The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson

Read: 19 January, 2019

On this story, Faulkner wrote: “if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reasons or for what color, we do not deserve to survive and probably won’t.”

To which Tyson responds: “Ask yourself whether America’s predicament is so different now.”

This is the story of a gruesome murder, a complicit culture, and a miscarriage of justice. While the United States was fighting its cold war in the name of democracy, it allowed two men to be acquitted of a murder that every single juror knew perfectly well they had committed, simply because their victim – a child – was black.

And have we changed? Really?

In a time where “Black lives matter” is a controversial statement and Trump is president, I can’t see that we have. As the author puts it, “we cannot transcend our past without confronting it.”

Apart from the subject matter, this is an excellent book. It covers Till’s life, giving a good sense of who he was as a unique person. Tyson also spends a good deal of time setting the stage, going into some of the recent events of the time. After going over the murder and the trial, Tyson covers the aftermath – both immediate, in the civil rights movement, and more long term, in Till’s memory in the Black Lives Matter movement. The book is a good coverage of what happened and why it matters, without that “true crime” fetishization.

How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour by Les Leopold

Read: 28 November, 2018

Hot takes on recent events tend not to age too well. There are political movements discussed in this book that have definitely changed since 2012 (including the chapter that covers Occupy Wall Street), but How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour has more than enough enduring information to still hold a place of value in the 2008 Recession post-mortem canon.

Leopold does an excellent job of explaining complicated concepts, and I feel like I have a much better grasp of things like Ponzi schemes, High-Frequency Trading, Flash Crashes, and how mortgages were being packaged to investors during the fatal housing bubble.

My only complaint about the book is that it left me feeling rather depressed. The problems are discussed, but there isn’t a whole lot of practical “what you can do”, or even a “how we can fix it”. I understand why, but it made for tough reading.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Read: 21 November, 2018

Every so often, I come across someone who believes in the inherent goodness of The Market. Employers wouldn’t mistreat their employees or put them in danger, they say, because then the employees would simply go work somewhere else! And it’s true that, to an extent, the radium dial companies had trouble finding replacement workers after the dangers of the work became common knowledge..

But what about before? What about when only scientists in the field and the company executives knew about the dangers? And what if those executives had doctors in their pay who would give their workers clean bills of health even as those workers had already begun dying? And what if they were taking out ads in local papers declaring their products safe and their workers healthy?

And what if the Great Depression hits and workers just don’t have a choice?

The Radium Girls are the prime example of why strong legal protections for workers are so important. Not just strong protections, but protections that are flexible enough to grow with new technology (unlike, for example, the short statute of limitations that didn’t anticipate the slow damage of radium poisoning).

This book is horrific and inspirational. It’s full of heroes and selfless women who went to great lengths to ensure that future workers would be safe even though they themselves could never reap the benefits of their fight.

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.