Please Scream Inside Your Heart, by Dave Pell

This is another one I listened to as an audiobook which is hard to categorize, although I did really enjoy it. It’s an almost day-by-day journey through 2020 from the perspective of someone who admittedly consumes way too much media (Pell produces an online newsletter called NextDraft that offers “a quick and entertaining look at the day’s most fascinating news”); it’s a summary of American’s twin obsessions in that year — Donald Trump and Covid-19 — and how they were entwined; it’s also a memoir of Pell’s own personal and family response to the events of the year. The family perspective is particularly interesting as both Pell’s parents were Holocausts survivors, and their observations about the growing right-wing movement in the United States form a backdrop to the ever-escalating crises of life in 2020 America.

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Unmask Alice, by Rick Emerson

Right after racing through the audiobook of Tim Miller’s Why We Did It, I started listening to the very different, but equally compelling Unmask Alice, which I came to by way of the podcast You’re Wrong About, which did a three-part series on Go Ask Alice, part 3 of which featured Rick Emerson with an interview and a recommendation to read his book for the rest of the story.

I’m not sure why I found this so compelling, apart from the usual reason with great non-fiction: I didn’t know I was interested in the subject until someone wrote about it in such an engaging way that I couldn’t put it down (or turn it off, in the case of an audiobook).

I’ve never actually read Go Ask Alice, though the book has been around almost my entire life (published in 1971). I was always aware of it in a vague way as part of the culture: the anonymous diary of a teenager who died as a result of drug use (mostly LSD). I also had a sense that it might be a fake diary, and learned a bit more about it from episodes of the podcasts Worst Bestsellers and the above-mentioned You’re Wrong About. But with Unmask Alice I took a very, very deep dive into the world of author Beatrice Sparks and her best-known books, Go Ask Alice and Jay’s Journal (about a teenaged boy who dies by suicide after becoming involved with satanism and the occult).

Long story short: after some incredibly exhaustive and detailed research, Emerson concludes that Beatrice Sparks was pretty much a fraud through and through. She didn’t have the psychology degree (much less the PhD) that she claimed to have; she may have done some volunteer work in hospitals or programs that worked with troubled youth but she certainly was not a therapist or counsellor, which she represented herself as being. What, then, of her claims that Alice’s, Jay’s, and other diaries came her way as part of her work as a youth counsellor, or that other books were based on her case notes? Sketchy at best — especially in the case of Jay’s Journal, which was very loosely based on the real diary of a sixteen-year-old boy who died by suicide and whose mother gave the diary to Sparks, only to feel horribly betrayed by what she made of it. The true story that may have provided the germ of the original Alice book is not explored in nearly as much detail here as the “Jay” story is, because the author had permission to speak to and write about “Jay”‘s family and friends, whereas the people involved in “Alice”‘s story wished to have their privacy protected. But the broad outlines of that story are sketched here too, and it is indeed a very different story than the one that became famous and is still selling millions of copies today.

This is a great, well researched and engagingly written story of an author who pulled off an amazing scam — but what adds a layer of interest is how Sparks’s two most famous books tie into the political and social story of America during the years they were published. The timing of Alice was fortuitous — the book got a big bump in visibility from Art Linkletter, who Sparks already knew from some previous writing gigs, during the time that Linkletter was grieving the death of his daughter from a possibly drug-related suicide. The book became part of the hysteria that led to Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” and, well, we all know how well that worked out.

As for Jay’s Journal, the parts that were complete made up and unconnected to the real story of the boy behind the diary – the occult explorations, the bizarre satanic rituals — proved to be the most interesting to readers, and fed into (possibly even helped kick-start) the 1980s “Satanic panic.” So Beatrice Sparks was far more than just an unsuccessful writer who conned her way into becoming a successful one — she was an influencer whose contributions to American society led to untold harm to a lot of innocent people. Which makes Unmask Alice not only an incredibly interesting and engaging book, but maybe an important one too.

Why We Did It, by Tim Miller

Opinions will be divided on this book, but I found it fascinating. Tim Miller is a moderately well-known “Never Trumper” who used to work in communications for several Republican politicians prior to the 2016 election. Miller was working for Jeb Bush when Trump won the primary, and his subsequent disgust with Trump and all that Trump represented, led Miller not only (eventually) away from the party altogether, but to a re-examination of how the party he had once supported and worked for led to the outcomes of 2016 and beyond.

Tim Miller never worked in the Trump administration, but for this book he tells the stories of lots of people who did — some who agreed to talk to him on record and some who did not. But he titles it Why We Did It rather than Why They Did It because Miller fully owns and admits to his own culpability in building the machine that courted the votes and empowered the voices of the same people who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 and who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

For some leftie readers, Miller’s self-examination won’t be enough to exonerate him (and I think he’d be OK with that). As a gay man working for an increasingly homophobic political party, the cognitive dissonance was already starting to get to him, but it’s valid to ask whether, if Jeb Bush had won the 2016 Republican primary, Tim Miller would still be a Republican operative. Did his growing questioning and discontent with much of his party’s direction require the catalyst of Trumpism to turn it into open rebellion, or would that have happened eventually anyway?

There’s no way to know for sure, obviously, and while Miller answers a lot of questions in this book, he doesn’t touch on that one directly. For me, as an interested Canadian who swore off my obsession with US politics after 2020 (and has mostly managed to keep distanced from it), Miller’s engaging voice, humour, and honesty were enough to draw me back in for as long as it took me to listen to this audiobook. (Worth noting that I’m using “voice” here in the metaphorical sense as this is one of those audiobooks that is narrated not by the author but by someone else. As Miller is a podcaster, his voice is quite listen-able and I don’t know why he didn’t narrate it himself as I would have enjoyed that even more, but that’s a very minor quibble).

Red Famine, by Anne Applebaum

This book about the Holodomor, the tragic (and almost completely avoidable, in fact promoted by the Soviet regime) Ukraine famine of 1932-33, took me forever to get through on audiobook — it is long, dense with detail, and on a very difficult and painful subject — but it is very relevant background to have in the light of the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia. It’s helpful to understand the pre-Communist relationship between the two countries (not that Ukraine was officially a “country” for much of that time, but Applebaum shows how Ukrainian identity and nationalism was always a powerful force and always put down by Russia). As well as learning about the famine itself, I was interested in how controversial even talking about or naming the famine (the Soviets referred to it as “food difficulties” and similar euphemisms) was for a long time, well up through the Cold War era, when sympathy with Ukrainian nationalists was often seen as a right-wing, anti-Communist position in the West (this, as well as WW2 obviously, goes a long way to explaining Putin’s current slander of all Ukrainian nationalists as “Nazis”).

Anne Applebaum clearly has little sympathy for even the most lofty ideals of the Russian Communist movement, in the light of the suffering Stalin’s regime caused in Ukraine, and viewed through the lens of these events, that perspective is entirely understandable. Even when I had finished, I felt like there was a lot of nuance I still didn’t fully grasp in this book, but I certainly learned a lot more than I knew before, all of it helpful in understanding the context of the current Russia/Ukraine situation.

Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk, edited by Fiona Polack

This is a scholarly book — a collection of essays on the theme of the Beothuk, the narrative around their extinction, and what that means for how Indigenous people are perceived in Newfoundland and Labrador, among other things — but quite accessible to the interested general reader. It was loaned to me by an Indigenous friend who was helping me think through the way Indigenous characters and questions are addressed in some of my historical writing. The book is subtitled “Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk,” and reading it really did change my perspective.

What did I, as a settler child growing up St. John’s, Newfoundland, learn about the Indigenous people who lived in our part of the world before my ancestors got here? I learned that they were a people called the Beothuk, that they became extinct as a direct result of the actions of my English ancestors — something we should always feel ashamed of — and that the last Beothuk, Shawnawdithit, died in 1829, leaving the only record of her culture and language with a Scotsman named William Cormack in whose house she resided near the end of her life.

I did not learn the mythology that the Mi’kmaq helped settlers to “wipe out” the Beothuk or were enemies of the Beothuk, but that may be because (and I honestly don’t know which is worse), I didn’t learn anything about the Mi’kmaq, or about the Innu of Labrador either, until I was a young adult. I knew there were what we once called “Eskimos” — Inuit people — in Labrador, but did not learn anything about Mi’kmaq and Innu people, two First Nations groups living in the province where I grew up and got my education.

In recent years I’ve become aware of some of the ways in which the “Beothuk extinction” story, and the way it’s told, have been challenged, and of the likelihood that there are people today who may identify as Mi’kmaq, as Innu, as white/English, or as mixed-race, who have Beothuk ancestors. The once-popular idea that Beothuk lived entirely to themselves and all died out without any of them ever taking refuge among or intermarrying with other Indigenous people or settlers, now seems more unlikely.

But what does this mean, in terms of the way we understand “extinction”? This what this book really helped me to think about (including challenging some ideas in ways that were uncomfortable for me, which is always good for learning). Several of the essays in this book (one that particularly stood out for me was Lianne C. Leddy’s “Historical Sources and the Beothuk: Questioning Settler Interpretations”) forced me to think about how the story of Beothuk extinction functions as a guilt-inducing myth, but also as both a romantic and a convenient myth, for the province’s British-descended settler population.

When I say “myth” I don’t mean it’s entirely untrue. No author in this volume would, I think, debate the fact that the loss of the Beothuk nation as a distinct identity, the loss of Beothuk language and history, was a huge and significant loss. The fact that people are alive today who share DNA with Beothuk ancestors does not in any way erase or excuse the genocide of a people. But by framing our story of Beothuk/settler interactions in terms of the Beothuk as a “vanished people,” we deny their continuity with and similarity to other Indigenous groups in the region, often going so far as to frame it in terms of, as Maura Hanrahan writes in her essay, “Good Indians and Bad Indians.” The essay is subtitled: “Romanticizing the Beothuk and Denigrating the Mi’kmaq.”

No white settler today (except someone who was out as a horrendous racist) would say aloud “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” as several white Americans in the 19th century, including Teddy Roosevelt, are reputed to have said. But there is something convenient in the myth of the “good dead Indians” — the mysterious, noble people of the past we are so sorry we accidentally made extinct — contrasted with the complicated, messy, living Indigenous people of today, who come complete with land claims and social problems and, in many cases, mixed Indigenous/settler heritage so that we are able to question them on whether they are really “Indian enough” to deserve the respect we posthumously give the Beothuk.

These are tangly and difficult questions here in Newfoundland, where settler-Newfoundlanders are quick to criticize if Mi’kmaq leaders are perceived as “speaking for the Beothuk,” while sometimes being quite willing to do that speaking ourselves. This book made me question many of the narratives I had absorbed consciously and unconsciously: to wonder why I knew so much about the version of the Beothuk story based on James Howley’s work, for example, and had never heard of the work of Frank Speck, which presents the idea of Beothuk “extinction” in a rather different light. Why I knew the stories of Demasduit and Shawnawdithit so well, but not the story of Santu Toney (on whom this book contains an excellent essay).

That my settler ancestors moved onto this land as if it was theirs for the taking; that they pushed the Indigenous Beothuk population to the point of extinction while marginalizing or assimilating the Mi’kmaq, Innu, and Inuit populations — these are not just historical tragedies, but historical crimes. What this book does is question and explore the stories we tell about these histories, and how the way we think about the Beothuk people impacts our understanding of Indigenous people in Newfoundland and Labrador today.

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

This was a very long audiobook that took me several weeks (on and off) to listen to, but it was well worth it. It’s a very detailed (though for a general audience, not scholarly) analysis of the Great Migration, the movement of Black people from the American south beginning during the First World War and continuing until the civil rights era in the 1960s and early 70s. The breadth and scope of this book is impressive, sweeping through several decades of American history and looking at the reasons for the migration and the impacts of it in many different Northern and Western cities where the migrants settled. However, this broad scope is balanced by a personal focus: out of the many migrants Wilkerson interviewed in the 1990s when most were elderly, she chose three individuals — one woman and two men — who all migrated from different places in the South, to different Northern cities, in different decades (the 30s, 40s and 50s), and traces each of their stories throughout their lives. Telling the story in this way — three individual histories unfolding against the background of the much bigger story of two or three generations of migrants seeking freedom and better lives — makes the whole movement come alive for the reader. We see the horrific Jim Crow-era racism that forced these people to leave — and also the more veiled but just as real racism that they faced in the North upon arrival. This book is social history at its best and I learned so much from it.

This Land is Their Land, by David J. Silverman

As this book’s subtitle suggests, it takes on the familiar American origin story of the “first Thanksgiving” and demythologizes it, telling the real story of encounters between the English settlers at Plymouth/Patuxet, and the Wampanoag people who were (and are!) native to that area. In fact, the book goes far beyond the traditional and much-misrepresented Thanksgiving story, and is a thorough history of the Wampanoag in the century immediately before and after the settler landing of 1620.

An important caveat going into this book is that the author is a settler historian whose area of study is colonial and indigenous American history; he is not himself Wampanoag or Indigenous at all. So, while he spoke extensively to contemporary Wampanoag people as well as doing the usual historical research, he acknowledges that this is not a Wampanoag telling of their history and that his version differs from Wampanoag oral tradition at some key points. With that in mind, this is still an important book. Scholar have access to many, many written accounts of settlers’ interactions with the Wampanoag and even some documents written (both in England in their own language) by Wampanoag people themselves, so there is a rich trove of material that allows a scholar to recreate much of what can be known about these people and their world.

I picked this book up because I am researching the life of Tisquantum, the Wampanoag man who spent some time in Newfoundland, probably at the Cupids colony, around 1617-1618. He was later known to the Plymouth settlers as Squanto, who acted as a translator for the Wampanoag sachem, but I was interested in finding out as much as I could about the culture he would have come from before being abducted and sold into slavery by an English captain (which was the beginning of the long journey that led him to Newfoundland and eventually back home to Patuxet). I found this book a really interesting, detailed and insightful telling of the first years of English settlement in what is now New England, told with the focus not on the settler experience, as usual, but on the Indigenous experience. The book covers in details up to the time of the Wampanoag uprising that the English called “King Philip’s War,” and then in two brief chapters at the end summarizes what happened to the Wampanoag people in the 350 years following those events and the attempts of current-day Wampanoag people to reclaim their land, culture, language and history.

Midnight Chicken, by Ella Risbridger

This is a cookbook. It’s not even a particularly useful cookbook for me, although it does have some lovely recipes one or two of which I might try. It’s not especially useful because:

  • The author is English, so all the amounts are in metric, and like most Canadians of my generation, I drive and weather in metric and cook in imperial, so I would have to convert everything to follow a recipe.
  • Ditto on being English — lots of ingredients I don’t recognize or can’t get here.
  • I have it as an e-book which is not the best format for kitchen use.

Also, I wouldn’t normally count a cookbook as a book I’d “read and would review on this blog. I’d just flip through it and look up recipes I like. However, this is the sort of cookbook where every recipe is introduced with a long, thoughtful introduction that tells us something about the cookbook-writer’s life and what this recipe means to her, so it reads a bit like a memoir studded with gorgeous descriptions of food, even though it is mainly a cookbook.

I bought it for the memoir. I first became aware of Ella Risbridger when I began following her then-boyfriend, English writer John Underwood, on Twitter: he was tweeting about being a young person (they were both in their 20s at the time) with cancer. John wrote insightfully and hilariously about cancer, and Ella, his girlfriend who was writing a cookbook, was always there in the margins of his pieces, and like many readers I followed the story with interest, hoping for the best.

The best was not to be. John Underwood (always referred to in this book as “The Tall Man”) died in 2018, and the next year Ella published this cookbook, with many of the recipes and stories drawn from their years together. The book wasn’t really on my radar at the time; I was sad to hear of John’s death and then sort of forgot about it. But then Ella started turning up as a regular guest on the podcast Sentimental Garbage which I love to listen to and which is hosted by her good friend Caroline O’Donoghue, and Ella just is so wise and thoughtful and witty that I thought, I would like to read some of her story in her own voice, even if I have to read a bunch of recipes to get through it.

For a cookbook, this makes surprisingly good reading, and I’ve categorized it as a memoir, because it sort of is. I really loved this, and I might even make her midnight chicken, though I’ll probably fudge the conversions a bit.

The Disordered Cosmos, by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

For the first 1/4 to 1/3 of this audiobook I understood almost nothing of what I was listening to, although I enjoyed it. That’s because physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is talking about physics, and even though this is physics broken down for the lay person, most of it went over my head. I do enjoy hearing people talk about physics; it’s fasincating, but I can’t really retain a lot of it.

However, the book goes on from there to talk about Prescod-Weinstein’s own experiences as a Black woman in the field of astrophysics — where she is a rarity. She directly attacks the idea that science can or should be “apolitical” and points out the ways in which, both in the past and the present, the practice of science has supported racism and sexism — as well as they ways in which this can and should change. I really enjoyed and learned a lot from the personal, historical, and sociological aspects of this book, even if the scientific parts mostly sailed over my head.

Into the Woods, by John Yorke

I saw a writer friend reading this book and ended up borrowing it from her. I don’t read a lot of books about writing, and when I do they’re usually more free-flowing memoir types of things with very general advice for the writing life, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s unlikely that I’d pick up a book about plot structure, but since I’m thinking a lot about it lately in trying to plan the final volume of my trilogy, I decided to give this one a try.

John Yorke is a TV writer, and he approaches the topic of story structure largely from that perspective, with his examples drawn from a wide variety of TV and movies. What he says about structure doesn’t map directly on to novels, but there were some ideas that helped me trigger thoughts about the journeys my characters are on and how I need them to be changed by the end. Plus, it was just fun and interesting reading a knowledgeable scriptwriter and showrunner talk about how stories are structured and pull examples from popular culture, so I found this an enjoyable read.