Mediocre

Mediocre was not what I expected. What did I expect? A lot of the ways that white men have screwed up: specifically pointing out their flaws and the things they’ve made worse in the world. Instead, it’s a book chronicling all the ways white men keep women and people of color out of the places of power and undermine the work they do, including, but not limited to:

  • The SAT being created by a literal eugenicist to give universities an excuse to stay white and male;
  • The language (that is being corrected, slowly) about how the American continent was “empty” before Europeans arrived;
  • The early (think Susan B Anthony era) male feminists who decided they should support women’s rights so that men wouldn’t have to support them and they could be layabouts who could sleep with whoever they wanted;
  • How women were forced out of the workforce after WWII because the men needed their jobs back; and
  • The entire history of the NFL.

It can be a depressing and hard-to-read book at times. However, it did give me a yearning to read a Shirley Chisholm biography – her awesomeness was a highlight. I would recommend Mediocre, especially as a way to educate yourself more about how America works and was built.

Women, Work, and the Art of Savoir Faire

I almost chose to not write about Women, Work, and the Art of Savoir Faire. Why? Because, quite frankly, yet another the-French-do-it-better-than-us book is overkill in American society, but also her other books perpetuate ideas about how a person is only worthy if they’re thin and traditionally acceptable to Western Society. This book has some of that bias too. There is a section on presentability.

But here’s the thing: somehow, sometimes, you need to be reminded in the right way that the point of work is getting things done, and you need to both believe in what you are doing and it has to match your skill set. This book worked as a good reminder for me about that.

I still skipped a fair bit of this – I never want to manage other people again, so that chapter wasn’t relevant – but it did give me some motivation I was lacking, and that’s not a bad thing.

Thursday Shorts

Four Lost Cities

Four Lost Cities is a book about, well, four cities that are supremely different than they once were, if they’re even still with us at all. She is looking, I think, to explain how different cities exist, but also about how they end.

The first one is Çatalhöyük, in Turkey. This is a ruin of a city that is so old that it’s impossible to tell if it really was a city. I mean, it’s a large gathering of people who seem to live permanently together, but there’s little evidence of serious coordination of effort. So, everyone was making their own bread, tending their own farms, gathering their own food, burying their own dead. People started moving elsewhere when the 8.2 kilo-year climate shift happened, to where they could grow food more easily.

The second lost city is one you’ve probably heard of: Pompeii. Vesuvius exploded in 79CE, covering the city in super-heated ash. It was uninhabitable for a long time to come. I’m not going to cover what life was like in a Roman Imperial City – you can find that elsewhere – but I am going to talk about why it wasn’t rebuilt. The Roman Empire did a good job at making sure refugees from Pompeii were able to settle elsewhere, and there’s evidence that they formed communities in other cities relatively near Pompeii. The new information to me was just how terrible the ash was. The actual rock-and-mud flows were over 340F and with the layers of ash on top, they retained that heat for years. Not to mention that ash is incredibly fine and dense – the fact she cites is that new snow is 50-70kg per cubic meter; the ash is 700-3200kg/cubic meter. It’s a lot of work; resettling the refugees was a much more practical solution.

The third “lost” city is Angkor, in Cambodia, and I’m sure that the people living there were surprised when a French explorer in the 1800s decided they were a lost city. It was an extreme bit of colonization. Though, to be fair, it was a much larger city, primarily existing for worship, when changes in rainfall made its extensive reservoir-and-canal system unworkable. They couldn’t keep up with repairs and there were other power centers that the royal family could use instead. So the city shrunk and was mostly reclaimed by the jungle.

The last lost city is one that is truly lost: Cahokia, which was a major center of civilization near St Louis, MO from 900CE until it finally completely was lost in about 1350. It’s known as the Mississippian culture, largely because its artifacts have been found all up and down the Mississippi River. The city was larger than Paris in 1050AD, but there is no written record of it and study really only started in the mid-twentieth century. Researchers don’t even know if they called themselves the Cahokia; the Cahokia were the tribe that was in the St Louis when white people arrived. There is some evidence of Cahokian – the city, not the current day Tribe – stories integrated into the Sioux myths. This is the city that for me is the most intriguing – this one is part of American history that I didn’t learn in school (that may be different now), and I am eager to learn more.

Overall, Four Lost Cities is a very broad book covering a lot of ground. There isn’t a compare-and-contrast section, like you might expect in an academic work. It’s a popular book, designed to give the reader an overview. It was good, but I was left wanting for more.

Tuesday Shorts

  • A Kidnapping Gone Very Wrong. There is so much in here: the bizarreness of the 1970s; Nixon being an ass; a woman trying to do the right thing; a white man who should have been put in jail for years but wasn’t because his race gave him the benefit of the doubt.
  • Why “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” Hits Different in 2021. My child was always a big Taylor Swift fan, while I wasn’t. I found the things she wrote about cliche, and quite frankly, I was a mother and moms have different taste than kids do. But then I was forced to listen to “Red” A LOT. And it’s got some good songs on it. And then I genuinely ended up liking “1989”. I’m still not super-interested in her earlier stuff, probably because of some prejudice still lingering, though I tell myself there’s also just too much media overall to consume (also true). But this article makes me maybe want to revisit my decision to not revisit early Taylor Swift.
  • Would you like a better country or not? There is so much to say, but I’m not sure I have the words for it. Yes, I want everyone to have good schools, yes, I want everyone to be able to afford to live in the Bay Area. I don’t know that I want to start going to city planning meetings, but maybe I need to. Or maybe there’s another way for me to do my work, given how much I hate conflict and how much anxiety talking to people can give me. But still: there is work to be done.
  • What is infrastructure? It’s a gender issue, for starters. I read something somewhere that claimed the original definition of infrastructure was anything that made society better, not just physical things. In that way, yes, child care is infrastructure. It is a crime that child care is so hard to get and the pandemic has shown that American society doesn’t work without it.
  • When COVID hit, I started walking 20,000 steps per day. It’s changed my life. My daily goal is lower – 10,000 – but I’ve been hitting it more often since the pandemonium started. Daily walks are a salvation, and sometimes, I’m even just walking around my house, though outside is better. (It should be said that my child is a teenager so childcare while I’m out an about isn’t an issue.)
  • White women co-opted pandemic yoga. Now, South Asian instructors are taking it back. Yoga is my other go-to exercise, and I’m doing it much more regularly because of the pandemic as well. But it’s been years since I’ve been in a studio – and even though I live in a majority Asian-American part of the country (and Indians are a significant part of the population) I’ve never been to a class that was taught by an Indian? That seems odd. (I was lucky enough to take a regular class from someone who would start with a spiritual reading, but he was white.) There’s something to fix once yoga studios are open again.

Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders is your basic murder mystery. Someone who isn’t very like-able is murdered, there is a cast of characters, clues along the way, someone who isn’t an official police detective who isn’t willing to buy the party line, with a resolution at the end. But there is a clever conceit to this one – the murdered person is a murder mystery author. And their latest book contains enough clues that you actually get to read the second book, embedded within Magpie Murders.

Anthony Horowitz is the creator of Foyle’s War, a murder mystery series on PBS that I enjoy, and the book-embedded-in-the-book has some of that energy. He has also worked on Midsomer Murders, in case that particular PBS murder mystery show is more your jam. The point: the guy knows how to construct a mystery – this isn’t his first book, either – and the plot is satisfying. My only criticism is that the characters were a little on the bland/stereotype side. But overall, I enjoyed it.

Wednesday Shorts

The Barbizon

A photo of the book "The Barbizon" by Paulina Bren on my very, very messy desk.

The Barbizon is a chronicle of a particular time and place in America. The time is after the first wave feminists have won women the right to vote, but before Federal policies designed to move (white) people out to the suburbs decimated urban America in the 1970s. The place is The Barbizon Hotel, an upscale women-only boarding house not quite in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Only some meals were included, but housekeeping always was, to allow you to pursue your dreams.

The hotel was meant to be a safe space for attractive, white, middle and upper-middle class young unmarried women. A place for them to come to New York City, to get a career, usually as a model, actress, writer, or a secretary. A place for them to stay that was safe, where their parents wouldn’t worry about them. Grace Kelley stayed there, and so did Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.

And it largely worked: it gave women a space to come to New York City, to be adventurous within a restrictive society’s boundaries, to explore who they wanted to be, at least if you were of a certain type. There is some mention of the restrictiveness of who was allowed to stay there; the final chapter, about the hotel as NYC fell into the 1970s and the future, could examine more about how The Barbizon was a product of its time and it was no longer its time.

I really enjoyed the book. The Barbizon Hotel has a certain imprint on movies and books – if you’ve read The Bell Jar, you’ve read a depiction of the hotel – and it was good to get a grounding on what it really was, how it worked, how it allowed freedom for some and what that freedom really looked like.

Recollections of My Nonexistence

Recollections of My Nonexistence is a series of essays about growing up in the West, about becoming a writer, about being a woman who wants to do things in a society that doesn’t want women to do things. It’s also a story about a San Francisco that I worry doesn’t exist anymore, now that there has been so much money and so many tech people moving in and so many other people have been forced out.

But by and large, there is a thread of sexism and violence against women that runs through the book – these being the ways that women are kept in roles they don’t necessarily want. These are the ways that society tries to pretend women don’t exist, by silencing them in so many ways, including killing them.

Women, you, me, all of us, have a right to exist and to be heard, just as much as men do. These essays are the story of how Rebecca Solnit learned what that means for her and how she moves through the world.