Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

This post contains major spoilers

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, written by Michael Chabon, won Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. It is the story of two young and talented comic book writers and artists. The novel spans from the late 1930s, which was the beginning of the comic book era, through the 1950s. 

Joe Kavalier is a Jewish refugee from Prague. He is intent on rescuing his family, which has remained in Europe. He is also determined to take revenge upon all Germans. 

Sammy Clay is Joe’s American cousin. As Sammy passes beyond adolescence, he hesitantly comes to the realization that he is, in our current terminology, a gay man. As the story develops, he attempts to come to grips with this fact, as well as the ensuing related social and legal repressions.

Rosa Saks is an artist who is Joe’s bohemian girlfriend. She plays an integral part in the plot as she attempts to assist Joe in bringing his younger brother to safety into the United States. She is later heavily involved in the lives of both male protagonists.

There are so many plot elements of interest. Much of the story concerns itself with the early American comic book industry. Major parts also include a look into the world of magicians and escape artists. There are cameos by real historic figures, such as Salvador DalĂ­ and Sam Winston. A few chapters take place in the fictitious comic book world.

I must confess that I have never been a fan of comic books, including some of the newer ones that I have been told have strong artistic merit. Nevertheless I found this book riveting and worthwhile. 

A Google search reveals that it is no secret that one of the main themes of the novel is people’s tendency to try to escape. Characters attempt to escape the Nazi’s, responsibilities, family, boredom, etc. Not only is the entire concept of the superhero shown to be escapism, but Joe and Sammy’s greatest creation is a superhero known as The Escapist.

If escape is a main theme here, then the great puzzle, it seems to me, is: just what specifically is Chabon saying about people’s tendency to attempt escape? I think that the author is trying to show that this human tendency is complex and yields no easy truths.

First, the desire to escape is shown to be universal. Almost every character in the book attempts some form of escape. At times, the author seems to be indicating that it is a necessity and a positive part of human life. When a looming Congressional Investigation is bubbling on the subject of the role that comic books play in the “corruption” of youth, Joe ruminates, 

The newspaper articles that Joe had read about the upcoming Senate investigation into comic books always cited “escapism” among the litany of injurious consequences of their reading, and dwelled on the pernicious effect, on young minds, of satisfying the desire to escape. As if there could be any more noble or necessary service in life.  

Yet, in several instances, characters’ escape attempts from life situations lead to horrendous disaster. At one point, Joe is on the eve of proposing marriage to Rosa. The couple is in love and a relatively happy life together seems a real possibility. At this moment, Joe is informed of the death of his young brother Thomas, who himself was in the process of attempting escape from Nazi occupied Europe. Thomas is the victim of a German U-Boat. 

Upon hearing the news, Joe takes drastic measures to escape from reality. He abandons both Rosa and Sammy. He joins the navy and refuses to even read Rosa’s or anyone else’s letters. His escape is symbolically complete when the navy assigns him to a super isolated base in the wilderness of Antarctica. Though Joe does not know it, Rosa is pregnant with his child. This escape attempt is enormously damaging to the lives of multiple people.

There are a lot more complex permutations on the theme of escape. These include Sammy’s escape from the reality of his sexuality and emotions by spurning a man that he is in love with and subsequently entering into an ill-conceived marriage with Rosa. Joe, for his part, is an accomplished escape artist along the lines of Harry Houdini. Numerous other examples, as well as the examination of those examples, abound.

As noted by many others who read this work, I agree that in terms of the plot, the last one third is not as engaging as the earlier parts. I found this to only be a minor flaw as in terms of theme and character development, Chabon’s work is strong throughout.

There is so much going on in this book beyond the central theme of escape. The history of the comic book industry is examined in some depth, as are its artistic and psychological underpinnings. The novel has several compelling characters. The story contains social commentary on the plight of gay men. It is often very funny as well as tragic. Chabon’s prose is accessible and entertaining and filled with unusual and rare words.  This is both a fun and meaningful book.

I highly recommend picking up a later printing of the novel. Chabon has included some related short stories in these editions. These include an epilogue that takes place in the 1980s that fills the reader in as to how the lives of the protagonists panned out after the close of the novel.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle Freedman

Some general thoughts on Feminism and the issue of violence directed at women, please see my commentary here.

No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle Freedman is a comprehensive history of the intellectual and social movement called Feminism. The author is a Professor in U.S. History at Stanford University and has written a great number of books relating to feminism and gender issues.

This is an extensive history of feminism as well as the social history of women that stretches from pre - civilization through the present. It is a perfect book both for anyone who knows little about the issues, or for someone like myself, who has a moderate understanding of feminist and women’s social history. I do suspect however, that someone who already has a strong and detailed understanding of both the history, thought systems, issues and controversies relating to these topics, might find this book a little too rudimentary and basic. As I was looking for a fairly comprehensive introduction to the subject, this book was perfect to start off my readings.

Unsurprising, the work displays a pro – feminist bias. However, this bias is not overwhelming or strident.

I do think that this is an important book. When I searched for such a comprehensive history the choices seemed sparse. This is only one of a couple of contemporary works that fits this niche. Freedman addresses this lack of all encompassing books on the subject herself.

Several years ago a woman whom I admire asked me to recommend one book that she could read to learn about feminist scholarship. At first it seemed like an easy enough request. I had been reading widely in the interdisciplinary women’s studies literature since 1970, the year I entered graduate school in U.S. history and first defined myself as a feminist. Now I taught a course called Introduction to Feminist Studies and chaired the Program in Feminist Studies at Stanford University. As I began to name my favorite books, though, I realized that no one selection fit the bill. My choices tended to be studies of women’s history or important theoretical works in other disciplines that would not necessarily appeal to a nonacademic reader. Neither a textbook nor an anthology of short essays, such as those I assign in class, would do the trick either. I eliminated one possibility after another until I realized that no single book brought together the interdisciplinary literature that the past generation of feminist scholars has produced. Unable to fulfill  her request, I jokingly said that I would have to write that book myself.

One thing that I like about this book is how it successfully touches upon so many issues relating to feminism and women’s issues. Estelle covers general history, sociology, anthropology, violence, war reproductive issues, labor, art and aesthetics, to just name a few areas. She covers various theories, concepts and trends relating  feminist thought systems including multiple feminisms, intersectional feminism, radical feminism, the three waves of feminism, etc.

There are so many subtopics of interest that I can discuss here. This makes it difficult to focus on any one area. For instance, one of hundreds of such subtopics surveyed here, but one the that I found to be of particular interest, was Friedman’s exploration of women who have been great writers and why history has not given us more of them. Several aspects of this issue are explored, including lack of opportunity as well as society ignoring talented women. Estelle also mentions and builds upon Tillie Olsen’s proposition that prior to the twentieth century, women who were childless were more likely to produce great art. Though the argument is fascinating and in some ways convincing, I would need to know a lot more in order to weigh in with an intelligent opinion on this issue.

A less esoteric and arguably more important point that Freedman makes is the curios phenomenon of public opinion, which seems to strongly support most of the basic precepts of feminism, yet fails to identify themselves as supporters of Feminism.

Freedman writes,

A generation of Western women came of age influenced by feminism to expect equal opportunities. The majority of this generation often proclaimed, “I’m not a feminist, but . . . ,” even as they insisted on equal pay, sexual and reproductive choice, parental leave, and political representation. The children they raised, both male and female, grew up influenced by these feminist expectations but not necessarily comfortable with the term. 

Freedman spends a lot of pages exploring this very important puzzle. My opinion on this matter is that opponents of feminism have succeeded in unfairly twisting and demonizing the meaning of the word.

There exist several basic definitions of the term feminism. I particularly like Freedman’s,

Feminism is a belief that women and men are inherently of equal worth. Because most societies privilege men as a group, social movements are necessary to achieve equality between women and men, with the understanding that gender always intersects with other social hierarchies.   

One flaw in this work, at least for me, is that Freedman touches on a lot of trends and theories that need more exploration then is provided. Though this is a general history, I think that that the book needed to be longer as particular threads should have been expanded. Regular readers of this blog do know however, that as someone addicted to surveying facts and ideas, I often complain that non fiction books should be longer.

Why should this book appeal to both men and women? Ironically Freedman does not address the global and universal impact of feminism as in as much detail as I would have liked. I believe that the empowerment of women has been one of the most profoundly important trends in human history. Furthermore as the trend continues, it will continue to have an enormous impact upon humanity. Thus anyone who wants to understand history, society, politics, as well as an entire host of other issues, would do well do understand Feminism and its history. This book is a really good place to start.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Feminism and Books

From time to time over the coming weeks and months, I am planning on reading and sharing my thoughts on several books that relate to the topics of feminism and violence aimed at women. Before I begin to post about these books and the ideas contained in them, I think that it is important to share a little bit about some of my personal biases, options and associations in relation to these topics. As of late my views have become very strong.

I have always considered myself a feminist. Feminism has always been one of the belief systems that I advocated. As with several other social topics, I would have described myself a moderate on the issue.  Over the past year, for various reasons, on various social media, but especially on Twitter, I have strongly spoken in support of causes focusing on the reduction of violence aimed at women as well as upon feminism. Over the past year, my support for feminist ideals, as well as my belief that violence aimed at women is an enormous societal ill that needs more attention, has strengthened.

There are two reasons for the increased level of my convictions. First, I have been reading blogs and articles, as well as listening to women, both in my life as well as on social media, concerning these issues. This has convinced me as to the gravity of the issues that women face worldwide as well as the far - reaching benefits of feminism to all of humanity.

Something else has solidified my beliefs and led me to a point where I would now describe myself as an adamant and committed feminist. Something dark has come along with the recent trend of women speaking out strongly on social media  about violence and sexism. I am not unique in observing unrelenting threats, harassment and insults, some of it perpetuated by semi - organized groups, against women who speak about gender issues on social media. This goes well beyond the usual trolling. It is extremely serious. At its worst it involves death, torture and rape threats directed at both notable Internet personalities as well as against less famous people who I know personally. There have also been campaigns of slander, as well as the release of extremely personal information aimed at women who speak about gender issues. Lately, there has been a fair amount of media coverage, especially on the serious American public policy shows and publications on this issue.

Most of what my friends and acquaintances have experienced was not even the result of speaking about feminism, but instead was prompted as a result of protesting the morally unambiguous issues of rape and violence directed at women.

There is a lot more that I have witnessed that has shocked and angered me. It has been really ugly and unrelenting attempt to silence women who express views on these issues.  If anyone is curious for additional details I will be happy to discuss in either in my comments section or through private email.

All this has helped to convince me that misogyny is a much greater problem in the Western world then I ever imagined, and that the ideals embodied by mainstream feminist thought are directly relevant to what is going in in social media.

I bring this up in context of my future posts to highlight that fact that I am not unbiased in this argument. The unrelenting rage that I have observed by a percentage of my fellow men, directed at women who speak on these issues has influenced my opinion in many areas relating to gender issues as well as feminism.

Though I believe that it a extremely important issue, social media harassment of women is certainly not all there is to gender relations, or to the idea set that is feminism. It is but one of many issues and arguably not the most important.  However, my observation of all this has influenced my personal views and has led to an emotional response. I have become downright furious at times. At other times I have lost my objectivity. I am the first to admit that I must be on guard to the fact that my outraged reaction to the harassment may be distorting my view of the big picture. With that said, what I have observed is clearly relevant to the big picture. As such, I felt the need to air this out before I begin commenting upon relevant books and ideas.

I choose to strive for intellectual honesty. That means I will attempt to examine all ideas critically and fairly. I will listen and discuss dissenting views. I intend to be as open minded and civil as I always am. My regular readers know what I mean.

I can and will apply my usual open mindedness to anti–feminist or the ambiguous opinions of others. Feminism is a set if ideas that like any set of ideas, should be open to scrutiny. There are reasoned and civil arguments against feminist ideals. I would even point out that I do not agree with every pro - feminist idea or concept. I will express my disagreement with ideas, including pro – feminist ones, as I see fit in the context of these books.

It is not anti – feminist ideas and opinions that anger me, rather it is the ubiquities and unrelenting harassment of feminists on social media (I must qualify this to say that there are a few extremely odious ideas that I have encountered recently that I have no respect for. For instance, I have run into folks who claim that most women are intellectually inferior to men, that society should accept rape as natural, etc.) . I have had rational discussions with both men and women, who for various reasons are anti – feminists, who are reasoned, respectful and are in no way misogynist. I consider this an intellectual disagreement.

Since I am bandying about the word, I think it is fitting to define what I believe feminism is. In my opinion the term is one of the most misconstrued around. For now, I will start with the basic Miriam - Webster’s definition,

The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.


Organized activity in support of women's rights and interests.

The above definition is simple and in accord with my own beliefs. I would go a little further and argue that in order to be a feminist these days also means that one believes that there is still progress to be made in the pursuit of equality.

Some of the thinkers that I will discuss in future posts may have alternate definitions that I hope to explore.

In my opinion feminism has been given a bad name. Feminists have been unfairly stigmatized as all adhering to the most extreme positions. Like most broad based ideologies with a lot of adherents, there are some very controversial feminist thinkers and ideas out there. One does not need to accept all, or any, radical or revolutionary ideas to be a feminist. However, I hope to investigate and weigh in upon some of these controversial ideas in upcoming posts.

I also would like to address the contention that I have heard from some feminists as well as others: that is the opinion that men cannot be feminists. Since I consider feminism to be a set of ideas and ideals, I would argue that anyone who holds such ideas and ideals is a feminist.

I want to mention a couple of books that I have already read and written commentary on.  While not considered a book on feminism, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, is in my opinion, a profoundly important work that relates to the subject. In this book, Pinker lays out a hardheaded and convincing case for what he believes are five historical forces driving humanity to a more peaceful, prosperous and virtuous future. One of the factors he calls “Feminization”, which is basically the empowerment of women and the increased influence of women on society. My commentary on this work is here.

Christine de Pizan ‘s The Book of The City of Ladies was written in 1405. Christine was amazingly ahead her time in her presentation of what I would call pre - feminist ideals as well as in her identification and criticism of what today we would call stereotyping. I commented upon this book here.

I do think that I will take on some challenging and controversial books. I will be reading authors who have ideas on gender issues that I both agree and disagree with. Thus I anticipate some very interesting posts to come.