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Merle

Merle

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

The Book of Phoenix (Who Fears Death) - Nnedi Okorafor

This short, futuristic novel is essentially a power/revenge fantasy focused on the exploitation of people of African descent, especially in medical research. (Calling it a power fantasy isn’t necessarily a criticism; much of sci-fi and fantasy consists of power fantasies for white male nerds, so it seems only fair for others to get a cut of the action.) Despite a compelling start and socially relevant themes, however, this one flopped for me.

Phoenix lives in a future America in which powerful corporations perform medical experimentation on people, mostly black, who live locked up in mysterious Towers. She knows nothing else and is content until something awful happens to her best friend and love interest, at which point she starts to rebel and discovers the powers with which she was endowed. This is a prequel to a post-apocalyptic fantasy tale and has a frame story, so it’s no secret that somewhere along the way the world as we know it is destroyed, and most readers will guess how; nevertheless, this is your warning that this review will contain SPOILERS.

Okorafor sets the stage well, with an oppressive dystopian setting and a young protagonist struggling to make sense of it and survive. The first third of the book makes for compelling reading, with a fast-paced story full of danger set in a believable world. But as in the companion book, Who Fears Death, the protagonist becomes too powerful, leaching the story of dramatic tension. Once Phoenix learns that she can fly for days on end, die and regenerate as many times as necessary, and move through time and space in an instant and apparently without limit, the story no longer presents obstacles that really challenge her. She attacks one of the Towers alone and without planning and succeeds, so the long stretch toward the end spent preparing to attack another with a group seems unnecessary and anticlimactic (though from a narrative perspective, it allows some down time and for Phoenix to bond more with other characters).

The end also proved unsatisfying. Phoenix suddenly decides the world is irredeemable and that the goddess Ani – who, mind you, does not appear in the book – wants her to destroy it. This decision made little sense to me: after all, her lover is alive and needs rescuing, and while she did just discover that several powerful and corrupt men have used the Towers’ research to extend their lives indefinitely, there’s nothing stopping her from hunting them down individually. The connection to the writing of the Great Book and the world of Who Fears Death also seems strained, though I enjoyed the chapters of the frame story as an independent short story.

Meanwhile, the characterization is fairly simplistic; reviewers who have interpreted this as intentional due to Phoenix’s chronological age may well be correct, but I have my doubts, as the book portrays Phoenix as an adult woman in her intellectual capacity and ability to form relationships. Likewise, the writing style is simple and sometimes staccato, which suits the dystopian setting fine. The world has texture and is a conceivable outgrowth of our world, an important but often-overlooked element of a good dystopia. On the other hand, some details seem under-researched: the bizarre chapter in which, despite the secrecy in which these projects are shrouded, the only records of ongoing medical experiments turn out to be catalogued and housed in hard copy in the Library of Congress (which apparently will switch to Dewey Decimal in the future?) available for browsing by anyone with ID, has been thoroughly dissected in other reviews.

Overall, while this book has some interesting ideas, their execution proved to be a letdown. Not having thought much of Who Fears Death either, I’m ready to conclude that Okorafor’s work is not for me.

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are - Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

This is an engaging and informative book about the huge amount of data available online and what it tells us about society. I read it alongside Dataclysm and found Everybody Lies to be by far the better of the two, presenting a wealth of information in a cohesive fashion and making fewer unfounded assumptions. The author was a data scientist at Google, and draws in large part on the searches people make on the site, along with information from sites including Facebook and Pornhub.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the data, from the rate of racist searches in the rust belt predicting the rise of Donald Trump, to common body anxieties and whether they actually matter to the opposite sex, to an estimate of how many men are gay and whether that varies by geography (it appears not), to rates of self-induced abortions. This is a great book to read if you love unusual factoids, whether on sexual proclivities or how sports fans are made.

The author also writes in a compelling way about the uses of Big Data itself, and while he waxes evangelical about it (evidently preferring to spend all his time immersed in statistically significant data, he finds novels and biographies too “small and unrepresentative" and therefore uninteresting), there are certainly a lot of possibilities there. In health, for instance, compiling early searches about symptoms with later searches for how to handle a diagnosis can help doctors detect pancreatic cancer at an earlier stage, while epidemics can be tracked through symptom searches. The author is also interested in how applying data can revolutionize a field, discussing at length the data that predicted the success of the racehorse American Pharaoh. (By "at length" I mean 9 pages; this is a book that moves through a broad range of topics quickly.)

Overall, the writing is engaging and the book hangs together well, being informative while mostly resisting the urge to speculate. But the author does make a couple of assumptions worth pointing out. One is that people’s Google searches are made in earnest and for personal reasons. Certainly, you might search for “depression symptoms” out of concern that you or someone you know is depressed. But you also might want to be prepared in advance to identify warning signs, or might have encountered something in the media that sparked your interest, or you might be a student writing a paper on the topic. On the other hand, if you’re intimately familiar with depression already, you’re unlikely to google the symptoms. None of this means the author’s finding a 40% difference in rates of depression symptom searches between Chicago and Hawaii isn’t relevant, but data that’s both over- and under-inclusive serves better as a starting point for research than a definitive conclusion. It's certainly not proof that better geography is twice as effective as antidepressants, as the author suggests.

The other assumption is that everybody lies: the book insists on it, based largely on the fact that typically rosy social media posts fail to reflect all those unhappy or hateful searches. Selectively sharing information doesn’t necessarily seem to me to be lying, but the author appears invested in proving the book’s title. For instance, he discusses a particular type of tax fraud: in areas where few tax professionals or people eligible for the scheme live, 2% of people who could benefit from this lie tell it, while in areas with high concentrations of both, the rate of cheating is around 30%. The author concludes that “the key isn’t determining who is honest and who is dishonest. It is determining who knows how to cheat and who doesn’t.” This bleak view of the world fails to account for the 70% who don’t cheat even in areas with high levels of knowledge; finding that significant numbers of people cheat if they know how is a far cry from finding that everyone does.

So, like the author of Dataclysm, Stephens-Davidowitz is probably a better statistician than sociologist. But if you’re interested in Big Data, or in getting a peek at the thoughts and anxieties people ask Google about because they’re not comfortable sharing with others, this is the book I recommend. You’ll certainly get a lot of interesting tidbits from it, along with perhaps new inhibitions about typing things into Google!

Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian

Post Captain (Aubrey/Maturin Book 2) - Patrick O'Brian

This is a lot of fun, literary historical fiction with a dose of action. I read the first book a few years back and enjoyed it, though I struggled with the morass of seafaring terms. Either this book reduces them or I’d just gotten used to not understanding every word. This book broadens the world of the series, giving the heroes some time onshore to get into trouble and romantic entanglements (these sections are surprisingly reminiscent of Jane Austen, who was writing around the time these novels are set, which lends credibility to the text). There is perhaps less action here than in the first book, but the stakes are higher and more of the secondary characters are fleshed out. Aubrey and Maturin are both still complex, believable, flawed characters with a complicated friendship. The writing is good, there are moments of humor, and the setting is brought so thoroughly to life that a reader might be fooled into believing O’Brian was writing about his own time period. I think I must have liked this book better than the first, because I’m ready to read the third book sooner rather than later.

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder

By Christian Rudder Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking) - Christian Rudder

On its face this book sounds good: data guru uses the information people share online, particularly on the dating website OkCupid, to reveal demographic trends. There is some interesting information here, along with fun graphs and charts. But while Rudder may be a good statistician, he’s a poor sociologist, and the book is riddled with eyebrow-raising assumptions and conclusions. It also hangs together poorly, jumping from one disconnected subject to another, with chapters that share a fairly simple finding padded by repetitive discussions of the author’s methods and rhapsodizing about the scope of his data. For a better book on what Big Data says about us, I recommend the more recent Everybody Lies.

Unfortunately, Rudder begins the book with random, skewed guessing. In describing OkCupid, he confidently asserts that “[t]onight, some thirty thousand couples will have their first date because of OkCupid. Roughly three thousand of them will end up together long-term. Two hundred of those will get married[.]” This caught my attention immediately: 10% of online first dates leading to long-term relationships is a fantastic success rate, but less than 7% of long-term relationships ending in marriage seems awfully low for the 20’s-and-up crowd. Curious what definition of “long-term” Rudder was using, I flipped to the notes at the back, only to find that he made it all up based on the fact that the site has 4 million active users and 300 couples per day reporting that they are leaving OkCupid because they found someone on the site. Plus his intuition that fewer than 1 in 10 long-term couples get married: “How many serious relationships did you have before you found the person you settled down with? I imagine the average number is roughly 10.” My own experience of the world is very different (I don’t think I know anyone who’s had 10+ long-term, serious relationships). And since the average American woman marries at 27 and man at 29, and according to the CDC, the average adult woman reports 4 lifetime sexual partners while the average man reports 6-7, Rudder’s impression seems the more likely to be skewed.

The author’s conclusions are equally questionable. He observes that men seem to find 20-year-old women the most attractive (at least on a site evidently without teenagers) throughout their lives, while women’s view of male attractiveness changes to accommodate their own age, and concludes that middle-aged men don’t contact young women for fear of rejection and social judgment. This overlooks the fact that there’s much more to a relationship than physical attractiveness; how many 50-year-old men want to live in a world of exam stress and frat parties, with a partner who has comparatively little life experience?

Another chapter seems to confuse correlation and causation. In “You’ve Gotta be the Glue,” Rudder explains that couples who each have multiple clusters of Facebook connections from different areas of their lives, and are the only person connected to each other’s various tribes, last longer than couples who are connected to all the same people, who all know each other. This makes sense: if you belong to several social groups (co-workers, college friends, book club, etc.) and your partner has gotten to know all of them, your relationship is well-established and likely serious. But if you belong to a tight-knit community and start dating someone within your group, your Facebook connections provide no indication of how serious you are. Rudder, however, interprets the data as proving causation, concluding that the “specialness” of the couple in being the “glue” between different social groups somehow boosts the relationship. He fails to explain how “connecting” his gaming buddies to his wife’s extended family strengthens their marriage – presumably if these social groups cared to mingle much, they’d befriend each other on Facebook and then what happens to the couple’s “specialness”?

When the book moves away from dating-related data, it becomes a series of disconnected one-off chapters. There’s a discourse about group rage on the Internet that involves little data analysis and seems to be included because the author is interested in group rage on the Internet. There’s a chapter about the language used in Twitter posts, concluding that Twitter definitely isn’t killing sophisticated thought because “a,” “and,” and “the” are among the top 10 words used in English both on Twitter and off of it. There’s an equation meant to demonstrate that multiplying a word’s frequency rank in a text by its number of uses will result in a constant, but the chart meant to illustrate this point with Ulysses displays a “constant” ranging from 20,000 to 29,055.

All that said, there is some interesting material here, particularly the data on race. The chapter on racist Google searches is less relevant now that the author of that study has written his own book (the aforementioned Everybody Lies); and Dataclysm, published in 2014, has a rosier view of this than the 2017, Trump-era version. But the study showing massive racial differences in how people rate one another’s attractiveness is still quite relevant: key findings include the fact that people tend to view members of their own race as more attractive than others, but black Americans take a major hit in the ratings from everybody (including other black people, though to a lesser degree). My first reaction on reading this was that it’s hard to judge people for preferring cultural commonalities in their most intimate relationships. But the data isn’t so simple: it’s based on how people rate a photo, not whom they choose to contact, and attractiveness doesn’t only affect one’s dating prospects, but employment too (there’s a chart on that). And in-group biases in American society are hardly limited to dating; while our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, churches, and friend groups are still largely separate, I’m inclined to believe that Rudder’s data does show hidden bias.

Overall, while there are interesting nuggets in here, I wouldn’t recommend the book. A few interesting data points are padded into book-length by ill-conceived interpretations and rambling. By the end I was simply tired of it – the writing didn’t engage me when unaccompanied by charts, the book lacks cohesion and the author had lost far too much credibility. Try Everybody Lies instead.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe - Kij Johnson

I really enjoyed this novella. It is in dialogue with a short story by Lovecraft, which I have not read, but you don’t need to read that to enjoy this. And fortunately for me, this is fantasy, not horror. It is set in a portal world clearly conceived as the stuff of nightmares, with monsters, shifting natural laws and an angry sky; if this were made into a movie the horror would be inescapable. But through the eyes of a protagonist who hails from that world, these are simply facts of life, evoking no fear or disgust.

Vellitt Boe is a professor at the Ulthar Women’s College. She had an adventurous youth before going to college and settling down, so when a student runs off to the “waking world” (ours), putting the college in danger, Vellitt sets out on a quest to retrieve her. It’s an engaging story, written in Johnson’s smooth-flowing style that makes the book feel as much like literary fiction as fantasy. The world is highly imaginative, brought to life with a texture that must be Johnson’s own. And Vellitt is an interesting and endearing character, with a quiet toughness and the good sense one would hope for from a middle-aged adventurer.

This could easily have been expanded to a full-length novel, and I’m unsure why it wasn’t: Johnson takes some shortcuts through the waking-world portion, and the end is really the beginning of something else, providing little resolution. But it succeeds in telling a good story, while responding to the sexism and racism that was apparently rampant in Lovecraft. Sometimes Johnson is quite pointed in this, in other places subtle: Vellitt is apparently a woman of color, but the only indication I saw was the description of her hair. And when she arrives in the waking world, she remarks on the large numbers of women there, a clever dig at male-created fantasy worlds populated overwhelmingly by men.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed and would recommend this, along with Johnson’s other works, particularly Fudoki. I haven’t seen a bad book from this author yet, and look forward to more!

The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod

The cost of sugar - Cynthia Mc Leod

This is a lively, melodramatic work of historical fiction set in mid-18th century Suriname. At that time, the small nation on the northern coast of South America was a Dutch colony consisting of sugar and coffee plantations carved out of the jungle, many of them run by Jewish owners who arrived in Suriname via Portugal and Brazil, and all of them worked by slaves. Unlike in North America, however, proximity to the jungle meant that slaves often escaped to form their own communities, which were in constant conflict with the colonial government.

The story spans 14 years and has a large cast for under 300 pages, but its protagonists are stepsisters Elza and Sarith, both daughters of Jewish plantation owners. The two are best friends as girls, but soon find themselves opposed, primarily because Elza is a sweet young woman who treats the slaves well while Sarith is short-sighted and willing to ruin the lives of everyone around her in order to get her way. Yes, it’s that kind of book. The book focuses on Elza early on, then shifts its attention later in the story to Sarith, Sarith’s slave Mini-mini, and a young mercenary named Jan.

Which is to say that there’s no single plotline, and characters come and go rather oddly (I expected Alex to become more important than he did, and Amimba, as the first character we meet, to have something more than a walk-on role). But as a story about a place and a society, rather than any single protagonist, it flows well. The plot moves quickly and stays interesting, the translation is fluid, and the characters – if not particularly complex – are sympathetic, except when not intended to be. It presents a detailed picture of a historical era that doesn’t feel overly influenced by modern views, though it can be a little ham-fisted. The author has clearly done her share of research on Surinamese history and is able to bring her cultural knowledge to the pages.

Interestingly, most of the novel was originally written in Dutch, but slaves at the time were forbidden from learning Dutch, so conversed among themselves and with whites in Sranan, a creole language related to English as well as other European and African languages. The author originally wrote conversations involving slaves in Sranan, which is evidently still sufficiently widely-spoken in Suriname for the original audience to understand. In the English version, the Sranan dialogue is translated, but you can see the original in the footnotes. Helpful footnotes also explain those words or concepts that will be unfamiliar for the English-speaking reader (there’s a glossary at the end too, but I didn’t need it).

Overall, this is an entertaining work that will likely appeal to those who enjoy popular historical fiction. It’s not great literature but doesn’t try to be. And props to the author for writing a book for a country she was told “doesn’t have a reading tradition” – this book is now apparently beloved in Suriname after all.

No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers

No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America - Ron Powers

This is a deeply emotional book about an important topic, and it seems to have found a large audience (judging by the number of holds at my local library if not the number of ratings on Goodreads). It’s a great idea, alternating between nonfiction chapters about the nature and history of mental illness and a memoir of the author’s family, including two sons with schizophrenia. And as a journalist, the author has an engaging writing style that kept me wanting to read on. It is marred, however, by odd choices in structure and focus. In the end, there is far less about mental illness in it than I expected, and the author’s major policy proposal involves disempowering the very people to whom he claims he wants to give a voice.

The larger part of this book is the nonfiction, much of which is history. The author writes a bit about the spiritual roles often held in traditional societies by people who would today be defined as mentally ill, before discussing the history of asylums (they seem to have started out somewhere between prisons and zoos, to be later reformed in the era of Dorothea Dix and then deteriorate again). And other low points: eugenics (Hitler was all about wiping out mental illness through murder, but the U.S. pioneered forced sterilizations), lobotomies (shudder), and deinstitutionalization (the U.S. closed most of its asylums in the 1960s, resulting in many of the mentally ill winding up on the streets or incarcerated). For no reason I could discern, the chapter about the aftermath of WWII comes after the deinstitutionalization chapter, but it’s otherwise roughly chronological.

Powers’s writing style is engaging, and there is useful information here for those who don’t know much about the topic, but the nonfiction portions could have been much better. When the subject is science – what is schizophrenia, or the link between mental illness and creativity – there’s little actual science and lots of authorial speculation; Powers spends more time detailing debunked theories with emotional appeal for him than laying out the facts. When the subject is history, he has a tendency to go off on tangents at best loosely related to the topic of the book: the eugenics chapter goes into detail on how Darwin came to travel on the Beagle, but neglects to mention that forced sterilization went on in the U.S. until the 1970s.

The chapter on antipsychotics is particularly off-base. I expected this chapter to answer such questions as: how effective are antipsychotics? What is it like to be on them? How have these drugs changed in the sixty-odd years since they first became available? What are their disadvantages? Instead we get a history of the development of the precursors to the first antipsychotic drugs, including biographical details of involved scientists, and then a long catalogue of misdeeds by drug companies, often not related to psychoactive drugs at all. There’s even a discussion of the intricacies of patent law that cause medication to be expensive in the U.S. in the first place, and mention of Bernie Sanders bussing seniors up to Canada to buy cheaper meds. As a piece of journalism it’s fine, but that isn’t why I picked up this book.

The memoir portion is equally marked by odd choices of focus. Three-quarters of it takes place before either of the author’s sons begins showing signs of schizophrenia. I understand the author’s desire to focus on the happy events in their lives, and even his drive to include supportive emails he sent his kids over the years. Perhaps one of his goals was to get readers invested in Dean and Kevin as people rather than seeing them as representatives of an illness. But a good writer could have done that while focusing on the years when they were actually sick (they’re still people, which is supposed to be the author’s point, and they’re hardly psychotic all the time). And this structure winds up giving the impression that life ends with schizophrenia, that everything worth telling in his sons’ lives happened beforehand – even though one of them is alive and apparently doing well.

Again, there’s a lot of authorial speculation and tangents here. He theorizes that his older son, Dean, was moody and withdrawn as a teenager because he was in the early stages of the disease, never mind that Dean’s first psychotic episode seems to have come around age 30. He discusses at length the social and judicial consequences of a car accident when Dean was 17, during which it becomes clear that he has a bone to pick with the other teenager’s family (who previously wrote their own book). Dean’s own opinions are noticeably absent. The author will mention that he never asked how Dean felt about a particular event, or doesn’t know some fact from Dean’s life, leaving me wondering why he didn’t just walk downstairs and ask. Memoirists generally have living, non-estranged family members read their manuscripts and share their memory of events, which could only have improved this book.

Finally, though there’s little discussion of specific policy proposals, Powers advocates throughout the book for parents having increased authority to force treatment on their unwilling adult children. Of course, early diagnosis and treatment is extremely important to health outcomes, and it was clearly agonizing for Powers and his wife to watch Kevin go off his meds, insisting that he’d gotten better. But having recently read a horrifying account of involuntary commitment in another memoir, I’m hesitant to say we should do this more, and concerned by the author’s pooh-poohing of civil liberties concerns. A basic tenet of a free society is that adults get to make their own life decisions, even if their judgment is terrible, as long as they abide by the law. If someone is incompetent, the court can appoint a guardian. Powers apparently believes this option is insufficient because there can be delay (in which case the delay is the problem) and, bafflingly, because this is “not a medical hearing, with psychiatrists, but a judicial hearing, with a judge and lawyers.” Um, yes, this is how government works; it’s called due process of law and why courts exist. There’s nothing stopping psychiatrists from testifying in them.

At any rate, the author doesn’t seem to have thought this proposal through. Does he believe in involuntary treatment only during episodes of acute psychosis, or indefinitely once someone has a diagnosis? His experiences make it seem like the latter. In which case, what diagnoses are sufficient? How long does someone have to be stable to get their rights back? Does he think parents should have this power for life, or only while their children are financially dependent young adults? How would he prevent situations like Rosemary Kennedy's, where less conscientious parents choose a treatment that destroys their child in an attempt to make her easier to manage? If the ill person is married, does the spouse get to dictate treatment? Has he considered the ways mental illness already leaves people vulnerable to domestic violence (“you’re crazy, so no one will believe you”)? There's a long history of inconvenient women forced into mental institutions, because people given power over others don't always exercise it well. It doesn’t appear the author has considered the implications of his ideas beyond his own pain, and while his experiences are a valid consideration, the inquiry can’t stop there.

 

So in the end, while there is some good journalistic writing here and I found the book more engaging than a 2-star rating implies, it falls short of the author’s stated goals. He writes in the introduction that he wants reading the book to hurt, and he wants to give a voice to people with mental illness. The book includes a few tragic stories taken from the news, dealing with police shootings and suicide in prison, and certainly his son’s suicide is one of the most tragic events a family can experience. But far more page time is spent on Powers family vacations and why the author hates Thomas Szasz. And I’m confused as to how he believes he’s given anyone a voice when there’s no indication he interviewed anyone with mental illness for the book; even his own surviving son appears to have had no involvement. Raising awareness is good, but this book is too much of the author’s feelings and too little of anything else. What a wasted opportunity.

The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper

The House at Sugar Beach - Helene Cooper

I loved reading this book. It’s a memoir of the author’s privileged childhood in Liberia, the early days of civil war there and her family’s flight, and her journey of building a life in another country and ultimately coming to terms with her homeland.

Helene Cooper is an award-winning journalist, and you can see that clearly in her writing, which is compelling, informative, and relatable. She builds scenes from her childhood in an almost novelistic way, and explores the dynamics of her complicated family with depth and honesty. While she was born to a Liberian dynasty (descended from the first free blacks who arrived from the U.S. to build a colony), there’s an ever-present reminder of her privilege in her best friend, a poor native Liberian girl her parents adopt to be her playmate. The divergence between the lives of these two as they grow older tells you a lot about Liberia (and the world). Cooper is also able to tell a personal, gripping story about the war, in which her family does not escape violence. And she includes a few helpful chapters detailing her family history and the early history of Liberia. While the portion of the book dealing with her life outside Liberia is much shorter, it’s still an interesting look at the family members’ relative assimilation and race relations in the U.S.

But it isn’t all heavy stuff. There’s quite a bit of humor and fun in the book, especially as the author remembers her childhood and teenage years. She also seems enthusiastic about explaining Liberian culture and Liberian English to those unfamiliar with it, adding a lot of flavor to the story.

In fact, perhaps neither of my two reservations about the book is fairly attributed to the author. One is that it has more than its share of copyediting mistakes. The other is that, despite the history included, I never understood how the relatively peaceful country in which Cooper grew up spawned one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars, with all the atrocities she describes. I’m sure that to the teenaged Helene Cooper this made just as little sense; but as a veteran foreign correspondent who rode along for the invasion of Iraq, she probably has some insight into what makes wars different from one another. I would have appreciated the level of research about the war that she clearly put into the colony’s early years, though as a memoir the book succeeds regardless.

Overall, this is a very well-told story featuring distinct, complicated personalities, from a self-aware and thoughtful writer with fascinating life experiences. It’s also a great way to learn about a corner of the world that most people know little about. I would definitely recommend this one.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum

"Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity - Beverly Daniel Tatum

This is an informative book about the racial aspect of identity development. I am giving it a mild recommendation because I did not find it life-changing. But despite being a book about social issues published in 1997 (with an updated edition in 2003), it has maintained relevance. It is primarily geared toward parents and teachers, with a focus on child and adolescent identity development: how to raise non-white children in the U.S. with a healthy sense of themselves, and how to raise white children to speak out against racism. Because of the smattering of angry reviews, it’s also worth pointing out that the book is geared toward those who acknowledge that racism is an existing problem that affects people of color, and would like to improve their understanding or learn to do more about it.

Beverly Tatum is a college professor and administrator with a background in psychology and extensive experience teaching workshops about race, and also a black woman who’s put careful thought into teaching her sons about race. The book has a detached, somewhat scholarly tone, though it remains accessible and readable. The author compiles several theoretical models for racial identity development and illustrates them with examples from students, workshop participants, and her own life. In general I found the information she provides helpful, not earth-shattering for someone relatively familiar with social justice issues, but not too basic either.

The book does mostly focus on black and white, though the author makes an effort to expand from that. There are 10-page sections about Hispanic, Native American, and Asian-American identity, which are more substantial than I expected based on their brevity, but lack space to do more than summarize these groups’ experience with American government and society, and flag some key issues relevant to grade school teachers. Unsurprisingly, the portion of the book dealing with African-American identity is the richest. It’s useful – and probably necessary – for teachers and others to understand what kids are experiencing.

In writing about white people, the author is familiar with common racial attitudes, and explains them in terms of a growth model even though many people get stuck somewhere along the way (the same of course can be said for black people): from not having to think about race, to blaming minorities for their situation, to white guilt, to hopefully speaking out against racism in a productive way. Her analysis of the reasons white people are afraid to speak out seems dated to me (suggesting that fear of ostracism from other white people is a major factor, while de-emphasizing fear of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth because white people aren’t taught to talk about race). But otherwise the book’s analysis of race relations feels contemporary.

The author’s conception of a positive white racial identity is also incomplete, though as a black person, this isn’t really her job. She believes (and I have doubts about this) that positive change requires white people having a strong, positive racial identity of their own: including whiteness as a major part of their self-conception without being racist. But as far as she gets in envisioning what that looks like is suggesting that white people look to other white people who have fought racism, and build anti-racist identities. The problem is that opposing racism is a social position, not an identity, and most people are not activists who build their lives around their opinions. Ultimately it’s for white people to determine what white identity looks like, though, so I can’t fault the author for failing to do so.

At any rate, this book is informative and the actual text is only just over 200 pages, so it’s worth a read if you’re interested in the subject. It isn't a book that inspired any strong reaction in me, but I feel a bit more knowledgeable for having read it.

Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota

This novel of Indian immigrants struggling to survive in modern England straddles the line between fiction and op-ed. It’s a compelling story, but one in which the author’s interest in documenting the abuses the characters suffer at home and abroad is clearly the top priority.

 

Three young men travel from India to England in search of work, and for a time are all residents of one overcrowded house inhabited by the members of a construction crew. Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi each represent a particular experience: Randeep grows up middle-class with a father in government, but as the only son, is forced to drop out of college and support his family following his father’s nervous breakdown; Avtar’s family is urban working poor, a precarious existence that offers no future to his middle-class girlfriend; Tochi comes from a rural family of the “untouchable” caste, which falls victim to horrific violence in the book’s most over-the-top scene of emotional manipulation. (I almost stopped reading upon reaching this section early in the book, but am glad I didn’t – nothing else in it is quite so manipulative or unearned.) The men find various routes to England depending on their resources; in Randeep’s case, it’s by marrying Narinder, a devout young Sikh woman from an immigrant family who rounds out the primary cast.

 

In a sad irony for a book devoted to chronicling the lives of desperate immigrants, Sahota seems much more capable of inhabiting those characters who come from comfortable backgrounds. Randeep and Narinder are fully-realized characters with inner lives. Avtar and Tochi are object lessons in the difficulties of being poor in India and the reasons young men would immigrate to England even under harsh conditions. Both can be thoroughly described by the word “dutiful,” and neither has any discernible inner life, unless you count occasionally becoming angry at their circumstances. Randeep and Narinder are shaped by the circumstances of their lives but have personality that isn’t a direct response to the events around them; Avtar and Tochi read like hollow representatives of “typical” poor immigrant men.

 

That said, the story moves briskly and Sahota does an excellent job of chronicling the characters’ day-to-day lives in a compelling way, which had me eager to return to the story even when I wasn’t fully convinced by the characters. As a work intended to raise awareness about a social issue, this does an excellent job: Sahota writes with authority about the characters’ circumstances, shaping readers’ understanding of their lives so that we understand their choices and the protagonists remain sympathetic characters throughout. At times the tragedy becomes predictable (I was reminded of Rohinton Mistry, though this isn’t quite as tragic or of the same literary caliber), though it isn’t simply an endless catalogue of misery; more often the characters experience good things only to have them snatched away. The end is rather weak: the final chapter leaves the characters at their lowest point, only to jump 10 years into the future for the epilogue. Seeing how the characters pulled out of those circumstances would have improved the book, though it’s long already. And for a 10-years-later epilogue, this one is surprisingly inconclusive.

 

It’s also worth mentioning that the text includes many Punjabi words (and without a glossary); unlike most books that do this, this one does not always make the meaning evident from context. A few times I tried to find translations online (with varying success), though they are not so crucial that you wouldn’t understand the story.

 

At any rate, I enjoyed reading this book and think it’s a good one for raising awareness and for those who enjoy social realist novels. Rounding the rating down on sites that require it because although the plot kept me engaged while reading, I would have appreciated a little more literary quality and a little less of an object lesson.

 

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

The Bean Trees - Barbara Kingsolver

This is an uneven debut novel from a talented author. It is in some ways a feel-good story, about a young woman who travels far from home and builds a community. The book focuses on the themes of motherhood and of growing up and trying to do right in the face of the ugliness of the world, and does so effectively. There is room for improvement though, in particular because a major aspect of the plot depends on a premise both problematic and extremely unlikely.

Taylor Greer is a young woman from the mountains of Kentucky who decides to reinvent her life, so she sets off in her beat-up old car with no clear plan in mind. By the time she reaches Tucson, she isn’t alone: when she stops at a bar in the Cherokee part of Oklahoma, a woman dumps a 3-year-old child on her. So Taylor unexpectedly has to learn to be a mother, which winds up connecting her to a wider community.

Which is all written very sweetly, but the situation makes little sense. From what little we learn of the child’s background, she’s been abused and neglected, and it’s her aunt who gives her to Taylor after her mother’s death, apparently in an attempt to protect her. All the aunt knows about Taylor is that she’s eating alone at night in a mostly-empty bar, where she requests the cheapest thing on the menu, and she drives a beat-up old rattletrap of a car with out-of-state plates. No names or contact information are exchanged. No matter how desperate the child’s home situation, it’s hard to imagine any relative believing this is a good idea. Meanwhile, although a large part of Taylor’s identity is based on having reached her early 20’s without pregnancy, and although she has no means to care for a child, she easily accepts responsibility after a token protest, without considering that contacting social services or the police might be a better idea than driving off with a stranger's child. She doesn't give a second thought to the ways accepting sole responsibility for a traumatized toddler will upend her life.

That’s the unlikely part. The problematic elements come to the forefront when Taylor’s legal relationship with the child is called into question, and she resorts to dishonest means to resolve it. This is particularly unfortunate when the child belongs to a tribe, given the long history in the U.S. of native kids being removed from their homes. Apparently Kingsolver, who is known for her investment in social justice issues, ultimately came to the same conclusion, since a few years later she wrote a sequel dealing with this issue.

At any rate, it’s easy to see the signs pointing to Kingsolver’s later popularity as an author: the story is engaging after a slow start; the writing and the first-person voice are strong. The characters are interesting, and Kingsolver does a good job of bringing secondary characters to life even with little page time. The main characters are strong although not entirely consistent (Taylor’s roommate, Lou Ann, is a young mother with an obsessive fear of danger that’s nowhere to be seen in the two chapters at the beginning told from her perspective). There are some details that don’t add up – Lou Ann’s husband had an accident in which he fell from his truck, caught his foot in the door and was dragged along, and his only serious injury was to his foot? Taylor, who’s in her early 20s in a story set around 1980, had a great-grandfather who was not only alive but old at the time of the Trail of Tears in 1838? – but their impact on the story is minor.

At any rate, this isn’t a book I’d recommend people go out of their way to read, but it was an enjoyable story. I do plan to read the sequel, though more to see how the author resolves the issues raised in this book than from any deep investment in the characters.

Sarah Phillips by Andrea Lee

Sarah Phillips - Andrea Lee

This is a very well-written book, clear and evocative, and I particularly liked the early chapters, which evoke suburban childhood summers and follow the young protagonist through her first encounters with race. Sadly, the later part of the book didn’t jive as well for me, though the writing is equally good. The chapters are episodic to the point that it resembles a short story collection more than a novel (some of them appear to have been published independently), which I wasn’t expecting. It was also odd, given that this is presented as a semi-autobiographical work and people who meet the narrator identify her as black, to see a picture of the author – she looks vaguely southern European, perhaps Hispanic, and I struggled to reconcile that with a book about coming of age as an upper-middle-class African-American woman. (I realize that a portion of the author's heritage is African-American and she identifies as such, but that seems to me a vastly different experience from actually looking black.) At any rate, though it didn’t all quite come together for me in the way I expected, this is an elegantly-written and complex work with realistic, nuanced characters, certainly worth the relatively short time it takes to read.

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness - Tracy Kidder

This is a readable but mediocre book that gets a lot of praise because it’s about an impressive person and a tragic topic. Deogratias grew up in rural Burundi with few advantages, but made it to medical school, until he got caught up in the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi in 1993. A friend helped him flee to New York City, where despite a job delivering groceries he found himself homeless at first, until making friends who helped him get back on his feet. He then went to college and medical school in the U.S., and returned to Burundi to set up clinics for people with no access to health care.

 

This book reminds me of Ashley’s War, in that both are about people and subjects that absolutely deserve a book, but their authors sell them short. Kidder’s writing feels superficial throughout. From early on I had the impression that he was drawn to Deo but never really understood him (or perhaps Deo wasn’t willing or able to open up to the extent an author would need to write a biography that appears to be based mostly on his own disclosures), and so was able to relate the facts but only on the surface level. This becomes even more apparent in the second half of the book, when Kidder accompanies Deo on one of his trips back to Burundi. They visit numerous memorials and sites from Deo’s past, and Kidder describes how Deo reacts, but in the end we get more of Kidder’s feelings about the trip than Deo’s.

 

Though this is primarily a biography, we do get some information about the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi as well, along with a brief overview of the countries’ history. Though, again, this feels superficial, it’s an adequate starting point and is interesting for a reader with relatively little knowledge of the area. Especially interesting is Deo’s theory that the genocide was made possible in large part by structural violence – that when everyday life is full of fatal illness and injury, hunger, violence at home and at school, and little opportunity to improve one’s lot in life, people perceive the value of their own lives as low and therefore value others’ even less. Also interesting is the fact that, although westerners reading about the genocide assume Hutu and Tutsi are clearly definable ethnic groups, the reality seems to be anything but; these are apparently social groups more than anything else, and it appears Deo isn’t alone in being unable to tell the difference.

 

At any rate, this is a very readable book, not a bad choice for those who are interested in the topic. (It’s also worth pointing out, for those unsure about whether they can handle a book about genocide, that only one 35-page chapter is all about that; most of the book is about Deo’s life before and after, and about Kidder spending time with Deo and the people who helped him in New York.) But I’m underwhelmed by Kidder’s writing and likely won’t recommend this to others.

Tender by Sofia Samatar

Tender: Stories - Sofia Samatar

This is a beautiful, original, often surprising, and yes, tender, short story collection by a fantastic author. Samatar’s novels are lovely, but I think she may excel even more in the short story format, which combines her exquisite writing with compressed plots that necessarily move briskly. And her wide command of genres is impressive: fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, fairy tales, contemporary, young adult. Most of the stories are sci-fi and fantasy, and while I love fantasy I typically avoid sci-fi, but I absolutely would read more if Samatar wrote it. Her stories never use characters simply as a long-winded way of examining an idea or making a point; instead the characters are the point, and no matter how inventive their settings, the stories are about the people, their lives and relationships. And to the extent they’re about larger issues, they are issues that matter in human society today, like race and religion.

But then there are stories that break the mold I would expect from a genre author. “Olimpia’s Ghost” is a work of epistolary historical fiction set in 19th century Europe, involving a relationship that may or may not have existed between two real people (I won’t say who since figuring it out myself was so much fun), while “Those” is an answer to Heart of Darkness, written in a similar vein but with the frame story narrated by a mixed-race character, which changes everything.

There are a lot of fantastic stories in this collection, and from perusing the reviews it looks like different readers have different favorites, which is a sign of strong writing. I’ll mention my favorites here:

“Selkie Stories Are For Losers” – A young woman in the contemporary U.S. builds her life in the shadow of a fairy tale. This could easily be a novel and I’d love to read it.

“Walkdog” – This is an epistolary story written with a certain amount of deliberate inelegance, since it’s meant to be by a typical high school girl. It’s an achingly sad story about love, bullying and social conformity, with a bit of mythology wrapped in. Unlike in a lot of YA, which seems to be a weird adult vision or fantasy of teenagers, I completely believed this one; no one would want to admit to making Yolanda’s choices, but they feel realistic.

“Honey Bear” – This is a lovely post-apocalyptic tale. In the tradition of my favorite short fiction, it’s a story you’ll want to read twice, because everything comes together at the end in a way that changes your entire view of the story, and so you re-read it with new eyes and understand all those references that didn’t quite make sense before. But despite the post-apocalyptic world, the story is closely focused on its main characters, and its heart and primary source of tension is a couple who react to changed circumstances in very different ways.

“How to Get Back to the Forest” – I’d classify this one as dystopian; it reminds me of Never Let Me Go, with young people raised in superficially pleasant institutions, slowly and imperfectly discovering how their world really works. The key difference is that here the characters resist, at least in small ways.

“Request for an Extension on the Clarity” – This is superficially science fiction, but it’s really about race and immigration and isolation; the protagonist finds refuge in the stars from a world where she doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. The collection includes several stories with similar themes, but this is the one that brought it all together for me.

“The Closest Thing to Animals” – Straight-up science fiction, set on a quarantined world, but about a character whose abandonment issues cause her to see rejection where it doesn’t exist and prevent her from seeing the ways in which others need her. The story is lovely and so are the weird images of its world.

“Fallow” – This is a novelette, by far the longest piece in the collection, set on a world inhabited by refugees from a self-destructing Earth. It’s a meditation on religion (eventually we’re given enough information to figure out what group is involved) and social pressure, hearkening back to the Puritans despite its otherworldly setting.

Of course, as with most collections, I didn’t love all the stories; some seemed opaque or didn’t quite land for me. In particular, there’s a stretch from “Tender” through “Meet Me in Iram,” of stories dealing with alienation and characters feeling out of place in their own skin – sometimes, though not always, related to immigration – that I bounced off of until I reached “Request for an Extension on the Clarity.” A few of the other contemporary or parable-like stories also didn’t strike any particular chord with me. But these are skillful stories that clearly landed for others, so I’ll chalk that up to my limitations as a reader rather than Samatar’s as a writer.

Overall, I loved this collection and would absolutely recommend it, probably even ahead of Samatar’s novels to those with any liking for short fiction. To my surprise, I especially loved Samatar’s science fiction and hope to see much more from her along these lines in the future.

Unfair by Adam Benforado

Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice - Adam Benforado

This is a thought-provoking critique of the American criminal justice system based on psychological research. It is more of an overview than a deep dive: in 286 pages of text (excluding the bibliography), the author discusses everything from snap judgments in investigations, to false confessions and erroneous eyewitness identifications, to the reasons some lawyers behave unethically, to misleading expert testimony, to judicial bias, to the workability of prisons. These are all important issues and the author, a law professor, has many interesting proposals to improve on the problems. Unfortunately, he undermines his message by failing to source his facts, leaving readers with no authority for his arguments; any lawyer should know better.

 

There is a lot of interesting material here: the studies showing how common interrogation techniques, such as offering leniency for a confession, induce students to falsely confess to cheating; the correlation between more stereotypically African features and longer sentences; the tendency of the public to view third parties as biased against their side (Republicans and Democrats both believe the Supreme Court leans to the other side, by approximately equal margins); the way the point-of-view of a camera can affect viewers’ opinion of events (when interrogations are taped, viewers are more likely to see them as coercive when the camera is above the suspect, and as non-coercive when it’s above the officer).

 

The author discusses a number of psychological shortcuts that can lead to ugly results in the justice system: for instance, “narrow bracketing,” in which if your experience is that, say, two-thirds of the claims of a particular type are valid, and you just granted two, you are more inclined to deny the next one to keep the numbers balanced. And there’s a good discussion of how people identify dishonesty: you really can’t tell through body language – at best you can tell someone is nervous, but in a high-pressure situation like a courtroom, this likely has more to do with the person’s comfort in that setting and ability to project confidence than their honesty.

 

The book also discusses the reasons for criminal behavior, which often have less to do with deliberate moral choice than one might imagine. There’s a fascinating story of a man who suddenly becomes obsessed with sex, collecting porn, molesting a young girl, and propositioning everyone – until a tumor is discovered on his brain and removed; then he’s fine until the tumor returns, at which point he starts up all over again. Brain damage may be a less isolated cause of criminality than one might imagine; apparently, while less than 9% of the general population has suffered a traumatic brain injury, around 60% of incarcerated people have. Less dramatically, physical environment also influences one’s actions: wearing a mask makes people more aggressive, while holding a gun biases people to perceive images as more threatening.

 

Rather than simply detailing problems, Benforado does have plenty of suggestions for change. Some of these are relatively small and seem like excellent ideas. For instance, officers should be trained in cognitive interviewing (asking few open-ended and non-suggestive questions) of witnesses of crime to avoid tainting their memories, while witnesses about to view a lineup should be told that the suspect may or may not be included (to prevent their simply choosing the one who looks most like the perpetrator). In fact, having lineups administered by a computer may be even better, to prevent officers’ unconsciously influencing a witness’s memory through their approval or body language.

 

Some of the suggestions are much more global, and I give Benforado credit for thinking big and outside the box. One intriguing idea is virtual trials: record the trial in advance and give jurors just the information, presented through avatars. This would eliminate biases based on physical appearance and performance, and allow a trial to be shown to multiple juries at little additional cost.

 

Meanwhile, the author shows discomfort with many aspects of the adversarial system, though his alternative proposal isn’t quite clear. He correctly points out that the procedural safeguards we build into the system in an attempt to prevent error often become ends in themselves, frustrating their original purpose. Take Miranda warnings for instance: if an officer fails to give them, a perpetrator’s confession can be excluded and therefore a criminal may go free, while on the other hand, judges rarely entertain the idea that a confession might be coerced once an officer has recited those lines – even if we’re talking about a highly suggestible suspect who was questioned for many hours, falsely told that the police had evidence against him, and promised leniency in exchange for a confession. And there’s simply not time, based on the many procedural safeguards built into our system of trials, for more than a tiny percentage of cases to be fully heard; the vast majority plead guilty, in a system the author sees as highly suspect. But what could we do instead? – it’s difficult to decipher Benforado’s ideas on this point, aside from idealistic notions of truth-seeking and vague references to Germany’s having a different system.

 

But the book does have its drawbacks. Rather than endnotes to which one can refer for specific facts and studies, the author simply includes a bibliography for each chapter, with no indication as to which of the dozens of works cited include which information. This shows off the author’s reading while offering no help to his readers. This is particularly unfortunate on the topics for which he provides only vague information: for instance, he tells us that solitary confinement alters the brain in observable ways, but not what part of the brain is affected, what this part does, and what changes are seen once prisoners are freed. Ultimately, the book leaves readers with the choice between taking the author’s word for his claims or doing their own research, starting more or less from scratch. This is an incredibly poor decision for someone who wants to profoundly change entrenched parts of officialdom.

 

Less damaging but also unfortunate is the fact that, while Benforado presents information in a clear and readable style, his storytelling is less than stellar. He begins each chapter with a few pages of introductory fluff, which is a great opportunity to tell compelling human-interest stories related to the topic at hand – but more often than not he squanders it. For instance, the chapter dealing with physiognomy begins with rambling about how people are fascinated by mugshots. Okay.

 

Finally, while the book’s portrayal of the justice system as almost medieval – snap decisions are based incomplete information and the gut feelings of those making them, without scientific basis and generally without oversight – is fairly accurate, in some ways the book does present an overly gloomy picture. I suspect some readers might be unduly horrified, not realizing that most criminal cases aren’t based on eyewitness identification by strangers or police pushing for a confession from whatever black or Hispanic man happened to be near the crime scene. Most people plead guilty because they are, and the evidence against them is good. This in no way excuses the miscarriages of justice that go on every day, but I hope readers don’t come away with the idea that courts and police produce utterly random results.

 

Overall, I’m glad I read this book: much of the information it contains is fascinating, and it’s presented in a clear and concise way. These are issues people should be thinking about. However, the lack of sourcing is a serious limitation; I can only hope it will be corrected in future editions.

Marcos Ramirez by Carlos Luis Fallas

Marcos Ramírez - Carlos Luis Fallas

This is an enjoyable tale of a boy growing up in Costa Rica in the 1910s and 1920s. It is mostly episodic, without an overarching plot, and Marcos spends most of his time misbehaving and causing trouble, so the Tom Sawyer comparison feels apt. The specific details of Marcos’s life feel real rather than drawn from fictional tropes, so I suspected the book was autobiographical even before learning from the brief autobiographical essay in the front that all the facts of Marcos’s life match Fallas’s.

 

It is a colorful and entertaining book, and it’s not your stereotypical Costa Rica: the boys, including Marcos, are quite violent, and at one point he runs off with the army when war with Panama is brewing. Marcos is a lively if sometimes exasperating character, though there’s little development of anyone else – we get to know his mother and uncle a bit, but the book’s autobiographical nature means his friends are represented by an ever-changing stream of boys who put in brief appearances, and few other characters register much. Toward the end we read more about Marcos’s schooling, which is interesting but not in the same way; there’s a lot of school politics and criticism of teachers for whom memorization is the highest form of learning. But the couple of episodes in which Marcos uses cruelty to animals to revenge himself on their owners were my least favorite.

 

Overall though, this is a fun book; Fallas seems to be one of those few authors who can write about childhood from the inside rather than imposing an adult viewpoint on the narrative. It’s a shame this book apparently has never been translated to English, as I suspect it could find a healthy readership.