Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What I Read: No-No Boy

I have two big shout-outs/thanks in this post. First, for Adam over at Memento Mori who mentioned this in a haul or TBR or review video. As soon as he mentioned it, I realized that I hadn't really read anything about the Japanese internment camps, like, ever. I think we had a copy of Baseball Saved Us somewhere in the house, but I want to say it was my brother's (baseball fan that he is) and not mine. I might have never even read it and just remember the cover.

I've talked endlessly about how the TIME Top 100 Novels list is a lot of white dudes; I made some changes and turned it into my Classics Club List. I halfway knew early on in that goal that I wanted to read something by an East Asian author, a group that was more or less totally excluded from the original list. A friend recommended Farewell to Manzanar, which I still absolutely intend to read, but I had a hard time finding it in my libraries, and it felt a little weird to include a straight-up memoir on a list of novels. 

So Adam basically dropped the perfect book in my lap, or at least the perfect title. The second shout-out and thanks go to Henny Blanco (of Dirt Nap Podcast fame), who was kind enough send me a huge dump of ebooks from my Goodreads TBR, including . . . No-No Boy

Image courtesy of University of Washington Press
The story of John Okada, the author, is kind of tragic. No-No Boy is his only novel. It was published in 1957 to a lukewarm reception at best, and so he more or less left the writing world for the rest of his short life. He died in the early 70s of a heart attack, and while he was working on another novel at the time, the documents are lost to us so it's hard to tell if he just had notes, or if he had a completed draft, or if he had something almost completely finished.

The title refers to the loyalty questionnaire Nisei Americans (American-born Japanese) were asked to swear when being called up to the draft, which consisted of a number of questions. The last two were real humdingers:

Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiances to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?

Thousands of people answered "no" to both questions and ended up serving time in prison for it, and they became known as "no-nos" or "no-no boys." Okada was not one of them, but the protagonist of his novel is. No-No Boy is the story of Ichiro Yamada, a no-no boy who comes back to his life in Seattle after his prison sentence. His mother is proud of him for being a no-no boy; she thinks Japan actually won the war, and that soon she and other loyal Japanese will get to go back. Others are, unsurprisingly, furious with Ichiro, white and Nisei alike. Eventually Ichiro runs into Kenji, a fellow Nisei and a veteran who lost his leg in the European theater and who is only getting more and more ill. Kenji seems to understand Ichiro, at least better than anyone else does, and the two spend a lot of time together as Ichiro tries to figure out his new place in the world. 

I'm so glad I finally got to read this. (Thanks again, Henny!) I'm not sure if I missed out on it during my American literature education because it's obscure, or because my education in particular was really spotty, or because I'm just not as well-read as I'd like to think.

There are a handful of books I review here that I really hope people will go out and read (if they haven't already). Usually it's because they're really good, but this is one I think we should read because it's important. Well, and it's also really good and worth reading regardless, but for all of the novels we have World War II veterans, it's important to remember what was happening to other Americans at the same time. No-No Boy widens that focus and broadens that perspective. I'll leave off with a quote from early on the in the novel, when Ichiro decides to pay a visit to the university where he was studying before the internment camps and then prison:

Not until the bus had traversed the business district and pointed itself toward the northeast did he realize that he was on the same bus which he used to take every morning as a university student. There had been such a time and he vividly brought to mind, with a hunger that he would never lose, the weighty volumes which he had carried against his side that the cloth of his pants became thin and frayed, and the sandwiches in a brown grocery bag and the slide rule with the leather case which hung from his belt like the sword of learning which it was, for he was going to become an engineer and it had not mattered that Japan would soon be at war with America. To be a student in America was a wonderful thing. To be a student in America studying engineering was a beautiful life. That, in itself, was worth defending from anyone and anything which dared to threaten it with change or extinction. Where was the slide rule, he asked himself, where was the shaft of exacting and thrilling discovery when I need it most? If only I had pictured it and felt it in my hands, I might well have made the right decision, for the seeing and feeling of it would have pushed out the bitterness with the greenness of the grass on the campus and the hardness of the chairs in the airy classrooms with the blackboards stretched wall-to-wall behind the professor, and the books and the sandwiches and the bus rides coming and going. I would have gone into the army for that and I would have shot and killed, and shot and killed some more, because I was happy when I was a student with the finely calculated white sword at my side. But I did not remember or I could not remember because, when one is born in America and learning to love it more and more every day without thinking it, it is not an easy thing to discover suddenly that being American is a terribly incomplete thing if one's face is not white and one's parents are Japanese of the country Japan which attacked America. It is like being pulled asunder by a whirling tornado and one does not think of a slide rule though that may be the thing which will save one. 

I hope that whet your appetite! If you've read No-No Boy, I'm curious about what you think. If not (or even if you have, I guess), what are some other under-read and underappreciated classics that you think should be more famous? Why?

Monday, May 22, 2017

Newly Listed: Rhodonite Speed of Light Bracelet

Well, I'm back to the land of the living! Jewelry-wise, anyway. A few nights ago I pulled out the ol' bead box and put together a few bracelets while JV and I listened to some podcasts.

There are so many interesting podcasts out there, both amateur and professional, that I want to listen to more often, but I find that I need something to do with my hands while I listen. Otherwise I alternate between spacing out and feeling guilty for not making better use of my time. The net result is that I'm trying to use listening to podcasts to put out more jewelry. (Even though I still have some alpha and beta release backlog to work through and list...)



This is the first in a couple new pieces. I'm trying to tilt things towards science, since there's more math than science in the shop right now. This bracelet features the speed of light (in meters per second).


Pink speed of light sciart physics science jewelry bracelet

The rhodonite chips are some that I reclaimed from an alpha release, and same with the round beads.

Pink speed of light sciart physics science jewelry bracelet


I don't usually work with just one stone in an entire piece, but I figured since I had rhodonite in both round beads and chips, it might be a nice, subtle look to go with. The grays in rhodonite still give it a little bit of visual interest., I think. And the random variation in the size and shape of the chips.

This is a memory wire cuff, which is my favorite to make (it doesn't require a lot of fussing with crimp beads and wire and jump rings) and my favorite to wear (one size fits all, no clasp to fiddle with yet incredibly secure). I try to branch out into other styles, but I keep coming back to memory wire again and again.

Speaking of podcasts, I'm also trying to have them on in the background while I write these up, just to work through the backlog of episodes. So right now I'm writing this up while I listen to The Dirt Nap.

Be on the lookout for more items going up in the following days!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Friday 5: Over/Under

What’s a film you consider overrated, and what’s a related or similar film you consider underrated?

This is actually a conversation I like to have with people. It's interesting to see when people's opinions diverge from the generally given consensus. It's been a long time since I've had this conversation with people, though.

The first answer that comes up for me is the Sam Raimi Spider-man movie. There was a lot of buzz about it when it first came out, so I went in with high hopes. Something just never clicked with me, though, and I left the theater feeling disappointed.

If I had to go with an underrated superhero movie (since we're in the genre), that's a little tougher. So I'll cheat and branch out a little bit, and say that some of my favorite movies are maybe in danger of becoming underrated or unknown. I'm a huge fan of The Marx Brothers, Vincent Price, and Gene Kelly (also major props to Donald O'Connor, an equally talented dancer who had the rotten luck of not being as handsome as Gene Kelly). It's good to appreciate the old as well as the new.

I will say this, though: of old things, I think The Three Stooges are fantastically overrated.

What’s overrated about the area in which you live, and what’s underrated about it?

I'm not sure what's overrated about Stockholm? But I don't think a lot of people realize how many (free!) museums there are in Stockholm, as well as festivals, concerts, and events. It has all of the culture of New York City, but with a fraction of the population.

Whose talent or skill is overrated, and whose is underrated?

This is a tricky one. I think I'll say that the concept of "talent" itself is overrated, as it leads to so much self-defeat. It takes a lot of work to get good at something, and if you just rely on focusing on what's easy the first time around, "you're gonna have a bad time."

I think people underrate the value of a good copyeditor, but I might just be biased. ;)

What item in the supermarket is overrated, and what’s underrated?

I will never be able to enjoy bacon the same way the rest of the world does. I can choke it down if I accidentally end up with some in a meal somewhere, but I'm still quite likely to pick it out. Nor have I ever developed a taste for coffee or fizzy drinks.

As for underrated, for years I labored under the false notion that cottage cheese was bland, boring diet food. I don't know if that's still the reputation it has today, but I'd like the record to show that cottage cheese is delicious.

What’s utterly terrific except for one or two things?

A few years ago, I read Jennifer Ouellette's The Calculus Diaries. As a humanities student trying to (belatedly) make peace with STEM, it was right up my alley, and overall I really enjoyed it. Except! In one of the chapters, she repeats the apocryphal story about ancient Rome and post-festivity vomitoriums. Ancient Rome had vomitoriums, but they weren't special rooms for vomiting after a particularly large meal; they were (and are) just exits in large public buildings like stadiums or amphitheaters.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Friday 5: Bizarro Cliche



The Magic Word is “please,” but what’s the magic gesture?

Well, hm, I think we can just let this one go without comment . . .


“Big D” is Dallas, but where is Big G?

I guess as a Swede, I'm obligated to say Göteberg, but it seems a little odd to hype a city I haven't visited (yet). I'm trying to think of places I've at least visited that begin with G, but I'm coming up blank.

Also, again: "Big D." I'll let this one slide, too . . .


Elvis Presley is the King of Rock and Roll, but who’s the king of your personal music collection?

Here's a question I can answer! I think Ben Folds is probably forever the king of my music library. Even when I don't love every single one of his songs (I like the more pop-oriented ones than the ballad-y or story ones, because I am a basic bitch), the ones I do love are some of my favorites. He's also a whip-smart lyricist, too, which I value in an artist.


The motherland is wherever you consider your family’s origins, but what’s the cousinland?

Any language-adjacent country or one with a similar history. Given the reputation for drinking and recent history of being oppressed by a neighboring island, for example, I think Korea and Ireland could be considered cousinlands.


CBS calls itself the Tiffany Network, but what would you call the Walmart Network?

I realize that calling itself "the Tiffany Network" is supposed to be a comment on their quality, but for me all I think about is Trump's least-favorite child. (Poor Tiffany . . . )

But moving on to the actual question: CNN? It's everywhere, it's open 24 hours, it's got the basics but nothing high-end or specialized.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Trek Thursday: Redskirts


Allow me to bring back this intermittent series on the blog to pimp my buddy Dromeda's podcast: Redskirts! In their own words, Redskirts is "a Star Trek podcast by two people who sometimes wear skirts." Right now they're focusing on TOS, my eternal fave of the franchise. It's basically the kind of podcast I'd want to be a guest on (and that was actually what I told Dromeda after she sent me the pilot ep: "When can I come in for a guest episode?"). Maybe if Skype and time zones play nice, that can happen? I have really strong feelings about The Devil in the Dark, y'all.

They're taking the episodes in air date order, so this first episode tackles The Man Trap. But if you want more, their pilot episode tackles . . . the first pilot, The Cage.

If you like it, you can follow their RSS feed and get new episodes as they go up.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Newly Relisted: Gel Electrophoresis Chainmaille Bracelets

Guys, I am so damn proud of these bracelets. I spent years thinking about how to incorporate chainmaille into my work, until I hit upon the idea of gel electrophoresis art. Then, I probably spent another couple of months thinking about how I could pull it off. I finally debuted these puppies during this year's SciArt Tweetstorm, after some valuable input from Peggy over at The Vexed Muddler.

Biology has always been a field that I've had to neglect. The nature of the work is not something easily encapsulated by simple bead-stringing; chainmaille finally allowed me to represent images instead of numbers. I was, and still am, excited about taking my jewelry in this direction.

You can imagine, then, that it's breaking my heart a little that they're not selling, but I have no one but myself to blame for that. I picked the wrong time of year to stop promoting my shop -- the triple whammy of Pi Day, Mother's Day and graduation events within a three-month period means that this is exactly the time of year for nerdy bespoke jewelry to be popular, right? Usually, yes. This year I dropped off the map.

That's a long way to say that these bracelets deserve better than me. More promotion, a sexed-up photograph, some clever copy . . . all three? But there's only so many balls a person can juggle.

Biology science sciart gel electrophoresis art bracelet chainmalle jewelry
1kb Step Ladder Gel Electrophoresis Bracelet by Kokoba Jewelry

I love bead-stringing, and I always will, because I am a sucker for pretty rocks. But there is a Zen-like simplicity in chainmaille. No knots, no crimps, no string or wire: just you, two pliers, and a bunch of jump rings. It's a lot easier to pick up and put down, which is something I need at this point in my life.

Biology science sciart gel electrophoresis art bracelet chainmalle jewelry

Right now I only have these two colors (black and a silvery champagne). Once I recover from the hit that is tax season in two different countries, I'm going to put in an order for more. I have visions of rainbow pride versions of these, for the LGBTQ+ scientists and allies in the field, but that might have to remain a pipe dream for the time being. I don't think I could get more than a couple out in time for actual Pride this year.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Friday 5: Ssssssssh!

What’s something sneaky you’ve recently done?

I'm not really good at being sneaky. It's hard to answer this one!


Who or what do you feel the need to tiptoe around?

Facebook and politics has become an interesting place since the election. And by "interesting place," I mean, "barren wasteland bereft of hope or goodwill."


What’s the dirty secret about the field in which you work?

Your own spit is, like, a really useful fluid in metal working.



For example: you could use actual lubricant (or maybe water? my memory's rusty, pun totally intended) on your hand saw, pictured above. Or you could just lick your finger and run it along the flat, non-serrated edge of the sawblade.


What was the subject of your last whispered conversation?

If we want to call the noise police (like, fake cops) or rental company about our neighbor's loud music. The situation resolved itself when the neighbor turned down the music like half an hour later.


What’s recently snuck up on you?

It's tax season, y'all! In two countries!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Newly Relisted: Avogadro Necklace

Hey kids, how you doing? I dropped off the face of the Earth for a while. Good thing I have my Etsy listings set up to automatically relist things as they expire! I'm working on some more chainmaille pieces but it's going to be some time before I put them up in the shop. Here's some chemistry #sciart jewelry to whet your appetite until then!

Avogadro chemistry science nerd sciart jewelry
Avogadro in faux pearls and green marbled acrylic by Kokoba
These are glass faux pearls I received from a friend a while ago, when she was cleaning out her jewelry box. I gratefully accepted the free goodies and turned out quite a few pieces with them. This necklace is just of maybe 4 or 5 from that same batch.

Avogadro chemistry science nerd sciart jewelry

I prefer gemstones (or even glass) to this kind of lightweight plastic material, but it does have its place and advantage. 

I'm also thinking about what kind of jewelry I want to tackle next. Well, I guess I'm always thinking about that! What techniques I want to try, what fields within science I want to tackle. I'm staring down a prototype for a full adder circuit I haven't shared yet here (because I want to lengthen it a little). Maybe that should be my next step. I love rocks and gems and beads, but there is something about chainmaille that is really fascinating me at the moment.

Still, though, beading is my first and deepest love, so I'm sure I'll be stringing again before long!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

What I Read: Otto and the Flying Twins

I picked up Otto and the Flying Twins at a library sale some months ago, and in an odd coincidence (given the book's subject matter) I had it in my bag while I was stranded in town during the Asshole With A Beer Delivery Truck Incident at the beginning of the month. I finished it while I waited for the city to open up so I could go back home.




On the surface, Otto and the Flying Twins a whimsical fantasy story about an evil queen (though in an updated form of an evil councilwoman) trying to eradicate magic from the city, and the young boy and his magical friends who stop her. But dig a little deeper and it's hard to deny the parallels with pre-World War II Germany: the "magicos" are declared inferior and a threat to the city's well-being, relegated to ghettos or sent to work in moonstone mines.

It's hard to strike a balance between light whimsy and serious hardship, and my only complaint with the book is that Haptie never finds a good balance; despite some serious moments, the mood tilts very heavily towards "fun fantasy." Rather than address the very real problem that hatred and prejudice is built up over lifetimes and generations, Haptie compresses what was probably two or three centuries of anti-Semitic sentiment that contributed to the Holocaust into just a couple of years and the flimsiest of pretenses—essentially, one individual's personal grudge. (And greed, but arguably it's something like greed that drives people to blame The Other for economic woes, so that's not so unrealistic after all.)

But it's a fantasy book for middle grade readers, not Holocaust scholarship. I realize this is a very high-level nitpick, and I'm willing to overlook it because everything else about the book was delightful.

Anyone familiar with YA and middle grade tropes will see some of them refreshingly subverted or avoided. The titular Otto isn't The Chosen One; that's actually his dad, Albert who does much of the heroics (if off-screen). Otto is, of course, gifted with what everyone considers The Best Power Ever, but it's well-balanced: neither over-powerful enough to render his friends useless, nor so under-powered that we wonder why anyone values such a power in the first place.

When his mom finds out that Albert hid his magical heritage from her, she lashes out at him and spends most of the rest of the book angry at him, for ugly reasons (internalized prejudice) as well as respectable ones (building a life with someone only to find out they've lied about a very important part of themselves is bound to be a shocker). It's a response that feels very human, especially because she balances it with protecting her family. There's nothing worse than conflict driven by one or more parties being willfully stupid. Instead, Dolores does what she can to protect her undeniably magical family and keeps her frustration with Albert separate.

Otto's obligatory female sidekick, Mab, isn't presented as a love interest, which is refreshing—but this might be due to the target audience (the story feels and reads much more middle grade than YA). She's not entirely useful, it feels like, except to explain things to Otto (and by extension, the reader).

The language in this book is something to behold. There is an air of genuine whimsy in this that I found lacking in Harry Potter. (Well, either lacking or totally oppressive.) Normal Police, widges, dammerung, an Impossible List . . . Haptie takes well-worn fantasy tropes and adds her own unique spin to them.

Otto and the Flying Twins is the first in a trilogy of books. I get the impression that they were meant to be a longer series, but seeing as the last one was published in 2006, I think it's safe to say that the series stops at three books. If you can find it, get it. Otto and the Flying Twins is a great example of middle grade fantasy at its finest. More than that, it's a great jumping-off point to discuss prejudice and resistance—topics that are going to be quite relevant for the next few years.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Science Saturday: MARCH!



I'm marching for science today, and so can you! You can find a local march at the official March for Science website. If you're in Stockholm, I'll be a volunteer with the activities at Medborgarplatsen at the end of the march. Come say hi, listen to some awesome and knowledgeable speakers, and try some cool science stuff!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Friday 5: Nor Any Drop to Drink

Image courtesy Superfamous Images


What’s a memory you have of a nearby stream?

At some point during my elementary school years, our church congregation (or maybe just us kids) realized that the church's property didn't extend to the edge of the parking lot, but all the way across a neighboring field. We took this as a license to immediately tear through the long grass and down to the tree line to see if we could find anything, and were pleasantly surprised to find a crick we didn't know about. It was full of mint leaves and skunk cabbage and interesting rocks, and the whole thing felt distinctly magical.

We never went exploring there again, as far as I can remember. Something about it not being entirely church property. Or maybe parents told us that to keep us from running off and playing unattended.


What’s a good film scene or song lyric involving a river?

Hm. A two-fer first.



I have a great track by the indie band Brother called "River," but it's not on YouTube so that gem will just have to stay hidden for now.





What fond memory do you have of a lake?

My family spent a week at a hunting cabin in Vermont for maybe a dozen summers, right on Tinmouth Pond (officially Lake Chapman). No TV, no Internet, just the woods and the water. We always spent a day or two at the nearby Emerald Lake state park as well. I LOVERMONT!


What’s the most fascinating sea creature?

I was obsessed with dolphins for years, but as an adult I have to admit that they are . . . kind of assholes? The same goes for orcas (which apparently are technically dolphins, not whales?). So I don't know what to think about sea animals anymore. How about octopuses? They're cool.


What’s something that caused you to cry tears of laughter?

The only times I end up crying with laughter are those times where I'm laughing at how much I/someone else is laughing, usually over something not that funny, which then makes it even funnier, and then I'm laughing at myself laughing at someone laughing at the unfunny joke, and it just keeps snowballing. Like, for example, one time it was a really cheesy Weekly World News cover image of a fish with . . . hands? a human face? Something like that.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Friday 5: Gimme One Reason



This is the Friday 5 from April 7, which I didn't get around to answering for pretty obvious reasons.

Now I'm a week behind on Friday 5 posts, but that works out for me. The questions sometimes go up relatively late in the day (at least here in Stockholm), so it used to be a bit of a rush to get them out on time. Now I have a whole week to answer them!

First, some appropriate tunes:







What makes you unreasonably irritated?

I like to think that most of the things that irritate me are reasonable. ;)

What are you unreasonably particular about?

Punctuation! Spelling! Grammar! Language usage! But then, only if you pay me to be. Or if I think you're someone who should know better. (A book I was otherwise enjoying from Kindle Press talked about a "heart-warming antidote." I hope someone will fix that in an updated edition, because the author and the rest of the story deserve better!)

What’s something that’s unreasonably complicated?

Oh man, doing taxes. I don't mind paying them, because I understand they're a necessary part of a functioning society, but all of the surrounding paperwork is nightmarish, and I don't think it needs to be. The US, compared to many other countries, has a nightmarish and needlessly complicated tax-paying process (as opposed to needless or oppressive taxes). In Sweden, for example, most people can just pay their taxes by SMS. It's not quite that easy for me, as a freelancer, but it's also not so bad. There are also multiple umbrella companies out there whose sole purpose is to make the whole tax process easier for freelancers; I just made life harder for myself for no good reason.

I think if we revamped the tax-filing and tax-paying system and made it easier and less of a hassle, more Americans wouldn't be so incensed about paying taxes.

What are the best reasons for working in your field?

As far as teaching goes, it's immensely satisfying to feel like you are immediately and concretely making someone's life better. Your work isn't useless or pointless. Unfortunately, this idealism is too often leveraged against teachers, effectively bullying them into working beyond their paygrade or the original scope of their work, because how dare they prioritize something like money above their students?

My feelings about copyediting are similar. You're helping someone create the best product possible. You can see the results of your work immediately and you know that it matters (to the author, if no one else!). People at least seem to value copyeditors a little more than teachers—at least, their commitment to helping others isn't used as a bargaining chip to deny copyeditors the pay or resources they deserve and need to do their job.

When it concerns my #sciart dabbling, it's the wide array of awesome scientists, artists, and scientist-artists (or artist-scientists?) I've Internet-met since I started. So many cool projects and Kickstarters and people out there! But do I want to kick my STEM jewelry into higher gear? I don't know. I don't need to be running three different "businesses," I don't think.

What are some good reasons for the most recent silly purchase you made?

I don't typically make "silly" purchases. The closest thing to a silly purchase that I've made at all recently was some shredded cauliflower marketed as "cauliflower rice." I know it's a marketing tactic ("cauliflower rice" sounds more appealing than "shredded cauliflower"; people generally like rice more than they like cauliflower), but I just wanted some pre-shredded cauliflower. I knew it wasn't going to taste like rice, and I wasn't buying it because I thought it would, so I don't know if that really counts.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What I Read: The View From Flyover Country


Sarah Kendzior is a national treasure and we do not deserve her. I follow her on TwitterAcademia.edu, and The Correspondent. The View From Flyover Country is a collection of previously-published essays, but it's a solid collection that saves you trouble of scurrying hither and yon to find her work. The only issue is that they're from 2013 to 2015. Not too long ago, normally, but suddenly that feels like decades rather than years. And if you want her more recent work, well, see above.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Talky Tuesday: April 7, 2017

I wasn't expecting to do another Talky Tuesday post so soon after my last one, but then some asshole hijacked a beer delivery truck and drove it down a popular pedestrian thoroughfare in Stockholm so here we are!

Obviously, I'm fine. I wasn't particularly close to Drottninggatan when this happened, so I was never in danger and I was spared having to witness real-life violence and gore. That said, it's a part of Stockholm I know well and have walked many times before, so it is a little surreal. Minimally so, but it's there.

I'm worried about the near future of Sweden, and the rise of white nationalism. I'm worried about my friends who are fellow immigrants but with the bad luck to be from the "wrong" countries and to have "wrong" names. I want their children to grow up safe and happy in the same Sweden I do, and I don't know how much I can do to ensure that.  I'm worried about refugee quarters being terrorized and burned, in Sweden and elsewhere.

Here's an image from a "love demonstration" on the following Sunday. I'm in there, somewhere, maybe. (I showed up late so I only made the tail end.) Maybe there's hope.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What I Read: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

I received The Radium Girls in a free ebook form from NetGalley, which is both good and bad. Good, because I was possibly spared pictures of jawbones rotting out of women's mouths. Bad, because an ebook means I had a harder time tracking all the names and dates (and also that I read it while commuting and so often got misty-eyed in public, which is not something I feel totally comfortable with!). And I also didn't get to see all the before photos of the radium girls, which is probably how they would prefer to be remembered.



I knew about the radium girls in the vaguest of senses thanks to an offhand mention in The Radioactive Boy Scout. Silverstein mentions that scores of workers (women, mostly) in the dial-painting factories became ill and even died from their work, but since that's largely a footnote in the story of David Hahn, Silverstein doesn't go into much detail about it. I didn't think about it any further until last year, when I saw that an available book on NetGalley was Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, adapted from and inspired by Melanie March's play These Shining Lives.

I received the book in December and just finished it a week ago. That's unusually slow going for me, I have to admit. Part of it was life (I was busy with Swedish), part of it was the format (ebooks are not great for me when there are lots of names and dates to keep track of), and part of it was the ghastly content.

I have to admit, I was not entirely prepared for what I read. I know enough about radiation poisoning to know that the women employed in these factories suffered, and suffered a lot. That's a biological reality I knew going in. It was how steadfastly the companies refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing that was the most shocking and the most viscerally upsetting. Their legal battles dragged on for years—over a decade. It's one thing to lose an arm or the use of your legs and have a workman's comp case take a few years. It's another thing for the case to go on for 13 years when you're dying of cancer. Not to mention these companies did the most in trying to dodge responsibility, both in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. They insisted that the sick, dying, and dead women were already in poor health when they started work; they refused to release medical examination records; they insisted that the cause of death in a few cases was syphilis, not radium poisoning, thereby adding an extra dose of slut-shaming indignity to it all. They claimed in one case that radium was a poison and therefore not covered by existing workman's compensation laws; after the law was changed to include poison, they turned around in another case and claimed that radium wasn't poisonous at all.

People talking about #resisting in this weird new era we live in also talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with stories of people being courageous and doing the right thing. I think that makes The Radium Girls a book we should all be reading, especially given that organizations like the EPA and OSHA seem to be on the public's shit list. Yet these are the organizations that cleaned up the mess that United States Radium left in Orange, NJ (the clean-up cost the equivalent of millions of dollars; USR paid a few hundred thousand); that protected all future employees who handled radium or other dangerous substances in their work.

The more things change, the more things stay the same. If there's any takeaway from The Radium Girls, surely it's that. The profit motive will squelch all but the strongest moral imperative, whether it's a luminous watch factory in New Jersey or sweatshop labor in Bangladesh. Robust worker protection and compensation laws are a society's most effective protection against large-scale corporate injustice; "a shield to protect, and not a sword to destroy" the humanity of workers, in the words of the Ottawa plaintiffs' lawyer, Lev Grossman.

His son, Len Grossman, has scanned and made public his father's scrapbook surrounding the case. It's worth browsing.

The Radium Girls is set to be published in the US in May this year (it's already out in the UK). If you can't get a preview copy from NetGalley or from the UK now, I really hope you'll pick The Radium Girls in May. Until then, there are a couple other books on the subject:

Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy
Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform

Other books touch on the radium girls tangentially:

Romancing the Atom
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

There's also the documentary Radium City, which focuses on the history of the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, IL.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Talky Tuesday: How I Facebook




I should be listing things in the store, but it's a little slow going right now. There is kind of a lot of other stuff going on, I guess? So, without much new stock to post about, I figured now would be a good time to talk about Facebook. Specifically: how I use Facebook, and how I've changed my interaction patterns with it.

Facebook, once the place where you creeped on your roommates, high school classmates, and party hook-ups, is now the de facto social networking site for much of the English-speaking world. It's also become the de facto news site for much of the English-speaking world, for better and worse.

I don't want to talk about "real news" versus "fake news" today. I want to talk about something a little less partisan and a little more sinister: "social feed" versus "news/entertainment feed."

A while ago, I thought long and hard about why I use Facebook. A short list:

  • To keep in touch with friends and family that are far away. (And I have many that are all over the world.)
  • To keep in touch with nearby friends when I'm too busy to see them in person.
  • To find out about, attend, or organize events, large and small. 
  • To network and pose questions to professionals in my field.
  • To find support and encouragement.
  • To have an easy-to-find, organized online gallery of my jewelry.


Weird, what's not on there? Cat pictures, puns from George Takei, and news.

But every time I "like" a cat picture, a George Takei pun, or a news story, I tell Facebook show me more of this!. And so the posts I probably really want to see, more than cats or George Takei, get de-prioritized. Which defeats the whole point of why I want to use Facebook in the first place.

Math Babe is probably who got me thinking about my Facebook usage from a machine learning perspective. After some reflection, I decided:

Facebook is for people, not for consumerism.

(The hypocrisy of my saying this while also having a Facebook page for my jewelry does not escape me.)

This boils down to three large shifts in my Facebook-using behavior.

(Less) Sharing is Caring

I still follow Facebook pages of businesses, blogs, or people I like, of course. And if they share something I really like, I'll still share or like it, if I'm in the mood—but only if it's original content from the person, business, or blog itself. I don't follow you on Facebook so I can learn what you think is funny; I follow you on Facebook because I like you.

So I no longer like or share memes from huuuuuuuuge meme factory pages. I invest more likes and shares into the things that you, my friend, the person I care about wrote yourself. If I don't know, or at least know of, the person who made the original post, I'll pass.

Filter via Address Bar

I also made this URL my default Facebook bookmark: https://www.facebook.com/?sk=friends. This is subtly different from the URL you get when you click on the "Home" button, which is this: https://www.facebook.com/?sk=h_chr. The latter includes posts from groups, pages, and bumps up old stories that a friend of yours shared or even just commented on every time it gets a new comment. The former is just posts from your friends (that you've opted to follow) in the order they post them. No pages, no groups.

If I want to get down to business (and defeat the Huns) (I haven't even seen Mulan, guys), then I check https://www.facebook.com/?sk=groups, and I see only posts from my assorted groups: social, work, support, whatever. If I want to catch up on the blogs, cool musicians, and art projects I follow, I check https://www.facebook.com/?sk=pages. There's not a lot you can control on Facebook, but being able to control that much is something. It's nice to be able to say, "Right now I want to check in with my friends" or "I'm in the mood to chat with some activists" or "I wonder what my fellow sword-swallowers are talking about" and then be able to navigate more or less straight to that discussion.

Tinfoil Hattery

I'm also wary (not "weary"!) of the new "reactions" you can have to a story: angry, sad, funny, and love, in addition to like. I'm sure Facebook wouldn't roll out something like that without plans to use the data to further tweak their algorithms. Tempting as it is to click the "sad" reaction button on a post, if it really is a tragic incident, I take the extra time to post a comment with a sentiment or hell, even a smiley. (Same if it's a really happy post. One of my friends just had a baby and I've been making creative use of the Prickly Pear stickers in the comments.) Facebook is probably tracking that content as well, but by using half a second more thought to engage with the content, I'm hopefully at least being a better friend? (And supplying something like data noise. I hope.)

Bonus: The Cavalry

I also use AdBlock, AdBlockPlus, and Fluff-Busting Purity to deal with "suggested" posts and the sidebar advertising, but you either already know how to use them, or someone else has told you about them. (If you don't know, comment or Tweet at me, and I'll be glad to help you out!)



So. I hope you like me enough that you've liked me on Facebook. You don't have to; I'm kind of bad at posting there, anyway. But even if you don't, I hope you'll think a little more carefully about how you interact with Facebook, and that this post helped you have an even marginally better Facebook experience?

Friday, March 31, 2017

Friday 5: Quarters



The first quarter of 2017 is now behind us. How has it been?

I guess not as awful as it could have been.


How has this past quarter of your life been surprisingly good?

JV spontaneously decided to clean up (and clean out) the apartment.


When did you last drop quarters into a vending machine?

I think I used coins at a vending machine at some point this year, but I can't remember when.


How do you feel about your state’s twenty-five-cent coin? If you’re not in the U.S., which of the coins do you think is especially striking?

I'm originally from Pennsylvania, and our state quarter leaves much to be desired.







There's a Gettysburg quarter that's slightly better:



Our license plates are uninspiring, too. When I was a kid, we had the gold on blue (or blue on gold) "Keystone State"/"You've Got a Friend in Pennsylvania" tags. Now there's no quip or state nickname, just an advertisement for the commonwealth's official tourism web page. Ugly. You can look at them all here, if you want.

Our state slogan was mediocre for a while, too. I still think we should bring "You've got a friend in Pennsylvania" out of retirement, but I'll admit that "Pursue your happiness" (current slogan) beats out "State of independence" (previous slogan).


Google’s corporate headquarters is called the Googleplex. What would be a good name for the corporate headquarters of your life?

The Kitchen. Since that's where I actually do most of my work. Stay humble, never forget your roots, etc.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday 5: Food Me Once; Food Me Twice



What do you like on your frozen yogurt?

Jimmies and crumbled Oreos, mostly. I don't actually care for chocolate syrup on frozen yogurt or ice cream. I can't explain what it is, but I don't like it.

When patronizing those frozen yogurt establishments with an overwhelming buffet of possible toppings, I have been known to add Fruity Pebbles. I don't consider that an essential frozen yogurt topping, though.


How do you feel about hot breakfast cereals?

In theory I like them a lot; in practice I can't be bothered with the extra step of warming them up so I never have them. If I need something warm in the morning, I Just have extra tea.


What did you last put brown sugar in or on?

When was the last time I made chocolate chip cookies? Brown sugar is one of those items that I end up (shamefacedly!) wasting a lot of because I need it infrequently, but you can only buy it in relatively large quantities.


What’s a food item you willingly overpay for?

Pre-chopped frozen vegetables. Sure, I know how to cut a bell pepper, but it's worth the time saved to just get them in little pieces already.

I also have an obsession with Celestial Seasonings brand tea. In the US this isn't too much of a problem, but in Stockholm that can get a little ridiculous.


What did you last add vinegar to?

I only use vinegar (balsamic) sparingly on salads. My preferences lean heavily towards the "oil" part of "oil and vinegar."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Talky Tuesday: A Year of Running


I've been largely absent here, because things have picked up elsewhere. I haven't been reading a lot (a lot that would be of interest here, anyway), I've been slacking on listing new items, and I've been even worse about making new things.

But this is a post about how it's been around one year of running for me.

It hasn't been a proper 12 months; during winter I opted for water aerobics rather than running, because of cold temperatures and icy sidewalks. There were times when the weather was fine but I was ill, or I was just too busy. But overall I have been running (or training for running) for around a year now. This may be my longest stretch of continuous focus on cardio to date. I don't know.

I'm not any less fat, and I'm still frustratingly slow. I could have hacked my regime and made it something a little more aggressive and maybe I'd be faster, I don't know, but I probably still wouldn't be running a year later.

After a year of improvising with the Galloway method (30 seconds of running/30 seconds of walking, or 30 seconds of sprinting with 2 minutes of recovery) I'm giving the Couch to 5K another shot. The big difference is that I'm not shooting for 20 minutes of non-stop jogging in Week 5 or so (20 minutes of 4 minutes of jogging and 35 seconds of walking instead).

The weirdest thing is now that I like it. I like the running in a way that I didn't when I was thinner and faster and fitter. I'll take "Things I'd Never Thought I'd Say" for $500, Alex!

Since I started, I went to a running store and got proper running shoes. They're amazing and I love them, and big ups to Aardvark Running Store in Bethlehem, PA for not side-eyeing me and my fat ass and just . . . selling me some shoes. (Also big ups to them for carrying a variety of shoes in wide sizes.)

I like it, and I'm glad I decided to give running a second or third (or fourth?) shot. I finally figured out how to do it in a way that I enjoy, and the motivation to do it for its own sake rather than OMG CALORIES. Maybe this time next year I'll be running in actual races. ;)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday 5: Picture This



What’s your favorite monster movie?
Oh, goodness. I've seen a respectable amount of off-brand monster movies, thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000, RiffTrax, and Cinematic Titanic. Can I pick a favorite? If I had to, I'd say The Horror of Party Beach and The Wasp Woman.
What’s your favorite social issues movie?
I'm not sure what would qualify as a social issues movie? It can be hard to tackle complex social issues elegantly in the space of (more or less) two hours. Off the top of my head, I'd say: P. K. (religious dogma and prejudice), Lilies of the Field (race relations in mid-century America), and Ship of Fools (anti-Semitism in the run-up to World War II).
What’s a movie you dislike in a genre you love?
There are too many bad comedies to name.
What’s a movie you like in a genre you dislike?
There aren't too many film genres I outright dislike. I admit to not liking slasher movies a whole lot, but I didn't mind the House of Wax reboot? remake? that came out a few years ago. (I still prefer the original Vincent Price version, of course.)
What’s a movie everyone else has seen but you have not seen?
Up until a couple of years ago, my first answer to this question was  Bladerunner (extra shameful because my final project in philosophy was on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Now, I'm not sure what that would be. The first one that comes to mind is Saving Private Ryan, but I'm sure there are others.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What I Read: The White Giraffe

In my other life, I'm an EFL teacher. I work with kids with a range of ages, and so that means once in a while I dip my toes into the YA, middle grade, and picture book pool. The White Giraffe is my first middle grade read of 2017.

Image courtesy Dial
It's a book that seems to be popular with its target demographic (the East Sussex Children's Book award is voted on by students, not teachers), but as an adult it left me underwhelmed.

It's clear that St. John knows and cares a lot about animals, including the unique wildlife of sub-Saharan Africa. According to her biography, she grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe with a host of exotic pets, and frankly that's a memoir I would read! It's also clear that her background was a big influence on The White Giraffe. I just wish that her knowledge, passion, and background had faced a little more scrutiny and gone through a few more revisions before they ended up as The White Giraffe, as it falls a little too close to the White Savior narrative structure for me to really get into.

I also admit that as an adult, I'm hardly the middle grade target audience, but a hallmark of good children's writing is that adult readers can enjoy the book as much as younger readers. In The White Giraffe, the writing felt a little flat and some elements of the plot seemed rushed or thrown in for the sake of . . . I'm not sure what. But as I mentioned earlier, it won the East Sussex Children's Book Award, voted on by students, so I guess the target demo likes it well enough!

The White Giraffe is the first in a series that includes (as of this blog post) four other books: Dolphin Song, The Last Leopard, The Elephant's Tale, and Operation Rhino. Hopefully St. John has found her stride and ironed out the above issues in The White Giraffe, as I think her passion for conservation and the natural world is one worth sharing and cultivating in young readers.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday 5: Count All the Bees in the Hive

Which of the Winnie-the-Pooh characters do you most relate to?

Rabbit, I suppose? I like to read, I can be bossy, and I find real-life Tiggers to be very trying.



The original Winnie the Pooh toys

Which of the Winnie-the-Pooh characters has qualities you’d find most attractive in a romantic partner?

My own partner is very much a Piglet, if that's any indication!


In what way have you “wandered much further” today than you should?

I'm only answering this in the morning, so the day has hardly begun, really. I'll admit to sleeping in a little, but only a little.


Of Winnie-the-Pooh stories you can remember (from the books, Disney cartoons, or other sources), which is your favorite?

To be honest, I don't remember much from Winnie-the-Pooh. I know I liked the Disney adaptation of "Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day" when I was younger. I was also quite enamored with the word "blustery" and immediately set about using it in real life.

I also like the Russian animated adaptations. The art is so charming! The crayon backgrounds look just like a child's drawing, which I think is very appropriate for Winnie-the-Pooh. Plus, this version of Piglet is absolutely adorable.

There are only three, but they're all freely available on YouTube. Here is the first Винни Пух adaptation: В которой мы знакомимся с Винни-Пухом и несколькими подозрительными пчелами. (In which we meet Winnie the Pooh and a few suspicious bees.)





Which quote from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories would be good for the epigraph in the book about your life?

"I've got a sort of idea, but I don't suppose it's a very good one."

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What I Read: Native Son

This is another off of my TIME Top 100 / Classics Club list. Just four left after this one! 2017 will be the year I finish this long-standing project.

Image courtesy HarperCollins


Woof, y'all. I have really complicated feelings about this book. Technically, I DNF'd it: after getting swept up in the beginning and getting to know Bigger, about halfway through the book I found myself putting off reading it.

Why? That was the important question. The quality of Wright's writing hadn't changed. And the story was some gripping Crime and Punishment "will he make it?" nail-bitery. But there was a resistance in my gut and I kept on noticing all of the other books I have on my current reading list: The Origins of Totalitarianism, Kris, some books I had grabbed from a friend's "give away" pile, more free books I had received through my local study circle . . .  why didn't I want to finish this one?

Studies show that spoilers actually increase your enjoyment of a story. I still avoid deliberately spoiling timely or serious things, because just because "studies show" something doesn't mean I need to be deliberate asshole to other people, especially with something as trivial as spoilers. But I will absolutely use that as an excuse to look up a plot summary on Wikipedia when I'm not really feeling a book to see if I want to continue.

In this case, I decided not to. I don't think it's my place, as a white reader, to bring up questions about stereotypes in the novel -- James Baldwin did that already, in "Many Thousands Gone." But I absolutely can decide that I'm not in the mood to read stories where brutality against women is an offhand plot point to further a male character's redemption arc (in as much as Bigger ever redeems himself; YMMV on that one). Justice for Bessie!

Maybe another version of me, at another point in time, can finish Native Son. But right now it's not for me.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Sciart Monday: Tweetstorm!



If you follow me on Twitter, then you already know we're in the middle of the third annual #sciart Tweetstorm.

The idea is simple: sciart artists (sciartists?) flood Twitter with their sciart and with others ("Share 3, Tweet 5" being the official/unofficial rule). It's a great chance to promote your own stuff and to find new artists as well. Here are some new favorites of mine, with just (sadly) one day left to go.

1. Entomological playing cards & brain cell cartoons from Dr. Immy Smith

So Smith actually put together a KS sometime last year? Two years ago? to fund the design and printing of the Cryptic deck which is better explained through pictures than with words:

Cryptic Cards from DrImmySmithArt

I couldn't really afford to back the KS project at the time but now that I have more room in my budget and they're available on Etsy, I just might splurge. I like to collect card decks, and the more unusual, the better!


2. The cover of this issue of Toxicology Research, put out by the Royal Society of Chemistry.



Here's a closeup on the illustration by Junyi Zhang:



And an excerpt from the artist's statement:
After I read the paper, I started to think about the concept of ZIP8 portrayed as a dragon, chasing and picking up the fireballs – that is, zinc and other metal ions – and breathing the fireballs towards earth, just like the process of active metal ion transport. The two figures carrying fireballs represent the transcription factors MTF1 and NF-kappaB.

3. This isometric interpretation of pi by Jason H. Moore, PhD, is relevant to my interests.


I appreciate that squares of the same value are the same color as well as the same size. Incidentally, the colors and the right angles remind me a lot of bismuth:


Bi-crystal
Image courtesy Heinrich Pniok

4. And finally, this year's Tweetstorm coincides with the brand new home of Symbiartic, the sciart blog from Scientific American that now has its own stand-alone web presence. Give them a follow in your RSS feed or on Twitter (or both!), won't you?

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Friday 5 on Saturday: Something's Astir



What did you last use a spatula for?

Nothing.

One of my Swedish friends here was an exchange student in the US when he was younger, and somehow the question of kitchen implements came up often. It turned out that his host family didn't really know what to call anything, either, so any unknown kitchen implement was just immediately labeled "spatula."


What did you last use your can opener for?

We don't even have a can opener!


What did you last pick up with a pair of tongs?

I don't think we even have tongs? So probably a baked good at the store or Pressbyran.


What did you last use a ladle for?

Chili, I think.


What did you last stir with a wooden spoon?

Some boiling pasta, to get it to settle down a little.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Newly Listed: Remember the 90s? Comp Sci Earrings

What's wrong with a little harmless 90s nostalgia? Sure, "Remember the 90s?" has become a running gag on the Internet, but I don't care. The whole nation went in for retrospective nostalgia with Happy Days in the 70s, and then again with That 70s Show in the 90s, and no one was cynical about it then.

Let's be real, the only thing keeping us from reliving cultural nostalgia en masse via another TV show is that thanks to technology, we can all relive our favorite bits of the 90s whenever we like. For me, that's Oasis, The Presidents of the USA, and these rad marble art earrings, another installment in my cybertwee series.

90s hacker cybertwee computer science blogger gamer blue silver purple sciart earrings
Blue, purple, and silver cybertwee earrings by Kokoba

The purple accent beads are made from optical fibers, the backbone of high-speed Internet connections.

90s hacker cybertwee computer science blogger gamer blue silver purple sciart earrings

I could totally see Angelina Jolie sporting these in Hackers, couldn't you?

90s hacker cybertwee computer science blogger gamer blue silver purple sciart earrings

This is just one of a couple of pairs of computer science earrings featuring fiber optic beads I have in the queue. You can browse the entire collection of computer science inspired jewelry, including pieces in the cybertwee aesthetic as well as items inspired by circuit diagrams, in the Computer Science section of my Etsy shop. Blog readers can use the code BLOGGETTE for 15% off!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Friday 5: Rest



When did you last need a few days of complete rest and nothing else?

I feel like that every day, to be honest. I had a really gnarly chest cold for most of February that kept me relatively housebound. I'm better now, but the first two weeks were unpleasant, to say the least.



How do you keep yourself occupied when you have to be in bed all day and night?

Music; reading; reviewing vocabulary on a couple of language-learning apps I use; sleeping.



Who do you most want to hear from when you have to withdraw to your bed for a few days of rest?

It depends. Whenever I have to go into self-imposed quarantine, it means I have a lot of time to just think; often, I'll remember a story or a question I had for someone in particular. But usually I can just send them a message on Gchat or Facebook, so I don't have to make immediate plans to see them when I'm feeling better.



What adverse effects have you experienced while staying in bed for a few days?

I don't like the deconditioning and loss of stamina/energy I notice when I feel better enough to go running again.



When you first notice a few symptoms, are you more likely to shut everything down right away, or try to power through until you don’t have a choice anymore?

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." I try to take it as easy as possible right from the beginning, including lots of garlic, zinc, and lemon tea.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

#TBT: Pi and Golden Ratio Multistrand Bracelet

This is one of my newer TBT posts. I made it in 2011, and I'm not entirely sure why I never listed it. I loved it then, and I still love it now. (Maybe I was being greedy and keeping it to myself?)

Math Jewelry - Pi Golden Ratio Bracelet - STEM Sciart Mathart Jewelry - Math Nerd Teacher Student Graduate Gift
Pi and Golden Ratio bracelet from Kokoba
This multistrand bracelet features the digits of pi and the Golden Ratio in blue lace agate and aventurine, with adorable faceted mookaite briolettes acting as spacers in between digits.

Math Jewelry - Pi Golden Ratio Bracelet - STEM Sciart Mathart Jewelry - Math Nerd Teacher Student Graduate Gift

I love the hell out of those briolettes. They are just the cutest thing, and perfect for bracelets and earrings! 

Math Jewelry - Pi Golden Ratio Bracelet - STEM Sciart Mathart Jewelry - Math Nerd Teacher Student Graduate Gift


The copper has a lovely patina by now, but you could also brighten it up with a quick run through a polishing cloth.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What I Read: Passing

My Internet book club is still going strong! Their selection for February was Passing, a short but powerful novel by Nella Larsen.

As I've alluded to here a couple of times, my academic background isn't in STEM, but the humanities: English and philosophy, to be more specific. Here is an incomplete but relatively comprehensive list of what I read for the English portion of that degree:

  • A bunch of poetry I don't care about because I don't get poetry and never will.
  • Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Great Expectations, Emma, Nightwood, Mrs. Dalloway
  • Paradise Lost and some assorted essays and poetry by John Milton, which is the rare exception to my distaste for poetry.
  • Edgar Huntly, Last of the Mohicans, Arthur Gordon Prym, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Benito Cereno
  • A Passage to India, Kim, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (selections), Invisible Cities
  • Winesburg Ohio, Waiting for Lefty, In Our Time, Invisible Man, Light in August, The Souls of Black Folk,* Cane
  • A Dream Play, Kallocain, Aniara, Women and Apple Trees, Money, Doctor Glass, Blackwater, The Visit of the Royal Physician, A Burnt Child, Nils Holgersson 
It's a very weird and spotty list because I was technically a Creative Writing major, not a pure English major, so I was in a lot of writing workshop classes instead of jumping too deep into critical analysis or any kind of comprehensive scope of the English literature canon. All of this is to say that despite my background, there are pretty huge gaps in my literary knowledge and I'm pretty sure that's why I'd never heard of Nella Larsen before.

This is why I love my book club. The organizers are excellent at finding classics I would otherwise have missed entirely!



Passing is the story of Irene Redfield and her high school classmate Clare Kendry. Both women are mixed race; Irene is "out" (if I can borrow the term) as a woman of color, living a life in Harlem with a black husband and black children, while Clare is currently "passing" (as in, passing for white) within white society—a big deal in 1927. A chance encounter brings Clare back into Irene's life after years apart, throwing both of their lives into disarray. One thing leads to another, until things reach their tragic, if inevitable, conclusion.

I don't want to spoil too much, because I think it's an excellent psychological thriller story. It's superbly plotted, especially in the last section—a real page-turner. 

I will say that much of the tension is built on concepts of race and passing that I don't think would be quite as relevant today. Normally that would feel dated in a book, but in this case I think it just highlights what a different time it was. Not that we've suddenly gone post-racial, of course; just that we've at least more or less abandoned the "one drop" rule and related thinking. (I hope?) The way Clare Kendry is described, she might as well be Aryan Princess Taylor Swift; someone like her being written off as black says a lot about an America still in living memory.

Of course, other elements of tension in the story are more universal: secrets and trust within relationships, motherhood, the lot of women in society, the limits of what we can know about others. Passing is a thriller but it's also a character study. While some of the specific worries about race may belong to another time, the suspense and the breakneck speed feel very modern. 

Seeing as we're in the last week of African American** History month, Passing would be a great read. It's a quick, snappy little book that you can finish in a couple days, and it's available on the Internet Archive. I hope you give it a chance, because I really enjoyed it!

*By W. E. B. DeBois, according to the DOE! #alternatefacts