The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Read: 9 October, 2017

In this book, Alexander describes the ‘New Jim Crow’, in which blackness is linked with criminality, and criminality with inhumanity – giving the perfect ‘colourblind’ cover for policies that disenfranchise huge numbers of African Americans.

Alexander’s writing style is very readable – which is great, because the subject matter is so relentlessly depressing. If it were a slog to read through as well, I don’t know that I would have been able to finish it. As it was, I slipped my way through the whole book, wide-eyed and feeling rather ill, in just a few days.

On a simple style level, this is also one of the best written non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. Every point is brought up exactly where it needs to be, and every question that occurred to me was anticipated and answered. Each chapter serve a purpose and builds to form a strong whole. I’m always complaining that non-fiction books often lack a targeted focus, seeming to blunder through a variety of somewhat related points with no clear focus on a thesis. The New Jim Crow is the opposite – for such a huge, systemic issue, Alexander strictly trims the tangents and focuses with laser-like precision.

It’s an interesting experience to be reading this book – which is all about ‘post-racist society’ and ‘colourblindness’ – in Trump’s America. I woke up this morning with a few pages left and headlines in the news about a follow-up neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. Alexander spends so much time trying to explain that the racism is still there, merely disguised as colourblindness, and I can’t help but wonder what the book would look like if it were written today.

I highly recommend this one. In fact, I wish it were required high school reading. It’s well written, well researched, and thoroughly heartbreaking.

Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Read: 5 December, 2016

Immortal Life is a fantastic book about the HeLa cell line – immortal cells that kick started many fields of modern medical science.

But the story goes beyond the clinical, exploring the life of Henrietta herself, her husband, her children, her many descendants. Much of the story focuses on Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, and her search to learn about the mother she couldn’t remember.

It’s a heartbreakingly human tale of horrific medical abuse, crushing poverty, child abuse, Old Timey medical research ethics. It personalizes what have for so long been thought of as nothing more than a collection of cells in a test tube.

The issues raised about ethical medical research are important ones, and Skloot gives us few easy answers. But they are things that we all should know about and consider.

Even more important is the history of medical abuses towards black patients and those with mental illnesses. So much of the modern medical science we depend on today was developed through horrific experimentation on vulnerable populations. For that alone, this book should be required reading for all teens.

I was aware of most of the issues brought up in the book, but getting to know Deborah and the Lacks family made it all so much more viscerally real.

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Does God Hate Women? by Ophelia Benson & Jeremy Stangroom

Read: 13 September, 2013

I got to meet and see Ophelia Benson speak at Eschaton2012 and I follow her blog occasionally (although her post frequency is way too high for my poor, beleaguered schedule to handle). When I do get to read her writings, I quite enjoy them, and I thought her talk at the conference was great. Thankfully, most of the speeches have been uploaded to YouTube, so you can see her speak:

So after the conference and seeing how awesome she was in person, I decided that I should bite the bullet and read one of her books. Unfortunately, my local library didn’t carry any, but fortunately I have friends! After mentioning on Facebook how upset I was by the gap in the library’s collection, a friend very kindly brought over Does God Hate Women? Of course, I immediately set about putting it down under a pile of stuff and forgetting about it. (Friends, thankfully, don’t generally charge fines.)

I’ve been losing so much desk real estate to notes and scribbles and books and flyers and all sorts of other bits and bobs that I decided to tidy my desk today. In the process, I rediscovered the book and then remembered that I am actually going to see the loaner tomorrow! This prompted a mad rush to read the entire book so that I could return it and, hopefully, save my relationship with that friend.

It’s a shame, though, because the book is absolutely packed. It’s very short and easily read in a day, but that kind of pace hardly does it justice.

The authors provide a number of examples where religious laws or efforts to protect religions have harmed people – particularly women. Woven throughout these examples are the authors’ musings about human rights, multiculturalism, Female Genital Mutilation, and more.

While I didn’t feel that the book was particularly organized, it was powerful. And frightening. And rather depressing.

And, while surely offensive to most religious people who might attempt to give it a read (the authors certainly don’t try to soften any punches), I feel – at least after such a quick read – that they adequately defended all of their assertions.

The books does focus a good deal of its efforts on Islam, though there is also some discussion of Judaism, Evangelical Christianity, the FLDS church, and the Roman Catholic Church. I realize the point of this – that the authors were going after the most horrific examples of religiously-motivated attacks on women (which seem to be concentrated, at least at present, in Muslim-dominated areas of the world), but I think that some treatment of the more mundane – and, therefore, familiar – ways in which religion is used to defend gender inequality would have been interesting. As it was, the authors clearly felt that they needed to spend an entire chapter explaining that criticism of Islam (or forms of it) is not the same thing as islamophobia or racism.

I’d recommend this book to people who are interested in gender issues, although religious readers should prepare themselves emotionally and go in with an open mind. I would also recommend this more generally to anyone interested in the interplay and overlap between religion, culture, and laws. However, I would recommend buying – rather than borrowing – this book because it is a book that requires highlighting. It is full of fantastic quotable passages and factoids that need remembering, and I definitely felt at a disadvantage in not being able to to mark it up.

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By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

Read: 26 February, 2013

The set up of the novel is as a death-bed confession from Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, called Father Ibacache once he enters the priesthood. He recalls important moments of his involvement with the literati, Opus Dei, and Pinochet’s government.

Written as the ramblings of an old man, the book has no chapters or paragraph breaks, and few full stops. It made it a long and hard read, particularly since, with a toddler, I don’t always have the luxury of a sustained reading session. But, at only 130pages, a reader without a toddler could probably get through the whole book in one or two sittings, so don’t let that necessarily put you off.

I found the book disjointed, which makes sense given the narrative context, but it was still rather frustrating. Characters are introduced, plot lines brought up, and then both are dropped – never again to be taken up. There’s some pretty subtle-yet-scathing criticisms of the literati, literature’s place in a messy and political world, and the Church, but they seem more thrown to the wind than built.

I think that there was something lost in translation. The book read as though the writing should have been poetic, but instead just felt overwhelmingly bland. I’m willing to give Bolaño the benefit of doubt and assume that the narrative reads much batter in the original Spanish.

Overall, I just wasn’t very impressed by this novelette. The ending was quite interesting, and the final line is probably one of the best I’ve ever read (“And then the storm of shit begins”), but I never felt gripped. And while my background and knowledge base allowed me to appreciate the jabs at the literary/artsy scene, many of the criticisms of Opus Dei and the politics just went way over my head. It didn’t help that Urrutia is such a frustratingly passive and dense character, and thoroughly unlikable.

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The Ice Beneath You by Christian Bauman

Read: 2006

I had the pleasure of living in the same neighbourhood as the author for several years. He’s a fantastic guy, despite his peculiar affinity for oversized dogs. He gave me a copy of The Ice Beneath You as a (requested) Christmas gift.

The book is divided into two alternating narratives from the life of Benjamin Jones. In one, he is travelling across the United States, drifting and self-destructive. In the other, he’s a soldier posted in Somalia.

Throughout the story, it’s plainly obvious that something happened in Somalia, although it’s not revealed what it is until near the end. The suspense leading up to the big twist is beautifully executed, and the scene itself is very powerful.

The Ice Beneath You reminded me a bit of Catcher in the Rye, in the sense of aimless desperation conveyed. I found that it did a very good job at conveying the trauma felt by many veterans, and the lack of support available to them as they try to make sense of what they’ve lived through as they return to a society that is totally disconnected from the horrors of war.

I’m not often a fan of war books, nor of “modern” fiction, but I did enjoy this one. It’s well written and interesting, and it conveys it’s message with a reserved poignancy that is rarely successfully executed.

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The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson

Read: 7 July, 2011

I really want to categorize this book as fiction; and, in a sane world, I would. Unfortunately…

It begins in 1983,  when Major General Albert Stubblebine III (a truly Dickensian name), upon realizing that both his body and the wall are made up of atoms and that atoms are mostly made up of empty space, tries to walk through a wall.

Starting from Stubblebine’s sore nose, Ronson takes the reader through a brief history of the US military’s more insane moments. He lulled me into a sense of “oh, that happened in ’70s, but it would never happen today” with stories of men staring at goats to make their hearts stop (and, when goats aren’t available, the odd hamster would do) and a First Earth Battalion that could end conflict with their “sparkling eyes.”

But then he gets into the ‘War on Terror’ and the horrific acts at Abu Ghraib.

The most difficult part of reading The Men Who Stare At Goats is to remember that this is only, as the subtitle says, about a “small group of men” who happen to be placed in some key positions. It isn’t representative of the army as a whole. The problem is that each of these “highly placed” men have subordinates in a culture that does not tolerate dissent – even when the orders are quite obviously insane.

Throughout, Ronson remains very objective. He allows his subjects, and their beliefs, to speak for themselves. This is an amazing feat when writing a book about men who believe that they can walk through walls or stare goats to deaths.

The tone of the book seems somewhat rambly – jumping back and forth through time and skipping from subject to subject – but it all makes sense by the end, when the whole is tied together and the influence of Jim Channon’s First Earth Battalion Operations Manual is made clear. And, really, this is the story of that book – of its history and its legacy.

Men Who Stare At Goats appears to be meticulously researched. Certainly, it comes through in Ronson’s writing just how difficult certain people and facts were to find. And, although some of the connections he draws are speculative (or based on “wink wink” statements from his informants), he does make the case that it’s all at least plausible if not factual. I found it to be a very interesting and thought-provoking read, even if my faith in humanity requires that I remain somewhat provisional in my trust of Ronson’s depictions.

Assuming that it is all (or mostly) true, though, I’d be very interested in a follow up in coming years as to the effect of the book on military policies and strategies. Has Men Who Stare At Goats embarrassed the leadership sufficiently to cause a change? Will it spell the end of First Earth Battalion‘s influence? Or will it increase its popularity?

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The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As An Experiment by A.J. Jacobs

Read: 28 June, 2011

I listened to the audio book version of this. I’m finding that my ability to hold books is being seriously hampered by Captain Wiggly’s wild gesticulations. And it’s only gotten worse now that he’s started teething and requires holding at all times. So, at the recommendations of several friends, I’m giving the audio reading experience a try.

In The Guinea Pig Diaries, A.J. Jacobs conducts a number of experiments on himself. For a while, he tries to life according to George Washington’s code of conduct, he tries to scrub his brain of all irrational thinking, he outsources much of his life, and he dabbles with radical honesty.

Since the book is episodic, with each experiment serving as a discreet section, I thought it might be best to give my thoughts on each separately.

What would George Washington Do

In this segment, Jacobs tries to incorporate George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. In the process, he learns about the ‘founding father’ and learns a new respect for Washington.

I found the history of this piece to be very interesting, but it may have been the weakest of Jacobs’s experiments in terms of its impact on his life. Keeping a straight face and adopting good posture isn’t exactly revolutionary. Ha ha! See what I did there?

The Unitasker

After a failed multitasking attempt causes Jacobs to lose driving privileges, he decides to experiment with unitasking – focusing on a single task at a time. This section had quite a bit of relevance for me as I’m almost never doing fewer than at least two things at a time. Even while I’m playing with the baby, I’m generally reading a book or even getting dishes done at the same time!

The human brain can’t multitask, says Jacobs. What we end up doing instead is simply switching back and forth between our tasks. This is inefficient because there’s some “now where was I?” time between each switch. He argues that we’re actually faster and more productive if we simply stop and focus on one thing at a time. From personal experience, I find that I get more enjoyment out of the task too, because it’s actually “there” mentally. It wasn’t a great chapter, but he made his point and I think I’m provisionally convinced.

I Think You’re Fat

In this section, Jacobs gives radical honesty a try. The concept is that you must tell the truth, all the time. All the time. Lying by omission is also out. If you’re a fan of gimmicky detective shows, you may have encountered the concept of radical honesty on Lie To Me (featuring Mr. Orange). Personally, my first exposure came when my brother-in-law started practising it.

Jacobs’s experience seems fairly similar to what I’ve seen first hand. There are quite a few occasions where it serves everyone well. It gets uncomfortable topics out in the open, initiating a dialogue that can actually fix the inter-personal problem. It can also help achieve short-term goals by forcing you to ask for the things you want. But on the other hand, it can also cause quite a bit of negative feeling.

For the project, Jacobs meets with radical honesty’s inventor, Dr. Brad Blanton. During his description, he mentions that Dr. Blanton has been married multiple times. This is shocking given Blanton’s claim that radical honesty “leads to intimacy in relationships.”

And that’s my main observation of radical honesty – the disconnect between the claimed benefits and the reality of its practice. Jacobs also points out a psychological quirk that voicing thoughts solidifies them in our minds. So, feeling a little down in the dumps about your job today? Vent about it and your opinion of your job will actually become more negative overall, even on the good days.

That’s why I’m much more in favour of a little thing I like to call radical positivism. Always say nice things until you train your brain to believe them. This doesn’t exclude constructive criticism, by the way. It’s merely a policy against whining.

240 Minutes of Fame

Jacobs happens to look a great deal like an actor I’d never heard of but who apparently had a little spot in the sun a couple years ago. When the actor decided not to attend one of these fancy Hollywood award ceremonies, Jacobs attended – letting people think that he was the actor.

He soon realized just how intoxicating fame can be, and how constant praise skews an individual’s perception of reality. I quite enjoyed this section because it pointed out just how fallible we are and how quickly any one of us, no matter how nice, could turn into one of these tantruming celebrity monsters.

My Outsourced Life

This may have been the best section, if only for the entertainment value. Jacobs uses firms in India to outsource parts of his life. It starts out fairly normal, outsourcing research for his articles and other menial tasks. But then he starts pushing the boundaries, even outsourcing a fight with his wife.

The lesson for this section is a good one. He starts off with what I think is a fairly common perception in the West that the people we’re outsourcing to are somewhat brutish. They’re great for simple, mindless work like the call centre screen reading that passes for tech support. But he soon realizes that his virtual assistants are every bit as intelligent and creative as American workers – if not more so.

The Rationality Project

This project struck a chord with me because it’s something that I’ve been working on for a few years now. In this project, Jacobs tries to eliminate as much irrational thinking from his brain as possible.

What he learns is rather similar to what I’ve learn, that simply being rational doesn’t necessarily eliminate subjectivity, nor does it allow us to find “correct” answers. For example, he experiments with toothpaste – does the rational mind choose based on cavity protection or taste? Well, as one of his sources points out, 10 years without a cavity may be worse than 9 years without a cavity but spent enjoying a much more pleasant brushing experience. Even though the latter is the “wrong” choice based solely on the cavity protection metric, the actual answer is far more complex and involves subjective preference.

That’s not to say that rationality is bunk. There are unquestionably “wrong” answers that we should make every effort to purge from our brains. But what Jacobs learns is that it’s perfectly rational to be an emotional human being and that subjective experiences are legitimate.

My life as a beautiful woman

This section was an extremely close runner-up for entertainment value. For this project, Jacobs tries online dating on behalf of his very attractive nanny. What he finds is fairly expected, that saying “no” to forceful advances all day gets tiresome and that there are some really mean manipulative jerks out there.

To be fair, his experience as a beautiful woman is only online, so he’s meeting a large collection of the scummiest individuals in high concentration without additional worries such as physical safety. As a result, his ability to really learn from the episode is somewhat stunted. But still, his writing style brings the adventure to life in a really funny way.

The truth about nakedness

Included for your edification

This is the deep feminist piece that “My life as a beautiful woman” couldn’t be. Jacobs’s job is to edit an article by actress Mary-Louise Parker on the experience of doing a naked photoshoot. Additionally, Parker is asked to illustrate her piece with a nude photo. But Parker, brilliantly, turns it around by only agreeing to write the article if Jacobs will also pose for a nude photo, which she gets to choose for the final print.

Jacobs isn’t writing any kind of deep analysis, but the lesson of sexual objectification does get conveyed. He experiences the shame of being exposed, the loss of control of having someone else get to choose which picture makes the cut, the emphasis on status when his shoot isn’t catered as nicely as Parker’s, etc.

Whipped (a.k.a. the perfect spouse)

For this experiment, Jacobs vows to be the perfect spouse for one whole month, doing everything his wife (who is a saint!) says. As expected, he quickly learns to appreciate just how much she does for the household. As Jacobs puts it, she was doing chores that he didn’t even know existed!

Though treated lightly, he brings attention to a very serious issue with our “post-feminist” society – that women are now working as much as men, but are still expected to come home and do the bulk of the housework and childcare. Not an issue in my household, thankfully, because my husband is every bit the feminist I am (and a fabulous cook to boot!).

Conclusion

I really enjoyed The Guinea Pig Diaries. As expected, this isn’t an in-depth treatment of any of the subjects Jacobs covers, and the lessons he draws are, for the most part, fairly superficial. But what he does is provide a light, entertaining, and humorous introduction to a wide range of social and global issues. There’s plenty of food for thought, served with a spoonful of sugar.

It works well for what it is.

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Autism’s False Prophets by Paul Offit

Read: 29 May, 2009

Autism’s False Prophets is a biography of a controversy. Offit traces the life of the autism-vaccine myth from the first studies conducted by Andrew Wakefield to the latest ‘Mommy Warriors’ crusade of Jenny McCarthy. Despite his obvious dislike for those who promote this ‘manufactroversy’ and fear for the children who are affected, Offit adopts a matter-of-fact tone. He covers the facts and dates of the various steps in the story with little subjective injection.

Offit clarifies many of the myths and misinformations surrounding the autism-vaccine scare. His writing style is accessible and interesting. And despite a very weak final line, I could not recommend this book any more highly for all parents and parents-to-be who have heard of the autism-vaccine link and are concerned (or who simply want to make a more informed choice).

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Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Read: 20 October, 2008

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s story is one of extraordinary courage. Growing up in a culture that is oppressive to women, Hirsi Ali first tries to find her sense of self in religion – trying to find the freedom she sought through Allah. The tipping point occurs when an arranged marriage sends her out of Africa and into Europe where, like a bird that has suddenly realized its cage door is wide open, she flies to Holland and seeks refugee status and, finally, comes to terms with the atheism that had been growing in her from her earliest days.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first part is devoted to her childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. I say her “childhood” even though she remained her twenties because the culture as she describes it kept women as children, stiffling their intellectual growth. I think Hirsi Ali would be the first to agree with my use of the term. The second part of her biography opens with her arrival in Europe and subsequent cultivation of her Self.

These two parts are different in more than just content. The first shows a vulnerable girl, a child ruled over by her parents, culture, and religion. Though she does defy the authorities of her life at times, she is by and large kept as a victim. In the second part, we see her as an active participant in her life (despite the regression she suffers after the death of Theo van Gogh). Because of this, these two parts feel very differently. I found the first to be intensely powerful and emotional, frequently reducing me to tears and causing me to sleep quite poorly for a few nights! I think this is the first book that has affected me quite so deeply since childhood. The second part is far more intellectual, an exposé of the conclusions Hirsi Ali has drawn from her experiences. The reading was much slower from that point on, but no less satisfying.

Though I can’t say that I agree with every idea Hirsi Ali espouses, she certainly manages to provide a convincing and rational case for them. My mind was certainly changed on a number of issues. This is a book that satisfies on a great many levels. Though I feel that many (of all faiths and from every end of the political spectrum) may be offended by Hirsi Ali’s writings, Infidel is well worth reading. Hirsi Ali is unguarded as she speaks her mind and this is a rare quality. I recommend that everyone read it and digest it slowly. You may not agree with her conclusions, but you can only benefit from having read them.

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