Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Read: 8 March, 2017

This is a difficult book to review because, of course, it wasn’t written for me. What I get out of it, what I think of it, is fairly beside the point. And there are many other reviews of far far more value than whatever I could say.

As I was reading, I tried to think of this book’s use as a primer for, say, white teenagers. It’s a bit fast paced, with references and allusions coming from every direction. This book was not written to be some white kid’s 101, so the points aren’t argued, the references aren’t explained. The intended audience is passed all that already. But, still, even though a lot would fly over a white kid’s head, there’s a lot there that should stick.

It’s a beautiful, powerful, brutal book. And it is so, so timely.

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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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Blood Relative by Crocker Stephenson

Read: 23 August, 2016

On the fourth of July, 1987, Kenny Kuntz came home to find his mother, brother, uncle, and two aunts brutally murdered. In Blood Relative, Stephenson tracks the events of that night, along with the subsequent investigation and trial.

The murder itself is disturbing, as is the family’s history (though somewhat glossed over, there are strong hints at generations of abuse, alcoholism, and mental illness). As far as voyeuristic summer reading sensationalism goes, Blood Relative gets the job done.

Stephenson has, for the most part, arranged the book as collections of facts – snippets from autopsy reports, transcripts from interviews, etc. But every so often, the narrative voice interjects, providing imagery that could not possibly have been known by the author, and the words chosen are heavy with connotations (even if I didn’t perceive any particular strong bias). I didn’t get the sense that I was being intentionally misled, but the difference between the two styles was very jarring.

Because Stephenson apparently wanted to privilege “unabridged first sources,” there are times when context is really lacking. For example, someone might be quoted, but with no explanation of who they are, or an autopsy report quote might be presented with no explanation of the medical jargon. Given Stephenson’s narrative intrusions elsewhere, I was rather miffed by their lack in these areas.

Due to the nature of the True Crime genre, the ending is understandably unsatisfying. The mystery is presented and explained, but it isn’t resolved – it ends in the lead suspect’s acquittal. At least Stephenson is very upfront about this, warning readers that they will leave the book confused.

Still, it would have been nice to have seen some more follow-up. The book came out several years after the events described, but we have no more information about how Kenny Kuntz is doing, or whether Chris Jacobs III had been convicted of further crimes (and, in fact, he purportedly confessed to the murders two years before Blood Relative was published – information that should have been included!). That said, I do realise how difficult it would have been to negotiate the ethics of a “where are they now” section.

Which brings me to my final issue: The impression I got from the lack of statements from the surviving family members, plus the afterward “provided” by the sister, Germaine, suggest that the book was written and published without their consent or support. I’m glad to have had it to read, but that does make me quite uncomfortable. Besides which, it seems that it would have been a better book had Stephenson courted the remaining family members for their input.

Reading this soon-ish after watching Netflix’s Making of a Murderer documentary was an interesting experience. Both involve fairly similar families (socially isolated WIsconsin families with a lot of mental illness and suggestions of abuse), and it was easy to read the Avery family into the Kunzes.

Blood Relative is a quick read, and surprisingly light on the gruesome detail. It doesn’t have a satisfying wrap-up, but that does provide a lot of fuel for discussions on a long Wisconsin evening with others who have read the book. As ever, there are aspects of the True Crime genre that make me uncomfortable, and this book seems to take those issues to a bit of an extreme. It does feel exploitative, though I’m somewhat assuaged by the fact that the other doesn’t seem to be pointing any definitive fingers.

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Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime by Ellen Prager

Read: 24 August, 2016

Despite its racy, Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime is actually a fairly tame overview of marine life. Each chapter features a group of species sharing some common trait, giving a few facts for each before the chapter closes with a “why they matter” section (which usually covers edibility and medicinal uses).

As intended, it was the title of the book that really caught my attention. Unfortunately, I only got a few paragraphs in before I knew that I was in trouble. While the title promises humour, the narrative style is really lacking. The book is written in bullet list style, except without the benefit of bullets. Because I was never given any time to process each fact before being ushered along to the next one, I found it extremely difficult to absorb anything that I was reading. It made reading about the dietary habits of the hagfish feel like work, and failed to convey a solid impression of Prager’s subjects.

The “why they matter” sections were very meh. The lists of ‘things you can make with a hagfish’s skin’ quickly grew tiresome and uninteresting. The stated goal of the book was to make me care, but lists of how a particular fish’s various parts are used in Chinese medicine to cure impotence does not, actually, make me care. Rather than throwing reasons at me, Prager’s time would have been better spent using her narrative descriptions to evoke my feelings. It’s a classic issue of “show don’t tell.”

The book’s strength is that it is full of facts. If I had a burning desire to know about seahorses but didn’t know where to start (and, for some reason, had access to Prager’s book but not to Wikipedia), the encyclopedic nature of the book would be perfect. Unfortunately, I don’t see that being a very common scenario.

I did really like Prager’s “what you can do” section at the very end of the book. In it, she lists a number of ideas, organized by participation level. There are ideas for people who want to run for congress, and then there are ideas for people who just want to know what to buy when they go to the supermarket. If she expanded that section a little, maybe added a few narrative touches, it would have worked very well as an article.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Prager, because she clearly knows her stuff and the book is nothing if not well-researched. Besides that, it’s obvious that she’s passionate about the subject, and I can never fault passion. It’s just that you can’t make people share that passion by trying to trigger their selfish consumptive desires – and certainly not in the same book where you are trying to convince people to participate in preserving and protecting our oceans! Rather than trying to convince her readers to care about our oceans through rational arguments, I wish that Prager had just unleashed the passion she so clearly has, and let me feel it for a little while.

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Young, Sick, and Invisible by Ania Bula

Read: 15 August, 2016

Full disclosure, Ania is a close friend and I read an early draft of the book back in 2014 (I’m even named in the acknowledgements, albeit with a slight misspelling!), so this is my second read through.

In Young, Sick, and Invisible, Ania tells the story of her illness – from the first aches and pains, though the diagnosis, and on to coping. She talks about dealing with doctors (the good and the bad), navigating school and employment, relationships and sex, family, and even the occasional excursion into “alternative medicine.” She offers helpful tips for other sufferers of chronic illness, and tips for those of us who want to help but don’t quite know where to start.

The writing style sometimes lapses into a laundry list with too little narrative scaffolding. It would have been nice if the book could have focused more on Ania’s experience, rather than her experiences, because that’s where the book is at its most interesting.

Even so, Young, Sick, and Invisible is a good primer on disability issues (including accessibility, ways in which the Canadian medical system needs improving, and how Canada handles long term unemployment for medical reasons), all wrapped around an interesting personal account.

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Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Read: 22 May, 2016

In this book, Mary Roach explores the weird science and history of space exploration. As with Stiff, the writing is absolutely delightful – full of humour, interesting factoids, and tangents in all the right places.

Roach always seems to be able to guess just what sorts of follow up questions I might have, and is always ready with either the information I’m craving or perfectly suitable substitute joke.

It’s so hard to write a review for a book that is so flawless. Packing had me in stitches – it’s the kind of book you read around other people so you can interrupt them all and read out passages. And the best part is that no one will even be annoyed!

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Mothers Who Can’t Love by Susan Forward

Read: 18 January, 2016

I decided to read this book after seeing it recommended by one woman who had grown up with a narcissist mother to another. It was described as an amazing book that could really help with understanding those dynamics and learning to move forward in a healthy way. The person making the recommendation also added that it would be very helpful for people who’ve had dysfunctional relationships with their mothers for other reasons.

Forward begins by covering the different types of dysfunctional mothers – there are the narcissists, the overly enmeshed, the control freaks, the role reversals (who’ve expected their daughters to console and care for them from a young age), and those who neglect or abuse more directly.

While the examples Forward uses are fairly specific, and I found them to sort of skip over how complicated and variable these relationships can be, she did cover enough examples that I felt I could grasp her point and see the subtle individual shades between her archetypes.

Once the problem has been defined, Forward moves on to solutions. She begins with a process for identifying and coming to terms with the reader’s specific feelings, which can be far more difficult than it might initially seem! Most of the section, though, has to do with finding, establishing, and maintaining boundaries, despite a range of reactions of events.

Overall, I found this to be an excellent book. It can be hard to read, especially if the material has personal significance, and Forward herself recommends that her book be used in tandem with a therapist who can help to manage and guide. Still, though, the advice given is practical and thorough, and I think it’s applicable even when parental relationships aren’t quite as dire as the examples given in the book. In fact, I think that the sections on establishing and maintaining boundaries would be useful to anyone.

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Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

Read: 2 November, 2015

Shock Value tells the story of New Horror, the mostly independent movement in the 1970s to revitalize the genre, breaking from what had become the standard in horror: formulaic monster movies with the occasional gimmick (theatre seats with buzzers!) thrown in. The book tracks a few of the major players, like Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, William Friedkin, George Romero, and Dan O’Bannon.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the horror genre – so much so that I rarely watch anything else. So much so that Netflix can’t keep up with my consumption habits, even when I’ll happily watch their 1-2 star selections. But I tend to stick to my role of consumer, and I often don’t know the histories or the names of the directors (the catalogue enthusiast part of my brain is already sufficiently occupied by other topics). So it was interesting to me to get a little of the backstory.

Unfortunately, Shock Value felt a bit flat. The author hops around from figure to figure, and I think that I would have found it very confusing if I didn’t already know many of the names. Chapters just sort of meandered until they reached their page length, and I didn’t get the sense that they had focus or purpose.

Generally, I guess my complaint is just that the book “lacks soul.” It throws out the information, but it doesn’t dig deep, it doesn’t tell a story. The closest it got was in the discussions with Dan O’Bannon, who seems like he could have justified a whole book himself. That’s where Zinoman’s passion peeked through, and I was intrigued enough to look up more information. But for the rest, the writing just felt very flat, telling anecdotes in a detached and almost haphazard way.

For fans of horror, the book might still be worthwhile, and there were certainly bits and pieces of interesting information. But it could have been presented in a better way. It’s clear from O’Bannon’s sections that Zinoman does have passion, and I hope he let’s himself show it a little more in future works.

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Series: Good Times Travel Agency by Linda Bailey, illustrated by Bill Slavin

In each book, the Binkertons are transported by one of Julian T. Pettigrew (of the Good Times Travel Agency) back in time. In each adventure, the Binkerton family gets into trouble, meet some of the locals, and taste some of the various flavours of the culture. To escape back to the modern era, they must finish reading Pettigrew’s book, seen at the bottom of each page.

My son is still pretty young (today was his first day of Kindergarten!), but I try to pick up educational books here and there so that I can have a good stock of suggestions to make when the time is right. While we do read educational books together now, they tend to be geared more for his age range and attention span.

I had just finished reading Adventures in the Ice Age when I brought my son to the library to get Adventures in Ancient Egypt. My son saw it, and he asked if we could read it at bed time. I figured that we’d get a couple of pages in and he’d get bored. The adventures themselves (told in comic book style) are pretty interesting, but the Pettigrew book pages at the bottom of each page seemed a little too infodump-y for a four year old.

But he loved it. We read the whole thing, and then he asked for Adventures in Ancient China the next night, which he also loved. Even more wonderful, he’s absorbing quite a lot of the information.

What I really love about the series is that it doesn’t bother with trivia – with the names and the dates. Rather, each book gives you a little taste of the atmosphere. What did each culture feel like? What did people eat? What did they wear? What did their homes look like? What might it have been like to live in Ancient Egypt, or Ancient China, or during the Ice Age? That style gives kids a context into which they can slot the trivia later on, when they encounter it elsewhere.

So today, my son was telling me about weaving silk, and chattering about children’s sidelocks.

I was a little surprised that he took to the books so young, but in retrospect, I think that the quality of artwork and the entertaining action of the trouble the Binkertons get themselves into are well suited for a wide age range. If a kid is getting fidgety in the Pettigrew book portions, the books can still be read without them (though I found them to be a very good length, and to be very economical in the way they present information).

I highly recommend the series starting at around 4-5 years old, with no upper cap. Even for older kids, even for 30 year old me, I think the books provide a wonderful sense of place and time into which information from meatier fare can be inserted.

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