Posts in reading responses

Book Review: The Summer Prince

summerprincecover

I decided to read The Summer Prince based on the recommendation of Ellen Kushner and John Scalzi. I’m glad I did, I’m not a frequent reader of young adult fiction, but now I think that might be a mistake. It took me a little while to get into the swing of this book. Alaya Dawn Johnson is slow in laying down a rhythm and a melody in her pages and I stumbled along for a bit before my feet found the steps. Once I did, I enjoyed the rich and intricate dance she led me along.

The story is structured into four parts, based on the seasons and I didn’t realize I loved the book until the third section. Please don’t let this stop your from reading it;  I don’t think it is a failing of the book. Structurally, the beginning is less interesting than the rest of the novel, but Johnson is slowly setting the stage for a moving piece. Like a musician playing a classic piece, we’ve heard these notes before, but she’s able to give a virtuoso performance by taking the notes to a different place than we’re expecting.

There are two reasons I’d recommend this book to other readers. The first is the setting. It’s fabulous. Alaya Dawn Johnson has captured in her future city-state of Palmares Três a living and evocative mix of Brazilian Carnival, post-apocalyptic matriarchy, and a coming of age story that ignores our taboos. (It doesn’t flaunt contemporary hang-ups, it just refuses to acknowledge their existence, making an honest and innocent coming of age story possible.) The second is the emotional depth of June’s coming of age journey. Through her characters June, Enki, and Gil, Johnson is able to show us a lot about the nature of love that is sweet, tragic, and honest. She shows us a complex perspective on love that is neither cheap nor jealous but is both free and liberating.

The plot is adequate, there are all the expected pieces in their expected places. Nothing is missing, but if all this book were about is what happened in the story, it would not be remarkable. We’ve all read love triangles set in post-apocalyptic societies with bizarre social contests that victimize teenagers. You could draw a lot of crude lines between the structures in The Summer Prince to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. If you did, you’d be missing the point completely. The value of the story does not lie in its genre conventions. The value of The Summer Prince lies in telling us a familiar tale that takes us to unfamiliar places.

If you read The Summer Prince, and I hope you do, here are a couple of things to think about along the way. There are two prime myths from Western culture lying at the foundations of the story. We have an expulsion from paradise myth and the willing sacrifice myth. As you read about Enki and June finding the key to knowledge of good and evil, think about the role of the serpent. Where would you expect the temptation to come from and where does Alaya Dawn Johnson put it? Second, what is Enki saving people from? What is he saving people for? I don’t think these are idle questions and a lot of people have used the same central myths without the effect that Johnson manages with The Summer Prince.

Book Review: Andrew Blum’s Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Note: as part of my new reading project, I’m going to start posting book reviews on the site. This is the book I had queued up on Audible.com and it should clear the way for reviews of the diverse authorship I’m setting out to read.

Book Review

This is a solid book with good journalism about a piece of our information infrastructure that is vital, but poorly understood and frequently ignored. Andrew Blum sets out with a project: follow the cable out of his house back to the physical structure of the Internet. What follows is a interesting and personable exploration of global networking. Blum avoids technical talk, I didn’t have to use much of what I learned getting an ancient Network+ certification to follow him. {Tech: He briefly mentions TCP and IP and also the physical, network, and transport layers, but not in the context of the OSI model.} While Blum is no engineer, I think he make wise choices about how to frame his book. His story of following the tubes from his house to find the Internet is interesting. He identifies hidden parts of our global network structure and sheds some light on an industry that is usually obscure. Sure, we all heard about Global Crossing when they went bankrupt, but Blum explains how the undersea fiber business works in lay persons terms that is illuminating.

I really enjoyed listening to Blum read Tubes. Many author-read books on Audible make me wish they’d have sprung for voice talent, but Blum does a good job here. I enjoyed the content and subject matter. I enjoyed his perspective, humor, and insight. Over all, this was very well done.

So, if you have ever been curious about how fiber networks are structured or want to know how the internet gets to your house, read this. If you want to more about the OSI network model, router protocols, or packet switching, look elsewhere. If fiber networks and physical infrastructure bore you, avoid at all costs.

My Year of Reading Diversely

We’ve Been Talking About Gender:

In the circle of librarian blogs that I sometimes inhabit we are currently talking about gender. More specifically, people have been writing about bad behavior, institutionalized biases, and the caustic results of these things. I’m also working (struggling) to write a post for the ACRL Tech Connect blog about diversity in the technology community. More specifically,I’m trying to acknowledge that the smooth path I followed into tech fields may present barriers to others that I never experienced. How we can open new doors, widen existing ones, or do something that makes more people experience the empowering joy of technology in place of walls, barriers, and exclusion? I’d love to be an unreserved and enthusiastic proponent of self-empowerment through learning technology, but my enthusiasm is tempered by reservations stemming from disempowering experiences with technology reported by others.

So I’ve been reading a little about the experiences and perspectives of a broader range of people in technological fields. I’ve been focusing on blogs and personal accounts in library, technology, and video game circles. These are the circles I inhabit. I’ve been looking at things like Joseph Reagle’s Free as in Sexist: Free Culture and the Gender Gap, at groups like The Ada Initiative, and at Gabriella Coleman’s anthropology of hacker communities. In the midst of this, I stumbled across a Post titled Dear Male Allies: Your sexism looks like my racism at The Geek Feminism Blog, that seemed perfectly framed for my purposes. Yatima, the author of the piece, writes this gem:

It’s relatively easy for me to advocate for feminist change because I can – in Ursula Le Guin’s words – offer up my experience as my wisdom. My testimony is relevant, because I am a woman. It turns out to be much harder for me to advocate for race or ability or class issues, because oftentimes I just don’t know what these issues are. My racism, and my other *isms, are a function of (among other things) my ignorance. Privilege conceals from me the experiences of not-having-privilege.

This perfectly outlines the problem for someone struggling to be a clued-in, white, hetero, educated, middle-class, cisgendered dude. I want to live in a world where we can all experience the unfamiliar without feeling at-risk or threatened by the other. I want to work in places where “fit” is never considered as something to look for in a new hire. I want to hire new colleagues who don’t fit the status quo and can fill in our gaps and weaknesses with previously unconsidered perspectives. But I am unable to “offer up my experiences as wisdom” because I don’t have direct experience of most of these issues. At best I can say that working in organizations with gender balance and working for women running IT departments has been a wonderful experience. Gender diversity in the workplace has made my life better than it otherwise would have been. This is a perhaps a better way of phrasing my previous post. I’d like to make this about something more important than making my already privileged life better, but I can’t find a way to make a grand claim that doesn’t falsely assert control over a situation that is not mine to control. A central problem is people like me trying to control too many things and I don’t want to perpetuate that chain of stupid. There are few things less worthy of respect than a white dude mansplaining to others what it is like to experience oppression. I’m not going to do that, but I do want to do my part to improve things.

The Problems are Acknowledged, What do I do About Them?

So now what? Now that I’ve recognized that there are issues that I’d like to see solved. I’ve acknowledged that I lack perspective and experience to be a leader. There are better equipped, more highly skilled people for the task, so I should listen to them and follow their vision. Does this mean my response to diversity issues should be passive? I don’t think it has to be. I think I can find a middle ground between taking control (the stereotypical role for white, straight, cisgendered males) and passively accepting injustice. It is especially important to find this balance when the entrenched system of  injustice works to my advantage.

For now, I think this middle ground is learning. I want to fill in the gaps I have and gain more understanding. So I’m going to follow Yatima’s advice and read fifty works by people from backgrounds different from my experience. Yatima suggested the 50 works by people of color livejournal group, but I think I need to include gender, ability, and sexual diversity as well as ethnic diversity in my reading project. So, I’m going to tag books with #diversity-50 in my LibraryThing and Goodreads streams and set a goal to read or listen to fifty works by people with perspectives significantly different from my own. I’m a fan of new media, so this isn’t a book-exclusive project. Games, comics, video, and other creative media are all fair game. Recently my pleasure reading has been mostly speculative fiction, but I’m open to other genres.

Will you join me? Will you help me?

A Year of Reading Diversely: #diversity-50

Disclaimer: this is not my idea, it is not a new idea. I take no credit for this idea, but I think it is a good one and I’d like to invite others to join me. In 2013 I’m setting myself the goal of reading 50 works by writers of color and other creators who have a cultural perspective different than my own. I think I have a lot to learn and this is a great way to start to fill in some gaps. I’d love it if other librarians and friends joined in. If you don’t share my need for an influx of new perspectives, will you share reading suggestions from your experience on great work that has been overlooked? Will you share this project with your followers on Twitter, Facebook LibraryThing, or Goodreads? Collective readers’ advisory is a great thing and I’m eager to discover new things to read. I read a lot of fiction, but as a librarian it has never been something I’ve worked with directly. So I’m hoping to get suggestions and opinions from the experts. There is a wealth and a huge body of great material out there already, gathered and curated by librarians who are much better at this sort of thing than I am. As you will note, my pleasure reading is mostly fantasy and science fiction. I’m open to other things, after all that’s one of the points of the whole exercise.

Sacrifice

Since I have limited reading time, this means some things I’ve been looking forward to reading are going to have to wait a bit. So, Douglas Coupland’s J-Pod, Robert Harris’ Conspirata (I’m sad to delay reading his 2nd novel of Cicero and Roman politics), The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi, and Ian MacDonald’s The Dervish House are going to gather a bit of dust before I can get to them. I’m sure the authors will understand. I’m also not going to include my professional and technical reading in the program. I’m still going to read, of course, but I’m not going to count professional reading toward my #diversity-50 list. While I have a lot to learn from women in my field, I would be reading them anyway and it seems a dodge to include them in the project. So while I’ll still be reading Kathleen FitzpatrickSherry TurkleCathy Davidson, and Jane McGonigal, I think I share a disciplinary and academic framework with these thinkers that my #diversity-50 project is attempting to pierce.

Starting Out

The first of my fifty books is going to be The Summer Prince, a new release YA novel by Alaya Dawn Johnson that sounds perfect. It comes recommend by two authors I adore, Ellen Kushner and John Scalzi. After that, I may try to revisit Cities of Salt by Abelrahman Mufif. I started reading this years ago in the middle of  a Paul Bowles phase, but I put it down halfway through. I’m going to read Alice Walker, because she’s amazing and I won’t be ALA to see her in person. I’m going to FINALLY read Octavia Butler I’m ashamed of this gap in my education. Which of her books should I start with? Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is definitely on the list.  If any of my readers are looking for suggestions, ask your public librarian. Really, they will be more widely read than I. My suggestions include two of the absolute best things I read last year: Dr. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Also, Naghib Mahfouz’ Children of the Alley is the only Arab novel to win a Nobel Prize for literature. It’s worth all the acclaim and more.

I’m not going to include books by white dudes writing about issues of diversity, but I’m open to having my mind changed by compelling arguments. I’ve had a copy of Craig Thompson’s Habibi on my to read pile for a year. It may be an excellent comic, but I’m looking for new perspectives, not familiar perspectives on diverse subject matter. I’m on the fence as to whether Brian Selznik’s Wonderstruck should count. I’m voting no, but I’m open to having my mind changed. My goal here is to open myself to perspectives that are foreign to me, and so worthy books written by people like me don’t seem to count.

If you can think of great material for my #diversity-50, please let me know in the comments. You can connect with me at Librarything and Goodreads.