Category: Non-Fiction

Messy Roots

Cover image for Messy Roots by Laura Gao (Gao Yuyang)

by Laura Gao

ISBN 9780063067776

“People always said the skies in Texas were unparalleled. An endless canvas splattered with blues, purples, and oranges, towering mightily over miles of suburbia. But I found them suffocating. Here, I could run as far as I could and still not escape. Scream as loud as I could and still not be heard.”

Laura Gao was born in Wuhan but grew up in Texas. Although she attended weekend Chinese school and her parents had a Chinese church community, at school she was surrounded by white kids and faced with the daunting prospect of fitting in. As she quits mathletes in favour of basketball and then basketball in favour of art, she tries to figure out her place in a world where she doesn’t quite seem to fit anywhere.

Gao, who uses shey/they pronouns, began writing about their experience in response to the rise of sinophobia in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, releasing a short comic called The Wuhan I Know that later became the basis of this memoir. The outbreak was still being referred to as “Wuhan virus” and Gao was frustrated by this one-dimensional image of her home and its people. Gao blends Wuhan’s food, culture, and history with the story of her own family. Cousins and grandparents remain behind in Wuhan, while Laura’s parents strike out for America.

The tripartite cover of Messy Roots shows Wuhan, San Francisco, and Texas, the three places that have formed Gao’s identity. The story opens in January 2020, when every mention of Gao’s hometown is related to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising anti-Asian sentiment. This is an abrupt change for Gao, who is used to none of her (mostly white) American friends ever having heard of Wuhan. However, the story quickly turns to her family’s immigration to Texas when she was four, and her struggle to fit in as she learns English and chooses the English name Laura for herself—after the first lady because what could be more American?

When her family finally obtains green cards and can travel back to Wuhan for the first time when she is about ten, Gao is faced with the fact that she both does and does not fit in in the place she has been thinking of as home. Her cousins are surprised that she still speaks Wuhan dialect, but there are glaring gaps in her vocabulary as her cousins have grown up without her. Gao discovers that Wuhan is both home, and not home, leaving her a bit adrift. For her younger brother Jerry, who was born in Texas, it is a whole new world entirely.

Back in the United States, Gao enters her teenage years, bringing with it confusing feelings about boys, and the daunting prospect that she might prefer girls, just one more way she would not fit in in Texas. Many of her choices are defined by her fear of “fobby” Asians, which she is not forced to confront until she escapes to college in San Francisco. Suddenly her desire to fit in at all costs brands her a “twinkie” among her now numerous Asian peers from a variety of backgrounds. As she takes steps towards reconciling her identity, her last visit to Wuhan comes in the fall of 2019, blissfully unaware of the disaster lurking on the horizon.

Messy Roots is a timely coming-of-age graphic memoir of a queer Chinese American caught between the various aspects of their identity in the crucible of a pandemic.

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10 Years of Required Reading: Best Non-Fiction

When I first started planning a round up of my favourite books from a decade of blogging, I’d intended to make a Top 10 list. However, it quickly became clear that 10 was not going to be enough! So instead we’re having a week of lists, broken down by genre or category. Because I had a hard enough time choosing just five, never mind trying to rank them, the titles are listed in alphabetical order.

Between the World and Me

Cover image for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

ISBN 9780812993547

Between the World and Me uses the conceit of a letter to the author’s fifteen-year-old son to explore what it means to be Black in America. The scale is at once national and yet deeply personal; Ta-Nehisi Coates encompasses America in geography and history, but also speaks directly to his own child and his individual circumstances. Touching on everything from slavery, to segregation, to mass incarceration, Coates challenges orthodoxies and rejects easy answers in his pursuit of understanding. He writes with a unique combination of lyrical prose and pitiless clarity. By asking hard questions and rendering no easy answers Coates has penned an entreaty that has stayed with me for the past seven years.

Categories: African-American

Born a Crime

Cover image for Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

by Trevor Noah

ISBN 9780385689229

When Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. The crime carried a punishment of four to five years in prison, and mixed race children were often seized and placed in state-run orphanages. But Noah’s mother was determined and clever, and she managed to hold onto her son, refusing to flee her home country in order to raise him. But it made his childhood complicated, even after apartheid officially ended in 1994. Racial hierarchies and inequities persisted, and despite receiving a good education, his upbringing was anything but easy. In a series of essays, Born a Crime chronicles Noah’s experience growing up under apartheid and its aftermath. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating. His funny but poignant memoir is excellent in either print or audio.

Categories: Memoir

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

by Hallie Rubenhold

ISBN 9781328664082

In 1888, in one of London’s poorest, most downtrodden neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer called the Whitechapel Murderer in his time, but who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. The killer was never caught, and while the five women were soon forgotten, their murderer became a legend, giving rise to “Ripperology,” or the study of the series of murders that took place in Whitechapel, and the ongoing quest to identify the person responsible. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that would ultimately bring them to a common end. The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable with some other true crime narratives. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

Categories: History, True Crime

Quiet

Cover image for Quiet by Susan Cain

by Susan Cain

ISBN 9780307352149

Bookish folks, myself included, related powerfully to Susan Cain’s passionate message about the undervaluation of introversion in Western culture. The book cuts a broad swath, from outlining the rise of the extrovert ideal, to the psychological roots of introversion, to the perception of introversion in other cultures, to tips on how introverts and extroverts can work better together. Cain strips away the cultural stigma attached to introversion and examines the unique and underutilized skills of the quiet folks. I read Quiet all the way back in 2012, and never wrote a full-length review, though it appeared in my list of Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2012. It has stayed with me a for so long because it provided me with a way to talk about my experiences that I had previously lacked.

Categories: Psychology

Spillover

Cover image for Spillover by David Quammen

by David Quammen

ISBN 9780393239225

Zoonoses are diseases that originate in animals, usually harboured by a reservoir—a species that chronically carries the bacteria or virus but is not sickened by it—and are transmissible to humans. When the right set of circumstances occur, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Sometimes, that spillover is a dead end; the circumstances are so unique that they may never occur again. Or the virus can be transmitted to humans, but not between people: game over. But the thing that keeps virologists up at night is the pathogen spillovers that are not only virulent—highly deadly to humans—but also highly transmissible between humans once the species boundary has been breached. With the possibility of the Next Big One always looming, David Quammen takes the reader through famous outbreaks of zoonotic illnesses, with sections on Hendra, Ebola, malaria, SARS, Lyme, Nipah and HIV. I read a number of books about pandemics in the spring and summer of 2020 in an effort to better understand the experience we were all going through. If you’re only going to read one book about epidemics, this one combines multiple outbreaks into a single volume, highlights trends and commonalties, and provides a good basic understanding of  the relationship between virology, ecology, and epidemiology. 

Categories: Science

Unmask Alice

Cover image for Unmask Alice by Rick Emerson

by Rick Emerson

ISBN 9781637740439

“It was a marketer’s wet dream. Alice was vile and vital. Immoral and important. Alice was grubby, and sleazy, and might save your life.”

In 1971, a surprise best seller took the youth literary scene by storm. Marketed by publisher Prentice-Hall as the real diary of an anonymous fifteen-year-old girl who becomes addicted to drugs before her early death, Go Ask Alice sold out print runs and was recognized as one of the best new books for young readers by the American Library Association. In reality, the book had been “edited” by an aspiring writer who had spent years looking for her big break, trying her hand at scriptwriting, newspapers, and more before hitting on the idea that would make her (in)famous. But the story about where and how she got the diary was constantly shifting, and her publisher and agent agreed it would better to publish the book anonymously. In 1978 she would try to recreate that success with Jay’s Journal, a cautionary tale of drug use and the occult that tied neatly into satanic panic. In Unmask Alice, radio host Rick Emerson investigates the origins of these best-selling books, and the deceptions of the woman who “discovered” them.

I found Alice on the shelf of the library at my Catholic K-7 elementary school circa 1998. A dark paperback with stark white lettering on a minimalist cover, I believe that it was, by that time, shelved in the fiction section, not far from the Judy Blume books I had already voraciously consumed. I remember being surprised to discover it; after reading only a small part of the contents, I wondered if the librarian and the school knew it was there. It was catalogued, so of course they knew on some level, but did they know what it contained? It was significantly more graphic than the Judy Blume books I knew some of my classmates had been forbidden by their parents to read. On the one hand, I wasn’t wrong to be surprised; Go Ask Alice was still appearing on the American Library Association’s most banned books list in the 1990s, more than two decades after its publication. On the other, it was a scared straight story, precisely the sort of book that has its moralizing agenda well-served by some lurid details. If my library possessed any of the other pseudo-diaries produced by the same author/editor, I never came across them.

In a compulsively readable narrative non-fiction style, Rick Emerson introduces us to the woman behind the books. After a hard-knock childhood, she had long aspired to be a famous writer, but had enjoyed little success. Yet she persisted for decades, while also raising a family and remaining active in her church. After the smash success of Alice, she would go on to produce a laundry list of diaries, case studies, and interviews that touched on other hot button youth issues, from hippie runaways, to satanic panic, to HIV/AIDs and teen pregnancy. As her back catalogue grew, so too did her supposed credentials and experiences, until eventually she was appending PhD after her name on the covers of all her books. She seemed to grow increasingly determined that her name never be erased again the way it was removed from Alice. The BYU library, which holds her papers, cites these supposed credentials in her biography, but the Emerson was unable to verify any of them, or find any evidence that she ever had an adolescent psychology practice. For all that her name is easily discoverable, I’m reluctant to give her the fame of her stolen glory, much of which came at the expense of a real family that had lost a child to suicide.

In some ways, Emerson mimics the style of the very books he is investigating, presenting each short section with a date header, not unlike the manner of a diary. Mid-book, Emerson switches to the story of Alden Barrett, a young man living in a small community near Provo, Utah in the 1970s. If you aren’t familiar with Jay’s Journal, this is a rather abrupt switch without an evident connection to Alice. It is a sad story that ends in suicide, but not a terribly sensational one. When Alden’s mother learned that the editor of the famous Go Ask Alice was a near neighbour and fellow member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she approached her with her son’s diary. But the book eventually published as Jay’s Journal took enough real details from Alden’s life for him to be publically recognizable to his community, while also adding a gory occult subplot that turned him into gruesome urban legend that persists to this day.

As Emerson impresses upon the reader early on, publishers do not typically take responsibility for fact checking books; their contracts typically indemnify them. Indeed, Emerson shares that portion from his very own contract. So it is quite the surprise to find Emerson arguing that because most of the facts in Unmask Alice are a matter of public record that can be checked by anyone, citations are unnecessary. Be that as it may, citations make it significantly easier to perform such verification, rather than trying to reverse engineer the author’s research process. The lack of explicit sourcing adds a note of caution to what was otherwise and intriguing and readable account of a very long con. Instead, Emerson asks the reader to trust where he is going. And it turns out that the destination is a short section towards the very end of the book that reveals he may have discovered a real girl who might have been part of the inspiration for Alice. Not a real diary this time, but another real adolescent like Alden Barrett nevertheless. This speculation about a tiny seed of possible truth at the heart of Alice adds little to the overall narrative and brings the book to a weak conclusion.

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Mini Reviews: Nonfiction about China

The Subplot

Cover image for The Subplot by Megan Walsh

by Megan Walsh

ISBN 9781735913667

This brief Columbia Global Report encourages Western readers to consider Chinese literature beyond the works written by famous dissidents in exile. Such books do not reflect what people in China are reading, given censorship in the country, but artists working under oppressive governments still fight to express themselves. Journalist Megan Walsh focuses on modern Mainland Chinese fiction, albeit still with an emphasis on works that are available in English in some form. The chapters include sections on generational differences in literary tastes, migrant worker poetry, and the paradox of trying to write a mystery novel in a country with Hayes Code-esque rules about how police and criminals can be portrayed. Walsh notes that Chinese online fiction is the largest publishing platform in the word, but the section on web novels is fairly cursory—expected in such a short volume—and surprisingly dismissive in tone given how little oversight the format enjoys compared to print publishing. If you want to know what average Chinese people are reading for entertainment, this is probably the place to look deeper. The other frontier of great interest is science fiction and fantasy, speculative works that take advantage of the genre to try to fly above political turbulence using the guise of the future to offer commentary on the present. Although brief and limited, I still found The Subplot to be a fascinating glimpse into the Chinese literary scene.

Red Carpet

Cover image for Red Carpet by Erich Schwartzel

by Erich Schwartzel

ISBN 9781984878991

Money has always shaped what gets made in Hollywood, but with the American box office stagnating and film budgets ballooning, profits from global markets have become increasingly important. The most powerful of these overseas markets is China, with its large population and rapid expansion of movie theatres for a growing middle class. Author Erich Schwartzel reports on Hollywood for the Wall Street Journal, and in Red Carpet he examines China’s complicated relationship with the American film industry. It begins with two controversial 1997 films about the Dalai Lama: Kundun directed by Martin Scorcese and Seven Years in Tibet directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. These films marked a turning point, with China flexing its increasing economic power to influence releases that were never intended for the Chinese market. Schwartzel proceeds to chronicle the growing difficulty of getting American films into China amidst opaque censorship rules, and the difficulty of predicting which American movies will be popular with Chinese audiences. Meanwhile, the Chinese film industry has been growing, with a better bead on what domestic audiences want, and what authorities will allow. As the skill-gap closes, China is poised to create its own domestic blockbusters, while continuing to influence how it is portrayed to global audiences in American cinema, and which foreign films its citizens are permitted to legally see and financially support. Schwartzel’s in-depth reporting highlights the unexpected effects of globalization on one of America’s most notable exports.

Kingdom of Characters

Cover image for Kingdom of Characters by Jing Tsu

by Jing Tsu

ISBN 9780735214729

Kingdom of Characters chronicles the evolution of technologies for the written Chinese language in the years since contact with the West, with a particular focus on the past century. Western communication innovations have long been based on the Roman alphabet, from moveable type to the telegraph to Unicode. Even non-Roman alphabets such as Cyrillic have been little more than afterthought in these systems; ideographic languages like Chinese were deemed impossibilities, if they were thought of at all. Yale comparative literature professor Jing Tsu dedicates seven roughly chronological chapters to the inventors, thinkers, and advocates for the Chinese language who fought to preserve its script in the face of tremendous pressure to modernize and simplify. Although Western imperialism played its part, the process was not without internal tensions, from rivalries over who would invent to the first marketable Chinese typewriter, to regional disputes about how to standardize a language that has tremendous local variation, and political in-fighting between the Communists in China and the Nationalists in Taiwan over script simplification. While written for a general audience, this book still has a decidedly academic bent reflective of the author’s background, with detailed descriptions of the technologies discussed, and the challenges of their application to the Chinese language. However it tells an important story of how China’s script was—perhaps against the odds—preserved, and continues to flourish into the twenty-first century.

Canada Reads Along 2022: Life in the City of Dirty Water

Cover image for Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Muller

by Clayton Thomas-Müller

ISBN 9780735240070

“One of the mysteries of creation is how closely saving yourself and saving the world are linked. If you don’t take care of the world, you will only end up harming yourself. And if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t do the world any good. We’re all part of the world. It is an illusion to think any of us can be separate.”

Growing up as a young Indigenous man in Winnipeg, Clayton Thomas-Müller faced a rough childhood marked by intergenerational trauma, racism, and abuse. After the death of his great-grandparents, his family became disconnected from their traditional practices on their tribal lands in Jetait in northern Manitoba. His itinerant youth took Thomas-Müller from Winnipeg to northern British Columbia, with a detour through juvenile detention before landing back on the streets of Winnipeg on the cusp of adulthood. Life in the City of Dirty Water is the story of how, after all this suffering, Thomas-Müller reconnected with his heritage and became an environmental activist who has worked with organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network and 350.org.

Thomas-Müller is the biological son of two residential school survivors, though the men who he called father, who helped raise him, whose names he took, were not all one and the same. It is very much a history of intergenerational trauma, and his mother’s story is that of a very young woman from northern Manitoba who became pregnant as a teenager, and had to leave home to go to the city to access the services she would need to support herself and her child as she tried to complete her education. Their journey is not one of smooth sailing, but “he has my full support and permission to share his story; as his mother, that is the gift I can give him at this junction in his life,” Gail Pelletier writes in her forward to the book. Family remains an important theme throughout, both in how families support one another, and how they are fragmented by trauma.

Life in the City of Dirty Water describes Thomas-Müller’s non-linear path into the world of environmental activism, even as he remained tangled with the gangs his family was involved with, and continued to occasionally sell drugs to meet his obligations or help support his family. The latter part of the book turns frequently to Thomas-Müller’s anger at the world, and the way that anger both fueled his activism and also threatened to burn him up from the inside. Anger “consumes you even as it nourishes you” he warns, as he recounts a brutal schedule travelling across Turtle Island and around the world to fight for Indigenous rights in order to protect the environment. In these sections, he recounts both his work with environmental NGOs, and also how the Indigenous practice of the Sundance helped him heal and reconnect with his heritage despite growing up in the city.

Life in the City of Dirty Water employs a chatty and discursive style. Thomas-Müller’s narration is conversational, and his memoir has the feel of an oral tale that has been written down. I read this as an e-book but would be very curious to hear the author’s audio narration, as I have a feeling it might do the tale better service. The story is semi-chronological, but also ranges widely. He will make passing mention of an interesting fact or detail that sounds as if it could be a story in its own right, and then never return to it. There can also be a sort of whiplash to his blandly matter-of-fact narration of some extremely traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse, mixed in with descriptions of much more quotidian occurrences. It speaks to the extent that violence of all kinds was normal in Thomas-Müller’s early life, but also conceals a deep hurt that will not bear more interiority or closer examination.

Life in the City of Dirty Water was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by author and ecology professor Suzanne Simard, who teaches at the University of British Columbia. Simard argued that Canada faces an uncertain future grappling with the dual consequences of climate change and intergenerational trauma, two key themes of this memoir. She presented Life in the City of Dirty Water as a book that shows how we can turn anger into action at this crucial crossroads, and care for the earth by first healing ourselves. She felt that it was unique among the Canada Reads 2022 books in offering readers that path forward.

This first day of debates always moves quickly, with good portion of the time taken up by panelist introductions, book trailers, and a pep talk by the authors for their defenders. This year was no different. Often the book that is voted off first is the one that takes a few hits or draws attention and the best strategy on the first day can be to simply fly under the radar. This year’s theme is One Book to Connect Us, and host Ali Hassan’s questions focused on how the books on the table bridge the divides between us. Life in the City of Dirty Water did not come in for particular criticism, however Clayton Thomas-Müller’s memoir did stand out in that it was the only non-fiction book on the table this year, a fact that was called out by panelist Tareq Hadhad.

When the time came to vote, Malia Baker cast the first vote against Life in the City of Dirty Water. In the post-show Q&A with Ali Hassan, she pointed to the book’s multiplicity of stories and that she felt the meat of the activism narrative didn’t come until the second half. Three other books received one vote each, with Suzanne Simard voting against Washington Black, Christian Allaire voting against Scarborough, and Mark Tewksbury voting against What Strange Paradise. Citing the way the book sometimes read like a narrative resume, Tareq Hadhad cast the second vote against Life in the City of the Dirty Water, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2022.

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Korean American Non-Fiction Mini Reviews

Crying in H Mart

Cover image for Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

by Michelle Zauner

ISBN 9780525657750

“Hers was tougher than tough love. It was brutal, industrial strength. A sinewy love that never gave way to an inch of weakness.”

In her memoir, musician Michelle Zauner explores how losing her mother to cancer impacted her Korean American identity, and the relationship food plays in maintaining a connection to her heritage. The daughter of an American father and a Korean mother, Zauner grew up in the United States, visiting Korea in the summer with her mother. Over a period of a few years during her twenties, Zauner loses her aunt and grandmother in Korea, and then her mother dies of cancer. With each death she feels her connection to Korea slipping away, as if it is embodied in the people rather than the place. One aunt remains, and they struggle to connect across the language barrier of Zauner’s rudimentary Korean, often turning to food as a place to connect. Because her mother never taught her to cook, Zauner makes that exploration herself, both in trying to recreate Korean comfort foods for her mother while she is dying, and then as a way to claim that space for herself after her mother is gone. Their sometimes tumultuous relationship is recontextualized by the fact that Zauner will never see her mother again, never get another good day with her. Crying in H Mart is a visceral account of the slow destruction of cancer, about what death takes from us, and what it gives back. Love, family, grief, and food twine together in this exploration of identity and loss.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Minor Feelings

Cover image for Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

by Cathy Park Hong

ISBN 9781984820365

“Minor feelings are not often featured in contemporary American literature because these emotions do not conform to the archetypal narrative that highlights survival and self-determination.”

Minor Feelings is a series of essays about the intersection of art and Asian American identity that encompasses both history lessons and art theory and analysis, as well as stories from the author’s life. Cathy Hong Park is a Korean American poet who studied at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the early 2000s, where writing about her heritage was dismissed as “identitarian” or “ethnicky.” The titular concept and the one that gained so much traction for this collection is “minor feelings,” which she defines as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric,  and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality questioned or dismissed.” For readers, this concept is a valuable lens through which to examine which types of stories about minorities we tend to laud, and which are dismissed because the emotions they contain are unpleasant or uncomfortable, or do not result in triumph and overcoming affliction. “Rather than using racial trauma as a dramatic stage for individual growth, the literature of minor feelings explores the trauma of a racist capitalist system that keeps the individual in place,” she explains. Cathy Hong Park also explores what it means to speak or write with “bad” English, and what impact the tacit decision not to speak or write about her rape and murder has had on the legacy of artist and novelist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Minor Feelings is a broad and sprawling collection that covers vast ground while exploring the question of what it means for Asian Americans to create art in a system that is designed to cater to the white experience.

Tags: Non-Fiction, Essays

All You Can Ever Know

Cover image for All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

by Nicole Chung

I never had a name for what was happening. I had never heard of or read about any racism other than the kind that outright destroys your life and blots out your physical existence.”

Nicole Chung was prematurely born in 1980s Seattle to struggling Korean immigrant parents who already had two other daughters at home. Told that her biological parents were unable to afford the medical care she needed, or provide for a child who might be sick all her life, they placed her for adoption. She was raised in small town southern Oregon by white parents who touted a colour-blind philosophy, and were ill-equipped to help a lone Asian child navigate what her race meant in a town where almost no one else looked like her. Writing clearly and eloquently about her own experiences, adoptee Nicole Chung describes the mythologizing of the adoption narrative, and how this comforting, pre-packaged story ultimately backfired as she struggled to find her identity. But if the adoption narrative proved to be oversimplified, so too was the stereotypical reunion story of a biological family lost and then joyfully found. Reaching out to her biological relations proved to be just as complex as navigating the intricacies of interracial adoption. In this exploration, Chung excels at taking the adoption narrative beyond “good” or “bad,” instead seeking to portray the institution that created her family in all the complexity that neat narratives seek to oversimplify. Her story refuses to be so constrained.

Read my full review from 2018

Tags: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Beautiful Country

Cover image for Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

by Qian Julie Wang

ISBN 9780385547246

“From then on, there was no saving me. I lived and breathed books. Where else could I fund such a steady supply of friends, comforts, and worlds, all free for the taking? And so portable, too–everywhere I went, there they were: on the subway, at recess, on the steps outside of Ba Ba’s office. Unlike my teachers and classmates, they were reliable.”

In Chinese, America is known as Mei Guo, or the beautiful country. When Qian Julie Wang was only five years old, her father left for America and she did not see him for two years. Although the book is set almost entirely in North America, Wang’s memoir is in many ways about the intergenerational trauma of the Cultural Revolution, which shaped her parents’ choice to eventually leave China for an uncertain life as undocumented immigrants in the United States. Where once her father had taught English literature, and her mother had taught math, in America they were reduced to surviving on a variety of menial jobs from hair salons to piecework sweatshops to sushi factories. Wang arrived in New York City at the age of seven in 1994, and would not become an American citizen until 2016. Beautiful Country tells the story of some of the intervening years, covering elementary school and her first year of middle school before taking an unexpected twist that I won’t spoil here.

Wang is vague on the details of what exactly happened to her father’s visa, which does seem to have initially been a working visa, but she and her mother came as visitors and overstayed. Such details were immaterial to a very young child in any case. In America, Wang’s parents ruthlessly hammer home two crucial lessons. First, avoid the authorities at all costs. This leads them to mistrust what little support is available to them as undocumented immigrants, even when they could desperately use the food or other services. Free school lunch is one of the few forms of assistance they deem it safe to accept since they have already exposed themselves to some extent by enrolling their daughter in school. Second, Wang is taught to say that she was born in America, and has always lived there, a fiction which is initially undermined by the fact that she arrives in her second grade classroom largely unable to speak English. Unwilling to rely on the whims of the classmate reluctantly roped into translating for her, Wang begins teaching herself English with the help of PBS Kids. She also finds the first place that feels like home in her new country in the form of the Chatham Square branch of the New York Public Library.

Beautiful Country also chronicles the Wangs’ fraught search for some sense of community or support in their new home. Used to being considered intellectuals, the Wangs find that in New York’s largely Cantonese immigrant community, speaking Mandarin leads to the assumption that they are “farmers from Fuzhou.” Wang’s parents had two couples with whom they were close friends in New York, but were fond of saying that they were not the type of people they would have chosen to associate with back home. They were friendships of necessity. Still more disturbing is the account of a lonely older white man they call Lao Jim who uses his money to buy the time and attention of Asian women at the salon where Wang’s mother worked one of many jobs. He takes the Wangs to McDonalds every weekend, and teaches Wang’s mother how to drive, but the relationship is always tinged with the ominous warning given by one of his other girls, Mimi. “You know he’s disgusting, right?” She warns. “He’s filthy. He has nasty thoughts about everyone. Even…her.” The outings do not stop, but Wang’s father always makes sure to accompany them.

Throughout, Beautiful Country is filled with the palpable anxiety of deportation, lurking around every corner. “Only later, after living many years in fear, would I understand that the risks were much lower than we believed at the time,” Wang explains. “But in the vacuum of anxiety that was undocumented life, fear was gaseous: it expanded to fill our entire world until it was all we could breathe.” The other pervasive feeling painstakingly described is going hungry. “Hunger was a constant, reliable friend in Mei Guo,” Wang recounts. “She came second only to loneliness. Hunger slept only when I did, and sometimes not even then.” Especially early in the book, Wang’s writing has a close, child-like perspective. But undocumented life in America forces her to grow up fast, becoming a source of both practical and emotional support to her parents, particularly her mother. Her experience becomes more contextualized, and I fell deeper into her perspective, only to be surprised when the book ended at sixth grade. We do not get to follow Wang’s winding journey to citizenship, but perhaps another memoir will be in her future. For now, Beautiful Country is an evocative portrait of those first five years of struggle to realize the promise of Mei Guo.

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The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli

Calling Bullshit

Cover image for Calling Bullshit by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West

by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West

ISBN 9780525509196

“Myths are most difficult to debunk when they are interwoven with a person’s worldview and sense of cultural identity.”

In the information age, we enjoy unprecedented access to knowledge. However, the deluge is difficult to sift, and there is more fake news, propaganda, and disinformation than ever before. All of this requires time and energy to sort through, and many people feel as if they do not have the necessary skills to perform such an assessment. Calling Bullshit offers a toolkit for spotting misinformation and disinformation, as well as suggestions for how to approach the actual act of calling bullshit when someone has shared questionable data. It also provides readers some suggestions for guarding against their own confirmation biases or desire to be right. Based on their course of the same name taught at the University of Washington, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West lay out a toolbox for skeptics in the information age.

Calling Bullshit includes the type of skills that are taught to librarians, journalists, and scientists, all professions where assessing the accuracy of information is paramount. However, it also aims to teach readers strategies for spotting misinformation and disinformation that don’t rely on expertise in any particular field. For example, you don’t need to be a scientist to check the axes of a graph to make sure they haven’t been inappropriately foreshortened, or that the intervals are even. Nor do you need to be a computer programmer to consider the quality of that data that goes into the black box algorithm. If garbage goes in, garbage will inevitably come out, regardless of what happens in between. As the authors put it, “there’s no magical algorithm that can spin flax into gold. You can’t compensate for bad data. If someone tells you otherwise, they are bullshitting.”

The authors are specifically interested in the type of claims that cloak themselves in math, science, or other quantitative evidence as a means of trying to appear more valid than they actually are. This strategy is often effective because people are less likely to question quantitative evidence, often because they do not feel competent to evaluate it. However, there are a variety of methodological questions from sampling method to data presentation that anyone can ask of a study, without being an expert in that field. Each is illustrated with a variety of clear examples that help teach readers what to watch out for, particularly crucial for examining information graphics.

When it comes to sharing misinformation, Bergstrom and West argue that “participating in social media is only secondarily about sharing new information; it is primarily about maintaining and reinforcing common bonds.” This goes a long way towards explaining why people are often not terribly concerned with the exact truth of their postings, as well as why people share articles they haven’t read. If the headline conveys the right emotional valence and social signals—what the authors call “tribal epistemologies”—that may be all that is necessary for them to hit share, cementing their loyalty to the group. It also explains why arguing with these posts can be so fraught and fruitless; beliefs that are tied up in people’s identities are much harder to refute because persuading them requires not just debunking the incorrect information, but also contending with the emotional ties they have to what it signals.

While Bergstrom and West laud the merits of science as a method of investigation, the book also includes an important chapter on the limitations of science, and the ways in which it can itself be subject to bullshit through human foibles. Science is a system that tends towards self-correction by its very nature, but mistakes can and will be made along the way. This includes an overview of both misreporting on science by the press, and a dive into some of the ways that science can be misused, from p-hacking to publication bias. This is particularly useful for thinking about studies you read about in the news, where correlation and causation may have been conflated, or other important factors gone underreported.

To quote Jonathan Swift, “Falsehoods fly and truth comes limping after it.” Creating misinformation is easy; debunking it is a much more difficult task.  Calling Bullshit offers an interesting look at some of the reasons why that might be the case, as well as the tools for spotting the most common types of misinformation, accompanied by illustrative examples.

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