books, Essays, Political Writing, Reading, Women Writers

The Tireless Work of Rebecca Solnit: “Men Explain Things To Me” and “Hope in the Dark”

“To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.”

In my binge-like preparation for my month of reading my local library, I greedily requested two Rebecca Solnit books: “Men Explain Things to Me” and “Hope in the Dark”.  Both arrived in my queue begging for equal consideration, and since, sadly, both feel equally relevant to my anxieties and to the historical moment in which we seem to find ourselves, I was happy (or at least eager) to oblige.

Approaching these two essay collections chronologically, I read “Hope in the Dark” first –41OoBEVGILL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ a deceptively weighty little book first published in 2004. Written in response to Bush Jr’s second term, Solnit was tapping into the dejection of the moment, the sense of hopelessness that came with the reality of four more years of Bush’s war-waging and conservative back-lash. Read now in the ever-widening wake of despair brought on by the 2016 election, Solnit’s concerns and reassurances are almost quaint, but in truth are no less relevant and are deeply perceptive.

“Hope in the Dark” is not an indictment, though many of its carefully laid arguments are, indeed, damning. Focusing particularly on the political, Solnit explores critical moments in history in which it was temptingly easy to lose hope and through which those who maintained hope were able to achieve gradual, eventual victories.

“This is Earth. It will never be heaven. There will always be cruelty, always be violence, always be destruction. There is tremendous devastation now. In the time it takes you to read this book, acres of rainforest will vanish, a species will go extinct, people will be raped, killed, dispossessed die of easily preventable causes. We cannot eliminate all devastation for all time, but we can reduce it, outlaw it, undermine its sources and foundations: these are victories. A better world, yes; a perfect world, never.”

51xIvKRq7YL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_“Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”

In her more recent collection, “Men Explain Things to Me” (2014), Solnit turns her attention exclusively to feminism and misogyny. These essays often filled me with rage, not at Solnit but at the truths she lays bare. She cites, for instance, the fact that “Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined”. Solnit pulls no punches when she dives deeply into the issues of violence against women and violence by men.

“It’s not that I want to pick on men. I just think that if we noticed that women are, on the whole, radically less violent, we might be able to theorize where violence comes from and what we can do about it a lot more productively. Clearly the ready availability of guns is a huge problem for the United States, but despite this availability to everyone, murder is still a crime committed by men 90 percent of the time.”

Just as in “Hope in the Dark”, Solnit councils hope and persistence.

“Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. It involves being hopeful and motivated and keeping eyes on the prize ahead. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out or that, if there is, you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have.”

All told, I found Rebecca Solnit’s essay collections to be exceptionally well-researched, well-argued, and well-crafted, but in the end I was still left surprisingly flat by her writing. Her writing vacillated between being impassioned and pedantic, so that beautiful phrases full of import were sometimes bogged down in a sea of rather dry argument. What should have been fiery polemic that held my attention often lost my interest. Despite a significant, Venn-diagramesque overlap in our interests and philosophies, I found her writing clinical when I needed passion, remote when I craved engagement. Solnit is a well-respected and worthy writer whose tireless efforts I greatly appreciate, but whose writing I am unlikely to elevate to the top of my toppling TBR in the future.

“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being.”

books, Debut Novel, Reading

“Ginny Moon” by Benjamin Ludwig

“In my head I need to say what happens to me right after it happens. I need to say it all back to myself because it helps me understand. That’s why I talk inside my brain. It’s like a diary except I’m not so good at writing. I used to say it all out loud when I was in the apartment but Donald said it drove him bat-shit crazy. Then he said I should keep my mouth closed and not walk around with it open because it makes me look like a cave girl. No one can hear what I say inside my head because that’s where my brain is. It helps me do things when no one is looking. Like when I used to look for mayonnaise and ketchup packets and food in the garbage when Gloria and Donald or one of her other man-friends were upstairs.”

Benjamin Ludwig’s debut, “Ginny Moon” tells the story of Ginny, an autistic teenager whoIMG_0641 is beyond courageous, profoundly selfless, and deeply misunderstood. Ginny lives with Brian and Maura Moon, the latest in a string of “Forever Parents” – a string that only does further damage to Ginny’s understanding of the meaning of “forever”. Ginny is very literal minded and craves consistency, but the only things in her life with any reliability are that her birth mother Gloria is “unreliable”, that she desperately misses her “Baby Doll”, and that she is almost always underestimated and misunderstood.

Her autism and her horrifying, traumatic childhood have made it extremely difficult for Ginny to connect with people in her life, but they pose no boundaries (and maybe even facilitate) her likability as a protagonist.

“My Forever Dad gives me a squeeze on the shoulder. I don’t recoil because it’s okay for him to do that. Because once he asked me if he could give me a hug and I said no so he asked if a squeeze on the shoulder would be all right and I said yes it would be. My Forever Mom can give me a hug if she asks but my Forever Dad is a man so it has to be a shoulder squeeze.”

Since she was taken from her birth mother at the age of nine, Ginny struggles to stop time. Not just uncomfortable with changes in routine, Ginny doesn’t want herself to change. In fact, many of her compulsions are centered around trying to return to her nine year old self. Her inability to stop or even turn back time nearly destroys a girl whose capacity for introspection and self acceptance are already challenged.

      “My Forever Mom’s lip rises. ‘Fine,’ she says. Through her teeth. ‘No one can say I didn’t try. Now let’s go.’
      She shoves her hand out. I used to like holding her hand but I don’t take it. Because I’m not who I used to be anymore and I don’t think my Forever Mom likes the person I turned into. I don’t think I like the person I turned into either.”

Throughout the story, all narrated in a diary-like form from Ginny’s thoughts, Ginny struggles with finding her place – in her school, in her new “Forever Family”, in the world.

“I walk down the sidewalk until I come to a corner. I can go across the street or I can take another right. The noise of the cars is loud and the air is cold and my backpack is heavy. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where a girl who doesn’t belong anywhere should go.”

Ginny Moon is an irresistibly compelling character – like a puppy learning to walk with only three legs, you are torn between wanting to scoop her up and help her and sitting back in utter awe of what she can do all on her own. Benjamin Ludwig’s writing, through the voice of this profound girl, is captivating and the story insists on finding a place in your heart. This is an absolutely wonderful, though occasionally agonizing, read.