Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Recent Reads

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Before I read this book, I thought I read everything I could on immigration, but obviously, I just read everything I can on the Mexican border. The conversation in the United States, or at least on the West Coast, is so focused on the border, the wall and Mexicans, that the dialogue often ignores the other people trying to enter the country and the discrimination that they face. Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story of Chinese immigration through the Golden Venture- a ship bearing hundreds of Chinese immigrants that crashed (intentionally) on the shores of Queens in 1993. (You can read the New Yorker article that became the book here.) He explains the history of why the Chinese people were on the boat in the first place and where they went afterwards. And tells the story of the mastermind behind much of the illegal immigration at the time- a female "snakehead" (like a coyote) named Sister Ping.

One of the interesting things about this book is that, while the conditions aboard the Golden Venture and other ships like it were deplorable, the people aboard chose to come and, in fact, paid hefty sums ($13,000+). Sister Ping was a well known "human smuggler" and had many tricks to get people from her home province of Fujian to the United States. Often, I think, we conflate human smuggling and human trafficking, though these two are not the same. Further, although Sister Ping was certainly getting rich through her smuggling business, she seems to have truly believed that she was doing something for her people- helping them get reunited with family, for example, or helping them earn a living. For the most part, Keefe portrays this complexity, but when Sister Ping appears to have gone off the rails a bit during her trial at the end of the book, he loses some of the empathetic view point and just depicts a crazy lady, lost in delusions that allow her to do anything for money. At its best, this book allows us to see not just a vicious woman trying to steal from poor, naive immigrants, but a complex picture of people trying to get from one place to another for economic and personal reasons, stymied by circumstances created by two world powers making policies who could care less about the individuals they are affecting. At its best, this is the story of immigration that I knew nothing about. At its weakest, this is an overlong New Yorker article about a boat.

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Talk about overlong. Michael Brandow has written a book (A Matter of Breeding) that has been hashed and rehashed on dog forums, among shelter works, among dog fanciers and the general public alike, but, as far as I know, has not had been written about in a published, non-scientific form. Breeds- are they real? Are they for good or evil? What should we do about them? I'll tell you one thing- if we should write books about them (and I think we should- I've thought about it myself), we should not write this book. Sorry, Mr Brandow, but this isn't it. The subtitle of this book is "A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and the How the Quest for Status has Harmed Man's Best Friend." Awesome, the reader might think, a book that deals with how we've fucked up dogs into biting monsters by making them look like something, that also has a sense of humor. As far as I could tell by reading the first 150+ pages of this book, the "biting" is an excuse for Brandow to be snide and sarcastic and homophobic. Brandow thinks he can get away with making fun of muscular gay men with an overbred frenchie (he exaggerates both the muscular gay men and the frenchie's weaknesses to the point of stereotypical lack of credulity) because he's a gay dog walker. It just comes across as crude. He goes over how breeds came to be, which might be news to someone without my background or interest in dogs, but somehow I doubt that anyone who picks up this book will lack that basic information. There is some interesting material in here about the relationships of dog shows to colonial America and Britain and about the class relationship between the two that I didn't know, but it's all shot a little bit by his (mis)use of the term "bulldog" without explaining which exact bulldog he means. I *think he's referring to the dog that eventually became the pit bull, but the average person doesn't understand that breed history, and since he repeats ad naseum that breed histories are all fantasies anyway, his insistence on the bulldog's import while conflating various bulldogs is a bit... maddening. And if you're going to write about breeds, let's call a wheaten terrier a wheaten terrier: it is NOT a Wheaton.

The other maddening part (besides repeating himself chapter after chapter) is the PETA-esque nature of the book. We get it: Brandow doesn't like the history of purebred dogs. Many of us feel the same way. Mutts are better (though, unless he gets to it later, he seems to subscribe to the theory of hybrid vigor, which is quite controversial, even contested by UCDavis), breeding is bad, people who want a purebred are boneheaded, knuckleheaded snobs. We all start there or go there at one point in our ideological animal welfare careers. Then we learn to see grey. Hopefully before we write books.

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"It's Not News, It's Fark" falls under the "good idea, poor execution" category. Fark is a word Drew Curtis made up in the 1990s to embody the concept of "news that is not really news." To get a sense of this, check out the website. Or don't even check out the website- pull up any local news website or newspaper and look for any story that might fall under one of these categories: Media fear mongering, Unpaid placement masquerading as actual article, Headline contradicted by actual article, The out-of-context celebrity comment, Seasonal article, Media fatigue or some other type of Lesser media space filler. Curtis divides up the ridiculous stories that make up this highlights of Fark book into these chapters- it turns out the book really is a best-of book combined with a media criticism book, which is probably why it doesn't really work. And the stories are really ridiculous, and they are really exactly the stories you read in the news every day, if you bother to read the news, or see on twitter if you follow any news outlet, or can't help hearing if you live in the world. The only interesting and meaningful bits are the two pages at the end of each chapter telling you WHY it's important and awful that media focuses on these things. For example, at the end of a few articles demonstrating how media gives "Equal Time for Nutjobs," Curtis explains that in theory, this is harmless. "The problem is that a Mass Media mention gives them instant credibility. The media audience automatically assumes that Mass Media wouldn't give coverage to anything they knew was patently false." So when media gives coverage to people who think they found Noah's ark or saw aliens or anti-vaxxers, even if they then disprove the "science," they've given credibility to the patently false things they disprove. And, as Curtis shows in other places in the book, most Mass Media is lazy: once it's printed one place, it's going to printed elsewhere, without an iota of fact checking. He goes on: "Equal Time for Nutjobs is exceptionally dangerous because ... the vast majority of people read only headlines. People have a reasonable expectation that Mass Media won't run wildly inaccurate headlines like 'Discovery Could Rock Archaeology.' The headline implies that the discovery actually WILL rock archaeology, ... Mass Media likes to throw up its hands and pretend that people know better. They don't."

Since reading this book, several stories of this sort have taken over the news: Laughing While Black, Jared from Subway is a child molester, and some crap about Pumpkin Spice M&Ms."It's not News" would work if it had given one or two examples and then delved into this kind of work: Curtis clearly has gone through thousands of articles more than anyone else over the last 15 years and knows what he's talking about. Instead, he bludgeons the reader with Fark that we don't want to read, comments from Fark-reading commenters and his own crude language and stereotypes (ala Brandow above).  Skip it.

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I've found my new Thomas Hardy in Alexandre Dumas. "Georges" is a fascinating read- both ahead of its time and a sign of its time. The title character is a mulatto from the island of Mauritius during colonial times. Similar to the Count of Monte Cristo, he is dissatisfied with himself and spends 14 years away from the island turning himself into a man he believes can get rid of the prejudice that rules the island.

I haven't read about Dumas- I don't know where he stood on colonialism or slavery or really anything, but I do know that he makes his characters who fight prejudice much more likable than those that don't: Georges's childhood (and adult) enemy Henri is an icky, unlikable momma's boy who "needed no further education; he already knew the most important thing: Colored men, all colored men, were born to respect him, and to obey." While the reader is following Georges self-improvement and heroism, it's hard to like Henri and his pompous ways. On the other hand, Georges's father, also a mulatto, is a slave owner, and there is clearly a difference in Dumas' attitude towards "real" black people and mulattoes. Georges's father is described as a wonderful, generous master whose slaves are thrilled to be owned by him: "They were well fed, well clothed, and fairly treated, and they adored Pierre Munier as the best mulatto in the colony; a man who was humble with the whites and never cruel to the blacks." When Georges arrives and gives them a little speech about how their conditions will improve even further now that he is back, he essentially says, you won't want to run away because you're so happy here, but does not grant them their freedom till later until in the book. Dumas notes of the small concessions that Georges grants the slaves that "It will doubtless appear quite alien to those sixty million Europeans whose happy fortune it is to live in constitutional freedom, but it was the first charter of its kind ever bestowed in that colony." We are to be grateful for the small favors that the mulatto grants his Negroes.

To make matters even more complicated, Georges's brother is a slave trader! So here is the noble mulatto, son of the humble mulatto, enraged at his brother who is complicit with the system and feels like it doesn't matter because he's earning a sweet living. As Dumas says, "By a strange coincidence, Fate had reunited the family made up of a man who had spent his entire life suffering from prejudice against color, a man who had made his living by exploiting it, and a man who was ready to die fighting it." Georges falls in love with a white woman (guess what- she's betrothed to the white enemy mentioned above), leads a slave rebellion, escapes a certain death and goes on to lead us through a romping entertainment. This could be a very dull book, if not for the intriguing way that Dumas has laid out the racial aspects of the tale. Written in 1843, "Georges" is a fascinating look back at colonial times through the lens of an author who does, in fact, seemed to be trying to make sense of colonialism, slavery and race through literature.


Luisa said...

Thanks for these book reviews -- I love 'em! And do read about Dumas, if you haven't already: link.