EVERYBODY LIES

SETH STEPHENS-DAVIDOOWITZ

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has written a fascinating book about social scientists using data collected by Google or Facebook in their research. Things to be learned from reading LIES:

  1. Some people use search engines as confessionals. They type complete sentences like “I am sad.” or open-ended questions like “Is my daughter ugly?”
  2. People assume machines (like the Google search engine) will keep their secrets. For sensitive topics, Google may generate more honest data than surveys. There are many questions asked to Google that I’m sure people won’t pose to a librarian.
  3. Google searches for “Obama” is frequently paired with “kkk” and the “n” word. The prevalence of racist searches does not exhibit a North-South divide – it’s East-West.
  4. As President of Harvard, Larry Summers spent quite a bit of time brainstorming with Economics PhD students on how to beat the stock market using new data. (And they came up empty-handed, or so they say.)
  5. Some economists found that going to Stuyvesant (a highly influential high school) conferred no meaningful benefit to one’s career – at least, this is the case for those who attain a score close to the cutoff in the admissions test.
  6. There are 6,000 searches on Google a year for “how to kill your girlfriend” while there are 400 murders of girlfriends.
  7. “Big data” does not provide any insights that surveys can’t at the aggregate level so people slice and dice the data to examine “micro” segments, which means they are analyzing a huge collection of small data sets.

I borrowed this interview from VOX’s interview with author Stephens-Davidowitz.

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Liesa new book that uses data on America’s Google habits as an insight into our national consciousness. Two findings from the book dominated the conversation: America is riddled with racist and selfish people, and there may be a self-induced abortion crisis in this country. But there was plenty more revelatory data in the book that we didn’t cover. So I wanted to follow up with Stephens-Davidowitz to talk about some of the other provocative claims he is making. I was particularly interested in sexuality and online porn. If, as Stephens-Davidowitz puts it, “Google is a digital truth serum,” then what else does it tell us about our private thoughts and desires? What else are we hiding from our friends, neighbors, and colleagues? A lot, apparently. Among other things, Stephens-Davidowitz’s data suggests that there are more gay men in the closet than we think; that many men prefer overweight women to skinny women but are afraid to act on it; that married women are disproportionately worried their husband is gay; that a lot of straight women watch lesbian porn; and that porn featuring violence against women is more popular among women than men. I asked Stephens-Davidowitz to explain the data behind all of this. Here’s what he told me.


Sean Illing

Last time we spoke, I asked you about the most surprising or shocking finding in your research. We talked about racism and the possibility of a self-induced abortion crisis in America. Here I want to dive into something a little lighter: sexuality and online porn. What did you learn about this?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Porn is the biggest development in sexuality research ever. I don’t understand how social scientists weren’t begging Pornhub for their data. I was one of the only ones. I sent some of my results to some of the most famous sociologists and sex researchers in the world. Many of them had no interest.

Sean Illing

Why does porn data offer such unique insight?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Well, to learn about sex, the main approach was to ask people. But people lie on sensitive topics such as sex.

Sean Illing

You combed through the data — what did it say about us?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There’s a lot of variation in what people like. Probably 30 percent of people exclusively watch stuff that you would find disgusting.

Sean Illing

Why focus on sex? Were you initially interested in this, or did the data lead you to it?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s a book about human nature. Sex is a big part of human nature. Some reviews of Everybody Lies have criticized me for being obsessed with sex. Everybody is obsessed with sex. If they say they’re not, they’re lying.

Sean Illing

You point to some interesting data in the book about sexual orientation.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s clear that a lot of gay men remain in the closet. In places where it’s hard to be gay, such as Mississippi, far fewer men say that they are gay than in places where it’s easy to be gay, such as New York. But gay porn searches are about the same everywhere.

Sean Illing

This doesn’t necessarily tell us how many people are gay in these areas, but it’s a revealing data point.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I look at the data a whole bunch of ways and conclude about 5 percent of men are predominantly attracted to men.

Sean Illing

Can you really draw concrete conclusions from this sort of data? People search for things for all kinds of reasons, right?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think porn is a pretty good measure of people’s sexual fantasies, even if they never act on them.

Sean Illing

What’s your response to people who are skeptical of inferring anything from this stuff?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think watching a porn video is a lot more telling than answering a survey question. I agree you should be cautious in how you interpret it, though.

Sean Illing

Let’s talk about what married people are up to online.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The number one question that women have about their husbands is whether he is gay. And these questions are much higher in the Deep South, where my research suggests there are indeed more gay men married to women.

Sean Illing

Do you think women are justified in their curiosity here? Is this a question they should be asking more often?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think women are too obsessed with their husbands’ sexuality. Women are eight times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is an alcoholic and 10 times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is depressed. It is far more likely that a woman is married to a man who is secretly an alcoholic or secretly depressed than secretly gay. About 98 percent of women’s husbands are really straight. Trust me.

Sean Illing

What are husbands secretly worrying about?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Whether their wives are crazy.

Sean Illing

What should husbands be asking Google? What would they ask if they knew what their wives were Googling?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Whether their wives are more physically attracted to women than men.

Sean Illing

Tell me about America’s suppressed sexual desires.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There are still sexual preferences that people hide today, even in socially liberal places. About one in 100 porn searches are for the elderly. Hundreds of thousands of young men are predominantly attracted to elderly women. But very few young men are in relationships with elderly women.

Sean Illing

I’m not sure what I think about that. Any theories?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s interesting. Some sexual preferences I first learned about on The Jerry Springer Show,which featured really poor, uneducated people. People attracted to animals or family members or the elderly. But, now from seeing porn data, I realize those preferences also exist among wealthy, educated people. Wealthy, educated people are more cognizant of contemporary social norms, which means if you have such an attraction, you hide it.

Sean Illing

I recall something in the book about the sexual preferences we hide largely for cultural reasons or for fear of being judged. Can you talk about that?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

If you define being in the closet as picking partners based on what society wants rather than what you want, many people are in the closet. For example, I am certain a large number of men are more attracted to overweight women than skinny women but try to date skinny women to impress their friends and family members.

Porn featuring overweight women is surprisingly common among men. But the data from dating sites tells us that just about all men try to date skinny women. Many people don’t try to date the people they’re most attracted to. They try to date the people they think would impress their friends.

Sean Illing

That says something truly awful about our cultural pathologies. People should be free to like whatever they want, but the pressures to conform are overwhelming — and ultimately unhealthy.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s also inefficient. There are a lot of single men and single overweight women who would be sexually compatible. But they don’t date, while the man tries and fails to date a skinny woman even though he’s less attracted to her. And then there are women who practically starve themselves to remain skinny so their husbands won’t leave, even though their husbands would be more attracted to them if they weighed more. The desire to impress people causes all kinds of inefficiency.

Sean Illing

All right, give me a couple of unusual desires you noticed — one from men and one from women.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It is really amazing how much tastes can vary. There are women who just watch porn featuring short, fat men with small penises. There are men who just watch porn featuring women with enormous nipples.

Sean Illing

How about other countries?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The number one Google search in India that starts “my husband wants …” is “my husband wants me to breastfeed him.” Porn featuring adult breastfeeding is higher in India than anywhere else. In just about every country, just about every Google search looking for advice on breastfeeding is looking how to breastfeed a baby. In India, Google searches looking for breastfeeding advice are about equally split between how to breastfeed a baby and how to breastfeed a husband.

After I published this finding, some journalists interviewed people in India. Everyone denied this. But I am sure, based on the data, that there are a reasonable number of adult Indian men desiring to be breastfed. It is really amazing that this desire can develop in one country without ever being openly talked about.

Sean Illing

Any other findings from countries not named America?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Japanese men have recently become obsessed with tickling porn. More than 10 percent of Pornhub searches by young Japanese men are for “tickling.”

Sean Illing

So basically all of humanity is united in its weirdness?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Yeah, basically. Some people respond to Indian men wanting to be breastfed and are like, “Indian men are so weird.” That’s not the right response. The data from porn tells us that everybody is weird. Thus, nobody is weird.

Sean Illing

And yet we all feel weird because we assume (wrongly) that no one else is as weird as we are.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Sometimes I think it would be a good thing if everyone’s porn habits were released at once. It would be embarrassing for 30 seconds. And then we’d all get over it and be more open about sex.

Sean Illing

Any other surprising findings about women in America?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

About 20 percent of the porn women watch is lesbian porn. A lot of straight women watch lesbian porn.

Sean Illing

That’s not very surprising.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Porn featuring violence against women is also extremely popular among women. It is far more popular among women than men. I hate saying that because misogynists seem to love this fact. Fantasy life isn’t always politically correct.

The rate at which women watch violent porn is roughly the same in every part of the world. It isn’t correlated with how women are treated.

Sean Illing

Let me ask you this: Has all of this research changed how you think about sexuality in general?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I have always wondered how homosexuality made it through evolution. Like, isn’t evolution supposed to make people desire heterosexual sex with fertile people? But after studying porn, I realized homosexuality is hardly the only desire that doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective.

Less than 20 percent of porn watched these days features vaginal sex to completion among two people who can conceivably have a healthy baby. Cartoons, anal sex to completion, oral sex to completion, foot sex to completion, incest, elderly porn, tickling, animal porn, sex with objects, etc.

Sean Illing

Sex is clearly about a lot more than procreation, and I’d say a lot of needless suffering has resulted from our confusion about this.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think the reason is we are growing up under very different conditions than we evolved under. Hunter-gatherer kids didn’t watch The Simpsons. And hunter-gatherer adults didn’t watch Simpsons porn. I think we are evolved so that if we grew up in hunter-gatherer conditions, just about all people would have an overwhelming desire for vaginal sex. But modern conditions take sexuality in all kinds of directions. I’m becoming more convinced of that the more data I look at.

Sean Illing

So what’s the future of online porn? Where is it going?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think anal sex will pass vaginal sex in porn within three years. That’s what my data models suggest.

Sean Illing

Somehow that feels like a perfect point on which to end.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

People should buy my book. There’s a lot more!

ETTA and OTTO and RUSSELL and JAMES

EMMA HOOPER

ETTA, 83 years young, sets off to walk to the ocean, the long way from her farm in Saskatchewan. “I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there, I’ll try to remember to come back.” reads the note she left her husband Otto. In the wild, Etta meets James, a coyote who talks and sings cowboy songs when no one else is around. Otto chooses to wait for her return. He keeps busy building a papier-mache menagerie of all kinds of animals. The reader does have to suspend belief that a woman suffering from dementia can walk over 3,200 kilometres and never sleep indoors or have to deal with winter. This story is balanced with the story of their youth when Etta was a teacher and Otto was her pupil for a short time before he went off to war. While he was fighting in Europe the two correspond with a multitude of letters. She corrects his mistakes and improves his literacy. They have a brief but intense relationship when he comes home on leave, but when he departs Etta is left with Russell, with whom she has a more traditional courtship.

Etta is a fun, light read reminiscent of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

THE END OF EDDY

EDOUARD LOUIS

EDDY is an autobiographical novel of violence and brutality, racism, misogyny and homophobia. It is set in a small manufacturing town in northern France but it could have been in a mining town in Great Brittin or in the southern USA. Into this mileu of active and passive hate grew an unusual boy, Eddy Bellegueule (pretty-face) the birth name of the author, effeminate with a high pitched voice. He instinctively loathes the food, sexuality and clothes of his peers. In consequence, he is beaten, abused and terrorised. As a “faggot” or “homo” he is the lowest of the low; lower than women, lower than even an Arab, Jew or Algerian. He makes repeated attempts to assume the proper masculine role that his culture requires of him, but despite his brother’s teachings, every time he fails, he assumes the fault is entirely his. He lives and breathes unqualified self-loathing. He describes his mother, “She was often angry. She’d take any occasion to voice her indignation, railing day in, day out, against the politicians, against new regulations reducing welfare payments, against the powers that be, which she hated from the deepest fibres of her being. And yet she would not hesitate to invoke those same powers she otherwise so hated when she felt ruthlessness was called for: ruthlessness in dealing with Arabs, with alcohol, with drugs, with any kind of sexual behaviour she didn’t approve of. She would often remark that ‘what we need is some law and order in this country.’ ” His father took pride in the fact that he didn’t beat his wife but the walls were full of holes where he had punched the walls in rage. His older brothers didn’t treat their girlfriends so kindly. “I would see my father, after one of our cats had a litter, take the newborn kittens and slip them into a plastic grocery bag and swing it against some cement edge until the bag was filled with blood and the meowing had ceased. I had seen him butcher pigs in the yard, and drink the still-warm blood he was collecting in order to make blood sausage (blood on his lips, his chin, his T-shirt). ‘It’s the best, the blood you get from an animal right when it dies.’ ”

EDDY is well written but not an easy read.

BECOMING NICOLE: The Transformation of an American Family

Amy Ellis Nutt

At almost 3 years old, when Nicole was still known as Wyatt, he declared to his father, “I hate my penis.”  She alway knew she was a girl despite having an identical twin brother. Nicole’s mother, Kelly, supported Wyatt as he presented himself — a girl mistakenly incarnated as a boy. His father, Wayne, a man’s man: both hunter and ex-military, had trouble that his son was a girl. Eventually he came around and became a spokesman for transgender rights. “The world where he was a father and husband in an ordinary, hardworking, middle-class family had just blown up. He stood there stunned, unable to hear whatever was going on around him, as if deafened by the psychological explosion.” Nicole was bullied in school and the administration refused to protect her. The family sued the School Division for barring her from using the girls’ bathroom.

The author not only tells Nicole’s and her family’s story but also the medical and legal stories of transgender people. It is well research and well written.

“Lesson number one: “Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with,” he told Spack. “Gender identity is who you go to bed as.”

“other words, our genitals and our gender identity are not the same. Sexual anatomy and gender identity are the products of two different processes, occurring at distinctly different times and along different neural pathways before we are even born. Both are functions of genes as well as hormones, and while sexual anatomy and gender identity usually match, there are dozens of biological events that can affect the outcome of the latter”

“When it comes to that physical self, for a transgender person every waking moment, every conscious breath, is a denial of who they truly are.”

THIRTEEN REASONS WHY

JAY ASHER

Having thoroughly enjoyed the show on TV I wanted to read the book and I wasn’t disappointed. In many ways the book is more coherent than the show which gets caught up in too many time changes and flashbacks. Hanna Baker is a high school student who commits suicide. She leaves behind thirteen cassette tapes, each directed at one person, each giving a reason she had for killing herself. She talks about the rumours and the betrayals she suffered at the hands of people she longed to call her friends. She mails the tapes to Tony who supervises that they get sent on to the next person. Each chaper of the book is the contents of the tape with minimal backup from Clay the boy who tried but failed to befriend her.

The book is as gripping as the tv show. Maybe more so.

THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS

LAURIE FRANKEL

Penn and Rosie have four rowdy, rambunctious boys who they teach they can be anything they want to be. They want to have a girl but of course, they end up with another boy. But Claude is different. Claude is quieter and calmer than the other boys ever were. At three Claude starts wearing a dress and saying he wants to be a girl when he grows up. The family motto is you can be anything you want to be, so the parents take this in stride. For pre-school Claude wore pants to school then changed into his dress when he returned home. When Claude starts kindergarten he starts wearing dresses and skirts to school and adopts the name Poppy. After a playdate gone horribly wrong with a gun-toting homophobe father the family flees to Seattle for greater acceptance. There they tell no one that Poppy is both a girl and a boy. But secrets have a way of getting out.

Terribly well written, THIS IS a page-turner. It’s the best book I’ve read for some time.

COMPANY TOWN

MADELINE ASHBY

Go Jung-Hwa is unusual. She is completely organic. No augmentations, as most people have added to their physical selves. Hwa is a skilled fighter and bodyguard for the sex workers’ union but she hates her body because of a birthmark that stains her skin. Zachariah Lynch, one of the wealthiest people in the world, hires Hwa to protect his heir, his youngest son and genius, Joel.  Joel and Hwa are stalked by an invisible serial killer who targets both them and the sex workers Hwa used to guard. How do you defend yourself against an invisible agent?

If you enjoy dystopian fiction, this novel is for you.

TOMBOY SURVIVAL GUIDE

IVAN COYOTE imgres

Tomboy Survival Guide, by the Canadian writer, performer and musician Ivan Coyote, is of well-told tales about the author’s experiences growing up as a transgender person in the Yukon. Adapted from Coyote’s successful stage show of the same name, these stories are entertaining but also impart serious messages and offer the reader a window into the experiences of a transgender person who became a successful writer and performer. Like many transgendered people, Coyote prefers the pronouns they and them. Coyote describes grandmother Flo, a devout Catholic, as “not a cuddly woman” and as someone who was “far more likely to cuff the back of your head than she was to pat the top of it.” Yet Flo was perhaps the first person to reassure Coyote that, while they might not be just like everyone else, they was just fine the way they was. As Coyote remembers it, Flo said that “Some of us have hard roads, but the Lord never gives anyone a burden without also giving them a gift. Your job is to find out what that gift is and use it, y’hear me? God doesn’t make mistakes. Never forget that. You are exactly who God meant you to be.”Public bathrooms and change rooms for me have always been a choice between very uncomfortable and potentially unsafe, so I try to be polite about it because if I get angry it become so much easier for them to

Public bathrooms and change rooms for me have always been a choice between very uncomfortable and potentially unsafe, so I try to be polite about it because if I get angry it become so much easier for them to dismiss me, plus an angry someone who looks like a man in the ladies’ change room? Then I am seen as even more of a threat. Then it is even more all my fault.

coyote-tomboy-survival-guide-s650But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. A am not trapped in the wrong body. I am trapped in sa world that  makes very little space for bodies like mine. I live in a world where public washrooms are a battleground where politicians can stand up and be applauded for putting forth an amendment barring me from choosing which gendered bathroom I belong in. I live in a world where my trans sisters are routinely murdered without consequence or justice. I live in a world where trans youth get kicked out onto the street by their parents who think their God is standing behind them as they close their front doors on their own children. Going  to the beach is an act of bravery for me. None of this is a battle between me and my own flesh. For me to be free, it is the world that has to change, not trans people.

DARLING DAYS

imgres-1iO TILLETT WRIGHT

At age 6, Wright declared: “My name is Ricky. And I’m not your daughter anymore. I’m your son.” Days is iO’s exploration of his tumultuous upbringing and struggles with identity and sexuality. Wright grew up in a chaotic downtown Manhattan apartment, a place that “stood out for the refinement of its violence, for its kaleidoscopic intensity.” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. “Sleep doesn’t happen much in the house, what with the plays and things late at night, plus Ma is in a real bad way. It’s like she has a night personality and a day personality.” As time passes her Mother’s mental illness worsens. The building they live in is crazy too. “Our building repels ‘normal’ people. They’d have to love cockroaches, scalding radiators and thin walls . . . they would have to establish their own niche in the zoo and defend it.”

Darling Days is one wild ride. “I don’t want to wear my tragedies on my skin, in my teeth, in my walk. I want something different than what I’m inheriting, but I’m going to have to make that happen for myself.”

WE ARE ALL MADE OF MOLECULES

moleculesSUSAN NIELSEN

Molecules is a light, young adult book that is laugh aloud funny yet still able to deal with some challenging issues. The story is told from two points of view: Ashley and Stewart. Stewart is a genius, gifted academically but stunted and awkward socially. Ashley is the complete opposite: she is the queen bee of her grade, doling out social blessings on those she deems acceptable. But her grades are all D’s and C’s. Their families meld because Steward’s Mom died a year earlier and Ashley’s Dad moved into the garage because he’s gay. Ashley is horrified of the thought that people at school might find out her dad is gay. In many ways the story is unrealistic but it is still fun. So when you are in the mood for something light….

ME BEFORE YOU

meJOJO MOYES

Louisa Clark is a relatively normal British girl, living with her family, waitressing with no great plans for her life. Her boyfriend is more interested in training for marathons than in her.  Will Traynor was an uber-athlete, high intensity, wealthy businessman until an accident left him an angry quadriplegic.  Their paths cross when Lou is hired to be Will’s caregiver. Will’s mother informs her that the contract is for six months because unless Will’s attitude changes at the end of that time he will go to Switzerland to end his life. Lou has alway been a ray of light but this is quite a challenge. Is she up to it? How does she feel about Will?

Laugh out loud funny and weepingly sad. Me Before You is a great read.

“I want to tell him that I don’t know what I feel. I want him but I’m frightened to want him. I don;t want my happiness to be entirely dependent on somebody else’s to be a hostage to fortunes I cannot control.”

“No journey out of grief was straightforward. There would be good days and bad days. Today was just a bad day, a kink in the road, to be traversed and survived.”

A WORK OF ART

MELODY MAYSONETwork

Tera is an artist like her dad. She has always worked hard for his approval. He has sculpted her and her abilities at the expense of the mother who he calls crazy. The father is manipulative and cunning, pitting his daughter against her mother. He convinces not only Tera that her mother is crazy, but also the mother herself. Tera is willing to do anything, even when it feels wrong, to win her father’s approval. Tera has been accepted with scholarship to a prestigious art school in France. She finally sees the pride in his eyes. Her world is coming together until her father is arrested for child pornography.  Tera puts her entire future on hold to prove his innocence. In the process she starts to doubt he is innocent. As she explores her budding sexuality memories that hold secrets from Tera’s past come to light. Nothing is right anymore and Tera must find her way through the mess of her life.

Well written Art is a page turner.

FISH: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison

parselltj-fishT J PARSELL

Within days of entering the prison system Tim was drugged and gang raped. He could not report the rape to authorities because prison code states that snitches will be killed. So at that time he accepted the protection of a man, a husband who would protect him from the advances of other prisoners in exchange for sexual services. If he had not been protected he would have been  fair game for any other prisoner or group of prisoners. He was lucky his man treated him gently and had money to buy him clothes and other things from the commissary. All of this at the tender age of seventeen and he was still trying to decipher his own sexual orientation. Relationships don’t last forever in prison; inmates get transferred from one institution to another for whatever reason. But a person’s story follows with him. When Tim realized that his first husband had orchestrated his gang raped to force him into seeking his protection, he was devastated.

When finally released Parsell has been working with Stop Prison Rape. This book should be read by all at risk teens.

My understanding is that Canadian prisons are not as severe as American prisons.

TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME

wolvesCAROL RIFKA BRUNT

1987, AIDS is misunderstood and prejudice is running wild. At first I asked why would anyone want to document this sad and depressing time but of course we need to know where we came from to appreciate where we are now. June had a special relationship with her uncle and god-father, respected painter Finn Weiss. When he died of an AIDS related condition her mother pointed out the man who killed him, who gave him AIDS, Finn’s partner Toby. Gradually June and Finn begin to develop a relationship. June learns that the reason she never knew about Toby, essentially her uncle’s husband, was because it was the only way her mother would let her brother Finn have a relationship with June and her older sister Greta. It is interesting to see June assess the situation and come to her own conclusions.

“Toby was right. Finn was my first love. But Toby, he was my second. And the sadness in that stretched like a thin cold river down the length of my whole life.”

Wolves is a YA novel but has much to offer adults.

A PLEASURE AND A CALLING

pleasurePHILL HOGAN

Pleasure opens with one of the funniest first chapters ever written. Mr. Heming, a small town real-estate salesman, considers himself to be the town’s protector. When he reminds a dog walker to pick up the dog’s leavings and is told to piss off, he gleefully scoops up the poop, goes home to retrieve the walkers house key and leaves the shit in the middle of the man’s white carpet. He has keys for all the homes his company has ever sold.

But he is not a peeping Tom. He immerses himself in others’ lives.  “I don’t peep through windows. … I am not a stalker, or a voyeur. I am simply sharing an experience, a life as it happens.” “Among strangers’ belongings is where I am most at home…I know where they keep their private things, how they arrange their lives. I follow their plans and make mine around them.” 

“… a god at play.”

I loved how it starts off hilarious then gradually becomes creepier and creepier.

Anyone who reads this thriller will want to change their locks anytime they buy a new house.

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN

“SHERMAN ALEXIEalex                                           Junior finds himself straddling two worlds when he decides to leave his reserve to go to school in the near by city. One day at school he is given a new textbook except the book is not new – it belonged to his own mother. That’s how old and poor the supplies are at the reserve school. Filled with sense of foreboding, Junior throws the book and it hits his teacher. In the aftermath, the same teacher impresses upon Junior the need for him to GET AWAY and make something of his life. He enrols at the all-white school and he is the only Indian attending it, if you don’t count their mascot. Surprisingly, he has a harder time with his fellow Indians back at the Rez for making this decision than he has with the white kids. Nothing comes easy for Junior. Some days his family is able to drive him the 20 miles to school. But when his dad is on a drunk or the car won’t start, he hitchhikes or walks. When tragedy strikes, and there is a lot of tragedy in his life he misses more school. But all the time drawing cartoons helps lift his spirits. “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” “I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,” I said. “By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not”. “But we reservation Indians don’t get to realise our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are. It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that somehow one deserves to be poor. You start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” Both laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking. A book not to be missed.

FOR TODAY I AM A BOY

fortodayiamaboyKIM FU

Peter is a Chinese-Canadian boy with a secret: he is truly a girl. He calls his penis the thing. He tells his sisters, “I want to be pretty like you.” All three girls sense their brother’s secret, but it is the eldest Helen who brings reality to it. “You can be handsome, like Father or Bruce Lee.” The father is overjoyed to finally have a son and does all he can to make him into a  true male. He complains that Peter cries more than his sisters.  Mother is not much of a presence in the household, so dominated by her husband she is. When Peter offers to help with supper clean up father stops him, “It’s women’s work.”

When he moves to Montreal as a young adult he is more able to explore who he is. When he meets some young friends he surmises,  “What right had they to be born into a world where they were taught to look endlessly into themselves…To ask themselves, and not be told, whether they were boys or girls?”

Fu has written an excellent and challenging first novel. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

BELZHAR

belzharMEG WOLITZER

“Words matter. This what (the teacher) has basically been saying from the start. Words matter. All semester we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were looking for the our voice.” Belzhar is about the power of writing and the power of books. The narrator of the novel, Jamaica “Jam” Gallahue, is enrolled at The Wooden Barn in Vermont, an institution dedicated to the care of “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers.” The Wooden Barn is the type of sanctuary a sensitive, difficult and well-to-do teenager is shuttled off to when, as Jam’s mother puts it, “We don’t know what else to do with you, babe!” She has been chosen for a peculiar class, Special Topics in English, where only a few select students will study with a respected, older teacher, to study only one writer in-depth. This year the poetess Sylvia Plath has been chosen for study. Journals are distributed for twice weekly writing about any topic. Each student in the group has suffered a life-altering calamity and when they write in their journal they go back to the time of their trauma to relive the time before it happened. Belzhar (pronounced BEL-jhar in homage to Plath’s “The Bell Jar”) is their code name for this trance state. When they return from Belzhar exactly five pages have been written in their journals, about what they did in the trance.

Wolitzer is a great writer. At times Belzhar was a page turner. Had I known it was a young adult book I likely wouldn’t have read it. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

NORTH OF NORMAL: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Counterculture Family, and How I Survived Both

Cea Sunrise Person northofnormal

Cea’s grandparents, Papa Dick and Grandma Jeanne moved the whole family, including Cea’s young single mother Michelle, pregnant at 15, from California to northern Alberta. The grandparents could no longer put up with corporate America. The family lived in a teepee, grew pot and lived off the grid in relative isolation, except for the endless parade of hangers-on, and drifters that complicated the family drama and provided sexual partners for all and sundry. When the police would find their pot plants then it was time to move deeper into the wilderness usually on the edge of a first nations community. Beyond living on the land and surviving on nothing the family was dealing with depression, poverty, sex, drugs and kids rife with physical, social and mental problems. One  son is almost never out of a mental institution; he is never visited by family. The beginning is a relatively happy period of the book, as nature has a way of buffering the family chaos. Cea comments on another child who’s mother is alway taciturn and never affectionate whereas her mother always has open arms and cuddles for her. When Michelle leaves her family and the wilderness for a series of badness men the book takes on a new level of sadness. Cea has to endure the plain old stupidity and bad choices of her elders, who are either too doped-up, too confused, too self-centred or too single-minded to know better.

Cea is a good writer. North is worth reading.

 

MEN WE REAPED

menJESMYN WARD

“Life is a hurricane,” states Ward, for African-American people living in the south, especially the men. There is a lack of the options available, industry is in its death throes – almost one in 10 young black men are in jail and murder is the greatest killer of black men under the age of 24. When a reporter came to interview people in the building where an 18 year old man was shot in the head, one woman told the journalist she “was happy that her 14-year-old son was locked up because it was safer for him to be incarcerated than to live in the neighbourhood”. Jesmyn Ward attempts to give both humanity and context in her memoir, in which she relates the unconnected deaths in the space of just four years of five young men who were close to her. “By all the official records,” she writes, “here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.” “That’s a brutal list in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.”

Reaped is really a story of what it is like to grow up smart, poor, black and female in America’s deep south, Ward memories are somber and introspective. She watched her mother be both protective and disappointed in her father.  “[As a child] I saw the tight line of my mother’s mouth when my father was absent and couldn’t be accounted for … To an impressionable nine-year-old trouble for the black men of my family meant police. It was easier and harder to be male; men were given more freedom but threatened with less freedom.”

“Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.”

“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”

“Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.”

A must read. I thought about the First Nations experience here in Canada, although different there are many similarities.