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

Binti

Binti is a brilliant young woman who has been offered a prestigious place at Oomza University, the most elite college in the galaxy. But Binti is Himba, a people who are closely tied to land and family, and who never travel off-planet. Binti, determined to reach her potential, makes the difficult decision to leave everything and everyone she knows behind, and travel across the stars with people who do not share or respect her customs, culture, or brilliance. On her journey, Binti encounters a cultural prejudice so strong that the vendetta between two groups threatens the life of everyone at Oomza. And Binti, with her unique genius, her cultural artifacts, and her strength born of being Himba, might be the only person who can prevent it.

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Image by David Palumbo

Okorafor writes tight passages that build an interesting and vibrant world, and she inhabits this world with fresh characters; Binti is a young genius from a culture that works with the earth. Because of this, she has a few ‘super powers’ that allow her to succeed where no one else could. Binti’s strength is her cultural heritage, inseparable from her mathematical brilliance. With Binti, Okorafor insists that people from cultures often overlooked by mainstream science fiction are crucial to our future.

Binti goes on a heroine’s journey, one standard enough to be familiar and relatable to any reader of YA literature, fantasy, or science fiction. But Binti’s specific challenges and abilities will be more intimately familiar to anyone who has been a cultural or racial outsider in a society of ignorance and prejudice.

The book’s critiques of racism, cultural isolationism, and colonial mentality are layered and nuanced.  During her journey to Oomza, Binti experiences interpersonal prejudice, white fragility, and institutional discrimination. These ideas are mostly explored through people’s response to Binti’s appearance; people despise and envy her hair, and most are blind to it’s significance. They do the same to the medicinal mud she paints her body with. In response to these varied indignities, Binti demonstrates code-switching, pride, determination, patience, and cross-cultural competency. And then the murderous jellyfish aliens come!

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Art by SharksDen- click to Deviant Art

While there are modern exceptions, so much early science fiction is written from the perspective of a dominant society (white American men), terrified against an invading force that might subvert their power. Shortly, a fear that aliens (or -gasp- communists) will colonize white America. In these stories, when a violent alien race comes along they are utterly foreign, bent on total destruction, and must be repelled entirely if humanity is to survive. Invader and invaded cannot coexist, and certainly cannot benefit one another. This is a very specific cultural viewpoint based in the West’s colonial history. This trope is not only boring at this point, but dangerous in a rapidly shrinking world that forces alien cultures to interact virtually and in person every day.

Binti rejects and critiques this trope. Okorafor, from the perspective of a Nigerian-American woman, offers a more optimistic look at cross-cultural encounters. Frankly, it’s what I’d prefer people to be reading in their science fiction.

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A woman from the Himba Tribe of Namibia.

This was a great little novella. It is an efficient exploration of the benefits of cultural diversity and a celebration of the Namibia culture, a heroine’s journey with a relatable young woman, and a refreshing alternative to colonial sci-fi tropes. I read Okorafor’s ‘Who Fears Death’ last year, and as much as I did enjoy it, I think Binti is a stronger book. The tighter structure and economically told story pack a punch, and I am so eager to read more in this series!

Copy of Boy Snow Bird

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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