a breezy, entertaining journey through Indonesia – a review of Pisani’s book Indonesia, Etc.

indonesia etcIndonesia is the fourth most populated nation in the world, and it’s the fifteenth largest in land area. More than 700 languages are spoken there. It has the largest Muslim population the world, ahead of India and Pakistan. And yet, until now, I know almost nothing about it. Elizabeth Pisani’s recent book — Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation — helped to close that gap. Pisani has written an entertaining mix of travelogue, history, and current affairs. Years ago, Pisani worked in Indonesia as a journalist and then later returned as an epidemiologist. Most recently, she spent a year traveling between Jakarta to remote villages across Indonesia’s jungles and coasts. In this book, she brings it all together. It reminds me of the book I might write if I were traveling around Indonesia and sending weekly emails home to friends. The history and the current affairs are mixed in with funny anecdotes and observations, with the result being a not-too-structured approach. But in addition to all the enjoyable, colorful anecdotes, I definitely learned about the history, for example, about early colonization by the Dutch and major differences between the first two presidents, Sukarno and Suharto.

Pisani writes in a deeply familiar and affectionate tone, but I never felt that she condescended. To give you a sense, here is a line on Sukarno, who was “a demagogue whose political recipe was one part populism and three parts theatre, seasoned with mischief and served with a large glass of charisma” and “always better at vision than delivery.” Later, she talks about Indonesia poor showing in international student assessments: “The dismal results are a result of dismal teaching, and that is in turn the result of patronage. A teaching job is the easiest way to squeeze into the coveted beige uniform of the civil servant; local politicians give jobs in schools to their political supporters all the time. That means the schools are rammed with people whose goal is to be a bureaucrat, not an educator. And they behave just other bureaucrats in Indonesia: they see working hours as a movable feast and take time off more or less at will.” And later, students describe the challenge of being taught in English: “The teachers, they cannot speak English too.”

In some accounts, the researcher seeks to be an invisible observer. Pisani doesn’t hide her role as participant, always discussing her interactions with the people around her and often reflecting on people’s perceptions of her: “The possibilities for a short-haired white woman with a face battered by months of boat travel, dressed in long-sleeved cottons, sensible shoes and a black photographer’s waistcoat, a woman who spoke with a Jakarta accent and was always scribbling in a notebook were: in Sumba, a researcher on a malaria study; in Tanimbar and Kei, an anthropologist. In Flores, a nun (!) When I got over to post-tsunami, pre-ballot Aceh, I was either an aid worker or an election monitor. In Kalimantan, I must be from an environmental NGO. In the smaller regions of Indonesia, an English teacher. Here in Weda they assumed I was an engineer.”

For those of us who know little about this giant of a nation, Pisani provides a deeply accessible introduction. I listened to and enjoyed the unabridged audiobook, narrated by Jan Cramer.

I looked at 8 other reviews (below), and only the New York Times comes away with a negative take on the book.
  • Misha Glenny, The Guardian: “Although Pisani cannot really explain all of Indonesia’s et ceteras, she does project a more optimistic and warmer picture of a fascinating country than most outside commentators. For anyone about to visit the place, her book is an essential companion.”
  • Joshua Kurlantzick, The New York Times: “For the most part, [Pisani] remains content to drift back into anecdotes rather than pull them together…. Pisani falls back on easy clichés about Jakarta, reform, and the population itself…. Another opportunity to know the unknown giant is lost.”
  • Ashlee Betteridge, DevPolicy blog: “Part adventurous travelogue, part investigation into nationbuilding, Indonesia Etc. is easy and entertaining to read. For those who have spent some time in the country, you will likely find yourself nodding along with the author’s observations and experiences. For those who know little of our neighbour, it’s a worthy and engaging overview.”
  • The Economist: “There are very few good books in English to help the general reader to understand it. Ms Pisani’s is probably the best. Into a beautifully written, richly entertaining account of a year spent travelling around the archipelago, she weaves a deep knowledge of the country acquired first as a reporter there, and then as an epidemiologist.”
  • Ben Bland, Financial Times: “Occasionally, she overreaches in her pursuit of the colourful phrase (she describes a town on the island of Flores as smelling of “stale sex” after the meat from a whale hunt is hung out to dry) and her insistence on “just saying yes” to new experiences can give her the air of a worthier-than-thou backpacker. But her regular comic mishaps, punchy insights and journalist’s eye for the telling detail more than compensate.”
  • Pallavi Aiyar, L.A. Review of Books: “A rollicking good adventure that knits together a complex of stories and insights, in a feat that rivals the knitting together of the sprawling nation it describes…. To read Indonesia, Etc. is to grow rather fond of both author and country.”
  • Jim Della-Giacoma, New Mandala: “Pisani has produced a book on Indonesia that is as fresh for the novice as for those who have a lifetime of experience in the country.”
  • Kirkus Reviews: “A brave, lively writer opens up a wondrous, changing nation.”
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Walking in the world with a visible hurt — Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

“The story of my body is not a story of triumph.” So begins the second chapter of Roxane Gay’s haunting, mesmerizing memoir. Gay has been, as she describes it, “super morbidly obese,” reaching 577 pounds. (“I am still very fat, but I weigh about 150 pounds less than that.”) This is the story of the horrible sexual violence that began Gay’s quest to hide in her size. This is the story of a thousand daily indignities faced by overweight people in a “fat-phobic world.”

This is a story of contradictions, of being a “victim” and a “survivor” and many other things, all at once. This is a story of feeling like efforts to change are “futile.” This is a story of sharing a trauma experience and fearing the reaction, almost any reaction: “I don’t want to be defined by the worst thing that has happened to me. I don’t want my personality to be consumed in that way. … If I must share my story, I want to do so on my terms, without the attention that inevitably follows. I do not want pity or appreciation or advice.” This is a story of reality television and visits to the doctor’s office and embarrassing interactions with flight attendants and families that both love and judge us.

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Gay. Her prose is beautiful. Her story is powerful. I couldn’t stop listening.

Here are a few other reviews…

POSITIVE
Kate Kellaway, The Guardian: “Fat is more than a feminist issue – as this extraordinary memoir by novelist and essayist Roxane Gay reveals.”

Carina Chocano, New York Times: At its simplest, it’s a memoir about being fat — Gay’s preferred term — in a hostile, fat-phobic world. At its most symphonic, it’s an intellectually rigorous and deeply moving exploration of the ways in which trauma, stories, desire, language and metaphor shape our experiences and construct our reality.”

Lucy Scholes, The Independent: “The tender beauty of this memoir – testament to her bravery and resilience – has much to teach us about kindness and compassion.”

Cathleen Schine, The New York Review of Books: “Is Hunger an angry polemic? Is it an apologia? Is it a confession? It is social commentary? TV criticism? A collection of magazine pieces? Self-help musings? A tell-all by a literary celebrity? A memoir of sexual abuse? Hunger is none of those things and a little bit of all of those things, but mostly it is true.”

MIXED
Clifford Thompson, The Los Angeles Times: “The great strength of Hunger is in Gay’s unflinching look at herself and her life. … The great weakness of Hunger is that what might have made a knockout 40-page essay is instead a 307-page book.”

Doreen St. Félix, The New Yorker: “There are a few moments when Gay gives us a glimpse of the deeper account that “Hunger” might have been—one in which she pursues, rather than merely dispatches with, the contradictions that have so painfully defined her life.”

Should I intersperse tables throughout my paper or put them at the end?

Some years ago, I was a graduate student in economics, and one of my advisors taught me that well-done tables, all at the end, will allow a reader to capture the entire narrative of your paper quickly.

On the other hand, if I’m actually reading the paper from start to finish, tables at the end mean constant flipping back and forth.

On the other other hand, when I’m going back to papers later, it’s much easier to find the results I’m looking for if the tables and figures are together in the back.

When I review economics papers (with tables at the back), I end up keeping two PDF files of the paper open at once, one open at the text and the other open at the tables and figures.

Last week Chris Blattman — a well-known development economist — posed the question to Twitter.

As you can see, the vast majority of respondents prefer tables interspersed throughout the paper. Now, it’s clear from responses to the tweet that not all respondents were economists. I suspect that most respondents were people who read economics papers, so if your goal is communicating with readers, this may be a useful metric. If your goal is to impress academic economists on hiring committees, who may or may not be well represented on Twitter (I don’t have a strong prior), then it may not be so helpful.

Discussants to the tweet highlighted the points I make above, that reading on a device is easier with tables interspersed, and that tables at the back make for easier skimming.

But I’d note that if you’re going to do tables at the back, do them right: Provide clear titles and notes such that the tables really can stand alone. As one economist noted, “Tables at the end are okay with decent notes, horrible without.”

If you have a website, a few people suggested having two versions, which is an interesting idea (and more work than I will credibly do).

So, writers, pick your poison. You’re likely to annoy at least a few readers either way!

Identifying great teachers and communicating with policymakers

I wrote a couple of items this week around the blogosphere:

Looking for a shortcut to identifying great teachers? You may be out of luck. On new evidence about the relationship between teacher performance on tests and student learning.

“The right data at the right time”: How to effectively communicate research to policy makers. A policymaker from Jamaica’s Ministry of Education shares insights on how to communicate your research.

Does it matter which co-author submits my co-authored paper to a journal?

I’ve wondered about this, so this week I posed the question to the twitterverse. Lots of people, including several journal editors, weighed in. (When I say editors, I include co-editors and associate editors.)

Here’s my take away: It doesn’t matter very much — and maybe not at all, depending on the editor. It’s certainly second (or third or fourth) order relative to the actual quality and relevance of your paper. But there may sometimes be a return to having the most well-known or senior author submit, so if it’s low-cost, then go for it.

Here are the details: I posed the question, “Do you believe it matters WHICH AUTHOR submits your co-authored paper to the journal?”

170 Twitter users weighed in, as follows:

Of course, we don’t know who those 170 voters are or how much weight we should put on their opinions. (No offense to all you fine voters; I appreciate and value you!)

A few editors weighed in directly. One wrote: “Offering my *personal* perspective on this as editor. When better known submits it signals (to editor) their commitment to the paper.” She then clarified, “To be clear, not saying there’s a lot of info. I’m being honest that I do take epsilon more notice when a recognizable name submits.”

Another editor wrote (and a couple of others “liked”), “I’d say, don’t sweat the small stuff.” That’s in line with the first editor, who added, “Those mental cycles better spent on fine tuning the abstract, title and intro.”

Another editor wrote, “I don’t pay attention to which author submits. But now that I have the floor: I do remember super late or non-responsive referees.”

An academic weighed in, “For me, ‘lead’ author submits. When I lead, I submit. If my student leads the work, they should submit (this is how they learn).” This jives with what one of the editors wrote: “Ultimately, I think authors should take turns and let resources influence who submits. And I practice that.”

So there you go! I’ve left attributions off this post, but you can read the original discussion here.