Pushout by Monique W. Morris

Read: 23 October, 2018

With the proliferation of mobile phones and social media, the mainstream is finally becoming aware that encounters with law enforcement are far too often fatal for black boys and men. Along with that, is the mainstream awareness of black incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.

But left out of this awareness is how the particular intersection of gender and race affects black girls. Not as likely to go to prison (though those rates are rising), Morris talks about the school-to-confinement pipeline for black girls – expanding the discussion to recognise other forms of restriction and surveillance, such as house arrest.

This is by no means a comprehensive book – in fact, each chapter could easily be a whole book on its own – but it is an excellent conversation starter about an issue that is too often ignored. Black girls are often left out of programs designed to help girls, as well as programs designed to help people of colour, and this book does a great job of looking at where this leaves kids who fall into both (and sometimes more) categories of oppression.

At the back of the book is some practical advice for kids, parents, and teachers who want to make a change – inclusion a description of two alternatives to punitive methods of school discipline.

Inferior by Angela Saini

Read: 3 September, 2018

In my early 20s,  I got involved with the Atheist Movement(TM). I was primarily attracted to the purity of science, and to the freedom to treat people equally and with respect without culturally/religiously motivated bigotry.

After a little while, however, I started to notice that the Atheist Movement(TM) suffered from many of the same problems that the “regular” world faces, only people were looking to science to justify the same old belief systems and bigotries. When someone asked “Why is the atheist movement so dominated by white people?”, someone else would ask “What is it about black people that makes them more superstitious?” A similar question would be asked about women.

Whenever someone tried to address the original question in a different way – “What is it about the atheist movement that makes it unappealing to POC and women?” – there was a knee-jerk reaction. “The atheist movement isn’t hostile to POC and women!” the claim would go. “We don’t have religion, so we’re welcoming to everyone! It’s just that POC and women aren’t as logical and rational as white men, so atheism doesn’t appeal to them as much!”

Disillusioned, I eventually gave up on the Movement(TM). And so there was one less woman in the Atheist Movement, and I suppose that proved their point. After all, if I had the ability to think rationally and logically, surely I would enjoy debating the mental faculties of my sex as much as white men do!

My personal experience is perfectly captured by Inferior. Saini goes through the tremendous amount of research that has been done to prove women’s weakness, their docility, their inherent monogamy and low libido, their mental inferiority. That is, when women factor into the picture at all – also covered is evolutionary research that seems to forget that women are part of the species at all. Much of this science, of course, done at a time when women were formally excluded from academia and research societies.

Saini doesn’t simply hand-wave away science of this time. In fact, she takes great care to present it fairly, and to explain how it might seem plausible given the studies conducted or with the information that was available. (In fact, if anything, she perhaps wastes too much energy making excuses for sexism – when she explains away Darwin  as “a man of his time”, she is neglecting to mention that Caroline Kennard was also a person of her time, the same time, and yet perfectly able to perceive the fundamental flaw in Darwin’s thinking with regards to biological sex differences.)

She discusses the errors in methodology, the unexamined assumptions, and even later research that show different results. The result is a more complicated, but more mature, picture of humanity – one where the sexes are more similar than they are different, and one where culture and technology can overcome whatever differences might persist.

This is an important book, and a well-researched one, with a compelling writing style.

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Read: 17 March, 2018

I enjoyed this quite a bit more than We Should All Be Feminists. Perhaps because the context is more personal, so it justifies the more personal tone. As with We Should All Be Feminists, this isn’t about building a case or proving a point or trying together statistics to form a broader picture. But unlike We Should All Be Feminists, this book is explicitly preaching to the choir.

That was the problem with the other book – its function would be to convince readers to care. But without a well-crafted argument, without proof that there is a problem in the first place, it falls short. Here, however, Adichie is addressing herself to a friend who has just had a baby and who wants to know how to apply her already-existing feminism to her parenting. She’s already on board with the ideals, but she wants practical advice (and, perhaps, a little cheerleading).

The advice itself is more of the high concept variety. This isn’t, after all, a parenting book with sample scripts. But it serves well as a reminder of all the sneaky little cultural baggage that we bring into our parenting without even realising it.

A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Read: 24 February, 2018

My mother loaned me this book because my spouse, though not Jewish, also fled from Russia at around Golinkin’s age. Though he was an emigrant, rather than a refugee, the experiences were surprisingly familiar – particularly in the ways both families responded to the trauma of having lived in the USSR.

I love that this book paints a complex picture. Recipients of charity aren’t always grateful, threat and trauma can lead even the most sober people to make careless decisions, and acts of kindness are sometimes done for entirely selfish reasons.

I also enjoyed the humour of the book. A lot of it is a distinctively Russian humour, that fatalistic “everything is terrible, isn’t if funny?” brand of deadpan humour that I enjoy so much.

Mostly, though, I love the message of hope. In the course of its story, A Backpack presents thousands, millions, of small acts – a donation here, a smile there – that, together, build up to something so meaningful. As Canada discusses its obligations toward refugees, this was a powerful book to read.

We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler

Read: 6 January, 2018

At a time when feminism sells, We Were Feminists Once examines just why that is, and what kind of feminism is being sold. It’s a well-researched and, as far as I am concerned, necessary look at what happens when feminism and capitalism team up.

It is a dense little book. There’s very little repetition, or meandering, or fluff. Zeisler hits the gas right from the first page, and it’s up to the reader to pause for processing when needed.

I appreciated that this book put down concretely into words, with facts and statistics to back it up, elements of the mainstream feminism (“Girl Power”, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, and more) that have made me feel uncomfortable – though I couldn’t always articulate why.

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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