Pushout by Monique W. Morris

Read: 23 October, 2018

With the proliferation of mobile phones and social media, the mainstream is finally becoming aware that encounters with law enforcement are far too often fatal for black boys and men. Along with that, is the mainstream awareness of black incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.

But left out of this awareness is how the particular intersection of gender and race affects black girls. Not as likely to go to prison (though those rates are rising), Morris talks about the school-to-confinement pipeline for black girls – expanding the discussion to recognise other forms of restriction and surveillance, such as house arrest.

This is by no means a comprehensive book – in fact, each chapter could easily be a whole book on its own – but it is an excellent conversation starter about an issue that is too often ignored. Black girls are often left out of programs designed to help girls, as well as programs designed to help people of colour, and this book does a great job of looking at where this leaves kids who fall into both (and sometimes more) categories of oppression.

At the back of the book is some practical advice for kids, parents, and teachers who want to make a change – inclusion a description of two alternatives to punitive methods of school discipline.

Stolen Words by Melanie Florence (illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard)

For Orange Shirt Day this year, I told my kid about residential schools. To help him understand the impact of cultural genocide, we read Stolen Words together.

This book is a fantastic help. I also really liked that it wasn’t just a story about a wise grandfather teaching something to the granddaughter. Rather, it’s the granddaughter who finds a Cree dictionary so that she and her grandfather could relearn their language together.

This is a powerful book that serves to both teach our history, and to offer hope for the future. The lost language can be recovered, and it’s recovered through community and family. Given the darkness of the subject matter, it was good to be able to present the story of residential schools with a positive ending, without sugar-coating it.

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.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Read: 25 March, 2018

I originally tried to read these stories when they were assigned in High School, but I was a thoroughly uninterested student – bordering on lethargic. And, as is true in most cases, I think I got a lot more out of it now than I would have at the time.

The stories are very short, and they don’t have the satisfying arcs that I like in stories – “The Yellow Wallpaper” worked the best as far as story structure goes. Mostly, though, these were little vignettes that each tackle some feminist issue.

I quite enjoyed the writing style, which was very concise (particularly for the time period) and readable. I do wish that there were more narrative structure, so that the pieces could stand on their own even without the political message.

Overall, though, I did enjoy every one of these stories. Some, like “The Yellow Wallpaper”, I enjoyed both as stories and for their political message. Some, like “Making a Change”, I mostly only liked for their political message. And some, like “The Cottagette”, were just enjoyable wish-fulfilment.

“The Yellow Wallpaper”

This story was legitimately creepy. The visuals were great, and I would definitely watch a horror movie adaptation. The feminism was spot on with its critique of the White Knight who just wants to “protect” women by treating them like china dolls. While the ending was a little weak, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story.

“Three Thanksgivings”

This is feminism from the other perspective – that of a woman who has independence and freedom, and who wants to keep it. Of course, she is greatly helped by owning a large house, and it is the house that enables her to make money in the way she does. So let’s call this the feminism of the wealthy. Still, I appreciated that the main character was given a selection of options (all perfectly attractive and ‘suitable’ for a woman of her age), and rejects them all in favour of work and independence.

“The Cottagette”

I enjoyed this little wish-fulfilment piece. A woman stifles her artistic self to attract a husband with evidence of her domesticity. But, twist of twists, he loves her as an artist, and will only marry her on condition that she stay out of the kitchen. It’s an excellent commentary on the toll domestic chores can take on a woman, and on her ability to do the kind of work that she finds fulfilling.

“Turned”

A wife finds out that her husband has gotten their maid pregnant. While she initially lashes out against the maid, she quickly realises the power imbalance, and how impossible it must have been for the girl to reject her boss – a fact of which her husband would have been well aware. The story ends with the husband finally finding his wife, who is now living independently with the maid and their baby and making a fine little family together, and they have absolutely no interest in whatever he’s there to sell them.

I absolutely loved the message of this piece. The solidarity, and the recognition of power imbalance, and the creation of a new family built on mutual support and affection… it really couldn’t have been more up my alley.

“Making a Change”

This one pairs well with “Turned”, returning to that theme of women supporting women. We begin with a small family comprised of a wife, her husband, their newborn, and her mother-in-law. The mother-in-law has always been good with babies, but the wife feels that it’s her role, and she guards it jealously, but it just isn’t working out for her. Deprived of sleep, deprived of her music, and feeling like a profound failure, she tries to commit suicide. But when her mother-in-law finds her, the two realise that something has to change.

And so, without the husband even noticing, the wife goes back to teaching music, the mother-in-law takes over the childcare and opens up a nursery for all the neighbourhood babies, and they use their extra wages to hire a good housekeeper who can deal with all the domestic stuff that neither of them likes to do.

The tension comes in when, after months pass in this blissful arrangement, the husband finds out that his wife and mother are both working. He is humiliated, and tries to make things go back as they were. But we quickly comes to realise that everyone is so much happier with this arrangement, and he drops the subject.

I really liked the message of this piece – households are so much happier if everyone gets to do the things that they find fulfilling. Trying to contort ourselves into unnatural shapes just because it’s How It’s Done will lead to unhappiness – not just for ourselves, but for everyone in the family.

“If I Were a Man”

A woman gets to experience what it’s like to be a man, when she suddenly finds herself in his body. The science is a bit underdeveloped in this one, as it isn’t clear just how much of his personality remains in his body (she does seem to have access to his perceptions and memories), and we never do see what happens to her own body (did they trade places?).

And while this was perhaps the least narratively developed, it’s worth a read just for the part where she discovers pockets.

“Mr. Peebles’ Heart”

This is the only story centred squarely on a man. Mr Peebles has always supported the women in his life, catering to their every want and need so that they are never challenged. This has not only left him unhappy, it’s also left his wife unhappy, as she is afraid to travel (even to visit her daughters) and has no real interests of her own.

Then along comes her sister – a “lady doctor”/fairy godmother who solves everything by prescribing him a year-long trip to Europe. The two of them are separated while he explores himself, and she is forced to discover who she is without him. In the end, they are both happily travelling together.

I found this to be the weakest story in the collection.

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.

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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