Sunday, December 28, 2014

‘Lamaze: An International History’ (Book Review)

If childbirth is known for something, it’s being painful. And many mothers give silent thanks to French obstetrician Fernand Lamaze for inventing a method to ease some of that pain. It’s pretty much a given that, if you’re having a baby, you’re doing “Lamaze.” The method is so engrained in American culture that few are aware that it has been around for less than a century…and that it has Soviet roots! (Cue scary music.)

Curious about the real origins of this popular birthing technique, historian and mother Paula A. Michaels, Senior Lecturer at Australia’s Monash University, combed archival material from four countries and even conducted personal interviews to learn more. In Lamaze: An International History (Oxford, 2014), she presents the stories behind the search for a painless delivery, from the Grantly Dick-Read method to I.Z. Vel’vovskii’s psychoprophylaxis to “Lamaze” as practiced today. There’s also much about the cyclical popularity of anesthesia, on the upswing more recently with the introduction of the epidural. What the reader will quickly discover is that these techniques didn’t materialize out of thin air, but were the products of social forces at work. Michaels’ story is not merely about obstetrics, but about Cold War tensions, political propaganda, psychology’s role in medicine, feminist movements, American consumerism, and the fads of “natural childbirth” with all its shades of meaning.

I don’t have much interest in medicine – my stomach churns when people talk about their operations – but I can honestly say I enjoyed reading Lamaze. It gave me a new understanding of and appreciation for the techniques, drugs, and machines available to new mothers today. I hope the book finds its way to the reading lists of many graduate-level history classes, particularly those in Gender History that want to discuss patriarchy, psychotherapy, and the control of women, and those covering 20th Century United States History that could benefit from an unusual perspective on Soviet-American relations. As for new mothers, I recommend only giving it to those who you know would appreciate a scholarly book. For the rest, they’ll have to wait until a PBS documentary is made.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

‘How to Survive in Hollywood and Keep Your Integrity’ (Book Review)

It often seems like everyone’s looking to “make it” as an actor in Hollywood. Not surprisingly, we can find a plethora of how-to books available to show the way. A recent one is How to Survive in Hollywood and Keep Your Integrity (2013) by Toni Covington (IMDb), an actress whose credits include parts in TV’s The Thin Man (1957–1959) and the films The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960) and Buster Ladd (1969).

Readers just getting started in their acting careers will probably get the most out of this book. They’ll learn how to outline an appropriate resume and navigate through the often confusing world of actors’ unions. There’s also some good advice about keeping a good attitude, making use of your other talents (like singing, dancing, and playing sports), and accepting unusual roles. The author encourages her readers to not limit themselves to the usual feature film, theater, and television trio but to consider “industrial films, documentaries, religious films, [and] training films” that will provide them with much-needed experience.

While on the surface How to Survive might look like a goldmine of information, I’m skeptical about how far it will really get an aspiring actor. Ms. Covington’s advice can be categorized as basic, outdated, or incomplete. Yes, the reader needs to find a good agent and photographer, but how exactly is that done? And it might make sense to accept unusual and small roles to build experience, but the author doesn’t show how to prevent getting stuck, as many actors do, in bit part and commercial work. Also, while this probably wasn’t intentional on her part, she perpetuates the idea that modeling is the gateway job to acting. Actors come in all ages, shapes, and sizes; models have to be perfect. I would hate to see someone who showed real promise in acting be discouraged because of not being able to infiltrate the cut-throat world of modeling first.

There’s also the matter of keeping one’s integrity, a central point of the book, which I thought needed a more serious treatment. The author tries to discourage her readers from trying to “sleep their way” to success. Ultimately, I think she fails. By her own telling, her acting career stagnated when she turned down a proposition from a TV and film executive (who, by the way, took seconds to find – thanks to Google, IMDb, and the prevalence of online obituaries – despite her attempt to mask his identity). In other words, the moral lesson appears to backfire. While the book might be about surviving, most readers are interested in succeeding. Ms. Covington never landed the big leads that would give her the credibility readers are looking for. Yes, How to Survive can provide acting novices with some things to seriously think about. But since most of the information can be found – better written and in far more detail – on websites, in other books, and directly from industry professionals like an acting coach and talent agent, I’m left unconvinced that she’s the authority to turn to.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Friday, December 19, 2014

‘Diary of a Jewish Muslim’ (Book Review)

The best thing a new story has going for it is an unusual character, circumstance, or setting. Diary of a Jewish Muslim: An Egyptian Novel (AUC Press, 2014), written by Kamal Ruhayyim and translated by Sarah Enany, had all three, making it treat to read. I doubt there are many fictional books about Jews in Arab countries, and even fewer readily available in English. Add in an inter-religious marriage, and this is definitely not your typical coming-of-age novel.

I’ll say right off: Don’t believe the inside book cover. The story actually dates from the 1950s to the 1970s, not the 1930s to the 1960s mentioned in the publisher’s description, causing me some unnecessary confusion. The Suez War has ended, and Egypt’s Muslims and Jews live in a world of bigotry, hostility, and antagonism coming from both sides. Because of the worsening political situation, many Jews are immigrating to other countries like France for asylum. This is the world in which Galal is born and raised. The only son of a Muslim father he’s never met and a Jewish mother, he takes us on a journey of laughter and tears through his formative years, as he tries to discover his true identity.

I liked this book straightaway for three reasons. First, it isn’t shy about the religious tensions. The reader has to learn how to like, or at least empathize with, the characters despite their bigotry, rather than being treated with a watered-down version of it. Second, while popular culture likes to focus on the love of the Romeo and Juliet and their right to get together, few people care to talk about what happens to the children of mixed unions, who often grow up confused about who they are, unable to really hold on to anything permanent or confidently pursue love of their own. As the outcome of an inter-racial marriage, I could identify with Galal as he constantly feels out of place in both sides of his family and not fully accepted by his peers. A lot of readers might find this depressing, but it’s arguably realistic.

Third, I thought the diary approach was particularly entertaining for the early years. The reader is told what happens from the baby’s, toddler’s, and child’s perspectives, not from a grown man’s perspective looking back on his past. The reader sees the religious and cultural conflict, not as the adults who perpetuate them see them, but as a child just learning how to navigate through life sees them: confusing, unfair, and often contradictory.

What didn’t I like about Diary of a Jewish Muslim? At times, the book can be a rough read. Some religious and cultural references are explained, while others are sort of left to the reader to figure out. Once or twice, I was confused about who was speaking, possibly a flaw in the author’s writing style, possibly an error in the translation. And I had to reread the last three chapters to make sense of the ending. I think I know where the author was trying to go with it, but I don’t think he was successful in getting his main character there. So while I enjoyed the beginning and middle, I was left unsatisfied with the close. However, I don’t want that to keep you from at least checking it out. The book’s unique elements might be enough to win the hearts of many a reader.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Titus 2 Woman Loves Her Husband

“The Oldest Love Poem” (8th Cent. BC)
(İstanbul Archaeological Museums)
How does a “Titus 2 Woman,” as a teacher of good, carry out that mission? First, she can train younger women to love their husbands:

[Π]ρεσβύτιδας ὡσαύτως ἐν καταστήματι ἱεροπρεπεῖς, μὴ διαβόλους μὴ οἴνῳ πολλῷ δεδουλωμένας, καλοδιδασκάλους, ἵνα σωφρονίζωσιν τὰς νέας φιλάνδρους εἶναι, φιλοτέκνους σώφρονας ἁγνὰς οἰκουργοὺς ἀγαθάς, ὑποτασσομένας τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν, ἵνα μὴ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ βλασφημῆται. – Titus 2:3-5 (NA28)

Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. – Titus 2:3-5 (ESV)

The key word here in the Greek is φίλανδρος (“man-loving”), derived from φιλεω (“to love”/“to kiss”) and ἀνήρ (“man”/“husband”). It should be familiar. That’s where we get our modern word “philanderer.” In ancient times, φίλανδρος was used in a number of different ways. It signified the love of men in general, such as for the citizens of one’s country, or friendliness towards the male sex. This is consistent with how we understand and use the words “philanthropy” (“love of people”) and “misogyny” (“hatred of women”) today. Still, the word was also used to indicate the general direction of a person’s sexual attraction or romantic affection. That is, φίλανδρος was used for homosexual men and heterosexual women, in contrast to φιλογύνης (“woman-loving”) for heterosexual men and homosexual women. And specifically, when used for women, φίλανδρος could indicate either fondness for their husbands or lewd behavior.

It is in the sense of loving one’s husband that we normally understand this biblical passage. While it appears to make the most sense considering the immediate context, I wouldn’t necessarily rule out all other definitions, because those could be applied more generally to all women, regardless of marital status. (I would, of course, exclude lewdness regardless, not only because the Bible explicitly condemns it, but also because it is inconsistent with the concern for the reputation of God’s people we’ve seen throughout the Book of Titus.)

Many Christians argue that “love their husbands” is the best interpretation, on the grounds that marriage was the social norm at the time and, therefore, practically every woman had a husband. That argument never made sense to me, even as a child. We know quite well that there were many unmarried Christian women in Early Church, as well as in Jewish and Roman societies in general. Expecting that every woman under Titus’ pastoral oversight would eventually find herself with her own man to love is rather naïve, especially if we consider that they were in a religious subculture that was known at the time for life-long virgins, devoted widows, and divorced women resolved to never remarry. So again, while I would say that “husband-loving” is probably the best choice, I’m not sure that “man-loving” in general can completely be ruled out.

Now, assuming we have the correct interpretation, we can ask, why would the author be concerned about women expressing love towards their husbands? Loving is something that many Christians assume should come easy to women. In fact, noting that two other Pauline letters charge husbands – and not wives – to αγαπατε their spouses (Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 3:18-19), many Christians argue that loving comes naturally to women, hence they don’t have to be told to do it. For the record, ἀγαπάω (“to love”) is more commonly used than φιλεω in the Septuagint and Greek New Testament. While not strict synonyms, they both can refer to having feelings or sexual desire for someone. (See my post about Amnon raping Tamar.)

Now, I don’t mean to suggest the command given to women in Titus 2:3-5 is equivalent to the command given to men elsewhere. What concerns me is the false assumption that it’s easy to follow. Despite the loving reputation, it can be difficult for a woman to always be affectionate towards her husband. At times he might be difficult. Disagreeable. Annoying. He might embarrass her. Ignore her. Even hurt her, emotionally or physically. And in ancient times, there was the added problem that she might’ve found herself unwillingly betrothed to someone distasteful, who could often legally cheat on her, but not her on him. Doesn’t sound like she’d always be in the mood to kiss him!

This is the context in which I believe we should interpret the instruction for the older Cretan women. I doubt the author was concerned about women passing down the secrets of an exciting sexual life or hints on how to be a perfect 1950’s “Good Wife,” with homemade dinners, a spotless house, and perfect hair. Instead, I think he was hoping that experienced women could help new brides smoothly navigate through the rockiest parts of marital life. The Christian community’s reputation would’ve improved, as couples would’ve shown each other more affection and learned to be patient and understanding with each other.

Certainly, a little love can go a long way in the home. However, we should acknowledge that women can go overboard with this, with or without urging from the pulpit. Wisdom on that point is found in one of the letters of Basil “the Great,” bishop of Cæsarea (b.329/30-d.379). He uses φιλάνδρους when writing a consolatory letter to the widow of the General Arinthæus, urging her to moderate her feelings for her deceased husband lest she become ruled by them (Epistulae 269: Perseus; CCEL). Those of us who’ve witnessed the blind and unrestrained devotion some women can have towards the men in their lives can appreciate the bishop’s concern.

In addition, we need to beware of turning our husbands into idols. Many Christians like to overstate a woman’s duty to love her husband such that their definition comes into conflict with her duty to God. As the Emperor Julian of Rome (b.331/2-d.363) wrote the priestess Callixeine, “Now who would rank a woman's piety [φιλόθεον] second to her love for her husband [φίλανδρον] without appearing to have drunk a very deep draught of mandragora?” (Epistulae 42: Perseus; Wikisource). That is, literally, who but a drunk would prioritize φίλανδρος (“men-loving”) over φιλόθεος (“god-loving”)? Pagan words, yes, but they echo an overarching theme found in the Bible: God is more important than man, and our relationship with Him is more important than our human relationships. A woman’s devotion to her husband certainly has no business surpassing her devotion to God. Rather, as Titus 2:3-5 implies, it is to reflect this devotion to God.

Translation of “The Oldest Love Poem”
[This poem dates from the Ancient Babylonian Era (8th Cent. BC), reflecting Sumerian beliefs and customs. Especially note the last stanza.]

Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.

Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey.
Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.

You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My SHU-SIN, who gladdens ENLIL's heart,
Give my pray of your caresses