memoir

Author Interview: Joanna Mishtal, The Politics of Morality

Growing up in the west, I had a fairly uncomplicated view of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, they were the EvilThe Politics of Morality Empire. Then down comes the Berlin Wall. The Iron Curtain crumbles. Freedom wins the day. Roll credits.

Of course, history is never that simple.

Anthropologist Joanna Mishtal grew up in Soviet Poland, defected to the United States as a teenager, and now studies reproductive rights in her country of birth. Her research uncovers a thornier narrative of post-Soviet Poland. Rather than a secular democracy, the Catholic church has assumed a dominant political role.

As a result, Poland has some of the strictest abortion laws of any European Union country, and Mishtal explores the effect this has had on women and women’s rights in her first book, The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland.

The book, published by Ohio University Press, blends politics, personal narrative, Polish history and peer-reviewed research. Full disclosure: I have known Mishtal for close to a decade and I proofread early drafts of a few chapters.

Mishtal provides a unique view of Polish politics, having experienced both Soviet and post-Soviet culture as well as having lived in the west. Most impressively, she is able to switch easily between detached observation and insider familiarity, lending a unique voice to her research. Her personal insights enhance the narrative while her use of case studies give flesh and bone to the academics.

With Russia once again a wild card, the EU in crisis and Poland’s recent swing even further to the right, The Politics of Morality is a timely and important read. We are still figuring out both the history and consequences of the end of the Cold War, and Mishtal’s is an important and necessary voice in the discussion.

She recently sat down with Ensuing Chapters to discuss The Politics of Morality.

 

Review: Waking Up

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion

Sam Harris

My anticipation for the new Sam Harris book turned to anxiety when I learned it would be about spirituality. Was the firebrandtype philosopher and scientist—co-founder of Project Reason and author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation—changing teams?

Nah.

Perhaps a better title for this book, though, would be The Atheist’s Guide to Meditation.

At its core, Waking Up is about mindfulness, and as a fellow atheist who has attended a fair share of Buddhist retreats (including a recent one on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), I can relate to some of the conflicts Harris encounters. No matter how secular the retreat, I get nervous when I find myself in a room full of people following the direction of a group leader offering spiritual betterment.

Harris takes out the touchy-feely and goes straight for the scientific foundation of a mindfulness-based approach to life. The result is a book heavy on Buddhist philosophy and refreshingly light on bullshit.

What makes Waking Up different is that it’s also what Harris calls a “seeker’s memoir.” We follow his journey from a skeptical teen to an adult struggling with the feelings of “unsatisfactoriness”—which is his interpretation of the concept of dukkha, rather than the traditional definition of suffering.

He had my attention early in the book, when describing the disquiet of his solitary thoughts and the relief he felt when experimenting with MDMA, LSD and DMT: “It would not be too strong to say that I felt sane for the first time in my life.”

Through his seeking, Harris reveals that, for him, spirituality is not the existence of a higher being in the ethereal realm, but rather the cognizance one has of an immaterial self. “Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents. And the only thing relevant to the question of personal identity is psychological continuity from one moment to the next.”

Speaking of continuity, Harris gets a little far afield the deeper we delve into the book. Beyond memoir, he explores the scientific underpinnings of consciousness and meditation, drops some knowledge about psychedelic drugs and, justifiably, rants on the silliness (and scientific dishonesty) of Proof of Heaven and other accounts of near-death experiences.

While I really enjoyed many of these sections, they didn’t have the cohesion of a linear narrative. It read more like a collection of essays on a single topic—which is fine, just not what I was expecting.

Harris’ informed and enlightened discussion of psychedelics resonates the most with me. Not only do I agree with his observations (and share some of his experiences), but Harris also challenges some of my long-held assumptions.

For instance, Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception is a seminal bit of psychedelic literature, and for years I bought in fully to Huxley’s description of the brain as a “reducing valve.” Harris debunks this by drawing on modern neuroscience, causing me to think about mind-manifesting drugs in a new way.

All told, Waking Up is an interesting and enjoyable read. There’s a bit of science writing, philosophy, memoir and a unique take on spirituality and meditation.

Review: Insatiable

Insatiable

Asa Akira

I had high hopes for Asa Akira’s memoir. I imagine being a porn star makes for an Insatiableinteresting life, and I was hoping to learn about the person, not the persona (which is already widely available on the Internet).

Unfortunately, Akira wrote the book in character.

Consider the sex scenes. Of course sex is going to come up in a porn memoir, but I wasn’t expecting it in the form of Penthouse Letters-style prose. My take is that it’s a distraction. By focusing our gaze on the sex, Akira deflects the attention away from herself.

What I wanted from Insatiable was the side of Akira we haven’t seen yet, and she noticeably shies away from the interior reflection required of memoir. Perhaps this is a survival skill inherent among those in the sex industry: It’s easier to open up physically than emotionally.

Fair enough, I suppose.

What I can’t excuse, however, is the tone. In the adult industry, female characters are typically portrayed as hyper-sexualized, submissive and eager to please. (Think Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK or the nature of small talk made around stripper poles.) It’s understood that these are on-screen characters, but when the actor extends this behavior beyond the camera lens, it is inauthentic at best and caricature at worst.

Akira does show her depth at times, such as while discussing the growing intersection of porn and prostitution. This is the kind of dialogue I was looking for, but even here, I don’t believe she truly mines her interior. What could have been an important conversation is ultimately reduced to an anecdote, though an interesting one to be sure.

I’m reminded of the album cover of KISS Unmasked. It is paneled in the form of a comic book in which the musicians remove their “masks” at the end. They reveal that underneath their face paint they look exactly the same. It’s a clever gag, but it’s meant to obfuscate, not uncover.

I feel the same way about Insatiable.

It’s clever and shows a lot of promise. Akira’s narrative is fast-paced, the content readable and at times laugh-out-loud funny. If you’re a fan of Asa Akira, this is an enjoyable, though not essential, read.

Review: About Three Bricks Shy of a Load

About Three Bricks Shy of a Load

Roy Blount Jr.

Many have described football as an encapsulation of America itself (see Sal OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA BOOK COVERPaolantonio’s How Football Explains America), and I’m inclined to agree. Of course there’s a time lag, since Europeans arrived on this continent four centuries before the birth of American football.

For historical synchronicity, let’s say the 19th-century invention of the sport parallels the arrival at Plymouth Rock; the 1920 formation of the National Football League (then known as the American Professional Football Association) was the Continental Congress; and the years leading up to and including the early Super Bowls was the Wild West. Since then, football has enjoyed the popularity and profit of post-WWII America.

The bridge between the NFL’s lawless pre-history and current glory days is the 1970s, when the organized mayhem of the sport electrified color televisions across the nation. It was the decade dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In 1973, author Roy Blount Jr., whom many will know as a regular panelist on National Public Radio’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, spent the season with the Steelers at a crucial moment—months after the Immaculate Reception and a year before their first Super Bowl victory.

The result was the gonzo-style About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, which has been re-released in honor of the book’s fortieth anniversary.

I have a personal interest in this book: I was born in western Pennsylvania in 1972, and you bet your ass I bleed black and gold. Possessing that strain of superstition unique to sports, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Steelers won a grand total of 0 postseason games prior to my birth and since then have been the winningest team in football.

As a youth, I idolized the ’70s Steelers, but didn’t yet have the sophistication (or skepticism) to consider the lives of the men behind the facemasks. It was with great interest, then, that I read About Three Bricks Shy of a Load to learn more about the incubation of a dynasty. What sets this apart from similar books (such as Their Life’s Work and Steel Dynasty) is that it captures the highs and lows of the 1973 season without the sentimentality of age or the foreknowledge of future championships.

However, this isn’t a yearbook. This is an in-the-trenches account of the players and personalities that epitomized professional football of that era—a time before the NFL became PG rated. Blount’s embedded reporting is remarkable, from the openness of alcohol, drugs and sex to the lingering racial and culture divides of the 1960s. I’ve learned more about the team I idolized in this one book than I did growing up an hour from Three Rivers Stadium.

However, this is still a book of general interest. Although its emphasis is on one team, it is a pivotal bit of prehistory to the NFL’s dominance. A raw, unfiltered look at a free-wheeling sports league before it became a tight-lipped, humorless corporation.

Of course, there are shadows that loom over this narrative. Just as nobody in 1973 could have foreseen the success of the Steelers and the NFL, also unknown was the physical toll of steroids and repeated blows to the head. The significance of this book will likely increase with age, especially as the NFL finds itself at a crossroads—its popularity has never been greater, but lawsuits, science and dropping youth enrollment portent a shaky future.

History is always a work in progress, and the definitive narrative of the NFL has yet to be written. But when it is, About Three Bricks Shy of a Load will be a document of a special time in a special place, the story of a team on the cusp of greatness falling just shy of its goal.