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review SPOILER ALERT! 2020-10-11 13:22
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men - Caroline Criado-Pérez

Over half of Earth's population are female - and yet they are still marginalised, not only socially/politically but scientifically. Medication is researched and tested primarily on men, knowing that the female body works differently, the construction of refugee camps or aid in less developed countries don't take the needs (and customs) of women into account etc.

 

Granted, it gets a bit redundant, reading chapter after chapter of (sorry to say it that clearly) male idiocy/superiority complexes, and you keep shaking your head - but there are real-life consequences to that behaviour, consequences that put female lives at risk daily. Perez brings everything together in the closing chapters... and it's eye-opening.

 

Men, wake up, look (and think) beyond your own experiences. It's not that hard! Women have to do it every day.

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review 2020-09-05 18:45
White Mughals by William Dalrymple
White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India - William Dalrymple

I have a lot of admiration for this author’s Nine Lives, and The Anarchy is highly informative. But this book is supposedly a love story, which isn't actually all that well-documented and for which the author puts on heavily rose-tinted glasses to ignore the fact that the participants were aged 35 and 13 and that we know almost nothing about her life, thoughts, or feelings. In reality, the book is in part a biography of East India Company official James Achilles Kirkpatrick, and in part a very detailed and heavily footnoted account of the British presence in India from about 1798-1806.

So. Kirkpatrick was a Resident of the East India Company in Hyderabad, essentially an ambassador to the princely court there, a position from which he built himself a monumental residence and negotiated treaties that strengthened the British and weakened the Hyderabadis (at times he felt bad about this but not bad enough to resign). He wrote a bunch of letters which from a modern point-of-view look awfully patronizing (referring to the Nizam, or local ruler, as “old Nizzy,” or giving himself credit for “convincing” the Indian authorities to do any useful thing they did); it’s hard to parse this stuff because the author never addresses it.

Kirkpatrick also, at the age of 35, slept with a 13-year-old girl from an aristocratic Muslim family, whom he got pregnant and then married. Now, I know that conventions about age and sex were different in many historical time periods, but rather than talking about that at all, Dalrymple seems to hope readers won't notice. In fact his description of the early years of this “romance” entirely obscures the age issue by stating vaguely that Khair un-Nissa was “probably in her early teens” and then quickly moving on. That uncertainty was apparently cleared up in Dalrymple’s own mind by the later chapters, at which point he states without ambiguity that she was 19 when their oldest child was 5. Dalrymple further tries to paper over the consent issue by emphasizing the fact that Khair un-Nissa’s male relatives, and Kirkpatrick himself—when accused of rape by a third party for what Dalrymple insists were purely specious and political reasons, to drive a wedge between her male relatives and the British—portrayed her as the initiator. Which in my mind just makes it worse (most of us would be pretty disgusted by a 35-year-old man excusing himself with “but the 13-year-old totally initiated!” regardless of whether it was true, in part because this is such a common line in the sex offender playbook), especially since Khair un-Nissa’s own voice is entirely absent from the book. None of her letters survived, and she’s viewed almost entirely through male eyes.

The couple go on to get married and have a couple of kids whom he insists on shipping off to his relatives in England at the tender ages of 5 and 3, at which point they’re forbidden from corresponding with their mother or her relatives. We don’t actually know much about their marriage because Kirkpatrick didn’t write much about it, but the author infers a lot. Both parties then die young. Dalrymple insists on viewing Khair un-Nissa as a tragic heroine throughout, based on what seems to be pretty scanty evidence. In a place and time when medical knowledge was still quite basic and a doctor even feeling a woman’s pulse was reserved for serious circumstances, I wouldn’t infer that she died of a broken heart from the simple fact that the doctor couldn’t pinpoint the cause.

At any rate, Dalrymple never reckons with the fact that his supposedly beautiful true love story involves a middle-aged man and an adolescent girl, and has little to say about the fact that we don’t hear her voice at all. But then, the relationship is only a focal point of a book that is largely comprised of the author squeezing in whatever bits of history seem to have caught his fancy. Someone goes to a festival, and we get a 6-page history of the festival and description of relevant buildings. Someone visits Calcutta, and we get 6 pages describing its society. Someone remodels a building and we get endless discussion of architecture and the hiring of workmen. It can be pretty interesting, but it also makes the book quite dense, especially with all the tiny footnotes, which I think are overkill for a non-academic work. The publishers could have made the book much more readable by actually naming the chapters and sections (and making sure to space out section breaks more evenly) to make it easier for readers to find what interests them. Instead it’s a wall of text full of tangents and extraneous details; no wonder many readers were frustrated. I nearly gave up on it myself.

Despite all its flaws, though, I did find the book interesting, and in the end did read it all. I do appreciate details and specifics and this book has them in abundance. It seems well-researched and the author’s basic thesis, that in the 18th century the British in India did far more to assimilate than their hoity-toity 19th century successors, is also quite interesting. Those looking for a detailed picture of an era would be well-advised to pick this up, though those expecting a love story might do better to avoid it.

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review 2020-08-25 22:47
Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty
Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire - Ira Mukhoty

This is an interesting book about the women related to the Mughal emperors. I wound up disenchanted with it and think that its reception so far has been perhaps a bit too glowing, but I did learn some interesting things from it.

Essentially, this is a history of a little over 200 years of the Mughal empire in India, from just before their arrival at the beginning of the 16th century, to just after the death of Aurangzeb at the beginning of the 18th. The focus is on the women of the dynasty, who played far more powerful and active roles than western stereotypes would have it. Also, the “harem” (the correct term for the women’s quarters is a zenana) wasn’t exactly teeming with wives and concubines of the emperor; any woman related to him or to his loyal retainers could show up to live there and many did, along with their own entourages and servants.

Particularly in the early years, these women were hardly in purdah: they accompanied the emperor as he traveled around, even to war or on daring escapes across mountains from pursuing armies (this sometimes resulted in wives and children being captured or killed); they traveled from city to city at their own whim; they went on hajj. Even later on, once the zenana became more separate, the women there still wielded considerable power, as they often had independent fortunes, owned trading ships, commissioned monumental buildings, and weighed in with the emperor on issues of public policy. Maham Anaga was essentially regent of part of India for awhile, while Noor Jahan coined her own money and had the authority to issue edicts under her name and with her own seal.

All of which is fascinating, and I’m glad to have learned about these women, but the execution let me down a bit. First, the author covers more than 200 years and a ton of women in just 246 pages of text, which means it’s rushed and often doesn’t get much past generalities. Second, the first third is definitely the best because Mukhoty can rely on the memoirs of Gulbadan, daughter of Babur and relative of the later emperors, which bring a lovely personal touch to the story. In the later portions we don’t have that and so it becomes more distant. It might also be that the earlier women are just more interesting, as many of them led quite dramatic lives while the later ones seem to have mostly stayed behind walls amassing wealth and commissioning buildings in their names.

Third, the author seems to glorify the Mughals overmuch, in a way that comes across as colonialist. We may not think of the Mughals as colonizers because they weren’t European and, unlike the British, at least they kept India’s wealth in the country and acculturated themselves to the place. But still, they rode in from Afghanistan and killed a ton of people to conquer territory for their own power and glory, and continued to do so throughout the existence of the empire. Mukhoty mostly elides the fact that their wars consisted of naked land grabs, and there’s a weird “oh, those Hindus and their barbaric customs” vibe that comes close to suggesting the Hindus needed the Mughals to save them from themselves.

Finally, the book just doesn’t come across as very historically rigorous. Mukhoty’s decision to write the entire history in the present tense is weird and distracting. There’s also a tendency to use the same evocative generalities over and over again; the author is always talking about someone’s glittering, blistering, blinding, incandescent, etc., etc., ambition, which is a fancy way of saying the Mughals loved conquering people and imposing architecture. There are endnotes (though frustratingly, no index) and the author seems to have used at least some primary sources. She also doesn’t run rampant speculating on thoughts and feelings (lack of source material is perhaps why the book covers so many people in so few pages). But I would have appreciated more facts and less editorializing.

In the end, interesting book that opened my eyes to a part of history I didn’t know much about. Could be worthwhile reading if you’re interested in the subject, but ultimately it was frustrating for me because it could have been better.

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review 2020-08-25 21:46
The New One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson
The New One Minute Manager - Ken Blanchard,Spencer, M.D. Johnson I’m not entirely sure how to rate this book. The text is incredibly short: about the length of a magazine article. The takeaways are even shorter; much of that short text is a parable about a young man learning the ways of the one-minute manager. That said, I got this book from the library so I’m inclined to be generous regarding the amount of actual content, and there is something to be said for expanding on a simple idea at a little more length in order to fix it in readers’ minds. The takeaways are basically this: Goals: Employees need to know what their goals in their positions are, so that they can figure out for themselves whether or not they’re succeeding without having to wait for infrequent performance reviews. The manager and employee should figure out together the employee’s goals, which should be written down with timelines in a short form that’s easy for the employee to review regularly. (I’m having trouble figuring out how to implement this one in my workplace due to the nature of our work.) Praising: Managers should try to “catch people doing something right” and offer specific praise when they see it to make employees feel good about themselves. People with confidence and who like their jobs do better work, so focusing on people and focusing on results shouldn’t be a choice between two different goals. Also, you shouldn’t wait until people are doing something perfectly before praising them any more than you’d wait until a kid has learned to talk before praising their attempts. (I need to work on this but at least the how-to is obvious.) Redirects: When people do something wrong, the authors suggest that you discuss it with the person as soon as possible; confirm the facts and review the mistake together; tell the employee how you feel about the mistake and pause for a moment for them to be concerned; and then express that you know their work is better than this, have confidence in them and think well of them as a person. Then, let it go. (All this seems challenging to do, but probably a good idea. I haven’t tried it yet.) Overall this seems to me to pack some good advice that goes beyond what you’d expect from the brief page count, though yeah, it is really short. Hopefully I’ll be able to figure out how to use it.
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review 2020-08-25 21:30
El Norte by Carrie Gibson
El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America - Carrie Gibson

This is a very informative book about the Hispanic role in North American history, from the first arrival of the Spanish in the western hemisphere, through their colonization of what is today Florida, Texas, California and much of the rest of the American West, to the U.S.’s wars with Mexico and Spain and its troubled relationship with Puerto Rico, to the role of Hispanic culture in the U.S. and the treatment of Hispanic citizens and immigrants. At 437 pages of text (followed by endnotes etc.), it covers a lot, though it also has to keep moving fairly quickly to get through it all. It’s written to be accessible to the general reader, though I found it more interesting when I was able to devote larger amounts of time to keep all the facts straight.

There are a lot of facts here, and not a lot of analysis, which is a little bit too bad because I have the feeling the author has a lot more to say but was trying to keep her opinions out of it. It’s definitely a big-picture approach, a view of all of post-contact American history side-by-side with the history of the nearest Spanish-speaking colonies and countries, but with a fair amount of detail about key events and players. The author also accomplishes a rare feat in a book focused on a particular disadvantaged group in American society, which is that she doesn’t forget about the others: some of this history overlaps quite significantly with the U.S.’s treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans, which Gibson doesn’t shy away from (and treatment of Asians is touched on as well). While little of the history was entirely new to me, I was still struck by, for instance, the extent to which southern slaveowners hoped to take over Cuba, several Mexican states, and possibly other southern neighbors in order to extend slavery. My biggest complaint is that the book could have been clearer about the implications of how the Mexican-American War got started. But I particularly appreciated the way the author relates the history of Mexico side-by-side with the U.S.; although we're neighbors, I'm not sure I've actually seen these histories in the same work before.

Overall, this is an interesting and accessible history that provides as comprehensive a view of the long history of Spanish-speaking people and their descendants in the U.S. as I’ve ever seen. It’s a useful perspective and a worthwhile read.

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