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.

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Read: 23 September, 2018

I wish that this had been available when I was a teenager. I had a feeling that something was wrong when I got caught up in all the post-Columbine and 9/11 “Zero Tolerance” theatre. Everyone I met, from school officials to probation officers to social workers to casual bystanders who heard about my situation, would repeat the same line: “You don’t belong here.”

Of course I didn’t. That’s the whole point of Zero Tolerance – you take kids who haven’t done anything violent, who haven’t endangered people, who are at most guilty of minor disciplinary issues, and you whack at them as hard as you can. But why was I singled out as the one who “didn’t belong” and not all the other kids in the same boat?

Even then, in the infancy of my awareness, I knew what set me apart. I was white, female, middle class, and spoke like the child of an academic. The other kids who went to the same mandated group therapy meetings? They were black and/or lower class. They “belong”.

Eager to get out of that mess, I played up what set me apart. I dyed my hair back to a natural colour, I changed my wardrobe to brighter colours, I smiled a lot and pitched my voice a little higher. I did my year, then I got to finish high school and go to college and, still, every time someone finds out about my past, it’s a big surprise. “You were expelled?!” I could perform people’s expectations of the “good kid” because my skin and my upbringing didn’t betray me. And, because of that, I had strangers fighting for me, fighting to get my record expunged so it wouldn’t affect my future. Because of the way I looked, I was deemed to have a future worth saving.

I highly recommend this book. Each chapter is a different issue, phrased as a question, that Oluo responds to in a perfect combination of personal experience and “high level” trends. She shows the big picture, but her examples are grounded and realistic, and bridge that difficult gap between understanding a concept and understanding it.

I love that Oluo takes intersectionality seriously. She devotes an entire chapter to the “model minority” myth that affects Asian Americans, and brings up multiple examples throughout the book of ableism, sexism, homophobia, etc. She examines, with depth and frankness, her own baggage and her own hard-won lessons. This is a book for everyone. On any given issue, there will be either a lesson or a validation no matter what your identity.

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.

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 Big Necessity by Rose George

Read: 28 July, 2018

I, appropriately, found this book in a friend’s bathroom while staying as a guest. But this is no Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader!

The book covers a lot of the sanitation issues “elsewhere” – such as the rape risk in India and the menstruation barrier to education in parts of Africa – but I was surprised by how precarious sanitation systems are in Europe and North America. We have local issues caused by a growing population that depends on an ageing system (which happens to also have an antiquated design that overflows with raw sewage in rain storms), but I had imagined this to be a problem particular to here. Turns out, it really isn’t. And, in fact, the precariousness of the sanitation situation worldwide is rather terrifying.

I particularly enjoyed the toilet tech talk – from different types of affordable latrines, to biogas digesters, to Japanese washlettes.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Read: 24 June, 2018

This is a truly harrowing story of exploration and survival in the frozen north. I’m somewhat familiar with Franklin’s expedition, but I only knew a rough outline of the Jeanette’s voyage. Given that, I found that Sides did an excellent job letting the various personalities on board come through.

I was impressed by how positively superhuman some of these people were, and how long they managed to carry those who weren’t. I was also horrified by just how terrible the crew’s luck seemed to be – over and over again, it seemed like Murphy’s Law ruled the ship.

I found the book to take a little while to pick up. The beginning provides important background, but perhaps too much of it all at once. There were a few times where I found myself getting lost in the list of names of people I hadn’t started to form associations with. Once the ship was under way, however, the cast narrowed and the individual personalities started to stand out, and I found the second half much more enjoyable.

(((Semitism))) by Jonathan Weisman

Read: 3 June, 2018

This book reads like an open letter to prominent Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League. It’s a call to action, an entreaty to re-expand activities beyond Israel and to take a meaningful stand against hate and the rise of fascism in the United States.

This is a timely book – perhaps even a little too timely, as several points made are no longer true (such as the discussion of Trump failing to move the US embassy to Jerusalem). But while these minor points have weakened, the overall rise of fascism is a well-documented trend.

The thesis of the book could have used a little tightening – while interesting throughout, it did meander a little, and it occasionally took some work to grasp what an argument was getting at.

That said, I liked that Weisman’s focus went beyond anti-Semitism, tackling the interconnectedness of hate. No small part of the book is devoted to GamerGate, which was the canary in the coal mine as far as many in the internet generation are concerned. The call to action, therefore, is for Jewish organisations to use their expertise and resources to take a leadership position in the fight against hate.

This is an important read. Weisman doesn’t provide answers (and, in fact, acknowledges throughout that there are sometimes no good responses), but the call for victimised communities to band together is essential.

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 Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Read: 20 February, 2018

At 48 pages, this is a very short book – really more of an essay. Because of the vast discrepancy between the size of the topic and the size of the book, this is obviously going to be a very superficial treatment. Even so, the essay is very conversational, and skips from topic to topic without much focus. Ultimately, it doesn’t really answer the title question, so much as simply mull over ways in which sexism have affected the author.

To the extent that Adichie makes statements of position, I often found myself disagreeing with her. Mostly, it has to do with the gender binary, which she clearly accepts even as she doesn’t think it should should be prescriptive.

I did enjoy the particular African perspective of the book – when I read about feminism, it’s almost always from a North American context. In particular, there are a few parts in the book where she talks specifically about African (and Nigerian) culture.

Apart from the cultural perspective, Adichie doesn’t bring much new to the table. This is a casual, personal book, without much history or facts. But it is worth reading, given the short length.