book review: hidden figures

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is pretty much what the title implies. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of the West Computers, starting from the WW2 days when computers meant people who did math, up to the Apollo 7 mission. It was a story I hadn’t heard before, not like the women of Bletchley Park breaking the Nazi codes in WW2 (though I suppose even the Bletchley story isn’t something I grew up hearing).

The story is interesting and Shetterly tells it well, though it does meander through a few people’s stories, meaning it doesn’t have a person to hang the story on (I imagine the movie version was more focused than the book is). It felt a bit like a lot of anecdotes plus authorial interjections about how meaningful that was.

One thing I wanted a lot more of was what exactly these women did. I wanted to see some math, instead of just taking the author’s word that they were doing very smart things. I kind of got the impression that Shetterly didn’t trust her audience to actually find the math interesting, and that put a bit of an interpretive distance between the text and me. It also felt a bit like a model-minority narrative, but that’s less about the book than about the decision to write this specific book, so whatever. Also, the military-industrial-complex rah rah ing (look how much these scientists had to do with the B-29 that delivered death to millions of people) was something that raised my hackles.

But in all, it was good.

book review: the divide

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap is Matt Taibbi’s book about how economic inequality affects the American judicial system. How if you have huge amounts of money you will never go to jail but if you have no money you will be hounded by the police for walking down the sidewalk. It was incredibly depressing, but a good read (especially as a companion to Piketty’s Capital which was talking about how the wealth gap grows).

I don’t have the experience of getting thrown in the back of a police van for walking home from work as part of a commercial fishing approach to policing. I also don’t think that the laws should turn away from companies that steal and commit fraud just because there might be collateral consequences to the economy (which is something the Obama administration argued and has become part of banking prosecutions such as they are in the U.S.).

Part of the most depressing part of this book is that it was written in 2014, so pre-Trump. All the deportations and massive fraud investigations and fuckups that hugely and disproportionately affect poor americans, that was under Democrats. Trump deporting people isn’t new. Obama deported thousands and thousands by letting states use traffic stops to get immigrants into Immigration’s clutches. Yes the jackbooted thugs are ever more fascist, but it’s not like America has been a good place for non-white people before 2017-01-20.

book review: the dark tower (complete series)

Last July I began reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I finished it last week. I’m glad I read it but there were definitely aspects I liked more than others.

I came to the series through Jon Rosenberg’s Scenes From a Multiverse‘s Gunshooter strips and the upcoming movie. I like to know about these big event pieces of fiction that people will talk about even if I haven’t been to a movie theatre since Fury Road (no wait, I saw The Force Awakens in the theatre). In this case I wanted to get a bit of my own opinionating underway before the flood of other people’s thoughts overwhelm me. Casting Idris Elba as the gunslinger pissed off racists (Rosenberg’s second wave of Gunshooter strips reflected this casting) so that’s cool, but I wanted to have more of a reason to care about this story, and that meant reading it.

There are seven books in the series and they range unevenly between post-apocalyptic western and alternate-universe-hopping Sliders knockoff and self-indulgent hamhanded metafictional pastiche. I liked it best when it was doing the western thing (The Gunslinger (Gunshooter interpretation), the middle 3/4 of Wizard and Glass and the non-priest-focused parts of Wolves of the Calla), and the ending was pretty great. I hated the Doombots and the Harry Potter references and the “Stephen King: maintainer of the universe” bullshit. The way things were kludged together in terms of timelines and reinventing how timetravel worked with a handwave about a keystone world annoyed me, as did most of the dialogue.

But. I’m glad I read it. I like it as a frame for reading the rest of Stephen King’s work through. It felt supremely self-indulgent but that’s what you trust an author with, right? If it had ended worse I’d have been pissed off, but it ends well (deus ex machina note from Stephen King aside).

The Problem With Censorship is XXXXXXX by Cory Doctorow Shred under a CC-BY-SA2.0 License

my “censorship & kidslit” talk @ VIU

I was asked to talk to an English Class at Vancouver Island University this week. They’re doing Topics in Children’s Literature and their topic is censorship. I had a really good time, even if I didn’t hit the basic information as much as I could have. I probably should have talked more about policies and how book challenges actually get processed at a public library. Instead I focused on what I see as the interesting tension between Access and Inclusion. Here’s my script, which I didn’t follow exactly. It is not as rigorous as it could be, and follows my idiosyncratic views rather than trying to speak for all librarians. Selah. (I’ve excised the “who I am” bit since you’re on my blog here.)

First off, apologies for cussing. I am very good at holding my tongue with knee-high audiences, but figure we’re all adults here.

When you become a librarian and think about censorship there’s this idealized notion that what will happen is some mob will arrive at your door to burn all your Calvin & Hobbes books and you get to heroically defend the innocent singlehandedly, the lone purveyor of truth and wisdom in a world of bookburning KKK wannabes who hate the idea of children being human.

That is not how it usually plays out. Mostly it’s more complicated and boring than that. Part of the reason it gets complicated is because a public library is supposed to be welcoming to everyone, and because of that we don’t just deal with books as idealized objects but also with people.

  • your reading addresses how that can be co-opted
  • dang I hate safelibraries [which was a big part of the assigned reading -jju]

Just to situate ourselves here, in my view librarianly ethics – and that’s what censorship issues come down to – come down to Intellectual Freedom, Privacy, and Access to Knowledge. Those apply to academic libraries & public libraries, collections (stuff we have in the library) & programs (the stuff we do in the library).

Let me tell a story. A dad comes in. He asks to talk to a librarian about a book he was reading with his son that he felt was inappropriate. It was a Batwoman comic that depicted a (very PG-13) lesbian love scene in a montagey kind of flashback. “How did this get into the children’s area?” was his main question. And in my experience (in 21st-century Canadian public libraries) that’s how censorship issues come up.

We can come back to that later if you want. [We didn’t. Sorry. -jju]

When it comes to collections I tend towards celebrating the old saying “there’s something in the library to offend everyone” and “the best answer to bad speech is more speech.” This isn’t the approach that every member of the public wants out of their library, especially when it comes to their kids.

Now here’s the problem with library collections. We only have limited budgets. We can’t buy everything. But there’s so much product out there – not necessarily literature but product, especially in kidslit. So much of it is so shitty. We buy bullshit Barbie paperbacks and they circ like nobody’s business. Anything made by a gigantic corporation is not going to be offensive to the SafeLibraries folk. It supports the overcultural domination and well yeah. And we buy that shit all the time.

And here’s another secret: in a lot of library systems including ours librarians don’t select the books. It’s all outsourced, which is bullshit. We basically just get whatever our salespeople think we need, which means whatever they get cheaply.

The interesting stuff happens, like with anything when it’s a bit less about the corporately produced bullshit. There’s tonnes of boring bullshit out there. And yes we have it in the library. Claims (like the SafeLibraries blog mentioned in your reading) that there is somehow more genderqueer stuff in the teen section than monoculture hegemony enforcement is totally untrue.

But. There’s room to think otherwise, and that’s down to how people interact with the collection and what we librarians prefer to talk up.

Librarians don’t get jazzed about things unless they’re awesome or terrible but we’re filled with mediocrity. We love to talk about the picturebook about the penguin with two daddies and how important a YA story about nerds who are overweight and Asian-American and in love is for readers. The mediocrity surrounds those stories, engulfs them, but when a reader finds something to connect to, that speaks to their circumstances, that says “You are a real person” that is so important. We need to have all sorts of stories in the public library because this is where readers with no money and no voting power can find the information they need.

We’re never going to not have any goddamned James Patterson (whose machine also writes for kids). Our culture is designed to manufacture lowest common denominator product instead of art. You can see that in all the knockoffs of amazing books that become a trend. Yeah the Hunger Games are violent but they’re also deeply about agency in a world that hates you. Knockoffs take the surface elements and try to make more cash off them.

There is room in public library collections for books that treats sex among young people like a thing that happens and explores different points of view than the white cis-het hegemony. Basically to the SafeLibraries dude who is all outraged that there is material that offends them in the library I respond in the “You have an entire culture and the discriminating force of the state behind you. Chill the fuck out.”

For me what makes these discussions interesting and kind of unique in the public library context is the intersection between the book and the community of users. One of the most obvious ways that happens is less about what is in the collection as what a librarian chooses to highlight, especially in our programming like storytime. So, let’s do some storytime.

cover of the picture book I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen featuring a bear who is not wearing a hat.Here we read I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

You can see why that story is awesome, but there’s also – every time you read it in a storytime – the option to sanitize it. You leave out that last page and it’s just cute. Keep it in and it’s amazing. I love this book because it’s introducing the preschool set to noir fiction and ends justifying means and the grim realities of justice. Finding out about reality and different perceptions of that reality through the safety of words (and pictures) on a page is the whole goddamned point of reading. No one challenges I Want My Hat Back saying it shouldn’t be in the library, but every time I do it in storytime there’s a murmur among the adults about how that isn’t quite as cute as it started out.

There are tonnes of stories that are awesome but when you put them into a context they get inappropriate. A couple of months ago I read a story called The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer to an aboriginal class because I love the art and the flipping of the villains of the story. But it has these robbers ending up by kidnapping a bunch of kids and building a shining city for them which in the context of residential schools and truth and reconciliation and all of this stuff well ack! what am I doing? This is blundering into dangerous territory!

And then there are things like Tintin in the Congo where the depictions of Africans are racist as hell (although not as bad as they were in the original edition), or Tintin in America with its “redskins” and “savages” and headdresses. What do we do with that? Do we remove these stories from the collection so we don’t run into the danger of offense?

For me at least – and everyone’s boundaries are different – the craft of Hergé means you can’t throw that out. You need that in the collection. Now, I grant that you don’t need some white comics nerd forcing Hergé down the throat of your residential school survivor grandmother, but it has to be available and accessible for the people who do want to read it. Context is hugely important, and discussing why that was acceptable language at one time but not now is important.

Now, our library system has taken the view that parents can’t be trusted to do that contextual thing themselves, so Tintin in America (and the Congo) was removed from the kids’ collection where all the other Tintin books live and put into the adult nonfiction collection. That reclassification turns it from a story into an artifact of racism.

I don’t agree with this because (again, in my opinion, and let’s take it as granted that I tend towards the intellectual freedom maximalist end of the spectrum) it violates the librarianly ethic of access.

I’m on the side of the reader and moving things so readers can’t access them and having to ask the scary bearded dude at the desk is a form of preventing access for loads of people, not just kids. My view is that words are words and we can’t prevent people from having access to dangerous ideas just because they’re young. The library has to be a safe place to explore unsafe ideas.

But that’s my opinion. Librarians also argue that having racist material in the library makes it an unwelcoming place, an unsafe place like the rest of our settler society, and that inclusion has to be more of a concern that privileged white intellectual freedom nerds make it. I’m not having that language hurled at me with intent to dehumanize, so my claims it should be in the library could be taken to mean I value free speech more than actual people.

In my view that’s where the collection and the programming have different roles. I try to lean more on the side of inclusion and sensitivity when it comes to doing things in the library, and intellectual freedom when it comes to materials in the library.

I’m talking about this because this is where the tension is, not because I’m right or providing some cautionary example or whatever. It is just not as simple as people banning books because they say “fuck” in them or whatever, and that’s what I hope you get out of this.

Lastly, I’ve just got to put in my plug for my third ethic. To explore dangerous ideas safely you need to be able to do it privately, which is why when kids ask for information I damned well find them for them. You don’t ask for a parent’s permission even if it is an 11-year-old looking for Mein Kampf. That’s what our ethics of supporting Access to Knowledge, Intellectual Freedom, and Privacy come down to.

Thanks.

The post-talk discussion went into some interesting places including how the class had already talked about the continuum of where students are at, and triggers, and the guerrilla tactics groups can use to manipulate the public library to keep books they don’t like out of circulation without issuing formal challenges. It was a good time.

book review: the book of cthulhu

The Book of Cthulhu is a collection of short stories based on H.P. Lovecraft’s work. These are all stories that were written in the last thirty years and are the kinds of things that make me overlook a lot of HPL’s actual terribleness (inre: sexism & racism). The mythos, the secrets, the sense of foreboding are all what I like in a horrific world, and because these stories aren’t written by an early 20th century weirdo they don’t have the same kind of baggage.

Indeed, there were a number of stories in the collection that dealt with race pretty much head-on. I loved David Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness” which was a colonialist tale of Africa in which the heroes (a British scholar and American gunman) team up with a pack of pigshit-terrible Belgian slave-drivers to stop a summoning ritual by a cult the Belgians have been feeding through their murderous disfiguring practices in the pursuit of rubber. This was a story where the Belgians are constantly using the word nigger and chopping off black people’s ears and genitals and generally being horrible human beings, but they’re also necessary. It’s a story about evil and siding with evil and fighting evil and by the end of the story you feel kind of terrible that they did manage to save the world. That’s a mythos tale for you.

Also, Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” was awesome because it posited a world where yes, these creatures existed and were inexplicable, but that just made them more interesting to scientists. It’s a science story instead of a horror story and it worked really well. Charles Stross’ “A Colder War” was about mythos weapons and their escalation, and Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Crawling Sky” was a pretty badass western featuring more rancid horsemeat than I expect in a story.

My least favourite story in the book was the Brian Lumley one about a circus sideshow. It felt too much like a Tales From the Crypt episode. Most of the book was really quite good though.

books review: dead mothers, the gravel in your guts, high lonesome (scalped vols. 3,4,5)

Last week I found three volumes (Dead Mothers, The Gravel in your Guts, & High Lonesome) of Jason Aaron’s Scalped on the library shelf and delved into them for a few hours. They’re the middle of the story so you’d want to start with Indian Country to make any sense of what’s going on.

The rest of this is less about these books and about how conflicted I am in liking them. So Scalped is a contemporary crime story set on a South Dakota First Nations Reserve. It’s brutal and violent and I’m a little wary of really loving it because there’s a lot of potential for it being totally racist. Or if not racist, at least unhelpful.

A few months ago at a local writers festival we had a first nations poet talk about her work and one of the things she talked about was that first nations people should tell first nations stories. That’s not something for white people to do. In the larger cultural milieu, Spike Lee took Quentin Tarantino to task for Django Unchained, because slavery wasn’t Tarantino’s history to talk about (Jesse Williams has a great essay about the problems with Django, which you should totally read).

At our writers festival people in the audience were disgruntled that this woman would be telling us that there are some stories we cannot tell. I completely get that disgruntlement. I have long held the idea that freedom of expression means that I can write about whatever the hell I want and deal with the consequences, and fuck anyone who tells me what is and isn’t appropriate for me to do. But I’ve been coming around to see how privileged a point of view that is, and how voices from the dominant culture telling those stories crowds out the voices telling it from the inside. You really don’t want people to be learning their American history from Django Unchained.

The thing is that I really like Scalped. I love the small-scale politics and the way people with scraps of power interact with the immovable force of the US government, and how Dashiell Bad Horse is tearing himself apart to do this job between two worlds. It’s a great story. Just one that makes me feel guilty for liking it, because I haven’t sought out neo-noir stories written by first nations people themselves. Scalped is easy because it’s published by DC Comics, and I haven’t gone beyond that easy corporate mass-media approach.

Anyway, if you like crime stories, and all of my hand-wringing hasn’t put you off, Scalped is definitely worth your time.

book review: should we burn babar? essays on children’s literature and the power of stories

I read Should We Burn Babar? because I’m interested in the idea of radical children’s literature. Herbert R. Kohl’s book is a collection of essays that are about this but are also about radical education, which, I guess would be more interesting to me if I were a teacher than a librarian.

The first essay, on burning Babar, is very good at looking at the racist colonialist enterprise that Babar is enmeshed in and questioning how to read this book with kids, and if we even should. Kohl’s conclusion is that it can be read, but it must be done critically so the readers don’t get sucked into the idea that all the troublesome things that happen in the story (the bringing of European customs to the naked elephants who are left behind, the complete lack of agency that Celeste has in marrying Babar, the fact that symbols like Babar’s hat are bandied about as if they self-evidently mean something in regard to power).

There’s also an essay on Pinnochio, which was interesting because of its focus on how the real story doesn’t turn him into a good little boy. He remains mischievous and more human than Disney would have you believe.

Once the book got into educational methods and things I lost interest. He’s obviously an older guy and I wonder how much of what he discusses as radical has been incorporated into education curricula these days. I’d be interested to hear what people with more knowledge of that kind of thing have to say.