Recent book reviews — November 2013


Title: The End of Money
Author: David Wolman
Source: LAPL
Interest: 2 stars

High expectations dashed! It was probably an online review somewhere that had me excited about The End of Money. The review likely mentioned the ongoing struggle between cash and credit and the future of digital money. As someone who recently cancelled his credit card and bought bitcoins for the first time, I was sure this was the book for me. Unfortunately, I found little of interest here. Wolman spends most of the book deriding cash for its inefficiency. He’s correct that living without access to banking and ATM services places an undue burden on the world’s poor. And he’s correct that cellphone-to-cellphone money transfer technologies may well enable rural communities to better save and manage money. But Wolman’s distaste for cash is overblown. He frequently references the “unsanitary” nature of bills and coins, even after mentioning that his particular fear of bacteria on money is scientifically unfounded. He downplays the real benefits to society of anonymous purchasing provided by cash, as well as the very real downsides of centralized information gathered by credit card companies. He offers very little philosophy on the subject. If bitcoin succeeds, what will it mean to societies to have peer-to-peer currency? That’s a big and fascinating question the book doesn’t tackle. Wolman spent a year without cash and while I respect the effort to experiment I didn’t feel enlightened by his results. To paraphrase, “Good riddance! Credit was far more convenient… though it meant not giving to musicians and beggars on the street and not shopping at the farmers’ market.” If it were me going cash-less, I don’t think I would have considered that experiment a success.


Title: Traffic – Why We Drive the Way We Do
Author: Tom Vanderbilt
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

This should be required reading for all Los Angeles residents. In nine chapters Vanderbilt explains the psychology of driving, how what feels safe and what is safe are not always the same, and how to make our roads more functional. With excursions to numerous other driving cultures including India and China, Traffic takes a broad view of transportation, with great info and facts about bicycling too. (Did you know that in Delhi, 48 modes of traffic share the streets?!)

I am continually frustrated with the difficulty of maintaining a proper respect for the dangers of driving. During On Ensemble tours, for example, it is so easy to forget just how close to disaster driving places us and others. Traffic provided insight into all aspects of transportation and I drive (and ride my bike) differently because of it. With over 30,000 motor vehicle fatalities in the US alone every year since 1946, any assistance is much appreciated! Great book!


Title: Fresh Lipstick — Redressing Fashion and Feminism
Author: Linda M. Scott
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3 stars

In the last few years I’ve felt increasingly insecure about wearing costumes when performing. Although On Ensemble’s costumes are my favorite anywhere, a growing sense of in-authenticity has complicated my desire to dress up on stage. Or perhaps a deepening relationship with my everyday clothes is the culprit. I gave up dress clothes about 10 years ago. Perhaps I should do the same on stage. Hoping to better understand my thoughts on fashion generally, I’ve recently focused on a series of books with wide-ranging perspectives on the subject. Fresh Lipstick was the first, and my attempt to better understand the relationship of fashion and feminism. It was a great place to start.

Since childhood, I’ve worried about the pressure fashion places on women. Observing my grandmother’s fastidious maintenance of her appearance, her morning ritual of makeup and weekly visits to the hair salon, I came to think of fashion as oppressive; one more way earlier generations of women are forced to conform. Images of my sister spraying her hair before prom and my mother’s sideways glances in mirrors before a party were remnants of that earlier era. This upbringing, plus my general distaste of consumerism and advertising, has made fashion an art I’ve never trusted. Fresh Lipstick makes it clear, however, that these are not the only effects of fashion; that fashion can fulfill innate needs of identification and expression and that authenticity and naturalness are more complicated than they appear.

As expected, most of the books arguments relate to feminist thought and history, and don’t quite address my own criticisms. The author conflates a rejection of clean, new clothes with a rejection of hygiene, for example. In my ideal world, a stain would not end the life of an otherwise useful piece of clothing. So while I remain wary of fashion and unconvinced that women are not largely oppressed by it, having read Fresh Lipstick I have a more nuanced understanding of fashion and feminism.

Thus, it is never possible simply to “opt out” of the discourse of dress. No one can dress in a way that signifies nothing.

By slumping their shoulders, ducking their heads, and averting their eyes in the presence of an aristocrat, commoners acknowledged their inferior status and communicated their willingness to serve. In contrast, gentry had to maintain perfect posture at all times — the slightest slouch signified the servility required of common-folk. Aristocratic clothing was designed to help keep their bodies upright and in place.

The imperative to maintain grooming even under the worst circumstances is testimony to the principle outlined by Adam Smith that the most basic needs are not “biological” but involve those goods, whatever they may be, that allow a person to be seen as “creditable” in the eyes of the community. As sociologist Michael Schudson points out: “Human needs are for inclusion as well as for survival…”

A manicure provided another important mode of social contact: touch. Getting a manicure is one of those acceptable ways of being touched by someone who is not necessarily an intimate.

I think it’s fair to infer that the turn to makeup was originally related to the emulation of actresses.

Rather than being a symptom of insecurity or a strictly sexual sign, body and face painting creates, overlays, and reinforces patterns of categorization and gives play to the whole range of distinctions that human imagination can produce.

Many feminist essays complain that makeup and other grooming practices are “lies” because they cover up the “true self”. This argument is flawed by the supposition that the self is an authentic essence prior to experience — thus preexisting, already made, but knowable at will.

Today’s feminists would not begrudge the expression of sexual orientation and desire through dress within the lesbian community, but the attitudes that pathologize the same behavior from a heterosexual female are still powerful.

… the critique is based on several assumptions peculiar to the conditions of its time. Although these observations have not held up over the decades, they have continued to be believed as myth. One is the belief that the beauties in the media are predominantly blond. … Then there is the myth of The Face. … we were told that fashion presents us with one standard of beauty at any time. … A third is the one in which the “youth worship” of the culture is condemned for rendering older women useless and unappealing.

The most radical [feminist] groups developed a philosophy of dress that reduced appearance to sex appeal and attributed all control over personal presentation to men. By treating self-presentation as a purely gender-determined issue and by refusing to recognize that differences among women, as well as personal identities and private desires, were visibly expressed in ways far more subtle than was allowed by this thinking, the movement side-stepped several issues that left them vulnerable to an ambush…

But Total Women were afraid of the feminist movement because it seemed to threaten the only security they had — their husband’s income.

Yet the gender gap in incomes is consistently associated with motherhood — it is not a straightforward connection to gender. Women under forty who are childless make 98 percent of men’s salaries — nearly equal. Once children are present, the gender difference emerges: Mothers make 75 percent of men’s salaries. And this is not just a problem of would-be wealthy career women. Women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are 60 percent more likely to live in poverty than men.

… indeed, the more you look at it, the more contradictions there are: a culture where women are held in place by being “desexualized,” not “sexualized”; a place where women are oppressed by not allowing men to ogle them. … in Afghanistan there is no fashion industry, no advertising.

By taking this position, the self-declared leaders of this movement push us into a way of dealing with life that is fundamentally inhumane. By ignoring the way that self-decoration expresses the human force of creative expression — the song of the self to come into being — and by denying the strength these practices can bring at moments of depression, dislocation, and even death, the antibeauty critique engages in cultural cruelty.


Title: The Fashion Reader
Author: Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun
Source: LAPL
Interest: 3.5 stars

(Note: I only completed the first 300 or so pages of this textbook before having to return it.)
The Fashion Reader is an interesting mix of articles on fashion, organized into loose categories including, “Fashion Theory” and “Fashion and Identity”. The quality of the writing is also mixed, but I found every article thought-provoking and interesting. One answer I did not find was whether my approach to my clothing constitutes “anti-fashion” or simply an individual fashion. I was somewhat surprised how many articles are critical of fashion and come away from the reading with a stronger conviction of my beliefs. My search for convincing rebuttals to my criticisms of fashion continues. The quotes below give a sense of the wide-ranging topics.

… the term “sans-culottes,” which described manual laborers and the urban poor, who generally wore utilitarian long trousers rather than the knee-length breeches (culottes) favored by aristocrats and the bourgeoisie…

Pantaloons, a compromise between aristocratic breeches and working-class trousers… were close fitting garments of mid-calf length, often made of knitted silk or cotton.

Fashion is a collective phenomenon and has an objective existence apart from any individual. … In the mass, most [people] are “average”, and taste becomes what fashion is all about. Taste implies a purely subjective judgment with which there is no arguing, but aesthetic judgment requires a certain consistency with aesthetic principles as well as an evaluation of the functional relevance of an object.

When the first few fashion leaders adopt a new style, they identify themselves as members of an elite apart from the rest of the world. … In the end no one can afford to be different. The final blow comes when the woman standing aside appears ridiculous even to herself. “They” are no longer odd; she herself is. … But in the meantime the fashion innovators may already be striking out in new directions.

He describes how the jeans feel on his body, how they pinch and restrict his movement, how they make him aware of the lower half of his body… ‘As a result, I lived in the knowledge that I had jeans on, whereas normally we live forgetting that we’re wearing undershorts or trousers. … I assumed a demeanor… Not only did the garment impose a demeanor on me; by focusing my attention on demeanor it obligated me to live towards the exterior world.’

Learning to keep our clothes on while in public is something parents have to enforce upon unruly young children… as they approach school age, parents may become anxious to ensure that children learn shame and do not risk ridicule in public by stripping… Obvious though this seems, it is a taken-for-granted aspect of social life that illustrates the centrality of dress to our experiences of embodiment and to the moral order of the social world.

These two bodies were very much defined in terms of a sharp distinction between tailored or structured dress worn to work and untailored or unstructured dress at home. The dressed body at work, described by my respondents, was a public body, dressed for the formal conditions of the professional workplace. This formal body was more tightly constrained in terms of its visual appearance, its contours firmly demarcated by tailored clothing, especially by the tailored jacket which marks a clear boundary around the body in much the same way as a man’s suit jacket does.

… institutions such as prisons and hospitals impose uniforms which erase the individual features of the wearers’ bodies and produce a uniform image of the institution or corporation.

… fashion has been defined a priori as a Western phenomenon, and that, in this way, fashion has been a function of “the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage — and even produce — the Orient…” Who has, and who does not have fashion is politically determined, a function of power relations. To paraphrase Said, what was “discovered” to be without fashion was what could be made to be without fashion.

Role theory suggests that since people may have multiple roles they fulfill, they may have a variety of identities, constructed, in part, through appearance.

… white cotton was used because it was easily washed and could be bleached without fading.

When a boy assumed that most exclusive element of male dress, trousers, society viewed him as symbolically beginning the process of becoming a man.

… boys went from wearing dresses to knicker suits at around age three, but wore knickers for a longer time, to about age twelve.

Boys’ attire grew progressively less “feminine” during the twentieth century, and in the 1990s, boys wear items associated with females only under special circumstances, such as a lace-trimmed heirloom christening dress worn at baptism. Conversely, female clothing became more “masculine,” with those formerly male-only — trousers — gradually accepted for women and girls in nearly every social situation.

… a peculiarly American “shame of being thought poor” fueled the American pursuit of fashion…

The overwhelming direction in the borrowing of gender symbols is from the men’s to women’s dress.

It is possible that someday women and men will be valued equally, for all their differences. The clothes we wear today do not indicate that this will happen soon.

Some senior women began wearing adaptations of masculine conventions (“power dressing”) to claim equal status, while others adopted elite designer fashions of the West End or Fifth Avenue to differentiate themselves from women in subordinate secretarial jobs.

[Gerald] Levin is the CEO who sent chills through haberdashery, in January 2000, when he wore khaki trousers and an open-necked shirt to the press conference announcing the merger of his company, Time Warner, with AOL.

Trousers, too, were probably first pulled on for horseback riding.

Like Clark Kent’s boxy double-breasted suit, which had to be removed, in a phone booth or behind a tree, for Kent to function as Superman, ours have become more a transitory disguise than the clothes in which we actually do our work.

But ceremony is a dressy place. Ceremony celebrates rank and order in public. A traditional hallmark of ceremony is the unrelaxed situation of the principals.

These two views are mutually inconsistent, although no debate within feminism has fully brought this out. … “on the one hand, those committed to “cultures of identity” and the achievement of true self and expression. On the other hand, those who act on the basis that human interaction depends on dissimulation, who insist on the central value of the city, its unpredictability, the fluidity of its codes and the subversive play with them.” The division between the “authentic” and the “modernist”…

Later nineteenth-century feminism was marked by this Fabian spirit, which posed use against beauty; the same utilitarianism marks it today. The logic of this view is ultimately that the only justification for clothing is function — utility.

One Response to “Recent book reviews — November 2013”

  1. Jon Bergstrom says:


    Great reviews. Well written and very interesting. I found the review of “Traffic” particularly interesting. Your comment that many people do not consider the dangers hit home with me.

    Thanks for taking the time to share.


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