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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William the Conqueror by Thomas B. Costain

Read: 8 December, 2016

As I was talking to my mom about reading the Narnia books to my son, she mentioned that she has a few children’s books that we might want to look through. There, on her shelf, was an extensive collection of Random House historical biographies for children from the 1950s.

These books had been my mother’s when she was a child, then enjoyed by me, and I picked out a few to share with a third generation – our first was William the Conqueror.

At five, my son is perhaps a little young for this series, but he followed along in his own age-appropriate way. The battle scenes, which enthralled me as an 8-10 year old, we’re a little too intense. There are also a few authorial asides (particularly with regards to gender roles) that made me uncomfortable enough to turn into Teachable Moments.

But, for the most part, this book holds up. The vocabulary is a bit challenging, and the narrative voice doesn’t lend itself well to out-loud reading, but it’s a great introduction to historical concepts. And while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the historical facts, the book lays an excellent foundation for helping kids to get a feel for a time period and a familiarity with essential names.

The writing style can be very repetitive, and seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to show or to tell. It’s unfortunate because the book, on the whole, is great fun.

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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