Greetings, folks! This weekend’s roundup has been delayed by extreme laziness during my holiday (although laziness is perhaps the wrong word when I spent ~2.5 hours climbing up onto the moors today). How’s everyone?
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez
I was somewhat hesitant to read this book. Caroline Criado-Perez became somewhat known during her campaign to ensure that Britain’s currency honoured at least one female figure (aside from the Queen), during which she endured a torrent of abuse. However, she’s also been accused of being a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), owing partly to a really rather bizarre rant complaining that she’s not cisgender. Since being “cis” is simple the counterpart of being trans (think Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, or cis and trans fats)… it’s a weird hill to decide to die on, though a certain branch of “feminism” has decided to find “cis” offensive as a term.
Anyway, I decided that it was important I read this anyway, partly to form my own opinion and partly because I think the topic of her book is important, so I got it from the library. And I’ll be clear: she’s not wrong in many of the things she asserts, for example that drugs are tested on men and not on women, and that this results in drug dosages being calibrated to the average man… and thus often failing entirely in women, or conversely proving to be harmful. Criado-Perez has example after example in which there is a clear tendency for people to a) bucket the vast array of human variation into two sexes, and b) ignore one of those two buckets anyway.
Unfortunately, she’s all on board with a). She critiques things as if those buckets are real things, rather than acknowledging that despite those fairly robust-looking buckets, within them there is still a great deal of variation, and between them there is great overlap. I was going to say that it would not shock me at all to learn that the differing causes of intersex development each have different impacts on response to drugs — but it would be more accurate to say that I’d be pretty flabbergasted if it weren’t the case. This makes her examples of the “gender data gap” overly simplistic when she discusses it as it relates to medical interventions, though a layperson might well not notice. To me, that’s a problem in itself. It’s far too easy to come away with the impression that there’s two kinds of people in the world, men (who have XY chromosomes and “male” bodies) and women (who have XX chromosomes and “female” bodies).
For someone who is reading this book without really being interested in trans issues, so much of what she says will just be taken as read. Since she’s critiquing a very binary society, it will fit very well within what people understand. I think she could’ve unpicked this a lot more, and that it’s a particular problem when she embroiders on how women would be much better at handling x or y because they are inherently more caring and drawn to compromise. There’s a lot of critique of that ‘women are from Venus, men are from Mars’ attitude in science as well. Figuring out how best to handle all this is not served by blithely accepting sex differences as being a stark divide between male and female, either.
Part of the gap in all our data is this lack of understanding that “male” and “female” are roles, differing slightly in different societies, and sometimes admitting of other gender identities… none of which really express the sheer variety that those buckets contain. Despite, for instance, her complaints about medical interventions being calibrated for men and not women, we actually need to know not the right drug and dosage to use for a woman, but the right drug and dosage to use for a given individual.
In many places in her book, you can read in “those perceived as female” instead of “women” and “those perceived as male” instead of “men”, and it makes perfect sense. Criado-Perez does state in the preface that she discusses gender rather than sex because the problem does not reside in the female body, but in how “women are treated because they are perceived to be female”. This is a bit more nuanced than I’d expected from her based on the criticism online, but from that point on she refers solely to “women” and “men”. Throughout, Criado-Perez refers to “women” and means a sort of average woman, who she pretty much always imagines with kids (or as someone who will plan to have kids) and a husband who earns more than her.
I think her book is not a bad place to start, if you haven’t thought about the topic, but it’s likely to be disappointing to anyone with a more nuanced view. She has a simplistic view of gender: highly reductive, and prone to leaning on supposed sex differences without ever critiquing whether they’re even real (as others like Cordelia Fine and Gina Rippon have done). She is not wrong that the “typical” male body is treated as the default, and that it has resulted in massive gaps in our data. She’s not wrong about the impacts on people everywhere, either, and when she discusses the social impacts of the gap in data, she makes some good points. She’s more gender essentialist than I would ever care to be, though.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers
There’s no book in this series that doesn’t have its pleasures, and there is much wittiness and cleverness and warmth in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club… but to me, it isn’t one of the more distinctive of the series. When I think about individual elements, like the way it throws Peter into confusion around potentially betraying one of his own class (a fellow sufferer of shellshock, too), it seems pretty good… but it doesn’t shine for me.
It particularly bothers me that I don’t think Sayers ever really examined her noble hero’s tendency to try and let people take their own way out (i.e. suicide) by warning them or talking them into it. Of course, Peter’s not wrong in the people he accuses, and we know he never really will be because Sayers made him a little too perfect… but if he were real, he could be wrong, and justice would not be served if that happened, and he caused someone to confess and take their own life because they felt backed into a corner.
I think that’s a big part of my unease with this one, and this time I reread it I actually stalled on it for quite a while!
It’s Wednesday again! So here’s the usual check-in. You can go to Taking On A World Of Words to chat with everyone else who has posted what they’re reading right now!
What are you currently reading?
Fiction: I’ve gone back to Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird after a long time away. It’s not capturing me (or in this case recapturing me) as her other books usually do. I’d hoped it was just my mood, and coming back to it now would let me slip back into it… but apparently not. It might still be my mood, but it’s a bit disappointing.
Non-fiction: I’m back to The Story of Wales, by Jon Gower. I think that was a mood problem, because I’m digging into it more now… and getting angry about the historical treatment of the Welsh, of course. People forget, or never knew, that before English rule suppressed native languages on other contents, they started in Wales.
I’m also a good chunk of the way into How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics. So far it’s talked a lot about the promise of psychedelics for treating depression, anxiety, stress in people with terminal illnesses, etc… but it hasn’t gone into the science much. It’s been more of a history, so far, along with an exploration of the user’s personal feelings and experience,
What have you recently finished reading?
I finally finished my reread of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. It’s not one of my favourite Wimsey novels, though there are definitely fun bits, so I bogged down in it a while ago. Which means Strong Poison is next! Yay!
What will you be reading next?
I’m slowly working through my “shelf of abandoned books”, so the next up on that shelf look to Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, by Colin Renfrew, Feed by Mira Grant, and The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman. I’ll probably read a new-to-me book in tandem with trying to finish those; maybe Eugenia Cheng’s X+Y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender.
What are you reading? What’s got you enthusiastic at the moment? Let me know!
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a nice broad one: what’s on your fall TBR? Well, I don’t strictly have a TBR for fall, and honestly these days I try not to be too strict and just follow my whims. However, here are some books I’m planning to pick up really soon, for one reason or another…
Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James. I’m a little worried from the reviews that this isn’t going to be my thing, but it’s my bookclub choice for October, and I plan to give it a good solid try. Other parts of it sound really great — like the influence from African mythology — so we’ll just have to see!
This is Kind of an Epic Love Story, by Kacen Callender. This is the November book club choice, if I remember rightly, and I’ve been meaning to read it for a while now. I’m particularly interested in how the sign language is handled (because one of the characters is deaf).
Catherine House, by Elisabeth Thomas. Aaand this is December’s book club choice, which sounds weird and kinda creepy. Looking forward to it.
Raybearer, by Jordan Ifueko. I swear my sense of object permanence is lacking, because I was dying to read this but now I’ve put my copy away on the shelves in the other room, I keep forgetting! I heard a lot about this right when it came out, but haven’t actually seen many reviews…
Cemetery Boys, by Aiden Thomas. I’m super excited for this, and I should be getting my copy soon. (Thank you to the person who bought me a preorder! <3)
Phoenix Extravagant, by Yoon Ha Lee. I loved the Machineries of Empire books so much, and I’m excited for this new book by Yoon Ha Lee! I have an eARC, but I should also hurry up and make my preorder… there, done! I was sold at “mighty dragon automaton”.
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T.J. Klune. This sounds so warm-hearted as a read, from everyone’s reviews? I am a sucker for the families you make yourself in stories, so I’m excited for it.
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, by K.S. Villoso. I’ve peeked at the first few pages and my eyebrows rose and I’m eager to give this a try.
Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse. I’m hearing so much excitement about this one, and I know I’ve enjoyed Roanhorse’s writing, so I’m quite eager to see whether this works plot/character-wise a bit better for me than her other books.
The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin. Not sure if I’ll get to this, actually, because I’m finally catching up with The Fifth Season and sequels. But it’s N.K. Jemisin, so I don’t want to leave it lying too long!
So what’s on your autumn TBR, folks? Do you even have a TBR? Let’s be real, we know I probably won’t finish all of these… chances are, I won’t even read half. That’s okay by me. Something about the anticipation is sweet too!
Utopia for Realists set out the case for three major things which would build a better world, a utopia in which we not only have unprecedented prosperity but that prosperity is more evenly shared, and people do worthwhile work:
A shorter workweek
Universal basic income
As far as I can tell, Brenman has his facts in order, citing studies and real-world circumstances which support the suggestions he makes. Giving homeless people free cash, no strings attached, seems to have a better result than any other intervention, according to the studies he cites; shorter work weeks were almost actually implemented before they slipped off the political agenda; the numbers suggest that immigration will boost economies…
There are a lot of studies mentioned and footnoted, and a lot of sources to check; I did a little digging, but not more than that. I feel like I know so little about economics that Brenman could be saying “we should dye all ducks green” in economics-ese and I would just be nodding along. He writes very convincingly (with a few slip-ups like calling people with disabilities “cripples” — hopefully something introduced by the book’s translator rather than baked into the original text) and often aligns with my own ideas and ideals, so it’s not surprising that I feel the urge to nod along.
I did have a couple of criticisms that even I noticed, though. One example was his claim that immigration doesn’t harm social cohesion… only to claim that open borders couldn’t be introduced immediately because of the impact on social cohesion. Yikes, dude. You literally just said there’s no effect, two pages before. He also explicitly mentions rejecting a study because of his own opinions on the subject, and never actually discusses the results of that study and why he would rationally put it aside. There are a couple of other bits and pieces like that — inconsistencies and eyebrow-raising moments.
He also exhorts people at the end to be idealists, after setting out his case that utopia is achievable. I see what he means — it is achievable, if his data and theories are correct, but it requires people willing to commit to it and believe it, and in the face of so much opposition that does take an idealist, not a realist. It’s still a bit of a contradition, though…
Good evening, folks! It’s been a better week for me, with my anxiety medication kicking in and lots of reading getting done. No new books this week, but I’m expecting some from Portal Bookshop any day now…
Digging Up Armageddon discusses the archaeology of a fascinating site: Megiddo, better known as Armageddon. Alas, despite wanting to know more about the archaeology and that area of the world, I struggled a bit with Digging Up Armageddon. Much of the book involves the exact composition of the digging team in the Oriental Institute Megiddo expedition, what they said and did and complained about. It’s all relevant — it affected the excavation, and shaped the entire approach to the dig… but it overshadows the actual archaeology in this volume, leaving me hard-pressed to talk about the archaeology!
As a result, it took me quite a long time to read it. It’s best approached as a history of that specific expedition and their legacy, with some discussion of how things have changed (how they misinterpreted or outright messed things up) — it’s definitely not about the archaeology alone, though you could in theory read each alternate chapter and focus more on the archaeological side. Still, things are so entwined that personally I wouldn’t recommend it, and I have no idea how you’d follow all the names and why they’re involved without reading it all. The disagreements were sometimes a bit byzantine.
In the end, I’m glad I read it, but it wasn’t so much the kind of non-fiction I really enjoy. If you’re looking for info on that particular expedition, it’d be a great resource.
I had really fond memories of Nine Coaches Waiting, and while I wasn’t wholly wrong that I enjoyed it a lot, it wasn’t as great as I remembered — perhaps because I found that the tension was drawn out just a little too long, and the fiendish plot of the bad guy a little too convoluted. It took a while to get to the payoff of the scenes between Linda and Raoul as they find their understanding… though the payoff is pretty fun, classically dramatic as it is.
Still, I’m getting ahead of myself. Linda is the protagonist, a half-English half-French girl orphaned quite young, and travelling to take up a post as a governess to a small boy in France. There’s something a bit weird about it all, including the suggestion that they don’t want her to be able to speak French… but she needs to escape her boring life of teaching in England. The boy she becomes governess to is shy, unhappy, orphaned himself — and his guardians don’t seem to like him, and have a rather proprietary attitude to the house and grounds he actually owns, and which they only take care of during his minority.
It takes quite a few suspicious accidents to really put Linda on the alert, though, and in the meantime she falls in love with the son of her charge’s guardians. I felt like, reading it this time, this relationship really wasn’t given room to breathe at all; that’s the case with all of Mary Stewart’s books, to be honest, and I don’t know why it struck me so much here — perhaps because, at over 400 pages, you’d expect a bit more depth.
What Mary Stewart always did well was evoke a sense of place, and she does beautifully here, from the house to the woodland to the little village; I can never “picture” anything, but she doesn’t just describe anyway. She can also make you feel a place, and it works here, from the woodlands to the house to the little villages.
Still a very enjoyable read, but not as great as I’d remembered, anyway; perhaps it’s best if you read it all in one go, which this time I didn’t. Maybe I just had too much time to quibble!
I was fully on board with the premise of this: a British policeman is sent to a mysterious area in South America, tasked with finding a way to stop the killing of duendes. Duendes have been deemed to be sentient and to be protected under the law, but local people hunt them down and kill them because of their ability to bring out people’s suppressed emotions, often rage and shame. To reach the area, you have to go through the Zona, on a boat, and everything you do inside the Zona… you’ll never remember once you leave it again. The book starts as Ben emerges from the Zona, to find that he wrote some mysterious journals… and probably left the boat, as everyone was advised not to do.
It doesn’t really go anywhere from there, unfortunately. There’s plenty of weirdness, some great little thumbnail sketches of people with all their insecurities bared, and it feels like there’s a plot leading toward some kind of climax, a confrontation between Ben and the weirdness. I didn’t necessarily expect answers to the weirdness, or at least not all of it, but it felt for a while like it had a fairly traditional plot trajectory — and then just at the point where you’d expect action to be taken, Ben decides to run away. He just runs away. That’s it. That’s the story.
Sure, he’s learned stuff about himself that he never knew and didn’t want to know; the Zona and the world within its circle have scared him and changed him… but essentially, he just decides to run away, and there’s no real feeling that there’s any kind of resolution.
Now maybe there isn’t intended to be, but it felt weak to me, especially after the inklings that there was more to come. It’s not that it was a bad reading experience, but despite the promise of the setting… I was left cold by this. I don’t mind weird, and I don’t mind non-traditional stories, but the sense that this was going somewhere and didn’t really made the ending limp for me.