Category Archives: Nonfiction — general

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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How the Scots Invented the Modern World, by Arthur Herman

scotsinventedIt’s funny how I came to read this book over the Christmas holidays. I’d heard about the book years ago when it first came out and always thought it sounded interesting and I might read it someday (I also thought it was by the same guy who wrote How the Irish Saved Civilization, for obvious reasons of title parallelism, but it’s not)However, I never did get around to buying or borrowing a copy. During the Christmas holidays we were painting our upstairs hall and I moved a bookcase that hadn’t been moved in years. From out of the back of the bookcase fell a few books that had been shoved in there behind others, and one was a pristine, apparently unread copy of How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Obviously, at some point I did buy this book, or someone loaned or gave it to me, and then I promptly forgot that I had it.

Anyway, it was timely as I was looking for something to read just then, so I spent much of my holidays reading about the Scottish Enlightenment and a number of Scottish philosophers, inventors, entrepreneurs and educators who shaped the Western world far beyond the borders of Scotland, from the early 18th century onwards. Fascinating dip into history and an enjoyable read.

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Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

hamiltonFans of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton (which you’ll see from this series of reviews has been a bit of an obsession of mine for the past few months) know Ron Chernow’s biography as the book that started it all — the book that Lin-Manuel Miranda read that gave him the germ of an idea which eventually turned into a hip-hop musical about the guy on the ten-dollar bill, one of the US’s Founding Fathers. Hamilton is probably best known today for dying in a duel at the hands of his political enemy, Aaron Burr. Though his life ended tragically in his late forties, Hamilton had already accomplished a lifetime’s worth of work in helping to establish the fledgling United States as a cohesive nation. Though, unlike his compatriots (some friends, some enemies) Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, he never became President, his personal story is fascinating and it’s not hard to see how it inspired a work as creative as the musical.

Hamilton was distinguished from most of the other Founding Fathers by his humble beginnings — he was born outside what were then the 13 colonies, to an impoverished Scotsman and a Frenchwoman of dubious reputation, who were not legally married to each other. In that extremely class-conscious era a man less talented, brilliant and hardworking than Alexander Hamilton would have been doomed to a life of poverty and obscurity, but Hamilton’s life was marked by his dogged determination to outrun his origins.

Hamilton accomplished a lot and was in many ways an engaging character, but he certainly had his flaws and made some crucial mistakes, and Chernow doesn’t spare his subject in revealing these. Though the biography is biased in the sense that Chernow clearly admires Hamilton, it does attempt to give that rounded picture, showing all sides of the man and meticulously examining the primary sources for his life, that a more creative portrait like the musical, or a novel, can’t capture. If you are interested in American history and like weighty, well-researched biographies, check this one out — even if you’re not a fan of the musical. (Though, why would you not be?)

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Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books, by Nick Hornby

tenyearsinatubThis book is a collection of columns that Hornby wrote over a ten-year period for a magazine I’ve never heard of called The Believer, basically talking about what books he chose to read each month, what drew him to those books, and what he thought about them. Hornby is one of my favourite novelists and screenwriters, and I thoroughly enjoyed his highly personal and idiosyncratic comments on what he’s reading. He’s a very funny writer, and sometimes while reading this book I had to stop and read a sentence out loud to whoever I was with, to explain why I was laughing. 

I like that in his column he does the same thing I do on this blog: these are not critical reviews, but simply a stream-of-consciousness journey through one reader’s bookshelves. I also like his attitude towards literature, and culture generally. He relentlessly rejects the snobbery of anyone who tries to tell others what they “should” read, or watch, or listen to. I got a few book recommendations to add to my own ever-growing to-read list from Ten Years in the Tub, and I had the great pleasure of wandering down the byways of Nick Hornby’s mind, which was worth the purchase price of the book in and of itself.

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Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big MagicIf you read this blog you probably already know I’m a pretty big Elizabeth Gilbert fan. What I’m not usually a fan of are inspirational books about creativity — I mean, they have their place, and some people find them great, but when I read books like The Artist’s Way, they mostly seem to be addressing problems I don’t have. Like, yes, I believe in my own creativity and I definitely give myself permission to pursue it, so I don’t really need 300 pages telling me that it’s OK to do that. I’m there, baby.

Yet strangely, I did really enjoy Big Magic, even though it addresses many of these same things. Maybe it’s just because I like Gilbert’s writing and always find her entertaining. I find she’s refreshingly honest about her own writing, about how weird it was to write (after years of toiling away in writerly obscurity with magazine pieces and books that weren’t bestsellers) a memoir that almost accidentally because a huge hit — and then to go on being creative after that. Now, admittedly, that’s another problem I haven’t had — how to follow up on my giant successful bestseller — although I’d like to believe I could carry it off with grace and charm if required. (Give me a chance to prove myself, Universe!!!) 

Sometimes Gilbert gets a little “woo-woo” for me — like in her insistence on discussing creativity as if it’s a spiritual force with its own personality and goals, kind of a like a secular artist’s version of the Holy Spirit. But her down-to-earth good sense, her willingness to puncture lots of self-important artists’ stereotypes about “genius,” and her self-deprecating wit, make it a fun read anyway. Even though I have zero problem giving myself permission to be creative, it’s still encouraging to have someone cheering you along from the sidelines when you tackle a big project or try a new direction. As I’m thinking of trying both those things soon, this was an encouraging read.

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