~oOo~

2012-01-12

booknotes: post-holiday round-up

It's that time again! Time for another round-up of books I've been reading that for some reason or another haven't made it into a post-length book review. Most of these, let me be clear, deserve a full-length review. Many of them are well-researched, well-argued, or otherwise lovely reads. I just don't have the temporal time/space to write them all up. So here's everything that's fallen through the cracks in the past few months.

Corey Robin | Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford U.P., 2004) and The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (Oxford U.P., 2011). I first heard of Corey Robin thanks to an episode of Amanda Marcotte's RhRealityCheck podcast in which she interviewed Robin about The Reactionary Mind. I was impressed with what he had to say about gender and power, so I hunted up his books and got reading. Fear was the volume that came in first at the library. It's dense political history and theory, examining the theorizing and deployment of fear in the political realm from the Thomas More to Hannah Arendt and into the twenty-first century. Robin's core argument is that politicians (left and right) have positioned fear as an external threat to civil society and democracy and therefore obscured the way in which fear is deployed within our society to keep power hierarchies in place (e.g. in the workplace, in race and gender relations, through law enforcement, etc.). The Reactionary Mind is a collection of essays -- many which began as book reviews in publications like The Nation and The London Review of Books -- that explore specific reactionary thinkers. I'd recommend dipping into Robin's work with Reactionary and then moving on to Fear if you're really intrigued, since Reactionary is certainly the easier (though no less insightful) read. My favorite essay in Reactionary might just have been the one on Antonin Scalia in which he observes:
Scalia’s mission, by contrast, is to make everything come out wrong. A Scalia opinion, to borrow a phrase from Margaret Talbot, writing in the New Yorker, is ‘the jurisprudential equivalent of smashing a guitar on stage’. Scalia may have once declared the rule of law to be the law of rules – leading some to mistake him for a traditional conservative – but where others look for stabilising checks or reassuring supports, Scalia looks for exhilarating impediments and vertiginous barriers. Rules and laws make life harder, and harder is everything. 
David K. Johnson | The Lavender Scare: Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004). Following footnotes from Corey Tobin's Reactionary Mind, I stumbled across this detailed and well-constructed history of the McCarthy era purge of non-straight civil servants. Johnson's book documents the way in which fears about national loyalty and psychological fitness blended together in the Cold War era and led to a mass expulsion of queer folks from the government (often destroying careers, precipitating family fissures, and causing psychological and emotional trauma on the way by). What surprised me was the relatively relaxed attitude Johnson describes toward sexual deviance immediately prior to the 1950s, when few feared loss of their job or social ostracism for homosexual identity or behavior.

Paul Russell | The Unreal Life of Sergey Nobokov (Cleis Press, 2011). Cleis Press sent me a review copy of this densely atmospheric historical novel, which attempts to reconstruct the life of Sergey Nobokov, the obscure younger brother of novelist Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita fame. I admit a certain amount of dubiousness when confronted with a historical novel that attempts to piece together the life of an actual historic person -- particularly when the person in question was homosexual. The temptation for presentism (reading our own expectations onto the past) is always a danger, and often intensifies when we're talking about the act of "recovering" queer history. The novel is also forbidding in that one anticipates, from the opening pages, Nabokov's inevitable death at the hands of the Gestapo. To be honest, I've rather bogged in the middle (though I mean to go back!) just because midwinter is not really the time to be reading about the inevitable demise of a forgotten gay man under the Nazi regime.

Patricia Faith Appelbaum | Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture Between World War I and the Vietnam Era (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2009). Hanna found this one for me at the Harvard Book Store off Harvard Square. It's a meticulously researched study of pacifism during the first half of the twentieth century, focusing -- as the title suggests -- on the influence of mainline protestant culture on the ways in which pacifism was articulated and enacted by women and men across the United States (and to some extent internationally as well). I'm only up to roughly the start of the Second World War thus far, but am finding it very readable history. I'm particularly interested in her focus on material and "folk" culture as a way of practicing and passing along traditions of Protestant pacifism, even in more secular pacifist communities and activism.

Joseph Cummings | Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests That Time Forgot (Quirk Books, 2012). This early reviewer book from LibraryThing that is a lesson in "read more than the title when requesting your advance review copies." I thought the book was going to be about ten unique protests that time forget; instead, it was about ten pre-revolutionary protests about tea and import taxes. Which, okay, if your thing this might be fun. Cumm ings has an engaging narrative voice and it looks like he's done a credible amount of background research. His scant two-page bibliography is made up of secondary resources, however, and the lack of even end note citations is frustrating to those of us who like our quotations sourced!

Jeffrey Weeks | Making Sexual History (Blackwell, 2000). Following citations from Gayle Rubin's Deviations, I tracked down this retrospective anthology of British historian and theorist of sexual politics Jeffrey Weeks' essays on historical conceptions of human sexuality. This is a lively and articulate -- if somewhat theoretically dense -- collection which provides a solid picture of the work of historians of sexuality since the 1960s, and also reflects back on the work of sexologists from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the long legacy of their contributions to research and cultural perceptions of human sexuality and how it is organized. Weeks was one of the pioneering scholars to retrieve the study of sex from the realm of nature/biology (where it was assumed to be ahistorical) and asserted the importance of understanding how human sexuality itself -- not just our understanding of it -- is shaped by culture.

Christopher Turner | Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came to America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). I was only able to get through about half of this ambitious history of psychoanalyist Wilhelm Reich's work on human sexuality before the library demanded it back. However, the half that I did read was a thoroughly researched examination of Reich's approach to psychoanalysis -- one which placed orgasm at the center of both psychological and political health. Since Reich had only just arrived in America when I had to interrupt my reading, I remain dubious concerning the title's claim (that Reich precipitated the sexual revolution in the U.S.). Nevertheless, Reich's insistence that sexual pleasure was healthy and to be encouraged -- and his placement of pleasure close to the heart of humanity's essential character -- becomes central to a number of post-WWII psychoanalytic and cultural currents that I am interested in (he was connected to, among others, A.S. Neill, Fritz Perls, and Erich Fromm).

Rachel Maines | The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins, 1998). Um ... are you sensing a pattern in my recent reading yet? Pursuing research for an MHS "object of the month" essay, I checked out this slim volume on the medical treatment of women's sexuality through electromechanical technology. It appears to be the only book-length work on this subject to-date, and although I found some of her arguments about male physicians and their power to be slightly simplistic, on the whole she avoids turning this into a narrative of male physicians vs. female patients, or husbands vs. wives, and instead offers a nuanced argument about the displacement of female sexual pleasure from marital intimacy to the doctor's office due to what she terms the "androcentric model" of sex that insisted intercourse to male orgasm was sex, and women's needs (clitoral stimulation anyone?) outside of those activities were excessive and therefore a medical issue for which one sought treatment from the professionals.

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