The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson

Read: 19 January, 2019

On this story, Faulkner wrote: “if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reasons or for what color, we do not deserve to survive and probably won’t.”

To which Tyson responds: “Ask yourself whether America’s predicament is so different now.”

This is the story of a gruesome murder, a complicit culture, and a miscarriage of justice. While the United States was fighting its cold war in the name of democracy, it allowed two men to be acquitted of a murder that every single juror knew perfectly well they had committed, simply because their victim – a child – was black.

And have we changed? Really?

In a time where “Black lives matter” is a controversial statement and Trump is president, I can’t see that we have. As the author puts it, “we cannot transcend our past without confronting it.”

Apart from the subject matter, this is an excellent book. It covers Till’s life, giving a good sense of who he was as a unique person. Tyson also spends a good deal of time setting the stage, going into some of the recent events of the time. After going over the murder and the trial, Tyson covers the aftermath – both immediate, in the civil rights movement, and more long term, in Till’s memory in the Black Lives Matter movement. The book is a good coverage of what happened and why it matters, without that “true crime” fetishization.

Red Famine by Anne Applebaum

Read: 24 December, 2018

This is an excellent and thoroughly wrenching look at the holodomor – the artificial famine created by Soviet Russia as part of their genocide of the Ukrainian people.

Stalinist Russia was no stranger to famine, but the brutal and systematic starvation of Ukraine was something else entirely. There was food, but it was taken. Even the seed grain was taken. Those who were still surviving were suspected of withholding food and searched again.

Applebaum captures the background and the strategies, the ways in which the holodomor was different from the famine in the 1920s. She looks at the other acts of genocide, such as the burial of bodies in mass graves and taking down of communal centres. She describes the effects of starvation in vivid detail, as well as the horrific lengths to which individuals went to avoid death (including, in some cases, the consumption of their own children).

Much of what happened was hidden by the Soviet propaganda machine, but the effects are still being felt today. In fact, I think this is an essential book for understanding the background of Russia’s activities in the Ukraine today.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Read: 21 November, 2018

Every so often, I come across someone who believes in the inherent goodness of The Market. Employers wouldn’t mistreat their employees or put them in danger, they say, because then the employees would simply go work somewhere else! And it’s true that, to an extent, the radium dial companies had trouble finding replacement workers after the dangers of the work became common knowledge..

But what about before? What about when only scientists in the field and the company executives knew about the dangers? And what if those executives had doctors in their pay who would give their workers clean bills of health even as those workers had already begun dying? And what if they were taking out ads in local papers declaring their products safe and their workers healthy?

And what if the Great Depression hits and workers just don’t have a choice?

The Radium Girls are the prime example of why strong legal protections for workers are so important. Not just strong protections, but protections that are flexible enough to grow with new technology (unlike, for example, the short statute of limitations that didn’t anticipate the slow damage of radium poisoning).

This book is horrific and inspirational. It’s full of heroes and selfless women who went to great lengths to ensure that future workers would be safe even though they themselves could never reap the benefits of their fight.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Read: 16 November, 2018

Knowing that the boat would sink, the slow build (perhaps about 70% of the book) was anxiety inducing. Larson alternates between the Lusitania (stories of the boat itself, or the domestic everyday lives of its passengers) and U-20 (primarily its captain and movements, but also a little history on what submarines were like in the first World War). It’s like a slow-motion dance between predator and prey, and, knowing how it would all end, I was still watching, through fingers, as it plays out.

In the end, however, the boat must sink. I was listening on audiobook while driving to work when it came to the story of a little boy who saw a woman giving birth in the water, and was haunted by the possibility that it had been his own mother – a heavily pregnant woman who died with the sinking. I pulled into the parking lot at work with tears streaming down my face.

Larson does a good job of focusing in on each little tragedy during the sinking – many of people we’ve come to know over the course of the book. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying. Leading up to that awful day, I found the stories of the individuals involved (passengers and crew of the Lusitania, as well as Schwieger, captain of the U-20) very compelling. There’s a good cross-section of gender, class, and career, giving a well-rounded picture of what every day domestic life would have looked like around the beginning of World War I.

I was particularly interesting in the history of these early submarines – before so much of the technology (such as sonar!) was ready for such a ship. It really did revolutionise naval warfare, and Larson spends some time on the high-speed armsrace (of both technology and tactics) that these new ships forced in.

Murder in the High Himalaya by Jonathan Green

Read: 4 October, 2018

Survival, human rights abuses, friendship… this really is a story that could practically tell itself. Or, at least, it could if the truth weren’t so obfuscated. There are so many little stories of heroism, starting right at the bravery it takes to escape from Tibet.

I appreciated how much time Green spent on Kelsang and Dolma’s lives with their families in Tibet. The juxtaposition to Benitez’s story highlighted the risks Kelsang and Dolma were taking.

Not a whole lot makes it out of China (and its controlled territories) that doesn’t fit with its benevolent super power narrative. But every so often, proof of the totalitarian brutality seeps out, and it’s important for the world to take real notice.

The Heart of Everything That Is by Bob Drury & Tom Clavin

Read: 14 August, 2018

A little misleading, since there isn’t actually too much about Red Cloud’s perspective. Mostly, the book sets the stage for the Fetterson Massacre, which includes brief overviews of native/white relations leading up to it. There is some biographical information about Red Cloud’s family and his rise to power (as well as similar information about other key players, such as Crazy Horse), but it all feels like part of the background.

Once the story shifts to Fort Phil Kearney, the whites take the centre stage. We learn a great deal about the officers, about their supply situation, about internal military squabbling, etc, but Red Cloud and his warriors are on the outside, as a threat. Then, once the Fetterson Massacre is over, the entire rest of Red Cloud’s life is summarized quickly in the Epilogue.

The history was interesting and reasonably well-written, and I did like what there was about Red Cloud and the political/social scene he navigated, but I wanted much more about him. I would gladly have read a book about the Fetterson Massacre from the white perspective, but this shouldn’t have been it.

I found this to be an interesting book with interesting history, but not has focused as it should have been. It also ended rather abruptly with much of its stated story still left to tell. As a biography of Red Cloud, it leaves much to be desired.

The Myth of Persecution by Candida Moss

Read: 9 August, 2017

The central argument of the book is that, while there were some periods of actual persecution of Christians in the early centuries, they were very few. Most of the martyrdom accounts we have are unsubstantiated, or refer to prosecution (where Christians were breaking laws that were not drawn or enforced with Christians specifically in mind).

And this matters because it is the narrative of martyrdom that excuses horrifically callous behaviour. Specifically, the fudging between disagreement and persecution. If Christians are always and have always been under attack from worldly forces, and people wanting to get gay-married is an attack on Christianity, then the Christian fight against gay marriage becomes a fight of self-defence.

I would also add, though Moss doesn’t, that there is also a fudging between chosen martyrdom and imposed martyrdom. Part of the veneration of martyrs also promises greater heavenly reward for greater earthly suffering, which is the logic used by people like Mother Teresa in denying palliative care to terminal patients. By increasing their suffering in their last days – without their consent (informed or otherwise) – Mother Teresa sought to purify their souls.

The book does have some weaker moments, such as when Moss hitches much of her argument against the reality of persecution in the earliest period on the fact that the group in question was not yet called Christians (largely around p.130-134). Which is just an argument from semantics, and not particularly useful.

But for the most part, Moss constructs her arguments well, She also strikes a good balance between being readable and being informative.

I think that much of this book will appeal to the “New Atheist” types, who will make much of the occasional ‘gotcha’ sound bites. I also think it’s a valuable (though perhaps uncomfortable) read for Christians who currently believe that early Christians were persecuted, especially if they believe that this persecution has been ongoing. This book won’t hold any hands, though, so I suspect that most readers from this group will simply dismiss it.

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Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde by Harold Lamb

Read: 6 July, 2017

Another entry from my mother’s biography collection from the 1950s (the first being William the Conqueror).

This, along with the one about Odysseus that I’m sure I’ll be reading eventually, were my childhood favs. As I was reading this book to my son, I was surprised by how many of the stories and pictures were carved into my memory.

That said, it isn’t terribly great. The writing style is a bit clunky, and the scenes themselves aren’t nearly as evocative as they could be. I had hoped to infect my child with some of my enthusiasm for the Mongols, but this book failed to capture his interest (even when I tried to supplement it with a Crash Course History video!).

Still, it’s not a bad primer for interested kids, especially in a market that has so little world history offerings for the early/middle readers.

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The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

Read: 5 July, 2017

In the summer of 1895, thirteen year old Robert Coombes murdered his mother.

I loved The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which used the murder of a three year old boy as a narrative structure to look at how police and detectives functioned in Victorian society (particularly where the process of investigation of upper class households by lower class detectives ruffled class sensibilities).

The Wicked Boy doesn’t have the same impact. At first, I thought it was looking at the scandal of ‘penny dreadfuls’, then it look at the criminal justice system, then it looks at the treatment of mental illness, and then it veers off entirely to go over Australia’s participation in World War I.

I enjoyed every part of The Wicked Boy, but it didn’t have the same satisfying impact without the broader point. It ended up just being about this one boy, with broader issues only mentioned as interesting asides.

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Greed, Lust & Gender by Nancy Folbre

Read: 24 June, 2017

This is the story of economic theory, tracing it from its pre-enlightment proto-forms, right up into the modern era.

It’s also a criticism of that history through a feminist lens. If I had to summarize the main thesis of the whole book in a single sentence, it would be: “But what about the women?”

Over and over again, we see theories of beneficial self-interest and individual economic agency that use the language of universality while, at the same time, footnoting exceptions for women (who, of course, must continue to keep the houses and raise the children of these economists, and to do so for free).

This is a bit of a heavy book, with very few soundbites or easy takeaways. It took me three weeks to read because I had to keep putting it down to process. Because of this, it doesn’t work too as a primer (which I think I would have benefitted more from), and it’s ideas were sometimes a little inaccessible.

But it’s an excellent book full of little epiphanies. And if reading it was a bit of a challenge, the challenge was worthwhile.

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