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review 2017-01-31 15:14
How to Think About Sex (Without Overthinking It)
Action: A Book About Sex - Amy Rose Spiegel

Action: A Book About Sex is the cool guy/gal you hooked up with in high school or college who was way too attractive and confident for you but helped you find your way from theory to concept (in a sexual sense). After years of euphemisms and pseudo-psychology, and (worst of the bunch) seduction guides and self-help books, Action is the grown-up (but not too grown-up) discussion about sex we never knew we needed. It's direct, sensitive, encouraging, and mostly just a lot of fun -- alone or with friends!


Sex writing usually wavers between the sensual and the technical, Action doesn't much bother with either. It's crass and straightforward, but not demeaning. Spiegel shows that sex doesn't have to be so self-serious to be mind-boggling enjoyable, or to be meaningful for that matter. She doesn't really present any new information here, at least not to anyone buying a book about sex who isn't a 15 year-old boy, but she kind of opens the blinds on all the kind of unspoken assumptions many of us harbor about sex/dating/etc. and exposes them to the daylight. This happens in a number of ways but I wanted to focus on three themes that come out of the book. They're kind of suggestions but also demonstrated in the way Spiegel writes.


The first is openness. Spiegel says we should really be talking more about sex. About consent, about identity, about sexuality and kinks, about relationships, about positions, and everything else. Especially with your partners (obviously), but in public life too. It's kind of like talking about money, decorum tells us to hush up, but some frank discussions would do a lot of good in both realms.


Spiegel starts with a section saying as much right away, which makes openness less a theme than just a thing she says, except it continues popping up throughout the book. I mean, if the branding wasn't so bad it could be called "Talking: A Book About Sex."  Talk to new people you might want to sex! Talk with people you already sex to make sure your sex is as good as it can be (for both involved)! Talk with someone your maybe about to sex to see if they're really down with that! Talk about trying something new! Talk about a trip to the sex store! It touches on a bonus theme of embarrassment I won't really discuss, but by not talking about sex we are closing off possibilities we can really enjoy. We've all been frustrated by situations where everyone is deferring and nobody will make a decision where to go for dinner, it's like that except no one bothers to mention dinner and just hopes to happen into a restaurant and then order food for the other person.


Second: Spiegel reminds us that there are two people (or three) in the bed. Note the emphasis on people. Gender always comes second to humanity in this book, because this is obviously the treatment we've needed for a very long time. Action is a book about sex, largely for entertainment but with a lot of practical content too, and that content is about having a better sex life. What it is not is a book about seducing women, or pleasing men. Spiegel is always working under the assumption that the other party in this matter is a thinking, feeling person and would like to be treated as such.


Of course, Action gets more specific when it comes to handling genitalia, but when it comes to seduction technique or being better in bed it's not about some technique or trick or pseudo-psychology, it's about respect and openness (see above). Success isn't about who you have sex with, it's about how you feel about that person and both of you having a good time. There's no shortcut there, you just have to think about it and work it out. Actually, there's one technique she says will make you as insightful as Mel Gibson in What Women Want but you'd have to go back and read point 1. (Edit: more insightful than Gibson, he mostly uses his gendered mind-reading in that movie to be a manipulative dick.)


Lastly: Spiegel grounds the discussions in real terms and situations. Some jargon does appear here -- intersectionality, non-binary, cisgender, BONE-A-ZONA -- but Spiegel uses it sparingly and playfully. Like I said above, she is unflinching, as it should be: she's writing a book about sex, now is not the time to get coy. Her candidness makes everything better and more clear because she describes something real and specific. Here she talks about just meeting people:


"Eight times out of ten, if you introduce yourself to a new person, assume some air of great purpose about you, and tell them something honest and enticing in its irregularity (especially if it also happens to be funny), that person will talk to you."


Spiegel then spends most of the chapter on talking: good pick-up lines, having something to say, asking questions, pushing when they answer "good" or "not much." It's five pages on what is essentially you're time-tested, basic script hook up, but she demystifies it. Here's where you are, here's what you do, there's no script, just some prompts, because the biggest problems are getting the gumption up to talk with someone and have the grace to move on when it doesn't pan out. Again, it's not about seduction, it's about meeting people (see point 2). If you're open and outgoing, opportunities will arise, but if you fixate on someone you forget they are a real person with their own feelings and tastes that has no obligation to return your attraction.


When Spiegel does share tips they are broad and she doesn't claim universal, though they seem like a good idea. Spiegel admits she's into good posture, or how she digs getting oral sex while lying on her stomach, but everyone has their own preferences, it's what makes the world go 'round.


Then it all cycles back to point 1, or maybe they're all one point: talk respectfully about sex in clear terms, you wild lovechild.


SUMMARY: This was kind of a weird review, but this was also an unusual book and I was really interested in the way everything was presented. The result was something about style and about what spoke to me, but also recounting some messages from the book. This makes some sense because form is important and the way Spiegel presents the information reflects the approach she is advocating: direct, unashamed, sensitive and curious. I hope this review made sense is all I'm saying. Thanks for reading!



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review 2016-12-20 14:36
Maybe the Sky isn't Falling, It's Awfully Big You Know
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism - Kristin Dombek

Nearly halfway through this book-length essay Kristin Dombek admits to using the kind of shallow depictions she is criticizing in other books and articles, but then it is a problem inherent to the form. How does one capture a person in 1,600 words, or even 70,000? 


The problem Dombek is exploring in The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism is a rash of lazy pop psychology online diagnosing pseudo-celebrities, ex-boyfriends, and an entire generation (spoiler alert: it's millennials) of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If Dombek isn't able to adequately sum up the lives of the people she brings into her arguement, it only serves her point. She may not be able to prove someone isn't a narcissist but the takeaway is that it is a very difficult thing to sum up a life, to throw a label around is a dangerous thing to do unless you can really back it up.


The thinness of internet diagnoses is almost comical, but Dombek, being a more serious essayist than myself, gives them an honest hearing and delves into the history of narcissism from the Greek story of Narcissus through Freud and finally to the DSM. It's a troubled history, based on misunderstanding and often reflecting as much on the diagnostician than on the diagnosed.


I could have been satisfied with just her chapter "The Millennial" which goes into the story of Allison, whose callousness on an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen has become legend in books and essays and in the popular conception of the narcissistic millennial. Except, of course, she has a whole life, almost none of which was the one sentence where she insisted on closing down a street that goes past a hospital for the sake of her birthday party (and I think we've all known since at least 2005 that reality shows have naught but the thinnest relation to the reality they depict, much less any reality we know).


"It takes only a brief Internet search, though, to flesh out a bit more bout Allison's life," Dombek says, as if no one had considered to look past the surface before judging that there was nothing behind it.


She's married, Dombek reports, she and her husband run a foundation to help impoverished school children in Atlanta. She got her bachelor's degree in psychology. She may be a narcissist, she may be a sociopath for all I know, but casting a diagnosis based on one moment, or on any one appearance on MTV, must necessarily be more about our own assumptions about a group than about that group itself.


I don't think our tendency to play armchair psychologist is all that novel or dangerous, but I think Dombek has produced a thoughtful work here that hopefully reminds us that when we decry people who live on the internet we're judging people by what we see on the internet. It's well researched but is grounded in the experience of the writer who has been thinking of these things, witness as we all are to selfies and food pics and the other wonders of social media.


The Selfishness of Others is a slim book for all it contains, it is focused and can be gone through quickly. Be ready for some dense psychology stuff when you get into the thick of things, but it is worth getting through.

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review 2016-07-27 14:03
'Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs' by Chuck Klosterman
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto - Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman is a clever guy. That much I can say unequivocally, everything else is up in the air.


Here is the thing. Mr. Klosterman is willing to take on some weird questions    How is Pamela Anderson a reflection of our changing attitudes about sex? How has The Real World changed how Americans view themselves? Can you write 6,000 words about Saved By the Bell?     and it is mostly fun to watch him consider these things. But if I sound underwhelmed it is probably because my expectations were high. This looked like a perfect match, the idea of Mr. Klosterman seemed directly in my wheelhouse. I have been told I look like the guy and I probably write like him a little too . I read an essay he wrote about an unofficial goth day at Disneyland and laughed, but Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs felt just a little flat to me.



Mr. Klosterman worries in the introduction that all the work will become immediately dated by the pop culture references, which will probably happen unless Saved By the Bell enjoys a major comeback, but what looms most now is the rise of the think piece. He may have been groundbreaking at the time, admitting how he watches the Pam Anderson/Tommy Lee sex tape    but not that he derives anything but intellectual stimulation from it     and writing about TV shows through a strange and personal lens, but everyone is doing that now. Kanye West doesn't change T-shirts without a dozen blogs ruminating on what it means that a rap atrist wears $120 cotton tees. It is hard to come at Mr. Klosterman with fresh eyes after 10 years of the 24-hour churn cycle.


What got me, however, is that the questions were generally the most interesting parts of the essays. As he got into the weeds he either digressed or stopped making sense. In fact, here is the one most interesting passage in the book:

...When discussing any given issue, always do three things. First make an intellectual concession (this makes the listener fell comfortable ). Next make a completely incomprehensible  but remarkably specific— "cultural accusation" (this makes you insightful). Finally, end the dialogue by interjecting slang lexicon that does not necessarily exist (this makes you contemporary). 


He follows with some examples. These are his tips for being — or at least projecting yourself as — interesting in conversation, but they might be his tips for writing too. While I probably can't find a statement that exactly fits the formula, it is definitely the recipe for this whole book, a swirl of unexpected conclusions from very specific pop references, self-deprecation and a fresh turn of phrase for garnish.


That realization might have been fatal if I didn't think he realized that himself. Like how Mr. Klosterman enjoys tweaking the very people he knows are his probable readers. He is clever enough to see these features in himself but being meta isn't the same as being good. At parts Cocoa Puffs felt like that first day at college where some professor blows your mind by suggesting there is no such thing as truth, or that porn makes no sense because there is nothing pleasurable to a woman about licking her own tit, but he doesn't want to really get at the answers. The answers are boring and technical and we were having a lot of fun just watching Tommy Lee steer a boat with his dick together and all the ways that is weird. So maybe it is just me, maybe I ruined Chuck Klosterman. 

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review 2016-04-22 21:29
(Expletive Deleted)
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce�s Ulysses - Kevin Birmingham

A portrait of censorship in our own country. Our own legal and cultural moment has swung so decidedly in the way of free expression (though challenges persist) and our national story has been one  of freedom contrasted with the tyranny of fascist countries. I knew Ulysses was once banned for over a decade in America and I assumed it was a bureaucratic matter, a negotiation between the government and publishers, something like television today with the FCC. 


What it actually took to get a modern classic into America, and the risks many took along the way to make that happen is the subject of Kevin Birmingham's The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses. A good bit of set-up is required for the story, and much of  the book details the operations of early 20th century publishing house and their challengers in the vice societies which policed obscene material, along with biography of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach and other colleagues in the defense of literature. Birmingham writes about the sting operations on bookshops, publishers going to jail, publications shut down over the printing of shit or fuck or descriptions of bodies and sexuality. It is, at times, accidentally comical how joyless the societies are in how reluctant they are even in carving out exemptions for classics. Birmingham quotes a decision by Judge Augustus Hand asserting the authority of the US Postal Service to declare material obscene and take action which exempts classics, "because they have the sanction of age and fame and usually appeal to a comparatively limited number of readers."


It seems amazing today that a man who had to watch his own eye surgery while awake(a spine-chilling episode in a book which dwells on Joyce's litany of health problems) would face a decade-long court battle over frank discussions of the body and sex. In a world with real problems (throughout this book I thought  back to the show Scrubs where the character Turk, while getting ready for the birth of his daughter, warns his coworkers not to tell her that she has a vagina until she is 18).


The Most Dangerous Book is an interesting story and a good read, particularly for fans of Joyce. It does a good job answering the questions it wants to address, but that framing is very specific. Birmingham is definitely more interested in the biographical elements than in constitutional history. He provides the required background the context we are given for battle for Ulysses is the development of Modern literature more than the legal battles toward free expression.

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text 2016-04-12 14:41
The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion

I was listening to Radiolab on the drive home from New Jersey, the episode, "23 weeks 6 days," in fact, one that has received much attention and praise but after a long day on the road and seeing extended family, it just exhausted me. I knew where it was going and as much as I wanted to be glad things ended well for the people themselves I could not bear the form any more.


Here is the dirty little secret, for all the crime and horror that comes through in the news, features like "23 weeks 6 days" and specifically podcasts, seem to be almost exclusively positive. In the particular, of course you hope for the best, but at the same time the shows are addressing issues of major consequence nationally and situations that frequently turn for the worse but do we really understand the weight of a situation when we only get one side of the story?


Of course, Joan Didion did not have a story scouted for her, she was writing from her own life and she did not get to choose the ending. Her husband John Gregory Dunne died December 30, 2003. This simple fact dominates The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion writes about grief in a way that is heartbreaking, but also familiar and, somehow, refreshing.



The book is a frank and uneasy look at grief as we experience it. She makes efforts to put her grief in a larger context, to understand her husband's death and her daughter's near-death in medical terms, but she connects most strongly in the details. Little, inconsequential thoughts, fantasy, magical thinking, that we all do. Something we don't throw away, or move or erase. We don't tell ourselves the story, if I take down that note it means she is really dead, but we can't quite give away the last of his clothes even though John Gregory Dunne is dead and will not be needing his shoes. 


If podcasts choose to feature hopeful stories, it is only in the grief of established authors like Didion that we learn what the other half experience, what we all experience eventually. The life expectancy of all lifeforms hits zero at some point. John Gregory Dunne died on December 30, 2003. Joan Didion will die too, and so will my parents and siblings, friends, lovers, and myself. Didion's account of grief, is as cutting as any of her essays. Writers like to intellectualize, but Didion's strength lies in how she resists that temptation. The way she finds the universal in the specific. Grief arrives in memories, not of the great moments but of misadventures, funny anecdotes, actions that reveal something of a larger character. Moments that have ended.


So I do find relief in The Year of Magical Thinking, not in Didion's grief, but in the connection, however one-sided, that I can find in her account of it. Good teachers and apologists for youth sports will emphasize the importance of learning how to lose. The Year of Magical Thinking asks us to consider what it is to really lose and what comes next. Didion offers no answers, doesn't suggest she even has any to offer, except that we are not alone in our loneliness. Not those who lost parents, nor those who have lost children, not those we've seen claimed by cancer, nor those whose babies were not viable at 23 weeks. Sometimes the worst happens.

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