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Book Review: Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol

African-American girl standing near a pole.Summary:
Jonathan Kozol’s books about his social justice work among inner city children in the 1980s and 1990s brought attention to the starkly uneven educational opportunities presented to children in America.  Now the children he originally met are young adults, and through this memoir telling of his friendships with them, he explores their lives and what it means to be successful when everything is stacked against you.

Review:
Long-time followers of my blog know that my undergraduate university (Brandeis University) seeks to instill in its students a sense of social justice, and that certainly worked with me.  So when books like this pop up, I’m instantly interested in reading them.  True equality means equal opportunities and safety for all, and a book like this is a bit unique in that it doesn’t just look at inequalities but also examines the long-term effects of attempts at intervening and helping people who basically got the short end of the stick.  Kozol succeeds quite well in analyzing what has worked and what hasn’t in the Bronx where a large part of his social justice career has been.

The chapters each focus on a different child, although a couple of children get their own chapters.  Kozol met the children either in one of the infamous 1980s NYC homeless shelters or at an after-school tutoring program offered at a church (St Ann’s) in the Bronx.  There are a few things that are immediately apparent from observing the long-term trajectory of these kids, which is why a book like this is so valuable for social justice work.

First, all of the kids who were homeless or who spent a long time in homeless shelters had many more problems and difficulties later in life.  It is clear that homelessness has a long-lasting negative impact on children, no matter how many good opportunities come to them later in life.  Similarly, girls seem to stand a better chance than boys of climbing out of the poverty they grew up in.  Kozol never makes any clear speculative statements as to why he thinks this is, but the multiple lives we observe clearly demonstrate that boys are more targeted than girls both by the crime lords and by the police.  They are both presumed to want to participate in crime and presumed to already be participating in crime.  If you live in just this neighborhood and see just this world where almost everyone you see except maybe a parent or a teacher expects you to become a criminal, it’s no wonder that the boys are struggling more than the girls.  This is a great example of how patriarchy hurts men too.  These assumptions about masculinity and roles in the community are hurting them.

The other big theme of the book is of course how educational inequality entrenches classism and racism.  Kozol has spent most of his career working in improving education so it’s not surprising this is a theme of the book.  One thing that stood out to me was how quickly kids are lost if they never get a firmly established literacy and sense of confidence in their ability to learn.  Once kids start getting held back a grade or fall below grade level, it is incredibly easy to become discouraged and turn to what appears to be an easier life of crime.  And it’s not the kids’ fault that they are struggling at school.  The class sizes are too large, the teachers are frequently inexperienced or, in the case of one school, were never even trained as teachers at all.  There is frequent teacher turnover, too heavy of a focus on just getting the kids to pass the achievement tests and not establish real learning and literacy.  There is a real problem with violence and bullying.  The list goes on and on.  It goes beyond the schools though.  Outside of school the children are never truly safe.  There are shootings and stabbings and rapes, and we’re not talking down an alley. We’re talking in the lobby or stairwell or elevator of their apartment buildings.  How can anyone focus on learning and growing up when that is all around them?  It’s a big problem, and one that is not easily solved.

Kozol ends the book by talking about what he sees as progress and how the now grown-up kids he worked with see possible solutions.  He’s adamant that even small gains are gains.  He views any child whose life ultimately is one of peace and self-worth as an accomplishment, whether they even completed high school or not.  To a certain extent I agree with him, but to a certain extent I agree much more with one of the grown-up kids (who just so happens to be about my age) who argues that small changes aren’t good enough.  That the inequality is so deeply entrenched that we must truly rock the system and not just save one child at a time.  She does ultimately agree that the small changes are still worthy of praise and is working on a degree in sociology so she may go back to the Bronx and focus in on small changes. That then is the question at the heart of this book and one for which there are no easy answers. How do we fix this problem?

It’s difficult to say who this book will appeal to.  It’s not a clear treatise on the educational system or social justice.  It is one man’s observations of the lives and life stories of inner city youth he worked with.  It is not academic per se but it’s also not exactly a memoir either.  I think perhaps that it will appeal most to anyone whose day to day job involves having small influences on the education of individuals.  It clearly shows how much impact one person can have on another person’s life, particularly when it comes to education and literacy.

Overall then I recommend this to those who work in education whether formally or informally.  It is encouraging to see the perspective of an older person who has clearly seen how his life work has impacted the kids he worked with.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Netgalley

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Friday Fun! (The Gym and Body Image)

April 1, 2011 8 comments

Hello my lovely readers and a happy April Fool’s Day to you!  There’ll be no tricks on my blog, but if you want to have some fun, be sure to check out ThinkGeek‘s home page today.  🙂

In any case, today I want to talk to ya’ll about body image and the gym, because I think it’s something that keeps a lot of folks out of the gym when it shouldn’t.  When I joined the gym one of the things I was the most nervous about was exercising, changing, showering, sauna-ing (is that a word?  It should be) around other people who might be judging me.  Yes, I have fairly good body image, but I’m still a person and struggle with it periodically.  I mean really, who doesn’t?  Beyond not wanting to have men hogging the weights and hitting on me, I also joined a women only gym purely because I wanted to be in the company of other women who hopefully wouldn’t be judgmental pricks like certain girls in highschool tend to be.  But I was just like “Fuck it.  I won’t let the possibility of some women being bitches to me keep me from being healthy,” so I joined.  And you know what?  It has been the best body image experience of my life, and no, that is not just because I’m getting more confidence in my body’s abilities.

I have not once heard a single woman say a single derogatory thing about another woman in my gym.  Not once.  The women are astoundingly kind.  The women are universally thoughtful of each other and profusely kind at sharing equipment and amenities.  I have never once heard a personal trainer say the f-word (fat).  I have never seen a trainer yelling at a woman.  I have never seen a class instructor without a smile on her face.  I’ve only heard trainers and instructors encouraging women, telling them, “Society tells you you can’t do this because you’re a woman, but I’m telling you that your body is amazing, and you can.”

But it goes beyond that.  I see women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, races in the locker room, and you know what?  That has just totally opened my eyes to the fact that the Hollywood ideal, society’s mantra of what a woman *should* look like just simply does not reflect reality.  And I find every woman I encounter in the locker room and sauna beautiful in her own unique way.  And I got to thinking, if I find them beautiful, if they’re here doing their thing with their body, then why should I ever diss my own body or get down on it or not embrace it?  My body is amazing.  It can do seriously amazing things.  I can bench press weights.  I can hold the dancer’s pose.  I can run.  I can do chin-ups.  I can almost touch my forehead to the floor.  Plus, my body can nurture life or not, as I see fit.  My body can do all these things and is simultaneously uniquely mine, and that is what makes it so awesome.

Book Review: The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

Person in white hallway.Summary:
In the Sweden of the near future women who reach the age of 50 and men who reach the age of 60 without having successfully acquired a partner or had children are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live in “a unit.”  These units appear at first glance to be like a high-class retirement home, and indeed they have all the amenities.  The residents, however, are required both to participate in medical experiments and to donate various organs and body parts up until their “final donation” of their heart anywhere from a year or a few years after their arrival in the unit.  Dorrit arrives at the unit depressed, but accepting of her fate as the result of her independent nature, but when she falls in love, she starts to question everything.

Review:
The entire concept of this book intrigued me as it is clearly a dystopia whose focus is on the older generations instead of teenagers and young people.  The concept itself is of course frightening to any of us who have come to grips with the fact that some day we will be elderly too.  This dystopia is also unique though in that it examines the possible future movement of Swedish society, which is vastly different from American society.

The writing is entirely from the perspective of Dorrit.  Although it is clear she is writing from some point after the events occurred, Holmqvist eloquently allows her voice to change to reflect her changing ideas on society, her friends, her family, and her own life.  When Dorrit first arrives in the unit, she attempts to defend herself saying that women used to be raised to be independent instead of with such a high focus on producing children that will add product to the GNP.  It’s not as if she didn’t want a partner, she did, but it didn’t happen.  So why is that her fault?  Deeper issues are addressed too such as why does only a new family unit count and not siblings?  What about pets?  Don’t they need us?  The vast implications of such a focus on interpersonal relationships found in the traditional family unit are subtly addressed.  What type of people tend to be alone family-less by the age of 50 or 60?  One resident in the unit’s library, for instance, points out that

“People who read books…tend to be dispensable.  Extremely.” (Page 26)

Of course the setting of this dystopia also brings up other interesting issues that Holmqvist handles quite well.  The dystopian setting allows the author to address the perpetual loss of friends that the elderly face as well as seeing themselves and their friends sicken mentally and physically.  Placing it in a society in which this is exacerbated by science naturally gives it another level as well as a welcome distance for the elderly reader.  This of course is a large part of what makes this dystopia different from the typical YA version.  Instead of dramatizing the challenges young people typically face such as their world widening and new knowledge being imparted, this one shows how the world becomes smaller and acceptance that it’s too late to change the world becomes the norm.

Perhaps the most universally interesting issue this dystopia addresses is how much the individual should be willing to sacrifice for the greater good.  The residents in the unit are constantly being told that their discomfort in an experiment could improve the lives of hundreds of needed people.  Or that they should be perfectly fine with “donating” one of their corneas and going half-blind if it means that a nurse with three children can remain a contributing member of society.  While some of the residents grow resentful of this concept, referring to the unit as a free-range organ farm, Dorrit finds leaning on this perceived value helps her with her depression in the unit.

“Otherwise I would feel powerless, which I essentially am, but I can cope with that as long as it doesn’t feel that way too.” (Page 71)

Clearly this book makes one think not just about the issues the elderly face but also about how society as a whole treats them and makes them feel.  It also firmly addresses just how much individuality and choice it is justifiable to give up for the greater good.  The ending completely shocked me and has left me with even more to ponder than the points given above, but I want to leave those for the future reader to discover.

I am incredibly glad this work was translated into English, and I highly recommend it to everyone, but especially to dystopia and scifi lovers, as well as those interested in sociology and psychology.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Wolf Bite Wednesday (Gardening Is Not Elitist)

April 7, 2010 4 comments

I’m sure you’ve heard the people claiming it’s elitist to backyard or container garden.  The “reasoning,” apparently, is that because other people in the world have to farm to subsist, doing so when you don’t have to is rude to them.  Or something like that.  Excuse me, but the assumption that farming is something you only do until you can afford not to is what’s elitist.  It’s looking down on farmers.  It’s looking down on people who are actually willing to get their hands dirty to sustain themselves.  It’s looking down on everyone who works along the line to make the packaged, processed foods these so-called humanitarians eat.

There is, of course, a place for production farming.  It’s a great way to produce a lot of food in a short amount of time at a relatively low price to feed a bunch of people.  It’s obviously far more logical to have a large farm of rice paddies than for me to attempt to make my own rice paddy in Boston.  I’m laughing just thinking about it.

But what about your backyard that is currently just grass?  What about your balcony that’s decorated only with chairs and a few garden gnomes?  What about the 3 feet of space in my kitchen that’s too small to fit an appliance or table in, so is currently just wasted space?  If I grow vegetables and/or fruit there, I’m:

  • Using space that would otherwise be wasted for a valuable purpose
  • Lessening my environmental impact, which is a benefit for everyone
  • Becoming more self-reliant, which is always a good thing
  • Maintaining important knowledge to help pass down to future generations

These people seem to think that big business manufacturing is The Answer to all societal problems, but it isn’t.  It isn’t too hard to imagine a future where no one knows the basics.  Where no one is in touch with the earth or with their food or with their clothing or with the animals.  We’re practically living in it now.  Just look at the obesity epidemic, the violence, the general feeling of ennui permeating modern life.  We’ve become so caught up in the power of manufacturing that we’ve forgotten even good things are bad if they aren’t in moderation.  It’s great that I can get rice and tofu in the store–those aren’t exactly things that I can grow in my backyard.  But it’s also great that I can grow a tomato in my kitchen.  Nothing teaches you where food comes from quite so well as planting the seed, nurturing the plant, and harvesting the fruit yourself.  It’s empowering.  It’s understanding on a close, personal level what we as people are capable of with our opposable thumbs and big brains.  Gardening isn’t elitist.  It’s bringing a sense of humanity back to a people whose culture continually tries to rob them of it.

Book Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall By Anne Bronte

September 22, 2009 Leave a comment

coverthetenantofwildfellhallSummary:
Cited as the feminist antithesis to her contemporary Austen’s romantic 19th century ramblings, Anne Bronte’s best-known novel presents the much more dire image of the very real risk of marriage in a time where the wife loses all her human rights to her husband. Gilbert Markham becomes infatuated with the widow Helen Graham who has moved into his neighborhood with her son, but rumors soon start to spark up around her. When he confronts her about her conduct, she shows him her diary. There he learns her travails and sufferings at the hands of her still very much alive husband.

Review:
I came to this book with high expectations. I heard of it simply as the one of the earlier feminist novels written in response to such works as Austen’s. I felt this opened the door to many possibilities, but perhaps I was thinking about this with too much of a 21st century brain. What held The Tenant of Wildfell Hall back was the relentless presentation of Helen as the picture of Christian piety. Given the fact that Helen behaves quite willfully and controversially for the time period by leaving her husband’s home to live separately from him, this was probably quite necessary for Bronte’s contemporaries to find Helen a sympathetic character. For me though her severeness sometimes had me siding with her tyrant of a husband in my mind. He calls her cold and calculating. Well all she ever talks about is living piously now to be joyous in heaven after death. I would find that cold and calculating as well.

This book does hold value for the modern feminist though if we re-position ourselves to look at it through the lens of how society at the time has messed up both Helen and her husband, Arthur. Society tells Helen that it is her job as a woman to be the pious one. Although single men may go cavorting about she must sit respectably at home or go out to supervised dances. Men may behave however they desire as long as they settle down after marriage. This belief leads Helen to make her foolish, egotistical mistake of thinking that marrying Arthur is alright for she can change him after they are married. To a certain extent Arthur makes the same mistake. He has been told the ideal wife is a highly pious one, so he marries Helen thinking she will save him when, in fact, they are the most mis-matched couple ever.

Arthur enjoys cavorting, playing cards, and drinking. Helen refuses to do these things out of piety and nags Arthur not to do them. They both come to realize they are mis-matched, but in their society divorce is a painful embarrassment to both parties. Helen doesn’t even consider it for Christian reasons; Arthur in order to save face. This leads to their gradual loss of caring for each other, although Arthur’s comes much faster and more brutally when he carries out an affair with the wife of a visiting friend.

Arthur no longer wants Helen, but she is his wife and he would be a laughing-stock if he couldn’t control her, so he starts abusing her emotionally–repeatedly telling her it disgusts him to see her pale skin, for instance. He also carries out the afore-mentioned affairs with her full knowledge and at first forbids her from having any of her own. I am not condoning Arthur’s ill-treatment of Helen. He made the situation far more worse than society alone would have had them make it. He could, for instance, have allowed them to set up separate households, which was sometimes done. He at least could have shown her the respect she deserved as a human being, but instead he came to view her almost as a hated prison guard. This would not have been the case if they could have parted ways amicably.

I must admit what struck me far more than the restrictive society was Helen’s restrictive religion. She almost constantly lives only thinking of her reward after death in Heaven. She possesses nearly no joy for her beliefs require that she squander her life away serving a man who hates her. The only reason she even leaves him for a time, relieving some of her pain, is because she believes her duty to raise a pious son outweighs her duty as a wife, so she is justified to remove her son from the soul-risking influence of his father. Helen’s faith seems to bring her no joy, but instead demand she behave as a judging marble statue.

Although The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not an obvious feminist manifesto, it as an excellent rendition of the oppression of 19th century society on both men and women. Reading of their struggles and realizing as a 21st century observer that there is essentially no way out for either of them beautifully demonstrates how far we’ve come. Bronte’s writing style is complex enough that what could be a bit of a boring, straight-forward tale remains interesting throughout. She changes perspectives a few times via diaries and letters. She does suffer from the 19th century literature trap of overly extensive descriptions of settings, but these are easily skimmed. An excellent example of 19th century literature, I wish Bronte’s realistic work was assigned more often in literature classes than Austen’s fluffy, unrealistic drivel.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Environmentalism’s Impact on Books

Environmentalists have their good points and bad points, just like any activist group.  I agree with some of their points and disagree with others.  However, there seems to be the stirrings of a new target for environmentalists–new books.  A blog example is this post detailing how you should only buy used books whenever possible as studies show they are better for the environment.  Then there’s the new Netflix-style business called BookSwim, which claims that it’s more environmentally friendly to have their stock of “rentable” books shipped to you in recycled packing materials than it is to buy new books.

What these people seem to be missing is that if people stop buying new books, at some point there won’t be any more new books being published.  It is important that avid readers support the publishing of new books by currently writing authors, as well as the classics.  If the publishing industry encounters a distinct lack in demand for their product, they aren’t going to make it anymore!  Environmentalists need to grasp the fact that we’re talking about books here.  Literacy.  Education.  Possessing an educated public.  That’s a bit more important than a few trees in the rainforest.  They really need to set their sights on something else.  I’m all behind finding alternative energy sources, but we need books to keep being published.

Another point that ye olde BookSwim seems to miss is the low environmental impact of borrowing books from your local public library.  I know in rural areas people have to drive there, but it is often possible to bike or walk.  No books are being shipped, plus you get the chance to meet and encounter people from your neighborhood at the library.  Not to mention the fact that the library is free.  What BookSwim cites as its most popular plan costs $29.97 a month.  They heavily push the idea of no late fees and no due date, but let’s consider this for a moment.  The most popular plan is 7 books at a time, send back 3 and hold 4.  A book is not a movie.  A movie may generally be watched in 1 1/2 to 2 hours, which leads to a rapid turnover.  This is part of what makes Netflix worth the money.  Even the most avid reader generally takes more than 2 hours to finish reading a book.  My friends who read the most avidly finish around 10 books a month.  That means they would have paid $3 a book.  Most libraries charge 10 cents a day for a late book, and allow you to have it for anywhere from a month to two months.  You would have to keep the book an extra 30 days in order for the late fees to equate the cost of the book from BookSwim.  Anybody with half a brain can see that BookSwim isn’t worth the money.  One of the major selling points of BookSwim is the ability to take as long as you want to read a book, but if you do that then you won’t be getting your money’s worth.

Come on, people.  Use your heads.  Utilize your local public library for older books or books you know you will only want to read once, and buy new books from your local independent bookstore to support the future of the book industry.  It is really not that complicated.  Environmentalists should stick to their solar panels.