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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An Iranian Woman’s Memoir and the Battle against the Compulsory Hijab

In her passionate memoir, The Wind in My Hair – My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, Masih Alinejad lays out her feelings about the war against women in Iran and recounts her efforts to fight it. Alinejad is a journalist, blogger and broadcaster, as well as the founder of the My Stealthy Freedom movement.

This book has many things going for it. Alinejad’s recounting of her childhood and teenage years is like nothing a Westerner could imagine. Her family is conservative; her father supports the repressive regime. She rebels. Alinejad spends some time in jail as a result of a youthful protest journal. In short order she finds she is pregnant, marries the baby’s father, has a son and then gets divorced, which results in her loss of the custody of her son. In many ways all this drama is liberating — society already regards her as a hopeless pariah, so why not speak and do what she wants to do?

Alinejad is sort of a hustler, in the best sense of the word. Lacking even a high school diploma, she quickly learns how to make a living and become a successful writer, who is basically just this side of going to prison for her provocative columns. Along the way, she meets many of the politicians who are running Iran. Ultimately, she flees Iran, one step ahead of being arrested. Landing in Britain, she is scarcely a helpless refugee. She is more of a frenetic whirlwind: she earns a university degree, she raises her son once he joins her, she writes for various outlets, blogs, does radio programs and serves as a provocative cheerleader for protest within Iran. Indeed, her story illustrates the power of Facebook and social media, in general. When no one is buying her material, she blogs and posts. Basically she drives the regime in Iran crazy.

For Alinejad, Iran’s compulsory hijab policy becomes the catalyst for protest. She lays out very clearly the ways in which Iran keeps women down and encourages women in Iran to protest. She also devotes a lot of time to tracking and reporting on the tortures and deaths of protestors, so that these people are not forgotten. She also consistently supports the choice of women like her mother who want to wear the hijab. In fact her respect for her mother and her mother’s savvy approach to life grounds Alinejad.

I loved this book, because it sets out, with all its warts and a certain amount of confusion, how this impassioned, articulate woman feels about Iran and what it is doing to its people. Alinejad clearly falls into the category of people who aren’t constrained by social norms or the perils of non-compliance. She is comfortable setting her own path. At times that may seem selfish or even annoying and there is the exile’s perennial dilemma of urging those still in her country to engage in political action and thereby endanger themselves. She is aware of these things, but moves on and sees herself as a source of inspiration for people in Iran. She misses Iran and her family and has no expectation of returning any time soon.

I recommend this book because it tells a great story and it provides a passionate primary source for what has gone on in Iran.

Bound Feet & Western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

Pang-Mei Natasha Chang has written a very moving book about the astonishing life of her great aunt Chang Yu-i. Yu-i was born to a prosperous family in China in 1900, the year of the Boxer Rebellion. Fortunately, before she died in New York City in 1989, at the age of 88, Yu-i told her story to her great-niece, the author of this book.

I’ll refrain from spoiling the story for readers who hope to read this book. Hopefully it is enough to say that Yu-i’s story and her challenges were unique. The author does an excellent job of interviewing Yu-i and received thoughtful and generally unsentimental answers about her personal saga, but I have been left with hundreds of questions. I feel the need to know more about Yu-i. Why did she do something? What was she thinking? I really need to know what made Yu-i tick.

The twentieth century was a tough time for China and for all the Chinese who emigrated. Given her sheltered upbringing, Yu-i would seem to have been far less prepared than most to meet the challenges she faced, but in fact she prospered. Although political events were obviously swirling all around Yu-i during this turbulent period, but her story focuses more on her personal challenges and the social system into which she was born.

This lovely book is further enriched by relatively brief references to the author’s own life story. As Chang tells her great aunt’s story, she also reveals aspects of her own life, including the family pressure she felt growing up, as well as the racial slurs she endured. Her life lacks the drama of her great aunt’s life, but this book is a testament to her own upbringing and her struggles to find the right career path.

It is worth noting that I have written this review just a few hours before my book club meets to discuss it. It will be fun to discuss it this evening without worrying about spoiler alerts!

Dance to the Piper — Agnes DeMille’s Remarkable Account of How She Invented Herself as a Unique Dancer and Choreographer

Agnes DeMille, the amazing choreographer of Oklahoma, Rodeo and many other ballets and dances, wrote a number of memoirs, the first of which is Dance to the Piper. In this first installment of the story of her life, DeMille recounts growing up in early Hollywood as a member of an early and highly renowned motion picture dynasty, headed by her uncle Cecil B. DeMille. She writes movingly of her early fascination with dance and her watching and meeting the great Anna Pavlova, when DeMille was a child and Pavlova was at the end of her career. DeMille’s family pushed her in many ways but was downright hostile to her dancing aspirations.

DeMille was a pioneer. She forged a career doing what she really wanted to do. There were no roadmaps for an aspiring dancer born in 1895. Indeed, in the face of family opposition, a late and sporadic dance education and something less than a classic ballet dancer’s body, it is bewildering to read about how DeMille created her career. It wasn’t like today where there are ballet schools everywhere and a significant number of ballet companies are scattered across the United States. DeMille wanted to dance and created dances for herself, in part because she saw no alternative.

DeMille’s writing is clear and unsentimental. She manages to write a story about herself and her projects without coming across as an obnoxious braggart. She sees the humor of her failed efforts and the sleezy producers and impresarios determined to fleece her. She also acknowledges people such as Martha Graham, who gave her sage advice. The backstory to this brilliant memoir is that DeMille pretty much knew everyone in dance during the first half of the twentieth century and beyond.

DeMille acknowledges her family’s failings (and strengths) and then moves on. Her gift is to appreciate what her family has given her whilst still recognizing where and how she feels her family fell short. Ultimately, DeMille’s gratitude toward her family overpowers the negative and is very moving.

Anna George DeMille, Agnes DeMille’s mother, is a fascinating side story throughout the memoir. She transforms from being a successful Hollywood wife actively trying to sabotage her daughter’s dance aspirations to becoming a stunned and shattered divorcée. Ultimately Anna is her daughter’s biggest booster, and one can see see that her ultimate gift to her daughter was instilling in Agnes the confidence and determination that took her to greatness.

If you love dance and dance history, this book is a must. Even if you aren’t a big dance fan, this is a great story of someone who went from having an unformed idea of simply wanting to dance and to create dance to blasting through the conventions of her day and making a huge contribution to the dance world.

Yet Another Little Known, Yet Very Consequential Woman –The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes — A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikey Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies is a significant contribution to women’s history and to the history of code-breaking.  Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980) carved out an amazing career for herself.  She was raised in a small town in the Midwest.  She only went to college because she insisted upon it.  Ironically, Swarthmore rejected here.   Upon graduation from a relatively obscure college,  Friedman insisted upon looking for a job befitting her talents and interests.  She had studied poetry and philosophy in college, so non-teaching jobs did not readily present themselves.  Undeterred, Friedman kept looking.  Code breaking wasn’t exactly on her radar screen, but through luck and perseverance she started working for a rich eccentric with an interest in code breaking as it related to Shakespeare.  Ultimately she broke from the eccentric’s private colony and moved on to crack bootlegging codes and then to breaking Nazi codes during the Second World War.  Very few people came close to being able to do what she and her similarly talented husband William Friedman were able to do, but their story — particularly her story is little known.  Happily J Edgar Hoover and his FBI come out looking vainglorious and feeble, as the the Coast Guard and Elizebeth Friedman shine.

The book is well written and extensively researched and provides a fascinating story about a woman most people have never encountered and whose tracks were pretty well covered by confidentiality agreements and the likes of J Edgar Hoover. Friedman herself contributed to her undervalued obscurity by generally avoiding attention and insisting that her husband was more worthy of notice.  Coming on the recent movie about Alan Turing, this is yet another important contribution to understanding how World War II espionage worked, on both sides.  This important biography also shines some light on what it was like to live and work in Washington during and the 1930’s and the war period.

Every time I run across a biography of a highly consequential women who worked in obscurity, I wonder how many more are out there.  Thank you, Mr. Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman the attention she deserves.

Little Ladies — Bold Women in Black History, An Inspiring, Informative and Very Important Book for All of Us

You really need to get this book, for the children you know and for yourself.  You will learn something, and you will be inspired!

Biographies are my favorite kind of history — always more fun and memorable than lists of battles and elections.  As a child, I read probably hundreds of biographies published in the Childhood of Famous Americans series.  Those highly entertaining books gave me my first understanding of  American history from all sorts of perspectives.  I particularly focused on the books about women who were famous for what they themselves had done, as opposed to those whose fame derived from their husbands, inspired me to think about what was possible.  Their stories were really important to me.
Vashti Harrison’s wonderful Little Leaders — Bold Women in Black History is similarly important and inspiring.  Little Leaders is written for children, but everyone should read it.  Really.  I guarantee you will learn something and you will be impressed.  I wish this book had been around when my daughters were young because it is designed to  spawn countless conversations about the struggles these women faced, the difficulties they surmounted, the sources of their inspirations and then their amazing contributions.   Harrison offers up capsule biographies and appealing illustrations of 40 remarkable black women.   The title Little Leaders, together with the simple illustrations of these women as girls, make the point that all the featured women started out as girls, and that their childhood interests often led directly to their later achievements.  These stories also provide lots of good background information about what life what like for these women and others of their time.  The happy result is that the reader ends up knowing a lot more than just what happened to a particular individual.  This is such a good way to inform children about their history and to provide context for their own times and their own opportunities and responsibilities.

Harrison includes famous women, as well as women who may not be so famous but clearly deserve to be.  It is no criticism of the book that I kept thinking of other black women who might have been included.  In fact the books just made me think of a whole host of people that deserve to be better known and celebrated.

This book belongs in every child’s library.