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.

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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Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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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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The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Read: 16 November, 2016

Casual Vacancy was a big depart from Harry Potter. Aside from being geared toward an adult readership, it’s a completely different genre – “slice of life” rather than fantasy. It tells the story of Pagford, a small town in the English countryside, in the wake of a city council member’s death. All stories come back, in one way or another, to that empty council seat and what it means to the lives of the town’s residents – from its wealthier members right down to the poorest.

A big part of the magic of Harry Potter was the way in which Rowling created a world of stereotype characters – easily grasped and understood at a glance – then remained in their space until they started to come alive. And yet, strangely, they remained stereotypes, just stereotypes that we came to know and to care for.

In Casual Vacancy, she does the same thing. We have the lower class girl with the turbulent home life, and we have the teen obsessed with living “authentically”, the over-achieving “tiger mom” immigrant who had a sort of arranged marriage, the social worker struggling with professional boundaries, the bored housewife fantasising about a singer in her daughter’s favourite boy band, etc.

Each of these characters is and remains a stock. Rarely do they have traits that are not perfectly in keeping with their “type.” And, yet, we stay with them, we watch them, and over 500 pages, sheer time and care fills them out and makes them whole.

It’s a remarkable process.

Harry Potter had its horror and tragedy, but Casual Vacancy lacks its hope. The characters are petty and locked into their own experiences. They are hurt, and they respond by lashing out in a great web of misery. Worse, there is little resolution. Most characters end in the same position – or worse – as they started, or have only just set a course for possible change that is well beyond the scope of this book. It doesn’t revel in the pain, and it does have its moments of levity, but it’s easy to see how this might be a difficult read for some.

One similarity between the two works that interested me is how both Harry Potter and Casual Vacancy work as representations of tyrants and how people deal with/react to them. In Harry Potter, the theme is placed in a fantasy setting, and the tyrant is defeated through valiance and friendship. In Casual Vacancy, however, things are a little bleaker. (SPOILER: And while the tyrant is eventually defeated, it is through the failure of his own body – a realistic fluke that offers that dim ray of hope to the town.)

I doubt that I would have picked up this book if not for the author, and it’s easy to see why so many people were disappointed with it. It’s clearly Rowling’s writing, but this is something completely different, and marketing the book as “by the author of Harry Potter” does it a disservice. That said, it’s a solid piece of writing. Rowling did a great job showing us the complex web of small town life, and navigating between such a large cast of characters in a way that kept it interesting (in the sense that adult “slice of life” fiction is interesting – obviously not a genre for everyone!).

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A Memoir by Lady Trent #2: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

Read: 24 January, 2016

I’m not a terribly huge fan of dragons but natural history? The Victorian era? Women who find a way to be badass despite the whole of their society weighing down on them? It’s like these books were written specifically with me in mind.

In this episode, Isabella mounts her first expedition without her husband, and finds herself caught in the middle of a multi-directional political struggle. And, of course, she and her companions make some pretty wonderful scientific discoveries along the way.

As with the first, this book is pretty much perfect. The characters are strong and come through really well, the pacing is spot on, the tone matches the content perfectly. I honestly can’t think of a single critical thing to say.

I’m seeing from reviews that many people found the book boring, mostly because it spent so much time away from the dragons. I guess I can understand, and it’s true that Brennan isn’t exactly Anne McCaffrey. It’s hard to see how this series would hold any interest at all for readers who just want dragons! and adventure!

It is a slower pace, and the dragons themselves are almost incidental to the characterization of Isabella – of her growth, and of her negotiation between the expectations of her gender and the hungers of her personality. But for the right audience (i.e.: me), these books are just glorious.

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Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Read: 2 October, 2014

In the war against an unknown alien, the battlefield stretches across light years. Conscript William Mandella fights for earth, only to find the planet much changed on his return.

The writing style is one that seems common among classic science fiction works – it’s very journalistic, appearing dry and even monotone even while it conveys a great deal. And there’s certainly a great deal here.

In a not-too-subtle retelling of the Vietnam War, Haldeman uses relativistic time dilation to explore the experience of the drafted soldier return to a country he doesn’t recognize and that doesn’t accept him. There’s also a lot there about fighting foreign (alien) cultures, not understanding the enemy, not understanding why the enemy needs to be killed, being compelled by propaganda even while recognizing it as propaganda, etc. In other words, the book is one massive smorgasbord of social commentary.

The views on homosexuality are obviously outdated, as are the gender relations. Certainly, the approach to heterosexual sex early on in the novel is downright rape-y. I can chalk some of that up to the age of the novel, and there’s enough other stuff going on to carry me through the rest, but it bears saying.

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The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 2: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson

Read: 9 May, 2014

In the second volume of Octavian’s story, we find him escaping from slavery with his tutor, Doctor Trefusis, as the Revolutionary War erupts around them.

I found this volume to be quite a bit more of an emotional rollercoaster than the first – Trefusis providing a great deal of comic relief (and cementing himself as one of my all-time favourite fictional characters) against a backdrop of horror.

While the first book focused on the formation of Octavian, the second focused much more strongly on the theme of freedom – a word used so much in the context of American independence, yet one that is surprisingly fuzzy (as a black man, Octavian naturally notices that the freedom fought for often included the freedom to own other people).

As with the first volume, I found the book to be very informative and it left me with a lot to think about.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? / Blade Runner by Philip K. Dick

Read: 26 March, 2014

I first saw Blade Runner as a child and absolutely loved it – mostly, at the time, because I had a rather large Indiana Jones-fueled crush on Harrison Ford. Seeing the movie many times over the years, I came to love it for all sorts of other reasons in addition to Hunkison Ford.

Yet, for some reason, I didn’t get to reading Do Androids Dream until just now.

I really enjoyed it. It’s pretty obvious where Blade Runner got its material from, yet the two are still sufficiently different that reading Androids felt like a fresh experience.

I found the book to be very thought-provoking, and the first 2/3, especially, really impressed me. It got a bit weird toward the end (as one reviewer put it, it takes Deckard about five pages to buy a goat, but he falls in love in a single sentence), but I found the ideas compelling enough to continue despite what seemed to be something of a narrative falling apart.

The society is very dated, with of course a stay-at-home wife. But at the same time, she’s given a depression – a real depression, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the experience described in such a spot-on way. It’s an odd sort of mix, an acknowledgement that the societal norm is harmful without ever coming close to suggesting that an alternative might be possible (I mean the expectation that married women stay at home, not the choice to do so).

It’s a short book, quickly read, but packed tight with ideas.

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Pound Foolish by Helaine Olen

Read: 26 December, 2013

If you’ve been reading along for a while, you’ll know that I went through a spat of reading personal finance books in 2009 (and even read Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad, which Olen specifically addresses in Pound Foolish). At the time, I had just started working after living on a single income for several years while a student. Our goal was to keep living on as close to a single income as possible, putting the second income away for rainy days. But, of course, we were young and didn’t quite know how to make that work, so I toured the personal finance section of my library.

I did learn quite a bit about how to make and maintain a budget, and I like the idea of the envelope system even if we’ve never found a way to make it work for us. But other than that, I didn’t see much value in the books I read. The advice often seemed to ride on things that just didn’t make much sense – like Kiyosaki’s advice to buy real estate (which read like comedy given that the real estate bubble had just burst), or the assumption of at least an 8-12% rate of return on investments (I have never in my adult life seen a consistent return higher than 2% and even that much is rare), or the requirement that housing take up no more than 30% of your household income (puh-lease, a cardboard box would cost me more than that around here!), the books just seemed to make an awful lot of assumptions that simply would not apply to what I would imagine are the vast majority of their audience.

What’s left, the good advice like “spend less than you earn!”, is common sense. People who are reading personal finance books (and therefore care about personal finance) are already trying to do just that. What they want to know is not the goal, which they already have, but the steps for achieving it despite having unexpected expenses like medical bills, or despite the loss of income due to a crappy economy. And for that, personal finance offers no solutions. What stabilized my household’s livelihood was not my budgeting, but rather the recent Canadian minimum wage increase.

And that is essentially Olen’s thesis. The personal finance gurus (nearly all of whom make their money by selling their advice, not following it) shift the burden of managing on the individual, when many (of not most) of the difficulty the individual is having comes, ultimately, from social issues – such as the state of the economy, lack of regulation in the financial sector, lack of social support after a job loss, or medical expenses.

Olen’s book is damning, and depressing. There’s no uplifting message, no sign that things are changing. It just goes on and on pointing out how various ways that predators have found to feed off the public. It’s a hard book to read, and it had me taking a good second look at how I’ve allowed my finances to be managed (though, silver linings, it has prompted me to make some significant changes in that area that I’m hoping will at least minimize risk).

It’s also a call to action. Instead of talking about personal finance, we need to talk about social finance. We need to talk about regulation.

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