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The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of essays by author and social critic Kameron Hurley on being/becoming an sff writer and being a woman in that profession, on sff and geek culture and being a woman in that culture, and on the ways that sexism and geekdom play out in the broader 'mundane' world. In her Introduction to the collection, Hurley says:

"At its heart, this collection is a guidebook for surviving not only the online world and the big media enterprises that use it as story fodder, but sexism in the wider world. It should inspire every reader, every fan, and every creator to participate in building that better future together."

The essays in this collection range widely: from the important of persistence in becoming a writer to a discussion of Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing. They are painful, inspiring, rage-honing, insightful, and even funny at times, and include the Hugo Award winning "We Have Always Fought." They are definitely worth reading.

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Wonderfully left-wing publishing house PM Press has been putting out a series called Outspoken Authors which consists of collections of writings by visionary left-leaning writers, most of them writers of sff. I've read and talked a number of these before, including volumes that contained selected works (and an original interview) with people like Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Terry Bisson and Eleanor Arnason.

My latest read from this series is a collection of essays, poems and other works from Marge Piercy called My Life, My Body. Woven through all the selections is a strong, politically and socially radical consciousness, conjoined with a commitment to feminist analysis, addressing topics ranging from the effects of gentrification on marginalised communities to the enforcement of a white male canon in literature.

Her focus ranges from social justice to literary criticism. Several of the selections here deal, in part or in whole, with the growing problem of homelessness, particularly among women. Others argue passionately against the trend in criticism that demands the separation of politics and art, and devalues literature written from a political consciousness (which, she notes, is often work created by women and marginalised peoples.

In addition to the essays and poems, the volume includes an interesting interview with Piercy conducted by fellow leftist and science fiction writer Terry Bisson.

If you're a fan of Piercy's work, you'll appreciate the pieces collected here immensely. And after that, I heartily recommend that you have a look at other volumes from the Outspoken Writers series.

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For those who don't know (and until I read a passing comment on the Internet about her and the book she'd just written, I didn't), Lindy West is a feminist, fat acceptance movement activist. That was quite enough for me to be interested in her book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman.

Shrill is, like Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist or Laurie Penny's Unspeakable Things, a heady combination of personal narrative, political analysis and call-to-arms.

She talks with humour and honesty about growing up as a shy, overweight child, about reaching menache in a culture that seeks to ignore the biological processes of female bodies, about living as a fat woman, about struggling to come to self acceptance and to raise the consciousness of colleagues in the media about the effects of public fat-shaming.

She writes matter-of-factly about her abortion, and I recognised some of my own reactions on having mine. It was no horrible tragedy, no wrenching drama, simply a thing that I chose to have because I was not interested in having a child. What she says about the right to abortion, to control one's body, is short and exactly on the mark.

"The truth is that I don’t give a damn why anyone has an abortion. I believe unconditionally in the right of people with uteruses to decide what grows inside of their body and feeds on their blood and endangers their life and reroutes their future. There are no “good” abortions and “bad” abortions, there are only pregnant people who want them and pregnant people who don’t, pregnant people who have access and support and pregnant people who face institutional roadblocks and lies."

West writes movingly about the psychological consequences of the violent and obscene harassment - often minimised as "trolling" - of women on the Internet. She pulls no punches - she calls it what it is, abuse directed at the marginalised inhabitants of the net:

"Why is invasive, relentless abuse—that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field—something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs? Six years later, this is still a question I’ve yet to have answered."

One of many interrelated topics she addresses is the idea of socially responsible comedy - comedy that does not make marginalised people, be they women, people with a disability or a socially awkward disease such as herpes, or any other marked status, the punchline of the joke.

"When I looked at the pantheon of comedy gods (Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Louis CK, Jon Stewart, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld), the alt-comedy demigods (Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, David Cross, Marc Maron, Dave Attell, Bill Burr), and even that little roster of 2005 Seattle comics I rattled off in the previous chapter, I couldn’t escape the question: If that’s who drafted our comedy constitution, why should I assume that my best interests are represented? That is a bunch of dudes. Of course there are exceptions—maybe Joan Rivers got to propose a bylaw or two—but you can’t tell me there’s no gender bias in an industry where “women aren’t funny” is widely accepted as conventional wisdom."

She pays particular attention to the phenomenon of the rape joke.

"Feminists don’t single out rape jokes because rape is “worse” than other crimes—we single them out because we live in a culture that actively strives to shrink the definition of sexual assault; that casts stalking behaviors as romance; blames victims for wearing the wrong clothes, walking through the wrong neighborhood, or flirting with the wrong person; bends over backwards to excuse boys-will-be-boys misogyny; makes the emotional and social costs of reporting a rape prohibitively high; pretends that false accusations are a more dire problem than actual assaults; elects officials who tell rape victims that their sexual violation was “god’s plan”; and convicts in less than 5 percent of rape cases that go to trial. Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard. Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it."

I enjoyed reading West's lived experiences - some of which, in certain ways, seemed similar to some of mine - and her strong, bold voice. Not shrill, Lindy, though frightened misogynist men might label it so. Just strong, and true.

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Kallocain, by Karin Boye, noted Swedish poet and author, is a dystopian narrative that fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Orwell's 1984, Zamyatin's We, or Huxley's Brave New World. That it is not part of the core lineage of 20th century political dystopian literature may be because it was not translated into English until 1966, or because it was written by a woman, or both. But it is unfortunate that even now, 50 years after it became accessible to English readers, it is still not better known and acknowledged.

Written eight years before Orwell's 1984, Kallocain place in a future in which the state - to be specific, the totalitarian police state - is all, and the individual nothing. Readers of 1984 will find much that is familiar; sparse living quarters, rationing, constant surveillance, the ever-present atmosphere of suspicion, politically correct expression, conformity of action and an on-going threat of war with other states about which nothing is known but that they are the enemy. There are no minutes of hate in Kallocain, but there are structured festivals that celebrate the state, weekly broadcasts in which people who have misspoken must make their apologies and corrections. The mechanisms of social control in the WorldState (so named even though it is just one of several states) are perhaps a little less dramatic, but no less all-encompassing.

But these are external manifestations of the totalitarian state. Kallocain concerns itself with the inner self under a social and political order that demands universal devotion and loyalty to the state and its ideology. As the novel's protagonist. Chemist Leo Kain, comes to realise, there are always those whose thoughts rebel, lack the singleminded purity required of them. Those who question, those who resent, those who watch and remember, those who imagine another way of being. And because he himself fears the embers of these thoughts in his own mind, he produces a drug, Kallocain, which relaxes inhibition and causes those under its influence to speak their inner truths, a drug which he offers to the state as the answer to identifying those committing these internal forms of sedition.

There is much that is chilling in the descriptions of how everything from family life to human scientific experimentation is handled in this future state, but it all follows quite logically from the basic premise of such systems, that the collective is all and the individual nothing.

I've long been fascinated by dystopian literature, and yet only recently did I learn of the existence of this novel. I'm very glad to have finally been introduced to it.

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Laurie Penny's book Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, is (whether Penny or her readers know this or not) a call for the rebirth of the radical vision of feminism I remember from my youth, a vision I've never set aside, and one I hope will indeed come again, a true revolution that will change society, not just for women, but for all those oppressed by power inequities - and for those driven to oppress by fear and insecurity.

Working from within the system was never going to get us very far. And Sister Audre told us we couldn't use the master's tools to tear down his house. But many of us tried. For so many reasons. Because good girls don't ride the thunder and shake the house down to the foundations. Because the lies we swallowed with our mothers' milk kept us divided from all the other people who needed to tear down that house, the ones we could have worked together with, if we weren't white middle-class women who weren't ready to ally with queers, with workers, with the poor, with people of colour. Because the people who identified most with our oppressors (not seeing their own oppression) were our fathers, our brothers, our lovers, and even our sons.

Penny speaks to the women who came after us, and she is calling them to finish the revolution.
It must be mutiny. Nothing else will do. I used to be less hardline about this. I used to vote, and sign petitions, and argue for change within the system. I stayed up all night to watch Obama get elected; I cheered for the Liberals in London. I thought that maybe if we kept asking for small change – a shift in attitudes about body hair, a slight increase in the minimum wage, maybe shut down a few porn shops and let the gays marry – then eventually we’d get the little bit of freedom we wanted, if it wasn’t too much trouble.

No more of that. Being a good girl gets you nowhere. Asking nicely for change gets you nowhere. Mutiny is necessary. Class mutiny, gender mutiny, sex mutiny, love mutiny. It’s got to be mutiny in our time.
In her analysis of the current state of sexism, Penny looks at issues that will be familiar to most feminists - among them the policing of the female body, the consequences of enforcing socially-defined gender roles on people, male, female and non-binary, the relationship between reproductive freedom and personal freedom, the unpaid emotional work that women do, the backlash against women who dare to enter the public area, male entitlement and the nature of marriage - with clarity and with passion.

But more than this, Penny is drawing down the future with a vision of a renewed revolution:
A time is approaching when the humanity of women and girls and queer people and our allies will be understood in practice rather than acknowledged in passing. I believe that together we will find the courage to rewrite the old, tired scripts of work and power and sex and love, the old stories about what it means to be a beautiful woman, a strong man, a decent human being. I believe that the time is coming when those stories will be heard in numbers too big to silence. The great rewriting is already under way. Close your eyes. Turn the page. Begin.


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For some time now, I've been watching the full-tilt assault on reproductive rights in the US - and the less aggressive but equally troubling one here in Canada - with growing concern. It was a hard-fought battle, and one I remember well, to win those rights, and to see them being eroded in less than a generation is a sad thing indeed. Fortunately for Canadians, our struggle took us farther, to the full decriminalisation of abortion, which makes it harder to turn the clock back all the way here - though by no means impossible, and we must be vigilant, especially when conservative elements hold political power. But in the US, where abortion remained a matter of law, rather than a private medical decision between doctor and client, it has seemed to be much easier for the anti-choice forces to pass one new requirement or limitation after another, slowly curtailing reproductive freedom under many disguised. But as an outsider, dependent primarily on sporadic exploration of a foreign media, I remained unclear on just how serious the situation was in the US, and on what points the debate is currently focused. So when I heard of Katha Pollett's new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, I was eager to read it. And almost from the first page, I found my fears confirmed:
Between 2011 and 2013, states enacted 205 new restrictions—more than in the previous ten years: waiting periods, inaccurate scripts that doctors must read to patients (abortion causes breast cancer, mental illness, suicide), bans on state Medicaid payments, restrictions on insurance coverage, and parental notification and consent laws. In Ohio, lawmakers have taken money from TANF, the welfare program that supports poor families, and given it to so-called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) whose mission is to discourage pregnant women from having abortions. (That’s right: Embryos and fetuses deserve government support, not the actual, living children they may become.) Twenty-seven states have passed laws forcing clinics into expensive and unnecessary renovations and burdening them with medical regulations intended to make them impossible to staff. Largely as a result, between 2011 and 2013 at least 73 clinics closed or stopped performing abortions. When these laws have been challenged in court, judges have set aside some of them, but not all. The result: In 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, around one-third of American women of reproductive age lived in states hostile to abortion rights, one-third lived in states that supported abortion rights, and one-third lived in states with a middle position. As of 2011, more than half of women lived in hostile states. Middle-ground states, such as North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin, have moved in an anti-choice direction. Only twenty-three states could be said to have a strong commitment to abortion rights. In 2013, only one state, California, made abortion easier to obtain.
Pollitt's book, however, is not intended as reportage so much as it is a revitalisation of the understanding of full access to abortion as an undeniable element of reproductive healthcare, and hence a social good (note: where Pollitt refers to women as those immediately affected by pregnancy and issues of access to abortion, my remarks on the text are intended to include in this category those genderqueer, non-binary and trans* people who, while not identifying as women, may also experience pregnancy and require such access). Pollitt summarises her main points as follows:
In this book I make many arguments, but let me mention three. First, the concept of personhood, as applied to the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and, at least until late in pregnancy, fetus, makes no sense: It’s an incoherent, covertly religious idea that falls apart if you look at it closely. Few people actually believe it, as is shown by the exceptions they are willing to make. Second, the absolutist argument that abortion is murder is a mask by which people opposed to the sexual revolution and women’s advancement obscure their real motives and agenda: turning back the clock to an idealized, oversimplified past when sex was confined within marriage, men were the breadwinners and heads of families, Christianity was America’s not-quite-official religion, and society was firmly ordered. Third, since critiquing what came before does not necessarily help us move forward, I want to help reframe the way we think about abortion. There are definitely short-term advantages to stressing the anguish some women feel when facing the need to end a pregnancy, but in the long run presenting that as a general truth will hurt the pro-choice cause: It comes close to demanding that women accept grief, shame, and stigma as the price of ending a pregnancy. I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud. The anti-abortion movement has been far too successful at painting abortion as bad for women. I want to argue, to the contrary, that it is an essential option for women—not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul-destroying situations, but all women—and thus benefits society as a whole.
As Pollitt points out, the standard narrative requires that pro-choice activists buttress their advocacy with comments describing abortion as "the lesser of two evils" or presenting abortion as a harrowing choice for those who decide to terminate a pregnancy. A person seeking an abortion is expected to express ambivalence, sorrow, regret. Abortion is often characterised as the action of frivolous or irresponsible people, young, unmarried and/or engaging in transgressive sex. And so on. Pollitt would have us challenge that narrative.
Abortion is often seen as a bad thing for society, a sign of hedonism, materialism, and hyperindividualism. I argue that, on the contrary, access to legal abortion is a good thing for society and helping a woman obtain one is a good deed. Instead of shaming women for ending a pregnancy, we should acknowledge their realism and self-knowledge. We should accept that it’s good for everyone if women have only the children they want and can raise well.
Pollitt takes a thorough look at the key questions surrounding positions on abortion, and effectively demolishes not only the anti-choice arguments, but also the propensity of many on the pro-choice side to allow their opponents to frame the discourse.

She addresses the issue of the personhood of the embryo/fetus, and the logical, if not always elucidated, consequences of the belief that it is a person from, as some insist, the moment of fertilisation. She examines the ways in which anti-abortion (and anti-contraception) arguments and laws are in essence about policing female sexuality and socially-prescribed gender roles.
At the heart of opposition to legal abortion is an anti-feminist, anti-modern view of relations between the sexes: Women are (or should be) maternal and domestic, men are (or should be) energetic breadwinners, and sex is a powerful, dangerous force that must be narrowly channeled, with parents controlling girls to keep them virgins and women refusing men sex in order to corral them into early marriage with babies soon to follow.
Exploding myths used by abortion opponents to paint abortions as dangerous, and those who have them as either hedonistic and thoughtless or victims of manipulation by parents, Pollitt exposes the hypocrisy of anti-choice advocates who value the fetus but not the person who bears it or the child it will be after birth. She draws aim on the conservative agenda in which opposition to both contraception and abortion goes hand in hand with opposition to everything that might make the lives of actual living parents and children easier, from paid parental leave and flexible working hours to subsidized day care programs to minimum wage legislation and welfare, showing that the real goal of conservatives is to negate the advances made through feminism and other social justice movements and send women back to a limited role where they are dependent on men.

As an American-centric treatise on the current state of abortion rights, Pollitt's book is highly informative - both well-researched and highly accessible. As a call to reclaim abortion as an essential and positive part of reproductive health care, it is inspiring. As a reminder that the work of feminism is not yet finished, that we do not yet live in some glorious post-feminist society, it is invaluable.

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I must confess that I skimmed many of the early pieces in Margaret Atwood's Second Words: Selected Critical Prose 1960-1982, for a very simple reason - Atwood's early critical work examines a period of Canada's literary history that is well before my time. Reviews of small literary magazines that ceased publication before I was of an age to explore such things, while interesting in terms of following the development of Atwood's choices of subject, critical voice, and style, were not easy for me to sink into. Nonetheless, Atwood is always interesting, and even in her early days she had important things to say, and was on her way to developing that sly irony and trenchant wit which is such a part of her literary voice.

In one piece, while lamenting the end of one of those small Canadian literary magazines, Atwood makes an interesting observation:
Give the same poem to a model American, a model English and a model Canadian critic: the American will say "This is how it works;" the Englishman "How good, how true to Life" (or, "How boring, tasteless and trite"); the Canadian will say "This is where it fits into the entire universe."
There is something about this that rings true to me - certainly in my own modest and sporadic attempts at criticism (and not just literary criticism) I always seem to be looking for the contexts, the connections. And it is something that can be seen in Atwood's work in full measure.

The collection is divided into three sections and contains fifty short pieces, obviously not all of equal interest to me. My attention in the first part of the book (covering the years from 1960 to 1971) was particularly drawn to her analysis of the works of poets I have some familiarity with - Gwendolyn McEwan, Al Purdy - and to a fascination exploration of H. Rider Haggard's presentation of women in his novels, culminating in She and Ayesha: The Return of She.

Another of the early pieces that was more than a mere academic exercise for me was written in 1971. In "Nationalism, Limbo and The Canadian Club," Atwood talks about her memories of attending graduate school in the U.S. in the 60s, and the beginnings of the Canadian search for a unique cultural identity. How true the following observation rings, even today:
"They" had been taught that they were the centre of the universe, a huge, healthy apple pie, with other countries and cultures sprinkled round the outside, like raisins. "We" on the other hand had been taught that we were one of the raisins, in fact, the raisin, and that the other parts of the universe were invariably larger and more interesting than we were. A distortion of the truth in both cases, let us hope.

There were several disturbing corollaries. One was that we knew more about them, much more, than they knew about us; another was that they knew a lot more about themselves than we knew about ourselves. Another, related to our growing consciousness of economic domination, was that we had let ourselves come under the control of a people who neither knew nor cared to know anything about us. The most disturbing of all was the realization that they were blundering around in the rest of the world with the same power, the same staggering lack of knowledge and the same lack of concern: the best thing for the raisins, in their opinion, was to be absorbed into the apple pie.
In her introduction to the second section of the collection, containing works written between 1972 and 1976, Atwood notes that the publication of her book of Canadian literary criticism, Survival, and the growth of the women's movement had a significant influence on the nature of the requests she received for articles and speeches. Many of the collected pieces in this section are reviews of books written by women - Adrienne Rich, Audrey Thomas, Erica Jong, Kate Millett, Marie-Claire Blais, Marge Piercy - or
articles about literature or writing from an early feminist perspective. A must-read among these is "The Curse of Eve," in which almost every sentence identifies an entire library's worth of feminist cultural and literary analysis - most of which, at that time, was still waiting to be written. It concludes with this plea from a "woman writer" that is, in many ways still relevant today:
I will enter a simple plea; women, both as characters and as people, must be allowed their imperfections. If I create a female character, I would like to be able to show her having the emotions all human beings have—hate, envy, spite, lust, anger and fear, as well as love, compassion, tolerance and joy—without having her pronounced a monster, a slur, or a bad example. I would also like her to be cunning, intelligent and sly, if necessary for the plot, without having her branded as a bitch goddess or a glaring instance of the deviousness of women. For a long time, men in literature have been seen as individuals, women merely as examples of a gender; perhaps it is time to take the capital W off Woman. I myself have never known an angel, a harpy, a witch or an earth mother. I've known a number of real women, not all of whom have been nicer or more noble or more long-suffering or less self-righteous and pompous than men. Increasingly it is becoming possible to write about them, though as always it remains difficult for us to separate what we see from what we have been taught to see.
The remainder of the pieces from the second section are articles on themes in Canadian literature, or on the Canadian identity. Reading these latter pieces bring back memories of those days when we as Canadians were becoming aware of not just who we were, but how vulnerable we were to cultural and economic imperialism and exploitation.
But there's another image, fact, coming from the outside that I have to fit in. This territory, this thing I have called "mine," may not be mine much longer. Part of the much-sought Canadian identity is that few nationals have done a more enthusiastic job of selling their country than have Canadians. Of course there are buyers willing to exploit, as they say, our resources; there always are. It is our eagerness to sell that needs attention. Exploiting resources and developing potential are two different things: one is done from without by money, the other from within, by something I hesitate only for a moment to call love.
The third section, which contains pieces published between 1977 and 1982, documents an expanded range of topics and perspectives on Atwood's part, as she notes in her introduction to the final section.
I have always seen Canadian nationalism and the concern for women's rights as part of a larger, non- exclusive picture. We sometimes forget, in our obsession with colonialism and imperialism, that Canada itself has been guilty of these stances towards others, both inside the country and outside it; and our concern about sexism, men's mistreatment of women, can blind us to the fact that men can be just as disgusting, and statistically more so, towards other men, and that women as members of certain national groups, although relatively powerless members, are not exempt from the temptation to profit at the expense of others. Looking back over this period, I see that I was writing and talking a little less about the Canadian scene and a little more about the global one.
Among the articles published in this period are reviews of a variety of books, some by authors still writing, some still part of the recognisable cultural canon even though their writers are no longer with us, and some that have passed into relative obscurity. Books reviewed include: A Harvest Yet to Reap, a book documenting the experiences and activism of prairie women; a posthumously published collection of letters by American poet Anne Sexton; Timothy Findley's novel The Wars; two works by recently deceased poets, Pat Lowther's A Stone Diary, and John Thompson's Stilt Jack; Tillie Olsen's Silences, a meditation on the obstacles facing writers, particularly women writers; Sylvia Plath's posthumously published Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams; Red Dust, a collection of short stories by W. D. Valdgardson; Nadine Gortimer's July's People; Ann Beattie's Falling in Place; E. L. Doctorow's Loon Lake; Jay McPherson's Poems Twice Told; and Midnight Birds, a collection of short fiction by Black women authors (concerning this review, Atwood examines not only the work, but the reasons why she has been asked to review a collection of American authors for a magazine devoted to "third world" literature).

In addition to the reviews, the collection includes a variety of articles and speeches, primarily on aspects of writing and being a writer:

"Diary Down Under," notes and observations made during her participation in 1978 in Writers' Week, an Australian literary event;
"Witches," a brief address on the persecution of authors and books - witch-hunting - whether they be North American feminists saying uncomfortable things, or revolutionary Latin-American poets saying things that get them disappeared;
"An End to Audience?," a lecture on what it means to be a writer, as a vocation, as a profession, as an art, as a moral statement - and on the changing nature of the writing and publishing landscape and the reading audience;
"Introduction to The Edible Woman" in which Atwood briefly discusses her own first published novel and its relationship to the feminist movement (incidentally, The Edible Woman is one of my favourite Atwood novels);
An address to a meeting of Amnesty International in which Atwood speaks passionately about the responsibility of the writer in a world where oppression and political censorship have become commonplace;
"Northrop Frye Observed," a discussion of Atwood's thoughts on having been a student of Frye's;
"Writing the Male Character," in which Atwood discusses the perils and pitfalls of writing a character of another gender than one's own, from a very feminist perspective.

In what is one of the longer pieces collected in this volume, "Canadian-American Relations" - a speech given to a US audience - Atwood traces the history of the quest for a Canadian identity, and looks at the ways in which the United States has alternately ignored and influenced this. In a somewhat prescient comment, she notes that both Canada and the US must now inhabit a changing world in which the lines are being redrawn:
The world is rapidly abandoning the nineteenth-century division into capitalist and socialist. The new camps are those countries that perform or tolerate political repression, torture and mass murder and those that do not.
Reading this collection, I was reminded once more just how much Atwood's critical perspectives on both art and the world we live in are worth reading.

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Samuel Delany is best known (at least in the circles I exist in) first, for his science fiction writing and second, for his science fiction criticism. But Delany's writing ranges well beyond these realms in its scope, extending from essays on comparative literature and queer studies, to memoir, to porn.

In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany uses both the approach of personal narrative and that of academic analysis to examine the link between urban development and architecture and vertical social contacts among urban dwellers. The two very different essays in the book were prompted by yet another plan to "clean up" Times Square in New York City, and taken together present a strong argument for the inclusion of places where people of different classes, races, and cultural niches can connect - in this instance, to form a loose community based on engagement in transgressive behaviours.

The first essay, Times Square Blue, is a personal record of Delany's experiences and observations as a participant in the street life in and around "old" Times Square - a neighbourhood of porn theatres and other establishments where gay men (and men who, while not identifying as gay, nonetheless chose to have sex with other men) could find willing casual partners, among other things that the renovators want to root out in the interests of protection of family values. Three Two One Contact: Times Square Red is a more theoretical essay, focusing on the changes in Times Square since the beginning of the urge to refurbish the area, and the resulting loss of an important public space where informal contacts can take place, subverting the modern tendency toward uniform neighbourhoods and sterile work spaces.

And interesting book, and a passionate argument for the importance of an urban environment that is organic, messy, open to a diversity of peoples and their needs, and able to facilitate unstructured contact between people.

For another perspective, read Jo Walton's review on tor.com. (http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/07/sex-and-urban-planning-samuel-r-delanys-times-square-red-times-square-blue)

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Published in 1997, this overview of stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims is spot-on in its analysis of how the media have historically portrayed Arabs and Muslims - ignoring distinctions and treating all Muslims and Arabs as if they were all the same, and all villainous, barabarous and fanatical. Unfortunately, the potential for change Shaheen saw in the late 1990s has been lost in American media reactions to the events of 2001. It would be good to see a new analysis that tears down the new and increasingly disturbing mythology and propaganda about Islam and how it affects racial violence in America (and other Western nations, for that matter).

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Life's been too much of a bitch for me to keep on writing about books much, but I still read, and I may as well at least post lists of what I read this past year. Here's the first list.


Non-fiction


Much of the of the non-fiction I read was a bit of a hodge-podge. Cultural/political studies, feminism, history, biography. All in its way interesting and nothing I regret reading.

Helen Merrick, The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms

Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender

Adam Kotsko, Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television
Arundahti Roy, Talking to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy
Tim Wise, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority

Lillian Faderman, Naked in the Promised Land

Alison Weir, The Wars of the Roses
Leanda de Lisle, Tudor: The Family Story

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I did not read a lot of non-fiction this year, and what I did read was mostly personal narratives, biographies, and books about science fiction and fantasy.


Thelma J. Shinn, Worlds Within Women: Myth and Mythmaking in Fantastic Literature by Women
Gwyneth Jones, Imagination/space: essays and talks on fiction, feminism, technology and politics
Margaret Atwood, In Other Worlds

Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

Suzie Bright, Big Sex, Little Death: A Memoir
Nancy Mairs, Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith
George Takei, Oh Myy! There Goes the Internet

Jack G. Shaheen, The TV Arab

Alison Weir, The Princes in the Tower
Tracy Borman, Elizabeth's Women
Stacey Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life

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I must being your attention to a wonderful small press. I mean, what else can you call a publishing house whose co-founder says things like "The challenge, I think, has always been not only to better inform 'the movement', but to figure out how to get the ideas across to everyone else. In effect, how do we actively contribute to building a movement (however defined) which is genuinely going to take on Capital and the state."?

PM Press publishes both fiction and non-fiction, everything from classics of anarchist thought to vegan cookbooks to science fiction with a left wing consciousness.I've already mentioned one book I ordered from them, Eleanor Arnason's Mammoths of the Great Plains. I actually bought three books from PM Press last year (and plan on buying several more this year). All three books are from their Outspoken Authors series, which showcases authors like Arnason, Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson among others. Each volume contains one or more pieces of shorter fiction (novella length or less) plus an interview and a biographical sketch. And they are publishing some very interesting work in this series.


Terry Bison, The Left Left Behind

The title piece in this volume is an absolutely hilarious satire of the Rapture movement in general and the scenario presented in the Left Behind books in particular.

Actually, this is what the publisher says about this piece and the other short piece in the volume:
The Left Behind novels (about the so-called “Rapture” in which all the born-agains ascend straight to heaven) are among the bestselling Christian books in the US, describing in lurid detail the adventures of those “left behind” to battle the Anti-Christ. Put Bisson and the Born-Agains together, and what do you get? The Left Left Behind--a sardonic, merciless, tasteless, take-no-prisoners satire of the entire apocalyptic enterprise that spares no one--predatory preachers, goth lingerie, Pacifica radio, Indian casinos, gangsta rap, and even “art cars” at Burning Man.

Plus: "Special Relativity," a one-act drama that answers the question: When Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson, and J. Edgar Hoover are raised from the dead at an anti-Bush rally, which one wears the dress? As with all Outspoken Author books, there is a deep interview and autobiography: at length, in-depth, no-holds-barred and all-bets off: an extended tour though the mind and work, the history and politics of our Outspoken Author. Surprises are promised.
And it's all true.


Ursula LeGuin, The Wild Girls

Constant Reader must know by now that I believe Ursula Le Guin to be a goddess. Possibly an avatar of the child of Athene and Kwan Yin. A beacon of wisdom and compassionate understanding, while remaining a warrior of the mind determined to bring light to that which brings about injustice. The Wild Girls is pure Le Guin, compressed to diamond sharpness. The story cuts into heart and mind and lays bare the power relations of a rigid and hierarchical society built on inequalities of class, race and gender. Of course, it's only a story. Or is it? I love Le Guin's work because she makes me feel and think.

There's a good traditional review of the book by Brit Mandelo on Tor.dom.

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The non-fiction I read in 2011 was a small and somewhat mixed assortment.


William H. Patterson, Jr., Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, The Authorized Biography, Volume I: Learning Curve

This was somewhat interesting but essentially unsatisfying. Patterson does not appear to have the detachment or the analytical bent (at least when discussing this subject) to provide more than a highly detailed but ultimately superficial look at Heinlein as man or as writer, and both his accuracy and his treatment of sources is open to question. A biography must be more than a collection of everything one could find about the subject, set down without comment even when the various sources are contradictory.


Sarah Schulman, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and its Consequences

Schulman makes an interesting but not completely convincing argument that lack of full acceptance and support of queer people by their families is the basic cause, not only of social intolerance of queer people, but also of all the ills that can be found within the queer community. I think she has a point - that being that if families would fight for the rights of their queer members, both within the family and within the greater society, then much positive change would occur - but I think her argument simplifies the situation somewhat. But still, she poses some very interesting ideas and points out how easily gay men, lesbians other members of the queer community settle for the most modest shows of acceptance from their families of origin, and how much more many parents, siblings and other family members need to go in supporting, encouraging and defending the queer people in their lives just to provide the same kind of support that is automatically given to the straight people in their lives.


Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

Roy is one of the most eloquent critics of the global imperialist project. These essays are from the periods of the Bush administration in the US and address issues having to do with the Iraq war as well as challenging imperialism and its effects around the world and in her own country.


Lee Maracle, I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism

Maracle's book is part personal narrative, part history of the development of the movements of resistance and change among First Nations peoples, and part sociological analysis of the situation of First Nations peoples, and First Nations women, in their own communities and within north American mainstream society.


Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Writing a Woman’s Life

A fascinating examination of the ways that women's lives are chronicled, and how the ways that biographers and women writing personal narratives structure and organise their work differs from traditional approaches taken toward the writing of the lives of men.


Jennifer K. Stoller, Ink-stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors

Stoller offers the reader an interesting and lively survey of many of the fictional heroines that have become part of popular culture over the past 70-odd years, from Wonder Woman to Buffy and Xena.


Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

Ehrenreich looks at the history, the current manifestations and the effects of the positive thinking and self-help movements in American culture, and demonstrates how what appeared to be a beneficial response to the restrictive culture of Calvinist thought in the 19th century has become a dangerous mass delusion in the 21st.


Stephanie Coontz, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Woman at the Dawn of the 1960s

Coontz does three things in this book, all of which are quite interesting - perhaps especially to someone like myself who remember when The Feminine Mystique was first published. First, she looks at the book itself. Second, she presents narratives of women who read the book and have described how it affected them. Third, she looks at the social history of women and the the women's movement in the US using the book as a touchstone.


And finally, a book that is not really classifiable, but which I am including here because taken in whole, it is an example of writing about a woman's life, and is hence no more a fiction than are the lives of any of us.

Karen Joy Fowler & Debbie Notkin (eds.), 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin

To celebrate the occasion of Ursula Le Guin's 80th birthday, editors Fowler and Notkin invited contributions of many kinds from a variety of writers. Here are reminiscences of Le Guin, personal accounts of what her books have meant to various writers, poems and short stories presented in her honour, pieces of critical analysis, a brief biographical sketch by Julie Phillips (who wrote the definitive biography of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.) and a few other kinds of things that one might produce in order to celebrate a most extraordinary woman.



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I did not read much non-fiction in 2010.What I did read, I found very interesting.


Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest

Shiva is an environmental activist and eco-feminist who writes most powerfully on the ways in which the global agribusiness project is negatively affecting the land, the people and the culture


Daniel Radosh, Rapture Ready

Fascinating look at the "rapture" culture among various fundamentalist Christian groups in the U.S.


Barbara Ehrenreich, This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation

Ehrenreich as always delivers provocative insights into the American social, political and economic zeitgeist.

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So, I took a holiday from posting in my journals. I think it's time to come back. Catching up on what I've been reading will mostly mean just listing the books I've read, with maybe a few comments about the really good, really bad, or really interesting ones.


War, Evil and the End of History, Bernard-Henri Lévy

Interesting concept, kind of hypertext, with several relatively standard reportage-style essays on various theatres of war Lévy had covered, linked by footnotes to extensive personal commentary and philosophical ruminations. Dense, but thoughtful.


Jane Austen: A Life, Carol Shields

A pleasant biographical sketch of one of my favourite authors. Worth reading.


The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Unsecure America, Susan Faludi

Fascinating analysis of how both the state and the media presented the "stories" of the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. Must read.


Cheek by Jowl, Ursula LeGuin

Essays about writing by a great writer. If this is the sort of thing you like, you'll be delighted.


Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes

A look at the science behind how the body utilises the energy in the food we eat, from a biochemical more than a medical perspective, which asks some very searching questions about the kinds of nutritional advice North Americans have been receiving over the past 50 years, and suggests that many of the things we've been told were good, are not so good, and many of the things we've been told were bad, may be good after all. I found the arguments compelling enough to change my way of eating, and I haven't gone back yet, after more than a year.


Payback. Margaret Atwood

Atwood looks at the concept of debt on the eve of the economic crisis and finds some quite interesting things to say about it all.
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By Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

The Caged Virgin: an Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam
Infidel


Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a highly controversial figure in Europe. Born in Somalia, Hirsi Ali, the daughter of one of the key figures in the resistance against the Siad Barre regime, Hirsi Magan Isse, is a Dutch citizen, a feminist deeply engaged in work on behalf of Muslim women immigrants in Europe, a former member of the Dutch Parliament and an outspoken critic of Islam who has been forced to live in hiding due to threats of violence and death from Muslims outraged by her words and actions.

The Caged Virgin is a collection of Hirsi Ali’s writings on the subject of Islam, and includes the script of the short film “Submission” which she made in collaboration with Theo Van Gogh (who was assassinated for his role in making the film). Much of her writing, like the film script, focuses on the experiences of women within Islam.

Her autobiography, Infidel, explores her experiences growing up as a Muslim, in Somalia, her homeland, in Saudi Arabia, where her father sought refuge for a while, and in Kenya where her mother chose to settle among the Somali refugee community while her father continued his involvement in the increasingly fractured and violent political landscape of Somalia from his faction’s base in Ethiopia. Hirsi Ali’s childhood and adolescence overlapped the time period in which the highly fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic thought expounded by Sayyid Qutb and the Islamic Brotherhood spread through Islamic communities in North Africa (thinks to funding from Saudi Arabia) – she herself notes that when she was a child in Somalia, very few women wore any form of covering, even a head scarf, but that by the time she returned in mid adolescence, hidjab, chadour and other forms of extreme covering were seen everywhere in Mogadishu.

Both books find their primary focus in examining the lives of women in Saudi and North African Islamic societies, and in North African immigrant communities in Holland. Hirsi Ali unflinchingly describes both her own experiences, and those of friends, family members, and the women she meets in Holland, first while living in the refugee community and later while working as an official interpreter for Somali refugees in Holland – experiences which range from genital mutilation and honour killings to forced marriages, marital rape, the isolation and disenfranchisement of women in the Islamic communities she has known, and the limitations placed on women that hold them back from both personal expression and civil life.

It is Hirsi Ali’s thesis that Islam as a religion, moreso than other religions like Christianity, is inherently violent, misogynistic and detrimental to intellectual curiosity among individuals and to the development of Islamic societies. In addressing Hirsi Ali’s central argument – that Islam is inherently “worse” than other religions – I first have to make my own perspective on the issue clear, because it influences how I read Hirsi Ali’s argument.

As an animist, I do not believe in any divine being separate from myself or any other person, place or thing in the universe – and it is my observation that a belief in an all-powerful deity and in the separation of the self, both from the divine and from other aspects of material existence, makes it easier for human beings to accept the authority of others – human or divine – in place of one’s own personal responsibility to determine how to behave rightfully toward the universe and all that it comprises.

Thus, I am not easily persuaded that the submission to Allah demanded by Islam is any more inherently detrimental to intellectual independence and critical thought than the demands of any other theist religion to obey the laws of a deity as expressed by the people who believe themselves to be the interpreters of a divine will.

As for Hirsi Ali’s belief that Islam is inherently more violent and more misogynistic, I can find a great deal of textual and historical evidence in other religions – and particularly in Christianity – to suggest that this argument is debatable.

In my opinion, the difference between the Islam that Hirsi Ali knows all too well and the Christianity she encounters in Holland (and compares Islam to) is more a matter of place and time than of an inherently greater capacity for warlike behaviour, abuse of women and denial of intellectual and ethical curiosity. Seven hundred years ago, it was Islamic culture that was intellectually open, tolerant of other religious beliefs, scientifically advanced and peaceful except when attacked from without, while Christian nations were scientifically backward, intolerant of diversity, and prone to internal violence. What has happened since is that Christianity has lived through the Reformation and the Enlightenment, while the Islamic nations have experienced the ravages of colonisation and imperialism. Christianity – particularly in Northern Europe – has become increasingly secular, while many in Islamic nations, with so much of their traditional culture shattered by colonialism, have increasingly been drawn to a fundamentalist interpretation (which many moderate scholars of the Qu’ran argue is not so much an interpretation as a distortion) of Islam in order to reforge a cultural identity.

I find myself wondering if Hirsi Ali has been exposed to modern fundamentalism in Christianity, which certainly has its share of intolerance of independent thought, extreme misogyny and violence against those who challenge its rigid reading of the Christian Bible. I also find myself wondering why Hirsi Ali so casually rejects the argument that colonialism has had a profound affect on the cultural and economic advancement of the Islamic countries of the Middle East and northern Africa. In her books, she notes that this is a common assertion among liberal and leftist circles in the West, but she does not really engage the argument, but rather dismisses it as an example of Western cultural relativism that fears to acknowledge Islam as a dangerous religion in and of itself.

Hirsi Ali does agree at least in part with other feminist critics of Islam, like Irshad Manji, who argue that Islam needs its own Enlightenment – that in order to meet the needs of Muslims in the modern world, it must become more open to change and to individual questioning and interpretation, and recognise the equality of women.

Hirsi Ali’s writing – regardless of what one thinks about her essential analysis of Islam – is a powerful indictment of the treatment of women and of those who question religious authority in many Islamic communities today. Particularly, her autobiography is a testament to the courage and determination of a woman who is determined to live her life on her own terms, guided by her own judgement, and on that level it is profoundly inspiring.

Her willingness to expose the extent of the misogyny and violence against women that she has seen and experienced raises some serious issues for consideration by Western (and primarily white) feminists. Where and how does one reconcile cultural relativism with feminist action that aims to improve the lives of women around the world? How does one respond to profoundly misogynist practices such as FGM and spousal abuse when they are argued to be linked to the cultural and religious traditions of others – which we are told we must respect? Are we attempting to impose Western values on the women of other cultures when we insist that FGM, forced marriage and other abuses are a violation of human rights that transcend cultural norms. If spousal abuse is wrong in north America, isn’t it also wrong in Saudi Arabia or Somalia?

I certainly don’t have a definitive answer on how to work for women’s rights without being just another white colonist who knows what’s best for people of colour, but it seems to me that the first step is listening to, learning from, and supporting the women from other cultures who are voicing their own feminist/womanist critiques and creating their own movements for social change. And in speaking up about the abuse of women in Islamic communities from her position as a woman who has been raised in those communities, Hirsi Ali is doing that, and deserves our attention.

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The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali has long been a leading voice in leftist political and social analysis, and this book, written following the events of September 11 2001, is both an introduction to the political and social history of Islam – as multi-faceted and diverse as that of any other faith, including the Christianity that Westerners are most familiar with – and a well developed argument that proposes the driving force in modern history to be the opposition, not of Western and Islamic culture as a whole (as argued by Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations but rather of the fundamentalism of Islamism and Western (primarily American) imperialism. Rather than privileging one culture/civilisation over the others, as so many West vs. Islam arguments have done, Ali argues that there are similar fundamentalist forces in both Western and Islamic cultures – but which are not in themselves necessary elements of those cultures, and that it is these forces that are in conflict and must be opposed in both cultures to bring about a change in the current world situation.

An important perspective on the current world situation from a writer who has lived in and studied both of the cultures he so thoughtfully examines in this volume.

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This is the year I discovered Thomas King. King is a First Nations author and a professor of English and Theatre at Quelph University in Canada. He has been writing since the 1990s and has produced a number of novels and several collections of short stories, and in 2003 he was the first Native Canadian to deliver the Massey Lectures, which were published under the title The Truth about Stories, which I read earlier this year.

King has said that "Tragedy is my topic. Comedy is my strategy.” He writes about the Aboriginal experience in white North America, which certainly has many of the elements of tragedy, and at the same time, his work in the short stories I have read – from the volume A Short History of Indians in Canada - is so wisely and wittily funny even as it eviscerates the assumptions, attitudes, perceptions and actions of white North Americans toward First Nations and Aboriginal peoples that this white reader can only thank King for such a happy course of instruction, correction and illumination.

Reading the stories of King the author, and then reading the lectures of King the teacher on what story is and means and does in Aboriginal tradition, has been most rewarding, and I look forward to reading more works by this person who is so kind as to use his talent to make me laugh and think and learn.


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Selling Sickness, Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels

The subtitle of this book is “How the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies are turning us all into patients.” And I think it paints a very accurate picture of what is going on, at least in North America.

Just to be perfectly clear – because I know very well what it feels like to know that you have a real health issue only to be told that you don’t – the authors are not arguing that actual medical conditions, whether “physical” or “mental” in scope, should be ignored or that there are people for whom the risk/benefit analysis of prescribing medications and doesn’t come down soundly on the side of medical intervention.

What the authors are looking at is how, in the service of increased profits, pharmaceutical companies have spent years and millions of dollars in redefining the populations who “need” medical intervention to the point that perfectly healthy people have been convinced that they are sick, and moderately unhealthy people – for whom the risk/benefit analysis suggests that doing nothing, or seeking out non-pharmaceutical treatments, is safer than taking the drugs being marketed to them – are being urged by doctors to take prescription drugs rather than make other decisions that carry fewer risks.

As the authors say in their prologue:
The ups and downs of daily life have become mental disorders, common complaints are transformed into frightening conditions, and more and more ordinary people are turned into patients.... Rightly rewarded for saving life and reducing suffering, the global drug giants are no longer content selling medicines only to the ill, because as Wall Street knows, there’s a lot more money to be made telling healthy people they are sick.
The book looks at the many ways that the pharmaceutical-medical complex “creates” new diseases – by renaming personality traits such as shyness with terms such as “social anxiety disorder,” by recalibrating diagnostic scales so that what was considered within the normal range is now indicative of disease, as has been done with cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and body weight measurements such as the BMI; and by identifying normal human responses to stress or evolutionary abnormal conditions, such as adult-onset attention deficit disorder among frustrated, bored and undervalued office workers or depression among people experiencing stresses that are the result of repressive social conditions and policies.

Actually, I’d go further than the authors and state quite explicitly that the use of a number of pharmaceuticals, particularly those packaged as treatments for depression, anxiety, adult ADD and other such psychological or emotional conditions, is being deliberately encouraged as a means of social control. What better way to keep people from taking action to demand social justice than to convince them that their feelings of frustration, anxiety, alienation, anomie, insecurity, boredom, hopelessness, fatigue – to mention just a few – are symptoms of a personal problem that can be easily solved with a simple prescription? If for just one moment the people were to suspect that what’s wrong with them has nothing to do with their own mental state, and a great deal to do with the stresses of living in a repressive capitalist state that ignores the needs of the people in favour of the profits of the corporations – well, good heavens, there could be a revolution.

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Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics and Culture, Katha Pollitt

This is a collection of columns that were published in The Nation between 1994 to 2001. As gentle reader has probably figured out by now, I think Pollitt is one of the more worthwhile feminist analysts of what's going down in American culture and politics these days, and Subject to Debate is a fascinating look back at what was going on, from a feminist perspective, during the Clinton years.

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