Drown, Unlocking the Clubhouse, Best American Comics 2011, Shadow Tag, Four Souls

Still behind on blogging. I read these books about a month ago. I’m now up to a book a day, which means I might have to spend a week blogging every day to catch up.

Another week, another Junot Diaz book. Not too much to say about this one though - it’s a series of short stories, less connected than the previous two books I’ve read. Probably read them first, and then come back for Drown.

Unlocking the Clubhouse is a book about women in CS education at Carnegie Mellon, based on a series of interviews that the authors did with women who were enrolled in CMU’s CS program from 1995 to 2000. Key takeaway: women were disproportionately under-represented, and even with admissions numbers that were promising, women dropped out at higher rates or switched majors. A number of key themes emerge to explain the pipeline problems and the difficulties women in the CS classes experienced, ranging from family computer placement (in the boy’s bedroom, back when there was a family computer) to alienation in difficult classes. Unlocking the Clubhouse is a helpful exploration, but it’s depressing to read the book and discover how many of the problems still plague us, even 15 years after CMU attempted to reform its curriculum to encourage gender parity.

Best American Comics 2011 was a compilation of a number of short-form comics into one large volume. It was edited and forwarded by Alison Bechdel, whose work I usually enjoy. She wrote quite a bit about the difficulty of picking the works that belonged in the book, and I can understand that with such a inclusive title, picking the best must have been difficult. However, I couldn’t help but wish that each of the works had had a little more introduction. The drastic switches in styles and content made it difficult to give each comic its due, and I often felt unprepared to appreciate some of the less traditional work that the book included, and thus unmoored in general. Worth picking up and flipping through, but I’m not in a rush to buy a copy.

I’ve been on a Louise Erdrich kick recently, and Shadow Tag was the first book of hers I’ve read since I was, oh, thirteen or so. It isn’t necessarily a good introduction to her work, although some key themes are present - the Native American experience (for lack of a more precise term), relationships, etc. Shadow Tag is about a deeply fucked up marriage between an artist and an academic. It’s hard to read because even as you like the characters more and get to know them, you realize that there is no doubt things will end tragically and that nothing will get better. Certainly well written, but depressing. So depressing.

I enjoyed Four Souls quite a bit more. It switches back and forth between a number of main characters, with some subplots involving an older Native American man and his wife, which have echoes of Shadow Tag. But the main story is about a woman named Four Souls, who goes to take her revenge upon a man who destroyed the land where her family lived. I feel like I can’t say much without spoiling parts of the book, but I enjoyed her story and the weird turns it took. Louise Erdrich is really quite an amazing writer, and I would recommend this as a good way to approach her work.