Posted at 11:32 AM ET, 06/11/2010

Polite Sex at Dawn

Two weeks ago, I saw a review on our Weddings page of a book called "Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality" (HarperCollins). Without much thought, I blurted out in a tweet that it sounded pretty stupid to me.

But that started a surprising e-mail conversation with one of the authors, Christopher Ryan. It's interesting not only for what Mr. Ryan says, but as an example of the way patient authors can profitably engage even caustic critics: Sex at Dawn.JPG

Ron Charles: Thank you for your gracious note, which is more than I deserved. If the short bit in the Sunday Post was unnuanced, then a tweet based on that short bit is probably pretty close to worthless, so you're wise not to lose any sleep over it. More than ever, all publicity is good.

Christopher Ryan: Maybe it's a sign of my not having fully joined the Twittering classes, but I felt like an interloper responding to your tweet. Please don't let my barging in dissuade you from future pithy dismissals in 140 characters or less!

Ron Charles: I have to say, though, that I'm fundamentally suspicious of applying "anthropological and biological evidence" to what are essentially moral and ethic concerns.

Christopher Ryan: Me too. One of my concerns about how our book will be received involves the fact that the paradigm of human sexual evolution we present isn't cleanly aligned with either of the opposing camps in the endless debates over human nature. Everyone from Steven Pinker to Naomi Wolf will find plenty to scoff at, so we're not likely to attract many natural allies, I fear. But to your point, "moral and ethic concerns" don't arise spontaneously, right? Although they are generally spun as if they were eternal and immutable laws (the word of God), it's clear that moral concerns reflect deeper cultural forces--normally economic, I'd argue. One way, albeit not the only way, to investigate these deeper issues involves the application of anthropological and biological evidence.

Ron Charles: "Adultery has been documented in every human culture studied"? So what? We observe murder in all those cultures, too, but that's no argument in its favor. And isn't "the idea that monogamy comes naturally to men and women" a bit of a jism-stained straw-man argument? Who exactly is promoting "the myth that you should be completely happy, completely fulfilled with one partner for 50 years? Surely, no church makes that fairytale argument. "Ryan knows many will be incredulous at the suggestion that adultery comes naturally." Really? Many? Where are these virgins pure as the driven snow? Do they not own televisions, talk to friends, read novels, date men?

Christopher Ryan: I've pasted below the context from which that line was taken, which shows that the mention of adultery in every culture was just one of several data points cited to make the case, not intended as an argument in and of itself. While I agree that asserting humans are "naturally monogamous" will get you laughed out of any bar (especially a gay bar), the principle of the exchange of female fidelity (and thus, paternity certainty) for male food, status, and protection is fundamental to mainstream thinking on human evolution. This, we're told, is why women prefer older, richer men, and why women are less sexual beings than men, in general, and are far more choosy about their mates. Women's jealousy is supposedly keyed on her mate's emotional ties to other women, while men's is focused on her potential sexual contacts. There are hundreds, if not thousands of research papers (not to mention books) that take this scenario for granted, but we question whether this essential exchange between a man and a woman really had much importance at all until the advent of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. (We've existed, more or less as we are today, for about 200,000 years.) I won't tax your patience with a point-by-point response, but we devote an entire chapter of the book to laying out precisely what we're arguing against, so that we can't be accused of attacking a straw-man, jism-stained or not. (One of the fun facts you can learn in Sex at Dawn is that "jism" and "jazz" come from the same root, etymologically.)

Ron Charles: Entirely unfair of me, I know, to take a potshot at your book in a tweet, -- or even here without having read it -- but that's the state of critical affairs nowadays I'm afraid.

Christopher Ryan: Not at all. The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, as Oscar Wilde really did say. Your potshot is much appreciated.

Posted by Ron Charles | Permalink | Comments (1)
Share This: Technorati talk bubble Technorati | Tag in | Digg This

Posted at 04:30 PM ET, 03/16/2010

Short Stack morphs into Political Bookworm

Short Stack has transformed into Political Bookworm. As you may have noticed, Short Stack has contained considerable coverage of political books in recent months. We believe strongly in the importance of book-length political writing to inform and educate the public on serious issues of the day. Political Bookworm discusses new books long before they hit the shelves. We continues to have writers contribute guest blogs. Authors of forthcoming books participate in Q & A's about their work. You will find best seller lists -- both for general books and for political books. You will be directed where to see and hear political authors on television, radio and podcasts. Please have a look and leave us your comments, or send us an email at

Posted by Steven E. Levingston | Permalink | Comments (2)
Share This: Technorati talk bubble Technorati | Tag in | Digg This

Posted at 09:55 PM ET, 03/10/2010

Poet's Choice by Julie Carr

Poet Julie Carr.jpgThis poem is the 23rd "note" in my book, "100 Notes on Violence." At this
moment in the sequence I wanted to be very explicit about my intentions and about the source of those intentions. The book grew out of my increasing resistance to representations of and information about domestic, local and intimate violence. As a mother and citizen, I found myself growing less and less able to tolerate images or texts about violence, especially when that violence was aimed at children. Having recently moved to Colorado, I was extremely aware of the Columbine Massacre, and aware of my inability to think about that event and all comparable events directly. This felt like cowardice to me. I felt I needed to find a way, through my work, to confront these fears and resistances and to examine with as much depth and breadth as I could conjure the existence of violence as a fact of our collective identity. I wanted to move not toward
acceptance, but toward awareness and acknowledgment. The final line of this poem is especially important because writing this book made me more aware of my own potential for violence - it made me aware that violence does not belong outside of us, but lives within any of us as a possibility. The book is therefore finally not about other people's violence, but about our collective culpability.


The idea to write a book "about" violence. "What kind?"
"The close-up kind."

Because I cannot write the words "school shootings"
into the little search box.

Later I hear that whatever you write into the little
search box will somewhere
be recorded as data in order to better sell you.

What does the person searching school shootings want to

I keyed "guns" instead, but I don't want to buy a gun.

I could buy a gun.

Julie Carr is the author of "Mead: An Epithalamion," "Equivocal," "100 Notes on Violence," published by Ahsahta Press, and the forthcoming "Sarah--of Fragments and Lines," which will be out from Coffee House Press in September. She teaches at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and is the co-publisher of Counterpath Press.

Posted by Ron Charles | Permalink | Comments (2)
Share This: Technorati talk bubble Technorati | Tag in | Digg This

Posted at 03:43 PM ET, 03/ 8/2010

Looking for Short Stack?

Short Stack has morphed into Political Bookworm. Please come join the conversation. Political Bookworm is the place where you can discover tomorrow's political books today and hear from the latest authors.

Posted by Steven E. Levingston | Permalink | Comments (1)
Share This: Technorati talk bubble Technorati | Tag in | Digg This

Posted at 10:46 PM ET, 03/ 2/2010

Poet's Choice: "Will There Be More Than One 'Questioner'?" by Nick Lantz

Lantz, Nick (Vicky Lantz).jpgThe title of "Will There Be More Than One 'Questioner'?" comes from an interrogator's preparatory checklist in a declassified CIA document from 1983, the "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual." I came across it while doing research for my book "We Don't Know We Don't Know," which focuses partly on salvaging poetry out of politically degraded language.

In clumsily seeking to conceal the manual's actual subject, the euphemism "human resource exploitation" comes off more sinister than "interrogation" (or even "torture") ever could. The manual disavows violence as an interrogation technique, but these disavowals appear in what are clearly later additions, and they are so frequent, and vigorous, that they too become unintentionally self-incriminating. The ironic quotes that appear around "questioner," "questioning" and so forth in the poem follow an identical convention used in the original document, and again, this evasion is full of menace. ("There is nothing mysterious about 'questioning,'" the manual's authors unconvincingly assure the reader.) Another convention carried over from the source document is the redaction and elision of text.

Through its preemptive denials, secrecy and doublespeak, the manual seeks in many ways to diminish the negative reactions it may illicit, but in so doing, it manages to sound more disturbing and more mysterious than it ever could have otherwise. This was both comical and sad, and I knew I wanted to use that language somehow in a poem. Very early in the writing process, I realized that the poem would itself be an interrogation, an almost abusive litany of questions. Though the poem of course reads against the backdrop our recent torture scandals and debates, its surreal turns free it of any particular time and place. The interrogator-protagonist who took shape ultimately interested me not for reasons of political ideology but for the way in which he exemplifies how even when we are privy to the most clandestine recesses of human behavior, we are still fundamentally shut out of true knowledge. No matter how many "questions" we ask, we cannot know everything.

Will There Be More Than One "Questioner"?
-- CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual (1983)

Will the cell window look out onto a hem of mountains? An alley of hard-packed dirt? A seam of razor wire?
Will the "questioning" take place in the cell or at another location?
In the location where the "questioning" will take place, have provisions been made for restraints?
Will you know the crime of which he is accused before you begin the "questioning"?
Have provisions been made for surveillance?
Have provisions been made for refreshments?
Will there be light?
Will there be music?
During the day will all light be shut out?
Will you read the name on his dossier before entering the cell?
Before the "questioning" begins, will you offer tea scented with rose water?
Will you take his hand in yours?
Will you send for [ ]?
After the first day of "questioning," will you sit on the breezy veranda and read the confiscated letters from his wife?
Will it concern you that the detention center has a veranda in the first place, that from the nearest road, it looks like a rich man's estate, sprawl of tan buildings collared by a tender lawn?
For this reason, will you give him your real name even though to do so is forbidden?
Will you have an unconscious man dragged past the open door at a predetermined time?
Will you say, Excuse me, and then rise to shut the door?
Will you remember that the anticipation of pain is more acute than pain itself?
Will his wife send the same letter to every embassy, every week, for months?
What kind of music will be playing at night?
Will the unconscious man be missing his nose?
Will you ask questions you know are beyond his knowledge?
Will you ask questions that have no answers?
Will he say, No more for today, please?
Will you listen?
In the letters his wife sends, will she have left a blank space exactly the length of the words Where are you?
Will there be a window at all?
Will you show him your pistol just once?

Will you ask him what he did before the war?
Will a bucket in the corner continue to catch the drip of water?
Will he say, I was a farmer?
Will he say, I salvaged scrap metal?
Will he say, I was a faith healer who traveled in a covered wagon?
Will he say, I was a thief?
Will he say, I was an interrogator?
Will he say, I was a weaver?
Will you admit you've never understood the mechanics of the loom, how the shuttle racks back and forth and a pattern emerges?
Will he say, The loom has been more essential to the development of civilization than has the printing press or the cotton gin?
Will he say, I was a scribe when the centurions crucified your god?
Will you ask, How could you sit by and do nothing?
Will he say, It was my job to record such things, not to intercede?
Will you ask the stenographer to strike his last statement from the record?
Will there be a stenographer?
Will there be any record of what you've done, what you plan to do?
After many weeks, during a lull in the "questioning," will you speak of the first time your fingers grazed the inside of your wife's thigh?
Will he nod and say, Yes, I remember too, the smell of my own wife's hair on my face in the morning?
Will you ask him how he can remember anything?
Will he admit that more than once he has tried drowning himself in that bucket of dripped-down water?
Will you say, I know, we watch you day and night?
Will he ask, How could you sit by and do nothing?
Will you say, We thought you were praying?
Will you say, Even to witness an atrocity is a kind of courage?
Will you say, The remedy is worse than the disease?
Will you say, I misspoke, we see nothing?
Will you say, Such things are not up to me?
Will he say, After I failed, I had to wait ten years for the bucket to fill so I could try again?
Will you say, It was a hundred years?
Will he say, [ ]?
Will you ask, How are such wonders possible?
Will he say, The shuttle of the loom whispers as it makes its pass over the threads?
Will there be a translator?
At night will you rub the bumpy skin of his passport between your fingers?
Will you think of him while you eat dark honey smeared on dark bread in a cafe?
Will you sign the order?
Will you say, If it were up to me...?
The night before, will you keep him awake with unscripted questions?
Will you ask, When you were a healer, would you heal anyone? When you were a scribe, what did you omit? When you were a thief, did you steal from yourself?
Will he say, Questions in sufficient quantity are a kind of answer?
Will you ask, Like the drops falling into the bucket?
And will he say, No, not like that at all?

Many months later, will you recognize his wife buying loose tea and oranges from the market?
Will you take her picture from his dossier and carry it in your inside breast pocket?
Will you have her followed?
Will you sit in your car outside her house, which was once their house?
Will the house be made of marble? Sheets of corrugated tin? Bones and hide?
Will you approach her at the gate one morning and touch her arm, though to do so is forbidden, even for you?
Will you risk everything to say, He is alive, he is alive?
Will it be true?
Will she call out for help?
Will the bucket in the corner overflow?
Will you say, The anticipation of death is worse than death itself?
Will you say this to no one in particular?
Will you go to his cell, sit in the chair he sat in, and imagine your own face staring at you across the pocked table, your open mouth a hole that water drips through day and night?
Will there be light?
Will there be [ ]?
Will there be more than one "questioner"?
Will there be more than one "question"?
Will the loom hold taut the warp as the weft passes through?
Will a pattern emerge?
Will there be a witness to all we have said and done?

Nick Lantz is the author of "We Don't Know We Don't Know" (Graywolf Press) and "The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors' House" (University of Wisconsin Press). He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Posted by Ron Charles | Permalink | Comments (3)
Share This: Technorati talk bubble Technorati | Tag in | Digg This


© 2010 The Washington Post Company