Read African Writers: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

Shining GirlsSouth AfricaTime traveling serial killer! In South African writer Lauren Beukes’s thriller, a drifter from 1930s Chicago discovers a house with a murderous agenda. (That aspect reminded me of David Mitchell’s Slade House.) Beukes takes us back and forth in time, narrating from the perspective of Harper, the killer, and his various victims. Some of them don’t go quietly. The ending includes delightful ambiguity. Along the way, we can see ourselves in the characters’ exchanges.

“I’m scared, Mom.”

“We all are,” Rachel says. … “Shhh. It’s okay, honey. It’s all right. That’s the big secret, don’t you know? Everyone is. All the time.”

This was a quick, exciting read, based on enormous research about the city of Chicago, as Beukes lays out in her note at the end.

Bits and pieces:

  • As another entry of economists in popular culture, one of the victims is studying economics as Northwestern University and police find “Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics” in her backpack. Remember that Rachel Chu of Crazy Rich Asians also studied economics at Northwestern. I wonder if they knew each other?
  • “The problem with snapshots is that they replace actual memories. You lock down the moment and it becomes all there is of it.”

Here is what a few other reviewers had to say:

  • Alan Cheuse, NPR: “Beukes has done tremendous research about the long span of Chicago time in which her story occurs, and carefully constructed the eccentric and brilliant plot.”
  • Ben Hamilton, The Guardian: “The killing is so brutal and pitiless that it threatens to overwhelm the rest of the novel… This is an entertaining novel that will be read with keen attention, but the reader may end up slightly confused by the meaning of it all.”
  • Janet Maslin, New York Times (and this is a great review overall): “Once Ms. Beukes gets her chronological tricks working at full blast, Harper’s [the killer’s] methods become maddeningly effective.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “Beukes is particularly good at garnering sympathy for Harper’s female victims, creating deep characterizations in only a few pages, so that they come across as more than just fodder for a psychopath’s mission.”

This is book #7 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.


Ambiguity in Scientific Language

Precision of language is a virtue so lauded as to seldom be questioned. And yet, a new article by Peter McMahan and James Evans in the American Journal of Sociology — “Ambiguity and Engagement” — shows the potential upside of ambiguous language. This, from Evans’s Facebook post:

Everyone from scientists writing a research paper to criminals under interrogation use ambiguity to widen their appeal or claim more or less than they know. In “Ambiguity and Engagement”, we measure ambiguity in language and explore its consequence for social life. We build a measure of ambiguity in language and demonstrate that when calculated on New York Times articles captures most of the ambiguity perceived by surveyed readers. Next, we assessed ambiguity across millions of article abstracts from science and scholarship, revealing that the humanities and social sciences use language most ambiguously, while chemistry, biology and biomedicine use it most precisely. Finally, we show that more ambiguity systematically—in all time periods and subject areas—is associated with greater association and engagement, as readers reference one another in prolonged conversations. While ambiguous language could lead to fragmentation and disconnection, as audiences understand it in conflicting ways, these findings demonstrate that instead it draws competing interpretations together into conversation with one another as they build on it. [emphasis added]

Association and engagement seem to be measured through fragmentation of citations: Greater fragmentation means that articles are cited by other articles in sub-literatures that don’t cite each other: the academic citation version of cliques.

Here’s how different disciplines line up on ambiguity:

ambiguity 2

Here’s a word from the article’s discussion:

Articles that use more ambiguous language tend to result in more integrated streams of citations tracing intellectual engagement. This pattern underscores the interpretation of ambiguity not only as a limitation but also as a potentially fruitful characteristic of language. Ambiguity leads to individual and collective uncertainty about communicated meanings in academic discourse. Uncertainty drives social interaction and friction, which yields coordination.

Disclosure: James Evans is my brother.

Read African Writers: Woman of the Ashes, by Mia Couto

woman of the ashesmozambiqueMia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes — a historical novel — recounts a conflict in the closing days of a major African empire. In the late 19th century in what is now Mozambique, the empire (called the “state of Gaza”) resists the rule of the Portuguese. Imani, the novel’s protagonist, is a fifteen-year-old girl who acts as interpreter for the Portuguese military representative as conflict is imminent. Her family is torn, as one of her brothers fights for the Portuguese and the other for the African empire and as her . This is the first book in a trilogy: the second book is already out in Portuguese. David Brookshaw produced the English translation of Woman of the Ashes. I listened to the audiobook (narrated by Bahni Turpin and Joel Richards) and sometimes got a little lost in the plot, but the prose was gorgeous. Here are a few lines that stood out:

  • “Before long our nation will be a jumble of scars, a map forged by so many blows that we shall be more proud of the wounds than of the unblemished body we may yet save.”
  • “The difference between war and peace is as follows: in war, the poor are the first to be killed; in peace, the poor are the first to die. For us women, there’s another difference too: in war, we get raped by those we do not know.”
  • Men “are scared when women talk, and even more scared when women stay silent.”
  • “To describe the decrepit building as a ‘barracks’ can only stem from some huge distortion that fails to distinguish between fact and desire.”
  • “My father was a tuner of the infinite marimba that is the world.”
  • “Some of us humans share the same fate: we die inside, and are only held together by our similarity to the living we once were.”
  • “Wars never begin. When we awaken to them, we realize they started long ago.”
  • “War is a midwife: from the insides of the world, it causes another world to emerge.”
  • “Dark memories are like an abyss: no one should lean too far over them.”

Filipe Nyusi, current president of Mozambique, said this of the book: “It is better for us to awaken the ghosts than for the ghosts to awaken us.” (Actually, he said, “Mais vale sermos nós a despertarmos fantasmas que fantasmas a despertarem a nós.”)

Here is what a few other reviewers had to say:
  • Publishers Weekly: “a fascinating, intricate story”
  • Sheila Glaser, New York Times: “Couto conjures what he has described as the ‘many and small stories’ out of which history is made, offering a profound meditation on war, the fragility of empire and the ways in which language shapes us.”
  • Kirkus Review: “A rich historical tale thick with allegory and imagery that recalls Marquez and Achebe.”
  • Daniel Bokemper, World Literature Today: “A beautiful and grotesque force interweaving history with myth.”
  • Luísa Gadelha, Diario Centro do Mundo: “A leitura vale a pena tanto pelo prazer literário quanto pelo resgate histórico de Moçambique.”
  • Caíque Gomez, Poltrona Vip: “Mia Couto mistura história, mito e magia para narrar os horrores da guerra com uma linguagem muito poética, característica marcada do autor, como se ele quisesse nos reconfortar de alguma maneira, como se dentro desses horrores, ele nos devolvesse o humano.”
I plan to read (or listen to) the next book when it makes its way into English.
By the way, check out the Brazilian (left) and Portuguese (right) covers of the books. They win!

What I’ve been reading

January was a productive month for reading! Poetry, graphic novels, prose novels, it’s all here!

barracoonBarracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” by Zora Neale Hurston — Back in the 1930s, Hurston intervewed the last surviving person who had been brought from Africa as part of the slave trade, Cudjo Lewis. In his own vernacular, Hurston tells his story. An amazing window into a piece of African and American history.

sabrinaSabrina, by Nick Drnaso — Sabrina was on 7 “best graphic works of 2018” lists, more than any other book. A man’s girlfriend disappears, and an old high school friend takes the desolate man in. The deserted man spends his days listening to “Infowars”-style talk radio. The friend deals with having lost his family. It’s all dread and hopelessness. It was good but it didn’t bowl me over. (Drnaso writes in a very small font, which I find distracting.)

my boyfriend is a bearMy Boyfriend Is A Bear, by Pamela Ribon, art by Cat Farris — A twentysomething woman in a terrible job ditches the last in a series of terrible boyfriends — the sequence on previous boyfriends is hilarious — and starts dating a bear that wandered out of the mountains during the California wildfires. Can their love overcome hibernation season? And the fact that the guy is a bear? Sweeter and less weird than it sounds, but it still a little weird. Author was a screenwriter for Moana and Ralph Breaks the Internet. The art is sunny and fun. [Content: Some adult language, but that’s about it.] This from Publisher’s Weekly: “Ribon’s use of magical realism is a delight from cover to cover, as she cleverly navigates the foibles of millennial dating and friendships. Farris’s cartooning is as expressive as it is adorable, inviting the reader to share Nora and the bear’s intimacy with every panel. This resonant, absurdist modern fable is a joyful discovery.” On 2018’s “best graphic works” list.

the girl who smiled beadsThe Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil — Wow. Clemantine Wamariya was just six when the Rwandan genocide took place. Separated from the rest of her middle class family, she and her teenage sister Claire traverse several countries, in and out of refugee camps. Eventually they make it to the USA. The book gives a devastating portrait of how conflict and being a refugee can affect a child, and how a young woman seeks to make sense of her experience, including through literature, from Elie Wiesel to W.G. Sebald. Beautiful and gripping and thoughtful. Highly recommended. (More from me on this here.)

crushCrush, by Svetlana Chmakova — This is the third book in Chmakova’s series taking place at Berrybrook Middle School, but you can read them in any order. This and the previous — Brave — are my favorites. She captures the emotion of middle school just wonderfully and introduces us to sweet and not-so-sweet kids, trying to get through the day.

small countrySmall Country, by Gaël Faye — Rwanda’s neighbor to the south, Burundi, gets far less attention but also has a deeply troubled history. Faye, born and raised in Burundi to a French father and a Rwandan refugee mother, gives a glimpse at life over the course of coups, civil war, and stealing mangos with the neighborhood boys in this autobiographical novel. Beautifully written and very evocative. (More from me on this here.)

bingo loveBingo Love, by Tee Franklin, illustrated by Jenn St-Onge and Joy San — This brief graphic novel tells the story of two African American women who fall in love in the 1960s but lose each other and don’t meet again for decades. Sweet, but a bit too brief to plumb the emotional depths. I was sympathetic to some (not all) of the critiques made in this review. Still, a likable story that fills a gap in representation.

china rich girlfriendChina Rich Girlfriend, by Kevin Kwan (narrated by Lydia Look) — Rachel Chu finds her father! Mayhem ensues. Crazy, silly fun. Some awesomely bizarro plot twists towards the end.

what it means when a man falls from the skyWhen It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah — I listened to this book last year and loved it. I just re-listened to it and found it just excellent. Mostly realist, with an occasionally bit of fantasy sprinkled in to explore deeper truth. Arimah creates captivating worlds. (More from me on this here.)

when the travelersWhen the Wanderers Come Home, by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley — Wesley returns to her homeland of Liberia and characterizes it in this collection. Beautiful, tragic reflections of the legacy of war (and lots of other stuff, too). (More from me on this here.)

the boy who harnessed the windThe Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (narrated by Chike Johnson) — A young man in Malawi has to drop out of secondary school for lack of funds, but with an interest in electronics, access to a library, and incredible tenacity, he builds a windmill to generate electricity for his family. True story. (More from me on this here.)

harry potter and the chamber of secretsHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling — Lockhart is a fun character, but the kids make some truly stupid choices toward the end, which lessened my enjoyment of the book.

how to be a supervillainHow to Be a Supervillain, by Michael Fry — Victor is the son of second-rate supervillains (maybe just villains?), who apprentice him with another supervillain. The only problem? Victor is fundamentally good. This is light and silly fun. My favorite part was all the kooky minor supervillains and superheroes that come up (as in that old movie Mystery Men). I read it with my sons.


I’m joining the Center for Global Development!

On March 1, I’ll join the Center for Global Development as a Senior Fellow.

Here’s the backstory — or, to be fair, the way backstory: Back in 2000, I was finishing up my first year as a PhD student in economics and my advisor invited me to spend the summer assisting him with research in rural Kenya. As I talked with people there, it became clear that children who had lost their parents — many of them to HIV-related causes — were a major concern. So I centered my dissertation around an issue that I believed was important to people’s lives, examining the schooling impacts of losing a parent (co-written with Ted Miguel) and the spillovers of fostering orphans on non-orphan children.

At the end of my PhD, when I went on the job market, I was supposed to be able to talk about my research agenda — all the exciting research I intended to do. But to be honest, I didn’t have much of an agenda. Beyond orphanhood, I didn’t have a sense of questions that were important to people in extremely low income environments. So I went to a research thinktank and mostly worked on other people’s projects for a couple of years. Then I came to the World Bank. Here, I’ve had uncountable opportunities to listen to people in low- and middle-income countries tell me the questions that they want answers to. Some of the questions are specific: Will our pilot cash transfer program improve lives? Can we improve the efficiency of management in our rural health clinics? Others are broad: What works to improve learning outcomes in schools? How can we help teachers to be their best?

Over the last 11+ years and 5 different jobs at the World Bank, I’ve accumulated more policy relevant questions than I could research in a lifetime. Of course, at most jobs at the World Bank, you do lots of different things: I’ve managed loans, organized conferences, and helped to develop strategies. I’ve also done research and experimented with different ways of getting research used.

For a little while, I’ve wanted to dedicate a higher proportion of my time seeking answers to that lifetime of questions. I’ve long admired the Center for Global Development and its team of experts, consistently injecting rigorous evidence into important development policy debates. Way back in 2005, I positively reviewed its first edition of Millions Saved: Proven Successes in Global Health. (There’s a new edition out now!) Much later, I worked with a CGD expert to try and understand the potential economic impacts of the 2014 Ebola epidemic. When working on the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018: LEARNING to Realize Education’s Promise, my co-authors and I cited the work of CGD scholars extensively: The Center for Global Development is referenced explicitly 18 times in the bibliography of the report!

So I’m delighted to be joining that team, where I hope to do a lot of research and writing on questions that matter. I look forward to discussing it all along the way with you, dear readers.

Read African Writers — The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

the boy who harnessed the windmalawiIn this memoir, a young man in Malawi has to drop out of secondary school for lack of funds. But with his interest in electronics, access to a modest library, and incredible tenacity, he builds a windmill to generate electricity for his family. The story is inspiring, and it’s not surprising that a movie is coming out soon:


Over the course of the memoir, Kamkwamba gives insight to a range of issues that he and those he loves have faced: surviving a famine, adolescent marriage, getting sent away from school for not having a uniform, having to reduce meals in times of food insecurity, and the HIV crisis (documented in Kim Yi Dionne’s book Doomed Interventions).

I have a couple of quibbles with the book, which necessarily entail spoilers. So if you don’t want those, stop reading now! None of them mean that you shouldn’t read the book. But if you have read the book, I’d be interested in your take.

First, after Kamkwamba builds his windmill and continues to innovate, he ultimately gets “discovered,” first by local media and later by tech types from the U.S. These Westerners sponsor Kamkwamba so that he is able to provide a more stable life for his family and pay the school fees of several of his friends. Kamkwamba goes on to study at elite schools. I’m very happy for him, and I enjoyed hearing about his adventures. But I’m personally less interested in these tales that ultimately hinge on Western charity. (Again, this isn’t a critique of Kamkwamba’s story! It’s just a comment on the kinds of stories I’m most excited to read.)

Second, in the final pages of the book, Kamkwamba calls his fellow Africans to courage: “My fellow students and I talk about creating a new kind of Africa, a place of leaders instead of victims, a home of innovation rather than charity. I hope this story finds its way to our brothers and sisters out there who are trying to elevate themselves and their communities, but who may feel discouraged by their poor situation.” Kamkwamba showed amazing ingenuity and tenacity, but ultimately what pulled him out of poverty was charity. The Western donors weren’t investing in his windmill; they wanted to help out an inspiring kid. I’m glad they did! The story tells us a lot about hard work, but I’m not sure what it tells us about elevating oneself and “innovation rather than charity” (emphasis added).

The audiobook is well read by Chike Johnson. In the ebook — but not the audiobook — there’s a nice epilogue (“about the book”) in which Kamkwamba describes what has happened in his life since the book was published. It seems like he’s doing lots of great work in Malawi and beyond.

This is book #5 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.