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text 2018-04-22 02:45
Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race - Margot Lee Shetterly

There are things that I truly loved about this book. This story is so important and interesting. My favorite lines in the book was

As a child, however, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did

It clearly shows how important representation is. I loved the feminism and the fact that we heard about how this story lines up with the civil rights movement and issues in Virginia specifically. That being said the way the story was told left a lot to be desired. There were so many people that came in and out of the story that it was hard to tell if it who was a primary and ancillary characters. The writing was dry and meandering and because it didn't have a strong storyline moving through it I found myself getting lost and my mind wandering. The most exciting part and best written section of the book was the end which is also not surprisingly where the movie focused. I have to say this is one of the cases where I found the movie to be better than the book. Really I feel bad because I wanted to love this book but it just fell flat for me.

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review 2018-04-21 15:39
Nothing too terrifying I'm sad to report
Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places - Colin Dickey

I picked up Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey with the hope that it would be like the 13 Alabama Ghosts books I remember so fondly as a child (they still have the first in the series at the public library in my hometown). I don't fully believe in ghosts but I do fully enjoy reading ghost stories. Tales of haunted places in particular are fascinating because they're usually told with a kernel of truth at the center. However, Dickey seems to contradict himself at every turn in this book by retelling these ghost stories and then almost immediately debunking them. Further compacting the confusion, each chapter ends with a somewhat mystifying takeaway about why there seems to be so many 'ghosts' and 'haunted places' in the United States. (And this is despite the U.S. as we know it being a relatively young country.) He covers the gamut of places that could possibly be haunted. There's the typical cemeteries and old houses but there's also factories and even the rarer entire city haunting (Detroit for example).  Overall, I didn't feel satisfied because I think I was hoping for less analysis and more storytelling. I suppose this might be of interest in terms of a tour guide for places to check out yourself but it wasn't my cup of tea. 4/10

 

Of possible interest: Dickey is a member of the Order of the Good Death started by Caitlin Doughty which I'm sure you'll all remember from earlier blog posts. I have to say that I didn't find his writing nearly as compelling as hers. :-/

 

What's Up Next: Fly on the Wall by Emily Jenkins

 

What I'm Currently Reading: Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

 

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2018-04-20 17:28
The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack
The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA - Doug Mack

A book about America’s territories: part travelogue, part history, part investigation of the territories’ political status, this is a lightweight, readable introduction to a complicated topic. Doug Mack takes readers along on his trip through the territories: beginning in the U.S. Virgin Islands, then traveling to American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, and ending with a trip to Puerto Rico. He even makes a stop in the Marshall Islands and briefly discusses the U.S.’s “freely associated states” of the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia. (These are independent Pacific Island countries that have a special relationship with the U.S., even having U.S. post offices and citizens serving in the U.S. military; as a group, they were best known to me for being the only other U.N. member states to always vote against sanctions for Israel.) Along the way, he shares his research about the territories in an accessible way that provides a good primer for readers new to the topic.

I found this book interesting, educational and easy to read. The author shows readers each territory as a unique place and digs into their histories and the history of U.S. international policies more broadly. He also examines the legal oddities governing the rights of the territories and their residents: for instance, they are eligible for some public benefits on their islands, but never become eligible for others even when living in the mainland U.S. (some of which actual foreign immigrants can receive after several years). Meanwhile mainland Americans can’t vote for president if they relocate to the territories. Mack pushes for opinions on the territories’ political status, and except in Puerto Rico often finds them hard to come by; for the most part, territory residents seem to prefer a flawed status quo to possibly losing individuality by becoming a state, or losing economically by becoming independent.

Mack could have improved the book a bit by being a little more willing to go out of his comfort zone as a traveler. He does meet a variety of people living in the territories, including, in the Northern Mariana Islands, a man who spent several years in another part of the Pacific learning traditional navigation, and a woman who immigrated from China to work in the garment factories. But his only exposure to obeah in the U.S. Virgin Islands is asking a well-off couple (he’s a local but she is a scuba instructor from the mainland U.S.) about it, to which they essentially smile and roll their eyes. Toward the end, he comments with surprising honesty that “In all my travels in the territories, I’d seen countless shacks and set foot in many middle-class houses and gaped from afar at the occasional oceanfront villa.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him to try to get invitations to some shacks as well, and the book gives little sense of how most people live in the territories.

All that said, with the exception of Puerto Rico, the territories are tiny islands about which relatively little has been written, especially in such an easy-to-read, bite-sized format, and this book did an excellent job of filling them out on my mental map. I would recommend it to any American to learn a bit more about some of the furthest-flung parts of the country. It can even be funny: did you know about the U.S. government’s machinations in the 19th century to claim uninhabitated islands for their bird poop?

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review 2018-04-20 15:07
The Good Women of China / Xinran
The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices - Xinran

When Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to “open up” China took root in the late 1980s, Xinran recognized an invaluable opportunity. As an employee for the state radio system, she had long wanted to help improve the lives of Chinese women. But when she was given clearance to host a radio call-in show, she barely anticipated the enthusiasm it would quickly generate. Operating within the constraints imposed by government censors, “Words on the Night Breeze” sparked a tremendous outpouring, and the hours of tape on her answering machines were soon filled every night. Whether angry or muted, posing questions or simply relating experiences, these anonymous women bore witness to decades of civil strife, and of halting attempts at self-understanding in a painfully restrictive society. In this collection, by turns heartrending and inspiring, Xinran brings us the stories that affected her most, and offers a graphically detailed, altogether unprecedented work of oral history.

 

This is a heartbreaking book which I would never have picked up except I was looking for an X author for my Women Authors A-Z reading challenge this year. I never know how to rate books like these because it’s important to know about the situations in countries other than our own, but I always feel helpless and angry when I know that women are having such frightful difficulties.

I have to bear in mind that this book was published in 2002 originally, the author having moving from China to England in order to be free to do such a thing. A lot can and probably has changed in 16 years, plus many of the stories related in this book are from earlier years yet.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) seems to have disrupted relations between men and women and the nature of family relationships to an extreme. Survival was top of mind for everyone and each did what they had to. Xinran reveals the painful stories told to her by Chinese women—of having children horribly injured, daughters gang raped, husbands treating them like servants (or livestock), work denied, promotions skipped over, you name it.

As China seems to be heading into another iteration of their authoritarian regime, there will undoubtedly be more issues for women. I hope there is still someone like Xinran to listen to women’s voices and to articulate what they are able to (Xinran herself had to walk a fine line so as not to offend the Communist Party).

In the era of the Me Too and Time’s Up campaigns here in North America, we have to hope that our sisters on other continents are able to achieve some gains as well.

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review 2018-04-19 20:51
Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu
Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve - Lenora Chu

This is a really interesting book that offers a firsthand view of the Chinese school system from a mostly-American perspective. Lenora Chu is a daughter of Chinese immigrants who was raised in the U.S., her husband a white American who volunteered in China with the Peace Corps. After moving to Shanghai for work, they enroll their son in a prestigious Chinese preschool. Concerning incidents at the school spark the author’s journey to learn more about the Chinese school system: she observes classrooms in China and the U.S., talks to experts, and gets to know Chinese high schoolers and parents.

So the book is part memoir, part nonfiction. From an American perspective it’s a fascinating comparison; so much of what I tend to view as going wrong in current American ideas of education and child-rearing seems to be heightened in China, from overscheduled kids (in China it’s usually tutoring or extracurricular classes rather than swimming, gymnastics etc.), to an unwillingness to let kids play freely and explore because they might hurt themselves (other parents judge Chu for letting her son run around the living room jumping off chairs, etc., and the school states that kids aren’t allowed to talk during lunch because they might choke), to a heavy emphasis on testing. Regarding that last one, pressure for the high school and college entrance exams in China is so intense that in one town a crackdown on cheating resulted in parents and students rioting.

Which actually leads to one of the positive features of the Chinese system: Chinese families tend to treat academics the way American families treat sports, to the point of huge crowds of people gathering outside exam sites to see their kids off and shout well-wishes. While Americans face a social penalty for being “nerds” and tend to view academic success as a matter of inborn talent (so if you don’t have it, why bother to try), the Chinese have valued brains – and judged people by their test scores – for centuries, and believe that success is largely a matter of effort. They aren’t afraid to demand work from kids or to ask them to memorize. This is especially noticeable in math: while American schools tend to wrap up simple math in verbally complicated “word problems” in an attempt to make the work “relevant” to kids who won’t have a professional job for a decade or more anyway, Chinese schools forge ahead and have young kids doing more advanced problems. This is helped by the fact that Chinese teachers specialize in their subject matter from the first grade, while American elementary school teachers are generalists (who by and large don’t like math and weren’t good at it themselves). Of course it’s also helped by Chinese schools’ making no attempt to integrate kids with special needs into regular classrooms, which American schools must do.

It’s evident from Chu’s writing that all of these issues are complicated: each school system has its advantages and disadvantages, but many of the advantages come with their own negatives or are bound up with the culture and therefore hard to replicate, while the disadvantages can also have silver linings. And of course no huge country has a uniform school system: just as the U.S. has both great and failing schools, China too has huge disparities, with many rural schools being shafted.

There's a lot in the book that I haven't even discussed here: politics in the classroom, the social position of teachers, the encouragement of creativity or lack thereof, and how all this affects students in the long run. But the book isn’t a treatise. Chu keeps it lively and interesting with accounts of her own family’s experiences, and with a clear, journalistic writing style. I imagine some readers might criticize her parenting decisions – at times it felt as if she were trying to claim a high-minded rationale for a choice of school that ultimately came down to cost, while she and her husband seemed willing to accept (if unhappily) a certain amount of what many Americans would consider abusive treatment of preschool kids (such as forcefeeding, or threatening to call the police on them when they misbehave) in the interests of having a disciplined and well-behaved child. But for the American reader it’s a fascinating window into a very different school system, and into Chinese culture as a whole. It is balanced and thoughtful, and the author comes across as open-minded, curious and willing to adapt rather than pushing an agenda. I do wish it had endnotes rather than a chapter-by-chapter bibliography, for readers to follow up and learn more. But I learned a lot from this book, enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it.

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