Sunday Salon: Currently in May

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Visiting | Since Memorial Day weekend is the “unofficial start of summer”, I took public transportation to the beach and enjoyed an ice cream cone as I walked in the sand. The weatherman kept warning about crushing heat, but it ended up being a beautiful day so I came back home via the river stopping along the way to see the Memorial Day commemorative flags. We supposed to have similar weather tomorrow, which I’m sure will bully me into putting aside the remote and going outside again.

Missing | My beloved papa (grandfather) passed away recently, and I made a whirlwind trip back to his hometown for the funeral. (Hence the silence on the blog as of late.) He was my (self-described) biggest supporter, and I miss him terribly. But it was nice to see family — some I haven’t seen in years — and remember my grandfather as the man he was before his health declined so much.

Reading | Nothing? I finished Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay on the plane and left it behind for my mom to read. Since returning from the funeral, I haven’t started another eBook or printed book. So unlike me.

Listening | I’m slowly but surely making my way through Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Galabdon, the second book in the Outlander series. The projects I’ve been focusing on work haven’t lent themselves well to audiobook listening so I’ve been limited to listening during walks on the weekend.

Watching | I started the first episode of “Orphan Black” earlier this week and am now flying through the rest of season one. All the praise you’ve probably heard is well founded — Tatiana Malslany is simply amazing! I am so impressed with all the subtle nuances she adds to the six characters she plays.

Planning | I’ve been putting together a list of goals and plans for the summer — join a summer sports league, visit Vermont — and trying to figure out how I’m going to squeeze them all in amidst what I already have on my schedule. I’ve been get a lot of pressure to take over a Meetup group (even though I’ve only hosted one event) so I’m trying to figure out if that’s a feasible undertaking or not.

Either way, I imagine the blog will continue to be pretty silent over the summer picking up again when the cold weather and snow forces me to stay indoors again. Or, when the humidity becomes so unbearable that I don’t stray far from the AC!

The Sunday Salon:

The Sunday Salon.com The Sunday Salon encourages bloggers to get together –at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones– every Sunday and read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another’s blogs. Salon participants are encouraged to blog about their time spent reading, pages read, information about current reading, discuss a reaction to a book, state what they plan to read the following week, or make suggestions for a group read.

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

Fiction – print. Gallery Books, 2012. 352 pgs. Purchased.

In sixteenth century Venice, Papal edict forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Christians and confines all Jews to a squalled ghetto, which they are forbidden from leaving after nightfall. Late one evening, a wealthy Count arrives with the ghetto’s rabbi in an attempt to solicit the midwifery services of Hannah Levi, a woman renowned throughout the city of Venice for her skill with complicated deliveries. Hannah wants to refuse the request for her help as she fears the edict and the possibility that the Count might decide her secret “birthing spoons” (very crude forceps) were a gift for the Devil.

Yet the outrageous sum of money the Count offers for her services is more than enough of a temptation for Hannah. Her husband, Isaac, was captured at sea and sold to people claiming to be defenders of the Christian faith, and Venice’s rabbinical council has been unable to negotiate for his release. The Count’s payment would allow Hannah to travel to Malta, where her husband is being held, to ransom Isaac before the slave traders and abusive merchants can work him to death.

The first few chapters of this book hold an immense amount of promise setting the stage for a perilous and ethical decision – should Hannah use her God-given gift for midwifery when it could cause her to permanently lose her husband, could put her community in danger, and could cause her to lose her own life? And does she dare use her “birthing spoons” that even her rabbi had qualms about blessing? Rich also provides detailed descriptions of the scenery of sixteenth century Venice, which help to explain the rampant anti-Semitism in this region and highlight how perilous life is during this time for both Jews and women whether they are Christian or not, pregnant or not.

And then the whole story begins to fall apart. Rich repeatedly asserts that the noble family Hannah has been called to assist would also face prosecution if the Papal authority learned they had solicited the services of a Jewish midwife for a Christian mother and child. Yet the family invites her to dine with them in the weeks after the birth breaking social customs and the law, which conveniently provides Rich with the opportunity to plant Hannah right in the middle of a plot to kidnap the newborn child. Her sister, Jessica, is conveniently introduced after Hannah flees the house to provide Hannah with a place of refuge, and their tenuous relationship is quickly explained and patched up in a few pages.

The narrative abruptly shifts to Malta where a cruel man and a nun from the local abbey are in a bidding war over Isaac, which interrupted the suspense of Hannah’s story, and then continues to jump back and forth from Venice to Malta throughout the book. I imagine this was done to show the peril facing both Isaac and Hannah, to show why Hannah was so determined to rescue her husband.

However, other than Hannah learning how her husband refuses to leave her over her barrenness despite the Rabbi’s pressure, there was nothing about the introduction of Isaac to the story that added dimensions to both his characterization and his and Hannah’s relationship. And I ended up largely skimming sections devoted to the subplot of him helping a slave trader with his love affair.

The timeline rang false for this time period. So much of the action occurs in a span of a few days, including the Count sailing away to another city and news of his death from the plague arriving the next day – rather amazing speed given the time period – that the plot begins to feel even more convenient and farfetched. I just could not get over the idea of a woman in 1575 being named Jessica.

And neither, apparently, could the previous owner of this book because they littered the pages of this novel with a bunch of questions marks and attempted to take notes on the plot on the back cover.

In the Darkness by Karin Fossum

Fiction – print. Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson. Harvill Secker, 2012. Originally published 1995. 314 pgs.

Walking along the icy riverbanks late one afternoon, Eva and her seven-year-old daughter, Emma, discover a dead body bloated from weeks in the river floating near the surface. Emma instructs her mother to call the police, and Eva complies instructing her daughter to wait patiently outside the phone booth while she makes the call. Instead, she calls her father – never once mentioning the dead body – before taking an overweight Emma to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal, which the little girl asserts they can now afford because her mother suddenly has money.

An elderly woman eventually alerts the authorities to the location of the body, and Inspector Konrad Sejer arrives on the scene to discover the body is that of a man named Egil who worked at the local brewery and has been missing for months. The man’s disappearance was cloaked in mystery – his wife insisted he loved his car, but both she and Egil’s son assert that the man disappeared when he went to meet a buyer for the car. And now that his body has surfaced and found to have fifteen stab wounds, Inspector Sejer begins to wonder how a disappearance presumed to be about money could have resulted in such a personal and violent attack.

At the same time, Inspector Sejer is investigating the murder of a known prostitute by the name of Maja who was found dead in her apartment just before Egil went missing. The case has gone cold, and there are few leads as to which one of Maja’s johns killed her. The only connection between the two cases is Eva, who Inspector Sejer eventually learns was the first one to find Egil’s body and was the last person to see Maja alive.

It is fairly obvious from the beginning who at least one of the killers is, but Fossum is far more interested in the how and, most especially, the why the killer did what they did. In fact, Fossum’s book follows a rather unique structure blending the killer’s confession with the investigation of the crime so the resulting narrative jumps from past to present as pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

It took me about a hundred pages to find my footing and it felt like Fossum was struggling, as well, since she uses the third person narrative throughout of the book. I can’t set aside mystery novels after a certain point because I have to know whodunit.

Yet, in this case, I couldn’t give up on the book because I had to know whydunit. And the physiological exploration of why as it unfolded in the second half of the book was well worth sticking with the book because while I cannot say I was shocked by the ending, I thought the way she tied everything together in the end was very clever. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if more of Fossum’s novels follow me home from the library, especially since this is the first book in a series.

Finally, I do have to comment on the translation by James Anderson. I usually find with some of the lesser known Scandinavian crime writers that their work is translated into British English rather than American English. Obviously, I’m more than capable of adapting to the few differences – boot instead of trunk, phone box instead of phone booth – but there were words here and there that I had to look up  to make sure I was understanding correctly. The context provided by the rest of the sentence failed me, I guess, because I wouldn’t have classified these words as slang. (And, dummy me, I returned the book before remembering to write them down.) But this was more of a quirk I noticed than a complaint, and it shouldn’t be taken as a reason not to pick up Fossum’s novel.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Nonfiction – print. Riverhead Books, 2015. 290 pgs. Library copy.

If a chapter of your books ends up being published in the New York Times magazine, odds are I’ll end up adding it to my to-read list. Which is how I ended up reading this particular book – a portion of Ronson’s book was published back in February under the somewhat provocative title “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”.

I remember seeing the Sacco incident unfolding in real time as people I follow on tumblr reblogged a screenshot of the tweet exclaiming their disgust over it and calling for Justine to be fired. I never saw the original tweet on Twitter, but I did see the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trending in the United States as I logged on to delete the account I created for a project at work. (We needed a test account and I didn’t want to use the one linked to my book blog, obviously.)

I saw a story in the newspaper a few days later following up on the vitriol explaining that Justine was, in fact, fired after sending out a tweet to about 150 followers. And while I don’t defend what she said, I remember being struck at how one tweet to a smallish group of followers practically destroyed this woman’s life. I mean, while I had heard of people being bullied on Facebook and Twitter, I thought such large scale public smack downs were usually reserved for companies. Oh, the naiveté.

Turns out, others have experienced what Justine Sacco went through and Ronson interviews five others – a journalist who turned out to have plagiarized himself and others by the name of Jonah Lehrer, a young woman named Lindsay Stone whose offensive photography of an inside joke with friends earned her death threats, a world racing guru named Mosely caught having German-themed orgies, a computer programmer who made a sexual joke to a friend in the crowd of a conference and ended up losing his job, and the woman who publicly shammed the computer programmer in a tweet.

Jonah Lehrer’s experience seems rather cut and dry as journalists should be held to high standards and plagiarism and embellishment diminish their credibility. And I’ve seen people claim Justine deserved her public shaming because she works in public relations and should know better than to tweet something that could be perceived as racist, even if she later stated she meant to poke fun at the way most Americans view Africa. (An excuse I don’t buy.)

But the computer programmer and the woman who publicly shammed him were the two cases that really introduced shades of gray to this situation. Should the man have made a sexual joke for anyone to overhear? No, absolutely not. Should the woman have tweeted a picture of him in an attempt to publicly shame him? No. She could have just as easily tweeted her disgust without the picture, and Ronson explains that the conference organizers did investigate her charge of sexual harassment. (Would they have investigated it without the picture? Hard to say.)

The tweet ended up costing the man his job, which seems extreme, but it also ended up costing the woman her job after he posted that her tweet cost this father of three his job, which also seems extreme. He almost immediately went on to another job at a technology startup without a single female employee; she ended up receiving rape and death threats from anonymous internet trolls and men’s rights groups.

These antidotes were certainly food for thought in terms of my own personal, online presence, and I ended up discussing quite a few of them with my father during his recent visit. I do agree with his point that we (mainly Americans, it appears from Ronson’s book) have developed a “pile on” culture that is constantly out for blood. People cannot make mistakes because every misstep is logged online and scrutinized by millions of people they do not know.

Ronson tries to point out that public shaming was an accepted form of punishment for hundreds of years and, in fact, some judges in the South still sentence defendants to some form of public shaming.  At this point, the book starts to lose steam and the premise begins to fall apart. His research into this history is weak, at best, and his attempts to find a solution felt halfhearted.

Basically, a victim of public shaming has three options: (1) turn themselves into a super honest person which will probably land them in even hotter water, (2) refuse to engage or overengage by finding someone to sue for libel like Mosely did, or (3) pay a company hundreds of thousands of dollars to basically “up vote” good things about them to the top of Google’s algorithm so their transgression falls to the second page.

A quick Google Images search shows the latter did not work for Lindsay Stone, which is a shame because I had never heard of her or her picture until I read this book. And it makes me wonder what Ronson had hoped to accomplish with this book. He discusses that question quite a bit in the text, but I don’t think he ever figured it out.

He neither offers solutions for those who have publicly shammed (as one of his interviewers said they wished he would do) nor does he really trace the history of public shamming to provide context for how and why our society works this way. All he really accomplished is providing an opportunity for these people to publicly shammed all over again, and you can gleam enough of that from reading the portion of this book published in the New York Times magazine.

Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Nonfiction – print. Hill and Wang, 2012. 160 pgs. Library copy.

Fetter-Vorm’s graphic novel provides a short introduction the history of the world’s first atomic bomb(s), which was developed by the United States during the Second World War and dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. The bomb was developed in total secrecy – the Manhattan Project was later used as a case study for the CIA – in several locations across the United States including an underground squash court at the University of Chicago, an electric plant at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, and a hastily built town at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The groups of scientists at Los Alamos were led by J. Robert Oppenheimer under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Fetter-Vorm focuses much of his book on these two men – how they became involved with the project, how they acted during the project, and how they viewed the project after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.

My knowledge of the development of the atomic bomb is comprised of where (New Mexico in the United States), why (weapon of war), and when (during World War II). The critical piece missing is how, and comics turned out to be the perfect way to illustrate how nuclear fission works and all the reactions required for an atomic explosion to work. Reading a text-only explanation likely would have gone right over my head, but Fetter-Vorm guides his readers through a step-by-step explanation of nuclear fission and the difference between using energy as a source of electric power versus as a weapon of war.

For such a short book, Fetter-Vorm manages to span the entire expanse of the atomic bomb from conception to post-drop reactions. Nearly every American history textbook contains a picture of the bomb’s plume after eruption, which Fetter-Vorm includes in his book, but few include the immediate and delayed impact on the people of both Japan and the United States. The black and white drawing of the half-burnt, little boy looking for water to ease his pain stuck with me long after I finished the book as did the scene he depicts where Oppenheimer meets with U.S. President Harry Truman to inform him that atomic weapons are too evil to ever be used again only from Truman to kick him out of his office and say he never wants to see or hear from Oppenheimer before.

Fetter-Vorm also explains how the Cold War and nuclear proliferation began even before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the British having their own version of the Manhattan Project, the Soviets placing at least one spy at Los Alamos, and Stalin being deeply offended over the way the Americans informed him of their intent to drop the bomb on Japan. But the most surprising facts I learned actually had nothing to do with the atomic bomb. The firebombings of Japanese cities by the Americans produced far more casualties than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined – in fact, the Tokyo firebombing killed more people within six hours than in any equivalent period of time in the entire history of mankind.

So, yes, I’m very glad I stumbled across this graphic nonfiction book at the library. The chemistry primer and history lesson were much needed and much appreciated.