Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Review: The Twisted Sisterhood by Kelly Valen

The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female FriendshipsThe Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships by Kelly Valen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is important subject matter that merits more thoughtful treatment than it receives here. One might think that Valen is just the person to write on this issue, given her painful experience of being blamed by her sorority sisters for her rape. But I think that may be what handicaps her: the issue is just too painful for her, and she lacks perspective. Whatever the case, this is less a nuanced look at a complex issue than it is a generous helping of familiar mean-girl, queen-bee and green-eyed-monster stereotypes, padded with a lot of tiresome ranting and unsuccessful attempts at humour.

First comes a chapter on how wonderful female friendships allegedly are. It's unnecessary and outside the book's purported mandate, but it's there because Valen is scared that women won't like her if she doesn't put it in; after all, she was flamed online after writing of her sorority experiences, and is understandably nervous. It strikes me that if there'd been more here on this female fear around not being liked, and the inauthenticity it produces, this would be a better book.

But Valen deals only with nastiness, not excessive niceness, and thereby misses half the female equation, in my opinion. There is some interesting, in fact horrifying, information about female bullying and the damage it can do, from various sources as well as the author's own survey. What is lacking is insight on what created this state of affairs, and how it can be bettered. Valen makes it clear that we can't just blame men—much ranting is expended on that issue. Fair enough, but patriarchy is something that men and women both participate in and keep alive, and I would have liked to see some thoughtful exploration on how it might be contributing. What, after all, must it do to girls to be told explicitly that they can be whatever they want, while receiving the message implicitly that they must first and foremost be beautiful and desirable? Is this not confusing and disturbing, and might it not explain some of the strange behaviour girls exhibit towards other girls that they perceive as too pretty, or not pretty enough?

But Valen is tired of "blaming men," which is what she thinks feminism is all about. She even suggests that feminism may be part of the problem(!). "How is it..." she writes, "that we can progress into a new age of female competence and greater equality... only to find that our competitive spirits have deepened and we're tearing down one another as much if not more than ever?" The evidence that we're tearing down one another as much if not more than ever is nowhere to be found. We are expected to take it on faith.

Subtlety and insight are in short supply. Valen can't seem to decide whether she should be outraged, appeasing, or attempting to diffuse tension with humour, and so we are treated to sentences like this: "Maybe you're among the legions of women I heard from who were traumatized or marginalized in school, in girls' summer camp, sororities, at work, or in the cotton-pickin' sandbox because you were fat, Jewish, poor, acne prone, dressed like a dork, boasted a confidence, brain, or beauty that threatened others, or did something that managed to trigger an estrogen-laced, Lord of the Flies-like wrath." There's a lot to cringe at in this sentence, but what tops the list for me is "cotton-pickin'." Good grief, lady, you're writing a book about how women should be more sensitive to each other's feelings. How about showing some sensitivity to other races while you're at it? (The author is white.)

I think ultimately Valen is too close to this issue to see it clearly or analyze it well, and this sinks her book more than either her questionable writing abilities or her questionable sense of humour. Still, I admire her for having had the courage to write it.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review: The Sharing Knife Part 3: Passage

Passage (The Sharing Knife, #3)Passage by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the end of Book 2: Legacy, Dag decides to leave his Lakewalker camp and travel among farmers so that he can find a better way for Lakewalkers and farmers to live together, neither apart nor as lords and serfs. (Somewhat to my annoyance, he does not discuss this ahead of time with Fawn; he just makes the announcement. This marks Fawn's transformation into traditional tag-along wife and helpmeet.) Fawn arranges them passage on a riverboat in exchange for work, and they float down the Grace and Grey. Joined at the start of their voyage by Fawn's brother, Whit, and an injured boy, Hod, they soon pick up a couple of young Lakewalker patrollers, and a sort of unofficial river patrol begins to form, with Dag as leader. The boat Boss, Berry, is on a mission to find out what happened to her father, brother and fiance, missing since the previous season. They find out the ugly truth, not a Malice, but malice in human form, and the unofficial patrol camp joins up with several boaters to deal with the matter.

While Book 1: Beguilement is devoted to Fawn and Dag's blossoming romance, and Book 2 shows us how Lakewalkers live and fills us in on their history, Book 3 is very much Dag's book. Dag is struggling to develop his new-found medicine maker powers with no mentor to help him. He performs odd experiments, sometimes putting himself in danger, but overall he has more success than failure, and his powers grow. Fawn falls into the background, making dinner, offering support, going shopping and coveting wood stoves, dreaming of settling down and making babies. As Dag discovers power, she nurses domesticity. Some readers may find this unsatisfactory. For myself, I'm not sure. Certainly the traditional depiction of women in SF and F as either sexpots for men to rescue or career women embittered due to lack of a man, was inadequate. But the common modern-day solution of demanding that all women in fantasy be "kick-ass" and apparently infertile and without menstrual cycles is also inadequate. Bujold's depiction of this particular 19-year-old woman in this particular universe may be the compromise most appropriate to the story.

An aspect of this book that I appreciated is Bujold's handling of trauma. This too stands in sharp contrast to most SF and F fiction, in which the hero goes through all sorts of horrible experiences and emerges totally unaffected and free of PTSD. Bujold's handling of Fawn's flashback and emotional reaction as she revisits the malice cave (from Book 1) is sensitive and true.

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Book Review: The Sharing Knife, Part 2: Legacy

Legacy (The Sharing Knife, #2)Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Beguilement, Book 1 of The Sharing Knife, Fawn and Dag successfully overcame farmer opposition and Fawn's lack of groundsense to become both married (in the farmer tradition) and string-bound (in the Lakewalker tradition). But more than simple newlywed bliss awaits them, as Dag takes his new bride to his Lakewalker home and has to deal with opposition to his union. It turns out to be much more intense than what he faced from Fawn's family. His family, arguably the more dysfunctional of the two, decides to challenge the validity of the string-binding in counsel. To complicate matters further, another malice has appeared, this one much larger and more powerful. Dag and Fawn must separate for a time, so that he can go fight the malice. But Fawn is no passive female, and in this book, as in the previous one, her unasked-for, unrespected farmer interference in Lakewalker business turns out to be essential. Not that anyone other than Dag appreciates it, and their marriage is none the less challenged in counsel.

While Book 1 was devoted largely to Dag and Fawn's relationship, this book fills in more of the backstory of this world. We are given at least a sketchy idea of how malices came to be in the first place, and we learn that Lakewalker/farmer relations used to be very different—which is not to say better.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Book 1, I loved Book 2. I am eagerly anticipating my dive into Book 3: Passage.

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Book Review: The Sharing Knife, Part 1: Beguilement

Beguilement (The Sharing Knife, #1)Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When farmer girl Fawn gets herself in trouble (in the old-fashioned way), she runs away from home, but ends up finding even greater trouble, in the form of a malice. Fortunately, she also finds Dag, the alluring though much older Lakewalker.

Lakewalkers roam the land seeking out and destroying malices, creatures that suck the life out of everything around them. Despite performing this important service, they are not well-liked by farmers, who fear them as necromancers. Lakewalkers, in their turn, hold the farmers in contempt and see them as something like ungrateful children. So you can imagine that when Dag and Fawn fall in love and want to get married, the reaction on either side is less than positive.

This first book is mostly about the romance blossoming between Dag and Fawn, but it also begins to fill in the background of a complex and fascinating world, where everyone has a life force, known as a "ground," that can be detected and manipulated by those with a "groundsense"—mostly Lakewalkers, but also the rare gifted farmer. Where immaterial, immortal beings called "malices" clothe themselves in flesh and gain strength by consuming the ground of all living things around them, resulting in dead areas called "blights." Where said malices can be "taught mortality" through the sharing knives, which are made through the deaths of two people, and are so called because they share their deaths with the malices they pierce.

Featuring likeable characters, tense adventures, and even a believable and sensitive sex scene (yes! who would have thought it possible?), this is a compelling and promising start to the quadrilogy.

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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Is There a Use for Signed English?

You are left out of the dinner table conversation. It is called mental isolation. While everyone else is talking and laughing, you are as far away as a lone Arab on a desert that stretches along every horizon…. You thirst for connection. You suffocate inside but you cannot tell anyone of this horrible feeling. You do not know how to. You get the impression nobody understands or cares…. You are not granted even the illusion of participation….

You are expected to spend fifteen years in the straitjacket of speech training and lipreading… your parents never bother to put in an hour a day to learn sign language or some part of it. One hour of twenty-four that can change a life time for you.
~Shanny Mow, quoted in 179n of Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf.

Signed English is not a language in itself. It is the transposition of a spoken language into sign, and as such can never be the native language of a deaf person. American Sign Language (ASL), on the other hand, is a complete signed language and is the native language of deaf people throughout the United States, most of Canada[1], and a few other countries as well. Yet listen-up.org claims that Pidgin Signed English "is probably the most widely used communication modality in the United States among deaf and hearing persons who work with them." Why should this be?

I'd never even heard of Signed English until recently, when I began a concerted effort to teach myself ASL with the help of Lifeprint.com (a fantastic resource, which I may say more about in a later post). I found mentions to Signed English on a number of the pages on this site. I had no idea why anyone would bother learning Signed English when they could learn a real sign language like ASL, and so I had little interest in finding out anything about it, until I came across the Day sign page. Here is how you sign "day" in ASL: Support the elbow of your dominant hand with your opposite hand, then sweep your hand into the crook of your other elbow, like the movement of a clock hand. Bill Vicars notes that the dominant hand can be flat or have the index finger pointing, but adds, "I don't recommend a 'D' hand[2], that is Signed English."

Finally, my curiosity was piqued. Whatever Signed English was, it had had enough of an impact that Lifeprint.com founder Bill Vicars felt the need to warn against making SE-like signs when signing ASL. That's when I decided to find out more about it.

I did a search for "signed english" and quickly found listen-up.org's comparison of the different signing systems. The page tries to adopt a neutral tone while discussing the options, but nevertheless displays a clear bias towards Signing Exact English (SEE), which sets itself apart by representing every English word and word ending. I imagine this makes it even more tedious and time-consuming to use than regular Signed English, but the site's author touts SEE as a way for the child to develop an expanded (English) vocabulary, and as a system that "may be more comfortable for English-speaking parents."

The page equally displays a bias against ASL[3]. What stood out for me was this statement: "ASL is used by many deaf in the United States, thus its use promotes assimilation into the Deaf Community."

Well geez... you say that like it's a bad thing.

This was my introduction to the curious notion that deaf people should be kept away from the deaf community. The word "assimilation" has a clearly negative connotation. But that's ridiculous. Does anyone propose that Italian people should be kept away from the Italian community, or that Black people should be rescued from falling into the clutches of the Black community?

In Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, Oliver Sacks reveals that many hearing parents of deaf children have expressed to him their concern that their child will somehow be lost to them if it learns sign and becomes part of the deaf community (Sacks, 2000, 94n). They feel entitled to retain possession of their child, to exercise their influence on it and teach it their culture, and to that end, many of them attempt to deprive their child of sign while putting it through the intensive, years-long tutoring that is required to teach a deaf child to speak.

The irony is that through such actions, they will give their child ample reason to resent them, as shown in the quote above, perhaps helping to bring about more alienation from their child than the Deaf community and sign could ever accomplish.

Such fears are unfounded, of course. The Deaf Community is not The UnSeelie Court of the Fairies, looking to steal your child from you and put a changeling in its place. Your child's inclusion in another culture does not mean it is lost to you. Really, all children belong to a culture foreign to their parents anyway—the playground culture. And yet I have never heard of a parent fretting that they are losing their child to an alien world of clapping and skipping to rhymes with antisocial themes. (Really, what is that business about Tiny Tim dying with a bubble in his throat, and what does the lady with the alligator purse have to do with anything?)

There is, though, an interesting parallel with the fears that some people have about the gay community: that gay men are conspiring to convert their sons to the joys of homosexuality (so much more enticing and fun than straight sex, they seem to think), as if their sons would not become gay without this exposure.

I guess this shows that prejudice is prejudice, whether it is against gays or deaf. I don't think many hearing people realize that deaf discrimination exists. It may never have crossed their minds that the deaf could be an oppressed minority. I know it didn't cross mine until recently.

But they have been historically, and if things haven't changed substantially since Sacks wrote his book, then they still are. No deaf person, given a choice, would sign an imitation of a spoken language when they could sign a proper sign language. The proof of this is provided by Sacks, who indicates in Seeing Voices that children exposed only to Signed English and not to ASL will nevertheless produce their own true sign language[4]. They do this by dropping the sequential grammar inherent in Signed English and replacing it with a spatial grammar. The signs themselves are kept, but are used differently, in space, and the unnecessary components are dropped.

This is great news, because it means that even deaf children who are only permitted to learn Signed English and not a real sign language will still develop genuine signing capabilities. They will therefore be able to become fluent in ASL once they finally get a chance to learn it. They will not be deprived of a native language. That is the essential thing. Some deaf children are so deprived, because their deafness is not diagnosed early enough, or because their parents fear the deaf community and attempt to teach them to speak while avoiding any exposure to sign language at all.

This is a terrible thing to do to a human being. Everyone needs a native language. It should be a right enshrined in all constitutions and bills of rights. That it is not, is probably due to the fact that the issue does not come up except with children who were imprisoned in cellars by crazy parents, the severely mentally handicapped, and deaf people.

The window of opportunity for acquiring a native language is so small. According to Hearing Voices, a child who has not been exposed to a language before the age of five will probably never acquire the same fluency as someone who was so exposed, and if they only acquire a language after puberty, they probably won't acquire fluency in the language at all; it will always be a second language and will be an effort to use (Sacks, 2000, p65-66, 166n).

But the consequences of inadequate exposure to an appropriate language system before the age of five can be more dire than you might imagine. There is a difference between learning a second language when you have already acquired a first one, and attempting to learn any language when you never did acquire a native language during the critical period. A deaf child deprived of sign may even lack the concepts of language that the rest of us take for granted. Questions, for example, may be incomprehensible to such a child. Isabelle Rapin, quoted in Seeing Voices, described a boy who was unable to understand questions until they were rephrased as incomplete sentences (Sacks, 2000, pp. 45-46).

And while hearing parents might wish their deaf child's first language to be English, and English alone, this is not always possible, especially for the profoundly deaf child. To try and force the issue by denying sign is to gamble with the child's future, really the child's entire life.

It is somewhat difficult and unnatural even to discuss these issues in English, due to its built-in bias for spoken language. I want to use the term "mother tongue," which is the common expression and has a more poetic feel than "native language." Yet it is inappropriate, since signing makes little use of the tongue[5]. It might be more apropos to write "mother hand," except that then no one would know what I was talking about. This invisibility is what deaf people are up against.

Back to my point: Signed English turns out to have a use of a sort. It allows deaf people to have a native language, although in a roundabout sort of way. Of course, it would make more sense to make certain that your deaf child is taught real sign language (and to learn it yourself!), but in the event that hearing parents can't get past their surdophobia, Signed English may at least ensure that they do less damage than they might otherwise do.


After writing my first draft of this piece, I worried I was being too dismissive of Signed English. Is it possible that, beyond serving as a second-best sign language for children of surdophobic parents, Signed English has a value of its own? One might imagine that it would facilitate learning spoken language more effectively than ASL, which being a separate language does not map exactly to English.

So I turned to Google Scholar, but I was unable to find a trace of evidence that deaf children taught Signed English are able to learn to speak and read English any better than deaf children taught ASL. The most relevant article I could find was probably "How Do Profoundly Deaf Children Learn to Read?" by Susan Goldin-Meadow and Rachel I. Mayberry, which finds that "knowing a language (even if it is not the language captured in print) appears to facilitate learning to read." Thus it seems that Signed English offers no special benefit over ASL or other signed languages. The biggest advantage of it that I can think of is the ability to speak while signing. That's not as easily done with ASL, which uses different word orders. So Shanny Mow's family could have helped him feel included at the dinner-table by signing SE along with their conversation—if they'd been so inclined. It sounds as if they weren't.


1 Quebec has its own sign language. Back

2 "'D' hand" refers to making the 'D' shape with your hand, when fingerspelling. Back

3 I suppose any prejudice or insensitivity found on this site should come as no surprise given the odd choice of name: "Listen up!"—something a profoundly deaf person cannot possibly do. Back

4 "...James Paul Gee and Wendy Goodhart have shown dramatically that when deaf children are exposed to signed forms of English..., but not ASL, they 'tend to innovate ASL-like forms with little or no input in that language.'" (Sacks, 2000, p. 89). Back

5 Mind you, "native language" isn't really appropriate either, since the root of the word "language" is lingua, the Latin word for tongue. Back

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review: One Night @ the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat

One Night at the Call CenterOne Night at the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For its first three-quarters, this is a perfectly decent novel about a group of people working at a call centre. Shyam, the team leader and the main character, struggles to get over his old girlfriend, Priyanka, who works in his team. To add to his unhappiness, his boss Bakshi is an unprincipled moron who routinely takes credit for Shyam's ideas and work. Priyanka still has feelings for Shyam, but wants to make her mother happy, and her mother wants a "better match" for her. The other agents have their problems as well. Esha wants to be a model, but keeps getting told that she's too short. Radhika's mother-in-law is making her life miserable. The man known as Military Uncle says little, and suffers in silence with his secret pain. And finally, Vroom... well, Vroom is screwed up six ways from Sunday.

Their problems and interactions are told believably and engagingly through dialogue and flashbacks to dates between Priyanka and Shyam, which illustrate the deterioration of their relationship. Then comes the moment that they receive, on Shyam's cell phone, a call from God. Ironically enough, this is the moment when the story goes straight to Hell. Each thing they do to "fix" their situation is more inappropriate and implausible than the thing before it. There were scenes that I read while squinting and scanning because that was the only way I could stand them. After all, I didn't want to abandon a book 18 pages from the ending, even if it deserved that.

How did things go so badly wrong? I wonder. It's tempting to blame the phone call from God. After all, this was a completely realistic novel up to that point. One might argue that the author had no business turning it into a fantasy three-quarters of the way through. However, I was willing to accept the God call. After all, the author prepares us for it in the prologue.

In my view, the failing is a moral one. What kind of person thinks it's appropriate to meekly tolerate a boss's betrayals without a word, then all of a sudden blackmail him with a made-up email and physically abuse him? There are abundant options between these two extremes, and a moral adult would try one or two of them before resorting to violence. A moral adult would find a better way to save a call centre than by terrorizing Americans with lies. (By the way, Americans are abundantly and enthusiastically insulted in this book, so think twice before buying it if you are American. I'm actually amazed it got picked up by an American publisher.) Perhaps an author who has not managed to become a moral adult is the one most likely to resort to a literal Deus ex machina to fix his novel. There is a species of laziness here, which itself is a type of moral failing. Furthermore, if the thoroughly unbelievable turnaround of Priyanka followed by the thoroughly unbelievable rejection by Shyam followed by the thoroughly absurd and painful-to-read romantic car chase and reconciliation (thank you, squinting and scanning!) is any indication, the author has watched far too many Bollywood movies.

Yes, the previous paragraph has a lot of spoilers in it, but that's OK, because you don't want to read this book. Trust me. That would be several hours of your life you'd never get back.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review of Rule Zero by Laurence Timms

Rule ZeroRule Zero by Laurence Timms
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you love non-stop action, mayhem, explosions, wanton destruction and high body counts, with maybe a zombie thrown in for good measure, this is the book for you. Laurence Timms is a screenwriter, and it shows. If Rule Zero were made into a movie, it would be very much at home with the other Hollywood thrillers of the day, only perhaps even more so. Timms is what the genetically engineered offspring of Iain R. Banks and Douglas Adams would be like if he were also high on amphetamines.*

Towards the start of the story, when things are calmer, there are some humorous and even insightful moments, especially pertaining to Helen, the luckless fluff-piece-writing journalist who gets caught up in the dangerous game going on between the Ministry of Defense and its enemies. For example, "She was the kind of person who packed four kinds of nightwear for a weekend away on the basis that you just never knew. What it was you never knew she wasn’t sure, but in Helen’s book equipping oneself with a choice of nightwear went some way to mitigating the horror of the unknown." These felicitous observations last until the action gets underway in earnest (up until that point, several people have tried to kill Helen, but it turns out that's nothing compared to what's coming), and then things are rather grim for quite some time.

To my mind, the novel's biggest flaw is its length. There is so much of it, so many different characters and different things going on, that the problem is twofold; a great deal to remember, and plenty of time in which to forget it. So I often found myself thinking things like, "Who's that guy again?" "What is this SMILE company trying to achieve, anyway?" and finally, "Was that explained earlier? Because I didn't get that at all. Did I miss something?" I expect that won't be an uncommon experience for readers. It might be a good idea to keep notes. Failing that, you might have to read the book twice to fully understand it.

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* And yes, he is British. Why do Brits write so much better than North Americans, by and large? Is it the educational system? The canings? Tea with milk? Frequent rain? I don't know, but I must find out. Back