Freethinkers and Sex

This round of Recent Reads features two books: one where the indispensable role freethinkers in U.S. history is resurrected and one where sex is depicted within the context of relationships in all of its wonderful banality.

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby. “God” can’t be put “back” in the U.S. Constitution because “God” has never been in there. Susan Jacoby explains why, and so much more, in this illuminating (and necessary) look at secularism in U.S. history. She touches on a wide range of topics, from the country’s founding to the Feminist movement, the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, Women’s Suffrage, the Scopes Monkey Trial, and more recent battles over abortion, stem cell research, and evolution. All involve secularists, be they agnostics, atheists, liberal Christians, or Jews.

If there’s one thing this important book does is to restore the reputation of Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Great Agnostic.” Ingersoll was one of our country’s greatest thinkers and orators. He wrote and said many things, among them,

It is contended by many that ours is a Christian government, founded upon the Bible, and that all who look upon the book as false or foolish are destroying the foundation of our country. The truth is, our government is not founded upon the rights of gods, but upon the rights of men. Our Constitution was framed, not to declare and uphold the deity of Christ, but the sacredness of humanity. Ours is the first government made by the people and for the people. It is the only nation with which the gods have had nothing to do. And yet there are some judges dishonest and cowardly enough to solemnly decide that this is a Christian country, and that our free institutions are based upon the infamous laws of Jehovah.

Jacoby’s book came to my attention thanks to this article in Bitch magazine about the “Old Boys Club” of unbelievers.

Recommended for U.S. Citizens and Those Curious About this Country’s Philosophical History.

Slut Lullabies by Gina Frangello. Frangello’s novel My Sister’s Continent was a book that lingered in my mind long after I had read the last page. It is not an easy book, as it deals unflinchingly with repressed memories, S&M, and the complicated tensions of a dysfunctional family trapped within itself.

With Slut Lullabies, Frangello explores the most discomforting parts of the lives of her characters. Her manner is non-linear but the prose is clear. From a cheating mother to a gay spouse-to-be who is conflicted about his relationship, to a kept woman, to a woman who suffers so much pain in her lower back that “sex is excruciating,” Frangello extends every ounce of human sympathy possible to her characters. The result is a collection of short stories about damaged and flawed people making mostly flawed but occasionally inspired decisions. Her generosity towards these people might make you want to condemn them or hug them, or both.

You’ll laugh, too. Frangello’s writing can shift from the blunt and funny, as in the story “Stalking God,”

Beaming with the authority of a woman with her husband’s checkbook in her handbag and her lover’s semen warm and glowing insider her, Mom says…

to the tragic, as in the story “Waves,”

“I’m leaving,” I promise, and then I feel an explosion, nothing like a kiss, nothing I can turn off, the opposite of my pain but equally fierce. Nothing like numbness, nothing like peace. “I think I’m leaving everything.”

Refreshingly, Frangello includes sex not to be purely titillating or unbelievably transformative, but as part of the collage that makes up her characters’ lives. As in life, sex is used, withheld, bartered, enjoyed, relished, and craved, and many other things.

Recommended for Human Beings.

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