Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich

I dare say I’m too late to the party on this one to say anything that hasn’t already been said. However….

Of course I  knew all about the delusion of ‘positive thinking’, radiating from independent hucksters and Christian conmen, making a fortune from the scam. But I didn’t realise that the scam reached deep into academia, shysters claiming to be teaching science, aka positive psychology.  And I hadn’t cottoned onto the point that it is a manipulative tool to keep people down in the US, in exactly the same way it has been used in, for example, Soviet society. Optimism is denial of reality. As people lost their jobs en masse, middle-class workers, sacked by CEOs who were themselves entirely removed from the morality of the situation, these ordinary folk were expected to be optimistic about everything.

The level of deception goes so far that it explains breast cancer as an opportunity which some women are lucky to get. Equally, each person thrown into the cold trauma of joblessness in the US, is expected to be positively grateful for the blessing thrown their way. Not only that, but part of the scam is that there is to be no complaining, no regrets, no objective analysis implying others might be at fault for one’s predicament. Everything is one’s own fault. What a horrifying judgment to put on people, and to think that they lapped it up, these moronic sheep constituting the middle part of the US’s economy.  Everything, they were prepared to believe – and still are, as far as I know – is in their heads. It is there that the good and the bad, the winners and losers, the success and failure is engendered. Question nothing except your own thoughts.

It’s just got to make your blood boil, reading a book like this and to think it’s only getting worse. And the worse things get, the further people fall, the more people fall, the more ‘positivity’ is drummed into a servile population’s heads.

Odd  moments of humour, but it’s only ever bitter: how could it be otherwise. Such as, ruminating as to the fact that breast cancer is pretty much tied into with ideas of positivity and pinkness and teddy bears, she asks why it is that men with prostate cancer aren’t given Matchbox Cars as their reward. Good question. I suppose in the servility stakes, women are an even worse case then men.

But mainly just the pain of it all comes through on every page. I’ve been meaning to read Nomadland, which is a case study of how that goes, being positive about whatever happens to you, following ex-executives living in caravans and working in appalling conditions at Amazon warehouses and beet picking. Are they all positive about their experiences? You can bet your last dollar on that. Though if you are down to your last dollar you can’t have been thinking the right way. The positive way. But if you are down to your last dollar, you can bet that it’s an opportunity. Nothin’ like bein’ down to your last dollar. Yes sirree. Once you let it in, there’s no escaping positivity. Things even worse than they were? Then you have to be even more positive. It’s the only escape in a country where escape is part of the carrot put in from of you, somewhere you can’t reach.

I find it all very hard to understand, being a games player. There is no room in that world for delusion. Reality – a dirty word in the US of A – is the only basis for success in games. It isn’t rocket science to extrapolate from that to real life and indeed, that’s Ehrenreich’s plea in this book. She’s begging for the bleeding obvious, that life got to be about reality. But I wonder if she got any converts? At the very least, if she’d been trying, there’d be products for sale. Reality t-shirts and stuff. You’d almost think she doesn’t really care.

 

 

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Florence Taylor’s Hats by Robert Freestone and Bronwyn Hanna

Two pieces of advice: this is a serious academic work, not a light by-the-bed biography. The publishers kindly sent me a review copy upon request.

Most history work consists of revision, reassessment of what’s already there. But occasionally the historian has the opportunity to get their hands dirty, digging into the past in order to find clues, sources (not resources), unprocessed data in the field, which then has to be assembled (not reassembled) into a story. In short, one gets to drop all the ‘re’s. It becomes a task of vision and assessment. After history happens, then it is made, as if by an artist moulding clay or organising colours on a palette. The formidable list of sources reflect the work that’s gone into this book.

It’s all rather exciting and it’s onerous, not least because of the responsibility involved. Getting the interviews right because the chance might never offer itself again. Diaries, letters and the like must be found, guarded and interpreted to take their place in the story. The decisions as to what the world will see and how it will see it are yours. How heartbreaking it must have been to discover that a relative had dumped a lot of Taylor’s own collection of her past.

On top of these general concerns, is one that must have been deeply frustrating and disappointing for the authors. It transpires that the output of the architect is largely ephemeral. I hadn’t really thought about this until recently, reading about the work of Yamasaki. Imagine building the Pruitt–Igoe housing project in St. Louis only to see them demolished not so long after, followed by the demise of the Twin Towers in NY. In the case of Taylor, the authors have almost nothing to show for their attempts to seek out extant examples of her work. Adding to this issue is the practice of the work of underlings being appropriated by their seniors, common in so many fields.

Nonetheless, Taylor was prolific in so many ways that there is much referenced in this book. In her life’s work as publisher in the building industry she has left many publications behind which, surprisingly, have turned out to be less transient than bricks and mortar. She weighed into politics, administration, planning, and behind all her activities is the steady beat of her most consistent belief, that of bettering the situation of women. Even her rightwing politics don’t seem as important as her constant fight for equality of women in the work place and at home. She wanted houses designed for women in surrounds which worked for women, which permitted their lives to be easier, and paid work to be possible. Bravo Taylor!

At the time she pulled out of architecture in 1907, after constant battles against the hostile attitudes of the men who made it theirs, she got married and the start of the publishing empire was the combined effort of Florence and her husband. After he died early, that left decades where Florence did it on her own. They’d had no children because of his epilepsy. In fact, I can’t help wondering if the marriage was unconsummated – not something discussed in the book, but surely the authors must have had their questions about this too. In correspondence, interviews etc, they talk of each other as ‘mates’ in a way that seems curiously asexual and they seem close in a decidedly unromantic way, even though poems are written….

When writing such a book, how to organise it is always a dilemma. In this case the authors have chosen a number of themes. This permits the reader to be rather cursory if they please. In my case, although I was looking forward to the chapter dealing with her ideas about town planning, in fact it became evident that if you didn’t know Sydney and weren’t interested in or knowledgable about its planning, the chapter is heavy going. It is, however, important for it to be there. This is a reference book on many levels, not merely a biography. To have a record of what people were talking about, advocating for, at this level of a city’s development, the ideas which were raised, but not taken up, is imperative for a full understanding of that city. And the point should be made that although she was largely ignored at the level of decision making in Sydney, nonetheless some of her big ideas have come to pass.

Like all powerful people, Taylor was difficult and the authors don’t shirk from this. They regularly quote from the unpublished biography Kerwin Maegraith wrote in collaboration, if not collusion, with Taylor late in her life. It’s a disastrous shmaltzy piece of spin – Maegraith’s fame is as a cartoonist, so this may not be a surprise. Freestone and Hanna have put together, in contrast, a warts and all account of a woman who could feud forever – her vitriolic stand agains the Griffins was really something, the more so as they began as friends – or charm the King and Queen of England, as she did upon meeting them.

Taylor is also hard to write about because she’s all over the place. Her ideas change, her loyalties change, little is constant other than her will which she imposes over all she can. She’s indefatiguable, never says die, simply never stops until her body packs up on her completely and she spends the last years of her life more or less solitary. All this, though, from beginnings which did not augur well for her. She was a self-made person if ever there was one and it’s impossible not to respect her incredible rise in fortune.

This is a real labour of love by Freestone and Hanna, one which thoroughly deserves a place in the history of Australia. Could they have made something which was slightly more accessible whilst still being the highly useful work it is? I’d like to think so. The stars I have awarded it are for the content, not the style.

The Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp

Folklore expert Professor Pounce is evading a bridge game by hiding in the attic of a friend’s place when he spies a diary which discusses, he discovers, the Stone of Chastity. Set in a brook, it is a test for females. If they can cross without falling as the step on said stone, they have passed.

For an academic it’s a godsend. He decamps to the village in question, with an entourage including his nephew who is to assist him as he finds out more about the stone and sets upon an experiment using the village women to test the veracity of the legend. What could go wrong?

It’s a nice commentary on the self-absorption of academics. Why on earth would these women object to giving him details of their sex life. It’s for science. Won’t cooperate? What a ridiculous idea. Of course they will.

Meanwhile, the nephew is having women troubles of his own.

This came out in 1940 – I expect Sharp had finished it before the war started. It must have been a gentle distraction at the time and as with all her work hasn’t dated. The humour is fresh, the scenarios hilarious. And as always with her books, I find some new aspect of the English language to delight in.

 

 

There’s no excuse for ugliness by Clive Blazey

I want to end on a good note about this, so let’s start with the bad. There is no excuse for ugliness in book publishing, Clive Blazey. This book has one very poor typesetting decision (repeated several times) and has been abominably proofread. In fact one could safely assume that it can’t have been proofread. May I point out to the author that the same care which he requires us to take of our garden design is no optional matter when it comes to a book.

I won’t talk of editing, as the passionate voice of the author may require a slack hand in that regard.

Few people could be further from being a gardener than am I. In fact, when we took possession of a house with a small amount of land last year, a friend visited whom I bombarded with questions – is this a weed? This? And what about this? He was impressed by my complete ignorance. The ‘garden’ we now owned was a detestable thing with not one concession to beauty. It consisted entirely of yaccas and agaves on account of their being water-cheap. Dirt-cheap in fact.

After a month, I mentioned to our neighbour across the road that I hated them and they were all going. The next morning, whilst still in bed, I heard the sound of chopping out the front. By the time I’d popped some clothes on and gone out to investigate, we had nothing left there but bare, sad looking soil. Step one was finished.

There was nothing for it now but to buy things and plant them, something neither of us had ever done before. I was completely intimidated by the prospect, not least because in my observation of others gardening, it never seemed to be fun. It was a chore involving lots of preparation and grunting. Not to mention barking crossly at the underlings involved. But in fact it couldn’t have been easier. We randomly put in plants all of which were happy with full fierce sun and were drought tolerant but looked nice too. This included several ground covers so that we could stop the weeds and help the soil.

If I had those first days over again, I’d do things differently. We didn’t prepare the soil nearly well enough. Still, the fact is that most things we planted lived and even thrived. In order to get a garden that was flowering in summer, which was our aim, we followed the straight-forward advice of buying the things in nurseries that were flowering. Our first impression is that gardening was too easy.

A year down the track, instead of an arid desert landscape of horrible succulents, we have a pretty, chaotic teensy cottage garden thing happening. But it isn’t enough. Like all slightly interested gardeners, I wanted more, and I wanted to improve what’s there. Mistakes were made which I wanted to fix.

Which brings me to this book. A major hope for me was to create a garden that would be aesthetically pleasing in summer. Serendipitously, for Blazey this is a vital consideration. We have fierce, debilitating summers which are only going to get worse. Blazey not only wants gardens which neutralise, as much as possible, that summer heat, but he is concerned with the psychological aspect as well. One ongoing theme is colours not only that fit together, but which counter the weather. For the dry heat of my part of the world, he wants cool colours. I couldn’t agree more. Some of the garishly extravagant pinks and reds one sees around the place are so wrong. I put in some flowers so blindingly white that you could land an aircraft by tme in the dead of night. It just isn’t right for summer and detracts from the more gentle colours around it.

The book has short guides to what is going on in the garden, basic health of soil, the chain of events keeping plants alive, the general things one should consider in the design. The Diggers Club does something that apparently is novel, though it seems obvious – it gives a guide to the cold zone and hot zone of your area. Each plant’s description includes a code which shows the zones it can be planted in, as well as various attributes such as deciduous, when it flowers, high and width when grown.

Most  notably, Blazey is strongly anti-eucalyptus, whilst happy with suitable imports. Eucalyptus trees do not do a good job of providing shade, which is such a critical requirement in the dry hot heat of Adelaide. So pleased to hear this. I would dearly love to see Adelaide covered in lush greenery that provides the shade which will provide livability to houses, as well as make it far easier to walk. If we don’t have suitable trees, there are at least several months of the year in Adelaide where it is simply impossible to walk. It’s that simple.

That leaves the main part of the book, a reference to many plants which he sees as viable for the various conditions of Australia. I love it, I’ve gained many ideas from it, but nonetheless, to me it makes a basic presumption that he can afford to, since his gardens are huge, but normal householders can’t. A reference like this has to discuss root issues. There are sites online that do this, but I would much preferred it to have been a given in this guide. I think in general I would have loved more guidance for very small gardens.

In summary, a highly informative, slightly eccentric, passionate guide to the potential of suburban gardening in Australia. I thoroughly recommend it.

 

 

 

Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

I love the way blogs continue to survive the onslaught of mega-umbrella-sites. In this case, I’m thinking of Margery Sharp Day, initiated several years ago by the blog Beyond Eden Rock, and picked up by lots of readers who maintain their own blogs. Each has their own community of followers and commentators.

This year Jane, for the day she put into the calendar, read Britannia Mews and as chance would have it, I picked up a copy (along with several other Sharps) just a couple of days later. I put it at the top of the pile.

It’s almost entirely lacking the often acerbic humor of her books, presumably because it was written just after WWII. Instead, there is a story which might almost be a metaphor for the stubbornness without which the UK could not have stood against Hitler, stubbornness without which it is impossible to think of how the world might look now. Adelaide, the chief protagonist, is a young woman with no future she can bear to look towards. She is deprived in the late nineteenth century of the higher education her undeserving brother is permitted. She watches her cousin fall into the sensible marriage that is her only real future and while that is happening, a revolution takes place in her life.

Her painting instructor makes love to her and she instantly is transformed by it. She believes she is in love and nothing – NOTHING – is going to take that away from her. After secret assignations, she announces to her family that she is going to marry this man and elopes with him because it is that or nothing.  They go to live in what is at that point, the slum of Brittania Mews. She soon discovers that he is an alcoholic wastrel. Her life is ruined. And yet she displays all the stiff upper lip of the English in WWII. She has made her bed and although it has been made clear to her than she (but not the scoundrel husband) can come ‘home’ whenever she likes, that is not an option in her mind. When he dies it is still not an option.

After a while she becomes involved with a married man (whose wife is in India and wants nothing to do with him). They live together unmarried for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t mean life becomes easy for Adelaide, it isn’t. But she remains strong and stubborn. Most importantly she relishes being in control; she’d rather a hard life like that, than an easy life as the doormat of family. Independence is everything to her.

This is clearly no conventional kowtowing-to-the-morals-of-the-time storyline. Adelaide has a niece whom she eventually meets and takes under her wing. The niece – and really, this is a long time after Adelaide’s young adulthood – has exactly the same experiences. The utter meaningless of her life insofar as it would be perforce marriage and the running of a house, a loveless union, but no doubt a civilised and practical one. She breaks off her engagement, leaves home, and in a state of profound confusion ends up in the Mews. I don’t know if these things sound trivial these days, but there is no doubt that they are brave and far from trivial acts at the time.

So here we have Adelaide, an eloper, living ‘in sin’ for decades with a married man who takes his wife’s name and Dodo her niece living a fulfilling single life – the implication being this will never change, when the book ends. The book sees the women who behave in the ‘right’ way feeling as if they are losing out to the women who eschew their duty. How unfair! Both Adelaide and Dodo fail to give the filial love which is the only important thing women can do with their lives. Yet it is these two women who carry the book morally. They are true to themselves; though there are moments made to tempt them, they never seriously waver. Sharp makes it quite clear that the women who stay at home and keep house and raise children are not the good women in this story. I thought this was interesting for the period – but maybe that reflects no more than my ignorance.

At the same time, it should be made clear that Adelaide and Dodo aren’t doing what they do, taking the paths they do, living the way they do, because they are moral people trying to do a moral thing. They are simply doing what they want to do. If they are good people, that’s incidental. Indeed, going back to the start of the story, it is entirely Adelaide’s aim to rehabilitate the ‘painter’ she marries. Her plan is for his success (as she dotingly expects in the first instance) to carry them back triumphantly into the mainstream of upper-class society. Tragically, her no-good husband has one talent, it’s for making marionettes. But far from understanding and appreciating this, she scorns them, and him for making them. She wants something to get him into the National Gallery. Later she discovers how wrong she was and interestingly, her defacto partner is presumed to have made them. Neither he nor Adelaide sees any need to rehabilitate the name of the husband. Indeed, the defacto takes on Adelaide’s married name, the first husband is quickly forgotten and nobody even knows within the story that the defacto is not the original husband. It’s all odd and interesting.

There is a movie of the book and it murders the whole idea of it, from what I’ve read of the plot. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to watching it.

 

 

 

The Well and the Shallows by GK Chesterton

I hope it isn’t true, as described on GR, that this is his best collection of articles. It is my first of his. Curiously, although the GR blurb for it calls it a book of essays, one of the pieces in it specifically discusses the notion that he is writing something entirely different from that genre. Indeed, he seems to rather scorn the ‘essay’.

In the main it’s ponderous discussions of Catholicism. Almost however it starts, whether it’s Evolution, Fascism, Birth Control, Liberal politics, it fast becomes what’s good about Catholicism and bad about the other ones. Especially Protestantism, which being Germanic, is linked to the appalling state of affairs in Europe. The one unhesitating thumbs up for the book is that he gets stuck into Hitler, Nazis and Fascism.

But even when he is engaged elsewhere, such as the first essay on alliteration and puns, it all reads like it was hard work to write. He even has the gall to include unaltered as his opening piece, one that has a go at TS Eliot for having a go at him, even though it transpires that it wasn’t TS Eliot he should have been attacking. His preface apologises. But why didn’t he rewrite the piece to fix this? It strikes me as the writer being too fond of his words and not for any good reason.

This is a 1935 collection, which I’m considering interesting primarily for its comments on what’s happening in Germany/Italy etc. I’m not going to give up on him yet as I had a friend stay recently who picked up another from our shelves and stayed up half the night reading it. It must have been a darn sight better than this one.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

I’m just not sure

I wonder why it is that sticking my dick up girls’ arses doesn’t interest me like it used to

why a book that has something interesting to say about academia

The girls love it. Especially when I take my dick out of their arse and get them to lick it. They really like that.

and also about politics

Maybe if I fucked two girls arses and then got them to lick my dick. Maybe I’d enjoy that like I used to. Hmmmm.

should interleave his ideas and quite amusing prose

Or maybe. Oh, I don’t know. Young student? Arse? Licking excrement covered dick? While another one likes my balls maybe? Yeah. Let’s try that.

with tedious, ludicrous shit about girls liking his pathetic (to the reader) dick up their anusses. Maybe it gets guys to read the book.

I kind of wish that it wasn’t a book where the ending was just what you thought it was going to be, but maybe that was the point. That his scenario is inevitable. I don’t know.

Any girls reading this like having dicks shoved up their arses and then get to lick them after? That being the author’s definition of love? Form an orderly queue. I’ll let him know.