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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2011
Mara Hvistendahl's story of the worldwide horror of gender selection favoring baby boys is riveting. She has clearly traveled the globe to reach tiny rural pockets where this abuse thrives as well as its corollary issues of sex trafficking and bride buying for the generation of men coming of age with far fewer women to pair off with. The stories of the people affected are moving in a very human way, but her scope extends far beyond that to the complicated political history that engendered this problem, which involves the US in ways that are quite shocking. And she delves into the complex issues arising from a young, single male-dominated society, such as the one that flourished in the American frontier. This is a very thoughtful, multifaceted, and compelling book.
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48 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on July 31, 2011
The book was often one sided and superficial. I have no doubt that sex selection, male or female, is unethical and fraught with negative consequences, as partially outlined by Hvistendahl. I agree that it should be outlawed internationally, and that better enforcement of existing laws is essential. However, clearly there is more to reversing this phenomenon than simply making it illegal and punishing those involved. We need to address the reasons that boys are preferred in the first place. Hvistendahl did not offer a clear explanation for why parents prefer boys to girls in societies around the world and what we can do to increase the value of women. To me, that is the obvious solution.

The research was often lacking. I was left with more questions than answers. For example, I wonder what the fate would be of millions of unwanted children (girls). For the women who were sold into arranged marriages, what was their alternative? What would their lives have been like otherwise? Some idea of the other side would have been helpful.

I also wonder how much truth there is to the statement that "After years of penalties for out-of-quota births, incentivized sterilizations, and forced abortions, Korean women had finally given in and stopped having children." That seems like an overly simplified explanation for a much more complex social phenomenon. Births rates have fallen to similar levels in many countries without those forces at play. The birth rate in the Ukraine currently is 1.12 children per woman and in Greece 1.25 children per woman; these countries are historically and culturally different from each other and from South Korea.

I wasn't taking notes as I read, and there were many other times when I disagreed with Hvistendahl or felt that she was rushing to conclusions without all the facts. Strangely reading the book took me from thinking that this is a horrible phenomenon to wondering if it's not just a trend that will eventually correct itself as societies realize the consequences. I'm not sure. Ultimately I felt like Hvistendahl herself was being a doomsayer even as she criticizes others for being doomsayers.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2011
What is the result when combining the genes of journalism and literature? Answer: Mara Hvistendahl. Her first book, Unnatural Selection, is investigative journalism at its best introducing the reader to a world-wide problem with dire yet unimaginable consequences. The mined data than soars to the heights of literature as the reader accompanies the author on the back of a motor scooter into the Mekong Delta to visit with parents who have sold a daughter to be the wife of a stranger and maybe his brothers as well. The book is creating more than a stir as people come to grips with well intentioned but unforeseen consequences of the past. It is a book that won't be forgotten. Mara has emerged on the literary stage as an author whose further offerings are already eagerly awaited.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2014
What the author covered in this book she covered well. But I found the finger pointing irritating. MH spends a lot of time blaming the West for choices made in the East. Nobody told China or India to destroy their women. They were given the tools and 'encouraged' to control their population growth by various agencies but sex selection in favour of sons and the consequences thereof are all their own doing. It's like saying 'you are to blame for the house burning down because you gave the child matches to play with'. But we aren't talking about children and we should not demean either China or India by absolving them for choices they made or allowed by apportioning the blame elsewhere. My biggest problem with the book was with the subtitle 'the consequences of a world full of men'. This was so lightly touched upon and hardly covered at all. What will be the consequences of living in a world full of men? I bought and read the book for this very reason and I have come away as ignorant on the subject as I was before I read it. What does the author think the consequences of a world full of surplus men will be on the world stability and world economics? I did read the chapters about trafficking, buying poor, uneducated wives and prostitution. I just don't think that really covers the question of long term consequences globally in an adequate manner. Will there be long term consequences globally and if there are what will they be? I feel the title promised to answer this question and came nowhere near broaching it.
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33 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2011
The breadth and depth of research, the complex nuance of the argument and the stunning writing make this book one of the best non-fiction works I've read in years. It also demonstrates what long-form narrative journalism may achieve when given the space and resources to do so.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2011
Mara Hvistendahl makes an interesting point. It is evident that easy availability of abortion clinics (Marie Stopes) and of ultra-sound diagnostic tests has helped make it easier for Indians to get rid of unborn daughters with less fuss and qualms than before. Secondly, the Government's vigorous promotion of a two-child family norm and its wide-spread social acceptance would tempt many into 'ensuring' they had a son while sticking to the two-child norm. Kishore Mahbubani (Can Asians Think?) has also pointed to the influence that Aid agencies and rich nations exercised over population control in Asian nations. This appears to be true - for India at least.

However, the preference for sons over daughters appears to an ancient one, and widely reflected in Hindu literature and mythology. King Pandu, in Mahabharat, asks only for sons and ends up with five. His elder brother, Dhritarashtra has 100 sons, and only one daughter. King Dashrath has four children in old age - all sons. King Sagar has 60,001 children - all male. Ultrasound technology probably means that what was once sought as a divine boon is now available over the counter, for a few thousand rupees.

The shortage of women in ancient India may also be corroborated by the practice of bride-price, which was later condemned as uncivilized behaviour, amounting to sale of daughters.

Secondly, mid-wives in India had a versatile tool-kit for killing off unwanted children (whether illegitimate sons or merely female). This indigenous technology certainly did not come from the West. However, it worked only when the child was born.

To counter this, the smritis (codes of conduct) recommended social ostracism for those who aborted a foetus. This stigma, possibly never very strong, appears to have been completely extinguished by the Government's vigorous, no-questions-asked promotion of abortions.

All in all, Ms. Hvistendahl argument is valid to the extent it helps us understand that it is not just local culture that is to blame for this ongoing silent genocide in Asia. Rich Western nations may also have some blood on their hands, when it comes to killing of the never-born.
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22 of 29 people found the following review helpful
As I started reading this book, I had been pondering Wall Street's idiotic behavior of recent years yet again, and I don't think it's a coincidence that as I made my way through the pages of Hvistendahl's impeccably-researched tome I began to recognize some parallels. What happens when we are reluctant to admit that some of our most closely-held beliefs might have an ugly underside? (In Hvistendahl's, it's the right to abortion as a cornerstone of a woman's right to control her fertility; on Wall Street, it's the right to pursue profits of all kinds, regardless of the risk) Why don't we acknowledge that simply because something is legal, and reasonable for one person to do, that doesn't mean everyone can do it without the gravest potential consequences? (It's OK for one person to select the sex of their unborn child, or to buy a $500,000 house with a weird mortgage, no down payment and an income of only $30,000 a year, but when a significant number of people do so, the balance is no longer sustainable.) Above all, why can't we recognize that just because we can do something, practically and legally, that doesn't mean that we should? Why can't we learn to think about the wider context and just say no?

Admittedly, Hvistendahl doesn't get that philosophical in her excellent book. What she is trying to do is show just how badly out of whack birth rates have become not just in countries like India and China (where the preference for boys has already been well documented) but also Korea, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Albania. And, she worries, this is likely to spread to other countries as the level of affluence grows together with the wide availability of the technology that is needed to verify the gender of a fetus -- before aborting it if it's a girl. Don't think for a moment that cultural mores about the value of human life will stop them from doing so, she warns -- she provides evidence that in some of the worst offenders, such as China, abortion was traditionally thought of as heinous and not viewed in matter-of-fact terms, at the time the transition began. Hvistendahl doesn't stop with diagnosing the problem, but extends her analysis to the early signs of how male-dominated societies appear to function: ironically, women are less valued as individuals and viewed only as scarce sexual partners; those who can't find wives or partners in Taiwan and China venture to neighboring countries and buy or even kidnap brides, forcing them into marriage or prostitution.

This thought-provoking book made me wonder and ponder what happens when multiple cherished ideals collide. We want, for instance, a "sustainable" planet, not one where everyone sets out to maximize the number of children they have. At the same time, we want women to be able to control their fertility -- to have that right. And we cherish the idea of personal freedom. But what happens when these are incompatible? Hvistendahl looks at the panic of the 1950s and 1960s, when under the influence of U.S. population control "experts", governments cracked down on their citizens' fertility using forced abortions and forced sterilizations -- ironic, given that affluence has led people to voluntarily restrict the size of their families. Now the problem is the opposite one: how to tell people that their single child can't be a boy; that they can't select what gender child they have but must put up with what comes along. Not surprisingly, no government has been willing to grasp that thorny challenge. Rules banning sex-selective abortions are honored only in principle, not in practice in nations like India.

The kind of world that is created when there are seven men for every five women (or whatever ratio emerges) is likely to be an ugly one, Hvistendahl argues, convincingly and with considerable data. And until we see the impact of our individual decisions decades from now -- when the problem will be far worse -- we're not likely to do anything about it. (Global warming, anyone?) And the challenges are significant. Already, Hvistendahl notes that activists are using sex-selective abortions as a way to try and remove the access of all women to any king of abortion. The intentions were good -- give parents a way to ensure they'd have a boy early on in their reproductive careers, and they'd have fewer children trying -- but ended up fitting in poorly with the reality that parents were ready to limit family size anyway.

This is a book that is straightforward and simple -- no scientific or statistical terms to make you wrinkle your brows in puzzlement -- and that ultimately I couldn't put down as I became just as caught up in the narrative as I would have been in any thriller. While the fundamental facts behind her analysis aren't that startling, what Hvistendahl does with them is: she examines the data with a critical eye and draws lessons from it, even as she shows the reader what it means for real people on a day to day basis. She writes with style and panache, and at the same time never lets her own anger and frustration overtake her reason.

The only point at which she fails to do justice to her argument is in a few pages late in the book, when she attempts to argue -- awkwardly -- that the level of violence in U.S. society has something to do with the male-dominated frontier traditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries (when women were scarce) and their prevalence in popular culture. I looked for evidence -- she is scrupulous when providing proof of her theories everywhere else -- but beyond the data of the demographic makeup of the frontier societies during the Gold Rush, etc., Hvistendahl doesn't bother providing facts supporting this part of her theory. (There's no study showing that men who commit violent acts have a disproportionate fondness for TV shows or movies set in the old West, for instance.) That sloppiness stands in odd contrast to her punctilious approach in the rest of the book, and is the reason I can't give more than 4.5 stars to the book -- but I'm rounding it up anyway.

The reason I bumped this to the top of my "must read" list? Well, I stumbled across an article in the Daily Telegraph about Indian parents paying surgeons to turn healthy baby girls, whose gender is very clear at birth, into baby boys -- albeit sterile baby boys. (This isn't the same as taking a child born with confusing genitalia into one or the other gender -- a very rare condition.) In their quest for boy children, parents, it seems will not only abort a six-month fetus but put their baby girls through unnecessary and dangerous surgery...

Full disclosure: I won a copy of this book in a publisher giveaway.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2011
This is an excellent work of shoe leather journalism and timely popularized sociology. Our multi-lingual author has put together and summarized a lot of interviews and research, to explain how (mostly) Asia has gotten itself into its current demographic fix of being top-heavy with males.

One need not altogether buy into her assertion that onerous 19th Century British rule in India led to that country's devaluing of female infants. I mean, waves of invasions have swept over the sub-continent time out of mind, so I doubt that the East India Co. was all that different or worse than what had come many times before. The more likely explanation is that much of what we in the pampered First World consider to be human nature is really the thin, brittle overlay of Western Civilization. Much of the rest of the world's hinterlands do not have Charles Dickens and his sentimental vision of childhood.

But Dr. Hvistendahl paints a damning and irrefutable picture of how Western NGOs of decades past, possessed with fear of overpopulation, pushed large scale birth control efforts onto the developing world. These efforts were copied by many Third World nations, along with so many other ideas and innovations of the West, as they hoped to jump start the modernization of their countries. Couple access to modern medicine, traditional preferences for boys, and lack of respect for human rights, and you get abominations like China's one child policy, and worse abominations like female-specific abortion. The resulting demographic bulge of males is the mother, so to speak, of all unintended consequences.

Dr. Hvistendahl also convincingly argues that a scarcity of females will not lead to empowered women picking and choosing their mates, but rather an increase in female trafficking and subjugation, as men fight over "their" now valuable "assets". She includes some cases of real victims, to indicate the horror that will soon escalate.

Dr. Hvistendahl does present a few scattered success stories, of a sort. South Korea has corrected its sex ratio imbalance by simply ceasing to have children at all, as attested by the sky-high abortion rates there. She also honestly grapples with the bind that family planning NGOs are in--how to preserve women's rights to abortion, but persuade them to forswear female infant abortion. The problem may well turn out to be Gordian. No matter what policies are enacted now, the blunt fact is that Asia will in coming decades have tens of millions of unmarriageable young men. Whether this will lead to the world's biggest crime wave, the world's biggest armies, or the world's biggest online gaming conventions can only be guessed at.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 31, 2011
Very well written and researched. Chronicles the practice of sex selection abortion and infanticide through history. Emphasis on the unintended impact of sonograms on sex selection abortion. Particularly interesting is the possibility of the restrictive family size rules in communist China may have been caused by capitalists in the West. Moreover, the author is sympathetic to abortion "rights," but has written a work with very good information to use in the debate against abortion.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 24, 2012
The widespread practice of sex selective abortion in Asia and other places is an important topic and this book deserves praise for creating awareness of it, but unfortunately this book falls short as a good overview of the issue.

First, she never explores the question of why people in India, China and the other countries examined have a preference for boys over girls, which you would think is the most important issue. Sex selection isn't occurring in many parts of the world, even though abortion is common. Despite her claims to the contrary, local conditions and choices made by individuals in these specific countries are central to this story.

Second, her decision to focus on the role of Western policies in lowering birth rates and promoting abortion overemphasizes the importance of the West and ignores other factors. The drop in birth rates and spread of abortion in Asia is not solely attributable to Western policies, but also has resulted from economic development, increased opportunities for women and local government initiatives. Misguided Western policies are only one part of the story, and probably not even the main part. I think this comes through if you read the analysis closely; an American official doling out $10 million dollars here and there, a Chinese government official reading Western population studies, and Western scientists exploring sex-selection technology in the 1970s do not really add up to Western policies playing a central role.

Finally, the last section on the consequences of large gender imbalance is very speculative. Again, the rise of militant nationalism and sex trafficking in China have many causes, and she describes these phenomena without making a convincing case that they resulted from the gender imbalance.

It is an important topic, but much of the book is anecdotal and speculative rather than driven by actual data, and I came away from this book without a great understanding of subject.
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