A few months ago, I was suffering one of the worst reading slumps ever. I wasn’t in the mood for anything I usually like…so I decided to try something I don’t normally read at all, thinking maybe a big change in reading material might give me some sort of jolt. Though I’ve never gotten into sci-fi lit, it’s one of my favorite movie/TV genres (is that weird?)…so I decided to give the literature another go.
I picked up Neuromancer because I’d heard it was a “classic” of the cyberpunk genre and I’d just re-watched Hackers, which I guess had whetted my appetite. Neuromancer, the first in a trilogy, centers Case, a retired console-cowboy-turned-junkie who is coerced by the ring leader of some sketchy shadow organization to train for one last big trip through the net where he is to steal data from one of the most powerful, secretive companies in the world. But he begins to receive mixed messages from people both present and non-corporeal, leading him to question the real identity and motives of the consciousness from which he is taking orders. His misadventures take him through the black markets of biotechnological reconstruction, military cover-ups, and grisly neon-lit alley murders. With the help of a highly skilled but antagonistic team, Case and his crew break codes no one has before, but once they gain access to the most prized information in the matrix, what is it they find? And how will they make it out?
Gibson uses all kinds of tough, sleek sounding slang that builds tension and makes one feel they’re traveling quickly along invisible wire. As it was published fifteen years before The Matrix came out, it’s clear that Gibson was ahead of the game, and it’s cool to return to a text that obviously inspired so many similarly themed stories even before computers were everyday, at-home-technology. As our experience with technology has only become more complicated, nuanced, and constant, the questions Gibson raises about identity and artificial intelligence are only that much more interesting.
However, my experience with Neuromancer was completely middling. While the plot was fun, there was really no character development and the dialogue was horrendous. It was stilted and cliche, as was the character Molly, Case’s co-conspirator and sometimes lover, who was the only real female character in the book and also the most absurd. She was completely flat, hypersexualized, and seemed to have little life purpose but to be present for Case. She was like an ass-kicking Lara Croft type woman but with less story-background and relegated to the role of girlfriend/side-kick*, which was just kind of eye-rollingly hard to take seriously.
I think there’s still a chance out there for me and cyperpunk/sci-fi lit, or what have you, but if we ever truly hit it off it will be through an author who cares at least as much about character as plot and style. At least, if anything, reading Gibson did restore my craving for more of whatever it is I usually like to read!
*Actually I have a total soft spot for Lara Croft, but that’s really neither here nor there.
Unrelated side notes: I feel really terrible about the fact that I have so far COMPLETELY failed to participate in A Year of Feminist Classics this year. Also, I’m leaving for Kenya tomorrow (!) and have similarly failed to complete my prepared reading list of Kenyan authors and histories. I have also pre-written 0 updates for while I’m out of the country and am like 15 posts behind what I’m currently reading. Siiiiiiiiiiiiiigghhhh!!!!
Fail, fail, fail! BUT I AM NOT GIVING UP. I will do my best to get back on track when I return home later this month, so please bear with me I know you are all very nice and don’t really mind at all anyway and there’s no pressure and for that I thank you. But still!
Confederates in the Attic reads like a series of character sketches of the most eccentric people Horwitz met while following his most enduring childhood interest, the American civil war, on a road trip through the country’s Southern states. While he runs the risk of using the most extreme examples of civil war mania to represent Southern values and culture in general, I do think the “characters” he portrays allow him the opportunity he so desires as someone very much an Outsider: to explore the myriad of ways in which the Civil War remains central to Southern identity construction.
After all, the interests of hardcore re-enactors–and the satisfaction they get from keeping the old fight alive–differs greatly in feel and practice from that of women playing Scarlett O’Hara at international tourist destinations, on the one hand, and confederate flag merchandisers and, yes–contemporary Klansmen–on the other. Whether the appeal is nostalgia for what may in hindsight appear “a simpler time”, community-building outside the perceived constraints and perceived banality of modern life, or simply deep-seated prejudice, the Civil War remains an effective language and reference for communicating both shared discontent and longing for camaraderie.
What is still timely about the Civil War, Horwitz is told time and again by those who look upon it in reverence, are issues like states’ rights, Red vs. Blue state lifestyle battles, and remembrance of past family member’s involvement. Of course, there is great irony in the fact that racism and racial inequality is the only part of Civil War culture that is routinely dismissed as outdated by all but the most openly bigoted despite the persistence and intensity of segregation in the present day South (and elsewhere), the contemporary violence of which is so frequently expressed through Civil War racial rhetoric. One of the most interesting of Horwitz’ encounters, I thought, was with an all-black elementary school class who provided an important counter-narrative to many of those profiled throughout the book. Though he finds their schooling on the Civil War problematic (though certainly no less so than that of mostly-or-all white children’s classes and religious or heritage groups), it perfectly illustrates his point that Southerners still engage regularly and personally with Civil War issues in a way that most people in Northern, Western, and Eastern don’t feel the need to. Why? Horwitz pinpoints the thing that Southern states share, the thing that feeds this need: the unique sense of defeat and loss from within one’s own homeland which is continually reaffirmed.
My favorite part of the book was learning about the intense hierarchy that exists amongst historical interpreters (or re-enactors). What a difference the make of a pants-button or a thread count can make! The method of salting one’s pork alone, it seems, can distinguish the FARBs (those who care not enough for authenticity) from the Hardcores. I also found his bit about Southern Jews to be fascinating. Humor is Horwitz’s strength, as it helps him keep contentious issues engaging, even when enraging. He is sensitive while trying to accurately represent such opposing world views that, as someone who has only visited the South once and briefly (and greatly enjoyed it), I felt my own negative assumptions both justified and challenged at different points throughout the book. Contradictory feelings upon reading fit, I think, as the flexibility of Civil War culture as applied to today’s South produces its own contradictory social and political tensions.
Perfect for fellow social studies and U.S. history nerds, if a little unstructured at times.
Sidenote: Horwitz was taken on a Hardcore Civil War site visit that was ACTUALLY referred to as a “Civil Wargasm”. I smirked a little inside every time I read that title, which was many times.
…and so begins another LONG overdue review of a book read months ago
I began So Far From God after Eva of A Striped Armchair recommended it to me while discussing the Read and Resist Tucson challenge that Melissa of The Feminist Texican started early this year in protest of Arizona’s ethnic studies bans (yes, this was on the banned books list). She referred to it as something like a pleasant surprise which, happily, I found it to be as well!
So Far From God takes place in a small town in my home state, New Mexico, though the world that Sofi and her four enigmatic daughters inhabits evokes experience I was never privy to as an (atheist, Jewish) Anglo. Theirs is an existence steeped in local and ancestral lore, Catholicism, and magical realism on the most mundane of days. But it is also one that is routinely challenged by industrial development and modernist appeals to progress.
Despite Sofi’s best attempts at raising her daughters safely through adulthood, all four come to untimely, tragic ends. La Loca, so-called because her childhood death and subsequent return from the world of spirits left her mind wandering somewhere between the realms of life and death, falls prey to epileptic fits and terminal illness. Caridad, once beautiful and reckless, is ravaged by la Malogra, a wild, invisible monster. She then trains to become a curandera (healer) and falls in love with another woman on the holy march to Chimayo, where she begins to make a name for herself that travels far and wide throughout the religious community, but leaves her vulnerable. Fe, the most conventional of the sisters, wants only to work and maintain a comfortable household with her new husband, but falls ill after being exposed to toxic chemicals at the factory that employs her. Esperanza, the oldest, achieves her dream of leaving New Mexico by becoming a reporter and flying overseas to cover conflict in the Middle East…but never returns.
None of these devastating ends comes as a surprise. Instead, they are regularly foreshadowed in the exaggerated way of upcoming soap opera events. What’s surprising is the way in which Castillo manages an easy, light-hearted tone throughout such sad happenings and keeps the reader hopeful that somehow, things aren’t all as bad as they seem. That hope finds place in the girls’ mother, Sofi, who is repeatedly devastated by the loss of her daughters, but who is not left destitute by them. In fact, she seems to swallow all their strengths as they depart her world, and she becomes a courageous, capable community organizer who works with friends, family, and strangers around her to change what isn’t right, adapting to a world in flux when necessary and holding steadfast to tried and true traditions when possible.
Castillo is a joy to read. Spanish and English flow together in a way that feels natural even to readers who know little-to-no Spanish at all. Her characters are interesting and strange but knowable, her narrative is creatively spun, and she plays carefully but easily with a number of cultures and ideas. A pleasant surprise, indeed.
In the late 1840’s, Kate (age 12) and Maggie (age 15) excitedly reported that they heard “rappings”, or knocking sounds, emanating invisibly from the walls of their Hydesville, NY home. Not only did the origins of the mysterious sounds defy all scientific explanation, but they seemed to reflect a knowing, responsive consciousness. Tales of the Fox girls’ communication with spirits spread rapidly, and American spiritualism was born. For the rest of their lives as mediums, the Fox sisters spearheaded a movement that would forever change popular ideas about death and the afterlife in both America and Europe, and toured as celebrities in an era when most women were strictly limited to the dependent, domestic sphere of the home.
The Fox sisters pronounced themselves spirit mediums at a time of drastic change in mainstream American life caused by increased mobility, urbanization, religious developments, and problems of social in/equality. These changes prompted Americans to grapple with the following questions (p. 6-7):
Shall we pack our worldly goods and journey westward? Or leave the farm behind and head for the city?
Are our struggles moving us upward on the social ladder, or have our risks only pushed us down a notch?
Is our society advancing toward utopian perfection? Or under new pressures…is it descending into chaos?
Those of us who are women–will we stay placidly at home or step out into the street, into the labor force, into public life?
Those of us who are enslaved–will we remain in bondage or march forward into freedom?
…am I bound for heaven or hell?
…what control do we have over any of our destinations?
Weisberg notes that the Calvinist concept of pre-destination was too unforgiving to satisfy the needs of those so troubled by uncertainty, and a discursive space was opened up wherein “the girls’ appeal surely stemmed in part from the ways they embodied–and intuited–their culture’s anxieties and ambitions” (p. 7). It is little wonder, then, that spiritualism was received most warmly in reformist circles by those already working to stretch the boundaries of society.
Though immensely popular, Kate, Maggie, and their older sister Leah were not without detractors. Indeed, they were subject to a number of invasive investigations, including public searches of their near naked bodies by councils of scientists determined to uncover the secrets of the “fraudulent females” (p. 81). To this day, the truth about the origins of the sisters’ rappings remains unknown; Weisberg engages debate about the authenticity of the events that occurred around the Fox sisters as well as possible explanations for them, but doesn’t dwell on them too much, which I liked. Those lingering questions are intriguing, but there’s so much more to this story worth looking at.
What was most interesting to me were the ways in which the Fox sisters were almost solely responsible for creating a new, public occupation for women: that of the medium. Mediumship was provocative; it took place in close quarters amongst mixed company under dim lights and required hand holding and whispering. It was sexy, intimidating, and provided women an independence through public demonstrations that they might not have gained had they been considered the primary actors in spirit communication and not only “passive media”, constitutionally weak and at the mercy of pushy ghosts. They troubled normative gender ideologies without completely dispelling them. The public was generally ambivalent about them, revering them at times and lambasting them for impropriety at others.
Impressively, Weisberg is able to make sense of the tensions found in mid-19th-century America at large without losing sight of the sisters themselves. As they grew into older, they each experienced the kinds of tragic breakdowns that we’ve sadly come to expect from people who’ve been followed so closely by the media and featured regularly in tabloids throughout the whole of their childhoods, adolescence, and young adulthood. The lively, charismatic sisters eventually fell into conflict with each other (mostly Kate and Maggie with Leah, the significantly older sister who managed their careers before becoming a medium herself and was widely thought to be manipulative and exploitative), succumbed to alcoholism, and died in poverty. Despite the limited knowledge we have of them as individuals, Weisberg highlights what she can of their personalities, lending them strength as complex and memorable people.
Weisberg has written a wonderful biography that manages to tell a story not only about the Fox sisters, who are incredibly fascinating on their own, but also a nation struggling to re-invent itself. The text is littered with fun trivia, too, including the origins of the term “con man” and speculations about the reason for Benjamin Franklin’s status as the most commonly manifested spirit amongst American mediums. This book was the first read for my 19th century spiritualism project, and it was a great place to start. Weisberg provided me with compelling human stories through which to understand the larger cultural shifts that helped the spread of spiritualism and provided an excellent platform, I think, from which to continue my exploration of spiritualism; particularly its gender implications in both the American and European contexts. Recommended for those interested in 19th century America, gender, celebrity, and/or the possibilities of spirit communication!