(((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.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Read: 9 October, 2017

In this book, Alexander describes the ‘New Jim Crow’, in which blackness is linked with criminality, and criminality with inhumanity – giving the perfect ‘colourblind’ cover for policies that disenfranchise huge numbers of African Americans.

Alexander’s writing style is very readable – which is great, because the subject matter is so relentlessly depressing. If it were a slog to read through as well, I don’t know that I would have been able to finish it. As it was, I slipped my way through the whole book, wide-eyed and feeling rather ill, in just a few days.

On a simple style level, this is also one of the best written non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. Every point is brought up exactly where it needs to be, and every question that occurred to me was anticipated and answered. Each chapter serve a purpose and builds to form a strong whole. I’m always complaining that non-fiction books often lack a targeted focus, seeming to blunder through a variety of somewhat related points with no clear focus on a thesis. The New Jim Crow is the opposite – for such a huge, systemic issue, Alexander strictly trims the tangents and focuses with laser-like precision.

It’s an interesting experience to be reading this book – which is all about ‘post-racist society’ and ‘colourblindness’ – in Trump’s America. I woke up this morning with a few pages left and headlines in the news about a follow-up neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. Alexander spends so much time trying to explain that the racism is still there, merely disguised as colourblindness, and I can’t help but wonder what the book would look like if it were written today.

I highly recommend this one. In fact, I wish it were required high school reading. It’s well written, well researched, and thoroughly heartbreaking.

What Made Them Great: Marie Curie by Mary Montgomery

Read: 29 September, 2017

This is a biography intended for children. First published in 1981 (my edition was published in 1990), the writing and artwork for this book are a little dated, but there isn’t anything too offensive to modern sensibilities.

I quite liked the emphasis on Marie Curie’s hard work, her perseverance. In fact, there was quite a bit there about her character – her generosity, her self-sacrifice for others, her dedication even when things were difficult, etc. For whatever reason, I haven’t been seeing that sort of explicit mention of character models in other biographies I’ve read with my kid. It was particularly good because some of the traits discussed are specifically things that my kid struggles with, so it gave us some nice ‘teachable moments.’

There’s also a section at the end about radiation. While not exactly cutting edge, the information is no more dated than what most high school students would be exposed to.

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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