2017 Reviews, Non-fiction

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story About Women and Economics

Marçal spends the bulk of this conversational economic manifesto explaining the pervasiveness and frequent folly of the concept of “Economic Man”. Economic Man is the representation of humanity’s selfishness and predictability; the theory helped 18th and 19th century rational Rationalists in Tophats coat their faddish concept of humanity in a veneer of inarguable science. (I once got into a Reddit argument on a purely subjective topic with a rational Rationalist- he likely had a different hat. I lightheartedly asked him to ‘cut it out with this logic bullshit’ in our subjective discussion. RIP inbox.)  flowers8Adam Smith, the grand-daddy of many theories that lay the foundation for Economic Man, lived his whole life with his mother. She kept his house and clothes, fed him daily, and did immeasurable care work to make this man’s career and life possible. Smith did not find her decades-long labor to keep her adult son alive worth considering in his theories. “It is not in the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest,” he famously wrote, with his middle finger pointed in the general direction of his hunched and sweating mother.

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Most historical and modern economic theories are rendered laughable by the recognition of the invisible and undervalued work of women the globe over. RIP capitalism by chapter 3. “Women’s work” (caregiving, raising children, cooking, cleaning, shopping, mending, almost the entire realm of emotional labor and community building, etc. etc. etc.) is repetitive, unproductive, and rarely selfish. That women traditionally do this work has always been treated as inherent and assumed, rather than critical for a functioning society and devalued by systems of power. In the modern world, we continue to deal with the fall-out of ignoring women’s work. Ever wondered why you get reimbursed for food expenses on work trips but not childcare expenses? It’s because you have a wife at home, silly.

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Most of the economists described in this book lived, profited, and were laid to rest in famous tombs, without recognizing 50% of the economic engine (women). The rational market decided their irrational output of gendered theories was worth a lot. Reading this does not feel good.  In fact, it will make you pissed off almost immediately. Marçal’s anger translates more clearly than anything else she writes. The general moral of the story: never doubt how many very educated and enlightened people will sneer “it’s only rational, darling” when someone questions a glaring and subjective fault in their bulletproof scientific analysis of society.

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While the term “Economic Man” is used derogatorily today, the foundational concepts of Economic Man are still found in most modern economic theories and practices. Much like the Bechdel test, the early adopters of this theory did not intend for Economic Man to be anything more than an illustration of a stepping stone towards a better future. Instead, he ended up becoming both the foundation and the ceiling of some of our most fundamental understandings in society. Oops.

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Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner contains a great idea, but the book itself is repetitive, the prose clipped and too sarcastic, and the ‘proof’ implied rather than proven. This could have been a solid manifesto if it was as concise as the back blurb. If Marçal wanted to write a hard critique of modern economics, she needed a far less angry and far more rigorous writing style. I don’t doubt that Marçal is well-versed in economic history and theory, but I can’t prove it, because she doesn’t prove it.  If she was trying to do a feminist critique, she tied herself to the anger and cynicism, rather than an in-depth study of the value of women’s work and the damage of systemic abuse. This book will get someone open to these concepts fired up and curious. But in the battle against rational Rationalists with Logic and Jaunty Hats on their side, Marçal isn’t doing feminist economics many favors.

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2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

The Star Touched Queen

Maya is a teenager that has high aspirations but low expectations for her life; as the most unfavored daughter of the King, Maya hopes to be left alone to study and learn for her whole life. But when her kingdom is ravaged, Maya agrees to marry the mysterious king of Akaran, Amar. But the kingdom of Akaran and Amar’s castle both seems completely empty. Despite the passion Amar seems to have for her, she isn’t sure she is safe.   Maya must unravel the secrets that Amar and Akaran’s castle hide to save herself and those she loves. Read my first look at TSTQ here. 

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Chokshi’s story is grounded in Hindu myths and an Indian cultural setting, adding plenty of novelty and unique concepts to exercise her prose on– and she is capable of gorgeous prose. TSTQ’s cultural foundation gives the characters some unique settings, ghoulies, and obstacles. TSTQ has plenty of evocative imagery and imagination, which really made up for the fact that I couldn’t connect with Maya or Amar at all.

“You look like edges and thunderstorms. And I would not have you any other way.”

Maya held very little personality, and Amar, though a sexy, passionate, and all powerful God, didn’t compel me. Despite the insta-love that blooms between Maya and Amar, they rarely talk to each other about tangible things, which of course leads to misunderstandings and barriers that felt contrived.

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There was so much promise here. The first half of this book was an enjoyable enough read- I blew through the first half with a few happy eye-rolls and smirks at the sheer dreamyness of it all, and I adored the potential of the settings and characters even if they hadn’t really blossomed yet. But the second half, and the book as a whole, left me wanting and disappointed.  The second half of the book felt rushed and lacking in actual action at the same time, like it should have been it’s own story with more depth and conflict. This lead me to wonder why the first half of the book- a whole new world, the Night Bazaar, mystical powers, romance, trauma over her experiences, and numerous trust shifts, wasn’t given the time and care it deserved.

“I wanted a love thick with time, as inscrutable as if a lathe had carved it from night and as familiar as the marrow in my bones. I wanted the impossible, which made it that much easier to push out of my mind.”

Finally, as much as the writing can be gorgeous, the book is overstuffed with visuals and stars and metaphors. There’s very little of grounding sensual description- few smells, few colors, few sounds- I honestly felt like the characters were walking an empty stage. The most gorgeous of Chokshi’s imagery is lost in a pile of metaphors that confuse rather than clarify, pillow-talk that simply doesn’t make sense, descriptor paragraphs about feelings when I have no idea what anything actually looks like.  Chokshi has the talent, clearly, for evocative language. But for my taste, she needs to kill some of those darlings to let what works really shine.

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The Star-Touched Queen is just the first book in a series, and perhaps Chokshi will hit her stride later on in the series. She is active on this book’s Goodreads page, and her explanation of the Hindu myths at the foundation of this story show so much interesting material that I wished I’d seen more of in the actual book. Maybe this is partially my own ignorance of Hindu myths; I wonder if I’d been more aware of the retelling aspects I’d have found her work more compelling.

If Chokshi gives me a firmer grounding in her foundation myths, focuses more on plot and character development, and edits her purple prose down to just that which works, I think she could create something gorgeous and powerful.  The Star Touched Queen just isn’t there yet.

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Recommended if you love flowery prose and are looking for PG-13 passion.  There are many glowing reviews of this story, and some delicious fan art to boot. This one just isn’t for me.

Tongue-in-cheek Scent Notes: Night and smoke, edges, the perfume of souls.

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(The art on this post is from Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński. The art is darker than TSTQ was, and of the wrong culture, but just so connected and cool I couldn’t resist.)

2017 Reviews, Short Fiction

Revenge | Eleven Dark Tales

These eleven short stories by Yoko Ogawa reveal the morbidity and horror in the everyday. I had never read Ogawa or much Japanese literature; what stood out was the precision and restraint of Ogawa’s writing (or rather, the translation). She does not use gratuitous or even particularly evocative language to build the tension in each of these loosely interconnected stories. And yet, her work seeped into me- maybe all the more effectively because of that.

Each mundane setting; inside a bakery, an apartment, a coat closet, the car; almost seems to be rendered in pastel and from a distance. Narrators; children and mothers, men and women, jilted lovers and obsessed murderers; are less characters than vehicles for the reader to observe the carefully constructed scenes. Strange details; a dried plum in a pocket, a back brace, raw tomatoes on a street, an empty parcel; become more upsetting the longer you sit with them.

The items that Ogowa describes over and over are not haunted in a literally way- not by ghosts. But there is a craftsman obsessed with a masterpiece underappreciated, a woman protective of a book never written, a man fearful of a medical device not worn for decades, and an old woman who can’t seem to get rid of her husband years after he’s died. Ogawa’s characters are affected by something in a way I’m not sure how to describe but haunted.

“Even long after my bedtime, she would still be reading, staring at the notebook without looking up… Mama’s lips would get dry and cracked, and her voice would go hoarse. Eventually she started to slur her words, and her voice quivered so much I worried she was about to cry. I would pray for her to stop; I didn’t like to see Mama suffering like that.”

The author is particularly skilled at using food to vibrantly illustrate the fragility and
destruction of life. The sticky, messy, soft fruit, cakes, and vegetables feature in nearly every story, often smashed, devoured, left to rot, or misplaced. It is these singular images that last much longer than the normal details I’d expect to recall from a story. After gaining some distance from when I read Ogawa, I don’t necessarily remember the gender or age of a narrator or the relationships between the two people in the scene. But I remember the affection of the tiger, the coat falling apart with each step through the snow, the kiwi juice on the girl’s hands, the too-raw tomatoes on the salad.

This collection is not chilling, sleep-disrupting horror. But to experience beautiful restraint in creating impactful images, Ogawa is masterful.

Scent Notes:  day-old sweet creme, kiwi juice, and tiger musk

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