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.

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell

Read: 4 February, 2018

I happened on this book while searching for north African recipe books, and I’m still debating whether that’s a search algorithm win or a search algorithm fail. In any case, I knew as soon as I saw it that I had to read it, and promptly put it on hold at my library.

The book is a collection of memoir essays. They are a bit disconnected (although all come back, in some way, to themes of social justice), but I didn’t mind this time. It felt natural, like a conversation with a good friend that goes all over the place.

I really enjoyed the way Bell breaks down concepts – even when I still understood what he was getting at, I enjoyed the journey of the explanation. I never felt talked down to or excluded, even when he was explaining 101 concepts, even when he was clearly addressing readers who’ve shared his perspective and experiences.

This isn’t as hard-hitting as, for example, Between the World and Me or The New Jim Crow, while still expressing many of the same ideas. This would be a perfect starter book for that white friend who kinda gets it but doesn’t get it get it, but who wouldn’t want “all the negativity” of Michelle Alexander.

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.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller

Read: 27 November, 2017

I had a Libertarian friend in high school. While I was firmly in camp Nader, she was a Bush supporter, and even went so far as to buy me a gloating ice cream sandwich when Bush won the presidency. In the course of that friendship, I was convinced to pick up a copy of The Fountainhead.

I tend to find passion infectious. While I found the book itself a tedious and poorly-written slog, the excitement it showed for architecture really spoke to me. I gave up on the book fairly early – I’m not even sure that I made it a quarter of the way through – but I started looking up information on architecture and even considered pursuing it as a career. As it happened, however, my talking about architecture infected my mom, who picked it as her second career (an excellent fit, as she’s always had a keen eye for shapes). Once she enrolled in an architecture program, I had to pick something else to avoid falling on the wrong side of her competitive streak, and that’s how I ended up with my BA in English Literature.

The point of all of this being that Ayn Rand has had a fairly profound and wide-reaching cultural influence – even on those of us who had almost no interest in her work and found her writing unbearable. Whatever one thinks of her, or her philosophy, there’s no denying that she’s one of the last century’s Notable People.

Rand popped into my Active Interest slot again when I came across an Atlas Shrugged read-along series on Daylight Atheism. It’s a great series that I definitely recommend. Adam Lee does a great job of thinking through the implications of the book and, as Rand would love to say, “checking the premises.”

One of the sources Lee cites frequently is Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Since, once again, passion is infectious, I took the book out of the library.

A month ago, I couldn’t have told you anything about Ayn Rand except that she’d written The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she was a woman, she is somehow related to the Libertarian movement, and she’s dead. So I came to The World She Made a fairly blank slate. Because of this, I can’t say how groundbreaking the research of the book is, and I see from other reviews that maybe there isn’t so much that is new here. But as a starting point, it’s perfect.

Heller moves methodically through Rand’s life – from her childhood in revolutionary Russia, to her death in New York. At each stage, Rand is the centre focus, but Heller explores the broader context of who Rand was meeting, what her living situation was like, what ideas was she exposed to…

On Rand herself, the book didn’t much improve my perception of her. In her early life, it’s easy to feel some sympathy towards her, but so much of her suffering seems to have been entirely self-inflicted. Worse, her life is, itself, the most damning argument against her philosophy.

Worse, she strikes me as a shallow thinker. I’m sure that she was a fantastic arguer, and probably quite quick and witty. She must have bowled over people in person (even if only by virtue of her stamina for argument). But it doesn’t take much thinking through to realize that her philosophy is immature at best. Over and over again, The World She Made makes reference to Rand’s popularity among teenagers and young adults, as opposed to more mature readers. This isn’t surprising.

On her emphasis on individuality, I was reminded of the ubiquity of the self-esteem movement during my childhood, and how – as a thoroughly weird kid – offensive I found it. Everywhere I turned, every school program, every TV show, ever fast food ad campaign was telling kids to “just be yourself.” And yet, the message I heard over and over again was “no, not like that.” And that’s Rand in a nutshell – her whole philosophy is wrapped around the idea of individuality and personal freedom, and yet she required that her followers only listen to certain types of music, only thought certain types of thoughts.

I was both surprised and not surprised by the cult that sprang up around Rand. While I had never heard Objectivism described as a cult, its ideas – and the reverential way in which Rand is so often talked about – certainly smell of cult.

But enough about the subject, what about the book? It’s good! It’s very readable, and it’s a great introduction to Rand and to her ideas.