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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Jhumki Basu: The Science Education Reformer Who Was Like A Nova

It was the name of my idol Jane Goodall on the cover that first drew my attention to  Mission To Teach by Dipak Basu. If Goodall wrote a foreword to a biography, it would have to be the story of an extraordinary life.  So I requested it from The Bookplex, and  I have to tell you that my expectations were met! Sreyashi Jhumki Basu, known as Jhumki,  was indeed an extraordinary woman.


                                      Golden Mask Award for Most Viewed 2013 Post

The nova simile in the title of this review was used to describe Jhumki at her memorial ceremony by a young student of hers named Jordan Franklin. Jordan's image struck a chord with me.  Jhumki had a truly explosive career. 

It’s appropriate that a biography of an innovator would not be the traditional sort of biography.  Because the author is the father of the book’s central focus, its tone is more intimate and its coverage of her life has more depth  than it might have had if someone who didn’t know her as well had written it.   It also doesn’t  follow  the events in Jhumki's life  chronologically.  Some readers may find this confusing,   but I decided early in my reading of this book  that Dipak Basu  must have reasons for presenting his daughter  to us  in the way that he did.  By the time I finished it, I understood that the life of a unique individual like Jhumki   could only be portrayed in a unique way.

When I received my copy of this book for review, I wondered how the life of a woman who died so young could be so long.  I discovered that Jhumki  packed a great many accomplishments into her brief life.  It was also a very well documented life.  Jhumki  wrote long letters and kept a journal.  She also published a number of articles dealing with her approach to science education.  Dipak Basu and those who assisted him with this biography undoubtedly had to sift through a mountain of material.

As a member of  Dr. Susan Love’s Army of Women which was founded to assist in breast cancer research,  I was very interested in reading about Jhumki’s cancer treatment. Dr. Clifford Hudis, her oncologist at Sloan-Kettering, has a very different perspective on cancer.  He believes that our perception of cancer is based on our ability to detect it.  So we say that cancer goes into remission and then suddenly reappears.  Jhumki's cancer seemed to be in remission for five years. Yet what if during the period we thought it was in remission, the cancer was still present, but below the level that we can currently detect?  Readers who understand how science operates will realize that this is a hypothesis.  It's a very likely hypothesis based on what we know about the progress of  other types of medical conditions.  For example, no one suddenly wakes up in the morning with full blown Alzheimer's.  It's a slow process of deterioration in brain function that may be scarcely noticeable at its outset.  So there is a good probability that metastatic cancer could also be a gradual process that isn't visible using the methods we have now.   Perhaps someday advances in instrumentation will allow physicians to identify cases of metastatic cancer sooner. Dr. Hudis also thinks that metastatic cancer that is detected early might be treatable. This optimistic outlook is contagious. Hopeful readers will want to believe right along with Dr. Hudis.  I too look forward to improvements in diagnosis and treatment in oncology, so that  tragedies like Jhumki’s don’t recur in future generations.

Jhumkhi tested negative for the two genes associated with breast cancer that had been discovered in 2000 when she was diagnosed.  On the Army of Women website, which I hyperlinked in the paragraph above, there is An Interview With Jennifer Ivanovich of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis,  who is researching  breast cancer in young women below the age of forty like Jhumki. In her discussion of genetic factors she mentioned seven genes associated with breast cancer and said that there were more that she hadn't mentioned.  Her study has a particular focus on  aggressive cancer in young women.   Perhaps we will soon understand more about the condition that brought about such an early departure from this world for Jhumki and so many other vital young women who were never able to realize their dreams.

Cancer interrupted Jhumki’s lifework, but this book shows that  Jhumki’s  method for getting  low income minority youth  interested in science is effective.   She emphasized that science can be fun.  Yet mastery of any scientific field requires discipline.  Are students who’ve been attracted to science by cool projects that are relevant to their lives going to be able to sustain that enthusiasm over the long haul so that they can pursue a scientific profession?  It will be interesting to find out how many of  these students do have successful careers as scientists.   As an educator,  Jhumki’s  legacy is measured by the lives she has impacted.

Jhumki took a "physics first" approach.  This means teaching physics to ninth graders instead of biology.  The School for Democracy and Leadership that Jhumki co-founded was allowed to do this because it was in an "Autonomy Zone".  For more information about this New York City educational program instituted by Mayor Bloomberg, see The Empowerment Schools FAQ

The reasoning behind "physics first" is that physics provides the infrastructure for other sciences.  This is definitely true, but biology is an equally important prerequisite for any of the life sciences which include medicine, botany and zoology. I am sure that Jane Goodall wants to see science education that nurtures the dreams of youth who want to work with plants and animals. Jhumki also had a love of nature which was best illustrated by her honeymoon in an African jungle.  Jhumki believed in letting students have input in curriculum development. What if students had the option of taking either physics or biology in ninth grade?  This means that a student entering ninth grade who is very interested in building spaceships should take physics first, but another student who wants to find cures for diseases in rainforests could take biology first.  This would be democratic education. If we want youth to consider a career in the sciences, then they should have the opportunity to pursue the type of science that corresponds to their aspirations.

If Jhumki had remained healthy perhaps she could have followed her dream to become a teacher in space.  Most of us associate NASA's Teacher in Space program with the Challenger Disaster. We remember that Christa McAuliffe, the first designated Teacher in Space,  died when the Challenger shuttle exploded.  I hadn't known that another teacher, Barbara Morgan , trained with her as a back-up.  My link is to an article dealing with Barbara Morgan teaching about space at Walt Disney World. The article also covers her career as an astronaut.  Barbara Morgan was one of Jhumki's  heroes.   She wanted to follow in her footsteps.

Readers will be inspired by this book, but it also provides food for thought.  I recommend it to people who are drawn to new ideas and want to explore them through the matrix of  Jhumki’s  original mind.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo: Frida as a Visionary

I'm interested in Frida Kahlo, but so many books about her focus on the personal tragedy of her accident and its impact rather than her work, her immersion in native Mexican culture, her feminism or her relationship with artists other than her husband.  The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo by F. G. Haghenbeck looked like it would be different.


This is the first book I've seen that deals with Frida's childhood and teen years before the accident.  Haghenbeck depicts her as a naughty prankster and as an adventurous athletically active young adult.  What a different side of her! Unfortunately, Haghenbeck unrealistically portrays Frida as being athletic after her accident.  She had a shattered pelvis and many unsuccessful surgeries.  This is a magical realist novel, but there are limits to what I'm willing to accept. Although I don't want a novel that focuses on her injuries, I also don't want one that seeks to nullify them.  This is an important flaw in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo.

Yet I'm particularly interested in this book's portrayal of Frida as a visionary, and her devotion to Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) along with other Mexican religious customs despite her scorn for conventional religion.  Frida considered herself a Communist.  Communists are supposed to be thoroughgoing materialists, but I've been noticing some interesting anomalies like Brazilian Communist Jorge Amado's relationship with Candomble , and Frida's with Mexican folk religion.

Haghenbeck has Frida dreaming of being in a cemetery after her accident and speaking to La Llorona who is conceptualized in this book as the Goddess of Death. Frida is depicted as making an offering to La Llorona every year on Dia de los Muertos. Here is a very interesting page from an academic website about her : La Llorona   I don't get the impression that she was ancient.  She seems to be a post-Conquest myth and is usually depicted as a ghost.  In Aztec religion the ghosts of women who died in childbirth became powerful spirits called Cihuateteos.  In this book Frida and Diego are told by a tour guide that La Llorona is a Cihuateteo.  These spirits are conventionally regarded as demonic.  For a contrasting feminist revisionist view that Frida would probably have supported see Cihuateteo Essay by Anne Key.  I realize that scholars would not approve of this article, but I found Key's perspective very striking and in keeping with the subject of this review.

Nelson Rockefeller, who commissioned a mural from Diego that he later destroyed because it was so blatantly Communist, is a character in this novel.  It's intriguing that Rockefeller plays a spiritual role.  He tells Frida about an African American  tradition dealing with ancestor spirits that I thought was wonderful.  It sounded like an Americanized version of an African belief . It's unlikely that Nelson Rockefeller would have known about it, but I found that scene very charming. 

There are a number of other real personages from the 1930's who appear in this novel that play more expected roles, but I enjoyed seeing them.  Other readers may enjoy the recipes included, and the remarks that Haghenbeck has Frida writing about the context of these recipes.  This book is not perfect by any means, but I did find it to be a very good read. 

 In Haghenbeck's version, Frida isn't always in the process of dying.  She is very much alive and ahead of her time. This is why she is far more appreciated now than she was in the 1930's. 


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Rivka's War: A Jewish Woman As A Historical Participant in Russia and Palestine

My main reason for selecting Rivka's War by Marilyn Oser to download from Net Galley was that its protagonist arrived in Palestine at the same time as my maternal grandfather.  I wanted to know more about the situation in Palestine at that time.  Yet Rivka's adventures begin in Russia during World War I.  She was actually a combatant as a member of a women's battalion. So as a feminist, I was also interested in finding out how the women's battalion came about, and how Rivka ended up joining it.


This was a fascinating novel, but I never really grasped Rivka's motivation for joining the Women's Battalion of Death.  I understood that she was inspired by Maria Bochkareva, the founder of the Women's Battalion who was known as Yashka.  Yet Yashka was a Russian patriot.  Rivka was a Jew who had experienced persecution in Russia.  Why would she want to fight for the Russian Tsarist cause?  It's true that people don't always respond rationally.  Rivka's loyalty to Yashka clearly had an emotional basis.  Perhaps Rivka thought that Yashka exemplified her heroine, the Biblical Yael.  Perhaps Rivka  also thought that she was proving that she could be Yael herself.  For more on Yael in the Bible see Essay on Yael by the feminist Biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky.

Due to my interest in women's history, I recognized the name of the English women's suffrage activist Emmeline Pankhurst as a character in this novel.   I hadn't previously known that she went to Russia.  I corroborated that with an excerpt from Emmeline Pankhurst biography on Google Books.  In addition, I found a discussion on the Women's Battalion of Death among women academics that included a mention of a photo of Emmeline Pankhurst saluting the Women's Battalion.  There is also a link to a bibliography about the Women's Battalion of Death at the top of the page. 

In Palestine after World War I, Rivka encountered more historical personages.  I was particularly interested in the obscure but influential figure Aaron Aaronsohn.  I want to find out more about him.  I particularly wanted to know why he chose to ally himself with the British.  I found two books dealing with him which have both been reviewed ambivalently by scholars and library professional publications.  Since both are apparently flawed I chose the controversial Aaronsohn's Maps: The Untold Story of the Man Who Might Have Created Peace in the Middle East by Patricia Goldstone because I thought it might add more to my knowledge of the period than the other book. 

This novel also led me to discover a couple of other research topics:

An  eye-opening scene at the beginning of the novel mentions that vodka was banned during World War I.   I discovered this paper on the role of vodka in Russian culture by Bryce David Andreason from the University of Lethbridge.  When you consider the common perception that vodka had brought about Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, this prohibition of vodka is understandable. I would imagine that  it was probably as enforceable as the U.S. prohibition of alcohol that began somewhat later in 1920.

 I was also intrigued by a reference to one family smuggling their sons out of Russia to Cuba to prevent their being drafted.  This was evidently covert and atypical.  Most of the Jews arriving in Cuba during this period were Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire.  See paper on Jewish emigration to Cuba by Jaclyn A. Steinberg from Emory University.  So I wondered about how these young Ashkenazi Jews coped with what must have been a culturally alien environment.  I may want to read more about Jews in Cuba.  I did find Tropical Diaspora: The Jewish Experience in Cuba by Robert M. Levine, but I also found a book about Jews in Brazil in the same bibliography: Welcoming The Undesirables: Brazil and the Jewish Question by Jeffrey Lesser .  I will want to read that sooner because I am intensely curious about the role of Jews in the development of Brazil's multicultural society. 

It surprised me to see in this novel that Jewish refugees from Poland were re-settled in Voronezh. I read in a number of sources online that Voronezh was outside the Pale of Settlement where Jews were confined in Tsarist Russia, and that Jews were forbidden to settle there. This was the only historical background element that I found questionable, but this is a minor quibble.

For me, a book that stimulates so much reading in a number of directions is an unqualified success, but readers will want to know about the quality of this book as fiction.  The characters were interesting and the plot was compelling, but the roles that both Rivka and her brother Mischa played didn't end up having the consequences that they expected. Neither the Reds nor the Whites of Russia were ultimately very supportive of Jews, and in Palestine 20/20 hindsight tells me that British rule would not end up being an improvement for the Jews.  So this book serves up huge helpings of historical irony. Readers who find irony entertaining will consider it a very satisfying read.