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Merle

Merle

In the Country by Mia Alvar

In the Country: Stories - Mia Alvar

This is a brilliant story collection, full of tales from the Philippines and their diaspora. The author is one of those literary writers who does a fantastic job at creating characters, with distinct personalities and psychological complexity, in just a few pages. The stories tend to focus on the characters’ personal journeys, and are sometimes quietly brutal, but stand out for the vividness of the characters and of the author’s imagery. I finished this a couple of weeks ago, and took my time reading it, but most of the stories still stand out clearly in my mind. The author’s writing is also excellent, and has a certain weight to it that will keep you from breezing right through: every word has meaning and is there because it needs to be. It’s by no means dense, but it’s solid literature, the kind of writing that loses nothing when you re-read it.

Because I often look for others’ reactions to specific short stories as I finish them, here are my mini-reviews, in order of appearance:

“The Kontrabida”: A young man working in New York returns to the Philippines to visit his abusive father, who is seriously ill, and his apparently saintly mother. To my mind this is one of the best in the collection, deliberate and atmospheric, with a whammy at the end.

“The Miracle Worker”: A young special ed teacher, living in Bahrain with her husband, is approached by a wealthy Arab woman who has unrealistic dreams for her severely disabled child. This is also one of the best, complex and surprisingly dark, leaving a certain awful secret to be fleshed out by the reader, and with a final image that stuck with me long after finishing.

“Legends of the White Lady”: An American model with some personal issues visits the Philippines for a shoot. My least favorite of the collection, this story is lightweight compared to the rest, but it still feels grounded in authentic experience.

“Shadow Families”: A community of newly-well-off Philippine wives in Bahrain includes less-fortunate immigrants from their country in social events, but these include a challenging young woman who’s more interested in their husbands than their friendship. This story is told in the first-person plural – there’s a “we” but no “I” – and none of the many wives included in that “we,” or their husbands, really stand out. Meanwhile, it goes on too long, as if an epilogue had been appended to a short story.

“The Virgin of Monte Ramon”: A boy in a wheelchair befriends a girl from the local shantytown and learns a disturbing secret about his own family. This is a perfectly fine story, though not my favorite.

“Esmeralda”: A cleaner in New York, who works hard but has a difficult life, falls for a lonely banker in the World Trade Center when she cleans his office. This one is told in the second person, which I usually hate and which literary writers seem to need to get out of their systems . . . but the story is strong enough to shine despite that (or perhaps even because of it). It’s vivid, memorable, and does a great of splicing together different timelines even in a short space.

“Old Girl”: Set in Boston, this is taken from the life of Corazon Aquino, who became a major figure in Philippine history, though you might not have guessed it from the meek wife here who caters to her flamboyant and ambitious husband. You don’t need to know anything about her to make sense of the story (though if you do, it won’t spoil the story and will add resonance to it). The family dynamics are carefully observed and the characters have no less complexity than if the author had had free rein to create them herself.

“A Contract Overseas”: A college student from an impoverished family is supported by her beloved brother, who takes a job in Saudi Arabia, but she can’t save him from his own problems. This is a vivid story with strong characters and realistic emotions, but I wanted a little more from the end.

“In the Country”: At about 85 pages, this is closer to a novella than a short story. It switches between two timelines – a young nurse who fights for better pay and marries an ambitious journalist, and that same woman later, after a devastating loss. This story fleshes out a lot about the recent history of the Philippines, and provides the context for “Old Girl.” It is quite good; the history perhaps overshadows the characters at times, but it’s fair to say that the two can’t be entirely separated for people whose lives are so tied up in history.

Overall, this is a great, well-written, well-observed collection of stories. I am definitely interested in reading more from this author.

The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre

The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing - Merve Emre

This book was a disappointment. I looked forward to it: I went through a phase of interest in the Myers-Briggs as a teenager, and so was eager to learn more about it. Unfortunately, after a fascinating introduction in which the author delves into the almost cult-like atmosphere of Myers-Briggs training (in an attempt to get access to Isabel Myers’s archives, the author was required to pay $2000 for a week of “re-education,” which was pretty much as it sounds), this turns into a dull biography of the test’s creators. Ultimately, I had to turn to the internet to provide basic information about the test left out of the book.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, sorts people into sixteen categories of “personality types” based on their expressed preferences. This “indicator” (its devotees insist that it is not a test because there are no right or wrong answers) was developed by two housewives, Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers. Though both were college graduates, neither was formally trained in psychology. Briggs, born in the late 19th century, was an amateur psychologist who developed a fascination with Carl Jung and his writings later in life. Myers later picked up where her mother left off, working during the WWII era to develop a test that would assist companies in finding workers who were the best fit for the job based on their personalities.

The book is mostly devoted to describing their lives, which unfortunately are too mundane to warrant this length, and Emre doesn’t quite bring them to life. But she’s far more interested in the lives of Briggs and Myers and than in the test itself. For instance, she writes about efforts to scientifically validate the test, but is entirely concerned with the emotional dimensions of these efforts (how the men doing the studies treated Isabel Myers, and how Myers felt about that) rather than the scientific ones (I finished this book not knowing what “validation” even means in the context of a personality test). And she promises more drama in their lives than is actually there: claiming in the introduction, for instance, that their personality-testing obsession cost both women their marriages when it did no such thing; at worst it sometimes irritated their husbands.

 

Information about the test itself is dropped haphazardly; she tells us that Jung meant something different from “introversion” and “extraversion” than we do today, but then never returns to that change or discusses the evolution of any of the other categories. She tells us that the creators thought the test was only really useful with more intelligent people and those of higher socioeconomic status (apparently the lowly didn't get personalities), but then follows up with no actual data about the less advantaged. I don't know about you, but I'm more interested in whether, and how, the test is racist or classist, than the obviously outdated views of its creators. But Emre only shares the latter, hinting that there might be classist issues with the test but never telling us what they are.

Likewise, the couple of sections that are more about the test than its creators focus on extraneous information or the author’s thought experiments. For instance, a chapter about a group of researchers who had prominent people spend the weekend together in a house to take a battery of tests focuses on subjects like how Truman Capote charmed the staff, and the career of a female researcher who happened to work there, rather than what was learned from all of this and how it fits into the history of personality testing. And at the end, rather than presenting real data or even real anecdotes about how the MBTI is used in the modern era, the author traces hypothetical women of different generations through their imaginary lives and where they might theoretically have encountered the test.

Emre is clearly not an MBTI devotee herself, but she declines to fully discuss the issues with the test, instead dismissing them as too oft-repeated, as if this made a criticism less worthy of attention rather than more so. In an interview, she stated:

I think even talking about validity and reliability sort of misses that point—because it asks whether these tests are really measuring what they purport to be measuring and whether they show the same thing over time, and those are questions for scientists, or psychologists. As a humanist I want to preempt those questions because even they are premised on assumptions that the systems and language that we use to describe people have some kind of basis in truth. I don’t think they do.

Which, first, what? I suspect most people interested in a book about the MBTI do think those questions are important, and are more interested in the facts than the author’s philosophical maunderings. (Unfortunately, she’s an English professor with a Master’s of Philosophy – not a historian, journalist or scientist.) And second, if the author’s point – as she suggests in the book, and as is even suggested by Katherine Briggs – is that the MBTI is a sort of religion for its devotees, rendering its validity beside the point, then why doesn’t she delve into that, introduce us to some of these people whose lives have been changed by it? Study the community of practitioners and the test’s impact on their lives? But no, we don’t get that either.

For those who are actually interested in the MBTI’s validity, here is a good scientific article about it, and here are several other relevant articles. What I learned that is not in the book:

1) A method for determining the reliability of a personality test is “test-retest reliability,” or whether people taking it more than once get the same result. Up to 50% of MBTI takers get a different result on a second test, even as little as 5 weeks later. (Its devotees insist, however, that type never changes, so these people must be doing it wrong.)

2) But perhaps a bigger problem is that human traits rarely fit into dichotomies, which form the foundation of the MBTI. Most human traits actually fall on a bell curve, with most people in the middle, and increasingly smaller numbers of people the further from the middle you go. The MBTI’s own data reveals a bell curve, or “normal distribution,” for its results too, but then uses a cutoff score to describe the results in terms of two distinct, non-overlapping groups. In reality, people aren’t divided between “introverts” and “extraverts,” any more than we’re divided into the short and the tall; someone who scores barely introverted has far more in common with someone who scores barely extraverted than with an extreme introvert.

3) And then there are the actual traits used, which haven’t been borne out in psychological research to be a useful or relevant way of describing personality (which is why psychologists don’t use the MBTI). Research backs up a different group of five traits, only one of which overlaps: extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism (i.e. emotional stability). You see why these are less popular though: few people want to be seen as sloppy, disagreeable, or emotionally unstable. This test would be far less fun.

4) Statistical analysis doesn’t support that the four MBTI factors are independent of one another, and there is no proven correlation between MBTI results and success in particular jobs or relationships. This is unsurprising to me, given what a rough measure it is. Something like “introversion” can come out in a wide variety of ways – I’m quite introverted in my personal life, but probably tilt extraverted at work – so a simple “E” or “I” tells you nothing useful about someone as an employee and can even be actively misleading.

At any rate, you won’t find scientific information in this book, nor learn much about personality testing, or even much about the MBTI itself. Go for it if you want an overlong, dull biography of two housewives who created a test that's never fully discussed, but otherwise, go elsewhere.

Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe

Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War - Helen Thorpe

This book is a fantastic window into the real-life experiences of three women deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq with the Indiana National Guard. I would definitely recommend it to those interested in seeing behind the headlines to what soldiers and their lives (much of this book is applicable not only to women, though they are the protagonists) are like.

 

Michelle Fischer joined the National Guard at age 19, just a few months before 9/11, in order to pay for college. Facing a difficult financial situation, as the first in her family to attend college and with a chaotic home life, she thought this would be a safe bet, even though she was a pot-smoking Nader voter who definitely didn’t want to deploy.

 

Debbie Helton joined up at 34, and deployed at 51; a hair salon manager and divorced mother who’d grown up in a military family, she wanted to do something that would give more meaning to her life. She became the team mom at home, but wanted more and pushed to deploy with the rest of her unit.

 

Desma Brooks joined in her 20s for reasons that seem unclear even to her. She’d had a difficult life – foster care, a teen pregnancy, an abusive marriage producing two more kids – and was struggling to provide for her children, but always claimed she’d joined the Guard by mistake. While skilled with the military’s technology, she had little patience for authority or interest in deploying and leaving her young kids behind.

 

The book follows these three women, as well as those around them, from 2001 until 2013, through training, deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, and reintegration into American society. It’s a very close look at their lives; some reviewers have claimed it’s too detailed, to which I say, that’s the point! The point is to immerse us in their experiences, show us what their lives are like. Thorpe is a great storyteller, and does a fantastic job of bringing them to life.

 

And it’s very much a warts-and-all look at military life. Unlike prior books I’d read about women in the military, it is neither a rah-rah celebration of women in the military (these women’s deployments took place before they were officially allowed on the battlefield, though they face danger driving trucks, repairing weapons in Kabul and living on a frequently-shelled base), nor is it a call to arms about sexual assault (which is not a focus here). The women are competent at their jobs, but they are not extraordinary soldiers, and many of their experiences aren’t exactly family-friendly. There’s a lot of drinking (much of self-medication), some drugs, and a lot of infidelity (having a “deployment relationship” seems to be the norm among the younger women, regardless of their relationship status at home). Their relationships with families back home are complicated and often leave the soldiers exhausted; Desma uses her leave to take a vacation somewhere else rather than visiting her children and leaving them all over again.

 

If this book has one weakness, it’s that it’s very closely focused on the three protagonists and those around them, without much information about the larger picture of women in the military. That said, while I was at first disappointed that the women seemed so superficially similar (all white women in the Indiana National Guard, and all friends with one another), I ultimately found their experiences and opinions to be quite diverse, and each one brings a lot to the book. I’m impressed that they all opened up as much as they did, even about subjects on which they’re likely to be judged; two of them even use their real names. And the author tells their stories without judgment and without ever inserting herself into the tale.

 

In sum, I found this to be a great book, telling compelling real-life stories that opened my eyes to a lot about military life that I hadn’t previously known. I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in walking in female soldiers’ shoes for awhile.

Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

Music of the Ghosts - Vaddey Ratner

This is an emotional, contemplative novel about two survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, who struggle to come to terms with their memories decades after the genocide. Unfortunately, its characters are half-baked: one of the protagonists is a blank slate despite nearing middle age, while the other is built up as a reformed villain only to turn out not to be a villain at all.

Teera arrives in Cambodia in 2003, for the first time since fleeing the country for Thailand and ultimately the United States in 1979, at the age of 13. She’s drawn to return in part by the dying wish of her aunt, the only other member of her family to survive, and in part by a letter from a man calling himself the Old Musician, who wants to give her musical instruments that belonged to her father. The Old Musician, aka Tun, lives in a monastery where he nurses his physical and emotional injuries from the days of the Khmer Rouge, and seems to live in a state of constant self-flagellation. The novel alternates between the perspectives of these two characters, as they wander about feeling lots of feelings, remembering their traumas in detail, and witnessing the harsh realities of Cambodia in 2003 (a country full of poverty and violence, though this never threatens the protagonists directly).

Given that this book revolves around the characters’ emotional journeys, it’s a shame they aren’t better-drawn. Teera in particular is a blank slate; she’s supposed to be 37, but I would have pegged her at late teens or early 20s, as she seems to have neither lived an adult life, nor to have thought about her life and what she wants from it. How does she feel about being single and childless at 37? How has her community of Cambodian refugees in Minnesota reacted to this? Has she ever had a romantic partner, or even a friend; has she connected with anyone other than her aunt in the last 24 years? And if not, how does she so easily fall into a romance once the book begins? Has she found purpose in her work as a grant writer (mentioned only to tell us she quit to go to Cambodia), or is it just a job, and if so, what does motivate and interest her? She apparently wants to be a writer, so what has she written in all that time, or if she hasn’t, why not? None of these questions are answered. Teera has a lot of feelings about her childhood, her family and her home country, but she’s lacking a personality and a life history outside of her childhood trauma. She doesn’t quite feel real.

Tun has had more of a life, though he’s still not a complex character. My issue here is that the book is presented as addressing the way Khmer Rouge victims and perpetrators now live side-by-side in Cambodia, and Tun is built up as the perpetrator in Teera’s father’s death. But it turns out to be one of those stories where, when our so-called villain protagonist’s history is revealed, he hasn’t actually done anything that awful. Tun joined the Khmer Rouge because he opposed the previous bad government and believed this would help bring democracy, and then he did his best at every turn. Every horrific thing he’s supposedly done turns out to have been either a mercy killing or something he was forced to do under torture or at gunpoint. I’m not sure what to make of this: was the author’s point that there were very few real villains, just lots of good people struggling with the terrible hand they were dealt? Or did she just chicken out on creating a complex and morally flawed character?

And while we’re at it, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the rest of the cast either. The repeated introduction of three-year-old girls orphaned under traumatic circumstances, and yet who are complete angels who bring nothing but joy and love (definitely never frustration or difficulty) to adult lives, was a bit much. One such child I might have grudgingly accepted, but two?

But I did learn a bit about Cambodia and its history from the book, and it’s a fairly quick read, though the subject matter is often dark and brutal. There’s a lot of presumably genuine emotion in it, as the author herself was a survivor who journeyed back to Cambodia in hopes of learning about her father’s fate. The writing style is fluid and easy to read, though I’d call it “wordy” more than “lyrical”; there was nothing particularly arresting to me about the use of language, but it’s certainly contemplative, with many passages embroidering on the characters’ thoughts, emotions, ideas, and sensations. While there isn’t a lot going on in the present-day plot, the story still manages to be engaging and vivid. I wouldn’t recommend this book on its literary merits, but as a deeply-felt novel by a genocide survivor, it’s worth a read for those interested in the places and issues addressed.

We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider

We Learn Nothing: Essays - Tim Kreider

This is a perfectly respectable essay collection; I bounced off of it when trying to read it straight through, but when I started skipping around reading whatever appealed most at the moment, I wound up enjoying it. Kreider has a lot of thoughts about life, family, friends, lies people tell themselves, and what’s really important, and shares them through a series of thoughtful and well-written (if slightly wordy) essays. Standouts for me were “Sister World” (in which Kreider, an adoptee, meets his biological family for the first time as an adult and bonds with his newfound sisters), “Chutes and Candyland” (about a friend who came out as transgender in middle age, and Kreider’s struggle to accept as a woman someone he’d only known as a man; the friend is Jennifer Finney Boylan and I look forward to reading her own book), and “The Anti-Kreider Club” (about the weird lack of fanfare around the end of friendships: one person stops speaking to the other, who isn’t supposed to seek answers or acknowledge this at all).

Overall not a groundbreaking collection, but a worthwhile one. One of these essays, “The Czar’s Daughter,” has also appeared in modified form in a Radiolab story, which you can listen to here. In its melancholy and generosity, its portrayal of deep and meaningful connections between essentially lonely people, it’s a fair representation of the collection.

There is No Good Card for This by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell

There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love - Emily McDowell, Kelsey Crowe

This is a great primer on how to help when things go seriously wrong for other people in your life. It’s largely aimed at those who want to reach out and help but don’t know how, but in its discussions of what is and isn’t helpful when someone is suffering, I suspect it would be helpful to most people. We tend to learn what to say in the face of other people’s distress from the things other people have said to us or in our presence, much of which isn’t actually helpful.

This book will help you with that, and it’s a very quick and easy read, full of fun graphics and illustrations, that can easily be devoured in a single sitting. Its contents will be obvious to some, but with this sort of book I think the point is less to reveal new and shocking information and more getting people to examine things they hadn’t really thought about before.

Some key takeaways:

- It can be really hard to know what to do when something awful happens to someone you know. How do you know what’s the right thing to say, or how you can best help? Is it your place to say or do anything, or would you just be intruding? What if you want to show that you care, but are busy or overwhelmed by your own life and don’t have the bandwidth to do much? Most of us have a shameful story about someone we let down because we didn’t feel up to dealing with their situation. (And here I thought it was just me.)

- But if you genuinely care, even just a little (as opposed to being curious or a little gleeful about someone’s downfall), it’s almost always better to reach out than not, even if it’s just to say “I’m sorry.”

- “I’m sorry” is a great starting point in most situations, and in some cases may be all you need to do. Asking people how they’re doing is also a good idea, unless they are obviously in crisis. “How are you today?” when someone’s been dealing with something for a little while, or “how are you now?” when the issue is largely behind them, are also ways of showing you genuinely care.

- If you want to provide some kind of help, don’t just vaguely say “let me know if I can do anything” and leave the person in crisis to figure out what they need, wonder if that’s too much to ask of you or if you just meant to be polite, and risk being turned down if you can’t help in that way. Offer the thing(s) you can provide. Or if you’re thinking of something small like buying candy, just do it rather than pestering someone in crisis for all the details of their preferences.

- Don’t respond to someone else’s crisis with positive platitudes. Sentiments like “I’m sure it’ll turn out all right” or “everything happens for a reason” or “you just have to stay positive” send the message that you’re not interested in hearing about the actual difficult emotions and experiences that the person is having, and shut down the conversation. I think people do this out of a sense that we’re supposed to “fix” the problem, and if it’s too big a problem for us to actually fix, then we have to leave the subject on a positive note somehow. We feel like failures if we can’t offer some help, and if we actually can’t, we resort to insisting on positivity. But of course the reality is that offering someone a platitude not only doesn’t help them, but can send the message that you can’t handle a real talk about whatever they’re experiencing.

- Don’t respond by trying to ferret out the cause of someone’s misfortune, which can be indistinguishable from blaming them for it. (“Your father has lung cancer? Well, wasn’t he a smoker?”)

- Don’t respond with unsolicited advice or dire warnings. Assume the other person has spent far more time googling their situation than you have. Affirming your faith in their judgment and competence can be helpful for someone in crisis. If you really do have specialized knowledge related to their situation, you can always say, “I’m happy to give you advice if you want it.”

There’s a lot more good, sensible advice in the book than I have time or space to include here. And in general, I think the authors do a great job of taking into account the wide varieties of situations in which people might find themselves, and differences among people who won’t all want to be supported in the same way. There are a few suggestions here that I wouldn’t take, like saying “that can be hard” to account for the fact that some people feel good about their divorces or optimistic about their diagnoses. To me that seems to suggest that you have broad experience with the person’s particular issue, and would sound full of it coming from someone who doesn’t. The book also talks a lot about the importance of listening and not turning the conversation to your own similar experiences, which is important if the suffering person wants to talk, but not everyone wants to pour out their heart to you (or to anyone) about their difficult time. Though I suppose erring on the side of listening makes sense, especially for those who have to work at it.

At any rate, the point of a book like this is to present its mostly common-sense advice in an engaging, easy-to-digest format and to get people thinking about it, so they’ll actually be prepared to handle difficult situations in their own lives. And at that the book succeeds.

Wild Coast by John Gimlette

Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge - John Gimlette

I was initially excited about this book, which describes a wild, little-known part of the world in vivid detail. However, that excitement soon wore off, as Gimlette seems largely drawn to describing war and atrocities, to emphasizing atmosphere over accuracy in his reportage, and to following the stories of white explorers and colonists while stereotyping and relegating everybody else to the sidelines, even though “everybody else” makes up 99% of the population.

The book is structured around Gimlette’s travels through “the Guianas,” three relatively small countries carved out of the Caribbean coast of South America, but which have remarkably little in common with the rest of the continent. Or rather, two countries – English-speaking Guyana and Dutch-speaking Suriname – plus French Guiana (referred to here as “Guyane”), an overseas department of France. These countries’ populations are mostly descended from the black slaves and Indian indentured servants brought there to work the sugar plantations; there’s also a small native population and, in Suriname, villages of “maroons,” descendants of escaped slaves who, centuries ago, formed their own tribes in the jungle. A little over half the book focuses on Guyana and most of the rest on Suriname, with just one 40-page chapter covering French Guiana.

It’s definitely interesting material, and Gimlette devotes perhaps half or less of the book to his travels, while the rest relates the bloody history of the Guianas. I definitely learned a lot from it: Gimlette clearly did a bunch of research, and he visits many sites of historical import and relates stories revealing the significance of these places to the reader. When covering more recent history, he talks to people who experienced historical events, sometimes including key players as well as everyday folk. He travels widely around the countries, from the coast, where 90% of the population lives, to the jungle and the savannah, and meets people from all walks of life. He has an eye for the bizarre, describes his surroundings in colorful detail, and has a smooth, assured writing style.

That said, the more I read of this book, the more disenchanted I became. Gimlette seems drawn to the horrifying, whether it’s the barbarity of slavery or French Guiana’s penal colony, the horrors of recent civil wars, or the mass suicide/massacre of an American cult at Jonestown; this is not a light or easy read, though its tone is often flippant. Gimlette’s writing is atmospheric, but not well-sourced: despite the fact that the book is largely history, it has no endnotes, only a description of his sources generally. And he seems to play fast and loose with the facts. “Even as I write, there isn’t a single road that leads from the Guianas into the world beyond,” he tells us at the beginning, before taking a bus through French Guiana to the Brazilian border at the end. In writing about the Jonestown cult, he asserts that “Jonestown carried on killing for years after the massacre. . . . Even years after the cult’s demise, defectors were still being hunted down and killed” – a claim the internet does not seem to support.

But it’s not uncommon for him to leave his facts vague (who is supposed to have killed the defectors, given that Jones’s loyal followers had already killed themselves?). When discussing Sir Walter Raleigh’s final, ill-fated expedition into the rainforest, he describes in detail the suicide of Raleigh’s friend Captain Keymis and Raleigh’s own execution back home in England, but fails to note why Keymis killed himself or why Raleigh (who comes up time and again in this book) was executed, beyond the vague statement that “the expedition disintegrated into a bloody brawl.” I had to turn to the internet to learn that, in fact, Keymis lead an expedition against the Spanish without Raleigh’s permission, in which Raleigh’s son was killed; Keymis killed himself because Raleigh refused to forgive him, and Raleigh was executed because the skirmish violated the terms of his own parole on a questionable prior conviction for plotting against the king. It’s as if Gimlette wanted to include their deaths for the extra color and weight they lent the story, but couldn’t be bothered to share the facts from which a reader could make sense of them.

And then there’s the fact that so much of the book is focused on white European men like Gimlette himself, even if they did nothing more than wander into the jungle and die (see Raymond Maufrais). It winds up giving the impression that only these people’s stories are worth telling, particularly alongside Gimlette’s ready stereotypes of everyone else. The Amerindians, apparently, are cannibals, as are the Africans. Escaped slaves who set up fiefdoms full of brutality and debauchery are “reverting back to old Africa,” despite the fact that this is how the colonists operated toward them.

So ultimately, I can give this book a cautious recommendation at best. It’s a colorful introduction to a world about which little has been written, but it’s also a heavy read, imbued with the author’s biases and questionable, unsourced assertions. Too bad, for a book that began with such promise.

Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin by Nicole Hardy

Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin: A Memoir - Nicole Hardy

This is a decent book if you enjoy memoirs of basically privileged people finding themselves. But it seems a little padded with material that isn’t quite on point for its stated subject matter, while keeping rather quiet about some of the material that is.

Nicole Hardy was raised Mormon, and overall was happy with the ordered life the church prescribed, but the older she got, the more a problem presented itself. The Mormon church is very opposed to sex before marriage, while simultaneously holding a very traditional view of gender roles, in which a woman’s highest spiritual purpose is to marry and have children. People marry young, and women are expected to subordinate their lives and careers to those of their husbands. But Hardy found herself graduating BYU without a husband lined up, and eventually realized that despite the church’s insistence, motherhood didn’t appeal to her.

This lack of orthodoxy and her independent lifestyle made Hardy a mismatch with Mormon men, while her continued belief in celibacy until marriage put a damper on relationships with others. The book follows her journey of self-discovery from insular beginnings (though she grew up in Seattle, she didn’t realize people could choose not to have children), through leaving her teaching career to pursue writing, through various relationships and international travels, until she finally breaks with the church and has sex at the age of 36.

I’d previously read about the Mormon marriage crisis, in a fascinating article that explores demographic shifts that make it harder for many American women to find a husband (in mainstream society, it’s that more women than men are earning college degrees; for Mormons, it’s that more men than women leave the church). Oddly, though, Hardy doesn’t address this bigger picture at all, nor does she seem to believe that there are more Mormon women than men; instead, she feels alone in her singlehood.

Oddly too, for someone whose life was directed by religion, she doesn’t actually talk much about Mormonism. I was a little surprised by how absent religion is from her portrayal of her inner life during her time in the church: she doesn’t talk about things like praying over big decisions, or about any hole left in her life when she leaves, a decision that has no clear build-up. And there’s very little here about Mormon beliefs or practices. She’s defensive about the use of terms like “magic underwear,” leading me to believe she’s being careful not to dish on her family’s religion. But a little more information might have been warranted: when she compares church services in her singles congregation to speed dating, for instance, I was confused, wondering how the one could resemble the other. Finally, she doesn’t discuss any sexual hang-ups or difficulties, apparently experiencing no barriers other than religious dictates to a fun and busy sex life.

Meanwhile, the book is padded out with other aspects of the author’s life: her writing program, travels, scuba diving, etc. Overall, despite the fact that Hardy clearly found her situation painful and confusing for much of her 20s and 30s, her memoir is pretty lightweight. She’s a good writer and it was a quick read, but it isn’t one I’d suggest you go out of your way for unless you personally relate. It did help me make a little more sense of life decisions I’ve seen from Mormons and ex-Mormons, though.

Carmela by Amalia Decker Marquez

Carmela (Spanish Edition) - Amalia Decker Marquez

I wasn’t sure about this book, which is long, little-known, and apparently only available in the original Spanish. But it presents an interesting story, if a meandering one; it’s semi-autobiographical, and more fictionalized biography than tightly-plotted novel. Carmela Macker is born into a well-off socialist family in Cochabamba in the the mid 20th century, becomes a guerrillera as a teenager, experiences love and tragedy, has several lovers and two daughters, becomes a journalist, runs for political office, and goes into and out of exile in a variety of Latin American countries as Bolivia goes through periods of dictatorship and democracy. The book’s timeline starts out scattered – going right from Carmela’s birth to the abrupt departure of her partner of many years in middle age – but around 50 pages in, it settles into a chronological structure that persists for the rest of the book.

It’s an interesting story, consisting primarily of short chapters, and with a lot of ground to cover the plot doesn’t ever linger for long in one place. It’s primarily told from Carmela’s third-person perspective, though on a couple of occasions it tells the stories of other guerrilleras whose connection to Carmela is tenuous, but whose capture by the military government exposes them to horrors that Carmela herself never experiences. There’s not a lot of physical action – situations that would have been milked for additional drama in a purely imaginative drama resolve themselves more quietly here – but there’s always a lot going on in Carmela’s life and the political realm in which she operates. I learned a fair bit about Bolivian history, though the author is perhaps not an entirely objective source; while Carmela ultimately leaves partisan politics, there were a few passages that made me wonder, such as the view of food rationing as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good during her time in exile in Cuba.

Even so, I was glad to read this book; Bolivia is a fascinating country about which not much has been written, and although this presents only one economically privileged perspective, it was still great to get an insider’s view of the country. I didn’t always like Carmela or agree with her choices – in particular, her embarking on an affair with a married playboy when she has a partner and young daughter at home, all presented as if she were powerless to stop herself from giving in and falling in love – but I found it to be a lively, readable story, full of political and personal reversals and characters who, one way or another, are always able to adapt. It’s too bad this hasn’t been translated to English, but for those who are able to find and read it I think it is worth the effort.

Poster Child by Emily Rapp

Poster Child: A Memoir - Emily Rapp

This is an interesting memoir, though not a great one. Emily Rapp was born in Nebraska in 1974 with a birth defect that caused one leg to be shorter than the other. Untreated, her legs would have stayed at the same length ratio as they grew, so instead she went through multiple operations as a young child. Her left foot was ultimately amputated so that she could wear a prosthetic leg, which she did from age five. This memoir focuses on her disability and how it affected her young life: it ends when she’s 24, though she was 33 by the time it was published.

It is a vulnerable memoir, as the author talks a lot about her feelings about her disability at various stages of her life. She’s also open about having been a spoiled brat as a child (even torturing small animals) and a bit of a bully in middle school. She’s very insecure about her leg, especially in adolescence and young adulthood, and worries a lot about being ugly or seen as “less than” by others; she becomes an academic overachiever and an expert skier and develops an eating disorder in high school, in what she views as a way of compensating for having a body she hates. It can’t have been easy to expose her insecurities and weaknesses on the page, and I think reading this book is a valuable experience for the way it lets readers inside her head.

That said, I don’t think it was a great book. It spends a lot of time on mundane details related to Rapp’s prosthetics: how they worked, what her prothetists’ offices were like and where they were located and how well she liked their locations and receptionists. It also seems to end a little too soon: her personal journey wasn’t over at 24, and there’s no epilogue about what she did after the main story ended. She even references at one point sticking with lovers too long after she’s let them see her stump, but this never comes up again; by the end of the book she still hasn’t been able to bring herself to take off her prosthetic for sex, and all these bad relationships aren’t included.

But I think perhaps the biggest reason this memoir isn’t my favorite is that the author lives an ordinary American middle-class life, with the “action” of the story almost entirely inside her head. Wearing a prosthetic (especially with the technology available during her childhood) was clearly not fun – it caused sores and even bleeding, especially if not adjusted properly – but fortunately it didn’t prevent her from being active and even athletic. She goes on to college, parties hard, studies abroad, all normal stuff. She apparently only gets picked on for her disability a couple of times as a kid, and only gets a couple of negative reactions as an adult. Despite all her worries about finding a man, she attracts male interest starting in middle school. I’m glad that she didn’t face more external obstacles, but the result is that much of the book is a chronicle of her angst. I don’t blame her for it and think it’s worth reading because lots of people with disabilities seem to share her fears and insecurities, but the story of her life is still a bit mundane.

And you need a fantastic writer to write a great book about mundane events. Rapp is a good writer – the language is fluid and always readable, leading me to read the whole thing fairly quickly, and she does a good job of recreating scenes from her life – but she isn’t a fantastic one. I’m glad to have read this book, and it will likely be helpful for many people, but it isn’t one I plan to recommend widely.

Unbowed by Wangari Maathai

Unbowed - Wangari Maathai
I loved the first 50 pages of this memoir, covering the author’s childhood. Later on, though, it becomes more of a catalog of the many campaigns she was involved in and all her accomplishments – this is more an autobiography than a memoir – and it becomes rather impersonal and at times even a little self-righteous. Dr. Wangari Maathai seems like an amazing but complicated person, and I think I might have gotten more out of a third-party biography of her.

Born to a polygamous Kikuyu family in Kenya during British rule, Maathai grew up growing her own food and listening to stories around the fire at night. She was fortunately enrolled in a local school, and later went away to boarding school and then to college in Kansas. On returning home with her Master’s in biology, she proceeded to get a university job, marry, have three children, and become the first woman in East Africa to earn a Ph.D. She was heavily involved in women’s organizations as a young professional, which led to her founding the Green Belt Movement, meant to combat both deforestation and poverty by planting trees. She saw the two issues as intimately connected: Kenya’s loss of trees meant a loss of clean water and firewood, which meant health issues and the impoverishment of farmers who struggled to feed their families, as well as more landslides, poorer soil, and a host of other ills. Ultimately she devoted herself to the Green Belt Movement full-time – even having staff work out of her home when one of many run-ins with the government meant a loss of office space. She led campaigns to preserve parks and forests in Kenya, but also to free political prisoners, allow meaningful opposition in government, and more. At the time she wrote this book, she had become a member of parliament and government minister herself, as well as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. But she didn’t get there without facing a lot of opposition throughout her life, including arrests, harassment and beatings by the police, and a nasty public divorce in which she was criticized for not being sufficiently submissive.

All of which is to say that Maathai was clearly an extraordinary person. And I loved the way she wrote about her childhood; take this passage for instance, set during her adolescence:

Three months later, when I returned home for the next holiday, it was time to harvest the red kidney beans I had planted earlier. I borrowed a donkey from a neighbor and went to our farm in the Gura valley. The harvesting and thrashing took most of the day and by late afternoon I had harvested about one and a half sacks of beans. “Well,” I thought to myself, “I’m strong and the donkey looks sturdy enough,” so one sack went onto the donkey’s back and the remaining half sack I took for my own. Off we went, two beasts of burden crawling up and down the hills on narrow paths, bent over trying to carry these heavy loads. By the time we reached the Tucha River, it was getting dark and I was very tired. I may not have guided the donkey properly and before I knew it she slipped and rolled down the slope.

I didn’t have a clue what to do. Gathering my senses, I found a place to leave my load of beans and rushed to assist the donkey, who luckily had not been hurt in the fall. I helped her up, loaded the bag of beans onto her back again, and encouraged her back onto the path. I heaved my own sack onto my back and off we trudged again. As we neared our homestead at Ihithe village, we both had had enough and collapsed in a heap. My mother ran out of the house and could not believe what she saw: a donkey and her daughter lying exhausted next to each other. “How did you make it?” she cried. “These are enormous sacks of beans! I never expected you to carry so many beans. You shouldn’t do that.” The donkey and I were too tired to reply.


I love that: her humor, and the passion and pride she finds in subsistence farming, which most readers are likely to dismiss as a miserable, empty existence. She portrays a full emotional life in what we would consider abject poverty. And with grace and humor to boot.

That said, as the book goes on, it becomes much more about her public life. Her many campaigns certainly deserve the attention they receive, and readers will learn a fair bit about modern Kenyan history from it. Maathai clearly had a lot of courage, as well as dedication and perseverance; she refused to let setbacks and failures stop her, whether this meant continuing to agitate after a protest was violently dispersed, pushing on after losing a job, or running for office three times before finally winning. I think activists looking for inspiration will find plenty here.

However, unsurprisingly from a politician, her candor about her adult life is limited. After her divorce as a young mother, the book is very focused on her public life. And whether bullheadedness was simply required to succeed in the ways that she did, or whether she had political reasons to not doubt herself in print, there’s not a lot of self-reflection. She never questions, for instance, whether becoming the head of a woman’s organization despite government opposition – ultimately causing the organization to splinter in two and her half to lose much of its funding – was the right move, or whether perhaps succumbing to pressure to withdraw her candidacy and working through a consensus candidate might have done more good. She glosses over the bit where she drops her kids off at their father’s for six months with no advance warning (it’s unclear whether the kids know how long they’ll be staying, but her ex definitely doesn’t). And I had my doubts about the bit where all the Green Belt Movement staff go on strike over their pay, supposedly all because of the agitation of her treacherous assistant and despite the fact that they’d all understood and accepted the organization’s precarious financial situation. They are grown adults who presumably would need a reason to strike beyond the fact that somebody suggested it.

I don’t actually mean this as a criticism of Maathai: everybody has their flaws, which tend to make people more interesting and certainly more human. However, by the end I felt that an objective biography would present a more complete view of her as both a person and an activist, and without the limitations inherent in Maathai’s public position when she wrote this book. Nevertheless, she seems like an incredible person and I do think this book is worth reading.

Daba's Travels from Ouadda to Bangui by Makombo Bamboté

Daba's Travels from Ouadda to Bangui - Makombo Bamboté, George Ford

Like apparently most of the people who read this book, I read it for my world books challenge and wasn’t particularly impressed. It seems to be aimed at middle-grade readers (ages 9-12), and recounts the childhood experiences of a boy named Daba as he leaves his village in the Central African Republic to attend school in a larger town and spends his vacations traveling around the country with friends and relatives.

As you would expect, this is a quick and easy read that even includes some illustrations. It’s a pretty gentle story, including adventures such as attending a boarding school and tagging along for a crocodile hunt. However, it is disjointed, prematurely ending events that could have been exciting if fully-developed – like the crocodile hunt, which gets less page time than a neighbor telling the boys a story – and including more episodes than fit comfortably within its brief page count. It does little to immerse the reader in Daba’s feelings or experiences; in the second half of the book, he seems to fade into his group of friends, who are indistinguishable in personality and experiences (except for the French pen pal who somehow is able to fly to a Central African Republic town alone and spend the summer wandering from village to isolated village with the local boys).

Daba grows older – the book appears to cover a couple of years – but he doesn’t really have struggles to overcome or seem to change or learn more about life. At times, knowing the story to be based in some way on the author’s childhood, Daba’s portrayal even comes across as self-aggrandizing: a star pupil, always cool and confident, beats adults at games, liked by everyone except for one classmate who’s condemned by other children and adults alike. Meanwhile, for adult readers, the language is perhaps too simple, and some of the events are eyebrow-raising or could use more explanation (the pen pal trip, Daba’s being awarded a scholarship to study abroad without any apparent effort from him or consent from his parents, etc.).

At any rate, this isn’t too bad if you’re doing a world books challenge – Daba travels around his country, giving the reader a sense of the landscape and the culture in the places he visits, and quick reads are always valued for big challenges – but those searching for diverse books to give to the children in their lives would be better served looking elsewhere.

The 10 Best Books I Read in 2018

At the end of the year (or the beginning of the next one), I like to post the best 10 books I read in the year, in hopes of introducing some of you to great books! I read 64 books in 2018, and here are the 10 I think you should consider reading too.

Evening Is the Whole Day (review)
Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
The best book I read in 2018, this is a fantastically-written story of a complicated, prosperous Indo-Malaysian family slowly tearing each other apart. It’s told in a non-linear fashion, as the family’s secrets are slowly revealed, and if you can stand the darkness in both the characters and their country, it’s an incredible read.

Echoes from the Dead Zone (review)
Echoes from the Dead Zone Across the Cyprus Divide by Yiannis Papadakis
This hidden gem is the best nonfiction I read in 2018. A Greek Cypriot anthropologist set out to investigate the divide between the Greek and Turkish sides of the island, digging into the history, culture and politics of both sides, their traumas and the way they represent them. It’s an insightful and fascinating book, and the author’s examination of his own childhood indoctrination and the feelings and behavior on both sides could be applied to many conflicts around the world.

The House of Mirth (review)
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
This is an excellent classic, whose examination of the gap between its complex central character’s place in society and what she considers her due is still relevant today. I discovered Edith Wharton in 2018 and will certainly be reading more, given her keen eye for human psychology, along with an engaging story and polished style.

Proud Shoes (review)
Proud Shoes by Pauli Murray
This is an excellent family memoir of a mixed-race American family, following the author’s grandparents from the time of slavery (when her grandmother was a slave and her grandfather, though classified as black, fought for the Union) through the Jim Crow South. Pauli Murray, a civil rights leader herself, based this book on a combination of family stories and historical research, and she has a fascinating family I’d love to learn more about.

The Time in Between (review)
The Time in Between by María Dueñas
The most fun book I read in 2018, this is a gripping, immersive story of a young Spanish seamstress who becomes trapped in the colony of Morocco in the 1930s, pulls herself up by her bootstraps, and works as an Allied spy during WWII. The author is a professor who clearly did a lot of research, but more importantly, is a fantastic storyteller.

Small Animals (review)
Small Animals Parenthood in the Age of Fear by Kim Brooks
Perhaps the most eye-opening book I read in 2018, this is a critical look at the culture of parenting today, and the way fear has come to dominate parents’ decisions to the point that many will no longer let kids out of their sight. It’s based on both personal experience and research, and reveals a culture that’s harming both parents and kids.

Purge (review)
Purge by Sofi Oksanen
Probably the darkest book I read in 2018, this is a masterful combination of psychological thriller and historical fiction, set in Estonia between the 1930s and 1992. Two women of different generations – but both with brutal pasts – come together, but both remain in danger.

Inside the Victorian Home (review)
Inside the Victorian Home A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders
This is a fascinating, detailed and engaging social history, focusing on domestic life in Victorian England. It was a very weird world, and the author does an excellent job of bringing to life its values, technology and everyday activities.

Prairie Fires (review)
Prairie Fires The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
A thoroughly researched biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, as well as an excellent history of the times in which they lived – the true story of pioneering in the American West. And of course, the true story of the Little House books and the political agenda behind them.

Little Soldiers (review)
Little Soldiers An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve by Lenora Chu
Part memoir and part nonfiction by a Chinese-American author who enrolled her son in a prestigious Shanghai preschool, this is a great examination of education, the Chinese school system, and the advantages of both the Chinese and American ways of teaching. It’s a thoughtful, open-minded and informative account.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling

Factfulness - Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Ola Rosling

This is both a useful book and a simplified one that never questions its westernized assumptions. Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor of public health, armed with decades’ worth of UN statistics, wrote this book (with the assistance of his son and daughter-in-law, who published it after his death) to convince people in rich countries that the rest of the world is better than we think, and that several logical fallacies prevent us from seeing it that way.

On the one hand, he’s absolutely right. Insulated in our well-off countries, we tend to hear about other places only in the news, which generally reports only the most dramatic, i.e., the most tragic and appalling stories. We struggle to see members of “other” groups as non-uniform and to believe their cultures can change in the way our own have (in fact, many societies around the world are changing and developing much faster than western Europe and the U.S. did). As a college student who only knew about Africa from the news, I remember thinking that one couldn’t afford to care what was going on there because it was only one horrible tragedy after another. In reality this is far from the truth, and I have to credit my world books challenge (to read a book set in each country in the world, with a preference for books by authors from the country; I’m up to 165 out of 201 now) for showing me a more accurate picture of what everyday life around the world is like. But UN statistics also show that the world is improving in many ways, such as widespread access to electricity, primary education, and vaccination against deadly diseases. And yet, many people in rich countries don’t know this and even believe the world is getting worse.

But there’s a lot Rosling misses too. His quizzes to test people’s knowledge of the world (one of which is included at the beginning of the book, and which distinguished audiences at his talks have consistently flunked) are designed to encourage wrong answers. Let’s look at the first three questions:

1. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?
A: 20 percent
B: 40 percent
C: 60 percent

2. Where does the majority of the world population live?
A: Low-income countries
B: Middle-income countries
C: High-income countries

3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
A: almost doubled
B: remained more or less the same
C: almost halved

Answers: 1. C; 2: B; 3. C


Rosling emphasizes throughout the book of how badly people answer these and similar questions. But many are designed to fool you. Question 1, for instance: leaving aside the issues of what constitutes a “low-income country” and “finishing primary school” (different countries’ educational systems being different), this question cues a negative answer because its options skew so negative. The incorrect answers set a lower bracket in test-takers’ minds, suggesting that 60% is a very high number indeed. When all we’re really saying is that something over half of girls in poor countries go to school at least until, what, age 11 or so? – an achievement, absolutely, but one leaving lots of work still to do. I wonder, if test-takers were asked to produce their own answer rather than seeing these suggestions, whether their guesses would be much higher. And then too, despite all the logical fallacies listed, one Rosling doesn’t mention is the fear of being labeled “naïve” for believing positive things about the world; might some test-takers’ answers be influenced by the desire to come across as jaded and cynical rather than as privileged Pollyannas?

Question 2 is an issue of definitions. Rosling chides people from wealthy countries for seeing everyone else as simply “poor,” despite their differences, but viewed from a wealthy country, everybody else is in fact “low-income.” Rosling divides the world into four income levels. Level 1 means living in a mud hut or flimsy house without electricity, traveling only on foot, and spending the vast majority of one’s time fulfilling basic needs: fetching water, gathering firewood, cooking over a fire pit, etc. Level 3 means having consistent electricity and running water, having access to some form of motorized transport such as a motorcycle, having many modern conveniences and kids in school, but still having to work very hard for what you have and falling short of Level 4, where you don’t have to worry about basic needs, have a car, can fly somewhere for vacation, etc. Certainly the differences between Levels 1 and 3 are enormous, and I think Rosling’s four-level framework is far more useful than the old first-world/third-world or developed/developing dichotomies, but people who answer incorrectly might not be as uninformed as he believes.

Question 3, though, is legitimate. Not everyone knows what “extreme poverty” means by UN definitions (living on less than $2 a day), but the basic fact is that standards of living have risen around the world over the last few decades, yet most people in Level 4 countries don’t know it. The book does a great job of driving home the progress that has been made, even while pointing out that much more is needed.

But Rosling’s analysis has two major issues. One is that it’s quite simplified. It’s nice, for instance, that most children in poor countries are in school. But in India, huge numbers of poor children remain illiterate even after several years of schooling. Of course learning can’t be improved without people buying into education, but if education isn’t happening in the schools, their value is limited.

And Rosling’s income divisions are quite rough, as I realized when visiting Dollar Street, a site set up by Anna Rosling Ronnlund that compiles pictures of the homes and belongings of people around the world at various income levels. It’s interesting to view, but an issue that quickly becomes clear is that people are classified into Levels 1-4 based on income per person, regardless of the number of people in the household. So, for instance, an American family of four (parents and their young adult children) with an income of $996 per month per person is considered Level 3. Now, living alone in the U.S. on an income of under $1000 per month puts you below the poverty line, with money tight even to meet basic needs, but a family of four with $48,000 a year and no childcare expenses is doing all right, as this family seems to be based on the photos. They’re nowhere near the poverty line, which for a family of four is $25,100. The effect of pooling resources is huge: every home needs a kitchen, for instance, but add several more people to your home and you still only need one kitchen. So the income level cutoffs, which seem useful to describe the rough income levels of different countries as a whole, are far less helpful for individual households.

And finally, Rosling assumes throughout the book that development is always good, without ever addressing the question directly. It was interesting to read this book alongside Unbowed, a memoir by a Kenyan activist for democracy, human rights and the environment. As a child, Maathai lived on Level 1 or 2, but that didn’t mean a terrible life; she found enjoyment and pride in cultivating the land, had a large, supportive family, and loved the storytelling around the fire each evening as the family waited for the food to cook. To Rosling though, Level 1 is nothing but suffering, and he never acknowledges any potential downsides to development except for environmental degradation. Now, it’s fair to say that it’s easy to romanticize “a simpler lifestyle” from one’s couch, while parents who have buried three of their five children have no such illusions (one of the key statistics Rosling often uses is child mortality). But loss of family, community and cultural connections can lead to increased mental health problems, while today’s diets, high in fat, sugar, and processed foods, lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other serious health problems. Rosling, though, paints a uniformly positive picture of modernization without acknowledging its costs.

All that said, his description of logical fallacies is still useful. For those still reading, they are below:

The Gap Instinct: The notion that humanity divides into two groups, with a significant gap between them, such as “rich countries” and “poor countries.” Countries’ income, like probably most other things, is actually on a continuum.

The Negativity Instinct: Paying most attention to negative information, such as apocalyptic news reports, without noticing the gradual improvements that get far less attention but are more impactful in the long run.

The Straight Line Instinct: Assuming a phenomenon will continue to occur at the same rate (this one is mostly for analyzing data: world population growth, for instance, is already slowing).

The Fear Instinct: People are more afraid of dramatic events that tap into our primal fears of violence, captivity, and poison, than of everyday stuff that’s more likely to occur. This is why American parents won’t let their kids walk places for fear of extremely rare stranger kidnappings, despite the fact that car accidents are far more common and deadly.

The Size Instinct: Also about analyzing data: get numbers into perspective by finding something to compare them to, and focus on the biggest items on a list (for instance in a budget) rather than the tiny ones.

The Generalization Instinct: Assuming that all members of a group are alike, or that two groups are similar when they aren’t.

The Destiny Instinct: Assuming something “will always be” the way that it is and that “culture” is immutable - at least when it comes to cultures other than our own.

The Single Perspective Instinct: Using your pet theory to explain everything that’s happening in the world and how to fix it.

The Blame Instinct: Looking for someone to blame for a problem can cause you to stop thinking. Looking for the system that caused that person’s behavior can be much more productive.

The Urgency Instinct: Decisions made in haste are poorly thought-through; slow down on important stuff.

At any rate, definitely an interesting book, and probably especially useful for those whose knowledge of the world mostly comes from the news. Even for those who are more knowledgeable, it’s useful to be aware of the ways your brain can trick you. That said, I think this book should form the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of it.

I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet

I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad - Souad Mekhennet

This memoir of a Muslim journalist reporting on jihad was interesting, though I wasn’t blown away in the way most reviewers seem to have been. Souad Mekhennet grew up primarily in Germany, the daughter of guest workers from Morocco and Turkey. She encountered racism and xenophobia on her way to becoming a successful journalist, but speaking Arabic and her familiarity with Middle Eastern cultures went a long way to ensure her success.

Aside from some description of her childhood, this book is focused almost exclusively on her professional life, with chapters organized around a visit to a particular place or an act of terror on which she was reporting. Mekhennet interviews dangerous people – on occasion braving serious danger in order to reach them – is arrested by Egyptian security forces, and impresses a lot of jihadists, who are willing to vouch for her and sometimes even propose to her. She asks everybody tough questions though and challenges everyone’s views.

I liked this book and learned from it, and I’m impressed by Mekhennet’s gutsiness. We need reporters like her to dig deep enough to get the real story, and to be skeptical and push back on what they’re being told. That said, I didn’t love her book. As a work of nonfiction about the state of the Muslim world and its relationship to the U.S. and Europe, I found it a little disconnected, as it focuses tightly on Mekhennet’s specific assignments and experiences. It reminded me of how much I don’t know about the Muslim world without filling in many of those gaps. But learning about how jihadists and their family members and supporters view the world was certainly enlightening.

As a memoir, it’s rather impersonal. Even as a teenager Mekhennet portrays herself as a powerhouse whose only obstacle to overcome is xenophobia; nothing more mundane like shyness about approaching important people or soliciting internships, or issues with dating, seems to faze her. (As an adult she often mentions wanting to marry, and briefly discusses dating, where her primarily stumbling block seems to be concern for her safety, such that she wants to chat anonymously for months before meeting a man.) Though I do give her credit for discussing the alienation she, like many other Muslims teens in Europe, felt after seeing hate crimes on the news and experiencing harassment and discrimination. Fortunately she had a strong support network, positive role models, and opportunities to succeed, but less lucky kids who feel despised are vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist organizations that understand their mindset very well.

Overall, I’m glad I read this, but didn’t have strong feelings about it. The book is a somewhat dense read that takes some time to get through, but it is informative, and the author has definitely had some interesting experiences.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - John le Carré

I hadn’t read any spy genre novels before, but this one came highly recommended and seems to be a classic of the genre. We’ll call it 4 stars for “this seems like a good book, but it isn’t my genre so don’t take my star rating too seriously.”

George Smiley is an unsexy but astute official in Britain’s intelligence service who has recently been forced into retirement due to a change of directors that happened under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Not too happy with retirement (his wife has recently left him), he’s called in to investigate word of a double agent passing intelligence to the Russians. The book is a thriller in a way, with its high tension, secrets, close focus on individual scenes, and slow drip of clues as George approaches the culprit. But it’s not a modern thriller in the sense that there’s little action or physical danger to George, who slowly uncovers the truth through talking to other spies.

The book is well-written, and I didn’t find the plot as dense as some other readers did; despite my not reading it all at once, it was understandable. That said, the heavy use of 70’s Britishisms in addition to the invented spy slang (which, life imitating art, has apparently since come into actual use) makes the language opaque at times. And a lot of characters are introduced early on whose role in the plot is minimal, which makes them a bit difficult to keep track of.

But I was able to figure things out (or ignore them) without too much trouble, and this was an enjoyable read. It fits within the mold of a genre novel, but is more intelligent than you typically find in “thrillers.” And it’s a spy novel, but it doesn’t glorify spies; having read it, the author’s comment in the introduction that both the SIS and CIA “would have done much less damage to their countries, moral and financial, if they had simply been disbanded” makes perfect sense. Worth reading even if this is not your typical fare.