Discussion: So you’ve been publicly shamed

I remember when we first got dial-up. I used to race down the stairs on weekend mornings and boot up our old computer. It would tingle a little as it turned on, as if shedding static cobwebs. I’d carefully remove the ethernet clip from the phone, pressing down the plastic top firmly and not letting go until I nestled it into the back of the computer. Knowing I’d have to remove it when my parents woke up, I’d load up seven chapters of whatever Fictionpress book  I was reading and settle in. Back then the internet was unexplored territory. Commercials with rippling text– y’know the late 90s when the text sometimes looked like it was made of slime?– would warn parents to watch their kids. People from all around the world would connect, comfortable in their anonymity. Anyone could do anything!

Then it transformed from unknown to the best tool known to man. The internet solved everything, or so the predominant wisdom at the time went. I remember those heady tech-utopian days when hate rhetoric seemed relegated to a dark corner that barely invaded our collective peripheral vision. There were no articles about how dictatorships could use the internet to reinforce their hold on nations or put out so much content it became difficult to wade through it and separate fact and fiction. There were no think pieces on how the internet village separated us into further categories– the internet was solely a means to freedom and education. It was the universal village! We could talk to anyone in the world.

Nowadays we don’t think of the internet as one big party. We even have internet specific terms for groups, and some of the groups have peeled themselves from internet forums to begin affecting our conversations, and policy, in real life.Perhaps the one holdover from the old unexplored days is the notion that “the internet is forever,” something even more terrifying when we consider what the shifting alliances or group loyalty on the internet can do to people’s lives. One tweet, one blogpost, one video gone viral and you’re an international joke, sometimes luckily and sometimes not. No doubt, not every viral bit stems from naivete or poor wording. There’s a certain thrill to the schadenfreude of watching the bully get punished, but what about the person who stumbles? And what happens afterward?

Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed examines exactly that. In it, he speaks with several people who’ve experienced public shaming for online, or sometimes offline, errors. Like many of us, Ronson had participated in an online dragging before.  Getting credit for a witty riposte or covering your relief you avoided censure with a sheen of schadenfreude when someone else falls into the same pitfall. He remembered when the internet made us all Davids against the Goliath of corporations*. How public shaming could punish the deserving. But what happens when the person we’re ostracizing or shaming has a face?

My third year of college I enrolled in a course on Public Policy. Among other books, we were assigned “How we Choose” by Jonah Lerner. I loved the book, in a sea of dense academic texts “How we choose” offered learning wrapped in effortless diversion.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that Lerner had been famously disgraced by a journalist with a deep love for Bob Dylan.  In a flash, Lerner went from pop science superstar to pariah. Michael, the journalist? He gained little money and little recognition for his investigative work.

Over the course of the book, Ronson met many times with Jonah Lehrer. He talked with him about shame, fear, depression and, later, about how Lehrer nurtured hope for a chance at redemption. Then, he was offered that chance: A speech at a well-known journalism conference. But when he appeared at the conference, still shaky and half-filled with loathing, he wasn’t just giving a speech to a small room. The entire world was watching. And the room? They were watching the world react on Twitter from a screen right next to  Lehrer’s head.  By and large, Twitter was not forgiving.

As I read about the backlash, I couldn’t help but remember an article I’d read some time back about this phenomenon.  The article, titled “Exiting the Vampire’s Castle” was British writer Mark Fisher’s lament about online culture. I can’t say I agreed completely with his propositions, but So You’ve been Publicly Shamed re-etched one idea in particular from Fisher’s article:”The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.” A chill descended upon me as I read this. I’d never be brave enough to admit I’d seen this.

I’d watched this happen when Carve the Mark, the latest book from Veronica Roth came out. The book community divided over Carve the Mark.  ARC readers reported racist tropes and, after reading their reviews, a number of members called for a boycott and declared consumers of the book racist. Another group disagreed.  They asserted that simply reading did not equate to virulent racism**. They accused the first group of a form of social censorship.

A member of the first group, LL McKinney pointed out that customers drive the market. If we support books with harmful representation and ignore more diverse voices, we’ll continue getting the same narratives over and over again. She added the publishing industry, even as it embraces “diversity” still gives space to predominantly white authors.  Eventually, the author broke her silence to rebut some of the claims. The language of the warlike group wasn’t based on North African/Middle Eastern languages but on Romanian and Hungarian. They also weren’t universally dark skinned.  Francina Simone entered the conversation  with an amazing  video dissuading people from grouping people together without examining actions and literature.  Simone spoke at length about her concern with the discourse surrounding Roth and book reading. Not only did the conversation move quickly away from the art in question, but it also took a great deal of time from promoting better books.

During the video, Simone decried tendencies to engage with people making honest mistakes and “trolls” in the same manner. “I want to dismiss that unless you’re being rude and angry about shit, you’re being passive,” Simone continued. Like in the Vampire’s Castle, I watched people launch into defense or attack to gain hearts on twitter from their carefully defined ingroup. Voices who had previously been accepted in the same community who disagreed were immediately jettisoned.*** Time and time again, more attention was given to the first person to spot something wrong,  qualities of virtue were ascribed to those who called for swift punishment, and belonging was gifted to those who went along. The Vampire Castle sucked positivity from the air.

Achieving a balance between acting on positive change and reacting to negative conditions is difficult.  When Jonah Lehrer gave his speech, many people were cynical of his intent. They were concerned that his reentry might affect the validity of the genre as a whole. They were skeptical of his suffering. After all, he was paid for the appearance, and his sometimes questionable word choice elevated instead of humbled him.

Before gave his speech, and before Ronson started investigating thoroughly the stories, and options for redemption of the recently shamed, he relayed Michael and Jonah Lehrer scoop to a theatre director at a party.  Instead of reacting with curiosity or laughter at Lehrer’s fate, the man shivered. “It’s  about the terror, isn’t it?…The terror of being found out.” It was then Ronson, as he inexplicably shivered too, he had a realization. He wrote:

“I had leapt into the middle of the Michael/Jonah story because I admired and identified with Michael.  He personified citizen justice, whereas Jonah represented literary fraud in the pop-science world. he made a  fortune corrupting an already self-indulgent, bloated genre. I still admired Michael. But suddenly, when the theatre director said the words ‘the terror of being found out’, I felt like a door had briefly opened before me, revealing some infinite horror-land filled with millions of scared-stiff Jonahs. How many people had I banished to that land during my thirty years of journalism? How truly nightmarish it must have been to be Jonah Lehrer.”

I can’t say I have any answers about how we should proceed on the internet. I can’t even tell you I know for certain where the lines between Righteous Justice and Vampire Castle begin and end. I can only offer more questions: In this atmosphere, how do people who have made mistakes achieve redemption? Can they? Should they? If so, when?  What does it mean if we create groups force strict in-group/out-group rules?  When anger becomes currency, how do we spend it? Are we the citizen justice or another fraud waiting to be outed?

*How corporations  have learned to use technology now is another topic worth exploring. I shall do my best to resist here since it’s not the point, but just know that I wanted to write about it.
** I should note here that many of the conversations did not consider racism as a matter of degrees but created a dichotomy. Another conversation worth having about how we frame racism and how smaller acts link to larger ones. But, again, off topic.

*** Like Simone, I am not attempting to tone police anyone. Even typing thisI’m afraid of some backlash. I doubt this will get any attention (in the scheme of things I’m not very important), but I still worry. In my time online, I’ve watched people bullied for a less than this. All it takes is one person with a lot of followers to assign new meaning or reframe.  To be clear, I am not attempting to censor anyone who has expressed anger or discomfort while on the internet. I am not asserting dog whistles and other similarly shrouded negative sentiments aren’t shrouded in more acceptable language. My only intention is to express some concern with how dynamics, like the Vampire’s Castle, might encourage us to be cruel, to gloss over nuance or context.

Also, you read all of this?! Holy shit. I’m impressed. Thanks for caring about my tiny blip of word nonsense in the vast ocean of internet entertainment.

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Legend- Marie Lu

I can write rants. I can write gushes. It’s the books in the middle that are tricky. The books that leave you with a lukewarm feeling; that feel like eating oatmeal tastes Legend is a solid book. Not awful, but not riveting. For me, that encapsulated the experience I had reading Legend.

I read Legend six years too late. Penguin, and Lu, published this book at the height of the dystopian craze. Everyone craved it; everyone read it. I missed the train and, now, the  market has been supersaturated. Maybe that’s why Legend didn’t enchant me. Or perhaps I expected more after Leigh Bardugo, one of my favorite new authors, recommended Lu’s writing. Unfortunately, Legend relied on a number of tropes I’ve seen one too many times. I expect it’ll make a great film, and perhaps the following books will build on the outline she’s created, but I expected more.*

*I will say I enjoyed Legend more than Divergent and, perhaps, if I’d read it at a different time, it would have sat with me better.

Plot and World:

Set in a future society, built from the fractured United States, called the  Republic, Legend splits its narrative into two points of view:  June, a prodigy, whose family has served their government and benefited from it, is tasked with bringing in the most notorious criminal in the Republic after her brother’s death. Day is a mastermind born far from the well-cared-for capital, whose circumstances force him to  risk his life to care for his family.

Legend’s best features are it’s structure and pace. She integrates needed information well with an ever-moving plot.  Given the subject-matter, and the knowledge protagonists are always the heroes, the plot-twists can largely be predicted from the beginning. Of course the wealthy-prodigy June discovers the government’s duplicitous actions.

The world functioned more as a backdrop, which is disappointing. The best in the dystopia genre, and perhaps fiction as a whole, uses world to create tone and suspense. The world carries a hefty part of the message After all, the underlying question in all dystopias is: How did they get there? What could cause this? What’s happening now?
These questions are pushed to the side. For that reason, one might argue Legend falls more in the action-thriller category than dystopia.
The author drops mentions of a war with colonies and a network of rebels within the Republic throughout the novel but the story features June and Day’s relationships more than their interaction with the world around them. Still,  the end opens more room for a more prominent role for the world in the following books.

Characters:

Genius characters rarely convince me of their, well, genius. There’s a fine line to walk here. Too much demonstration, the book gets bogged down in terminology and theory, but without some strategic thinking it feels a lot more like the author is telling us the characters are brilliant.
In fact, not until the end do the characters pull some serious strategic moves. Some of them disappoint. Time dedicated to explaining how characters solved problems, or to them working through unexpected obstacles, would have been welcome. The circular logic of “geniuses solve problems because of their genius” doesn’t play well, and other times their solutions felt a little too convenient. Unfortunately, these can’t be explained without spoilers– but let’s say the characters’ actions did not mesh well with what we knew about the world and what we knew about them.  However, given Lu wrote herself into a corner, she managed to move the plot forward with minimal damage.

Characters do have an emotional arc– one more than the other. But, we’ve seen these arcs before. The drawn to each other, genius characters who fell on opposite sides in a cruel, seemingly arbitrary world.  One has lost their family and has had their revenge co-opted by the villains, while the other plays the shining hero Robin Hood type trying to save theirs. It was, okay. Just okay.

Okay enough to pick up the next book? We’ll see.

Three stars out of five to Legend.

Review: Weapons of Math Destruction

“Technology is the great equalizer”. We have all heard some variant of that phrase.  Just for kicks, I googled it.  Websites trumpeting technology’s use in the classroom, to increase diversity, to bring justice all use the exact phrase. Most of us are  familiar with such tech-utopian language.  Propelled by impartial math and science, technology only has the capability for good. In more recent times, the ‘truism’ has sustained some damage. Technology, and the math which powers it, also has the potential to exacerbate inequality, to facilitate censorship, and to perpetuate systems which segregate people and obscure truth.

Here’s the part where I make an imperfect analogy (and don’t bother to hammer out all the nuances). Every year the CDC, and health officials, make informed decisions about which influenza vaccine to order.  Viruses mutate, scientists and health officials must contend with that every year when developing vaccines. Some have termed this work an evolutionary arms race. In other words, scientists and health officials must remain vigilant of the changes in the viruses and respond accordingly. In other words, they must monitor them.

Just now are we realizing that  technology and math are both a medicine and a virus. The tools math has created evolved so quickly, beyond any individual’s comprehension and certainly beyond the public awareness. Cathy O’Neil book Weapons of Math Destruction focuses on one of the more pernicious viruses in technology- opaque algorithims and mathematical models. She names them weapons of mass destruction and their effects are manifold.

One such model  played a large part in the housing crash of 2008 and the subsequent collapse of financial institutions in the United States. Another stratifies education and dictates who benefits most from good education (hint: it’s not the lower class). A third incarcerates minority populations and increases recidivism. In all cases, the models start from unexamined assumptions and data until their scale and their damage become widespread. These are two of the three requirements for Weapons of Math Destruction to exist.

The crux of the problem is not an uncaring force of nature, as in the case of viruses. The problem is perpetuated by lack of willpower which is correlated to the desire of the system’s beneficiaries to ignore the problem at best and actively suppress it at worst. This is the third requirement: opacity.  We are dissuaded from understanding how these models function and, in some cases, we aren’t even given the information. Effectively, this means the Red Queen is winning right now. O’Neil reassures the reader that medicine for the problem does exist. We can modify these algorithims to better serve the utopian dreams. Where no modification exists, we can find one through rigorous testing. Where new technology does not do what it purports, we can even revert to older methods.

Weapons of Math Destruction is by no means comprehensive. It offers a brief glimpse into different algorithims affecting education, housing, employment, credit, and the justice system.  The book demonstrates more the width of the problem than the breadth/depth. Even so,  O’Neil’s book furnishes readers with a good foundational understanding of a timely issue.

Haha,oh, it’s April?: Making book plans

Did I not say I was terrible at plans? Did I not say that? Anyway. We’re like a week into April, so I’m going to cheat a little bit. Here are the books I might/probably read:

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

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A former Wall Street quant sounds an alarm on mathematical modeling—a pervasive new force in society that threatens to undermine democracy and widen inequality.

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives—where we go to school, whether we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance—are being made not by humans, but by mathematical models. In theory, this should lead to greater fairness: Everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated. But as Cathy O’Neil reveals in this shocking book, the opposite is true. The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable, even when they’re wrong. Most troubling, they reinforce discrimination

This popped up in my updates feed on GoodReads, so I added it to my want-to-read list, because I have no self-control. Given the increasing importance of technology and data in our lives, I felt understanding how algorithms can uphold and support an unfair system,  despite the “It’s fair because it’s math!” justifications,  incredibly important. I may or may not have already started it.

So you’ve been publicly shamed by Jon Ronson
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A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land. Justice has
been democratized. The silent majority are getting  a voice, but what are we doing with
our voice? We are mercilessly finding people’s faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control.

Simultaneously powerful and hilarious in the way only Jon Ronson can be, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a deeply honest book about modern life, full of eye-opening truths about the escalating war on human flaws and the very scary part we all play in it.

I’m all about that pop-science this month, apparently!

I think all of us are a little bit terrified of being publicly shamed. Remember in high school when you were all like “I don’t want anyone seeing what I do on my computer! what if they discover llamas wearing hats. Everyone will think I’m too quirky!” Yeah, let’s be real, llamas wearing hats weren’t your first concern. Like your teacher/parent/librarian always said, “The internet is forever, kid.”

Legend by Marie Lu

 

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What was once the western United States is now home to the Republic, a nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. Born into an elite family in one of the Republic’s wealthiest districts, fifteen-year-old June is a prodigy being groomed for success in the Republic’s highest military circles. Born into the slums, fifteen-year-old Day is the country’s most wanted criminal. But his motives may not be as malicious as they seem.

From very different worlds, June and Day have no reason to cross paths—until the day June’s brother, Metias, is murdered and Day becomes the prime suspect. Caught in the ultimate game of cat and mouse, Day is in a race for his family’s survival, while June seeks to avenge Metias’s death. But in a shocking turn of events, the two uncover the truth of what has really brought them together, and the sinister lengths their country will go to keep its secrets.

I may or may not be picking this up on the recommendation of Leigh Bardugo. Let’s hope I’m not tired of dystopia yet!

 

Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 by Margaret MacMillan26348

For six months in 1919, after the end of “the war to end all wars,” the Big Three—President Woodrow Wilson, British prime minister David Lloyd George, and French premier Georges Clemenceau—met in Paris to shape a lasting peace. In this landmark work of narrative history, Margaret MacMillan gives a dramatic and intimate view of those fateful days, which saw new political entities—Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Palestine, among them—born out of the ruins of bankrupt empires, and the borders of the modern world redrawn.

Ah, history– equal parts fascinating and fury-inducing. I picked up the book after finishing An Unquiet American, a collection of writings by Richard Holbrooke. A diplomat and one of the founders of Foreign Policy magazine, Holbrooke mentioned the Paris Peace Conference several times, often lamenting the decisions of leaders at the time. To him, the doling out of rewards and punishments, and the drawing of lines during the conference still play a large role in conflict today. I did read most of this book when I first picked it up, but school became too hectic so I dropped it. I’d like to pick it up again this month.   Margaret MacMillan is an excellent historian, as far as I’m concerned. I remember being impressed by the detail she included.

This is a huge tome, so let’s see if I can finish it.

Ancillary Justice by Annie Leckie

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On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest. Once, she was the Justice of Toren – a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy. Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.

 

Ancillary Justice’s premise intrigued me. I loved the idea of a race which didn’t define gender. I think this more experimental side of writing (if you can call me that) drew me to the book more than anything else.

 

Something Fantasy because who do you think I am, anyway?book-cover-question-mark-image

cannot believe I haven’t found a specific fantasy book to read. I. cannot. believe. it. I always read fantasy! It is my favorite genre. Hold this space. Something will come.
But, if you have a few minutes, feel free to post a couple of fantasy books you really enjoyed below!

The White Rose

Millions of “good” Germans did not like the Nazis, yet thought they were the less evil compared to the communists…Everything was still standing; life went on as before; but beneath the surface, something had changed.”– Inge Scholl on Germany shortly after Hitler’s election.

Many people from my country know how fascist Germany fell. Over the decades, WWII has increasingly been presented in the good versus evil narrative. While this narrative may fit better here than with other wars, it tends to gloss over the presence of resistance in Germany. It consigns all Germans to the role of active supporter or coward.

In Germany, for years following the regime’s downfall, The White Rose was assigned as required reading. The educators hoped that the bravery displayed in it, the choice to put others’ lives over country, even when that meant possibly losing your own, might help students do the same. They hoped children might recognize some of the warning signs  if ever another regime such as Hitler’s tried to take control.

The book itself is quite short, but gripping.  It follows the development of The White Rose, an student-lead underground resistance from its inception to its downfall. Sophie and Hans Scholl grew up in Hitler’s youth groups. They watched the environment turn from celebratory to one of censure– where young people,and their family, were scorned for expressing doubt in the regime, discomfort with its rhetoric against Jewish people. As the two grew older, they became more and more disenchanted with the government, more suspicious of the narrative they were being sold. When they reached university, they joined with others to form the underground resistance.

At this point in time, many were confident Hitler would only fall with military action, and perhaps the Scholls agreed, but during a time when so many had  given into apathy, the Scholls felt it their duty to resist using any means possible. For them, the question was not whether or not they supported the regime but what resistance meant in practice. How could they resist? How could they encourage others to?

The White Rose was born from defiance, anger and conviction of morals. What started with surreptitious meetings with like-minds; meetings where they could share texts from forbidden philosophers and writers and rail against the loss of freedoms and death which surrounded them. Even those meetings might be enough for imprisonment or death, but the group decided it wasn’t enough.With the aid of other students, and a professor, they  began putting together pamphlets which they scattered about different cities in Germany. Every time they traveled to place them in mailboxes of random people or leave them in front of university classrooms, they risked their lives.

These pamphlets reassured others that they were not alone. They denounced the regime for its cruelty and appealed to  German citizens’ humanity. One specifically outlined how to resist passively, instructing readers “to concentrate upon what was attainable…” and resist in small ways each day. When the Scholls were arrested after throwing pamphlets from the University steps, they knew they would be sentenced to death. They did not waver in their choice. From the record of their, and others’ testimony, the prosecution described the resistance as both child-like and devious; in competent and dangerous. As I read it, I could help but recognize echoes of this in today’s characterization of organized opposition.

Some have said the reliance of the book on text. Many pages are either reprints of the pamhplets The White Rose spread or the text of their trials. When one remembers the purpose of the collection, it becomes easier to understand why Inge Scholl did not speculate as often. Still, I can understand the desire for more– perhaps another edition with further thoughts from the two resistance leaders’ sister. Inge does write a conclusion where she tries to assess the impact her siblings had and make sense of the desire for current society to claim them as their heroes, to see themselves reflect in their actions. She writes:

“It would be wrong to see the action of the students in Munich in the period 1942-43 as a noble deed in the abstract. I twas concrete, and its goal and starting point were concrete…we should look upon [what they did] as a singular instance.

“It was an instance in which five or six students took it upon themselves to act while the dictatorship was totally in control; in which they accepted the lonely burden of not even  being able to discuss these matters with their families; in which they took action even though the omnipotent state allowed them no room for maneuver; in which they acted in spite of the fact that they could do no more than tear small rifts in the structure of that state– much less blast out the corner stones.

“It is rare that a man is prepared to pay with his life for such a minimal achievement as causing cracks in the edifice of the existing order.”

Near the end, The White Rose includes an account of Sophie Scholl’s last days from the view of a fellow prisoner. It is heart-wrenching. As I read, I wondered if I could ever be as brave as Sophie Scholl was, even as her death drew near. We all like to believe we’d be on the “right side of history”. We like to think we’d be the hero, but when people are  disappearing everyday; when executions are carried out for reading the wrong text or protecting another person, could you really say you would  lay down your life for your morality?

Authoritarianism relies on fast movements and a cocktail of xenophobia and forced-nationalism. It assumes that with enough violence and mistruth, people will simply give up. That this small group would sacrifice their lives to save the German soul is exceptional. Many have suggested a dark shadow has fallen over our world recently. Some say this reflects in the literature we consume and, indeed sales for dystopian tales like 1984 and The Handmaiden’s Tale have risen. Both these books are speculative horrors, neither offer the surety that comes with knowing evil has been defeated. The White Rose is similarly sobering. It is only through knowledge of history that we know the Scholl’s won and, as Sophie Scholl said to the judge before her death “Soon you will be standing where I now stand.”  The White Rose offers readers the heroes of a good story, but more importantly, it offers some guidance for the non-heroes, the people who picked up the pamphlets from their mailboxes and felt a little less alone.

Under a Painted Sky

Samantha, Sam, fought with her father the day he died. Her father plans to close their dry goods shop in Missouri and move to California with an old family friend. Samantha wishes to move to New York to become a professional musician– not an easy task for a young girl in 1849, much less one who is Chinese.

When a blaze of fire envelops her family home,  the one person who seems to offer “help” intends to force her into prostitution. Within the first few pages, Samantha must come to terms with her father’s likely murder and fend off a man attempting to assault her. The result of her efforts is his death, which is discovered by Annamae, a 16-year-old slave girl. Annamae quickly assesses the situation and offers to go on the run with Sam. The two choose to disguise themselves as boys and head west where they hope to find freedom, family and security.

Cowboys and pioneers; cholera and stampedes; a mysterious gang of criminals on the run and authorities upholding unjust laws all coalesce into a climax that mostly lives up to the tension. In an interview, Lee said tension is her “achilles heel“.  She mentioned revising those sections twenty to thirty times and the work is evident. The book is very well structured with few scenes that do not, in some way, lead to or affect the climax.

The author did a great deal of research for this book, as one must do when writing historical fiction. She “wanted to write a book about what it was like for the first Chinese Americans in the United States. Many of them came during the California Gold Rush, which coincided with the western expansion of the United States via the Oregon Trail.”  But she didn’t stop there, she portrayed attitudes toward race and gender at the time as well.

Themes:

Unsurprisingly, these were some of the main themes of the book,  but the issues that affect us are not our entire identity. Lee knew that, and that is why she included themes like grief and friendship. The relationship Sam had with her father and her struggle to come to terms with the circumstances of his death affects her throughout the book.

Annamae and Sam’s friendship demonstrates positive  and essential methods to survival in harsher worlds. I actively seek out positive female friendships, and this book most definitely had it. While circumstances at the beginning force the two together, they build a genuine friendship  where their differences– whether it be religious or reaction based– are respected and explored. They support each other and this is why they survive.

Characters

 The dialogue between the mischievous group of cowboys, Sam and Annamae was full of droll wit and just enough period language to help set the scene. Both main characters have distinct voices and the interactions between them were some of the most enjoyable sections of the book, for me.

Sam is torn between her dreams, her new friendship, and duty as a daughter. She  is raised to be proud of her culture in a world which views it as uncivilized. At the same time, she questions parts of the cultural wisdom she was raised with, parsing out the traditions which held her back from the ideas which connect her with her family, her people and herself.

Annamae bears an even-keeled practicality which results from facing open and widespread oppression.  Yet she retains a softness demonstrated when she speaks of her lost brothers– one of whom sent her a way to escape from slavery on the same day she met Samantha. Annamae’s choice to help Samantha at the cost of her own escape evinces her true character.

Even so, at times, she did feel more sidekick than friend. If I am being honest with myself, I would have preferred more development of Annamae over the romance elements. The book stumbles here.

Despite some of the more serious themes and plot points, Under the Painted Sky  didn’t feel heavy. On the contrary, it uplifted. Stacey Lee spread scenes which break tension through the book and allows her characters some pockets of happiness.

A unique take on the Wild West  Stacey Lee’s book has my full recommendation.

 

My struggle with minimalist poetry…

Two weeks ago I participated in a readathon during which time I picked up a couple of books of poetry. I’ll admit I find it difficult to understand it completely as an art form, so please take the reviews that follow in the coming weeks with a grain of salt.Both minimalist.Minimalism as a form , I feel, is extremely difficult to pull off well. It requires precise language.

Unfortunately, The Princess Saves Herself in This One, a book of poetry by Amanda Lovelace, fell short.. A lot of people recommended it on the basis of its feminist themes, but I didn’t feel the author presented new ideas. Her method of delivery didn’t excite me either. I struggled to understand some of the choices she made– what did she edit and why? What was her creative process? What skill was involved? I understand the difficulty of expressing ideas concisely, but I’ve often found part of the artistry of poetry involves complexity of language (diction and syntax, rhythm and rhyme), presentation of new ideas or viewpoint.  Poetry should help me change my frame of reference or transport me in some way. The Princess Saves Herself in This One just…didn’t. I really wish it did.

The imagery was underwhelming at best. Of course, Lovelace intended many of the images to be recognizable– women have often been referred to as princesses or damsels– to allow for easier digestion of the ideas she conveyed, and to make the poems more culturally relevant. Some have noted Lovelace’s poetry is reminiscent of Tumblr posts. As an active Tumblr user, I’d agree. Portraying women as mermaids and magical creatures and poems like this:

“the love
some girls
have for
other girls
is
so gentle
& so soft
& so fucking
beautiful…”

are very reminiscent of Tumblr language. I believe the author herself was a prodigious Tumblr  user prior to publishing this book, so it shouldn’t be surprising the community influenced her.

Too often the poems felt like a generic statement– they lacked voice.They lacked depth.

“repeat after me:
you owe
no one
your
forgiveness.

– except maybe yourself.”

Okay? That might be true, but it’s also just platitude. These are littered throughout the book. I hope someone finds them empowering;it’s clear the author did but, again, I  really struggled. No doubt the author displayed vulnerability in this  book . I appreciate her bravery.  Issues like abuse, sexism and feminism should be discussed in art; but, sadly, I do not think this is enough to make art good.

There were a few moments where the poems were memorable. I particularly enjoyed the comparison of puberty with mermaids changing between legs to a tail. It fit with the overall theme of women being magical (one poem says women have “stardust” in their veins) and, though it was placed in the well-tread ground transformation during puberty, I liked it.

Opinions on this collection in terms of its artistry, execution, themes, have been extremely divided, so I’d encourage you to read a positive review before you write it off.
Personally, this book didn’t impress. If you are planning on picking up a minimalist poetry book and the themes of The Princess Saves Herself in This One intrigue you,  I’d recommend Milk and Honey.