Mar. 30th, 2009

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Perspectives on American Politics
by William Lasser
402 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Nonfiction/History/Politics

I found this (text)book randomly on my desk one day, presumably left over from Modern American History. Since politics is more interesting to me than history, I started reading it on a whim. I skimmed through several essays; here I'm going to discuss the three that I found most intriguing.

First, Peter H. Schuck's "Affirmative Action--Don't Mend It or End It--Bend It" presents a sensible and moderate suggestion for reforming affirmative action: ban it in the public sector but allow it in the private sector as long as the preferences are publicized and transparent. His main issue with affirmative action as it stands is also mine--that the principle requires deviating from that of nondiscrimination (defined as not "treating people differently because of their race, ethnicity, or other protected characteristics" (122-3)). Schuck cites Hubert Humphrey, Ted Kennedy, and MLK as civil rights leaders who rejected preferences as the best path to racial equality. There are also some interesting statistics on blacks' social gains, of which I'm not sure how much to believe since it involves complicated economic controlling factors and separating variables; however, his point sounsd true. "My point, emphatically, is not that blacks have achieved social equality--far from it--but that the situation facing them today is altogether different than ti was when affirmative action was adopted" (123). And he goes on to assert that this correlation is not causal.

Former Ivy League presidents William Bowen and Derek Bok conducted a study on admissions outcomes, race, and SAT score (however flawed that measure of merit may be) at highly selective colleges. The conclusion I found most notable: "with a score of 1500 or above, more than a third of whites were rejected while every single black gained admission" (124). The narrowing of the race gap in higher education, moreover, does not prove affirmative action's effectiveness because one can never know what would have happened if the blacks who displaced higher-scoring applicants at elite schools had gone to less prestigious universities; would they have done as well? Affirmative action does not end at the undergraduate level; in law school admissions, a highly numbers-based process, Schuck claims that in the early 1990s "only a few dozen of the 420 blacks admitted to the 18 most selective law schools would have been admitted absent affirmative action" (124). Furthermore, those black students statistically have a lower first-time and overall pass rate for the bar exam than white students. Preferences also overwhelmingly benefit immigrants (of black or Latino descent), the upper middle class, and multiracial students who self-identify as white.

Thus the solution: hold public institutional to the standard of nondiscrimination, while regulating private institutions' use of preferences on conditions of transparency and protected classes (that is, a private policy favoring whites would be illegal because "Caucasian" is not a protected class). Schuck argues that a public law affirming racial preferences is pernicious and societally damaging in a way that voluntary private provisions are not. Affirmative action fails to treat the underlying problem, but that does not mean that it should exist until the root cause is treated; the time for reform is now.

In "Breaking the Two-party Monopoly," Douglas J. Amy details the problems inherent in a dominant two-party political system. Plurality rules often result, even in multi-party systems, in minority parties being underrepresented with regard to seats vs. votes. Amy argues that the solution is proportional representation, "an antitrust law for the party system" (249), which would allow but not require a fair multiparty political framework. He supports this by examining U.S. cities that have adopted PR; for instance, Cincinnati still has essentially two parties but New York City's 1947 council consisted of 12 Democrats, 5 Republicans, 2 Liberals, 2 Communists, and 2 American Laborites. Sounds like an interesting and effective method that would force politicians to actually utilize cross-party coalitions. Amy admits that PR would be unfeasible in presidential elections due to plurality, but this does not necessarily preclude the existence of a multiparty parliamentary legislature.

Finally, Mark C. Miller argues in "Judicial Activism in Canada and the United States" that activist roles are common only to U.S. judges; Canadian judges more often pride themselves on judicial independence and nonpartisanship. I found the piece illuminating as well as illustrative of my shameful depth of knowledge regarding Canadian history or government.
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Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
320 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Economics

This is the 2nd revised and expanded edition--I found the blog and newspaper clippings interesting but awkwardly disconnected in a way that the original book chapters were not. As it was an assigned text, I had some interesting discussions around Levitt's controversial theories (the abortion-crime correlation was surprisingly cool on the outrage scale). I also appreciated the data on race, regarding both education gaps and "ethnic" baby names. Levitt says that after adjusting for socioeconomic status, the black-white education gap disappears--which would make sense, given the dismal education statistics of low-income African-Americans/Latin@s--but I was intrigued by the fact that the disparity disappeared entirely (at least to statistical insignificance) rather than just decreasing.

Like the subtitle implies and the authors admit outright, this book has no overriding theme. Levitt definitely has a spark of brilliance, though, and his ideas are well worth reading.
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Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing
by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss (eds.)
291 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Fantasy/SF

After only managing to skim a few stories back in 2007 when I borrowed it from a friend, I finally bought this "alternative" and obscurely-acclaimed anthology and read it for my monthly Book Club. I only found 3 favorite and 4 hated tales out of 19 total, but--surprisingly--my overall impression is quite positive. Interfictions has earned a place on my long-term bookshelf.

If you aren't familiar with the concept of interstitiality, I would recommend reading Heinz Insu Fenkl's laborious introduction; otherwise, it is probably best left to the academically inclined. In contrast, definitely read Sherman and Goss's conversational "Afterword: The Spaces between" (although you still should read the stories themselves first, for necessary context).

So let me begin with the favorites, first. Jon Singer's "Willow Pattern" is probably the shortest story in the collection, and to me also one of the most interstitial. As Goss says, there isn't another story out there that combines science fiction and china patterns. After my first read-through, my only thoughts were, "Oh, that was pretty." Two years later, I began to "get" the SF aspects; I still don't entirely grasp the point simmering deep beneath the surface, but this flash piece epitomizes what I love best about genre--the extra layer of depth waiting to be plumbed, a depth unique to alienation and surreality.

For pure story pleasure, the title goes to Csilla Kleinheincz's lyrical and poignant tale about a man and a lake: "A Drop of Raspberry." Translated from the Hungarian by Noémi Szelényi, it is interstitial in its superrealistic treatment of surreal/fantastical events (yet tonally different from magic realism). Kleinheincz also happens to hail from the same country as Goss, and she is Hungarian-Vietnamese--too cool!

Finally, "Queen of the Butterfly Kingdom" by Holly Phillips (also coincidentally a Canadian author) is a cross between mainstream and fantasy that seduced me into caring despite a seeming lack of originality. The protagonist is a writer, even, which typically repulses me. But I suffered along with her as she waited for news of her beloved, and the last scene made me stop for a moment to smile.

Then we have the have-nots, those stories that flatly did not work for me. However, of the four I would only label one terrible per se; the rest are a matter of conflicting tastes. For instance, I found Karen Jordan Allen's "Alternate Anxieties" a pretentious deconstruction of Story using the trite writer's-notes conceit; but another reader might think it a brilliant piece of experimental fiction (the experimental classification does tend to draw such extreme opinions). Similarly, I was confused by the mythological underpinnings of Joy Marchard's "Pallas at Noon"--another "writer" story--and I thought that Chloe's (Allen's) poem, once revealed to the reader, was frankly incomprehensible.

In my review of Loghorrea, I have previously blasted Leslie What for her unthinking vilification of a chronic illness; her story here, "Post Hoc," thankfully commits no such sins, but I thought the story unoriginal, uninterstitial (save for the "liminal" post office conceit), and largely unengaging (the main character, anyway--I did like Joe the postman). It's not a bad story, though, just not a very good one. I would rank it above Rachel Pollack's "Burning Beard," an explicitly hip yet faithful retelling of the Biblical life of Joseph. Personally, I'm not a fan of Biblical allusions (even when written by a literary master like Milton); Pollack is considerably less skilled than Milton, and her retelling comes off as trite and silly rather than uniquely interstitial.

Some stories just did nothing for me. I don't understand Anna Tambour's story "The Shoes in SHOES' Window" at all--only that the world appears to be Communist-esque?--and unlike Singer's tale, it gave me no superficial pleasure. After praise heard through the grapevine about K. Tempest Bradford's "Black Feather," I was disappointed to read an unremarkable fairy-tale variant that didn't seem particularly interstitial. Veronica Schanoes's "Rats," a fictionalized biography -slash- Cinderella story about two depressed drug addicts destined for love, was too consciously grungy for me. Similarly, "Timothy" by Colin Greenland could be read as an eroticization of bestality if one were so inclined. And I was unconvinced by the m/m relationship in "A Map of the Everywhere" by Matthew Cheney, which is interstitial by virtue of sheer weirdness but failed as a tale first and foremost.

Some others, I enjoyed but did not love: I liked the collective narrator of "What We Know of the Lost Families of --- House" by Christopher Barzak, a horror tale that doesn't aim to scare. Mikal Trimm's "Climbing Redemption Mountain" wasn't as good as Kleinheincz's version of superrealistic surrealism, but it did emotionally satisfy. I likewise enjoyed reading Vandana Singh's "Hunger," especially the POC focus and all the foodie details, but found her sole fantastical element extraneous--the story is much better read as straight realism, which would not be interstitial. Two other translations also fail to live up to Kleinheincz: Léa Sihol's "Emblemata" from the French by Sarah Smith was interesting for its Buddhist philosophy but just missed the cut for favorites; Adrián Ferrero's "When It Rains, You'd Better Get out of Ulga" from the Spanish by Edo Mor had no plot and not enough theme or insight to make up for said lack. The anthology's closing piece, "A Dirge for Prester John," was typical of Catherynne M. Valente's style in its outlandish, monstrous imagery.

I applaud Sherman and Goss for their conscious shaping of geographic and cultural diversity, as well as their willingness to publish utterly unknown authors. I understand interstitiality a little more now, at least; I just wish that experimental fiction would constitute a smaller part of the (ironic) genre.


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