booknotes: ethics, politics, sex, and death

Benowitz, June Melby. Days of Discontent: American Women and Right-Wing Politics, 1933-1945 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012). Days is positioned at the intersection of two growing fields: the history of conservative and right-wing grassroots political activism and the political activities of women between the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920 and the return to domesticity in the postwar Fifties (followed by the well known "second wave" of feminist activism in the Sixties). Benowitz surveys the activities of right-wing organizers Elizabeth Dilling, Grace Wick, Catherine Curtis and Agnes Waters among others. At times the narrative falls into repetitive sequence-of-events recounting. I found myself wishing to slow down certain chapters and delve deeper into, for example, the class dynamics and race fears of individual women who were profiled. Hopefully, such further exploration will be taken up by future scholars who build on the foundation laid by Days of Discontent.

Buechner, Frederic. Now & Then: A Memoir of Vocation (HarperCollins, 1983). My late paternal grandfather, who passed away in 2007, was a one-time graduate student in English literature who turned to the seminary after a year at University of Michigan and eventually became a professor of New Testament theology. His favorite course to teach, however, was a seminary elective titled "Christianity and Literature," which examined the power of literature (and later, film) to grapple with matters of faith. When I was nineteen, I audited the course and spent the semester reading, and arguing about, Billy Budd, Lord of the Flies, the work of Flannary O'Connor, and Frederick Buechner's Godric, the fictionalized account of the life of an English hermit. Buechner was one of my grandfather's favorite writers, and when Hanna and I married this fall my grandmother sent us an essay by Buechner on the sacrament of marriage. It was this collection of personal memories and relationships I brought to my reading of Buechner's slim memoir. In Now & Then Buechner reflects on his time at Union Seminary, his teaching at Exeter Academy, and his years of writing, lecturing, and preaching in rural Vermont. While I appreciated his reminiscences about his time at Union and his own personal faith journey, he occasionally veers into the preachy -- particularly, for some inexplicable reason, his insistence that Buddhism is a religion that fails to appreciate the power of love. I may not be a scholar of Buddhism, but say what? All-in-all, recommended for those interested in mid-twentieth-century American protestantism and personal reflections on the writing life.

Gitlin, Todd. Letters to a Young Activist (Basic Books, 2012; 2003). Having read Gitlin's seminal history of mid-century movement politics, The Sixties, for my thesis research a few years ago, I picked up this slim volume at the Brattle book carts on the "it's only $1" theory. I don't generally like the "letters to a..." premise, which has become overplayed in recent years, and I can't say that format did a lot for this particular piece. But Gitlin manages (I think, though I'm now in the "over thirty" set myself) to skirt condescension and offer some useful reflections on the organizing, activist, or "movement" life. I particularly appreciated the way he wrestled with the complicated legacy of Sixties leftist movements and reactionary backlash, as well as the importance of practical (and often boring) action to balance out idealism. I think I will leave it to young activists themselves to weigh in on whether Gitlin succeeds in offering the wisdom of a mentor without the know-better attitude with which elder generations so often look upon the work of brash youth (so often judged and found wanting). Either way, his work is valuable as the thoughtful reflections of a once-young activist turned historian attempting to articulate his own lessons learned.

Overall, Christine. Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate (MIT Press, 2012). In our society, it is generally the non-parents among us who bear the brunt of curiosity and often censure. We scrutinize the motivations of the non-parents by choice and invest the resources of entire industries to enable those who have difficulty procreating to become parents. Yet philosopher of ethics Christine Overall -- herself a mother of two children -- argues that the burden of moral justification should fall not on those who do not procreate, but rather on those who do. Systematically, she explores the commonplace justifications for procreation -- continuing the family line, parental happiness, elder care, providing siblings for existing children, etc. -- and finds them insufficient to morally support the creation of new life. In the end, she makes the case that the only ethically justified reason for freely-chosen procreation is the desire to enter into a relationship with the future child. A committed feminist, Overall also spends a great deal of time exploring issues of bodily autonomy and reproductive justice -- careful to weigh the work of pregnancy as a female-bodied burden, as well as acknowledging the many situations in which procreation takes place under various levels of coercion -- for which I am grateful. Her arguments are logical, progressive, dense, and the boundaries of her consideration carefully delineated (she sets aside, for example, the ethics per se of assisted reproductive technologies, while acknowledging they deserve serious ethical consideration on their own), so readers looking for concise soundbite arguments will not find them here: her work requires careful attention and some measure of reflection to digest. My one serious point of divergence with Overall is in her discussion of unconditional love as both unsustainable and misleading. She argues that parental love is always conditional in that it is necessarily directed toward a particular child who is loved as an individual, not in a more universal sense. She and I differ in our understanding of unconditional love, which I have always understood to be both universal and particular. However, this is a small quibble with what at the end of the day is an extremely compelling and valuable addition to feminist ethics.

Pattersson, Vicki. The Taken (Harper Voyager, 2012). Last weekend I picked up Vicki Pattersson's Taken, a supernatural noir involving an intrepid lady journalist, Kit Craig, and a former P.I., Griffin Shaw, who for the past fifty years has been working as a Centurian ushing murder victims' souls to the afterlife. I had hopes Pattersson might be another Cherie Priest or Seanan McGuire, but this first installment, at least, of what promises to be a series, wasn't Bloodshot or Rosemary and Rue. For one, the supernatural aspect of the story (Griffin's post-mortal state) doesn't really factor into the story in a major way. It's what he is, and sets the plot in motion, but isn't really developed as part of the cosmology. The Taken is a fairly straightforward investigative drama. Likewise, the character of Kit Craig feels like a sketched-out caricature: a newspaper heiress deeply involved in rockabilly culture, she has a fascination for the Fifties that is introduced but has no material bearing on the plot. The crime upon which the novel hinges (predictably, these days) on sex work and secret religious societies that rather embarrassingly harkens back to Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet.

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