Category Archives: Nonfiction — general

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

justmercyJust Mercy is a powerful book that I’ve wanted to read ever since hearing the author interviewed on CBC Radio some time ago. Bryan Stevenson is an African-American lawyer who founded an organization called the Equal Justice Initiative dedicated to representing clients who are not well served by the justice system. EJI’s clients are mostly people of colour, almost all poor, and they include people on death row, people wrongly accused, and people serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles. The story of Stevenson’s own development as a lawyer and a fearless advocate for justice is woven throughout the stories of his clients.

Stevenson focuses on one major story that threads throughout the whole book: that of Walter MacMillian, a black man accused of murdering a young white woman. There was no evidence that MacMillian committed the crime and plenty that he didn’t (dozens of people saw him elsewhere at the time the murder took place). Stevenson’s conclusion was that police, anxious to solve a horrific crime that upset the community, pinned the crime on MacMillian who was accused, in the flimsiest possible way, by his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend (more or less … it was complicated, but that was what it boiled down to). Despite the lack of evidence to support his conviction and plenty of evidence for his innocence, MacMillian was found guilty and sentenced to death.

The Walter MacMillian case was especially poignant because it took place in Monroeville, Alabama, famous as the home of Harper Lee and the template for her fictional town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. As he began to investigate the case and work for MacMillian’s conviction to be overturned, Bryan Stevenson discovered that while white people in Maycomb were very proud of the fictional story of a white lawyer who defended an unjustly accused black man, they were not nearly so interested in helping a real-life black lawyer defend an unjustly accused black man.

In between the chapters in which Walter MacMillian’s story unfolds, Stevenson tells his own story, the stories of other clients, and the larger story of race, class, and (in)justice in America. The book, and the stories it tells, are damning, eye-opening, and also inspiring — inspiring because of people like Bryan Stevenson, who are willing to give their lives and careers to making things better.

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Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

intothewildI‘d heard about this book for years, but had never actually picked it up until a student of mine was talking about how much he’d enjoyed it, and offered to lend it to me. It’s the true story (as much as the author could reconstruct) of the events leading up to the death of Christopher McCandless, a young American who was found dead in an abandoned bus in Alaska in the early 1990s after a couple of years of wandering the US, living off the land and off the kindness of strangers, and seeking adventure.

My student, like a lot of young people who read this book, was impressed by McCandless’s decision to leave behind an upper-middle-class family, a college education that was likely to lead to law school, and all the trappings of a “normal” 20th century American life. The writings he left behind and the memories of people who knew him along his journey, painstakingly accumulated by Krakauer in this book, paint a picture of a young man who questioned the values of mainstream society and had done a lot of mental exploration around the idea of freedom.

Unfortunately, he had perhaps not done enough exploration around the idea of how to survive alone in Alaska — the causes for his death, and whether that death (from either starvation or accidental poisoning) was the result of his own lack of preparation, are still hotly debated. As I learned from an Alaskan friend when I mentioned I was reading the book, Alaskans particularly tend to be contemptuous of “adventurers” like McCandless who venture into their wilderness without a proper respect for its ability to kill you — though McCandless’s admirers will tell you he was better prepared than many people are, and was simply the victim of unfortunate circumstance. As I said, it’s hotly debated.

For me, coming to this story as the parent of young adults, I was unable to read this through any other lens than thinking of McCandless’s mother, who was not only interviewed (along with the rest of his family) by Krakauer for the book, but who, near the end of the book, makes a pilgrimage to the site of his death to try to better understand the son who, by the time he died, had cut off contact with his family for over two years. (While McCandless had disagreements with his parents, as many young adults do, there was no suggestion that his parents were in any way abusive or anything less than loving — he simply wanted to live his life with no personal strings attached, it seems, and saw contact with his family as inevitably tied to the middle-class lifetstyle he was seeking to be free of).

To be young is, almost by definition, to be selfish — not universally selfish, but selfish in the sense that you are focused on your own path in life, your own quest to become an individual, and you rarely think about what that journey costs your parents. And in most cases, that’s right and normal. In a few cases, like Chris McCandless’s, that need for independence is so extreme that it leaves not only a young life lost tragically early, but a family emotionally torn apart forever. I’m sure during his years of wandering, and his final weeks alone in Alaska, he probably gave little thought to his frantic parents back home — and if he had, he wouldn’t have realized how much pain they were in. But I could think of nothing else throughout the entire book. A very sad story.

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The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, by James Shapiro

1606I’ve been seeking out books about the early 1600s because I’m doing research for a book set in that era. Even though the concerns central to The Year of Lear — the court of King James and the impact of political events on Shakespeare’s plays — are far removed from the lives my characters are living, I still found this book informative in giving me a sense of the intellectual climate of the time. The author talks about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and its effects, and compares it to the long-term impact of 9/11 in the US — a terrorist incident whose impact echoed in people’s minds and fuelled divisions in society long after the actual events were over (and of course in the case of 1605, unlike 2001, there was no actual event — it was a thwarted plot that would have been devastating if it had gone ahead). Shapiro explores the impact this event and its aftermath, and the recent accession of Scottish King James I, may have had on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Macbeth, in particular. Of course, much of this is conjecture, because we know so little about Shakespeare’s private life and what was going through his mind when he wrote the plays. But Shapiro is able to uncover a surprising amount of information that helps put these plays, and others, into the context of what was happening in England and what other writers were writing during this time period. A well-researched, enjoyable and informative read.

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The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff

thewitchesThis is a big. well-researched, informative book about a topic that interests me greatly, but it took me quite a while to get through. This may just have been the author’s style — it’s informative and engaging, but has some quirks which took me a bit of getting used to. Foremost among these was the author’s habit of relating events that the Salem witches’ accusers reported, as if they had really happened. This does allow the reader to enter imaginatively into the experience of people who seem to have genuinely believed that they flew through the air or fought invisible enemies, but it is a bit jarring for the skeptical modern reader to see these events portrayed in a work of non-fiction as if they had really occurred just as reported.

It’s clear this is a device Schiff is using and that she does have a proper level of skepticism and detachment from the events she’s describing, but she spends far more time reporting what happened than analyzing why it happened. Readers looking for theories about what was really going on in Salem in 1692 may be underwhelmed, but if you want a thorough portrayal of what happened, this is certainly a tome worth wrestling with.


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Insane Clown President, by Matt Taibbi

insaneclownpresidentThis is American journalist Matt Taibbi’s collection of columns about covering the US Republican primary race and then the presidential election campaign of 2016. As Taibbi was writing for entertainment magazine Rolling Stone rather than for a more “serious” news outlet, there’s a breezy, informal quality to his writing that swings from dark humour to rage, without the pretense of dispassionate, objective reporting. Taibbi’s biases and emotional reactions are out there for all to see, and as the title makes it pretty clear, he’s no fan of Donald J. Trump.

No conservative is going to pick up this book, probably, because the title (and anything you know about Taibbi) so clearly screams “liberal bias,” or at least “anti-Trump bias.” But in fact, Taibbi is just as hard on the Democratic Party as on the Republicans (he appears to have been a Sanders supporter who was not impressed with the choice of Hilary Clinton as candidate), arguing that by 2016 both political parties were so completely out of touch with the concerns of most Americans that the time was ripe for a populist outsider to come along and tap into the anger and resentment of many voters. That the outsider who did so was someone as stupendously crass and ignorant as Trump is something Taibbi blames at least in part on his other target: his own peers in the media. He argues that by dumbing down news in favour of “infotainment,” mainstream media paved the way for the terrifying “post-truth” reality that America now faces. And he offers no encouraging way forward: the book ends bleakly in the aftermath of the election, with America left to reap what it has sown.

I agreed with just about everything in Insane Clown Presiden(except the wholesale excoriation of Hilary Clinton: Taibbi is right in some of his criticisms of her and the Clinton “machine,” but there are depths to her I don’t think he appreciates and he doesn’t seem like the kind of male writer to appreciate the toll that systemic sexism takes on a woman in public life). The same things that make him angry make me angry; the same things that scare him scare me. So I guess I was kind of the ideal reader for this book, and while I can’t say it was an enjoyable read (it ranges from horrifying to depressing), Taibbi is a sparkling writer and an insightful analyst. Even amid the rage and horror he made me laugh out loud a few times, and he definitely made me think.


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Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

hiddenfiguresAfter Emma and I saw the movie Hidden Figures, I wanted to read the book on which it was based to find out the rest of the story. And indeed there was a lot more to the story; the movie focuses on three women in the months leading up to the first US manned space flight, while the movie covers a period of over thirty years and several more characters. It’s an overview of the roles of both women and African-Americans — and most specifically, of course, African-American women — in the US space program, beginning right back with the those who were recruited to work for the military in WW2 (before space flight was even seriously considered).

The story is obviously far more sprawling and complex and it’s easy to see how the movie condensed and simplified into something theatre audiences could enjoy in two hours. But the true story is more, not less, inspiring than the movie. I loved reading about the personal lives of some of these women as well as the social forces that shaped their world. Despite some of the discrimination dramatized in the movie, in fact, the African-American women were treated much more fairly within NASA than they were in the community outside, where segregation was still reality. They could work side-by-side with white NASA employees (and even use the same washrooms, unlike how it’s depicted at the start of the movie) but their children would not be able to attend the same schools for many years. I may have skimmed a bit over the engineering and aeronautical details of the story, but I loved the human element.

One thing I found interesting in this book (and here author Shetterly is writing from her own family background, which is similar to those of the women the book celebrates) is that most of what I’ve read about the lives of African-Americans during the pre-Civil Rights era focuses on lives of either urban or rural poverty, which was certainly the reality for many. However, I knew little about the lives of upwardly mobile, educated, middle-class black Americans during those years, and this is a world that is vividly revealed in this book. It’s a world of people who truly believed that education and hard work were the only way to climb out of poverty and that those things might eventually win them true equality with white America, who created a parallel universe of black churches, colleges, sororities, even holiday resorts, because they were denied access to those run by and for whites. It’s fascinating — and also sad to realize how much systemic racism still exists in American today despite the efforts of generations of people like these women.

The book depicts the challenges of both sexism and racism within the white male world of NASA, and highlights the efforts of women who challenged both those prejudices, and succeeded in carving out brilliant careers for themselves, while breaking down barriers for the generations that came after them.

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Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks

ninepartsI wanted to read this book years ago, when I first heard of it, but I had a hold on it at the library for ages and then I think they lost their copy or something, and I forgot about it. Since writing this non-fiction book, journalist Geraldine Brooks has reinvented herself as a novelist,and I’m a huge fan of her fiction. But only when I noticed the other day that my library had Nine Parts of Desire available for loan as an e-book did I remember that I’d intended to read it. In the era of Trump’s “Muslim-ban-not-a-ban” and ISIS terrorism, understanding the role of women in Islam seems more important than ever.

I was really enjoying this book and felt I was learning a lot from it when a friend on Facebook — someone who, though not Muslim herself, has a great deal of academic knowledge and personal experience about Muslim culture in the Middle East — told me I should throw out the book, that it was considered very biased against Islam and not well-regarded by those who are knowledgeable in Middle Eastern studies. I didn’t, of course, throw out the book (how would you throw out a library e-book anyway?), and I did continue reading and enjoying it, but I proceeded with more caution.

It’s important, I think, to remember that this book is not a scholarly or exhaustive study of women’s roles in Islam. Rather, it’s a cross between memoir and journalism. The Australian-born Brooks, who was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism when she married a Jewish American, was working as a journalist in Egypt in the late 1980s when she was shocked to see her co-worker, a very Westernized, secular young Egyptian woman, show up to work one day fully veiled. Her co-worker’s conversion to a fundamentalist form of Islam that required her to cover up in public and seek an arranged marriage with an equally fundamentalist man (which does not seem to work out very well, but frustratingly, Brooks never tells us the end of this story), drove Brooks’s curiosity. She wanted to know what would make a modern woman step back into what appeared to be a regressive, ancient culture.

This curiosity fuels Brooks’s investigations, both into the history of Islam and into the lives of dozens of women she interviewed in Egypt, Iran, Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Palestine, and Eritrea. She talks to women about wearing the veil, about marriage and sexuality, about sports, about politics, about belly dancing. She interviews Jordan’s Queen Noor and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s daughter as well as many ordinary women from all walks of life. The experiences of the women she interviews are extremely diverse, but she does mainly focus on women who, either by choice or by the edict of their government, wear the veil (often the full chador) and follow a fairly strict fundamentalist form of Islam. Some of the women she spoke to were very happy with a fundamentalist life; others actively rebelled against it. 

I didn’t find Brooks’s book to be anti-Muslim; she is often at pains to go back to the original texts — the Quran, hadith, and legends of the Prophet and his wives — to show how today’s Islamic fundamentalists interpret women’s roles in far harsher ways than the texts prescribe. She also makes it clear there are Islamic cultures and Muslim women who aren’t bound by such narrow literalism, and that many of the practices she condemns — female genital mutilation, forced marriages (including child marriage) and honour killings — are more cultural than religious in nature and are practiced by non-Muslims in similar cultures also. However, her disapproval and astonishment that women could choose, support, and defend lifestyles that restrict their freedom in so many ways definitely comes through, even when interviewing women she clearly likes and admires.

This book was published in 1995 – before 9/11; before the second Iraq war; before ISIS. Misconceptions about Islam and anti-Muslim prejudice are more extreme here than they were 22 years ago when the book came out, and I can see how my more knowledgeable friend’s frustration with Brooks’s work might partly stem from concerns that reading this book might make readers more likely to write off Islam as a backward, repressive religion. I didn’t come away feeling that, but I did feel, as Brooks clearly does, how incomprehensible it is for us Western feminists that some women choose a form of their religion that seems to repressive to us. Even more, I felt that we have to champion the rights of those women who did not choose this form of Islam but have had it forced upon them by religious authorities, family, or government — young girls who do not want to be married off to strangers or have their genitals mutilated; young women who want the freedom to pursue whatever careers they desire or choose their own life partners. Whether these abuses of women’s rights are carried out in the name of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or native/pagan religions in any part of the world, they are to be resisted and spoken out against.

This was the message I took away from Nine Parts of Desire, and it didn’t decrease my respect for Muslims or my desire to speak out for their rights to practice their religion freely, even while recognizing that some extreme expressions of that religion are not compatible with the values of our society (but the same could be said of many religions, including Christianity). I found Geraldine Brooks’s reflections, as an outsider in Middle Eastern culture, intriguing and insightful, but I will also take my friend’s recommendation and seek out books that might provide a more research-based and well-rounded view of Islamic women’s lives.

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