Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Critical Mom’s Summer Reading

  We are on a boat somewhere among Norwegian fjords—a ship with elevators, to be precise, but even in our little cabin on the ninth floor—whose only drawback is the loudspeaker we can’t turn off, so that as the captain announces in his booming voice that the ship will give us the best possible view of the “Seven Sisters” waterfall by making a three-hundred-and-sixty degree turn, thereby loudly interrupting our own three-hundred-and-sixty-degree shindig--we can feel the Atlantic rolling beneath, and yes, gently rocking us to sleep.   When not standing in the elevator answering questions like, “Daddy, Mommy, do you think it’s possible that some day, like maybe in twenty years, people might actually get paid to fart?” or having my sleeping face blown on by a child who “just wanted to show you something, Mommy!” or giving in to the urge to have that second (free!) piña colada, thereby succumbing to the hazy summery alcohol-and-sunny-breeze-on-a-deck-chair nap, the nicest kind, since children are occupied, I read.  And can highly recommend the following:

Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche (Free Press, 2010).  I spotted this at the American Bookstore in Amsterdam and thought it would be perfect background for a course I intend to teach to university students in American Studies on madness memoirs (and why Americans write so many of them, my theory being that the seemingly endless production of such memoirs is spurred by Puritan self-examination, the sense of ourselves as building a city on a hill that everyone is always watching, which naturally makes us crazy already, plus the popularity of confession via Freudian psychoanalysis).  “Going Crazy in America” is the title of my course, and reading Watters, I see that Americans go crazy in a different way from the rest of the world, plus think they have the best cures, and like the fools who rush in where angels fear to tread, dispense those cures with the thoroughness and subtlety of crop dusters. 
What happens, for instance, when an American psychologist happens to vacation in Sri Lanka in 2004 during the Tsunami waves that wiped out hundreds of thousands of people, erasing land and property in the process?  That psychologist was clearly traumatized in a very Western way: seeing people run in advance of the wave and be overtaken and swept away, she said, “It was like you were watching these things from outside yourself.  I wasn’t really grasping what was going on.”
The American “I” took center stage in her own reactions and in those she prescribed—treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome, American style, the idea being that each survivor should “come to terms” with his or her trauma by remembering and repeating each horrific detail in order to get over it—each sufferer should “express their feelings.”  What got overlooked was the cultural and religious beliefs that rendered the experience of the Sri Lankans communal, not individual, and these systems were disrupted by Western, and especially by American, ideas of individual suffering, vulnerability, and individual healing.
            Watters has gotten a few snippy reviews from psychiatrists on Amazon, and no wonder—he’s exposing psychiatric insensitivity to other cultures and the belief that America can be counted upon to offer superior psychiatric and psychological treatments.  But he’s extremely readable, his research seems impeccable, and his laconic air stays with you. His wife is a psychiatrist too . . .  I'm sure she sharpens his perspective.
Mary Roach, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science (Norton, 2008)

Like your scholarship with sauce and a champagne-bubble humor that pops up on every page and especially in footnotes you actually long to read?  (“Oh, goody, another one of her footnotes,” I heard myself murmuring—to the discontent of the dour person in the deck chair next door, who edged away).  Or maybe it was just the constant peals of loud laughter coming from me every two minutes.
Mary Roach is the doyenne of the unusual, having written well-researched books on cadavers (Stiff), on ideas of the afterlife, (Spook) and now the funniest and most informative book about sex I’ve ever read.  (Better than Freud?  Better than Masters and Johnson?  Better than Kinsey? Yes, yes, yes!) 
Once upon a time I wrote a biography of a world-famous sexual rebel.  I love biographies, and thought it would be fun to do some reviews of other biographies, so I informed literary journals that I’d appreciate being signed on as a reviewer of biographies.  These journals don’t pay, of course, except for giving you the book you’ve got to review, and I just couldn’t wait to chow down on all those biographies I couldn’t afford to buy.
Well, you don’t get to review biographies when you write about world famous sexual rebels, no matter the strength of their literary work, the impact of their personality on history and culture, or the quality of your own prose.  You get to review books covering any and all forms of rebellious sexuality.  If it’s kinky, you get it.  I got histories of sexuality, autobiographies of transsexuals, tomes parsing transgressive gender identity, articles about horrible anti-masturbatory contraptions and about the infamous Isaac Baker Brown, slicer-offer of clitorises in 19th-century London . . . a gutful of the extreme.  Even stuff I’d never heard about, and more than a dollop of pathos and peculiarity.  But Mary Roach delivers even more, wearing her learning lightly—as the cover copy says: “her lab coat is unbuttoned,” literally:  in the interests of science, she talks her husband into having sex in an MRI tube, investigates cosmetic testicles for pets who have been neutered, visits Alfred Kinsey’s attic, and—but you’ll have to read it; I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Jim Cullen, The American Dream: A Short History of An Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003)
Here we have something Obama ought to be reading, if not re-reading.  Telling democrats to vote against restricting NSA powers?  Come on.  I prefer to think he’s delusional rather than bowing to the probability that he is defending his castle from the ramparts and shooting down anything that gets in his way.  Like Edward Snowden, whose current status, as far as I’ve been able to assess it in my internet-deprived condition, involves the possibility of his being traded by the U.S. for a Russian arms dealer—like a bad imitation of a scene from White Nights.  Back in the 1930s, an historian whom nobody remembers, but who did win the Pulitzer Prize, James Truslow Adams, wanted to title a book “The American Dream,” but his publisher thought nobody would buy it.  A pity, since Adams nailed a definition for this notoriously oblique term, so broad nowadays as to encompass any dream that is tenuously connected with the United States, including especially nightmares. Adams elaborated it as the dream of “a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank,” adding something of immense political significance today:  “Ever since we became an independent nation, each generation has seen an uprising of ordinary Americans to save that dream from the forces which appeared to be overwhelming it.”  (my italics) He further clarified in his 1931 The Epic of America: “not a struggle of revolutionists against the established order, but of the ordinary man to hold fast to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ which were vouchsafed to us in the past in vision and on parchment.”
            I am among those believing that Snowden is the classic American underdog struggling against immense political and economic interests whose greedy goals undermine these classic liberties.  But that’s another story.
            The one Cullen outlines is the evolution of the term in response to various groups—the Puritans, who unwittingly spawned it, created a society believing in hope, specifically the hope of fulfilling some dream thought to be unfulfillable.  Cullen calls them “people who imagined a destiny for themselves,” similarly, what Alexis de Toqueville called “the charm of anticipated success,” by the 1830s.  This optimistic state of mind is the essence of the American dream.  In the twenty-first century it remains, Cullen believes, a “major element” of our national identity even as the notion of nation is increasingly challenged by transnational corporations, transnational economies, transnational immigration, and now transnational surveillance.  The Declaration of Independence, Cullen suggests, charters the dream, which takes different forms in each era.  Although upward mobility is the form that dominates up through Abraham Lincoln, the dream of equality, the dream of home ownership, and the dream of personal fulfillment, follow.  What all these forms of the dream rest on, he points out, is “the notion of agency, the idea that individuals have control over the course of their lives,” and in turn, “Agency is . . . the bedrock premise upon which all else depends.”   Lying here in the land of the midnight sun at the northernmost point in Europe, I wonder if we have even half a hope of retaining, or regaining, that agency.  If the dream began with folks who thought they did not have that agency and wanted a world in which you could take it for granted—the way Americans want to believe they can take “human rights” for granted—it would be an irony if it evaporates in the illusion that we still have that agency, when clearly, with PRISM and the curious stance of Obama in this mess, we don’t.


  1. That class sounds like it will be (my idea of) fun! I wish I could be a fly on the wall.

    It's funny, you're second person to tell me about "Bonk" in the same week. I read her book "Stiff -- The Curious Lives of the Dead" which is quite the book. ( if you want to know what I thought about it)

    About "Bonk" -- does she touch on asexuality as well? Not in the amoeba sense.

    Enjoy your trip!

  2. Bonk is definitely for the active-minded. The only one I know of to touch on asexuality is Woody Allen, who is said to suffer from "anhedonia" as in "inability to experience sexual arousal" as signaled by a photo of him hugging one of those plastic girlie dolls