Duck Duck Book

67 – sex at dawn
12.31.2010, 8:47 pm
Filed under: social sciences

Sex at dawn : the prehistoric origins of modern sexuality / Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá.
New York : Harper, c2010.
[MCL call number: 306.7 R9883s 2010; 57 copies, 132 holds;
also in downloadable ebook format; two copies, 6 holds]

Most scholars of human sexuality agree about the basics of human sexual evolution.  The story goes something like this: a male and female meet and assess one another for their reproductive potential.  Each has a different agenda: he is looking for youth, health, fertility, virginity, and fidelity; while she is looking for wealth, status, health, and the likelihood that he’ll stick around to help raise children.  Once they each decide to take a risk on their opposite number, they settle down to practice monogamy and form a nuclear family.  After that, he worries most if she strays sexually, while she worries most if he strays emotionally.

This sounds awfully narrow-minded and unpleasant.  But familiar.  The conventional understanding of what constitutes “normal” human sexuality is breathtakingly judgmental and prescriptive (significantly increasing human misery).  Most of the scholars who conceived this “standard narrative” of human sexual evolution are a product of this relatively repressive contemporary culture.  Naturally it’s difficult for them divorce their intellectual activities completely from their own cultural contexts.

However, a few people are trying.

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá refute this standard narrative in their book Sex at Dawn, and although their arguments aren’t perfect, they are helpful to anyone who is frustrated by the baby-focused, gender-stereotyping, hetero-centric, war-of-the-sexes slant of the standard narrative I described above.   Their most important (and their clearest) conclusion is that the standard narrative is very badly wrong.

Some of their evidence is quite interesting:

  • We have the same amount of genetic similarity to bonobos (who have sex all the time for an astonishing array of reasons) and chimpanzees (who fight a lot, about everything), so it’s crazy that scholars keep insisting that we’re more like chimpanzees than we are like bonobos.
  • People who live in small groups, who forage and do not bother to store food (as early humans seem to have done) have both an immediate and an evolutionary interest in enforcing a culture that preferences sharing and punishes not sharing (“fierce egalitarianism”); why wouldn’t this include sex?  In fact, in many contemporary societies of this type, the sharing does include sharing sex.
  • The animal species which are most thoroughly monogamous engage in sexual activity infrequently, and limit it to occasions when it is most likely to result in procreation.  The species which have sex regularly and enthusiastically are the ones that are the most thoroughly not monogamous.  Is there any reason to assume that humans, ostensibly monogamous but really interested in having lots of sex, are the only species which varies from this pattern?
  • Human genitals have some interesting anatomical features.  For example, we sport a very unusual penis, which has a glans on the end that acts like a suction machine during penis-in-vagina intercourse.  If someone else’s sperm is already in the woman’s vagina, this suction pulls it away from her cervix, thus clearing the field for the upcoming ejaculation.  This anatomical oddity lends credence to the notion that men’s sperm competes in a woman’s vagina.  And if the sperm is doing the competing, the rest of us can just have sex instead of fighting.

As you might expect, the book is also about prehistoric human life more generally — and about critically examining how modern academics do their work on the human past.  Ryan and Jethá’s pressure on other scholars’ assumptions is refreshing and interesting.  When discussing matriarchy, for example:

“As happens so often in trying to understand and discuss other cultures, wording trips up specialists.  When they claim never to have found a ‘true matriarchy,’ these anthropologists are envisioning a mirror image of patriarchy, a vision that ignores the differing ways males and females conceptualize and wield power.'” (page 133)

I would argue that a statement like “the differing ways males and females conceptualize and wield power” is problematic as well — it is a pretty sweeping generalization, especially when it’s intended to be inclusive of all human cultures over time.  But, no doubt if Ryan and Jethá’s analysis proves influential enough, thoughtful and thorough critics will help us examine their assumptions as well.

There are some other significant difficulties with Ryan and Jethá’s presentation.  One that particularly frustrated me is that they focus most of their attention on what might be called plain-vanilla straight sex.  No doubt this is because many of their arguments are rooted in evolutionary biology, a field that is concerned with the circumstances, actions and events that lead to procreation.  But they also draw on anthropology and archaeology, and on the work of evolutionary theorists who posit that cooperation is just as important a factor in evolution as is competition.  And so it seemed striking to me that there is so little in the book about homosexuality in general, or about specifically non-procreative heterosexual acts.  After all, the authors are concerned largely with the question of how humans developed our propensity to engage in sexual activity that absolutely can’t lead to procreation.  I would think that they would have more to say about how queer we are.

But, despite its problems, Sex at Dawn is very interesting, amusing, and thought-provoking.  It is also very readable: Ryan and Jethá do a good job of keeping their tone lively, which helps make the book accesible for interested laypersons who don’t already posses a great deal of knowledge of the subjects at hand.  I recommend it.

Sex at Dawn has a decent index, and a long but sadly un-annotated bibliography.

* * *

The NPR blog Monkey See is currently featuring an excellent series of my-favorite-book-of-2010 reviews by NPR on-air personalitiesSex at Dawn was the first book featured, in a review by Peter Sagal, in which he said, “it’s the only book I read this year that proved that I was badly mistaken about something.”  It is this review that first brought the book to my attention.

67 – trugglemat
12.31.2010, 8:44 pm
Filed under: comix, zines

The trugglemat / by Neil Brideau.
[Chicago, IL] : N. Brideau, c2007.
[MCL call number: ZINE 741.5973 BRIDEAU 2007; nine copies, no holds]

There is a grotesque creature who sneaks into town and eats up little children.  Terrifying!  But that’s not the worst of it — the monster seems to have warm, friendly feelings for our our unwitting, rhyming narrator.  She is witness to the carnage, and the monster visits her regularly, but she is not eaten.  And of course all the adults dismiss her boogeyman stories as fantasy.

* * *

Neil Brideau, the author and artist behind The Trugglemat, is also responsible for the excellent minicomic Spitting Pennies, which, I’m pleased to report, introduced the Library of Congress Subject Heading “Vomiting — Comic books, strips, etc.” to Multnomah County Library’s catalog:

Spitting pennies / by Neil Brideau.
[Chicago, IL] : N. Brideau, 2008.
[MCL call number: ZINE 741.5973 BRIDEAU 2008; five copies, no holds]

67 – first class
12.31.2010, 8:43 pm
Filed under: history & geography

First class : legendary ocean liner voyages around the world / Gérard Piouffre.
New York : Vendome Press, c2009.
[MCL call number: 910.45 P662f 2009 ; three copies, no holds]

I have travelled by ship, a teeny tiny bit — not entirely surprising, really, since I have lived within 100 miles of the ocean for my entire life — but I’ve never been on a proper cruise.  The times when I have slept on a ship, it hasn’t been the most pleasant experience.  The engines were loud, the ship was crowded, the seas were a little rough, the ship’s appointments were less than desirable, or the trip was so long through a dark night that I was just plain bored.

But still, I thrill a bit to the romance of ocean travel.  Shuffleboard and deck chairs, lavish dinners on heavy china, a library with shelves that have little rails on them to keep the books in; it doesn’t sound so bad.  I don’t mean I want to take a trip aboard a modern megaship, or one of those special cruises where you get to hang out with Garrison Keillor; no, the cruise of my dreams is one that takes place in a bygone era when cruise fashions only came in natural fibers and when nothing on the ship was made of plastic; a time when you had to travel by ship, because airplanes were unavailable or reserved for daredevils with bottomless pockets.  I am sure that if I were actually transported to the past to take an early twentieth century cruise I would waste no time in finding all kinds of fault with the operation, but since that’s impossible, I’m happy to daydream a bit with a nice picture book.

And First Class is a nice picture book.  Individual chapters describe and feature photographs of voyages in different parts of the world, with a focus on the period between about 1890 and 1940.  The essays that accompany the photographs are just meaty enough to give a sense of the history of the journeys well-off folks once took on ocean liners — and the pictures are beautiful.

* * *

If your’e truly charmed by this book, you might want to check out its companion:

First class : legendary train journeys around the world / Patrick Poivre d’Arvor.
New York : Vendome Press, c2007.
[MCL call number: 910.4 P757f 2007; two copies, one hold]

I haven’t examined it, but my guess is that it also provides a pleasant and interesting diversion.

66 – disreputable history
12.4.2010, 2:43 pm
Filed under: fiction

The disreputable history of Frankie Landau-Banks : a novel / by E. Lockhart.
New York : Hyperion, c2008.
[MCL call number: y LOCKHART; 17 copies, no holds
also in large type at:  LGE-TYPE y LOCKHART 2009; three copies, no holds
and in audiobook format read by Tanya Eby Sirois at: CD YA LOCKHART; five copies, no holds
and in downloadable audiobook format read by Tanya Eby Sioris; one copy, no holds]

One of the great strengths of fiction is that it can offer readers the opportunity to pretend to be someone they are not.  This isn’t always an actual pleasure for the reader — sometimes it is quite agonizing to read the part where your protagonist embarrasses herself, takes an action that hurts a loved one, or makes a terrible mistake.  But overall, there is real joy in stepping into another person’s skin while reading their story.

Adolescence is a precarious time filled with possibilities, broken promises, discovery, and agony — making it an excellent stage of life for a fictional protagonist.  No one escapes their teenaged years unscathed.  You try something new and fail horribly, you embarrass yourself by blurting out the wrong thing, you find you have no words available when you most want to express yourself, you wish desperately for things that are made impossible by the stupid rigidity of your life and circumstances, you take emotional risks without realizing they are risks at all and then get hurt, and so on.  Adolescence is glorious in its suckitude.  But at its best it is also a period of intellectual growth, burgeoning independence, and intense joy in the experience of living.  A few soaring highs to go with the agonizing lows.

Frankie Landau-Banks is a more or less normal 15-year-old girl who happens upon a complex (and sort of infuriating) underworld at her exclusive private school.  There is a group of boys, one of whom is Frankie’s new boyfriend Matthew, running a secret society.  No girls allowed.  This offends Frankie’s sense of fairness, but more importantly, she wants in.

She doesn’t want in just to break a barrier, or just to get closer to Matthew — after some self-examination, Frankie realizes that what she wants most is to be recognized as intelligent, interesting, clever, and worthy of the friendship and admiration of this powerful group of kids.  But, not only do they dismiss her as too young and too female to be worthy of more than cursory attention, they don’t even realize it when she finds a way to insinuate herself into their affairs.  After a few months, she is running their whole show, three steps ahead of even the club’s savvy co-president, masterminding elaborate pranks and creating an unheard of buzz among the student body.  Obviously she’s going to get found out, right?

[thanks, Joanna]

66 – these yams are delicious
12.4.2010, 2:40 pm
Filed under: comix, fiction, zines

These yams are delicious / Sam Sharpe
Chicago, IL : Viewotron Press, c2009.
[MCL call number: ZINE 741.5973 SHARPE 2009; six copies, no holds]

A frustrated cartoonist is trying to work, but is interrupted at his drafting table by his cat.  And then he is interrupted again by his cat, this time wearing a space helmet and accompanied by, um, his cat.  The cartoonist and the cat and the cat with the space helmet are then joined by the cartoonist in a space helmet, who reveals that they’re visiting from the future.  Unfortunately, the frustrated cartoonist’s future self is a little cranky, and not very interested in giving counsel on what the future brings.

Sam Sharpe’s cartooning is beautiful, clear, and effective; and the story is so short, sweet, and odd that I found it merited re-reading several times, pretty much immediately.

66 – my time annihilator
12.4.2010, 2:38 pm
Filed under: generalities, zines

My time annihilator : a brief history of 1930’s science fiction fanzines / [by Christopher U.].
Glendale, KY : [s.n.], 2008.
[MCL call number: ZINE 070.572 U 2008; six copies, no holds]

When people investigate zines today and try to assign ancestors, antecedents, or roots to them, the two places they generally look to are the punk rock fanzines of the 1970s, and the science fiction and fantasy fanzines of the 1930s.  These are not the only places to find zine history, not the only past traditions that have affected today’s zine creators and readers, but it is true that the connections are strong. (Though of course there is no doubt that many latter-day zine creators have done their work without ever hearing of, or realizing they had any ties to either either punk or sci fi fanzine creators.)

And it’s easy to see why a devoted zine creator or reader might be interested in exploring the long-gone world of early science fiction zines in particular.  Fandom of any sort creates an inherently intriguing sort of subculture — the very practice of fandom is a celebration of deeply connecting to a specific world, and showing off, sharing, and expanding on that world with other fans.  There is something compelling about this intensity of focus.  Perhaps the most magnetic aspect for latter-day zinesters, though, is the simple notion that there were people making zines 80 years ago, people without access to photocopiers, who’d never seen an issue of Beer Frame or Duplex Planet or Doris.  We might be able to just barely imagine life in the 1930s, but adding an understanding of a long-gone subculture into that picture is difficult.  Learning about antique zines begins to do the trick.

Christopher U. reports that he stumbled on a copy of The Fanzine Index at his local library.  It piqued his interest, and he eventually tracked down an archive of early 20th century science fiction fanzines and examined them too.  My Time Annihilator reports on and discusses this endeavor.

After a brief introduction explaining how he came across the trove of old zines, Christopher takes readers through a brief, helpful history of sci fi fanzinedom, covering matters both philosophical and practical.  He discusses the social context that inspired 1930s and 40s sci fi zine creation; outlines typical fanzine formats, binding, and graphic design strategies; and explains some of the technical details of printing and distribution methods zinesters used.  This is followed by a selection of excerpts from some of the fanzines he examined.

The explanatory parts are clear, interesting, and even show the potential to be of practical use for anyone who might want to use the methodology of zines of old.  But overall, Christopher’s take is a little jaundiced — and perhaps rightly so.  He sums up his experience reading through the zine archive in a section titled “Let down. . .”:

“. . . i found that actually reading these fanzines was massively boring.  i really don’t know anything about obscure 40’s science fiction and the zines were so full of inside jokes and nerd jargon that not much of it made sense anyway.   words like ‘gods, demons and beer’ were inexplicably written as ‘ghods, dhemons, and bheer.’ . . . after thinking about it, there really isn’t that much difference between the science fictions [sic] fanzines of the early 20th century and the punk zines of the 90’s.  our zines deal with obscure bands, rambling stories about fests, tons of inside jokes and typographic slang (e.g. ‘have a crucial youth cruew sesh and get a riot grrrl ‘zine from the distro’).  unless you happen to be steeped in modern punk culture, you would probably get as much out of the most recent MAXIMUMROCKANDROLL as i do out of ‘le zombie’ #59.  which isn’t much.”

Still, you’re pretty likely to be charmed by old timey sci fi zinedom, if you look at the choice excerpts Christopher provides.  My favorites are:

  • A flowchart which takes science fiction plots from the opening word “Earth” through through a variety of grim finales like “so they kill us (The End),” and “which turns them into disgusting lumps (The End).”
  • The cover of FemiZine number 11, from 1949, featuring a drawing of a group of women in a protest march with signs like “No new names for FemiZine” and “Down with Distaff.”  It may be that I find this interesting mostly because there is no way to grasp the context, but it’s also true that the drawing is very cute — I particularly like the three ladies in front, who are all wearing heels and nice coats.
  • A collection of post card zines, called “news cards,” typewritten with incredibly brief newsbites announcing new publications, travel plans, and in one example from 1943: “We humbly announce final issue.  Paucity of worthwhile news forbids weekly publication; my imminent induction also a factor.”

* * *

Additional analysis of zine history and culture can be found in Amy Spencer’s DIY: The Rise of Lo-fi Culture (London ; New York : Marion Boyars, 2005), which I reviewed in Duck Duck Book number 30 and found interesting but flawed; and in Frederic Wertham’s The World of Fanzines: A Special Form of Communication (Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press [1973]).  Comics lovers among you may recognize Wertham’s name — he is most famous for his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, which inspired the Comics Code.  But his work on early fanzines is pretty interesting, and has lots of facsimiles to illustrate it.

65 – birthright
05.31.2010, 7:08 pm
Filed under: social sciences

Birthright : the true story that inspired Kidnapped / A. Roger Ekirch.
New York : W.W. Norton & Co., c2010.
[MCL call number: 364.154092 E367b 2010; two copies, two holds]

I came to A. Roger Ekirch’s account of James Annesley’s unhappy and newsworthy life not from an interest in Annesley’s biography, but because I so enjoyed Ekirch’s earlier book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (reviewed in duck duck book number 39).  Anything else he cared to write, I thought, must be worth my time.  And indeed it was.

James Annesley was the only son of Arthur, Baron Altham, an Irish peer, and though one might say he was lucky to have been born with wealth and privilege on his side, in actual fact his early life was pretty hard.  His parents separated when he was small.  Arthur ran through most of the family fortune and became indebted to his mistress, who didn’t like James and made Arthur toss him out of the house at the tender age of nine.  Then Arthur died, when James was just 12, and shortly after, Arthur’s younger brother Richard had Arthur kidnapped and transported to America as an indentured servant so that he could become the next Baron Altham (and inherit several other family titles besides, and the land and wealth to go with them).  James endured many years in servitude, but eventually made his way back to the British Isles and attempted to sue the crap out of his uncle in a long series of notorious trials.

It’s worth pointing out, actually, that Ekirch makes the story of dozens of years of complex and confusing lawsuits seem fascinating, rather than dull and stupefying as one might expect.  But the whole arc of James’s life, as Ekirch tells it, is pretty compelling too — this young person has had his childhood stolen away just as he lost his father, how horrible!  By his uncle, who should love and protect him, how appalling!  And he is made a temporary slave, how unjust!  But he bears up and attempts manfully to claim what’s rightfully his, how noble!  Really, it’s easy to see why the story was so newsworthy at the time, and in fact, as Ekirch’s subtitle points out, it was the basis for several popular novels, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering, and several others.

After reading Birthright, I realized it might be the perfect book to take traveling.  It’s not very long (about 200 pages), but the story is dense, challenging, and packed with odd details of 18th century British and Irish life – Ekirch describes the minutiae of civil court procedure, illuminates the workings of aristocratic households, considers the daily life of indentured servants in early America, and explains the mechanics and the social role of the press in mid-1700s London.  These carefully deployed bits and pieces bring clarity to a fascinating but terribly complex story.  I’m a fast and rather reckless reader, but I slowed down, so as not to miss anything, and it was worth the effort.