Tag Archives: reviews

Fascinating book about our genetic heritage

For those who are curious about humanity’s common genetic origins, may I introduce the book Mapping Human History by Steve Olson. Here are three quick factoids from the book:

  • We all came from Africa. That may come as a surprise to many, but unless you want to throw science out the window and cosy up to creationism, that’s as much of a scientific fact as anything.
  • It’s impossible to accurately trace our family trees, no matter how well written records are kept. Why? According to medical research, there’s about a four percent chance of mistaken paternity. And the more generations you go back, the wronger it gets.
  • On the other hand, if you go back far enough, it is very likely that any one particular ancestor is your ancestor. Keep in mind that as you go back in time, the number of ancestors increases exponentially. After a certain number of generations, the number of ancestors you have is greater than the number of people living on Earth at the time. How is this possible? We’re related to each other through multiple lines of descent.

Don’t believe me? Read the book.

Mapping Human History by Steve Olson

The Roman Mysteries

As a child, I read voraciously and ate almost anything put in front of me. But my kids are picky. Not sure why. Is it genes? Or did I make some fundamental parenting error? Will they grow out of it?

Anyway, a children’s librarian pointed us toward a series called The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence. We ended up reading it as a bedtime book, and we’re all the way through book three. It’s good stuff. The main character, Flavia Gemina, solves mysteries in first-century Rome with her friends Jonathan, Nubia, and Lupus. Flavia is a polytheistic Roman from a well-off family, Jonathan is a Christian Jew, Nubia is a slave whose family was killed in the slave raid, and Lupus is a beggar boy who has had his tongue cut out.

As you might imagine, this series does not shy away from the harsh realities of Roman life. In the second book, people die terribly in the Mount Vesuvius eruption. In the third book, which we just finished, children (including our heroes) get kidnapped to be sold into slavery. All the same, it’s not too scary for our eight-year-old. How does Lawrence manage that? I do not know.

I had some reservations during the first two books. Flavia’s dad helped her buy Nubia, to save her from an unspecified worse fate. But the third book was pure win. My daughter and I had some conversations about whether or not Nubia really was a slave, since Flavia was nice to her and didn’t order her around, and whether it would be right for Nubia to run away, if given the chance. Without giving too much of the plot away, it’s fair to say that everybody learned a lesson by the end of the book. And Nubia was freed.

Anyway, definitely worth a look!

This Chick Digs “Chicks Unravel Time”

I dig it. Chicks Unravel Time, ed. Deborah Stanish and L.M. Myles, brings in a mad collection of feminists – fans, authors, artists – to take a look at every season of Doctor Who. And what a look! They give close examinations to everything from the use of stock music in Season 5 in Classic Who to David Tennant’s bum in Series 2 of New Who. (We women like every aspect of the Doctor, apparently.)

Here are a few shout-outs to essays that ringed a bell for me.

In “Guten Tag, Hitler,” Rachel Swirsky asks some pointed questions about the Doctor. As a child, Swirsky asked her mom if her family was safe from such persecution because they did not practice the Jewish religion. No, said her mother. So this episode takes on highly personal significance for Swirsky. She asks the very reasonable question of why the Doctor didn’t try to save the Jews from Hitler. “The Doctor,” she writes, “doesn’t save people from the all-too-real horrors of trenches and machetes. He rescues them from malfunctioning robots.”

In “Identity Crisis,” L.M. Myles writes, “[Patrick] Troughton’s not merely good as the Doctor, he’s the best.” Thank you, L.M. Myles. I’ve never heard anybody say that before, but I absolutely agree. She writes: “His performance combines humor, compassion, intelligence and mystery in a way that’s still unmatched by any other actor to take on the role” and “[his] whimsy and apparent uncertainty in his own abilities makes him a very different sort of hero.” Yes, and yes. Troughton is panicky as often as he is triumphant and out of control as often as he is successful. I love it. Who wants a hero who has everything handled?

In “The Women We Don’t See,” K. Tempest Bradford looks at Season Thirteen, companion Sarah Jane Smith, and all the other women . . . who weren’t there. “For most of this season, the Doctor travels alone with Sarah Jane – and in half the stories, she’s the only women we see, with the exception of extras and background people. This erasure is as glaring as the stereotypes we get when women do eventually show up.” I remember watching this season for the first time. And the second. And the third. And not noticing that omission.

In “No Competition,” Una McCormack argues that Season 26, with Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, is the best season ever. She writes, “Season Twenty-Six contains a magic combination of complex storytelling and satisfactory realization that, to my mind, is never quite matched before or since.” I agree it’s pretty darn awesome. Sylvester McCoy and his companion Ace are some of my favorite characters. McCormack writes: “Ace grows up, and Doctor Who grows up with her. Again and again, the season imagines women as heroes of their own narratives, as authors of their own stories.” Yeah. What she said.

In “Ace Through the Looking-Glass,” Elisabeth Bolton-Gabrielsen covers that story arc that Ace should have had, if the show hadn’t been cancelled. I didn’t know this, but Ace was supposed to train to become a Time Lord.

I’ve saved my favorite for last. In “Maids and Masters: The Distribution of Power in Doctor Who Series Three,” Courtney Stoker takes on the power dynamics between the Doctor and his companions. She writes: “Power impacts every relationship the Doctor has, but it’s not something Who fans talk about often. We like to pretend, I think, that the Doctor’s extraordinary power isn’t important. We like to think that it doesn’t affect him or his relationships with others. We like to think that if companions are ‘strong’ enough, sassy enough, smart enough, they are his equals. But no matter how many times a companion saves the Doctor, or how many times a companion stands up to him, they don’t have his power.” The rest of the essay is a frank assessment of power dynamics in Series Three. (Can I just add, on a related note, how disturbing and gratuitous I found the maid/Master dynamic in the tenure of Martha Jones?) I loved this essay because I am always analyzing power dynamics in Doctor Who relationships. I relish every last little bit of power the companions wrest from the Doctor or that the Doctor yields to the companions. And I love all the moments when the power dynamics between the Doctor and his companions shift one way or another. Stoker asks: “Are we fans as attracted to the Doctor’s power as his companions are?” Um, yes.

I’ve picked out these essays in particular, but the others are just as stunning. Go get it! It’s available as part of a box set on the Mad Norwegian Press website.

Scored by Lauren McLaughlin: Some Thoughts

Note: This is an expansion of a book I reviewed on the blog post “Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012” on aqueductpress.blogspot.com.

Scored by Lauren McLaughlin

This YA novel is the dystopia for our time. What happens when you put together No Child Left Behind high-stakes standardized testing with surveillance measures like spy-cams and GPS monitoring of cell phones, and then introduce a company whose product is a single score for every child, which colleges and corporations will then use to sort people?

That is the reality for Imani LeMonde, a high school student whose scores put her on track for a college scholarship — something that is otherwise out of reach for all but the very rich. The scores are supposed to establish a meritocracy to replace our system of inequalities, but something else is going on. Scores update minute-to-minute, and they depend not only on school performance but also day-to-day activities and peer group associations.

Imani’s troubles begin when her score drops precipitously because her friend Cady is kicked out of her house and moves in with a boy. This takes her off the college track, and if her scores drop farther, her only options will be welfare or the military. She has a choice to make — but it’s not the simple moral dilemma of whether or not to denounce Cady to regain her score, because that option is not open to her. Instead, she has to look deeply into the scoring system to understand how it works — and what matters to her.

The society pictured here is not far off the mark. Our teens and children will be subject to more surveillance than we ever imagined. Case in point: school records are kept in “longitudinal databases” where they can be tracked over long periods of time and across school district and state lines. And by school records I mean test scores, tardies, absences, ethnicity, dental records – you name it. (For a sneak peek of the hundreds of items that can be collected, visit http://nces.sifinfo.org/datamodel/eiebrowser/techview.aspx?instance=studentElementarySecondary.)

This information is being provided to the private sector without public comment or scrutiny. For example, the Seattle Public School district signed a Memorandum of Understanding with an organization called the Community Center for Education Results, indicating that the district would be sharing its database of student information with CCER. This database excludes “personally identifiable” information about the students according to the federal FERPA law, but because it is so specific, it is potentially identifiable information, particularly if you are nonwhite, use special education services, and so forth. Also, private sector organizations could easily combine this information with other databases.

(Thanks to the mirmac1 for her comment on Feb 21, 2013 on the blog saveseattleschools.blogspot.com.)

Just as one example among many, yesterday I went to the Pacific Science Center and visited an exhibit called “Professor Wellbody’s Academy of Health and Wellness.” This is a grant and foundation-funded exhibit. As part of the exhibit, children can join the “Academy” by entering information about themselves – first name, school attended, and health habits such as diet and sleep. So now there’s a database about kids per school, and a certain lack of clarity about who will get that information.

Ten years from now, could a prospective employer check the database for these types of information about my children? I bet. Could they get a score? I bet.

“The Feminine Mistake”

My spouse and I have been watching Laverne and Shirley. It’s a great show – accomplished actors, who can also sing and dance and take pratfalls like nobody’s business, with a feminist agenda snuck in so cleverly I completely missed it when I first watched it. I’m seeing it now, and what’s more, I’m seeing how much today’s television hasn’t got it. It has something else that today’s television is also missing: at their core, the characters are respectful of each other.

Last night we watched “The Feminine Mistake.” The title is a reference to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, instrumental in sparking the U.S. feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In it, Laverne, who is the more butch of the two, is having a great time playing baseball and fishing with her love interest (played by Jay Leno). She expects him to ask her to a dance. Unfortunately for her, he thinks of her as “just a guy” and tells her that no guy would ever want to go out with her. So she enlists Shirley’s help in being feminine. Together, they devise a frou-frou persona for Laverne. Like the rest of their escapades, it’s hilarious.

So does it work? Does he take her to the dance? Watch the episode.

Another good stealth-feminist episode was “The Bully Show.” In it, Laverne is nearly raped. The word “rape” is never used and the danger she’s in is portrayed slapstick-style, but nonetheless, it deals with the topic seriously. Best of all, instead of blaming the victim or focusing narrowly on the scary rapist, it goes straight to the heart of “rape culture” and confronts the people and attitudes who set the stage for the rape being considered acceptable.

Judy Moody Goes to College!

I spent last year volunteering part-time in a second grade classroom, working with the kids at math. Although many of them were “at standard,” to me it seemed like they were seriously lacking in math fundamentals – not so much arithmetic as “number sense” – an intuitive understanding of numbers and how they work together. How do you help your kids develop that?

Read this book.

(Whether you have a boy or a girl, but especially if you have a girl who needs confidence in math)

Judy Moody Goes to College by Megan Mcdonald


It’s a kid’s book. Read it out loud to your kid, even if she’s a reader herself. Why? Because, like the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series, it has as much to teach parents as kids.

In Awe of “The Doctor’s Wife”

Last week’s Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” written by acclaimed novelist Neil Gaiman, was fabulous. I don’t want to say much more than that, for fear of “spoilers,” but I will say that it perfectly summed up my opinions about a certain aspect of the show. It also definitely answered a question I posed in my essay  “Feminist Take on Doctor Who’s Amy Pond” (http://kristinking.livejournal.com/13762.html).

Let’s end with a quote (this is from memory, so it’s likely paraphrased):

“Biting is excellent! It’s like kissing, only there’s a winner!”

Makes me want to be a biting madwoman.

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010

The editor of Aqueduct press asked me to submit an essay as part of a series called “The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010.” It’s a good time to reflect on some of my favorites. I haven’t read everybody else’s yet, but I’m looking forward to that.

My essay up on the Aqueduct Press Web site:


I talked about:

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
  • The Hearts of Horses
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • Cheek by Jowl
  • The Man Who Lost His Shadow and Nine Other German Fairy Tales
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • Logicomix
  • Catching the Moon
  • The Polymath
  • Doctor Who
  • The Fishtrap winter gathering

The Polymath – Samuel Delany

I have been watching the documentary The Polymath about the life of Samuel Delany – a great American novelist that few people have heard of because a) he writes in SF and b) he is black. I first heard of him when his book was the Book of Honor at a Potlatch convention, and somebody read some of his work out loud. It was incredible, a multisensory experience, rich in so many dimensions. The documentary – even more so.

Superman Was Born Jewish

Right now I’m interested in the superhero story, where it came from, how it has evolved, what makes heroes “good” or “bad” in our minds, why we like antiheroes, and what we need from our superheroes. So I picked up a book on the history of superheroes,  Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero by Danny Fingeroth. I was amazed at the extent to which the Jewish experience shaped Superman – and, by extension, America’s national mythology.

In the book, Fingeroth talks about the original creators of the Superman comic, two Jewish boys named Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. Superman came out of a mix of their personal history, their cultural heritage, the immigrant experience, world events, and ideology surrounding them. I’m convinced Superman was born Jewish. But what fascinates me is how he was born Jewish. How did his story come to be, and what messages did it have for Americans? Looking at the past can help us see the present. Where have our superhero stories come from, and what are they telling us?

The Jews at the time were immigrating to America because of pogroms and the rise of fascism in Europe. They had come in fear for their lives. They had to maintain a double identity: their homeland identity and their assimilated, mainstream identity. Fingeroth writes, “When your history tells you that you can be murdered because of who your parents happened to be, the freedom provided by being able to blend into the mainstream culture is essential to survival.” Thus, Superman’s double identity was born. Just as the Jews had to disguise themselves as WASPs, so did Clark Kent.

The rise of fascism also brought a desperate need to the Jewish people – a need that cried out for a messianic figure. The creators of Superman, therefore, sent out subconscious messages to the American people. Fingeroth lists a few:

•    Look out for the Nazis!
•    Have some compassion for their victims!
•    Don’t you understand we are just like you?
•    You have to help!
•    Here is how you can use your gifts, America – to help those in need and distress! (p. 18)

Another historical influence was the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism. Superman’s individualist ideology opposed the communist ideology. Fingeroth writes: “As expressed through Superman, the self was not to be subsumed to the collective. The self could best serve the whole by being allowed to flourish and thrive and express itself. This was the same celebration of the individual that had pervaded American popular culture from the solitary cowboy heroes of Owen Wister even onto the baseball fields . . . ” (42)

Yet another was the concept that science and reason could transcend human flaws, expressed in early science fiction.

One final influence was the Great Depression. Fingeroth quotes a 1975 press release from Siegal that shows how poverty added to the mix:

What led me into creating Superman in the early thirties?

Listening to President Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” . . . being unemployed and worried during the depression and knowing homelessness and fear. Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany . . . seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden . . . I had the great urge to help . . . help the downtrodden masses, somehow.
How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer.(41)

So that’s Superman. Born out of dire need, giving inspiration and hope to so many. What impact did he have back then? Did he inspire Americans to have compassion? Did he contribute to getting us involved in World War II?

It is ironic that the same qualities we needed from a superhero back then are getting us in trouble now: the individualist ideology, the idea that a hero can swoop down and save us (so we don’t have to do it ourselves). Our time is different. We beat Hitler and then became him, creating our own occupation camps of Japanese and ultimately dropping a weapon of mass destruction on two Japanese cities. State communism fell. An individualist ideology that went too far has contributed to the dismantling of our social safety net.

What do we need from our superheroes now? What are we telling them? What are they telling us?

Tune in next time. Same bat-time! Same bat-channel!

Works Cited
Fingeroth, Danny. Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero. Continuum: London and New York. 2007.