Saturday, March 29, 2014

YA Fiction: Howl's Moving Castle

Another in my series of YA fiction reviews. Check out my list of warnings from the first post.

Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. Published by Greenwillow, 1986.

I want to like Diana Wynne Jones. Her work has been recommended to me by a number of people whose opinions I trust. She's an engaging, witty writer, and she creates wonderful characters, but she seems to have a weakness in plot development. I enjoy the first 3/4 of any book, but she wraps all of the unique, quirky charm of her stories into oddly conventional endings that clash awkwardly with the whole. Howl's Moving Castle was a particularly egregious example of that problem. The ending felt like a traditional wedding topper placed on a naked-mohawk-baby-carrot-jockey cake.

The main character, Sophie, is one of my favorite heroines in YA fiction. While working at her hat shop, she is turned into an old woman by an evil witch's curse. Freed from the social constraints placed on pretty young girls, she becomes independent, cranky, strong-willed, free-spoken, and thoroughly delightful. She teams up with a wizard named Howl, who is another example of Jones's genius for character development. Howl is so vain that he spends hours in the bathroom with magic beauty potions, and so egotistical that he'll mope for days if he's slighted. A number of minor characters add to the charm, including an animated scarecrow, and a dog that keeps changing breeds.

Ultimately, Sophie and Howl defeat the witch, and Sophie is returned to her normal state. In fact, it turns out that Sophie had been subconsciously maintaining the spell herself, because old women have more interesting lives than conventional girls. But the message that youth and beauty are less interesting than independence was rather undermined by the book's ending. Howl, the self-centered diva, assumes Sophie will marry him, and she agrees. After I read the last chapter to my daughter, she stared at me for several moments before saying, "Wait, why does she want to marry him?" Good question.


Age-appropriate for a 7 year old?: Yes. Like 90% of all YA fiction, the main character forms a significant relationship (in this case, actually gets married) at a far younger age than I'd like my daughter to think is normal. But, if I reject any book in which the main character finds her soul mate before the age of 20, then my daughter would have nothing to read.

Positive gender roles?: Yes. I love Sophie, and the secondary female characters are well developed. The male characters are also complex and not limited to stereotypical masculine traits and roles.

 Does the book reflect diversity in any way?: Not really, unless you count the Welsh.

Final verdict: I read this to my daughter, and we both enjoyed it (until the ending). Even the ending was good, in that it generated conversation. My daughter decided not to marry a self-absorbed, messy, moody, hysteric who expects his wife to hold his life together while he runs around being brilliant and adored. Good plan.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I am angry

I read this post about the death of Loretta Saunders long ago, but it has stuck with me.  The blogger's main question is "Why aren't you angry?" about Loretta Saudners's death, and the death of so many Indigenous women. I can't stop thinking about it because I don't like my answer.

I am angry.

I'm angry about Loretta Saunders, and the thousands of Indigenous women who are missing or dead, and the fact that nobody seems to care.

I'm angry about Jordan Davis, and Trayvon Martin, and Jonathan Ferrell, and Renisha McBride, and the lack of justice in our justice system.

I'm angry about Syria, and Palestine. I'm angry about the Central African Republic and Nigeria. I'm angry about the Ukraine and southern Europe. I'm angry about Venezuela and Mexico.

I'm angry about poverty, racism, and sexism. I'm angry about little girls who are shot because they want to go to school, and little boys who are conscripted into armies, and children who go to sleep hungry in the world's richest nation.

I'm angry about history denied, and history reclaimed. I'm angry about school systems that funnel children into prisons instead of colleges, about police who prey instead of protect, about laws that protect the strong at the expense of the weak.

I'm angry because the world is full of pain I can't cure and sorrows I can't comfort. I'm angry because my anger does no good, fills no earthly purpose, serves only as a reminder that we have not yet reached God's kingdom.

I can offer only awareness, no action. Because my anger is stretched too thin. Because I have chosen to triage tragedy, to feel less about one and more about another. To focus my efforts, to admit - and here's the part I really don't like - that while I'm angry, I'm just not angry enough. Not enough to act.

My anger doesn't matter. It's a pale reflection of the anger that must be felt by those whose mothers, daughters, and sisters are murdered with impunity. And anger, like talk, is cheap. The real question isn't "Why aren't you angry?" but "Why haven't you chosen to act?"

We each choose our battles. As a middle-class, abled, White woman, I have the Privilege of choosing my causes without having a persona stake in the question. I can walk away from violence against Indigenous women, when so many of the young women I teach - beautiful, inspiring young women - cannot walk away from their own vulnerability. But none of us can act on all fronts at all time.

That makes me angry, too.

And I have no answers. I'm only too aware that bundling all social justice issues under one overarching umbrella only leaves some causes behind as less discussed, less visible.

But I've been thinking a lot about the limits of anger.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

YA Fiction Review: Seraphina

Another in my series of YA fiction reviews. Check out my list of warnings from the first post.

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. Published by Random House, 2012.

Seraphina is set in a medieval-like fantasy world, where humans and dragons are recovering from a history of warfare and violence. Despite a 40-year peace treaty, there remains a good deal of distrust and fear between the two peoples. Dragons, who can fold themselves into human shapes, are Klingon-Vulcan-like* in character; they distrust and repress all emotion, and have far superior technology than the humans. Oddly, though, while their technology allows them to create long-distance, wireless communication devices and brain surgery, it doesn't include the ability to lob a nuclear bomb at their pre-industrial human neighbors.

The title character is one of a small number of dragon-human hybrids whose very existence is a shameful secret. As a musician in the royal palace, Seraphina joins forces with her dragon uncle and a human prince and princess to thwart the plans of her dragon grandfather to undermine the peace treaty. Much of the novel focuses on her personal journey in accepting and sharing her own identity.

I really enjoyed this book. It's nicely written, fast-paced, and unique.


Age-appropriate for a 7 year old?: Probably a better fit for a middle-school or older child. The themes of intolerance and shady political alliances are dark and complex for a 7 year old. Also, the focus on finding one's personal identity may be more meaningful for an adolescent than a child. Finally, like most YA novels, there's a love story that is inappropriately serious for a protagonist who's 16 years old, particularly since she falls in love with an engaged man. (Note, by "serious" I mean that he's portrayed as "the one and only love of her life", not that the relationship is inappropriately sexual.)

Positive gender roles?: Yes! Not only is Seraphina herself a strong, brave, complex, determined, and well-developed main character who also is female, but several other important characters are strong women. The nation of Goredd, where the action takes place, is ruled by a revered queen, and her two heirs are both women.

 Does the book reflect diversity in any way?: Yes! There are characters of various ethnicities and colors described in the book. Most importantly, though, the treatment of dragons and dragon-hybrids is clearly meant to mirror the treatment of minorities in the U.S. and Europe. Dragons in human form are required to wear bells, not stars, to show their status, but the description of mob violence and religious fanaticism aimed against them has clear roots in the European pogroms. Near the end of the book, Seraphina and her human father describe living their lives as lies, hiding who they really are and who they really love, in language that reflects some contemporary attitudes toward homosexuality. There is a strong overall message about tolerance, acceptance, and multiculturalism.

Final verdict: I really liked this book, on many levels. I may give it to my daughter to read when she's older (middle to high school aged), or use it as bedtime reading when she's 10 or 11, so we can discuss what is happening and the historical roots of the story.
*Alright, so I failed Sci-Fi Geekery 101. May the Force Be with You.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Calling out pseudo-science in the Star Tribune

Yesterday, our regional paper, the Star Tribune, published a profile of local celebrity Scott Wolter, under the unfortunate title, "A Real-Life Da Vinci Code". Wolter is best known in archaeological circles for his work on the Kensington Runestone, a supposed Viking artifact that was found within an hour's drive of my office. Like most archaeologists, I assume the Kensington Runestone is a fake, but there is enough debate among credible researchers that I'm willing to keep an open mind, and I'd be happy to look at any real data that shows the stone to be genuine.

Wolter's other work is less benign. He's the host of America Unearthed, a television show about our nation's past that the article describes as "eclectic". Most professional archaeologists would use a less polite term. America Unearthed is the recent spawn of a century-old lineage, bred from the racist, nationalist, and money-/fame-seeking fantasies of misguided pseudo-scientists and professional charlatans. To run a profile of his work in a newspaper - even if it's just in the human interest section - is a serious blow to those of us who care about real history.

I wrote a letter to the editor expressing my dismay. I don't know if they will publish it. It could only be 200 words long, so it doesn't include much nuance, but here it is:
I was disappointed by the profile of Scott Wolter, “A Real-Life Da Vinci Code”. Real archaeology is far more interesting than the fantasies Wolter spins. Our ancestors – Native, European, African, or Asian – lived and died here, they loved and warred, built and destroyed, celebrated and mourned. Their story is excavated by archaeologists, handed down in oral traditions, and written in family Bibles. This past shapes who we are today, as individuals and as a society. This past is important. It is a part of us.

We disrespect our ancestors and ourselves when we replace our real past with conspiracy theories and fakes. We don’t need to pretend that the Aztecs built pyramids under our lakes. The real Indigenous peoples of this nation built giant earthen mounds from Minnesota to Louisiana. You can visit some at the Indian Mounds Regional Park in St. Paul.

We don’t need to pretend that the Knights Templar claimed North America prior to Columbus. There are many stories of adventure, determination, and profound faith among the real European pioneers. It lessens their sacrifices to replace their history with fantasy.

The real past is fascinating. Don’t demean it by pretending that fantastic pseudo-science is equal to archaeology.

UPDATE March 24, 2014: Hey, they printed my letter!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Hostility" and the Causes of Gender Under-representation in Higher Education

I haven't written about the widely-cited Site Visit Report criticizing the University of Colorado's Philosophy department, alleging a culture of sexual harassment and hostility to women (see Rebecca Schuman's coverage here). The story includes themes that are of interest to me, (gender inequality and the role women in academia), but I have no inside information on the department, and I certainly can't speak to anybody's guilt or innocence. I know two graduates of the program, and I have great respect for their professionalism and ethics.

Still, I've been following the story, and I was interested to see this webpage, put up by a senior member of the Philosophy faculty, Dr. Michael Tooley. Dr. Tooley posts detailed critiques of the report, despite the CU administration's request that faculty not publicly (as they put it) "quibble" with the report. 

In my opinion, he is right to believe that silence will be taken as assent to the criticism. Nonetheless, the administration's concerns about "quibbling" with the report are reasonable. Anyone who has an interest in issues of bias (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) knows that some people react to the questioning of their privilege in ways that show they are not aware of systemic power differences, or their own relatively protected position in society. Since lack of awareness is one way that sexism, racism, etc., are perpetuated in our society, any "quibble" with the report that shows a lack of awareness, or that disparages women, is going to confirm, rather than deny, the accusations made in the report.

I wasn't going to comment on Dr. Tooley's post, but then I saw that he'd used anthropology as one of his comparison fields, so I was intrigued, and a little concerned.

Here's the critical segment:

     ...Why are women underrepresented in the profession [of philosophy]? [theory] is that at least one very important cause of the underrepresentation of women in the profession involves the university environment, with women being treated differently in classrooms than men, or with many male philosophers being hostile to female philosophers, or both....     But I am not convinced that this first explanation of the underrepresentation of women in our discipline is right. First of all, philosophy is not alone with regard to the underrepresentation of women.  Consider the following figures from a National Science Foundation “Survey of Earned Doctorates”  for the year 2012: 
Subject        Percentage of Doctorates Earned by Women
Mathematics:                28.3
Philosophy:                  26.8        
Physics:                       19.4
    The question to which these figures give rise is whether the underrepresentation of women in mathematics and physics is to be explained in the same way as in the case of philosophy, or in a different way.  The idea that different explanations are to be given strikes me as quite implausible.  But if one offers the same explanation, and if it is the explanation just mentioned, then one is thereby committed to the view that one very important cause of the underrepresentation of women in mathematics involves the university environment, with women being treated differently in mathematics classrooms than men are treated, or with many male mathematicians being hostile to female mathematicians, or both, and similarly in the case of physics.  Is this at all plausible?
     If one does think that this is plausible, consider the following figures from the same document:
Subject        Percentage of Doctorates Earned by Women
Psychology:                71.0
Anthropology:             65.9
    If hostile attitudes and harassing behavior on the part of men explain the low percentage of doctorates earned by women in mathematics, philosophy, and physics, why don't the same hostile attitudes and harassing behavior on the part of men also generate a low percentage of doctorates earned by women in psychology and anthropology, just as they supposedly do in the case of philosophy? 
First of all, I don't see why there couldn't be different explanations for the underrepresentation of women in mathematics and in philosophy. But if we grant that the explanation for one is the explanation for all, it is still entirely plausible that academic departments in mathematics, physics, and philosophy are far more hostile to women than academic departments in anthropology and psychology, even in the same university. 

Quick exercise: name a famous anthropologists. 

OK, was that anthropologist female? Did you name Margaret Mead? Jane Goodall? Dian Fossey? Mary Leakey? How about Ruth Benedict or Zora Neale Hurston? Maybe that woman on whom they based the TV show Bones, even if you can't remember her name? Chances are, if you can name any famous anthropologist, she was a women.

Now repeat the exercise with philosophy, mathematics, or physics. 

Perhaps you see the problem.

Anthropology as a modern American discipline was founded by Franz Boas, who recruited and guided a number of female students into prominence back in the first half of the 20th century (including Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Zora Neale Hurston). Ours is a discipline based on the ideal of equality. As Benedict wrote "The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference." By virtue of our training as anthropologists, we have an awareness of gender inequality and systemic power differences in society. Anthropology developed in the context of colonialism - a legacy still hanging on our shoulders - but for a century this has been a discipline where women had opportunities that were denied to them in many other fields. And as more women entered the field, they encouraged even more women to find a home here. Female anthropologists expect to find mentors, acceptance, and respect within the field. No, that's not universal, but it's the expectation, not the exception.

In contrast, a friend of mine who is a professor of physics was recently assumed to be a hotel manager. Why else would a well-dressed, professional woman be in the hotel during a national physics convention, after all?

So, yes, it is entirely plausible that philosophy programs could create a hostile environment for women in a way that anthropology programs do not, despite the fact that they are both in the same university.

But it doesn't follow that the hostile environment proceeds from rampant sexual harassment. There are many ways programs can signal that women are not welcome. For example, if a senior member of the faculty were to write something like this:
...I think that it is also the case that certain traits of character are crucial to success in the most challenging intellectual disciplines, and that the different ways in which boys and girls are socialized, and perhaps also the different ways in which they may be treated in elementary and secondary schools, makes it unfortunately less likely that women will come to possess those traits of character that make for success in the more difficult, and more abstract, disciplines.
That's a direct quote from Dr. Tooley's rebuttal to the Site Visit Report. In his view, it's not sexual harassment that explains the underrepresentation of women in philosophy, it's that women lack intellectual character traits that allow them to compete with men. He acknowledges this is the result of socialization, not an inherent aspect of having two X chromosomes, but nonetheless women aren't up to the challenge of philosophy. The socialization that is to blame, he posits, occurs during the elementary and secondary years. So the underrepresentation of women in philosophy is not, in this view, the result of young women being dismissed by their university professors as unlikely to have the correct character traits for the field.

This brings up a fundamental difference between anthropology and philosophy. I've heard of sexual harassment cases in anthropology. I've heard of anthropology programs where inappropriate sexual relationships with students were rampant. Archaeology, in particular, is known for sexualized field environments. I wouldn't be surprised to hear about new cases sexual harassment in the future. But I would be absolutely stunned to find a senior anthropologist stating - in 2014! - that women don't have the same intellectual character traits as men*.

I don't know how Dr. Tooley's defense of his program will be received by other philosophers. The Site Visit Report may be fundamentally flawed, as he states. We don't have enough data to evaluate anyone's claims. But his response shows the lack of awareness that the administration was no doubt concerned about when they asked faculty not to "quibble" with the report. I can understand his anger over the publicity the Site Visit Report spawned, and his wish to speak out. In the court of public opinion, however, I don't think he's doing the program any favors.
*OK, I'm sure somebody will be able to come up with an example, but such a quote would definitely be an anomaly. Dr. Tooley's views may also be an anomaly within philosophy, I'm not familiar enough with the field to know. But a program that's being dragged through the mud for allegedly creating a hostile environment for women, should, perhaps, be particularly careful about such statements.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

And now for something completely different: Reviews of YA fiction

My daughter is seven. She's a voracious reader, plus I read a book chapter to her every night before bed. She's reading at a 5th grade level, so she's able to read books that she's too young to understand. For the last couple of years, I've been reading a lot of YA fiction to find books she will enjoy that are age appropriate and that provide her with positive messages about gender and diversity. Although it's a bit off-topic for this blog, I've decided to share my reviews with other parents.

Warning #1: these reviews are totally idiosyncratic. They're all about whether my daughter would like the book, so YMMV.

Warning #2: I include spoilers galore. I'm assuming that you don't want to read these books yourself, you're just looking for books your kids will like.

Warning #3: My daughter loves Harry Potter, so my reading tended toward fantasy novels. I won't be reviewing any Babysitter Club books here. (Wait, is the Babysitter Club still a thing?)

Warning #4: I'm a nasty, snarky reviewer. My nasty, snarky comments about the books I'm reading drive my husband nuts. You've been warned.

Alright, first review:
The Inheritance Cycle, by Christopher Paolini (includes four books: Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance)

Stop me if this sounds familiar: A beautiful princess (Arya), on a dangerous mission, is waylaid by the dark minion of the evil Emperor. In her desperation, she sends the precious treasure she is guarding to the only person she thinks can help, a once-powerful warrior – one of the last survivors of a noble order of magical soldiers – who is now living peacefully in the back of beyond under an assumed name. Instead of going straight to the old man, the, dragon, is picked up by our hero (Eragon), a young man of uncertain parentage, living with his uncle on a remote farm. Because of the dragon, the boy is not at home when the minions of the evil Empire track the lost treasure as far as the farm, and our hero returns to find his home destroyed and his uncle dead. He sets out to get revenge, meeting a long-lost sibling (whom he hadn't known he had lost), while being tantalized by visions of the beautiful princess, who has been imprisoned and needs his help to escape. He succeeds, but only after his mentor dies to protect him while battling the minions of the evil Empire. Our hero then travels to a dense, green forest where he meets a pointy-eared ancient warrior of the old order, the one-time teacher of the mentor-figure, who teaches him the way of the, magic. But, he hears his friends are in trouble, so he leaves his training, despite the teacher's warnings that he's not ready. Unprepared, he is confronted with dark secrets about his parentage, and....

OK, you get the idea. I found the highly derivative plot quite distracting. There was literally a scene where I expected the mentor-character to say “These are not the droids you're looking for.” We are saved from the “Luke, I am your father” scene only by luck. Other derivative features include Edding's silvery hand marking and McCaffrey's sentient, telepathic dragons. Give the author credit, though, for improving dramatically upon the Tokenien orcs.

The writing is also awkward, although it improves over the course of the series. In the first book, some of the descriptions literally made me wince, like this one from page 15: “A bit past noon he heard the Igualda Falls blanketing everything with the dull sound of a thousand splashes.”

On the other hand, the books were written by a sixteen-year old, and they represent a significant achievement for a teenage author. Most sixteen-year old's wouldn't have the discipline to write a full book, much less four books of this excruciating length. So, good on him. The characters are interesting. He does a good job of world-building. I can see why young adults/children, in particular, would be pulled into these books. 


Age-appropriate for a 7 year old?: Yes, except for the length. Each book goes three hundred pages past boring, but there's no inappropriate language, graphic violence or sexual content.

Positive gender roles?: There's only one major female character, Arya (the princess). She's a standard powerful-bad-guy-killing-but-still-pretty-and-primarily-a-love-interest kind of character. On the other hand, Arya and Eragon (the main character) don't actually end up together (although it's implied they will eventually). The portrayal of masculinity is pretty standard as well (focus on being a warrior, leadership, honor). For gender roles, I'd give this series a "meh", maybe a "meh plus", just because the love story doesn't have a standard ending.

 Does the book reflect diversity in any way?: Not so much.

Final verdict: I won't read this as a bedtime story. If my daughter gets desperate for epic fantasy, I'll let her try this and see if she gets bored. There's no harm in the story, but it's too long for elementary school children, and there's nothing particularly good about it, either.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cosmos: great, except where it's wrong

I loved Neil deGrasse Tyson's renewal of the great Carl Sagan's Cosmos series. Oh, the gorgeous science!

But one segment fell afoul of two of my pet peeves: 1) it perpetrated the myth that science and religion are enemies, and 2) it did so by seriously misrepresenting history.

Cosmos's producers chose Giordano Bruno, a 16th century monk who was burned at the stake for heresy, to represent the history of science. In their framing of his life, Bruno argued for an infinite universe, in which the earth revolved around the sun, and where the stars were themselves suns, all with their own circling worlds. The Church, frightened defenders of faith in the face of science, executed him, making him a martyr for science.

If your agenda is to prove that faith is diametrically opposed to science, then it's a good story. Too bad it's not true.

Giordano Bruno was a troubled man. He gained and lost important patrons throughout his life, as a result of his mercurial and abrasive personality. His vision of an infinite universe was exactly that: a vision. He was not a scientist, and while he was inspired by Copernicus, he was not an astronomer himself. His ideas about the world were not based on empirical evidence, they were based on a mix of visions and ancient philosophy that were no more scientific than a belief in bodily humors. He's an odd choice as a poster boy for science.

Furthermore, Giordano Bruno was not executed for his non-standard beliefs about the universe (either the ones that have subsequently turned out to be correct, or the ones that were just as wrong as his contemporaries' ideas). Bruno's "scientific" beliefs were a small part of his trial. He was executed for heresy: for denying the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and for his pantheism. The Church wasn't trying to shut him up because they were afraid of a heliocentric, infinite universe. They wanted an ordained priest to stop calling Christ a magician!

No matter what Bruno believed, he shouldn't have been executed. Today we'd consider it horrific to kill a man for his beliefs. That's why the Church doesn't execute people for heresy any more, just as the government of Great Britain no longer hangs children for picking pockets. But it is profoundly misleading to make Bruno's tragic story into a morality play about the role of religion in silencing science. The myth of Bruno-as-martyr-for-science developed in the late 1800's, when British naturalists tried to convince their skeptical countrymen that opposing the theory of evolution, (and other aspects of scientific thought), on a religious basis would make them like the much-reviled and maligned Catholic Church, the great bogey-man of British history.

Galileo, a true scientist whose empirically-based work was seen as a challenge to Aristotle, would have made a better choice. The complicated and politically-charged relationship between Galileo and the Church would have served as a much more accurate and illuminating story about science, religion, and politics.

Science and religion are not in opposition. To portray them that way is a disservice to both. This constant message is why students come to my classes convinced that they aren't allowed to believe in evolution, even if they are members of the Church that produced great evolutionary scientists like Brother Gregor Mendel (father of modern genetics), Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (who was educated by the Jesuits), and Blessed Nicolas Steno (a founder of modern geology).

Cosmos is wonderful scientific outreach, but by unnecessarily portraying religion as fundamentally opposed to science, it creates an image of scientists who are hostile to people of faith. If Cosmos continues with this theme, it will limit its own audience, and undermine its message that science is open to all.