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Category: social science

Review: Godsend by John Wray

This is a recent release in the US and will be published in January 2019 in the UK. It has received rave reviews from two critics I respect and frequently agree with, Dwight Garner at the New York Times and James Wood at The New Yorker. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but it is his fifth novel and he’s won various writing awards. I was intrigued by the book because I’ve been doing research and writing on why young women are attracted to Islamic extremist organizations like ISIS. I co-authored and presented a conference paper with an undergraduate student and we’re trying to figure out what direction to take it for revision and then submission to a journal. It’s a difficult topic to research because what systematic data exist are usually proprietary, and the topic combines psychology, sociology, and political science. I thought a novel could shed some interesting light on individual motivations and help me think about the project in a different way. Sometimes fiction can illuminate in ways social science can’t, and this seemed like one of those times. 

Godsend cover

Godsend is a relatively short book in terms of word and page count. The print version is 240 pages. The story is inspired by John Walker Lindh, the young American from California who converted to Islam, went to fight with the Taliban, and was captured, tried, and sentenced to prison in the years after 9/11. Wray was commissioned by Esquire to write a story about Lindh and went to Afghanistan in 2016 or thereabouts to find people who knew him. (This background should have been a red flag for me. As someone who does qualitative research, interviewing people 15 years after the time you’re interested in is not likely to get you factually accurate information, especially about a notorious individual.) While Wray was there, he heard a rumor about a girl who had also joined the insurgents. He was never able to pin down concrete information about her, even whether she really existed, and she was variously described as American, Dutch, or English (he doesn’t say she was white and/or non-Muslim, but that’s implied by the comparison to Lindh). He abandoned the feature story and decided to write a book about a girl using some of Lindh’s backstory.

The novel opens in late 2000 or early 2001 and introduces us to Aden Sawyer, an 18-year-old who lives in Santa Rosa, California. Aden is preparing to leave home and fly to Pakistan to study Islam at a madrassa. She is leaving behind a life she is completely alienated from: her parents are separated, her mother is an alcoholic, and she has no friends. Her father, an Islamic Studies professor, mentions that he can get her a deferment, presumably for her college admission, but she is determined to go. Aden is accompanied by her friend-with-benefits, Dexter Yousufzai, whose family is from Pakistan via Dubai and who has found the madrassa through his connections. 

You might be asking how a young woman can attend an all-male madrassa in rural northwest Pakistan, and you’d be right to do so. Aden has this all figured out: she has shaved her head, acquired native garb and will be binding her breasts with an Ace bandage. As a romance reader I felt right at home. Aden has also been studying Arabic since she found the local mosque and converted to Islam, but she doesn’t speak Urdu or Pashto. She’s also very recognizably Western, given her fair skin, cultural ignorance, basic Arabic, and non-exist vernacular skills.

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AAR’s Top 100 Romances List: Diving into the Data

Today the long-established website All About Romance released the results of its reader poll of the Top 100 Romances. The site has done this survey periodically over 20 years (this post has links to the earlier polls): in 1998, 2000, 2004, 2007, 2013, and now again in 2018. The method has varied somewhat over time; in earlier years readers just sent in their ranked lists (up to 100 but they could submit fewer items), and readers often used the previous lists to help refresh their memories for the current poll. This year the poll was a combination of reader submitted and site-provided candidates, and the final result was a ranking for the Top 10 and an alphabetical list for the remaining 90.

Obligatory social scientists’ disclaimer: This was not a scientific poll. It is not representative of all romance readers, all online romance readers, or even all AAR’s site visitors. It is a poll comprising responses from people who chose to take part. They were solicited via Facebook, Twitter, the site itself, and perhaps other venues, but as far as I know there were no attempts made to weight the responses to conform to any universe of romance readers. AAR has never claimed that it is representative; I just want to specify the makeup of the poll at the outset.

AAR was kind enough to offer the list as a Word document containing author, title, subgenre, and date of issue. I used the list to create an Excel spreadsheet of the 100 books. I made a few modifications, including using the original date of release of the books rather than re- or e-release dates, and I collapsed and standardized some of their categories.

Authors:

There are 45 authors represented on the list, so as has always been the case, some authors have multiple books on the list, ranging from Lisa Kleypas with 9 to 21 authors with a single entry:

  • 9:  Lisa Kleypas
  • 7:  Susan Elizabeth Phillips
  • 5:  Nalini Singh
  • 4:  Ilona Andrews, Courtney Milan, Julia Quinn
  • 3:  Mary Balogh, Loretta Chase, Jennifer Crusie, Tessa Dare, Julie Garwood, Elizabeth Hoyt
  • 2:  Jane Austen, Joanna Bourne, KJ Charles, Georgette Heyer, Linda Howard, Eloisa James, Julie James, Sarah Maclean, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, Penny Reid, JR Ward, Mariana Zapata
  • 1:  Jennifer Ashley, Amanda Bouchet, Sarina Bowen & Elle Kennedy, Charlotte Bronte, Meljean Brook, Alyssa Cole, Kresley Cole, Grace Draven, Meredith Duran, Diana Gabaldon, Laura Kinsale, Thea Harrison, Stephanie Laurens, Julie Anne Long, Judith McNaught, Amanda Quick, Lucy Parker, Mary Jo Putney, Alisha Rai, Sally Thorne

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Booker longlist reading: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Just under the wire, I finished one of my most eagerly awaited longlist nominees. Shamsie’s novel has received rave reviews all over the place and is the bookie’s favorite to make the shortlist. It’s a topic that I’ve studied and written on and one that matters a lot to me: the way in which the post 9/11 (and in this case, 7/7) attacks have reshaped the way Muslims are perceived and treated in western Europe and North America. Shamsie’s novel is set in the UK and focuses on the particular issues there, but the larger themes apply across many settings.

Liz, Rosario, Theresa, and other Booker Longlist readers have described the plot so I won’t rehash that here (you should definitely go read their reviews and the comments to them). Shamsie models her story on the plot of Sophocles’ Antigone, with a few modifications in the cast and family relationships. In her telling there are two central families, one comprising Isma, Aneeka, and Pervaiz Pasha, the children of a British-Pakistani man who died fighting with Islamist terrorists; and the other headed by Karamat Lone, rising front-bench politician and current Home Secretary whose marriage to a wealthy, successful American businesswoman has propelled his career. Karamat and Terry have two children in their 20s: Emily, an investment banker in NY, and Eamonn, a somewhat aimless but charming and handsome 24-year-old.

Isma is the older mother-substitute, who finally has the chance to pursue her own intellectual ambitions when twins Aneeka and Pervaiz reach adulthood. But her decision to pursue a Ph.D. in the United States sets a number of actions in motion, actions that will have devastating consequences for all of them. And Karamat Lone is drawn back into the Muslim community that has both raised and rejected him, with his political ambitions tied to events he can only imperfectly control.

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Race, Identity and Identification

The discovery that the head of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, has been claiming an African-American identity for the past decade despite having white parents and being raised as a European-American white female has been dominating online news and social media for the last couple of days. In the process, race, ethnicity, and identity have been mashed together in ways that make sociologists and other social scientists who study the topics cringe. Repeatedly.

I’m not much interested in contributing to the many, many thinkpieces on the person, her motivations, and What It All Really Means. But I research, teach, and write about ethnicity and race, I’ve been contributing to this literature since graduate school, and I’ve spent a lot of time parsing the differences between various social categories and constructs. So I’m going to write about that.

Let’s get one obvious issue out of the way. Race and ethnicity are both socially constructed. But they aren’t constructed the same way, or according to the same criteria. And they don’t operate the same way in social practice. Although race is subjective in terms of how categories are constructed and in terms of the assignment of those “racial” categories to individuals and groups, it is measured objectively. Whether or not you are of a given race is entirely dependent on whether it is found in your genetic makeup (though a direct ancestor; DNA attribution is much more recent).

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a combination of genetic makeup (your ancestry) and social practice. A black person raised by white people in an all-white setting will be identified as black by most Americans (they won’t necessarily be considered “culturally” black, but that’s a separate issue). A person born to Italian-American parents but raised by Swedish-American parents in northern Minnesota will be accepted as having Italian ancestry, but she will almost certainly be treated as culturally Swedish-American by most people.

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