Sunday, April 05, 2009

So many books, so little time

Below are some books I've recently finished, with some brief commentary:


Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing
, by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher - a well-researched, engaging 2001 book describing 1) surveys of the current state of the women in computer science (or lack thereof), 2) suggestions about how to improve the situation, and 3) descriptions of current efforts to increase numbers of women in CS and their results so far. Margolis and Fisher discuss how societal stereotypes of the "boy hacker" icon often cause women to have less exposure to and interest in computing. They provide well-motivated suggestions for how to change classroom dynamics, and recruiting efforts to include more women in computing. I am happy to say that many of the issues in this book are somewhat dated by now: since the publication of this book, the "locker room" classroom dynamic has become less acceptible now, and computing as a field has moved more towards applications and connections to other fields rather than being just about pure speed and power. My issues with the book are that 1) it does not motivate why more women should be in computing and 2) it does not portray women who do computer science favorably. While I clearly believe that more women should be in computing because it is useful and because women can be good at it, I would have liked to see the authors' reasons. As for the second point, the book portrays women in computer science as survivors victimized by bad classroom dynamics and inadequate support networks. The book quotes all these women either explaining why they chose to stick with computer science or saying things like "well, I took these courses and they were difficult, but I persevered." There is not a single confident woman in the book who is passionate about computer science. (Maybe they couldn't find one, but I don't think they looked tha hard. My female professors have all been confidant and passionate.) Also, much of the book addresses the "fact" that there are all these women who start out behind and lack the confidence to continue without much speculation on social factors for this--it becomes easy to read this as "women start out with a disadvantage because they are weaker." It might be for this reason that the book assumes women's self-reported levels of aptitude and experience are accurate and never discuss normalizing self-reported levels by actual performance. (It is a known phenomenon that women tend to deflate their abilities in surveys and men tend to inflate. There are studies on this and I have experienced this personally.)

Zelda, by Nancy Milford - a biography about F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife Zelda Sayre. Because of my teenage crush on This Side of Paradise's protagonist Amory Blaine, I had become very interested in the Fitzgeralds and what I thought was their exciting Jazz Age life and read all of Scott's books and also Zelda's large autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz. From the fiction I had gathered that Scott was burdened by a very inspiring but crazy* wife; this books provides a sympathetic and surprising view into Zelda's life. Zelda not just inspired Scott, but he often included her letters and diary verbatim in his works. (The "broken columns and clasped hands and doves meant romances" line from Paradise is from one of Zelda's letters. Instead of acknowledging her he bought her a nice fan. WTF, Scott?) When Zelda received a publishing offer on her diaries, Scott refused, saying that they provided him a lot of material. When Zelda was writing Save me the Waltz, Scott tried to prevent it from being published and eventually had it taken off the shelves. Later, when Zelda was very ill and badly wanted to write novels, Scott told her she wasn't good enough and that she was allowed to do anything except write. The biography left me much less a fan of Fitzgerald than I used to be. However, if you are interested in the fiction based on the Scott-Zelda dynamic, a nice triology is Scott's Tender is the Night, Zelda's Save Me the Waltz, and Hemingway's Garden of Eden.


My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead
, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides - the author of Middlesex has compiled an anthology of "love stories" that may be of a different nature than what one might first imagine a love story to be. These stories include classics like Faulkner's A Rose for Emily and Nabokov's Spring in Fialta. I also discovered some good comtemporary ones, such as Jon by George Saunders, about lust, love, and difficult decisions between two teenagers in a distopian world where they are part of the Trendsetters and Tastemakers, children chosen to detect and set trends by assessing products every day. Another good one is Lorrie Moore's How to be an Other Woman.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh
, by Michael Chabon - an engaging coming-of-age novel about a young man who has just finished college and is hanging out in Pittsburgh. The novel has vivid and accurate descriptions of what it is like to be young, in love, and in Pittsburgh. The movie is coming out this month; I will definitely go see it.

I am currently reading Lorrie Moore's Birds of America, a collection of short stories; I really like it so far.

* Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent decades of her life in and out of mental institutions. It seems, however, that this was early 20th century schizophrenia: she had periods of being better and period of being worse, so it is more likely that she was manic depressive. Scott's Tender is the Night is based heavily on his experiences with Zelda's illness.


Nancy The Hua said...

Yo Jean,
I picked up "My Mistress Sparrow is Dead" when I was on a ski trip because Saunders was in it. Found some of the other choices to be unusual, though I liked "The bear coming over the mountain" or whatever that last one was called. Saunders is probably one of my top 3 favorite living writers, especially now that David Foster Wallace is dead.
Theres a movie coming out about Pittsburgh! I will totally see that. Have you ever checked out Annie Dillard's An American Childhood? It's about her growing up in Pittsburgh, very good. She went to the same art class I went to!

Jean said...

Saunders is really funny, yeah. I also found some of the choices to be unusual, but the introduction explains some of that. (I am really not sure what to make of "Tonka"; I find "Red Rose, White Rose" kind of offensive.)

I have read "An American Childhood;" Annie Dillard went to my school!