Thursday, February 27, 2014

Reading: An Honest Report

With a topic like "What have you been reading?" I suffer from a terrible desire to present myself as cool and cherry-pick something very clever out of my recent list. To free myself of the tyranny of that performance, here's what's been going on with my Kindle for the past two weeks, unedited, in order.

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

I can't begin to describe how refreshing I found this book. I vicariously enjoyed Ehrenreich's takedown of the fake quantum science often used to justify pop positive thinking, and I loved her incisive look into the (often questionable) social science touted in support of positive thinking's benefits. Ehrenreich begins by describing her experience with breast cancer (when she felt scolded whenever she expressed the slightest amount of anger) and expands from there to many sectors of American culture. I should add that Ehrenreich concludes by saying that the opposite of positive thinking isn't despair—it's a realistic view of the world. I dug this so much because I spent a great deal of my life trying to convince myself that things were better than they were and that I just needed to have a better attitude. Even my darker moods are a relief after that.

The Illusionist by Francoise Mallet-Joris

I think I liked this book, but it was the sort of reading experience where I wasn't sure how I felt for much of my time with it. The Illusionist is about a young girl who has an affair with her father's mistress. It's not an uplifting read, and most of the characters aren't sympathetic. They are fascinating, however. The author (who wrote the book when she was just 19!) exhibits virtuosic understanding of the human psyche accompanied by shamelessness about displaying all the darker, stranger corners of the soul. I winced through a lot of it because it seemed things could not possibly end well, but I couldn't look away either.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Aptly billed as Jane Austen with magic, I couldn't put this book down. I even read it while walking down ice-covered sidewalks (I know, I know). The fantasy premise is that one of the "feminine arts" is glamour—the ability to decorate and enhance decor through illusion. The main character is an unmarried 28-year-old who is an uncommonly talented glamourist. One of the most fascinating and unusual things about this book is that it bucks the convention of making a fantasy hero/ine's gifts be about Saving the World or something similarly weighty. As I was reading this, it constantly made me notice and wonder about my sense that this magic wasn't very important because it was so feminine. The author is very tuned to the various brands of sexism in play in her setting (and, I suspect, in her reader), but maintains the light, delightful tone that Austen is so famous for (Austen, of course, raised similar issues while spinning pleasurable tales).

Currently Reading:

Fetish Sex: A Complete Guide to Sexual Fetishes by Violet Blue

I'm reading this book for two reasons. As an erotica writer, I like to read broadly about sexuality because I like to have a lot of information and imagery churning around in the back of my mind. I would love to encounter an exciting fetish I've never heard of in this book (so far, there have been several mentions of having a fetish for balloons, which I hadn't heard of before, but that's not doing anything for me yet). The second reason is that personally, I'm at a point where I'm feeling confused about fetishes. When I got divorced several years ago, I believed that I had a clear image of my sexuality and fetishes, and what I wanted to do about them, and I was determined to explore those things. As I have explored, however, things that seemed clear have changed shape. I've lost interest in some things I thought were essential, and have developed new interests and rediscovered others (some of which feel problematic). I am hoping that reading this book will give me a good lens through which to contemplate all this and think about where my interests will take me next. So far, I like the practical tone, and the range the book seems to cover.

Mother Jones - March/April 2014

I almost left this off, but I do read a fair number of magazines, and as a former journalist, I realized I wanted to acknowledge that. I recently subscribed to Mother Jones and am really impressed with the quality of the reporting. That said, it's generally an upsetting read. I just finished a feature on problems with the plastics industry that seem pervasive to the point of inescapability, and the journalist detailed various ways that the industry has been able to lobby against and stymie efforts to do unbiased science on the impacts of potentially harmful chemicals. Much of the article focused on plastics used in baby bottles and such, but I couldn't help but notice mentions of phthalates, which I've read about before in the context of unsafe sex toys (there have been pieces on this in recent volumes of Best Sex Writing, and Tristan Taormino has written a lot about this as well).


Getting a Kindle this January sped my reading significantly and made me more likely to finish books, but of course that's only made my ambitions grow. I have so many books waiting to be read, and I keep buying more... I'm also way behind on entering things into Goodreads.


  1. Annabeth, your diversity is stunning. Definitely putting "Shades" on my list, as it sounds like just the sort of thing I'd enjoy.

    As for fetishes, I question whether one could ever write a "complete guide". Any object or experience can become a focus of erotic energy. Balloons? Why not? How about kangaroos? Can openers? It seems presumptuous for anyone (even Violet Blue) to think she can write a definitive tome.

  2. Thank you! I hope you enjoy Shades of Milk and Honey! FYI, it's first in a series, but it worked fine as a standalone (I will probably go on to read more in the series, but this book ended in a perfectly satisfying place in the meantime. The reason to go on, as far as I'm concerned, is simply the desire for more of that world and those characters.

    As far as "complete guide," I'm sure you're right. So far, the claim to completion seems to have more to do with thoroughly discussing the ways of handling a fetish as opposed to providing encyclopedic descriptions of everything that gets people off, but honestly I am hoping for an encyclopedia section, even if it is incomplete.

  3. No question of the direction of your politics, Annabeth. I've often heard Ehrenreich speak on my local Pacifica station here in Berkeley, and Mother Jones is well-known for its newsworthy topics and depth of reportage.

    Yeah, Lisabet, every time I see 'complete guide' I get suspicious, especially in sexual matters. Every time we turn around, some new fetish turns up. Not necessarily on the large scale. but the point is that it's all in the tiny details. Sexual stimulation is as varied as the number of people surveyed, when it comes down to the fine points. Wonder how any two (or three, or four) people ever find each other. Law of averages-- or perhaps law of compromise for the closest match we can find. Look for updated versions in years to come.

    But, I do applaud Violet Blue for the effort. She lives in the SF Bay area, and I attend her readings whenever I hear about them. They can get pretty wild.

  4. Heh, my reading list absolutely reveals my politics. If I kept going, my religion would show, too. And I was just reading a post this morning about how fiction writers should be careful to keep their politics off social media... (But I decided I didn't agree. Erotica writing is far from apolitical, as far as I'm concerned).

    And another thought on "complete guide"—that is clearly a marketing phrase, and possibly one that didn't even come from the author. When I worked as a journalist it often made me cringe to see the final headlines above my stories.

  5. Sometimes i suspect that people deliberately search out new and different fetishes to "try on" for the sake of being different. Or maybe it's more that erotica writers try to be original with their fetish stories. As with so many things, "Not your father's [or mother's] fetish" is seen as a selling point. Of course none of this applies to true, deep-rooted fetishes that arise without conscious effort.
    Okay, I'll admit it, I've been trying to think of an original fetish idea for a story, but I'm not going to make it by the deadline.

    1. These are interesting points. I think sometimes erotica writers try to be too original with their stories. Sometimes I have to remind myself that many readers will not have read nearly as many things as I have. They haven't explored my work entirely. Would it be so terrible to repeat something or write about one of the tried and true fetishes that really does it for me? I often feel as if I can tell when someone's story is research-based rather than sincere (I suppose I don't actually know, but I do suspect sometimes).

      As far as myself and the personal confusion I listed above, I'm afraid I'll sound terribly naive, but when I got divorced I thought my fetish was "BDSM." I did know that orgasm was impossible without focusing on certain fantasies and so I thought I had the required-for-release thing going on (which so often is used to describe the definition of a fetish). Then when I started trying to explore some of that in real life, I realized of course that "BDSM" is incredibly general and much of it actually leaves me cold. Some of the things that work for me fall solidly within the category, they're just subsets, but I've been surprised by other powerful responses. For example, I went to a panel at a con on foot fetishism (and I'm not sure why -- maybe I was curious? Or I liked the presenter?), and discovered that this really, really worked for me, and it created a big shift. So that fantasy about sitting at someone's feet—was that a BDSM fantasy or a foot fantasy? I don't believe labels are required, but I do want to be able to ask for what I want, and it's been a bit weird for me to figure out that, hey, I actually think I'm not a sub at all, I just really like feet and being close to them, which in the BDSM community amounts to a huge identity shift.

      So the point of that personal digression is that, while I do agree that some people may try on fetishes just to try them on (maybe to be different, but maybe to have fun?), part of that trying on process is also about finding the ones that really fit. I think that can be a surprising, and even threatening, process.

  6. I admire your stamina for being able to read Mother Jones regularly. I subscribed to it a long time ago, and husband made me drop it because I'd get so angry and so anxious to change the world every time I read an issue, then the reality of having to go to work to sell people stuff they didn't need so we could eat, interfered with my politics. So I occasionally allow myself to read an issue in the library, but I promise myself I won't make copies of any articles. I also like Mental Floss for the intellectual stimulation, and Utne Reader when I want to feel like a hipster.

    BTW, he also made me give up my Ms subscription and my NOW card, but he gave up his Playboy and Penthouse subscriptions. I pointed out to him that taking pictures of me had to be more fun than looking at 2-dimensional pics of women he'd never get to touch, and he agreed with me. And reading Ms did the same thing for my blood pressure that Mother Jones did, plus then I'd accuse him of being a man, which of course he is...

    1. So Mother Jones totally gets me upset in just the way you describe, but I deliberately subscribed to it anyway for reasons related to why I read Bright-Sided. Here's what happened: I read a news story that made me cry. It just made me feel absolutely heart-broken and like I really had to do something about it, and I started telling people about this news story, and found myself getting defensive and saying things like, "I know I shouldn't let myself be so upset by this." After a while, I noticed that and wondered why. Is there some reason I shouldn't be upset by something upsetting?

      Bright-Sided had a whole chapter on news and the common advice not to read the news because it's too negative. Of course, that's hard to deal with, and one can't run right out and respond to everything. But I realized that I don't want to shield myself from all that because sometimes I do need to do something, and sometimes I just want to share other people's pain because I don't want to shun them for hurting. It's totally hard to deal with that contradiction you're talking about—feeling one way and then having to live a life that doesn't match one's ideals—but I am trying not to run away from that tension. It creates a bunch of hard choices, but I don't want to solve that by trying to keep myself from knowing about things.

      As far as Playboy, I tried reading it for a while recently because I had good memories of it from when I was a teenager (I still remember a spread on Jaid Barrymore, and also I remember that the articles were actually really good). I don't know if it's that I've gotten older and wiser or that photoshop has gotten more ubiquitous, but I couldn't stand it. There's nothing sexy about constantly going, "Oh God, what have they done to her thigh?!?" Huge swathes of these women were just missing—thighs, stomachs, arms, and, weirdly, in some cases, parts of the cunt. It was as if they were using photoshop to turn people into fleshy barbie dolls (with the sexual organs similarly glossed over). Very weird for a magazine that I thought was supposed to be about sex. I would question whether any breathing human who has actually seen a naked woman could be aroused by it in its current form. For me, the photoshop jobs are just that distracting. So, I guess the point there is that your husband's not missing much, in my opinion.

  7. Yep, Momma X doesn't let me listen to my local Pacifica station (KPFA Berkeley). There was a time I was tuned in all day long, and it turned me into a very informed, incorrigible asshole. I'd have an answer for everything. Wound up pissed off all the time.

    But, speaking of Playboy, I'm going to a talk tonight featuring Eldon Sellers, Hefner's original partner in the Playboy enterprise. Even though I outgrew Playboy many decades ago, and haven't seen an issue for years, I figure he'll have a cool perspective on what they had to overcome to get started.

  8. That Eldon Sellers talk does sound interesting. Report back, please! :)

  9. Eldon Sellers is 94 years old, tall, slim, spry and sharp of mind. He spoke for two hours, fielding questions concerning the forming of the magazine as well as the marketing and branded product lines. He says the products brought the most financial rewards. Among other positions in the company, Mr. Sellers was in charge of all the Playboy clubs across the nation. His girlfriend and future wife (he married and divorced the same woman twice. Their son was present too last night) loaned Hefner and Sellers $2000 to get the magazine started.

    One thing I didn't know was that Hefner didn't start out looking for a 'girly' magazine in particular; he just wanted to be a magazine publisher. He also started "Trump" mag (No, not 'The Donald') intended as a more intellectual 'Mad' mag. That and at least one other effort went broke, but 'Playboy' went on to be the empire we know.

    The first issue, the one with the Marilyn Monroe in a calendar inside (he had a copy with him, the only Playboy having any serious collector value) He said they couldn't afford to pay writers that first year, so they used old, public domain stuff between the photos of partially-nude women. They really didn't expect anyone actually wanted to *read* anything. But Hefner had worked for Esquire before starting Playboy, and decided to keep a focus on quality writing as well as state of the art photography, intending to keep the magazine above the former standard of pulp paper and silly, poorly edited so-called 'girly' mags of the times.

    One funny thing was that earlier, Esquire magazine had had problems with the post office delivering their magazine, (P.O. called it 'obscene') but won their suit. A few years later, when it was their turn, Playboy hired the judge as counsel, who by then had quit his judgeship and was now in private practice. The lawyer cited his own decision in the Esquire case . Obviously, they won.

    There was lots of talk of such vanilla times: He and Hefner had attended High School dances together. Their pastimes were playing Bridge, ping-pong, bowling and malteds at the corner soda shoppe. Of course, my question was "How wild did it get? Were the photo shoots, back rooms and parties at the mansion as crazy as we imagine or was it all hype?"

    In so many words, he said that "We let the public think what they wanted; we didn't want to change that," leading me to believe it wasn't as wild as anybody thought… Shucks.

    Mr Sellers left the magazine after they had problems opening Playboy Club casinos in England and Atlantic City when New Jersey legalized gambling. Apparently the financial and legal hurdles were too high and drew resources from the other clubs, so they all closed. After leaving Playboy, he went on to get a law degree that kept him in many social circles, taking over the practice of the father of Gavin Newsom, former Mayor of San Francisco and current Lt. Governor of California.

    All in all, a pretty good night out.

  10. Very interesting! Thanks for that!


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