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Migrations, by Charlotte McConaghy, was a gift from my friend Joan, who was one of my sponsors during my discernment in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. We certainly had as many conversations about fiction as we did about faith (although I think we’d both say those topics often intersect) and she has pointed me towards some wonderful reads over the last year. Migrations is both a fascinating story that keeps readers engaged with piecing together the main character’s story and an examination of the fragility of life for all earth’s inhabitants.

When the book opens, Franny Stone is in Greenland, pleased to have banded three arctic terns in terrible weather, and anxious to find a ship captain she can convince to follow the birds on their epic migration. Fisheries are terribly depleted, so much so that her pitch is that the terns will lead them to a catch. She thinks she’s found a likely ship to take her on when she rescues Ennis, captain of the Saghani. Until he says she didn’t rescue him. An intriguing start to the story, and I read on, assuming that Franny is a scientist and that the story would revolve around some kind of plan to save the birds. It’s doesn’t.

Turns out much of the book is about how nothing is as seems, particularly when it comes to Franny. Migrations is set in a time in the not very distant future when human selfishness has caused extinction of nearly all wildlife, a book that spotlights humans as a “plague on the world” as Franny’s husband Niall says. But McConaghy doesn’t tell the story of environmental degradation — she plunks us down in the midst of it to see how people are living with it.

And Migrations is about the big ideas that should have prevented mass selfishness and mass extinction: love, faithfulness, truth, hope, family. It’s a page turner, as Niall helps Franny delve into the mystery of her family, as we learn of a crime, as we see how far Franny and Ennis will go to finish her quest, and what she’s really set out to do. And it’s a story of someone who seems flighty and unreliable — fickle, as her mother-in-law implies — but is really traumatized. Like some of the creatures she loves, Franny is among the last of her family, and for much of the book, people around her mistake her restlessness with what seems to me an almost primal need to find a way to escape what’s harmed her, and somehow survive it.

Migrations would be a good vacation read — short, intriguing, and offering plenty to discuss with others. And I don’t know for sure what the connection is, but it sounds like the setting of McConaghy’s next novel, Once There Were Wolves is set in a place where Franny and Niall spend time in Migrations? Or a place very like it — a research and conservation station in the Scottish Highlands. I hope it will be as full of details about creatures and places as Migrations is. Part of what brought the book alive are things like a vivid description of a small ship steering up and over waves in a rough sea.

Because I don’t want to give away any more about the plot, I will leave you instead with a bit of McConaghy’s lovely writing:

“Most mornings I wake to a kiss as he leaves for work. This morning it was so early there was barely any dawn light peeking through the shutters and in the dark his lips could have been a dream.”

I’ve had The Murrow Boys for years; I read (and blogged about) Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London in 2010(!) and gave that book to others as a gift that year. My dad liked it so much he read Olson’s other books and he sent me The Murrow Boys at one point when he was done with it. I had it on a shelf, and then recently when I read a Maisie Dobbs book that featured a character who wanted to become one of Murrow’s “Boys” I remembered it and decided to pick it back up. Both Olson and her husband and co-author Stanley Cloud were journalists themselves.

I enjoyed this detailed history of Murrow and his “band of brothers.” It provides their stories and the story of early news reporting. I didn’t really realize that prior to Murrow’s work, radio news was just someone reading bulletins. Murrow pioneered the idea of reporters providing context either through the details and observations his team became known for that made the Blitz come to life over the radio in millions of American homes, or through analysis.

As interesting as the stories of these reporters and their adventures are, the book opens with a scene at Eric Sevareid’s memorial service in 1992, where one of the other Murrow Boys, Larry LeSueur, was more or less ignored and the celebrity journalists of the day pontificated without really honoring Sevareid’s contributions. The book ends on that same note. The trajectory from the rise of intelligent, carefully reported and deeply considered news presented by people who had a good deal of knowledge and understanding of the topics they covered to the media landscape of the mid-1990s when The Murrow Boys was written is sad.

Early on, Murrow clashed with the people at CBS who wanted “objectivity” over analysis. Olson and Cloud note that there is a difference between what Murrow noted CBS’s Ed Klauber brought to newsroom ethics — “standards of integrity, responsibility, and restraint” — and thinly veiled control by management and sponsors over what reporters can say and how far they can go in calling out propaganda and untruth. Murrow and his Boys struggled against both wartime censorship and the meddling of CBS’s ownership and commercial sponsors. Later in the television era, they struggled against the network’s pursuit of profit as well.

And really nothing has changed today. I was just reading yesterday about Walter E. Hussman, a newspaper publisher who has given millions to University of North Carolina, derailing UNC’s tenure process for Nikole Hannah-Jones. He apparently believes that he has more of a right to define “impartiality, integrity, objectivity and truth-seeking” than someone whose Pulitzer prize winning 1619 Project threatens the white dominant narrative of America’s origin story. In her excellent piece in the Charlotte Observer, Paige Masten, a recent UNC graduate, points out, “. . . this debate isn’t a question of whether we should continue to do our due diligence and thoroughly investigate both sides. It’s about whether we should give both sides equal weight when the facts clearly favor one side over the other.”

Murrow and the Boys made that argument when they were told to stop reporting on the rise of the Nazis, and later, when they were pressured not to question Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunting. They were told that they had to be “objective” in reporting about these things — but what that meant, in fact, was that they were expected to refrain from saying that they were wrong. Did that serve the public good? No. And they struggled against it, working to get their analysis — which was always based in a clear understanding of the facts — across anyway.

Today I read a column, “Science Librarianship and Social Justice: Part Two Intermediate Concepts,”* and this stood out to me: “Neutrality provides a way to stay silent and observe injustices instead of commenting or acting and making that silence seem to be a moral triumph instead of a moral failing.” What the owners of CBS wanted in Murrow’s time and what Hussman wants now, is to make staying silent on injustice in the name of “neutrality” into a noble act. When the truths the media expose, both in reporting and commentary or analysis, challenges what the powerful or dominant say is the truth, it inevitably leads those who identify with the powerful and dominant to cry “bias.” What they are really saying is that they want reporters to be more like the early pre-Murrow news broadcasters on radio who just read a list of what happened.

Or the TV news producers that the last of the Murrow boys watched turn news broadcasts into entertainment. As Olson and Cloud note, on commercial stations (rather than public television and radio) “broadcast news seemed to have little interest in helping viewers and listeners make sense of bits and pieces of information it put on the air, providing illumination and context.” And our media landscape today, twenty-five years after The Murrow Boys was published, is rife with misinformation and edutainment, punditry that is simply about repeating the ideological stance of powerful sponsors and owners, and a steady barrage of fear mongering.

At least it’s nothing new. My dad always says that reading history, he is somewhat comforted that we’ve been through all the things we’re experiencing before, and that while things do get bad, they sometimes also get better. I hope that’s the case. The Murrow Boys is a good read, and important one, that doesn’t spare Murrow or his Boys from critique, but also shines a clear light on the dangers of putting profit and power ahead of truth.

  • Bussmann, J., Altamirano, I., Hansen, S., Johnson, N., & Keer, G. (2020). Science Librarianship and Social Justice: Part Two Intermediate Concepts. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship, (95). https://doi.org/10.29173/istl2570

You may get deja vu reading this post, because I just recently reviewed another book about the packhorse librarians of Kentucky, The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. I was telling a friend about reading that book, because she lives in Kentucky and I wanted to know her thoughts about it. She suggested I read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Robinson. They both tell the stories of women delivering books in the mountains of Kentucky during the Depression. Apparently there has been some controversy, with Robinson feeling that Moyes may have taken material from her book. Honestly, it seems to me Facebook’s fault as much as anything — after Smithsonian ran an article about the horse riding librarians, stories have circulated regularly on social media, which keeps obscure but quirky stories circulating for a long time.

Having read both, I have to say that I didn’t think they were that similar, and that the things they both talked about — a woman being attacked by a drunken man, a black packhorse librarian, weddings, babies, certain books and magazines being delivered, religious intolerance, prejudice — seem common enough ideas that someone with an interest in the topic, the region, and the time period would have come across those ideas in their research. Anyone writing about women who were pioneering in some way would consider the ways they were kept in their place, including through assault. Anyone writing about the early 1930s (in Kentucky and many other places) would need to include racism, religious intolerance, bootlegging, and patriarchy.

Robinson’s book is about a “blue” woman, Cussy Mary, named after the town in France where her great-grandfather came from. Her skin is blue because of a genetic disorder called methemoglobinemia — her blood lacks an enzyme that is needed for oxygenation, so her skin has a blueish tint. I didn’t know until my friend told me about them that there was a community of so-called Blues in Kentucky. The entire book revolves around Cussy and her experience as a young woman who people fear, harass, and abuse because of her skin. Her love of books, dedication to her patrons and her sweet nature in spite of all the hardship, pain and grief in her life make her a lovely character. The brutality of the mining company, meanness of the prejudiced people who believe she is a heathen or worse, and extreme poverty of the Troublesome Creek area are vivid parts of the book. I appreciated that when the black librarian in town, Queenie, moves to Philadelphia and writes to Cussy about it, it’s not portrayed as a paradise.

There are some strange scenes that to me didn’t fit: for one, the town doctor who is later portrayed as kindly and well intentioned allows some horrifying mistreatment of Cussy at the hands of nuns in a hospital where he takes her to have some tests to determine why her skin is blue, but he later has an altercation with a doctor who wants to keep her overnight. And a sheriff also seems to act rather erratically and goes from being someone Cussy trusts to a maniac who beats someone up (ok, that’s pretty believable, actually). I suppose it keeps the characters from being one dimensional, but in both of these cases the out-of-character behavior gave me pause. I suppose the point was supposed to be that when it comes to skin color prejudice, even otherwise “nice” people act horribly.

I don’t see how anyone who reads the two books could think Moyes copied anything significant.The books have entirely different plots. Some details overlap, but again I think that is a matter of writing about something about which there are limited sources of information. Moyes writes about the librarians, two in particular, and focuses on their romantic lives, and the main source of conflict in the book is the idea that women living in a patriarchal, judgemental, and conservative society would want to have control over and enjoy sex. The characters who don’t want to marry in the two books have different reasons for that, and the babies in each book come from very different circumstances and storylines. Moyes also includes a murder trial that causes a fair bit of suspense and focuses on the extreme differences in circumstance between the rich and poor in her story. And as noted already, her main character observes things with an outsider’s view of Kentucky. Robinson focuses on Cussy, her reasons for serving as a librarian, her struggle with being physically marked as an outsider even though her “kin” go back generations in the area, and her developing sense of herself as more than a Blue person. Even though Cussy’s father is a miner and is organizing, there is almost no mention of the mine ownership, whereas Moyes makes the mine owner a major character who interferes with the women’s lives. Robinson describes the poverty of Cussy’s patrons very graphically, but we don’t hear much about the wealthy residents of Troublesome Creek and their cruel indifference to poverty is mostly implied, as the focus is on their colorism.

Both are good reads. As for why Jojo Moyes’s book is being made into a film? Well, the sex, I would think. Plus, she’s had a book adapted for film before. But Robinson is a bestselling author who has won awards, both of which are big accomplishments for a writer, so it seems to me both books did well.

First a quick shout out for the most recent Maisie Dobbs mystery, The Consequences of Fear, by Jacqueline Winspear. I usually don’t review a series book (especially not book 16), and I just wrote about Winspear’s memoir, but I wanted to mention that this series continues to be very entertaining and intriguing.

As was The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was thinking today that it’s a perfect example of fiction that deals with tragic events but manages to leave the reader hopeful. Actually, it left me deeply curious. I wished mightily that the main character, Esme Nicoll, was one of the real people Williams wove into her story. Unfortunately she’s entirely fictional but it’s a testament to debut novelist (and already accomplished scholar and writer) Williams that I believed she could be real, right up until I read the author’s note.

Williams was inspired by real stories about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and several of the characters Esme grows up knowing, and later working with, are actual people. I read a book about the making of the dictionary many years ago (by Simon Winchester, and so had Williams, and she noticed the lack of women. But she knew women were involved, notably editor James Murray’s daughters, and some of the volunteer contributors who sent in words or definitions. The OUP blog notes that Murray also hired a woman academic, which was uncommon at the time.

Esme is the daughter of one of Murray’s assistants, and as a small child she sits under the sorting table where the slips with words on them are organized. She develops a habit of taking slips from the floor. As she grows up she begins gathering words of her own, because she realizes that many of the words her friend, the Murray’s maid Lizzie, uses are never going to be in the dictionary because there aren’t published quotes to support them. She tells Lizzie that women sometimes use words differently, and those meanings are not reflected in the dictionary. Esme gathers those, too, writing up and stashing slips in a trunk under Lizzie’s bed.

Esme is a wonderful character, whose human imperfections make her very believable. Williams weaves in the story of Edith Thompson, real life OED contributor, sub-editor, and proofreader, by making her Esme’s aunt, a fascinating woman who has a big influence on Esme’s life. And she works in some astute observations about gender roles and class differences, as well as two key historical events that impact Esme and the other characters, and the making of the dictionary: the women’s suffrage movement and WWI. Williams includes lovely details about the workings of the Oxford University Press where the dictionary was printed, as well as other locations around Oxford, and the famous Scriptorium — a glorified shed — in the Murray’s garden where much of the work proceeded until Murray’s death.

But mainly she makes it entirely believable that a woman working on the dictionary might start a side project to recognize all the left out words. Gareth, a compositor at the press, finds Esme picking up slips of some of her collected words off the floor of the Scriptorium after a male assistant has dismissed her work as unimportant. Gareth asks her why words that are in common use aren’t in the dictionary. She explains where she gets her words. From “The poor. People who work at the Covered Market. Women. Which is why they’re not written down and why they’ve been excluded. Though sometimes they have been written down, but they’re still left out because they are not used in polite society. . . . They’re important.”

A delightful read. Entertaining, interesting, and full of heart and truth.

A couple of summers ago I read and loved Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. My mom gave me Kimmerer’s first book, Gathering Moss, for my birthday last fall but I hadn’t read it yet. It’s the time of year when I admire the wildflowers (which some people call weeds) and mosses in our lawn (the less grass the better as far as I am concerned), so I pulled it out of the teetering pile beside my chair a couple of weeks ago.

Kimmerer opens the book by describing how we humans “contrive remarkable ways to observe the world.” We make powerful telescopes and microscopes, but, she goes on, we “are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust the unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.”

Among the things we don’t see? Moss. Gathering Moss is all about what Kimmerer has seen and learned of and from mosses as a biologist, professor, and mother. She writes with expertise but also with vulnerability. As in Braiding Sweetgrass, she combines indigenous and scientific knowledge about plants with stories about being human, and this book opens eyes, minds, and hearts to all that we could know if we paid attention, particularly to the natural world.

Jacqueline Winspear writes about her father teaching her to pay attention to the natural world in her memoir This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing. When I placed a hold on the new Maisie Dobbs book recently, I saw that Winspear had written a memoir. Since she’s written about how the Maisie books are based in part on the impact the two world wars had on her own family, I was intrigued. Readers of the series will notice people, events or places that are familiar, and in some cases Winspear points them out. I enjoyed hearing more about the hops harvest.

It is an interesting book, and very personal. Winspear writes lovingly but also with a frankness that reveals the difficulties she had as a child (including eye surgeries) and the challenging relationship she had with her mother. It’s a book infused with gratitude and appreciation for the many people in her life who were kind or generous or loyal, including her parents. This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is also about being true to your ambitions — Winspear wanted to be a writer from early childhood but a test indicated she should be a teacher, a far more practical career in her parents’ view, and she spent many years working in education. But she did not forget her ambition, and eventually worked to realize it.

And that theme of being true to who you are and what you want to do also appears in a book I read last weekend, Jojo Moyes‘ most recent novel, The Giver of Stars. A departure from her other books, this one is historical fiction set mostly in a Kentucky coal mining town. It’s the story of a young English woman, Alice, who marries an American, son of a coal mine owner, and moves to Baileyville. She is lonely, tired of her overbearing father in law, uninterested in trying to fit into the gossipy local society, and confused about why her husband seems unattracted to her after a romantic courtship. When she attends a town meeting about a new mobile library service, a WPA project that is part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to improve literacy, Alice sees an opportunity to get out of her house.

She meets the other librarians — Margery, orphaned daughter of a notoriously violent moonshiner, Beth, only girl in a houseful of men, Izzy, carefully protected survivor of polio, and eventually Sophia, the only real librarian among them, a black woman who worked in Louisville but has come home to the mountains to care for her brother, who was injured in a mining accident. Alice finally has friends, purpose, and eventually, intrigue. I really enjoyed the story, even if it was bit dramatic. Moyes says in an author interview at the end of the book that she wrote it to highlight the real life horseback librarians, and that she traveled to Kentucky three times to research the book. She also noted that it made sense to her, an English woman, to tell the story from the point of view of an English main character, rather than try to make all the characters American, and I think that works well in the story.

Three excellent reads!

I’ve taken a few weeks off from blogging here at bookconscious — I just wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t feeling much of anything. Something that is so common right now that the New York Times wrote about it: languishing. Anyway, I was reading, I just didn’t feel like writing about it. Book I read since my last post:

Not In My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped A Great American City, by Antero Pietila, about Baltimore’s racially segregated neighborhoods that was the campus wide read at my alma mater, Goucher College. A tough book, meticulously researched. Pietila was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun for 35 years. In the Zoom discussion of the book, I heard about a new book on the topic, The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America by Lawrence T. Brown, that I’d like to read.

With Sighs Too Deep for Words: Grace and Depression, by my friend and bishop, Rob Hirschfeld, which my chapter of The Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross read together last fall. I didn’t read it at the time, but decided to after I heard Rob speak at our chapter meeting, and then it sat in my to-read pile for a bit. It’s beautiful, and not just for those with depression but those who love them, too.

The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community by Stephanie Spellers. I’m facilitating a discussion of this book starting this week. It’s interesting and thought provoking.

The American Agent, second to latest book in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I saw that a new one is out and realized I had missed the last one. Loved it as I do the whole series.

Persuasion, another #APSTogether pick, which I’ve read before and loved again. Jane Austen is wonderful, and I had heard Rachel Cohen, who led the APS discussion, at an online event, also at Goucher. I also heard Ta Nahesi Coates at a Goucher event (the recording doesn’t seem to be online) and realized that he loves Jane Austen.

So when I finished Persuasion, I decided to read Clair Tomalin’s biography, Jane Austen: a Life, which I picked up on a sale rack in a bookstore/coffee shop in Maine a couple of year’s ago. It was very interesting, both re-reading Persuasion and reading the bio. I’ve loved Jane Austen’s work since college, and her novels are among a handful of things I own that I’ve read multiple times. But, I’ve never read Sanditon. I think I’m going to give that a try at some point, and plan to watch the series on PBS. It’s a very modern story.

Speaking of modern, when I wrote about I Told My Soul to Sing, I mentioned that I was going to watch Dickinson on Apple TV. I watched both seasons and found it very entertaining.

This weekend, I read The Library of Exile, about Edmund de Waal’s exhibit of the same name. I had given this book to my dad for his birthday after we both read The White Road, and he loved it and decided I needed a copy too. The book includes an essay by Elif Shafak, which reminded me that after I read her book Honour last summer, I wanted to track down more of her work, and I haven’t yet.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading. I’m sure I’ll get back to more regular blogging when I’m not feeling so “meh.” I spent a lot of time outside this weekend, getting all my seedlings planted out in pots and beds. That definitely lifted my spirits!

I had seen a number of mentions of the new book by Behold the Dreamers author Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were. It’s set in an unnamed African country in a village called Kosawa, in a district near the country’s capital, Bezam. Kosawa’s children are dying, their water and farmland and air poisoned by an American oil company, Pexton. The Kosawan leader is in Pexton’s pay, which results in his living in a well built home with luxuries the rest of his village does not enjoy, his eldest sons ensconced in government jobs, his younger children drinking clean water provided by his corporate and government sponsors. The country’s leader, His Excellency, turns over his cabinet every two years because he has so many enemies, ignores and laughs off the condemnation of hypocritical foreign governments he knows profit off of his country, and empowers the military to rape and execute at whim.

Into this hopeless mess, Thula is born. A quiet person who loves her family and her village, Thula does more listening than talking as a child, except with her beloved Papa, who sites on the veranda and talks with her about life. When he leaves with a handful of other men to go to Bezam and demand that something be done to stop Kosawa’s children from being poisoned to death, Thula and her family long for his return. As she begins to realize he won’t be coming back, Thula becomes certain of her life’s mission: to carry on in her family’s cause, to help her village overcome the corruption that is killing them. “I know nothing about how a girl makes men pay for their crimes, but I have the rest of my life to figure it out.”

Pexton starts sending mouthpieces to the village for “meetings” where they tell the village they will help them, giving no specifics. They return regularly for this charade, until the village madman interrupts one of these meetings and incites the village to take its fate into its own hands. Thula, and her “age mates” lives’ will never be the same after this; there are reprisals, violence, and more loss. But there is also international attention thanks to a reporter, Austin, child of an American man and a woman from Thula’s country. His work captures the attention of an NGO, Restoration Movement, which comes to reconcile the village and Pexton (which seems just as ridiculous as it sounds; you can’t have reconciliation if one party refuses to admit any wrongdoing).

Thula is the recipient of a scholarship from this NGO and she goes to New York, and studies justice movements at college. She remembers her father telling her “to never forget what it felt like to be a child when I grow up, never forget how it felt to be small and in need of protection, much of the suffering in the world was because of those who had forgotten that they too were once children.” She takes part in protests and also becomes reacquainted with Austin. And she writes letters to her age mates, who Mbue presents as a kind of shared voice, alternating their collective perspective with members of Thula’s family in different chapters.

Every letter Thula writes ends with “I’ll always be one of us.” She becomes the resistance leader of Kosawa, not only because her education affords her money and knowledge, but because her devotion and willingness to give up everything else in her life to the cause of justice inspires others to follow. When she returns, taking a job as teacher at a government leadership school in Bezam, she is single-minded. She will not be tempted to benefit from the graft that is rife in the capital. She will not be dissuaded from tirelessly working for justice, peacefully and persuasively, leveraging the law whenever possible. She loses more than she wins, but she keeps going.

The book takes place over decades, and in places drags a bit, but I think that is purposeful — justice (or lack of justice) for Kosawa is dragged out in American courts, in violent reprisals, in the slow, careless destruction of the environment by a corporation made rich and powerful because of people’s indifference, greed, and corruption. Thula understands that the work will be slow, and makes clear she is in it for the long haul. At first people beyond Kosawa follow her too, joining her movement; support dwindles when the cause seems hopeless. Her own brother, Juba, supports her only until it dawns on him that his wife’s urging to live differently is more appealing: “I’d traveled across the country with my sister, I’d borne witness to how little was changing despite her zeal, and I’d realized — while some men were heckling Thula at a poorly attended rally in the east — that my Nubia was right all along: our nation was decaying with us inside it, all one could do was abscond with whatever one could.” Nubia suffered injustice as a child as well, and she tells Juba “we’re only taking what’s ours; we have the right to do so.”

I should have sensed then the direction of the rest of the book. I won’t spoil the plot, but I’ll tell you it’s a bracing story of what happens to hope and justice when faced with the combined forces of capitalism and despotism. And the smaller force of people like Nubia whose pain teaches them to just get what they can from their oppressors. At the end of the book, change comes not because of collective action but because of globalism. And it isn’t the change Thula envisioned. The book’s epigraph is from Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” I guess the light in this book is that people go on living and trying to make the best of their lives.

A powerful read.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil is another pick of the ACRL Science and Technology librarians. I started it as a library eBook and then Klara and the Sun was ready in my eBook holds so I set it aside. I got a chance to finish it this morning. I wasn’t sure how interesting a book about algorithms would be, but it turns out, the answer is very.

O’Neil‘s own story is also interesting. She started as a mathematician in academia, went to work at a hedge fund, and had an epiphany there that math in the wrong hands could be used for bad. Since then, her bio on her blog notes, “She hopes to someday have a better answer to the question, “what can a non-academic mathematician do that makes the world a better place?”

Weapons of Math Destruction is one answer; those who read it will be better informed and have the potential to advocate for a better world. O’Neil explains, “Models are opinions embedded in mathematics,” and then lays out how they can become WMDs: they “encoded human prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias into the software systems that increasingly managed our lives. Like gods, these mathematical models were opaque, their workings invisible to all but the highest priests in their domain: mathematicians and computer scientists. Their verdicts, even when wrong or harmful, were beyond dispute or appeal. And they tended to punish the poor and oppressed in our society, while making the rich richer.” In addition, they can’t make exceptions, and, O’Neil notes, “often punish individuals who happen to be the exception.”

Then she goes through any number of systems where WMDs are functioning: college admissions, predatory recruiting in the for-profit college industry, online advertising, the justice system, employment (hiring, scheduling, health monitoring), credit, insurance, social services, and of course, elections. She touches, along the way, on Facebook, Google, and Amazon and their use of algorithms to control what news and information we see and through that, influence our decisions. It’s a tough book. Even if, like me, you enjoy a fair bit of privilege, you are probably being impacted in some way by these WMDs. And we all are impacted when the most vulnerable are made more so by these out of control tools. They touch nearly everyone in America.

O’Neil does make recommendations about how algorithms can be improved and companies who deploy them can be held accountable. She recommends reversing much of what makes an algorithm a WMD — make the models and algorithms transparent; notify people and let them appeal or dispute decisions and information produced by algorithms; make things that are considered unethical or illegal in real life also unethical or illegal online, where so much WMD work happens, test algorithms’ results for bias, prejudice, and unintended consequences. She also advocates for revealing “snake oil” math that isn’t really solving anything, but just enables companies to spy on employees and/or make more money (see: workplace wellness programs, which the Computer Scientist has called bullshit on for years). Oh, and do away with the electoral college.

Most of what worries me about Weapons of Math Destruction is that these WMDs exist because our society prioritizes profits over people, and those being hurt most by them are not the powerful/not reaping the profits so there is little incentive for change. And I wonder if O’Neil is (touchingly) optimistic about regulation. She says “the job of algorithmic accountability should start with the companies that develop and deploy the algorithms. They should accept responsibility for their influence and develop evidence that what they’re doing isn’t causing harm, just as chemical companies need to provide evidence that they are not destroying the rivers and watersheds around them.”

As the new Guardian and Consumer Reports study of drinking water just revealed, that’s not actually going so well. I live in a state where there is PFAS in drinking water because chemical companies did not provide evidence and the EPA allowed them to get away with not revealing the harm they were doing. The drinking water study illuminates how regulatory agencies themselves are designed to protect profit making companies and the bottom lines of municipalities, not people’s well being. So I can’t say I have a ton of confidence that regulating algorithmic accountability will work, at least not as long as we continue to allow our wealthy corporations/people (one and the same in the USA, don’t you know) to purchase political influence, and continue to allow a revolving door between industry and government agencies.

As for O’Neil’s suggestion that context can solve many of the issues surrounding WMDs — I was fortunate to hear Ruha Benjamin give an online presentation in February about her work at the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab, which is focused on just that solution. O’Neil and Benjamin both advocate for including input from people (actual human people, not corporation people) and communities impacted by the use and misuse of data as part of the solution. That makes sense; however, see my previous concerns. What incentive is there for the Googles, Facebooks, banks and insurance companies, etc. to listen?

A very clear, challenging read. I’m going to have to think about what I learned and what to do with it.

First, I am almost always reading a book related to spiritual formation, and I usually don’t review them here. I guess because I feel spiritual formation is personal, and what I read may not be what other readers need or want, but also because some of what I read may be of limited interest, like a book about the history of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross (SCHC) or about the Nicene Creed. If I think the book might be of wider interest (like I Told My Soul to Sing, which I recently reviewed) then I make an exception to this.

During Holy Week (for my non-Christian readers, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) this year I read Jesus: the Human Face of God by Jay Parini which I actually got at an SCHC chapter meeting, on a table of books someone was giving away. It’s a short book and I think it would be interesting to people curious about Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure as well as to Christians. Parini lets readers know where he stands right in the first sentence of the preface: “This is biography of Jesus, not a theological tract, though I take seriously the message embodied in the story of Christ that unfolded in real time.”

Parini is a believer and also an academic and a creative writer. He draws on scripture and centuries of scholarship but also notes that “considerable portions of my own knowledge of religious ideas comes from poetry itself, not only biblical poetry but a wide range of literature.” He contextualizes Jesus’s life as a devout Jewish man in ancient Palestine and as the Christ of the gospels (and Parini doesn’t limit himself to the canonical gospels). He takes us through the chronology of Jesus’s life and ministry, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, using both scripture and history to shed light on the well known events and to remind readers that for Parini and many others, “the historicity of his life is less important that the meaning of the story itself.”

At the end of the book, Parini takes us on a tour of Jesus scholarship, through the many attempts to determine the veracity of Bible translations, archaeological evidence, and theological soundness. I got the sense he is somewhat amused by these attempts to put God in a box, so to speak. Parini is an Episcopalian (although he notes he grew up in the home of a former Roman Catholic turned Baptist minister), and for me, his work is very Anglican, in that he acknowledges the importance of the “three legged stool” (Richard Hooker‘s contention that scripture, tradition and reason inform our faith).

I love Parini’s sense that Jesus “came not only to provide comfort and ethical guidance, but to challenge those around him in ferocious, unsettling, even frightening ways” and that Jesus’s teaching has “visionary force, with the power to transform lives and society in spiritual and material ways.” And I also love his gentle but very sensible reminder that it is unsurprising that it’s hard to wrap our heads around the transformative message of Jesus, and the idea that God came into the world in Jesus “bringing redemptive words into being, ushering forward deeds culminating in both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.” Parini says this is “difficult to comprehend with ordinary human intelligence” — and that’s ok.

Because Parini notes Jesus didn’t ask us to get it. He asked very little. Love one another. Follow him. Remember him together around a simple meal of bread and wine. And, “Most crucially, he wished for us to experience a change of heart — metanoia — a term which, as noted earlier, suggests a shift into a larger consciousness, a life-enhancing awareness of the mind of God, a deepening into fundamental layers of awareness that transforms and transports us, brings us into contact with profound realities. Jesus offered an invitation to everyone — to an awakening, to a sense of God-consciousness. The kingdom lies within us, in the soil of our creation.”

Parini says at the outset he’s written a biography, and like any good biographer he helps readers know the subject but also know why the subject matters. For Parini, it matters because of what he coins “the gradually realizing kingdom of God — a process of transformation, like that of an underdeveloped photograph dipped in chemicals. The process itself adds detail and depth to the image, which grows more distinct and plausible by the moment.” A beautiful, illuminating book, even for someone who thinks they already know the story of Jesus.

I loved Never Let Me Go when I read it, so when I saw that Kazuo Ishiguro had a new book out, Klara and the Sun, I got on the hold list for the library eBook. Although I also loved The Remains of the Day, I was excited to see Ishiguro return to a dystopian story. A beautiful and disturbing one.

The title character is an AF — artificial friend — and when the novel opens, Klara and her fellow AF Rosa are taking their turn in the window of the store where they hope children will choose them. The Manager trains and prepares the AFs, but it becomes clear that Klara learns a great deal simply by observing, and she picks up on subtle things Rosa can’t or won’t try to make sense of, like two taxi driver fighting. The AFs receive their “nourishment” from the Sun (capitalized, like God) and one day Klara observes a homeless man and his dog, who appeared to be gravely ill, returned to health in the sunlight.

Josie, a young teen, visits Klara in the window, and promises to come back; Klara senses that her mother isn’t necessarily on board. Eventually, Josie does get her way and Klara goes to live with them, out of the city. And through Klara’s eyes we learn that privileged children are “lifted” through some kind of procedure that can sometimes make them weaken or die, but if successful, gives them a boost that will ensure their entry into elite colleges and, it’s implied, successful futures.The lifted kids seem to need to be re-introduced to social life; Josie gets all of her schooling remotely, and specially arranged social sessions are meant to prepare them for “society.” Josie is also one of the people weakened by the lifting.

Klara’s observations are finely tuned but she only knows what she observes, and so our view of this world is limited to her vision of it and her conversations with others. We meet Josie’s childhood friend and neighbor Rick, whose aging actress mother chose the unconventional path of not “lifting” him. He is brilliant, but probably won’t go to college because of her choice. And we meet the strange Henry Capaldi, a man in the city who is making a “portrait” of Josie — one which causes a great deal of tension between her mother and father, particularly when Klara is drawn into the Mother’s plan.

On a visit to the city so Josie can sit for Capaldi, Klara persuades the Father to help her on a mission to do something special for the Sun, so that he might provide “special nourishment” for Josie as Klara observed the Sun do for the homeless man. As they drive, the Father tells her “I think I hate Capaldi because deep down I suspect he might be right. That what he claims is true. That science has now proved beyond doubt there’s nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer. That people have been living with one another all this time, centuries, loving and hating each other, and all on a mistaken premise. A kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better. That’s how Capaldi sees it, and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right. “I won’t give away any more of the story, but I will say that this question of what it is to be human and live a good life suffuses the story with a kind of low grade tension.

Klara never stops having faith in the Sun, and to think well of just about everyone she meets. She is a unique narrator that I felt enormous empathy for; Ishiguro left me feeling more for the robot than the humans in this novel. It’s not a long book, but he captures so much. Klara has more simple faith and hope and gentleness than the parents maneuvering to get their kid a place in the world that will set them up for the future combined. But she is herself already old fashioned — a new generation of AFs will make her kind obsolete even as they cause people to be afraid that robots are becoming too smart and taking over too many things.

Ishiguro even makes her aging — her “slow fade” as the Mother calls it, poignant. Klara notes, “Over the last few days, some of my memories have started to overlap in curious ways.” That seems reasonably similar to what humans experience, but again, Klara observes it with an innocence that I found touching.

I loved Klara and the Sun and I think book clubs will find much to discuss. A really lovely and profound read.