Thursday, June 8, 2017

Testosterone Rex, by Cordelia Fine

Cordelia Fine
There are a few times in her book Testosterone Rex in which Cordelia Fine self-deprecatingly talks about how, when she introduces herself to people, she is always saddened by the fact that she is not immediately surrounded by fangirls and fanboys who carry copies of her book around and want her to autograph it right then and there.

I admit that I don't carry Fine's Delusions of Gender around with me, but I am a HUGE fan of the book, and I'm pretty sure that if I were ever to meet Fine in person, I would be a total fangirl and absolutely ask to take a photo with her and all sorts of other things.

SO NOW YOU KNOW, CORDELIA - you are just meeting the wrong people.  You have LOADS of fans who love you and your work.

I was pretty excited to learn that Fine had a new book out, this one about how people assume that testosterone is a hormone that creates vast differences between men and women (besides the private bits), and that it can explain a lot of things about human and animal behavior, from risk-taking to spreading the seed to being successful at work.  And, as she does, Fine shoots all of these assumptions down using science.

The book clocks in at less than 200 pages before the footnotes, so it's not long, but there's a LOT packed into its pages.  I don't remember this happening at all while I read Delusions of Gender, but I admit that reading all these details about the sex habits of fish and insects was a little trying for me.  I didn't love every page of this book the way I loved every page of Delusions of Gender, but I do think the pay-off for this book is really just as good!  Just know that I skimmed some parts of it.

Fine makes a lot of great points, and some of them really resonated with me.  For example, she talks about risk-taking and how studies have shown that men are more likely to take risks than women are.  Then she totally breaks apart this whole thing, and it was amazing.  FIRST, she says that when you separate people by ethnicity, it is actually mostly just white men who feel the world is super-safe and therefore are quite willing to take risks.  And, within that subset, it was white men who were "well educated, rich, and politically conservative, as well as more trusting of institutions and authorities, and opposed to a "power to the people" view of the world..."

Who would have thought?  The people with the most privilege are the ones most likely to take "risks," possibly because they are the least likely to lose.

Fine goes on to state that people view risks very differently, and someone may consider one thing quite risky and something else quite safe.  For example, a skydiver could be very conservative with his money, and a Wall Street speculator could drive a Volvo.  It's the individual's perception of the risk that is important, not a general idea of what is risky and what is not.

A salient point to bring those two facts together?  "When asked about the risks to human health, safety, or prosperity arising from high tax rates for business, now it was the women's and minority men's turn to be sanguine."  (Ah, so rich white men were very worried about the risks that would come with taxing business, whereas the people who would more likely benefit from taking that risk were not so worried!)  Basically, people of both genders and all races take risks all the time, it is just that we seem to value some actions as being more risky (skydiving) than others (accepting a job at a company where that you will be the only woman, surrounded by bros).

Cordelia Fine is one of those people with so much glorious righteous anger PLUS a fantastic sense of humor that you kind of want her to fight all your battles for you.  She shares a story about how she went to a school sale and some woman was selling plastic knives, and made a point to say the girl could have a pink knife, but her brother could have red or blue.  She talks about how early kids become aware of gender and what they are "supposed" to do.  (She goes into even more detail on this in Delusions of Gender).  She reminds us that we should never say stupid phrases like, "Boys will be boys," as though we should give them a free pass for being jerks.  She really carries the banner on gender equality, and I love her for it.

Really excellent book!  Go read it!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rita Williams-Garcia's One Crazy Summer

Rita Williams-GarciaI first heard about the book One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia, on Ana's blog in 2014.  Me being me, I read the book in 2017.  So I'm a little late to the party, but the party is still excellent!

One Crazy Summer is set during the summer of 1968.  Delphine and her sisters are shipped from their home with their father and grandmother in Brooklyn, New York to stay with their mother (who emphatically did not want them) in Oakland, California.  Their mother, Cecile, is pretty eccentric and hands-off, so Delphine and her sisters spend much of their time in a summer camp run by the Black Panthers, learning about civil rights, strength, and unity. 

Williams-Garcia's note at the end of the book emphasized that there were children also involved in the fight for civil rights, and this book is a brilliant way of showing that involvement.  It's also about as complex as a children's novel can be about familial baggage. Cecile left her family and took off for the other side of the country.  She isn't motherly or very caring at all in the book, to the extent that the resolution at the end felt a little forced to me.  But as an adult reading the book, it's easy to empathize with her and her desire to make her own choices and live her own life.  Serious kudos to Williams-Garcia for making Cecile a complex, complete person with her own struggles and motivations, some of which are unrelated to her role as a wife or mother or caregiver.

And Delphine and her sisters are wonderful.  I loved the way they stick together and then bicker and then come together again.  I love how they all know each other so well but continue to surprise and challenge each other.  I love that they all just got up and went to San Francisco together for a day on their own.  I loved the sweetness of Delphine letting herself go one moment to scream with joy as she goes down a big hill, instead of always being the grown-up.

One of my favorite things about this book is the way it portrayed the Black Panthers.  This is not the paramilitary, extremist organization that many people learn about in school.  It's one that provided free meals in neighborhoods and organized summer camps that taught children that they were important and valued.

 I read this book for a bit of lighthearted fun after so many heavy, difficult books over the past few months.  It was so easy to read and so lovely, but it certainly has depth and more heart and kindness than you would expect in such a slim, quick read.  I can't wait to continue the series!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic

Sam Quinones
I read Sam Quinones' Dreamland:  The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic for a new book club I'm joining.  I have had it on my radar since it came out, but I admit that I was wary of reading it.  I've read a lot about the trials and tribulations facing America's rural and forgotten towns and cities since the election, and I no longer want to read about them in a vacuum.  I would rather read about the country as a whole, finding ways to work together.  I am sick of reading about how every single group feels forgotten and left behind (well, mostly how one group feels left behind just because everyone else is starting to catch up).

What I wanted from Dreamland was a meaty account of the way our country has approached drugs from the past to the present, from procurement to addiction to prosecution to rehabilitation.  I wanted Quinones to look frankly at how drug use and abuse channels into our prison system, but he didn't really touch that at all.  And, honestly, he never implied that he was going to touch it.  The book is about the opiate epidemic, and about how it became an epidemic.  It is not about our law enforcement or prison system.  It is about the drug, what it does to you, and how it became so easy for so many people to get addicted to it.

Which is an important story to tell, absolutely.  But did not feel that different to me than other stories about how drugs come into the country and get people hooked.  And so the story felt fairly repetitive and even within the book, it felt repetitive.

The book also made me feel uncomfortable.  The premise of the book is basically that white, suburban, and fairly well-off Americans are addicted to opiates, and the fact that it's people from "good families" that are addicted that this is a story worth telling.  The phrase "good families" is used multiple times.  The flip side of this, of course, is that people who are not white or suburban or rich but become addicted to drugs are somehow less.  That even within addiction, there is a hierarchy, and these opiate addicts are at the top.  This was particularly frustrating because all of these white people seemed to hardly ever go to prison, or if they went to prison, they soon got out, and then they were at it again.  They seemed to get so many chances whereas many other people who did less never get out.  Quinones never even hints at this disparity.

Most of the "black tar heroin" that people graduate to from prescription painkillers comes from dealers that connect back to a small town in Mexico, Xalisco.  Quinones details their operation in  great detail (fairly repetitively), talking about how the key difference in their approach is to deal with heroin like a business that grows quickly, stretching across America.  They value product integrity and quality, just-in-time inventory, and customer satisfaction.  They work hard to keep their clients (meaning they work hard to ensure no one tries too hard to get clean), and they have a very vast, complicated network.  They are also very polite and well-behaved and don't ever use.  So they aren't like most drug dealers, who are also addicts.  They're just there for the money, and then they want to go home to Mexico and live better lives.  They want to take care of their families and impress their neighbors.  That's why they come to America.

The dealers also don't ever sell to black people.  They only sell to whites.  That's part of the reason why they target the smaller towns and suburbs, not the cities.  They don't go anywhere too white, because they need an immigrant population to blend into.  But they also don't go anywhere near black people.  This is stated unambiguously, and again, Quinones does not go into this.

Quinones does go into the herculean efforts put forth by the pharmaceutical industry to get opiate painkillers on the market and approved for any sort of pain medication, and the (very flawed) study they cited over and over again that claimed opiate painkillers were not addictive.  (Spoiler:  They are.  Very.  Addictive.  For some people.)  These were the most informative sections of the book to me, mostly because they highlight just how unscrupulous people can be when they are incentivized to focus on profit and sales, and when they are given information that aligns with what they want to hear.  It was horrifying to read about the lengths to which companies would go to get doctors to prescribe their drugs, and to ensure that they kept prescribing their drugs, and to combat even the slightest idea that their drugs could have very negative side effects.  It's scary, and the more I read about things like this, the more I want strong government oversight of the free market.  The market may force companies to self-correct when they go too far, but how far can they go, and how many people [from "good families"] have to suffer before they get to the tipping point?  Also, how much money are companies able to make from people suffering overall vs the small amount they then pay out in damages?  Generally, the pay-out is way less than the profit, so... we are not really incentivizing them to do anything different in future.

Quinones also goes into detail about the difficulties the medical profession faces in trying to deal with the guidance first for and now against opiates.  This I found particularly good reading, mostly because my father is in general practice, and he's dealt with a lot of patient demands and these patient satisfaction surveys that are both really useful and really horrible.  It's really hard to be in general practice these days, and it's only getting harder, and people still trust their general practice doctor more than any other doctor, so it's REALLY hard to imagine these poor doctors trying to help alleviate their patients' pain, and then these patients trusting their doctors and getting addicted to painkillers and then to heroin.

There were many things about this book that made me sad and angry.  I don't personally know anyone who has dealt with opiate addiction in their family, so I can only imagine the hurt and bewilderment these families must deal with as they grapple with addiction that starts from something as seemingly innocuous as lower back pain.  Addiction is hard to understand.  Pain is also extremely hard to understand.  Understanding pain and addiction together is really hard.  I think it's very valuable that this book was written to bring these things to light.

But, I also think Quinones could have done much more here in bringing up the disparities in the way we treat addiction in this country.  People in the suburbs who are addicted to heroin that they buy on the street from drug dealers are "suffering a disease" and deserve "treatment."  People in the city who are addicted to anything else are "dangerous criminals" and are locked up.  I feel this book was lacking for missing that whole piece of the puzzle.  Granted, it's a big piece of a huge puzzle and well worth its own book.  But it could at least be acknowledged.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit

by Becky Chambers
Last year, I dipped my toes into (feminist, multicultural) science fiction at the behest of a very close friend, and this year, I am jumping straight in.  One of my favorite sci fi novels of 2016 was Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, mostly because it made me realize that science fiction can be kind and funny and optimistic and deeply moving.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the sequel/companion novel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and I prefer the sequel to the original, though the original is pretty great, too.  I think I just generally prefer stories that are more in-depth in exploring the feelings and motivations of one or two people vs those of many people.  A Closed and Common Orbit focuses on two characters whose paths mirror each other's, and I really enjoyed that.

The book has two parallel plots.  The first is around Sidra, a sentient AI who finds herself, suddenly, in a very limiting human body and has to learn how to make her way in a multicultural society with only the help of a few very kind friends.  The second is around Jane, a lonely girl who escapes life as a factory drudge and has to find a way to make a life for herself, with only the help of one very kind AI, who helps her navigate life.

I almost never want to share the plot points of science fiction or fantasy novels because I think people get caught up in the science or the magic aspects and ignore the greater message.  This book is not about robots coming to take your job or the risks of automation.  It is a deeply moving novel about defining yourself and what you stand for, when you have very few models of what to do to work from.  It's about how terrifying it can be to make yourself vulnerable to another person, and how absolutely wonderful and comforting friendship and trust are.  About how it's good to depend on yourself but also really, really great to trust someone else enough to depend on them, too.

I loved so many things about this book, but one of the biggest things is the way that Chambers allows her characters to test each other and gives them space to question and grow.  For example, Sidra challenges a friend about her body, and how she is not defined by or tied to one body.  Her friend confesses that it is hard to admit, but that it is also a lot harder to feel empathy for an AI in a spaceship vs an AI in a human costume.  Sidra is unhappy to hear this, and says so.  Her friend feels safe enough to ask more questions and come to a more nuanced view over time.  It really hits home on the importance of having a diverse group of friends with whom you can discuss important topics.

I also can't emphasize enough how glorious it is to read a book that has a generally optimistic setting.  Jane's setting is less rosy than Sidra's, but Jane has love and kindness in her life.  She's a nice person.  Sidra, too, never feels unsafe because of people being unsavory; she feels unsafe because she is a stranger in a strange land.  In general, Chambers' book is about how varied and wonderful multiculturalism can be.  It's not a perfect universe, but it's one that is trying.  And that is just so refreshing!  I stayed up very much past my bedtime to finish this one because I just couldn't put it down.  I really, really enjoyed it.  And if you'd like to try science fiction but aren't sure where to start, I think Becky Chambers is an excellent introduction to the genre!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Trevor Noah's Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah
I don't watch The Daily Show very often, mostly because I don't watch TV all that often.  I didn't know much at all about Trevor Noah when he took over after Jon Stewart left.  I have only watched a few episodes since then, and Noah's style is very different.  He's much less angry, more willing to seek common ground.  That's not to say that Jon Stewart was too jaded for his job, but you could see it wear on him, every day talking about important topics but not seeming to make any real difference.

I became interested in reading Trevor Noah's memoir, Born a Crime, after listening to some interviews with him when the book came out.  I liked many of the things he said, and the very genuine way in which he said them.  He does want to connect with people and find the many ways in which we are alike and can share moments and experiences vs harping on details that can tear us apart.  I appreciate this kindness and empathy in him, particularly as he is someone who works in comedy and late night and news media that depends on ratings.

Noah's book is about his childhood and early adulthood in South Africa.  It's not exhaustive; there are clearly some episodes that are quite painful and he does not dwell on those.  It is more episodic in nature; the only people we get to know well and who feature prominently through the entire book are Trevor and his mother.  Noah's mother seems like an amazing woman.  She is deeply religious, and Trevor grew up going to multiple churches multiple days a week.  She is also fiercely independent.  She chose to live on her own in a dangerous city and have a mixed race child out of wedlock while living under apartheid.  She raised him to believe that he could do anything.  She worked and worked and worked, and when she married someone, she married an abusive alcoholic and the police never once helped to keep her safe.

Honestly, having read this book, the only word I can possibly use to describe Trevor Noah and his mom is resilient.  Noah grew up in a very, very difficult environment.  His family was extremely poor, he often went hungry, he was a mixed race kid in a country that was obsessed with race, and there seemed to be very little stability in his life.  And yet he seems never to have lost his kindness and gentleness.  This book makes me want to watch The Daily Show because I want to support empathy.  It makes me respect religion and deeply religious people more because when religion is done right, it really can make people strive to become better, kinder versions of themselves.

I don't think I finished this book knowing Trevor Noah any better than I did going into it.  I understand his background and his life better, but I do think he holds the reader just a little bit away.  I think he has a lot of painful memories, and I don't think he wants to revisit them or dwell on them too deeply.  Instead, he writes about events that shaped his thinking and who he became.  He talks about the help he received and how grateful he is for that help and acknowledges that a lot of people don't get help.  He talks about his mother and the moment he realized that women are often much more vulnerable than men in a situation.  He talks about the time he realized that the police aren't always great people, that they are human and come into situations with their own histories and biases. And through it all, he shows readers (as kindly and diplomatically as possible) why he believes what he believes.

A quote that exemplifies what I am trying to explain above about Noah's approach:
People love to say, "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime."  What they don't say is, "And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod."  That's the part of the analogy that's missing.  Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, "Okay, here's what you need, and here's how it works."  Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer.  People say, "Oh, that's a handout."  No.  I still have to work to profit by it.  But I don't stand a chance without it.
This was an excellent book, and I bought a copy for my keeper shelf.  Highly recommended.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rolling Blackouts, by Sarah Glidden

Sarah Glidden
I heard about Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts:  Displatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq on NPR's Book Concierge.  Glidden traveled to the Middle East with some friends who work as independent journalists.  They spent several weeks talking to displaced Iraqis and other individuals and trying to think of ways to pitch stories to news organizations back home.  They work on two main stories - one about Dan, an Iraqi veteran who is returning to the region for the first time and wants to talk to Iraqis who lived through the war, and one about Sam, an Iraqi refugee who found his way to Seattle with his family, somehow ended up in the 9/11 Commission report, and was deported back to Iraq.

Much of Glidden's story, though, focuses on her journalist friends, and the work they do.  It's no secret that news organizations have significantly reduced their foreign staff, and that reporting has suffered as a result.  There are very few reporters abroad with long-term contacts, and so they cannot report on longer-term, slower burn stories.  We understand the world less because of it.  Governments are more corrupt because of it.  Reporters are less safe because of it.  We are all less accountable to each other, from individuals to governments to multi-national corporations, because of it.

Glidden's book highlights some of this loss to us.  She shows us an Iraq that suffered through war but still has culture, friendship, delicious food, and beauty.  Some Iraqis are happy that Americans came, mostly because they suffered deeply under Saddam Hussein.  Others hate Americans for ruining their way of life.  I really enjoyed the way Glidden's friends shared stories of Iraqis in multiple countries to provide a broader perspective.  I also liked the way Glidden used light, bright colors in her art to humanize the experience of so many people whose lives have been upended so completely.  Not only the Iraqi refugees themselves, but the lives of the Turks and Syrians as well.

It was particularly chilling to read the Syrian section of this book, as I was reading it while the US bombed Syria after Assad used chemical weapons on his own people.  The book is set some years ago, I think before the full horrors of the Syrian war.  Now I realize just how much the world missed by not having reporters in Syria to cover Assad, so that it felt as though the whole war came out of nowhere.  (At least, it felt that way to me.  No doubt others were better informed.)

I was less enamored with the story around Dan, the Iraqi war veteran.  I feel like his return to Iraq and his opacity in sharing his feelings and whether his feelings about the war and his participation in it took up an outsize amount of the story.  In a way, it felt very "Yes, of course, focus on the white guy's story because that would be the most compelling to everyone."  I don't think that is fair to Glidden's reporter friends, but it seemed like Glidden wanted to focus the most on that story.  She even ends that story arc quite dramatically, with something like, "Sarah never interviewed Dan again" as the only words on a whole page.  Which makes it sound like either Sarah or Dan died, but neither of them did, and they continued to stay friends and talk to each other, she just didn't interview him again about the war.

That aside, though, I really appreciated Glidden's book and her focus on how journalists make decisions on stories, angles, ethics, and so many other things.  It was very illuminating, and I highly recommend seeking it out if you enjoy Joe Sacco's work or Brooke Gladstone's The Influencing Machine.  (Teresa, I'm looking at you!)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Whatever happened to interracial love?

I heard about Kathleen Collins and her collection of short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, in the New York Times Book Review, where I get many of my reading recommendations (and which has gotten better at reviewing books by people who are not white and male).  Kathleen Collins was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but most of her artistic work (films, plays, short stories) was produced in the 1980s.  Her short stories were, for the most part, never published.  Her daughter discovered them in a trunk.

It's always hard to judge artistic talent by stories left unpublished in a trunk, mainly because it's hard to know if these stories were complete or if the author still wanted to work on them.  But the romance of the whole situation is just too much to pass up!  Undiscovered author!  A trunk!  The perfect cultural moment!  Stories on race, gender, sexuality!  It's a lot of awesomeness.  If it could happen for Emily Dickinson, can't it happen for other people, too?

I think it can, sometimes.  But sometimes the collection can also be pretty inconsistent.  I think that's true for Kathleen Collins.  There is so much wit in her stories, so much that speaks to how fascinating and vibrant she must have been, how much fun she must have been to talk to.  But there are other stories that feel unrefined or directionless.  Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is more a collection of what was great potential, lost too early (Collins died of cancer in 1988 at age 46). 

The stories are mainly pretty short, and race is alluded to in almost all of them.  One story is told from the point of view of a man describing the perfect family, a close-knit unit that was beautiful, intelligent, and got along well.  But then cracks start to show, and it turns out the family's future is not nearly as happy as one would hope.  In another, a woman loyally sends letters and gifts to her husband in prison.  When he gets out and moves to a foreign country (without her), she finds peace in a small, rural home and some new friends.  In "The Uncle," the narrator relates the story of his uncle, who is ill and whom many describe as lazy for his whole life.  But the narrator, upon reflection, thinks that his uncle was a hero, just for surviving..
But his weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth brimmed potent to overflowing in the room, and I began to weep for him, weep tears of pride and joy that he should have so soaked his life in sorrow and gone back to some ancient ritual beyond the blunt humiliation of his skin, with its bound-and-sealed possibilities; so refused to overcome his sorrow as some affliction to be transcended, some stumbling block put in his way for the sake of trial and endurance; so refused to strike out against it, go down in a blaze of responsibilities met and struggled with.  No.  He utterly honored his sorrow, gave in to it with such deep and boundless weeping that it seemed as I stood there he was the bravest man I had ever known.
There was silver and gold in all the stories collected here, even if all of them didn't stick with me.  So much about how difficult life can be when people expect so little of you, or treat you like you are less than what you know yourself to be.  So much about the struggle to understand your parents or your children, about competing priorities for different generations and what they decide is worth fighting for.  It's a lovely collection and well worth seeking out.  Not only because it's amazing to discover the unknown work of a feminist civil rights cultural icon, but because the stories are quite good, too.