The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

29633797In a timely follow-up to her national bestseller Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit offers indispensable commentary on women who refuse to be silenced, misogynistic violence, the fragile masculinity of the literary canon, the gender binary, the recent history of rape jokes, and much more.

In characteristic style, Solnit mixes humor, keen analysis, and powerful insight in these essays.

Review:

I read Men Explain Things to Me a month ago and I’m happy I was able to follow up so quickly with The Mother of All Questions.  It’s a continuation of Solnit’s previous essay collection with a thankfully more inclusive lens.

The standout essay is A Short History of Silence, about how women are forbidden or prevented from speaking and not heard when they do.  It’s a truth we hold in our hearts but avoid looking at too closely because man, it hurts.

Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one.  If no one listens when you say your ex-husband is trying to kill you, if no one believes you when you say you are in pain, if no one hears you when when you say ‘help’, if you don’t dare say ‘help’, if you have been trained not to bother people by saying ‘help’.

My heart aches because I know this.  I’ve seen it, not only with myself and women but other marginalized groups.  Others say the stories are ‘unbelievable’, which as Solnit points out, “means those with power did not want to know, to hear, to believe, did not want them to have voices.”  I’m happy to see that she recognizes the different and varied challenges faced by people of color, those who are LGBTQ*, and others who were often overlooked in Men Explain Things to Me.  Solnit also explores what this hyper-masculine culture means for guys, punishing them for showing “soft” feelings and effectively blunting their emotional range as humans.

Jaw dropping and rage inducing facts abound – rape is the most common form of trauma, but PTSD research is directed at male veterans.  “Fight or flight” was largely studied in male rats and humans and women often employ a third, until now unrecognized, option.  One reason the gun homicide rate hasn’t risen is not because fewer people are getting shot, but because medicine is getting better at saving those who are.  In fact more people are getting shot.  And on and on.

Luckily Solnit also points out things we can all do.  Tell your story if you can, and listen and believe those who are telling you theirs.  If someone lobs a sexist inquiry your way reply, “Would you ask a man that question?”  Do the intellectual work to not see groups (Muslims, women, poor people, etc.) as monolith entities, for that is the road to believing you can attack any member for the entire group’s perceived sins.

Overall The Mother of All Questions is more nuanced and inclusive than its predecessor while still packing an eye opening gut punch.  Necessary for the times we live in and a hearty recommend.

Thanks to Haymarket Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

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Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

18528190In her comic, scathing essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters.

She ends on a serious note— because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, “He’s trying to kill me!”

This book features that now-classic essay with six perfect complements, including an examination of the great feminist writer Virginia Woolf ’s embrace of mystery, of not knowing, of doubt and ambiguity, a highly original inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women.

Review:

This is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while and I’m glad I did. I didn’t care for Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost but these essays are a stylistic world apart.

It’s Feminism 201 for those newer to the movement but everyone will get something from it. Personally it reminded me that it’s important to flip the narrative and look at issues from the opposite angle. If there is a rape at a college the women are told to protect themselves – don’t go out alone, don’t walk at night.

Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy, that all men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, all because of the violence of one man.

Similarly,

…of sixty-two mass shootings in the United States in three decades, only one was by a woman, because when you say lone gunman, everyone talks about loners and guns but not about men—and by the way, nearly two-thirds of all women killed by guns are killed by their partner or ex-partner.

Feminism past is connected to feminism present, and we are reminded that we will need the movement far into the future. The message can be troubling and infuriating but there’s also a healthy dose of optimism.

I made a ton of highlights and had my mind pleasantly stretched, but I would have liked to see intersectionality discussed more. Women of color, trans women, and others face more awfulness than white, cis women and it deserves to be acknowledged and examined.

But that’s my only complaint. Men Explain Things to Me is a quick read that will stick with me for a long time.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Synopsis:

76479Rebecca Solnit has emerged as an inventive and original writer whose mind is daring in the connections it makes. A Field Guide to Getting Lost draws on emblematic moments and relationships in Solnit’s own life to explore the issues of wandering, being lost, and the uses of the unknown. The result is a distinctive, stimulating, and poignant voyage of discovery.

Review:

I was hoping for thematically linked essays or a tight stream of consciousness but A Field Guide to Getting Lost feels more like a brain dump.

Solnit covers many different aspects of getting lost – losing your way, losing knowledge, the loss of species, the loss of people, losing yourself. I particularly liked a couple of sections in the chapter Abandon such as:

Maybe she knew that to be truly alive death had to be part of the picture just as winter must.

But for every interesting insight there are tens of pages that float by unremarkably. We visit her dreams, turtles, and the desert again and again but have little to show for it.

I was hoping for something more solid, a more outward-looking view on what it means to get and be lost. Not bad, per ce, but way too much navel gazing for me.