Thursday, 7 December 2017

The only woman in the room: Why science is still a boy's club by Eileen Pollack

I have a M.Sc. in Physics.  I'm a woman.  I did not go on to get a Ph.D.  I've never worked as a scientist.

I have a story that I tell when I'm asked about my history.  I think of it as my "just so" story.  It is a little fable that that makes my choices sound logical and satisfying.  I pull it out when I talk to young people about career choices and career progression, at networking events, or when I reveal my academic background to interviewers or colleagues.

As is the nature of such stories, it has been polished and abbreviated over the years.   While the story has a core of truth, it omits much more than it tells:  the anxieties, the uncertainties, the dead ends, and the mistakes.

Eileen Pollack is about 10 years older than I am.  She has a B.Sc. in Physics from Yale.  She did not do graduate work after she completed her bachelor's degree and has never worked as a scientist.  She is a novelist and author.

The only woman in the room is Pollack's attempt to get beyond her own 'just so' story to understand and explain why she did not become a scientist, and in doing so, to talk about factors that still keep women from becoming scientists.  The core of the book is Pollack's own story,  supplemented by "woman in science" research and with interviews with women who are scientists, who aspire to be scientists, and who, like Pollack, once aspired to be scientists.

The summary version of Pollack's story is that she chose to become a writer rather than a physicist because she lacked encouragement to pursue physics and lacked the self-confidence to do without encouragement.  She was pushed by a physics prof to expand her horizons beyond physics, then felt welcomed and validated by her writing professor and peers in a way that she never was in her scientific life.

When I read Pollack's story, I am staggered that she doubted her ability to become a physicist:  she won, and then turned down a scholarship to MIT.  As an undergraduate, she did original research in theoretical physics and was sponsored to present that research at a student conference. But she didn't know she was exceptional, and no one told her.  She took her initial awkwardness in the lab to mean that she lacked experimental talent, rather than understanding those failures as part of a learning process.  She didn't know, except in a general way, what her professional path forward as a physicist would have been, and lacked mentorship that might have helped her put her accomplishments in context or could have helped her understand the rewards and challenges that would have faced her as a scientist.

Did any of the factors that affected Pollack's decision to abandon physics influence my own decisions?  Like her, I got a terrible score in my first first year physics midterm, badly shaking my confidence.  Like her, I didn't know that the male undergraduates were completing their assignments collaboratively in a study group, instead doing all my own work throughout my undergraduate career.  Like Pollack, I ignored indications that my professors thought that I had talent, or did not understand them as such. (My experimental results from one first year lab were posted as an example for other students for a couple of years afterwards. In second year I received a physics scholarship.  No one told me that it was because in addition to getting good grades, I was asking interesting questions in class.)

Pollack cites research that shows that women need more encouragement to continue in science than men do, but receive less.  There are whys on both sides of that equation, of course.  But women may be less to blame if you consider that women start from a place where the paucity of women scientists itself sends the message that what they want to do is unusual, gives them fewer models to follow, and means they have fewer potential mentors who can address concerns particular to their experience as women.  And the fact that I feel defensive about women needing more encouragement also highlights another truth:  male is taken as the default, and when women deviate from that default their behaviour is seen as needing explanation. 

Pollack doesn't have answers to the "why" questions of women in science, and doesn't offer solutions.  She does expand the discussion past skills, aptitudes, and details of different program offerings to a more personal story, and to the consideration of the impact that more personal issues have on the lives of women who love (or once loved) physics.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart is brief, but in 209 pages it brilliantly invokes the traditional village life and spiritual beliefs of the Igbo, then shows their swift unwinding at the hands of missionaries and the colonial administration of Nigeria. 

It's no wonder that this book is considered The classic work of African fiction.  Things Fall Apart was written by an Igbo and is told from an Igbo perspective.  The book centres African experience and challenges the colonial narrative of "exploration", "conquest",  or "savages and civilization" by showing the complex social, political, religious, and cultural traditions that were disrupted by the introduction of alien traditions -- literally at the point of a gun. 

It's hard to imagine how radical it must have felt to read this book when it was published in 1957.   Things Fall Apart helped spark an African literature as one nation after another gained independence through the 1950s and 1960s, and writer after writer starting telling their own stories. 

Ironically, part of the power and influence of the book undoubtedly came from its colonial influences:   Things Fall Apart was written in English, giving it an inherently larger audience.  It also follows a very conventional Western narrative structure -- the novel tells of the rise and fall of an exceptional man (Okonkwe) using an impersonal 3rd person narrator -- making its unfamiliar perspective more approachable for Western audiences and for those educated under colonial systems across Africa.

Both of these decisions make sense: according to Achebe, written Igbo is itself a product of colonialism.  The missionary who decided how to transcribe the language into written form decided that written Igbo should be the 'average' of all of the different dialects -- so written Igbo does not reflect how anyone speaks or understands the language anyway.   And as a student of English literature, it makes sense that Achebe turned to a colonial narrative form to tell a story from the history of his people.

But I wonder what Things Fall Apart might have been like if Achebe had instead followed more closely the model of the stories told at the firesides of his ancestors:  the masculine stories of the land,  full of violence and bloodshed, or the feminine stories like that of the bird eneke-nti-oba who challenged the whole world to a wrestling contest, and was finally thrown by the cat.....wait a minute!  In his youth, Okonkwe challenges the whole world to a wrestling contest and triumphs by throwing the reigning champion, Cat.... Maybe there's more going on in this novel than meets the Western eye.

I was out of town for the book club meeting where Things Fall Apart was discussed.  I wish I could have benefited from the insights of my fellow readers.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Battle Stove Spectacular by Standard Eyre

Welcome aboard the Battle Scar, and welcome to the feast prepared by Chef, your host on a flying castle populated by elves, dwarves, fieldfolk, gnomes, and humans as it careens towards a key diplomatic meeting that may decide the fate of the Elf Confederacy.  The table is set with a menu outlining the novella you are about to consume.  It begins with "Drinks-Aperitifs-Conversation",  moves through "Appetizers and Contemplation", "Specials of the Day", and "Tossed King Salad" before concluding, of course, with "Just Desserts".

Battle Stove Spectacular is an adventure fantasy set in a vast, complicated world full of intrigue, suspense, romance, restaurant critics, and puns.  It's the first of a planned 20 stories by the Vancouver author Standard Eyre.  It's available only as an e-book,  and can be found both on the Apple Book store and as part of the Vancouver Indie Author's collection at the Vancouver Public Library.

Battle Stove Spectacular is not my usual kind of book.  I'm a regular reader of SF, but a less-regular reader of fantasy and an infrequent reader of stories set in universes descended from Tolkien's.  But I'm not entirely unfamiliar with the genre.  I also know the author, and was interested in finding out what he had come up with.

What did I discover?  A world with some spectacular technology, intriguing characters, and a plot twist or two.  As book 1 of 20, I'm curious where the author is planning take the larger series: will the future stories explore different elements of this universe, like the history or future of the different races that inhabit this world?  Tell further adventures of these specific characters?  Explore the history and future of the flying castle itself?  The base the author provides in Battle Stove Spectacular could easily support multiple story threads and multiple directions.  There is a lot going on, especially considering that this is a novella of a mere 145 pages on my e-reader.

What did I think?  Well, my  personal taste in fantasy and SF leans to the "less is more" school, rather than the "more is more" school when it comes to characters, plot, and world-building.  For example, I thought Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and all of the subsequent books in that series would have been far better if they had been pruned by about 1/3, and I couldn't finish The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I'd have loved to have read Battle Stove Spectacular as part of the larger planned series, where the (presumably) interlocking stories could have borne some of the burden of context-setting and world-building.  Alternatively, I might have preferred that the Battle Stove itself be promoted to full noveldom by having its action spread over a longer adventure.

But the novella as written is entertaining, including everything from automated Bus Buoys and sous-vide apatosaurs to an ambiguous golden boy and a warrior named Bunny.  If you're a fan of "more is more" fantasy fiction, you may enjoy spending a few hours exploring the Battle Scar with Standard Eyre.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Ru by Kim Thuy

I'd read Ru years ago, shortly after it won the Canada Reads competition  in 2012.  I remembered it as a short, beautiful, and poetical book about the refugee experience, which is why I recommended it as a selection for my book club.

It's more properly a novella than a novel, having only 141 sparsely populated pages, so I delayed re-reading it until just before the group met.   I tore through the book again, finishing two days before our meeting and thought "But what am I going to say about this book?". 

It was only then that it occurred to me that Ru is a novel, not a memoir.  Thuy is a Vietnamese refugee who came to Canada as part of the huge exodus of "boat people' in the mid-70s.  The book is written in the first person, and she did draw upon her own experiences in writing the book.  But Ru is a novel.  That means that the incidents and structure and language of the book have been carefully selected by the author to produce a certain effect, and to convey a certain message.  I couldn't assume, as I had unconsciously been doing, that Thuy had simply been recounting selected incidents from her life.   I needed to re-read, thinking about why, how, and when the author had inserted each incident, and what she was trying to say with what she was writing.

Unfortunately I didn't have time to finish the book for a second time before we met.  But the more critical re-reading I did have time to do was a revelation.   The book has a beautiful structure.  In French, a "ru" is a flow, as of a stream of water or tears.  In Vietnamese, a "ru" is a lullaby.  And the book itself is a is a series of linked stories, linked not by chronology but by themes.  One fragment will end with mention of a photo, or of a floor, or of the narrator's voicelessness.  The next will begin across time and space with a mention of a different floor, a different photo, another incident of speech or silence, the stories connected only by the theme and the fact that they tell fragments of the same person's life.  The book was also filled with interesting images:  what was the significance of the pink acrylic bracelet filled with diamonds used to smuggle wealth out of Vietnam, but stolen and discarded by thieves in Canada who had no idea of the value hidden inside?  How could I have missed the metaphorical nature of the brick wall built dividing the author's childhood home, half given over to the communists, and the other half invaded by soldiers that they were obliged to billet?

I didn't finish my re-reading, but reading the book as a novel definitely enhanced my enjoyment of it, and my appreciation of the artistry involved. 

The other striking feature of the book is that it was written in French, and translated.   The translator did a fabulous job of capturing the poetic language of the book. 

Monday, 25 September 2017

Conflict is not Abuse by Sarah Schulman

This is not a book club book -- it's just an interesting read, even if the entirety of its contents can really be summarized by its title.

What does the title mean?  Basically, Schulman's thesis is that there is a destructive tendency in modern life to wrongly conflate conflict and abuse. People who find themselves in conflict with others will claim that they are being harmed, or abused, by the person they are in conflict with.  The claim of abuse puts them on a moral high ground, in some cases gives them access to the power of the state to end the 'abuse', and relieves them from the obligation to engage with the person they are in conflict with so that they need not understand their own role in and responsibility for the destructive interaction.

This conflation of conflict and abuse happens on the interpersonal level, where one domestic partner may call the police as a result of a dispute with their partner when they are in no physical danger.  It can happen within organizations, for example, when students suffering from a history of trauma insist that material related to their trauma not be taught in a classroom, as it is 'triggering'.  Or it can happen on a societal level, where white people may claim that they are being treated unfairly by the mere existence of anti-racism activism, because "White Lives Matter".

Why is this trend destructive?  First of all, it is damaging.  In our society, those who are abused are seen as worthy of sympathy and assistance, and those who perpetuate abuse are not.  The incorrect accusation of abuse relieves the accuser of the obligation to engage with the person with whom they are in conflict.  And although unpleasant, conflict is a normal part of life.  Learning to resolve conflict can be personally enriching, as doing so in a genuine way means examining your own role, taking responsibility, and gaining insight.  Resolving conflict can strengthen relationships instead of destroying them. 

Claiming abuse when there is none simply raises barriers.

Schulman hypothesizes that there are two fundamentally similar reasons for confusing conflict and abuse:  Supremacy and Trauma.  In a supremacy situation, the person with the most power in a relationship may claim -- and may indeed feel -- that they are being abused when in conflict with someone that has less power.  If someone resists your unjust attempts to control their behaviour, their resistance is not abuse, even if you feel that you have a "right" to command them.  Think of a police officer who is infuriated when you get  'lippy' by asking to see a warrant when they make unreasonable demands.  The second situation, of Trauma, arises when one party to a conflict has been abused in the past.  Because of their trauma, they may overreact to normative conflict, and, in a sad mirror of the Supremacy situation, be unable to tolerate difference or experience differences as abuse. Think of Israel and its inability to tolerate criticism of its treatment of Palestinians.

As you can guess from my examples, my primary interest in Schulman's hypothesis comes from mentally applying her thesis on a social level, although she spends at least as much time exploring interpersonal relationships.   It's a worthwhile read, even though I spent chunks of the book mentally arguing with Schulman about large and small points.  (Ever consider that Canadian nationalism is a form of resistance to overwhelming American economic and social power?  Or that whatever your personal beliefs about abuse and trauma, not everyone is going to be ready or willing to deal with their issues at the time and in the way that you feel is correct? )  But the book is thought-provoking, and gave me new tools for thinking about and understanding reactions in the Age of Trump.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being is a playful book from page 1.   Or perhaps right from the title page, as the title is a pun:  a time being is a being who lives in time, like a person or a tree or an animal.   But of course, its also a tale for today ie/ "the time being" and a tale that is "good enough for now".  And that's only the beginning of the ways in which the author plays with words, with time, and with meaning as she interleaves two stories:  that of a middle-aged American writer who lives on Cortes Island, and the story of an unhappy Japanese teenager as told in a diary that the writer finds washed up on the beach.  

The book is very engaging.  One of the stories is a mystery:  what happened to Nao, the Japanese schoolgirl who wrote the diary?  Was she killed in the 2011 Japanese tsunami? How did her diary end up on Cortes? The other story is also a search:  Nao's search for a reason to live.  Nao is suicidal, or says she is in her diary.  She also says that she's going to tell you the life story of her 105 year-old great grandmother, an anarchist feminist novelist and Buddhist nun.  But you can't always believe everything Nao says, although she tells her story in such a personal and immediate way that it's not always easy to keep that in mind.

Everyone in my book club liked the book, except for M, who prefers books that have a clearer structure or theme.  I see her point: A Tale for the Time Being is bursting with characters, themes, ideas, animals, and events.  In some ways it doesn't cohere.  But the thread of Nao's story, and of Ruth's quest to understand it were compelling.  I was content to think of all of the 'extra' elements as ornamentation that added interest (if not additional meaning) to the story of Ruth and Nao.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This is an unusual novel.  It has a story arc, it has characters, it has character development.  It just doesn't have continuous stretches of prose.   The entire story is told in either dialog, or in quotations from real or invented historical accounts of Abraham Lincoln's life. It reads a bit like a play, as pointed out by another bookclub member, and apparently there is also an audio book version, which probably works particularly well for this book.  

There was an interesting split in the reactions to the book at our meeting:  the four Canadians liked the book well-enough, or were indifferent to it.  The two Americans thought it was a masterpiece.  Our retired medievalist had a great insight about the split:  the American Civil War is one of the defining events of American history, and a defining part of the American experience.  So a novel about Abraham Lincoln has far more resonance for Americans than it does for the rest of us.

What did I think?  I thought the novel was very well executed.  The characters were well-drawn, as were their tragedies and obsessions. Saunders was very skilled at drawing a story together from fragments -- by a quarter of the way through, I was immersed in the Bardo and Lincoln's life. And I'm embarrassed to admit that it didn't occur to me until after I was finished the novel that some of the 'historical' accounts had been invented for narrative purposes.  In other words, they were convincing.

However, not being an American, I found the novel a bit unsatisfying.  After I finished, I wasn't sure why the author had written it.  What was George Saunders trying to say?  I'll have to accept that his goal was to comment on the Civil War and its place in the American psyche, because the book didn't speak to me.