I’d been vaguely meaning to read this book since it first came out in 2015, and only recently learned that an updated edition was released in 2021; I figured I might as well finally check it out. This book is maybe more firmly in the self-help genre than I was expecting, and some of the metaphors (sexuality as garden, certain brain structures/systems as an “emotional One Ring”) were either cheesy or hard for me to follow, but there was enough interesting/useful information for me to be glad I did finally get around to this. I appreciate that this book does not assume heterosexuality or monogamy, and, metaphors aside, I mostly like Nagoski’s writing style, which is approachable and generally clear.

It was interesting to read about the changes in how sexual response has been conceptualized/understood over the years, from the “four-phase model” focused on physical phenomena that was formulated in the 1960s by Masters and Johnson (excitement/plateau/orgasm/resolution) to Helen Singer Kaplan’s “triphasic” model from the 1970s (desire/arousal/orgasm) to the “dual control model” that was “developed in the late 1990s by Erick Janssen and John Bancroft” (the brain has an accelerator/it also has brakes; flooring the accelerator is not particularly useful if the brakes are still engaged). It was also interesting to read about stress and the idea that our bodies and brains are, in evolutionary terms, good at dealing with intense stressful situations with a clear beginning, middle, and end (like: being chased by a lion) which doesn’t really help in modern life where in general “our stressors are lower intensity and longer duration.” A key point in this section is about the need for “completing the stress response cycle and recalibrating your central nervous system into a calm state” rather than “self-inhibition”, which can involve “stopping the stress response midcycle.” Other highlights: spontaneous desire vs. responsive desire and the fact that many people experience both at different points in their lives, and some surprising-to-me stats like the fact that “80-90 percent of women who masturbate typically do so with little or no vaginal penetration” (I would have guessed a lower number for that!) and that “approximately 30 percent of women experience nocturnal orgasm” (I would have guessed higher!).

Underground by Will Hunt

December 28th, 2022

In the nine chapters of Underground, Will Hunt talks about his personal fascination with underground spaces and their larger historical/cultural significances in various places and times through history, from caves where Paleolithic people painted images or created sculptures to NYC subway tunnels and the people who explore them and/or write graffiti in them. He travels to the world’s oldest known mine (an ochre mine in Western Australia) and crosses Paris underground (in a chapter that made me grin for many reasons, not least because one of his companions for that trip was someone who is an acquaintance of mine). He talks about the experience of being lost underground, and the experience of being alone in the dark zone of a cave. The book is a great mix of personal experience/reportage and research on various historical aspects of underground exploration, and it’s pleasingly wide-ranging in more ways than just the geographical span it covers. Hunt talks about microbiology and a theory that life may have originated underground rather than on our planet’s surface; he talks about neurobiology and altered states of consciousness; he talks about ant nests and underground cities; he talks about the first known map of a cave. Black and white images throughout add to the narrative, and I like the way that Hunt writes, which is often lyrical in a way I find very satisfying. Like: “The underground is our ghost landscape, unfolding everywhere beneath our feet, always out of view.” Or: “In a realm of palimpsests, the graffiti from spray cans of cataphiles obscured smoke streaks from torches of seventeenth-century quarry diggers, which obscured fossils of ancient creatures embedded in the limestone.” Or, when he’s talking about Wilgie Mia, that ochre mine: “it felt like the place where red began.”

Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

November 13th, 2022

Savage Gods is a book about writing and a book about being stuck and a book about trying to figure things out. Kingsnorth writes about how he and his wife, Jyoti, bought a house and some land in Ireland because he wanted to feel connected to a place, and because he thought “that the work of being in a place would still [his] unquiet mind” (7). As it turns out: wherever you go, there you are, and if you’re a writer with a tendency to be very much in your head, you will probably still be very much in your head even if you are also doing the physical work of planting trees and tending to fields and growing food. Kingsnorth fantasizes, sometimes, about a bigger change of place, a bigger change of self: “I would like to live on the Grand Canal. I would like to drop all of this and move to Venice with Jyoti and change my name and wear a linen suit every day and wander the streets and drink strange orange drinks in little bars down crumbling alleyways and gaze up at huge Tintorettos in dark old churches, forever” (96). But he doesn’t, or at any rate hasn’t yet. What he has done is written this book, which is partly about the specifics of his life (his sense that his old way of writing no longer serves him, his reactions against his father and his father’s values, when he was younger, and how he feels when his dad eventually takes his own life) and partly about how he conceptualizes the mid-life moment he’s in, which he describes in the context of a talk he heard by Colin Campbell about the idea, in Botswana, that “the first half of our lives is fire, the second water” (32).

My husband read this book a few years ago and loved it, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it, too, though it wasn’t exactly what I expected. I was expecting more about Kingsnorth’s daily life in Ireland, and I liked the moments when he writes specifically about the place he’s in and his experience of it—like at the start of the book when he talks about the field he’s sitting in and describes it as “a long, thin field, grass and dock and plantain and ground ivy, hedged in with thorn and sycamore and elder” (4). Or when he talks about trying to “resist the impulse to catalog” but admits that he’s “been making a list for three years of all the birds that visit our land in the course of the year” and then gives us the “edited highlights”: “Wagtail. Bullfinch. Dunnock. Wren. Collared dove. Robin. Long-tailed tit. Goldfinch. Swift. Swallow. Blackcap. Coal tit. Willow warbler. Sparrowhawk. Fieldfare. Pheasant. Heron” (28). But I ended up liking the other aspects of the book, too, in part because Kingsnorth’s writing, at the sentence/phrase level, is really really satisfying.

Before reading Nineteen Reservoirs, I knew a little about the Croton reservoir system that brings some water to New York City—I knew there used to be a reservoir where the New York Public Library at Bryant Park is now, and I’ve walked up the spiraling stairs of the High Bridge Water Tower (and across High Bridge itself), and I’ve seen the Croton Dam. But I knew almost nothing about the “six great reservoirs” constructed between 1907 and 1967, to which Sante devotes the bulk of this book. Sante writes about how and when those reservoirs were built, and about the villages and farms and houses and lives that those reservoirs displaced; she writes about the way the city used eminent domain to acquire land, and about the often protracted claims processes for compensating people displaced by the reservoirs’ construction. She also writes about other factors in the conversation around water supply and water usage: I had no idea, for example, about the decades-long debates about installing water meters in New York City residential buildings, from the time of Boss Tweed onwards.

I like the historical context around water usage in New York City that Sante provides, like the fire risk posed by periods when a lack of water meant that “pipes lacked sufficient pressure to serve the upper floors of buildings” (5) or how before the bigger reservoirs west of the Hudson were built, the city had “$150 million worth of dry goods sitting uninsured in warehouses because the water supply was inadequate for putting out fires” (35). The text about the reservoirs themselves is full of facts and figures—how many people were displaced, how many bodies needed to be moved from cemeteries and reinterred elsewhere, how many gallons of water a reservoir holds, how much water the city was using per day at a certain point in time, how much different people in different villages were compensated for their land. All those numbers (and the dates of the reservoirs’ construction) won’t necessarily stick with me, but this book was worth reading to gain some awareness of the big-picture history here. I also loved all the historical maps and photos that Sante includes with the text, and the color photos by Tim Davis from 2020 that are included in the epilogue. (And the epilogue itself, with its looser/more poetic prose, is really pleasing to me—like when Sante writes that “the water reflects clouds that appear to come from an old-master painting, and the scene is so primordial the dam in the distance just looks like a piece of tape on the canvas” (162).)

On a personal note, this book also prompted me to learn some family history: I thought I remembered a story from my childhood about my maternal grandmother’s dad working on the Scituate Reservoir in Rhode Island; I also thought I remembered that my maternal grandmother was born in New York, and I wondered if her dad worked on any of the reservoirs in this book. I asked my mom and she said she thinks my grandma was born at Brown’s Station; this photo that Sante includes in the book of a camp school at Brown’s Station for children of reservoir workers predates my grandma’s birth by 5 years, but I think her dad probably did work on the Ashokan.

This book is definitely an academic text rather than a general history of the subway, and as such I’m not really the intended audience—and the fact that I read this while home sick with covid probably doesn’t help with my retention of the subject matter. But I nevertheless enjoyed this study of “how the daily transit experience” (in New York, after the subway opened in 1904) “was involved in shaping modern urban life and subjectivity.”

I probably liked the straight-up historical aspects of this book the most, like the descriptions of the subway’s opening in 1904, including a passage about the cheering spectators who watched as “the train approached the viaduct over Manhattan Valley between 122nd and 133rd St. and then emerged from the depths.” I liked learning about/thinking about aspects of the subway I hadn’t previously considered, like the fact that when it opened, to get in a passenger bought a paper ticket from one person, then gave it to another person to tear, like a ticket for a play, or the fact that, as Höhne puts it, “There was a conscious decision to leave elements like steel girders, rails, and control units exposed in order to demonstrate the structure’s sturdiness and technical perfection.” It was also interesting to read about the “abundance of visual signals” passengers had to deal with in an era of different subway operators and non-standardized maps and signage. And the chapter about complaint letters (on topics ranging from sanitation issues to violence on trains or in stations to slow/unreliable service) and how the complaints were dealt with provided an interesting way of looking at the subway and its issues in the 1960s.

Built by Roma Agrawal

May 30th, 2022

In the fourteen sections/chapters of Built, Roma Agrawal explores various aspects of structural engineering and the built environment, sometimes from a personal perspective and sometimes from a more historical one. Early in the book, Agrawal describes her background: she initially went to university to study physics, then fell in love with engineering and became a structural engineer; she’s designed buildings, bridges, and more, and was part of the team that designed the Shard in London. Throughout the book she uses her personal experiences and historical examples as a way to talk about the issues that engineers in general have to consider on various kinds of projects. So for example, she uses her “first project after leaving university,” which was “the Northumbria University Footbridge in Newcastle,” as a way to discuss beams, columns, struts, and trusses, and how they help structures deal with the forces on them, after explaining that “a major part of the engineer’s job is figuring out how structures can withstand the manifold forces determined to push, pull, shake, twist, squash, bend, rend, split, snap or tear them apart.” Elsewhere in the book she discusses building materials, from clay and brick to iron, steel, and concrete; she also talks about things like the challenges of transporting fresh water and human waste to and from buildings and cities. I particularly liked the chapter about protecting buildings from fires and the chapter about bridges (which features five very different examples of bridge construction, from different times and places), but really every chapter contained a lot of interesting things, even if I already knew about some of them (like Emily Warren Roebling’s role in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, or Joseph Bazalgette’s design for London’s sewer system). And there was plenty that was new to me, like the concept of “self-healing concrete” containing “tiny capsules of calcium lactate” and bacteria that can make calcite to fill cracks, if the concrete cracks and water gets in, or like the work done to stabilize the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City (which had been settling unevenly over the centuries), or like the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland, which lifts boats and connects canal systems.

In Women, Race & Class, Angela Y. Davis looks at US history from colonial times onwards and highlights the many moments when sexism, racism, classism, or some combination of all three prevented various progressive social movements from reaching their full potential. With solidarity, Davis argues, societal transformation is possible; without it, things only get so far. I knew some of this history but not all of it: my early exposure to feminism was definitely to the white middle-class variety (including some lesbian/queer perspectives), and what I learned in school about the woman suffrage movement/early women’s rights movement in the US didn’t focus on the way it “all but ignored the predicament of white working-class women, as it ignored the condition of Black women in the South and North alike,” as Davis puts it. While some, like Sarah and Angelina Grimke, realized “the inseparability of the fight for Black Liberation and the fight for Women’s Liberation,” others, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, saw those goals as having points of competition and conflict, and ignored the fact that “the abolition of slavery had not abolished the economic oppression of Black people, who therefore had a special and urgent need for political power.”

The chapter on Education and Liberation was super-interesting, and I liked learning about the Black and white women Davis highlights in the “Communist Women” chapter, none of whom I had previously heard of.

I picked this book up from a Little Free Library near me and it had a sticker + bookmark in it saying it was selected thanks to donations from the Little Free Diverse Libraries project, which I hadn’t heard about before. I’m grateful to have had the prompt to read this book, and I’m going to put it back in the Little Free Library where I found it so that someone else can learn from it too.

I didn’t realize when I requested this slim book of essays from the library that all nine pieces in it are also in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, which I’ve been meaning to read since, um, 2013 but haven’t yet, but that’s OK: Perec is great, and I find small books like this charming. The pieces range from literary criticism (like the opening piece, which is about Robert Antelme’s L’espèce humaine) to the more clearly personal (like “Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die”, which is a list of 37 items). Questions of organization and categorization come up repeatedly, whether in the title piece or in the excellent “‘Think/Classify'”, which is probably my favorite piece in the book. Throughout, there are a bunch of lists, which I love. Perec talks about his writing life from various angles—the kinds of writing he does, the objects that surround him as he works (in a great piece called “Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work-table”), what interests him. He writes about reading, too, in an essay called “Reading: A Socio-Physiological Outline,” in which he says this: “Reading isn’t merely to read a text, to decipher signs, to survey lines, to explore pages, to traverse a meaning; it isn’t merely the abstract communion between author and reader, the mystical marriage between the Idea and the Ear. It is, at the same time, the noise of the Métro, or the swaying of a railway compartment, or the heat of the sun on a beach and the shouts of the children playing a little way off, or the sensation of hot water in the bath, or the waiting for sleep…”

My other favorite piece in this collection is “Approaches to What?”, in which Perec talks about how the “daily papers talk of everything except the daily” and wonders: “What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it?” I love his suggestions for exploring the ordinary in this piece: “Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare” and “Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out” and “How many movements does it take to dial a phone number. Why?”

Sticker by Henry Hoke

March 12th, 2022

Sticker is a “memoir in 20 stickers”: twenty short essays that range in timespan and topic from the Mr. Yuk stickers of Henry Hoke’s early childhood (adorning bottles of cleaning supplies under the sink) to a “Hilton Head” HH bumper sticker that also makes Hoke think of his own initials, and of “Heil Hitler”, and of Heather Heyer, who was killed while peacefully protesting the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where Hoke also grew up. Several of the pieces involve a consideration of/reckoning with the racism of the South (and of America more generally): Hoke, who is white, talks about the very different architecture of one school built in Charlottesville in the 1920s for Black students and another built, at the same time, for white students; he talks about his own great-great-grandfather in Alabama who “drafted election laws” that were “designed specifically to disenfranchise newly eligible Black voters”; he talks about Jefferson and Monticello and UVA and the buildings that were constructed and the grounds that were cleared by enslaved people. Other pieces are more directly about Hoke’s experiences and memories, whether that’s about growing up with a mom who uses a wheelchair, or having “I AM GAY” painted on his car with shoe polish when he was a teenager, or kissing a boy at summer camp. Sometimes the stickers are central to the pieces; other times they’re more tangential. Hoke and I are close in age, and I liked reading Hoke’s memories of cultural reference points that resonate with me, too: the “Mr. Men” books, Lisa Frank stickers, Airheads candy and “the great white shark in the aquatic fruit snacks”, the song “Both Hands” by Ani DiFranco.

The Fire Next Time consists of two essays, one short and the other longer, both a mix of the personal and the more general, both about being Black in America. I’d read part of the longer piece in The New Yorker, and it made me want to read the whole thing.

The first piece (the shorter one) is in the form of a letter from Baldwin to his teen nephew, on the occasion of “the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” pointing out that America still has a long way to go. Of the circumstances of his nephew’s birth, Baldwin writes this: “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.” And this: “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” He talks about white people being “trapped in a history which they do not understand”, and deluded by their history into maintaining racist beliefs (which are themselves delusional). And then, at the end of the piece, there’s this: “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.”

The idea of freedom or the lack thereof recurs in the book’s longer piece, which begins with Baldwin’s recollections of his own teen years, in which Christianity seemed to him to be a path to safety, until it no longer felt that way. Later in the piece, Baldwin talks about the Nation of Islam and recounts an evening he spent with Elijah Muhammad and some Nation of Islam members in Chicago. But neither Christianity nor the Nation of Islam, Baldwin feels, gets anyone anywhere: both, he argues, are based on fictions (the fiction of a white God, the fiction of a Black Allah) and neither operates with sufficient love, which, to Baldwin, is humanity’s only real chance at getting anything right. Baldwin writes about his own childhood experiences with racism and with the cruelty of the police; he writes about walking to the library when he was 13 and hearing a cop mutter the n-word as he walks past, and about a frightening and cruel encounter when he was 10 in which two policemen left him “flat on [his] back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.” About this, and about his friends’ reactions to similar experiences, he writes this: “One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.” He writes, too, of the sense of fear of growing up Black in a racist country, even before being old enough to understand or be fully aware of it: he writes that the Black child “must be “good” not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel. And this filters into the child’s consciousness through his parents’ tone of voice as he is being exhorted, punished, or loved; in the sudden, uncontrollable note of fear heard in his mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary.” He writes of the despair of feeling that “The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you.” And yet, through and despite all that, Baldwin writes about keeping going, about living anyway, about wanting to be “larger, freer, and more loving,” while also not having any illusions about that being easy or inevitable.

I love the rhythms of Baldwin’s prose, the pacing of his long sentences; the pieces in this book speak movingly of his experiences and Black American experiences more generally, and make me want to read more of his work.