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review 2019-01-18 06:52
Hanging the Stars (Half Moon Bay Book 2) - Rhys Ford

3 ⭐️ 

 

I’m not really sure how to rate this one. While there were parts that I enjoyed, it didn’t fit into my really like category either which is a disappointment because I Rhys Ford’s work usually.

 

There is a lot going on and when it held my attention it was good and enjoyable, but I did struggle with it holding my attention. I found myself actually watching the TV and chatting online rather than reading at times, and I honestly can’t pinpoint why. 

 

I loved Angel and Rome, the brothers had such a great relationship. Rome was well portrayed with his struggle to believe that Angel wouldn’t leave him. I thought Angel was hard but fair. Their joking at times reminded me of my own family. 

 

But I struggled with West, I thought he was a jerk early and it hard to alter this even when his attitude improved. I loved his relationship with his bodyguard and Aggie. Neither took his rubbish. I just never really understood why he was the way he was. It probably was explained I just didn’t get it.

 

I’ll read more from this world

 

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review 2019-01-18 06:51
Ok
Hanging the Stars (Half Moon Bay Book 2) - Rhys Ford

3 ⭐️ 

 

I’m not really sure how to rate this one. While there were parts that I enjoyed, it didn’t fit into my really like category either which is a disappointment because I Rhys Ford’s work usually.

 

There is a lot going on and when it held my attention it was good and enjoyable, but I did struggle with it holding my attention. I found myself actually watching the TV and chatting online rather than reading at times, and I honestly can’t pinpoint why. 

 

I loved Angel and Rome, the brothers had such a great relationship. Rome was well portrayed with his struggle to believe that Angel wouldn’t leave him. I thought Angel was hard but fair. Their joking at times reminded me of my own family. 

 

But I struggled with West, I thought he was a jerk early and it hard to alter this even when his attitude improved. I loved his relationship with his bodyguard and Aggie. Neither took his rubbish. I just never really understood why he was the way he was. It probably was explained I just didn’t get it.

 

I’ll read more from this world

 

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review 2019-01-16 16:02
Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
Unbowed - Wangari Maathai
I loved the first 50 pages of this memoir, covering the author’s childhood. Later on, though, it becomes more of a catalog of the many campaigns she was involved in and all her accomplishments – this is more an autobiography than a memoir – and it becomes rather impersonal and at times even a little self-righteous. Dr. Wangari Maathai seems like an amazing but complicated person, and I think I might have gotten more out of a third-party biography of her.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I don’t actually mean this as a criticism of Maathai: everybody has their flaws, which tend to make people more interesting and certainly more human. However, by the end I felt that an objective biography would present a more complete view of her as both a person and an activist, and without the limitations inherent in Maathai’s public position when she wrote this book. Nevertheless, she seems like an incredible person and I do think this book is worth reading.
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review 2019-01-07 04:56
Factfulness by Hans Rosling
Factfulness - Hans Rosling,Anna Rosling Rönnlund,Ola Rosling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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review 2019-01-03 22:38
I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet
I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad - Souad Mekhennet

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

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

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

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

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

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