Book Review: Small Changes

This weekend Marge Piercy was the Scholar in Residence at the Jewish Community of Amherst. I attended the event and it was a great experience. She is the author of many novels, books of poetry, a memoir and liturgical writing. Piercy read some of her poetry, discussed various aspects of writing and read some of her liturgical writings as well.

In preparation for the weekend I read Small Changes, a novel Piercy wrote in 1973. The book is strongly feminist and almost reads like a primary source because she so evocatively describes the early feminist and counter culture environment in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 1960s and early 70s.

The two main characters, Beth and Miriam, interact with men within a pronounced patriarchal society. None of the men in the book can really see or treat woman as human beings. Rather they exist as sex object, mother, housekeeper, and caregiver but not as fully autonomous beings.

The women, particularly Miriam, are unable to completely escape the narrow definitions that the men impose upon them. Miriam is a very smart and well-educated person who so desperately seeks love and validation that she is unable to assert herself at critical moments and maintain an independent identity.

Miriam, who is not overtly political and does not have a feminist perspective, is determined, in the beginning, to not be like her mother who spent her life trying to please a husband who was indifferent to her. Despite this determination and the fact that she obtains a Ph.D. in the new field, at the time, of computer science, she ultimately marries a fellow computer scientist, has two children, and cooks gourmet dinners. Her husband, Neil, does not seem to have married her for her brains or personality but rather to have a decorative object who will provide children and be a help in his career.

Beth comes from a working class family who discourage her from going to college.  Instead she marries her high school sweetheart who essentially views her as a cook and house cleaner. She sours on this life fairly quickly; her husband, sensing her dissatisfaction, decides to force her to have a baby. Facing this prospect, Beth flees and winds up in Cambridge.

The part of the book which deals with Beth is an exploration of her development and growth into an independent person with a strong feminist and political consciousness. She becomes involved with another woman, Wanda. Eventually they have to go into hiding because of Wanda’s past associations with radicals who are wanted by the government.

The book does not end on a happy or particularly hopeful note. Although Miriam is trying to dig herself out of the domestic hole she is in, it is not clear whether her marriage will survive. Beth is living under an assumed identity and is far from the community and connections she had developed.  Neither Beth nor Miriam are able to be an independent autonomous being and live fully in mainstream American society.

It was interesting to read Small Changes forty years after it was written. What struck me was how much still needs to change for women to be full participants in American life and society.

 

Statistics

Since  I  moved my website from Network Solution Servers to Bluehost servers, the statistics for the site have been reset. I thought it would be interesting to look at what were my top blog posts for the almost three years that WordPress has been compiling statistics.

My Home page has drawn the most visitors. The next most popular post was Mary Poppins on the Roof. I wrote about this phenomenon here. For a long time this was by far the most searched item. More recently the most seen post was Fall: Oktoberfest and Pumpkin Beer. This continues to be a popular post.

The other eight posts in the top ten posts of all time ( 3 years)  were  Your Liver on Drugs, Jewish Beer and Brewing, Book Review: Revolutionary Road, 76 Years of Beer Cans, Why I Don’t Care About Steve Jobs, Book Review: Good Morning, Miss Dove, A Day in New York City, and This and That. The number of views for these ten posts range from  10, 715 for Poppins  to 167 for This and That.

It is hard to come to any conclusions about which topics attract the most visitors. Several are about beer, two are book reviews and This and That is about, among other things, giant jellyfish.

Giant Jellyfish Washed Ashore

In the same period of time I  had 110,424 spam comments. Much more spam than visitors.

Aurora

On Monday I attended a writing group where the leader prompted us to write about the shootings last week in Colorado. Below is what I wrote.

When I heard about Colorado and what had happened, at first I didn’t really focus. When I finally comprehended what had happened my first thought was why aren’t people be nicer to people? Why do we live in a world where such horrible things occur?

I had just finished reading Little Bee by Chris Cleave. The book is about a Nigerian refugee. Horrific things happen to her. Again why do these things, these bad, bad things exist? The holocaust was over seventy years ago but the world keeps doing the same terrible things over and over. Not letting people in, not rescuing people, and not treating people how you would want to be treated.

If the Colorado shooter was Islamic or a person of color he would be called a terrorist. Because he is white he is just a killer. What did he do but cause terror? Can people go to the movies again without fear? Can the people of Aurora go about their business without fear? The world should be safe place. Safe from violence. Safe from crime. Safe from hunger.

The gun rights people, the NRA, say guns don’t kill people, people do. Doesn’t having easy access to guns make killing easier? Of course there are other ways to kill, to cause terror. On 9/11 they used planes. The person in Colorado could have used a bomb. His apartment was booby trapped with explosives. Still does anyone besides the police or the military need an assault weapon?

The person from Colorado is obviously mentally ill.  A sane person could not knowingly harm so many people. If he knew what he was doing though, he may not be found legally insane. Recently I listened on cd to Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. Charles Guiteau was completely crazy and delusional. He believed that people would be happy that he had killed the president. He was not found to be legally insane. He was found guilty and executed. There is a huge stigma in this society against mental illness. Many, many people who need help do not get it.  Although the Colorado terrorist apparently showed no sign of disease something was obviously terribly wrong.

A society where we cared for one another and found peaceful ways to resolve conflict would be beautiful place.

 

 

Book Review: Gilded: How Newport became America’s richest resort

Gilded: How Newport became America’s richest resort by Deborah Davis is a history of Newport Rhode Island with a focus on its wealthy inhabitants. In many very short chapters she tells interesting anecdotes about some of the famous and not so famous people who passed through Newport.

I read this book because I am always looking at popular non-fiction to see if there are ways to make the book I am working on more marketable. The book was easy to read but it was a little light on substance.

I didn’t really know that much about Newport before I read the book. I have been there once and saw the Touro synagogue (which she doesn’t talk about) and one of the Gilded Age mansions – the Breakers I think.

Her narrative goes from the colonial period to the present. Newport gained its identity during the Gilded Age. Davis’s depiction of twenty-first century Newport does not seem that different from the nineteenth century period. She describes opulent, extravagant parties in both eras. The book is similar to taking a tour of one of the mansions where you get to peek in on the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

 

Book Review: Revolutionary Road

Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, examines the post war suburban life and its conformity. In particular, he focuses on marriage. His main character, April Wheeler is deeply ambivalent about motherhood. The novel takes place in 1955, and describes the lives of April and her husband Frank both before their marriage and after. She is pregnant three times and wishes to abort two of the pregnancies. This is, of course, when abortion is not legal and for dramatic purposes Yates has her rely only on advice from a friend rather than seek medical help. Middle and upper class women were able to access abortions despite its illegality.

Yates portrays April as someone who pregnancy traps. Her first pregnancy propels Frank into a job he hates and eventually they move to the suburbs of Connecticut. They have a second child without comment but a few years later April feels completely suffocated by her life and plans an escape. They will move to Paris and she will work while Frank decides what great thing he will do. April needs to feel there is a point to her life; working in a foreign country appears to fulfill that need. Frank is more ambivalent about this plan but they proceed.

Before they can bring the plan to fruition, April is pregnant again. This third unwanted pregnancy propels the story to a tragic denouement. Throughout the whole story it is clear that April desperately wanted to determine her own life and have autonomy over her decisions.

Although abortion was illegal in all states and only two states allowed therapeutic abortions in the interest of the women’s health, many women received abortions every year. The largest group of women who sought abortions were married and already had children. Thus, Yates’s portrayal of April Wheeler was a very representative one. One fifth of the women Alfred Kinsey interviewed for his study of sexual behavior had had abortions. Middle class women, in general, had access to services including abortion that poor women did not.

When April is pregnant for the third time and wishes, once again, to abort, Frank wages a fierce battle to prevent her from doing so. Eventually he persuades April that she needs psychological help. Although Yates has Frank somewhat cynically use this argument to prevent the abortion, the portrayal of a woman who did not wish to have another child as mentally ill was a very prevalent idea in the 1950’s. Popular psychology decreed that if a woman wanted to both work and be a mother she had to be in conflict. A woman who denied procreation was denying pleasure.

The book is very well written. It has many fans; one is Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men. In2008 a movie version of it with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett opened. No one in the book is very likeable but he is trying to show you the trap that the characters are in. In the movie which must externalize much of the novel’s internal drama,  April does become more sympathetic because Frank is such a dog.

 

Better Late Than Never

The current issue of The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs has a review of Brewing Battles. The book was published over three and a half years ago but such delays are fairly common in academic reviewing.

If you want to read the full review you must be subscribed to the journal. If you have any interest in the topic I would encourage you to do that.

Martin Stack reviewed both Brewing Battles and Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew. Here is an excerpt:

“Mittelman’s approach is quite different. She provides a more complete chronological overview, beginning decades before Ogle does. While she doesn’t spend as much time as does Ogle in connecting changes in the beer and the brewing industry to broader cultural and social developments, she is excellent on two key topics that Ogle downplays, regulation and worker-brewery relations. Mittelman examines thoroughly the history of the complex regulatory environment connecting beer, breweries, and the state and federal government, highlighting how and why this set of interconnections has changed over time. … Mittelman makes a significant contribution in her detailed discussions of how breweries and the federal government set about to develop a post-repeal regulatory system. …

Another topic Mittelman handles very well concerns worker-brewery relations. This discussion draws from some of her earlier work, and she provides some excellent analysis here. Of particular import is her discussion of brewery workers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; she notes that brewery workers, as did workers in many industries, focused too much on their internal struggles. For brewing this proved particularly short sighted, as workers and owners did not ‘form a self-conscious alliance … to combat prohibition forces … until 1913.’ (p. 61)

Together, the Mittelman and Ogle books bring much needed attention to an understudied topic. … As a student of this industry, I greatly prefer Mittelman’s book.”

It is never too late for such praise.

 

Beer Cookery

While doing some research for my new book, I came across a review, in the New York Times of Beer Cookery by Michael Harrison. It was  published in 1954. “From England comes, not so oddly, “Beer Cookery.” There recipes are inclined to be of the squeeze-of-this and a pinch-of-that variety. They sacrifice accuracy to breeziness. And I believe than most people are looking for improved techniques rather than warmed-over witticisms.”

Obviously, the reviewer did not like the book very much. I thought it was interesting that the cookbook is from 1954 since, at least in America, we think of that period as the dark days  before craft beer appeared. Cooking with Bud is not appealing. If anyone has a copy of the book let me know.

Book review: Amy Bloom

A few weeks ago, I read a review of Amy Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out in the New York Times. The review said the book was a collection of related stories about academic couples. I decided to read it since I am using literature in Dames, Dishes, and Degrees.

A collection of two interrelated sets of short stories and four unrelated stories, Bloom’s work is only tangentially about academia. Despite this, I really enjoyed reading it. I have been reading so much nonfiction, watching reality television, and listening to the news that it felt like a real treat to enter the world she created.

Fiction, if well done, can be more realistic than reality. I thought the stories about William and Clare, a middle-aged couple who briefly find love, were the best. The people in Bloom’s stories are often deeply flawed but manage to survive.



Joy in the Morning: Book Review

Betty Smith wrote Joy in the Morning in 1963. She was the author of the very well known, A Tree Grow in Brooklyn. Joy in the Morning is about Annie Brown and her first year of marriage.  Only eighteen, she moves from Brooklyn to marry Carl Brown who is a law student at a midwestern state university.

The book is semi-autobiographical. As a newlywed, Betty Smith moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where her new husband was studying law at the University of Michigan.

I was interested in Joy because the book I am working on looks at the wives of students, both graduate and undergraduate. The University Of Michigan had a National Association of University Dames (NAUD) chapter well as a Faculty Women’s Club, which still exists.

Annie does not belong to any of these groups but Smith movingly conveys her sense of being an outsider. Annie, like Smith, wants to write and eventually audits a playwriting class.

The book is lovely and very sweet in a non-sentimental way. Smith depicts the struggles that Annie and her husband Carl have, dealing with money, adjusting to marriage, and the birth of their son, honestly, in an authentic voice.

Carl eventually gets a job as a night watchman at a nearby factory.  He is able to get this job because the previous guard died. Annie feels badly about their good fortune resting on the death of someone so she decides to write about it.“

Annie spent the night writing the story. She wrote under great compulsion. She couldn’t stand it that a human being had lived and died and that there was no record that he had ever been. She felt that writing about him she was establishing the fact that he had lived and walked the earth and had once been a man.” 1

The women I am writing about had families and people who knew and now remember them, yet this sentiment spoke to me because I want to give then back their identity and humanity.

Betty Smith
Betty Smith

Academic Couples

This post is an expansion of a comment I made to Tenured Radical’s post, “Never Mix, Never Worry: A Brief (and incomplete) History of the Academic Couple”. She wrote the post in response to Caroline Bick’s  essay in the Sunday New York Times, “Is the Husband Going to Be a Problem.”

That question arose in the mind of a professor interviewing Bick for her first academic position. Bick’s essay mentions this sexist thinking about her husband potentially being a hiring issue. However, this is not really the main point of the article, which is not about sexism in academia but is about the intersection of careers and relationships.

Her advisor reassured her potential employer, not Bick as Tenured Radical indicates. Bick wishes she could have responded. She would have told them that it would be no problem because she planned to chain him under the bed. Bick does acknowledge that the “adult” behavior expected of her in the moment would up influencing her choices for many years.

Tenured Radical and many of the commenters felt that Bick’s story had a happy ending because she, her husband, and their children live together in the same city. It is a successful conclusion from the point of Bick’s relationship with her husband. The husband’s first career ended and he had to reinvent himself. As I know from personal experience this can be very difficult. If the woman had to give up her chosen academic career but got to live in the same city with her husband and children would it still be a successful conclusion?

Tenured Radical feels that the issue of “academic commuting” is a recent problem. “Once women decided to stop baking cookies for their husband’s seminars and type manuscripts for love and pin money, it occurred to them get their own advanced degrees (it was around the mid 1960s, when women’s liberation really took off,…)” Was feminism really as straight forward and simple as women making a conscious choice to stop baking cookies and get PhDs? I guess there were not any social forces that kept them baking and no changes that enabled woman to have more options, in both career and personal life.

The post contains several pictures of Elizabeth Taylor from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the reader might assume she represents the prototypical faculty wife. Honey, the younger woman in Edward Albee’s play, actually better fits the stereotype of the faculty wife.

Sandy Dennis, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Sandy Dennis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Martha, the character Elizabeth Taylor plays, is an alcoholic, frustrated and vengeful woman. Her frustration does not seem to be related to her not having obtained an academic job. She does not really fit into the point Tenured Radical makes about  secret drinking by faculty wives.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

College campuses across America have scholarship funds for women returning to school, loans for students, funds for campus beautification, and wings in medical centers because of faculty wives. Apparently, these women found time to do other things besides baking cookies and becoming alcoholics.

Spousal hires are much more likely if one or both of the people are stars or if they are looking for jobs at large public universities. In general, small private liberal arts colleges cannot easily add a second line when trying to hire someone. In addition, spousal hires can often conflict with affirmative action goals.

Two people in the same field are unlikely to wind up with two jobs at the same institution.   Someone will have to give up and do something else; that is what happened to Bick and her husband.

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