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.

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.

Sky Burial by Xinran

Read: 25 January, 2018

A fascinating story about a Chinese woman who heads into the Tibetan wilderness to find her lost husband.

While the book claims to be a true story (told by the main character to the author in the course of two days), this reads like fiction. True or not, or mix of both, I’m not sure it matters. It’s still a beautiful story, regardless.

The books main strength is in the way it conveys a sense of place – not just of the Tibetan plateau (though these were certainly the best bits), but also of the Chinese towns. With surprising economy of description, the author had me feeling transported.

There seem to be some political undertones, or at least a message. But while it does fudge over a lot of the truly horrific political events, I don’t think it’s nearly as pro-Chinese as some reviewers seem to have read it. There’s a sense of intrusion in the military presence in Tibet. And, while Shu Wen definitely seems to buy the party line at first about bringing civilisation to a backward land, she seems to learn a great respect for the traditional ways. So while there is, of course, some politics in a book about the ongoing Chinese/Tibetan conflict, I didn’t get the sense that the author was taking a strong side either way. As with most things, it’s complicated. And the picture we’re given in Sky Burial is nothing if not complicated.

I really enjoyed the friendship between Shu Wen and Zhuoma, brought together by their shared goal of finding their men. And the writing style was both poetic and vivid.

This is a very quick read, but a beautiful one.

Ni d’Eve ni d’Adam [Neither Eve Nor Adam] by Amélie Nothomb

Read: 18 January, 2018

I really enjoyed the author’s Stupeur et tremblement, which is set in the same time period of her life. While that explores her time working in Japan, this book is about her time off, when she is dating a Japanese man named Rinri.

Typical for the author, the book is quite funny and insightful. It was especially amusing to read about a woman’s adventures trying to relearn her childhood language (in this case Japanese) while I, myself, was doing the same (in this case French).

And language plays a huge part in the story. Several pivotal plot moments involve linguistic misunderstandings between Amélie and Rinri, and a lot of the humour has to do with bilingual puns (not to mention the cultural differences).

As with all of Nothomb’s books that I’ve read so far, I really enjoyed this!

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.

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.

Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde by Harold Lamb

Read: 6 July, 2017

Another entry from my mother’s biography collection from the 1950s (the first being William the Conqueror).

This, along with the one about Odysseus that I’m sure I’ll be reading eventually, were my childhood favs. As I was reading this book to my son, I was surprised by how many of the stories and pictures were carved into my memory.

That said, it isn’t terribly great. The writing style is a bit clunky, and the scenes themselves aren’t nearly as evocative as they could be. I had hoped to infect my child with some of my enthusiasm for the Mongols, but this book failed to capture his interest (even when I tried to supplement it with a Crash Course History video!).

Still, it’s not a bad primer for interested kids, especially in a market that has so little world history offerings for the early/middle readers.

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The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

Read: 5 July, 2017

In the summer of 1895, thirteen year old Robert Coombes murdered his mother.

I loved The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which used the murder of a three year old boy as a narrative structure to look at how police and detectives functioned in Victorian society (particularly where the process of investigation of upper class households by lower class detectives ruffled class sensibilities).

The Wicked Boy doesn’t have the same impact. At first, I thought it was looking at the scandal of ‘penny dreadfuls’, then it look at the criminal justice system, then it looks at the treatment of mental illness, and then it veers off entirely to go over Australia’s participation in World War I.

I enjoyed every part of The Wicked Boy, but it didn’t have the same satisfying impact without the broader point. It ended up just being about this one boy, with broader issues only mentioned as interesting asides.

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A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein

Read: 30 June, 2017

As the front cover puts it, this is “the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today.” Phew, talk about a rollercoaster!

There’s a lot in this book to offend. While Bornstein seems to have loved her time as a Scientologist, her criticisms of the Church are biting. She talks casually, even somewhat positively, of her eating disorder and her self-harm, of her smoking and binge drinking. She discusses seeing herself as a “transsexual” rather than a woman, and her disagreement with the idea that trans women belong in women-only spaces. She describes, in a fair bit of detail, her sexual conquests as a man, and her submission in an S&M relationship. There’s something in this book to offend nearly anyone.

But Bornstein’s writing style is so warm, so friendly… it’s hard to stay mad. Even when she’s at her hot messiest, she just seems so vulnerable and trusting that it’s difficult not “agree to disagree”.

Hers is a valuable and thoughtful voice, and I’m glad to have stumbled upon this book.

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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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