped in a miserable and threatening family. Beauty’s gradual understanding of the non-Muslim world and her personal transformation beginwhen she is forced to participate in job training in order to preserve her state benefits. Suddenly thrust into a new, confusing environment while still being pummeled at home is confusing and frightening, but Beauty takes note of the outside world and ultimately opts to take some risk. Two confused and immature English men show up to help her at this time of great crisis in her life. Other strangers are not so kind, and then there deeply flawed people who nonetheless step up to the plate.

That’s the premise of those wonderful novel. There are characters with unsuspected depth and courage, and there are some dreadful people on the other end of the spectrum. Their interactions set a fine and highly interesting pace for this book. At the center is Beauty, a damaged young woman raised to fear and condemn everything outside her family’s milieu. But, under immense pressure, she observes everything through increasingly interested eyes. The process is fascinating. Selbourne has created a unique character and a very rich story.

I highly recommend this book.

Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn

I had forgotten how wonderful Barbara Pym is! Quartet in Autumn, oddly enough, seems to have been a comeback novel after Pym had gone unpublished for 15 years. Whatever the back story, Quartet in Autumn reveals and then weaves together the lives of four oldish co-workers as they face the uncertainties of retirement, financial difficulties and uncertain health. Marcia, Letty, Edwin and Norman at first seem as uneventful and unremarkable as their names, but Pym carefully introduces bits and pieces of their past and present lives. This is not an elderly rom-com, but it is the story of four idiosyncratic older adults who live on their own and who don’t appear to have much excitement in their lives. They know each other and their foibles through working together, and a loyalty develops among them. As it happens they are not entirely on their own. The way they help each other and try to understand each other makes for a warm, thoughtful book.

I am so glad I read it, and I highly recommend it!