Thursday, December 27, 2001

Most Americans don't like to talk about social class. Many either refuse to admit such a thing exists at all, or say that class in the U.S. is a purely economic matter and having more or less money automatically changes one's class position.

For those who know better, or at least are willing to think about the subject, Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through The American Status System is a fascinating and often hilarious read. Fussell takes the standard three classes and expands them into nine, with a bohemian "classless class" tacked on at the end, and talks about why two families with the same income and living next door to one another, can be different classes. Since the book came out in 1983, a few details have become outdated as fashions changed, but in general the class indicators for clothing, homes, entertainment, food, and other things seem surprisingly stable. It's all the sort of thing that you may have never thought about, but when these characteristics are pointed out to you, they are immediately obvious.

Anyone who won't be crushed to find themselves showing up in a different class than they might have imagined would enjoy this book -- be sure to try out the "Living Room Scale" and see what your living room says about your status.

Sunday, December 23, 2001

I have, I admit, read a lot of psychology books. Feeling Good, The Courage To Heal, Transforming Trauma, and I Hate You -- Don't Leave Me, just to name that ones that made a big enough impression for me to remember them. But John Ratey and Catherine Johnson's Shadow Syndromes: The Mild Forms of Major Mental Disorders That Sabotage Us is unusually fascinating because it deals with people who have something that isn't serious enough to be diagnosed as a mental problem, but is still serious enough to affect their lives. This attracts my attention because that's a situation I've been in often: borderline clinical depression on this personality test; some other therapist saying I exhibit some but not all of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder; rarely in as bad an emotional condition as the people in the sexual abuse support groups I visited. In general, I cope with living reasonably well, with occasional lapses that freak me out and surprise everyone else.

So this book suggests that rather than having a huge divide between people with no diagnosable mental health disorder and people who do have a disorder, there's a continuum of severity with people who are neither as bad as the DSM-IV requirements or as healthy as they could in theory be. This makes a lot of sense. The authors see most of these disorders, in mild or severe form, as biological in origin, though certainly they can be triggered or worsened by environmental factors; this is also a new approach for me, after four therapists and lots of books that encourage talk therapy and behavior modification. I have been on antidepressants and that does seem to have smoothed out the worst of my own visits to the abyss -- perhaps this makes me trust the biological view more. But the approach to the mild versions of these different disorders as being closer to one another than their severe versions are is really interesting (and might give you a new view of your own or anyone close to you's mental problems. Even if one doesn't wholeheartedly accept this approach, seeing different possibilities never hurts.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2001

It seems that Orson Scott Card is good at writing about warped childhoods. There's Ender's Game, perhaps his most famous -- the children taken away from a normal life and trained to be soldiers and strategists. There are the parallel works to Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow and Shadow of the Hegemon, which deal with different children who have been subjected to the same regimen. There's his more realistic book Lost Boys, which creeped me out too much for a second reading, even though I couldn't put it down the first time. Lost Boys deals with missing children and child molestation, the latter a particularly difficult subject for me, but the reviews seem to indicate that anyone will be hit hard by this book.

But perhaps the earliest of Card's works on the theme (or maybe not -- I certainly haven't read anywhere near all of his work) is Songmaster (out of print, unfortunately). In this book, it is to the Songhouse that talented children are taken, to learn to sing more powerfully than anywhere else in the galaxy. Only those the Songhouse judges fit hosts can have Songbirds, the pre-pubescent singers who are the cream of the crop the Songhouse produces. It surprises an empire when Mikal, the ruthless emperor of many planets, is judged fit for a Songbird, but after years of finding the perfect child and training him, Ansset goes to Mikal's court.

The Songhouse environment comes through as unusual but warm; the Imperial court is cold and stiff, full of security guards who fondle Ansset's genitals and retainers jockeying for permission. (I find it amusing that every character seems to assume the galaxy-conquering Emperor is sexually involved with his nine-year-old Songbird [which he isn't], even though adult homosexuality in this world seems to be looked down upon as weak and weird.) Emotionally, Mikal becomes a father to Ansset, but even that is torn away.

Ansset survives and becomes a force to be reckoned with in Imperial politics, just as Ender and Bean and their comrades survive and gain great power in their books. It has started to get a little old by the sixth book in the Ender series, but the theme touches so many readers; perhaps because, especially in science fiction fandom, readers feel that their peers or their family or some other force treated them wrong, that they are as unusual, talented yet warped, as Card's characters. Songmaster is perhaps not as gripping as Ender's Game, but it covers the theme in a more interesting way: the power of song, not war.

Wednesday, November 28, 2001

I'm a sucker for a well-written book about anything relating to rock music, so when my boyfriend Jon picked up a fifty-cent bargain at a flea market, he knew I'd be reading it too. Dave Marsh's The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made came out in 1989, but Marsh probably wouldn't have included much from the years since then anyway. His favorites are largely from the 1950s and 1960s, although surprisingly he agrees with me that 1984 was a brilliant year for Top 40. (I was 11 then, so the thrill of discovering MTV and more music than my parents owned influences my view of things.)

Marsh's essays are informational for someone my age who doesn't know a lot about the artists who are not the biggest stars, even if their songs have now made the oldies stations' playlists. Its focus on singles leads to a very different view of rock history from the classic rock/album oriented rock one that a lot of rock criticism I've read sticks to. It's an absorbing read because it's so personal, and Marsh's memories bring up the soudntrack to one's own past.

You won't agree with every single choice (what the hell possessed him to include a piece of bland schlock like Billy Ocean's "Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car"?). But over all, the reason to read this book is that it deserves the exact opposite of the warning at the beginning of the hilarious Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs: The Heart of Rock and Soul will make good songs play unstoppably in your head.

Saturday, November 24, 2001

When I first saw William Sleator's House of Stairs, I felt an eerie feeling of recognition. It's about five teenagers who mysteriously find themselves in an environment with no one else, no way out, nothing but the machine that feeds them. I used to write so many versions of that story (usually with me as one of the teens), but Sleator's is creepier than any of them.

It's a lot darker than the amusing-yet-suspensful Interstellar Pig by the same author, which I had liked enough to make me pick up House of Stairs and get the shock of recognition in the first place. Here, five sixteen-year-old orphans find themselves in a building of endless stairs, landings, and bridges. There's a toilet and a machine that wants them to do certain things before it releases the food they survive on -- but there is no explanation of what those things are, only trial and error. The reader learns a little about the world the teens come from by hearing them talk about their pasts, and that futuristic world is not a pleasant one, but now there's nothing but the personalities of the five to deal with. The choice is given to Abigail, Lola, Peter, Blossom, and Oliver: conform or resist. Each of them makes their own decision, and although the start is slow, the tension builds until the final chapter's surprise revelations and an ending that lingers with you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Eight or nine years ago, I encountered an excerpt from Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins in my Expository Writing textbook. I was intrigued enough to track down a copy of the book. It wasn't bad, and it has stayed in my personal library through a couple of weedings. But I just finished re-reading it, and I think it's going to the used-book store.

William F. Buckley, Jr. called Love In The Ruins "another 1984. An exquisite extrapolation of what life might be like if we don't dominate technology, and yield to totalitarian imperatives." (1988 interview printed in Buckley: The Right Word) The picture painted in the book is of a world where the elderly are sent to euthanasia facilities with names like "The Happy Isles of Georgia," the country is split into the political parties of "Knothead" and "Leftpapa" who live in different towns, the swamp nearby is full of Bantu guerillas and hippie "love couples," and U.S. soldiers are being sent to fight in the fifteen-year civil war in Ecuador.

So the whole book strikes me as very 1960s, with its thinly veiled Vietnam, its country club with black employees who walk around hinting to customers "Christmas gif'," the back-to-nature swamp inhabitants preaching love, and black civil rights activists planning uprisings against the suburbs. Even the treatment of sex-aid clinics as something unusual strikes me as out-of-date. The book is certainly amusing with such events as the American Catholic Church celebrating "Property Rights Sunday" and the mysterious Art Immelmann's reaction to being called obscene names, but the real classics like Brave New World and 1984 don't have such a dated feeling, in my view, even though they are older. This book, published in 1971, is only two years older than I am, but even the science fiction of the same years (say, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, another one with a thinly disguised Vietnam War) doesn't seem quite so old.

Saturday, November 17, 2001

Florence King is one of my short list of buy-book-on-sight authors. Even though she's a political conservative, and I am most definitely not, I find her work wonderfully funny (as with P.J. O'Rourke). The only thing I've read in her work that's really bothered me was at the end of Lump It or Leave It, where she reviewed Andrea Dworkin's Letters from a War Zone -- and liked it! Now that scared me.

Dworkin is one of the group of radical feminists who describe pornography in these terms: "Women's lives are made two-dimensional and dead. We are flattened on the page or on the screen. Our vaginal lips are painted purple for the consumer to clue him in as to where to focus his attention such as it is. Our rectums are highlighted so that he knows where to push. Our mouths are used and our throats are used for deep penetration." (from "Pornography Happens to Women," published in The Price We Pay: The Case Against Racist Speech, Hate Propaganda, and Pornography, Laura Lederer and Richard Delgado, eds.; New York: Hill and Wang, 1995). Dworkin is among those who feel that porn is a violation of women's civil rights (no word on how this applies to gay male porn) and ranks it as something to fight along with rape and physical battery on women.

Now me, I am a feminist in the manner of Susie Bright, someone who believes that sex is fun and pornography is something that women might be as interested in as men. I like porn, whether it features men, women, or both. I don't pretend it necessarily has artistic value (I'm satisfied as long as all the words are spelled correctly) -- I just believe in my and anyone else's freedom to read about or look at pictures of anything consenting adults might do.

King compares Dworkin to Carry Nation as a courageous fighter, and also praises her use of language and the structure of her arguments. (I suppose I like King for some of the same reasons.) But I don't understand why Dworkin's views would not enrage a political conservative who said:

  • "Feminists don't like strong women because too many viragos would put them out of business. To prosper they need a steady supply of women who exemplify the other v-word, 'victim.'"
  • "As female political dominance has increased, our august national watchwords of life, liberty, and property have yielded to 'You're being mean to me!', 'Don't you dare touch that child!', and prissy reprimands of 'incivility' directed against anyone with a rigorous, unequivical manner of speaking."
  • "Take sexual harassment. Every time I turn on the news some woman is describing, with murky insouciance, that terrible day ten years ago when her self-esteem was shattered because her male boss kept looking at her 'body parts' instead of her face. A real feminist would say, 'I'm up here, Mr. Crabtree,' and that would be the end of it. If you say it right, you only have to say it once."
Dworkin's belief that women need to be protected from the supposed havoc wreaked by men looking at naked pictures or reading about fucking seems to me to the exact opposite of the independence and self-reliance that King espouses. Even if pornography is crass (and I can't deny that most of it certainly is) and low-class, qualities King certainly disapproves of, a strong woman shouldn't have to seek refuge from a magazine or a movie.