Category: book review

2021 Reading

By , December 19, 2021 2:36 pm

I did not read nearly enough books this year. Blame it on the pandemic, I conveniently and shamefully say.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

I started and got 300 pages into Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, really liking the personal and family bits. But I found myself politically tired as I read the sections on passing bills in Congress. By the time Afghanistan rolled around I could not stomach it anymore. I really admire Obama’s non-cynical nature and his careful examinations of his decisions. However, reading about damned if you do and damned if you don’t discussions on Afghanistan just tested my patience too much and I abandoned the book, hoping to return one day.

Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth-Century to  Modern Times by Lucy Lethbridge

This one I got through pretty quickly. As usual I picked it up at my local Book City on one of the remains table. Liking social histories, I thought it would offer a good perspective on those who don’t always make it to the historical headlines, domestic servants. Yes, I’m a fan of Downtown Abbey and I used this book as a measuring stick to gage Julian Fellows’ historical accuracy! That aside, the book was fast moving, filled (nay – jammed) with incredible quotes. The only problem was I probably ended up learning more about the wealthy employers than the servants themselves. That is partially owing to the nature of the sources.

21 Things You May Not Know About The Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make  Reconciliation With Indigen..., Book by Bob Joseph (Paperback) |

I have no problem plainly saying that every Canadian should read this book. Though I considered myself relatively educated about the Indian Act prior to reading this short but devastating book, I realize that was just dispersed knowledge. Here Bob Joseph puts it all together, with historical context, quotes and commentary, in a way that is incredibly readable and relevant. There is just no way to understand Canada’s history without a full picture of the intents and damages of the Indian Act.

Romeo and Juliet (No Fear Shakespeare)

I’m not ashamed to admit I read Romeo and Juliet for the first time in modern English “translation.” Though I am of course familiar with the story through movies and the ballet (to which I took my mom some years ago), I had not actually read the play (it was Twelfth Night for grade 9s at St. Andrew’s Junior High School back in the 1980s). I started out reading the original play but I found it very difficult to navigate those little footnoted comments on the bottom of the page. My aging brain just could not handle going back and forth – it just broke the momentum of the narrative. So I picked up a few copies of the No Fear version, intending to read it with one of my credit recovery students. That didn’t happen. Nevertheless, I found it a fast-moving, relatable story. It provoked some uncomfortable thoughts about young love and its not so reliable passions.

I have now nearly finished this new book from Margaret MacMillan. Even when I am tired on my morning subway and bus rides, if I am sitting, I pull it out. It’s quite an addictive, easy read. Most of the examples are western, many pulled from the World War One era. Obviously I feel most comfortable with this book when it’s on familiar terrain (both the author’s and mine). She challenges me as a history teacher who likes to ignore war as too messy a subject, reminding me that so much comes of war. True. True. As much as I have enjoyed it, I would like to see the author stop using “the great” as a descriptor for all kinds of historical figures. It drives me mad!!!

The few other books I read this year have already been reviewed on this blog: David Chariandy’s I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, Melissa Gould’s Widowish, and Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe.

I resolve to read more this year, starting with Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers which I just received as a gift from the kind and generous Barry Pietersen.

Special magazine mentions:

When I’m on the streetcar heading down to riding at the Horse Palace, I often bring a copy of The Walrus or Scientific American. Here are some standout articles from this year.

“Journey into the Americas” by Jennifer Raff, Scientific American, May 2021 – about when and where the early people of North America came from (I am fascinated by this topic as a world history teacher)

“Deadly Kingdom” by Maryn McKenna, Scientific American, June 2021 – about the rise of fungal diseases (surprises lurking)

“Why Animals Play” by Caitlin O’Connell, Scientific American, August 2021 – who wouldn’t want to read an article accompanied by cute animal photos

“Lifting the Venus Curse” by Robin George Andrews, Scientific American, September 2021 – the case for new missions to study one of Earth’s closest neighbours

“Women at Risk” by Melinda Wenner Moyer, Scientific American, September 2021 – part of a special report on autoimmune diseases, this article really shows the double burden of the female body – incredibly interesting potential reasons why suffer disproportionately from autoimmune diseases such as lupus.

“Northern Inroads” by Gloria Dickie, The Walrus, Jan./Feb. 2021 – surprising ways China is making its way into Canada’s north

“How Immigration Really Works” by Kelly Toughill, The Walrus, May 2021 – we always think of federal jurisdiction when it comes to immigration but these days so much more is locally driven

“Justice on Trial” by Eva Holland, The Walrus, June 2021 – Canada’s legal system through the eyes of Indigenous Canadians

“Students for Sale” by Nicholas Hune-Brown, The Walrus, Sept./Oct. 20`21 – an indictment of the international student racket run by Canadian colleges and universities.

“The Campus Mental Heath Crisis” by Simon Lewsen, The Walrus, November 2021 – important reading for a high school teacher – the need to know what happens to mental health after high school is pressing

“The RCMP Revisited” by Jane Gerster, The Walrus, November 2021 – fascinating history of the national police force and its origins in the policing of reserves

Four Books – Black Lives Matter

By , August 19, 2020 7:33 am

The Yellow House had been on my book list since I saw it noted on Barack Obama’s end of 2019 list. It did not disappoint. Sarah M. Broom has written a memoir integrated with a family history and an urban history of a part of New Orleans that the ordinary tourist would not be familiar with. The lens, of sorts, for her history is the small yellow house her family lived in in New Orleans East.

Broom’s family history centres on her mom’s house. Ivory Mae, who unfortunately had two husbands die on her, had 12 kids from her two marriages. They did not all grow up in the house but some of them have a strong connection to it and the neighbourhood that started out as a dream of a planned suburb yet ended up a forgotten, somewhat dilapidated wasteland crossed by a very dangerous highway.

After the house was seriously damaged in Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then taken down by the city, Broom went on an odyssey to figure things out: who is she, what’s her identity? What’s her relationship to New Orleans? Most importantly, for me at least, how did New Orleans become so dysfunctional, often at the expense of its Black citizens?

Some things you learn about the narrowly integrated schools are very disappointing, such as that this obviously smart girl is never steered toward any top colleges. A fiercely independent person, Broom managed to get herself to college in Texas and eventually on to a Masters in journalism at Berkeley in California.

This book takes you from New Orleans East to New York, to Burundi back to New Orleans (to the French Quarter, the part of the city we all know about, where Broom lived for a year while researching for her book). I can’t say I understood how the Burundi chapter fit in, but I definitely liked when she came back (not necessarily home) to New Orleans.

I look forward to Sarah Broom’s next book, hoping she’ll veer more towards history as she is clearly a talented researcher and writer.



The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty is not a book I sought out. I had heard of the author before (having seen him do a guest appearance on a southern American cooking show, the Chef and the Farmer, on PBS). Finding it at Book City, I thought, why not? I like food. I know who Twitty is. I’m interested in African-American history.

What a perfect book for me! Twitty is a lyrical writer, if the food associated with slavery can be described in lyrical terms. He has a very big personality which he lets shine through in this memoir crossed with a history. The general premise is that he is searching for his family’s history through its relationship to food. He dives very deeply into genealogy, the flora and fauna of the south (its many parts – it is not a one-note region). While doing this he is giving a history of enslaved people in America.

This book jolted my memory back to life. When I was in university, I studied a lot about the American South, particularly about slavery. I had almost forgotten how important migration was in the internal history of slavery in America. Twitty reminded me that, in addition to the forced migration of the millions of enslaved people from Africa, there were also the migrations west and south as cotton supplanted tobacco and farmers sought out new land (in the process also displacing Native peoples). Twitty includes in his study some painful accounts of enslaved families being sold apart as these migrations took place. There was also the migration of millions of Black people escaping the horrors of the South post Reconstruction, and post both world wars. Twitty’s point is that the food always accompanied these journeys.

Another strong theme of Twitty’s is the intertwining of the history of Black and White people in the south. Genetically, yes. Culturally, yes. The roots of the southern diet are in West Africa, not surprisingly. The roots of Twitty’s family (or at least part of it) are there, too. When discussing the kitchen and Black cooks and other enslaved people, he cannot and does not avoid the subject of rape. The genes bear it out; Twitty is able to trace quite a number of his White slaveholder ancestors.

Of all the books I’ve read lately, the author I’d most like to meet would be Michael W. Twitty. In his writing, both personal and historical, he so obviously has a huge. giving heart. He truly feels that the food we eat proves that we’re all together in this messy struggle of life.

There are recipes, none of which this vegan will be making. But that really isn’t the point of this fascinating book.


Definitely the best known of the three books is Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Quite a few people had recommended this book to me. I’m just sorry it took me so long to listen!

I cannot say just how much I enjoyed this book from the very first comedic anecdote to the poignant end. Though it’s a personal memoir (actually more of a family memoir), Noah weaves in his very sharp-tongued interpretation of South African history prior to almost each chapter.

Though I have studied apartheid rather well (or so I thought), there’s a lot I learned from this book. Trevor Noah, as a smart observer, offers insights into the way apartheid was designed to work to keep South Africa’s diverse population separate. His vantage point, as a mixed-race child in a country that outlawed such relationships, gave him the ability to cross boundaries and languages and ways of life as he grew up.

Much like Sarah Broom in The Yellow House,  Noah has written an ode to his mother, Patricia Noah, a very strong, independent character.  His ability to translate her fierce personality on to the page is a huge star in this book.

Despite containing a number of very sad and scary moments, the book is full of humour (not surprisingly), astute historical interpretations, and adept characterizations. I would love for my grade 12 world history students to read it. I have now passed on my copy to my sister-in-law and have reserved it for my husband next. I can’t wait to discuss some of the stories with them – for now I am holding my tongue.


None of the above books relate to Canadian history and the experience of Black Canadians. That is a shortcoming that I definitely must address.

However, for school I recently read a young adult novel called Brother by Canadian author David Chariandy. What a beautiful (but difficult) story written by a gifted writer.

Chariandy constantly flashes back to 1991 to the youths of the two main characters, brothers Michael and Francis. Their mom, Ruth,  is also portrayed as a very strong, independent character, even despite the understandable setbacks she suffers in the wake of Francis being shot.

The city itself is a character in this book: the family’s ventures into the haven of the Rouge River valley; Francis’ social hangout at Desirea’s barbershop; the local air-conditioned library branch where Michael’s relationship with his first girlfriend Aisha develops; the maze of apartments where the family lives, described as such:

“All around us in the Park were mothers who had journeyed far beyond that they knew, who took day courses and worked nights, who dreamed of raising children who might reward sacrifice and redeem a past. And there were victories, you must know. Fears were banished by the scents from simmering pots, denigration countered by a freshly laundered tablecloth. History beaten back by the provision of clothes and yearly school supplies. ‘Examples’ were raised.”

The story is difficult, lives are lost. I cried my way through this book, for sure. But how relevant it is to read an account of 1991’s the summer of the gun when real neighbourhoods that “The Park” is modeled on are living it everyday, sadly.

After a neighbourhood  shooting, Michael, the narrator comments: “You caught in the eyes of strangers the suspicion or outright fear. You sensed the halo of menace above your head, glimpsed the turbulence swirling behind as you walked. On TV and in the papers, politicians promised to crack down on criminals, which echoed agreements from suited community spokesmen. But criminals weren’t the only target. Every day, neighbourhood kids were stopped by the cops, the questions about their actions and whereabouts more probing. We were being watched by everyone, shopkeepers, neighbours, passersby.”

Every Toronto student should read this book. In fact, I bought it to read with some students, but that didn’t quite work out. Next year, if I have students in credit recovery who didn’t read a novel the first time around, this will be the book we will read together. I am looking forward to their reactions!

And I must read some of Chariandy’s other books.






My Best Books of the Last Two Decades

By , December 31, 2019 9:14 am

You will notice that my list is almost entirely non-fiction. I do not apologize for this at all.

More and more students tell me they don’t read. That I find highly depressing and I want to inspire them to get their minds working! Offline.

Reading does truly take you to new worlds.

Don’t be prehistoric.  Read!



Top 10 Books of 2000-2020

Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel, 1999 (so I count it as within the parameters as I read the paperback version). I have repeatedly said that this is my favourite book of all time. Given to me by a beloved student, this book is deeply personal yet also historical. It made Galileo, an arrogant yet brilliant guy, one of my favourite characters in history.


Becoming by Michelle Obama, 2018. I especially enjoyed the first part of the book about her childhood in Chicago. She’s candid and thoughtful and has a sense of social history without being ‘historical’. I honestly didn’t pay much attention to her when she was First Lady but I’m very impressed with her now.


The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, 2006. This book got me started on my journey toward veganism. Pollan, a journalist, investigates the American food system and alternatives to factory farming.


Salt by Mark Kurlansky, 2002. One of the first “commodity” books about the history of a thing. The author takes you on a trip shaped around everything related to salt, its making, different types that come from different parts of the world.


Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang, 2013. A book about a very powerful figure (yet highly limited because of being a woman) with good and bad sides. History is complicated – very rarely will we find someone to admire 100%.


Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome by Anthony Everitt, 2009. Ever since I had to compare Hadrian and Trajan in a 2003 course on Roman history, I have had an interest in Hadrian (I chose him as a better ruler than Trajan). He was a complicated fellow, shall we say, who had very good intentions. But he was not nearly as well liked as his predecessor, the wildly popular Trajan.


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, 2015. A wonderful writer who loves her subject makes for an excellent read. She has humour, ability to make the reader forget the present, and sharp analytical honesty. No wonder I am now on my third Mary Beard book. I hope to review it soon on the blog. She’s also a tv presenter of the most casual nature – I love how she travels to historical and archaeological sites in her high tops.


The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed by Judith Flanders, 2003. Maybe this too can be seen as a commodity book? It takes every room in a Victorian house and looks at the historical context, weaving in technology and gender roles and expectations. It took me forever to read this dense book but it was worth it!


The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols by Genevieve von Petzinger, 2017. An anthropologist’s attempt to make sense of the symbols on paleolithic cave walls. It’s very scientific yet also takes some liberties to try to help the reader feel what it might have been like to be part of a paleolithic community.


Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert, 2015. Probably the best researched book I have ever read. This book looks at every angle on cotton and its interwoven history with industrialization, slavery and imperialism.


Fiction (mostly books I read for English credit recovery, but I only listed them here if I enjoyed them)

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, 1996 – I admit that I was sparked to read it by the 2017 tv series. However, I really enjoyed the mix of fiction and fact (real-life letters from the time of the trial of Grace Marks for an 1843 murder north of Toronto).

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 2008. Much better than the movie! Sure, it’s a young adult novel, but it has sharply drawn, complicated characters.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, 1937. I originally read this book in grade 10 English class and I can’t say that it had any impact on me then. Reading it now, I see so much more in it – small, meaningful details in the sparsely written descriptions and keen dialogue.


Overall, what does my list say about me?

I’m a vegan historian.


Happy reading in 2020.

Summer Reading

By , July 20, 2019 7:51 pm

With more time to read, I’ve recently finished Ross King’s Mad Enchantment. It’s the story of Claude Monet and the painting of his water lilies. Obviously I’m a fan of Ross King having read five of his other art history books. I quite liked the style of this one but I can’t quite say the same for Monet. A person can love his art yet think he was a big whining old fart. At least in the later stage of his life, Monet was a disagreeable codger who got a lot of favours done for him during World War I. Otherwise, it’s an interesting portrait of Georges Clemenceau, a figure I knew little of.

I’m nearly done Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, a really intriguing book. To say that Temujin had a hard life is a gigantic understatement. But to say that he was smart is too. The author is fairly heavily biased toward the great khan, but he backs it up with a lot of details about how he unified the Mongols. Unfortunately not all of his children and grandchildren were so intellectually inclined. I’m just at the part now where Kublai Khan takes over China. It’s quite a different story than what we read in the textbooks. Where the truth lies, I’m not sure. I’ll have to research that more. One thing that has struck me is the religious openness of the Mongols – aside from their own form of spiritualism, there were also Mongol Christians, Buddhists and Muslims. In this book the Mongols are painted as early globalizers. Fascinating and timely.

I’m well into The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. However, I can’t seem to keep with it. I absolutely love the writing and am enamoured of the main character, Aminata; it’s just too sad. It’s rare for me to read fiction so I’m kind of daring myself to finish it despite the horrible subject matter.




By , August 7, 2017 12:28 pm

Mark Kurlansky, Paper, 2016


I don’t necessarily read a Mark Kurlansky book about “something” to learn stuff about that thing. I prefer all the other things I learn along the way. In that sense, Paper didn’t disappoint. The journey included interesting stops on the topics of Egyptian papyrus, Chinese calligraphy, the Reformation, the American Revolution, the industrial process (which I am really into right now), the rag trade, and of course the printing process.

Years ago I read Kurlansky’s Salt (2002) and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was probably my first “commodity biography”, or book about a certain thing. From then I went on to acorns, soil, cochineal (little red bugs that make ink), cotton, and various other things that I can’t recall anymore. I do recall enjoying this type of historical tourism – learning a bit of this, a bit of that as I vicariously travel the globe. One more reason why I don’t need to travel in real life.

Perhaps in the subsequent years I have come to expect more of a narrative linking the tourist sites (or topics) together. Though I really like Kurlansky’s thesis, I think he only threw it in when he remembered it was important.

The narrative arc that is supposed to join the book together is what he calls the ‘technological fallacy’: “Technological inventions have always arisen from necessity. … Studying the history of paper exposes a number of historical misconceptions, the most important of which is this technological fallacy: the idea that technology changes society. It is exactly the reverse. Society develops technology to address the changes that are taking place within it.

I totally agree with this. From my somewhat Luddite standpoint in this technologically obsessed world, I wish people would recognize that the technology they use doesn’t have to drive them. Oh well, seems I’m a total loser on that one.

I agree with Kurlansky that, in historical comparison, we are not living in the most change-driven era ever. Certainly the era of the 1790s to the late 1800s was seeing much more change in daily life than we are. And the changes were far-reaching in their impact, at home where the machinery may have been putting people out of work, and abroad where slavery and imperialism were working hand in hand to entrench the use of non-white people as labour to feed the white industrialized world. That is the thesis of Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert (2015), an incredibly well researched, thorough book that holds onto its thesis very tightly. Perhaps in that sense I’m a bit disappointed with Paper because it’s more of a journalistic effort than a true history. But it’s not really a fair comparison.

Paper is still as ubiquitous as ever, despite the so-called digital revolution. Everyone should have a sense of its history. I recommend Paper, whether you read it on a e-reader or in book form. No big shock that I only read books on paper. Otherwise my library would be physically empty.





By , July 20, 2017 12:00 pm

No, not the animal. GOAT – greatest of all time. Roger Federer? While he has now won eight Wimbledon titles and 19 majors overall, he may be a contender. It’s hard to imagine him self-labeling as GOAT. I don’t know him, of course, but he doesn’t seem the egotistical type.


(ATP World Tour photo)

The most famous of all should be Muhammad Ali, the boxer, not the Egyptian khedive (for those of you who are history-minded). Ali appears to have first used this phrase to describe himself, though not necessarily the acronym which seems to be a more recent phenomenon.

Full disclosure: I hate boxing. However, I was thoroughly engrossed in David Remnick’s 1998 partial biography King of the World: Muhammad Ali and  the Rise of an American Hero. It’s more of a social history  – my favourite – than a boxing tale though it certainly does have some colourful descriptions of his most famous matches with Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. Much in the same vein as Ken Burns’s documentaries Jazz and Baseball opened the door on segregation in the US, especially in the northern states where one might not have expected it to be so strong, King of the World reveals the boxing world of early to mid-1960s in its all its grittiness. In today’s parlance, we might say it was a highly racialized playing field. Ali, with his ties to the Nation of Islam (or Black Muslims as they were derisively known by Ali’s critics), was a crucial figure in trying to recast the Black boxer as an independent figure. Not the white man’s Black man, not the Black civil rights integrationist hero.

Front Cover


Since Ali died in 2016 there have been many tributes and documentaries that have portrayed him as the ultimate American hero, most notably as the final torch bearer at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games opening ceremony. However, it’s important to remember that he wasn’t always perceived as a hero by the American public, thus the “rise of an American hero” in Remnick’s title. Because he associated with Malcolm X (before breaking off ties with him as per Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s wishes), because he out-rightly expressed his desire not to integrate but to remain separate, at this stage of his career Ali faced a huge public backlash. Certain sports columnists refused to even refer to him as Muhammad Ali.

At least at the stage of his career highlighted in this book, Ali was a complicated character, at once a professional athlete with excellent training habits and a fast-talking provocative player with a mouth as big as his talent.

I urge readers to pick up the book and find out for themselves what Ali – one of the world’s most celebrated heroes – was really like. It won’t hurt that Remnick, New Yorker editor, is a fabulous writer.








H Is For Hawk

By , July 14, 2017 11:24 am


I just bought this book, and I just finished this book. Usually I am not a quick reader; in fact, I am reading four other books right now. On so many levels I just could not put it down.

Absolute kudos to Helen Macdonald, an absorbingly beautiful nature writer. I love nature (to look at it) and I love birds: What a wonderful combination in the hands of Macdonald. Weave in some psychology, history and literature and you have an enthralling story. Fellow history person (she is a teacher of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge University), Macdonald was, from a young age, obsessed with hawks and became a falconer. The book tells the story of how she trained a goshawk after the sudden death of her father, a very special person in her life. So yes, it is a psychological tale of coping with grief through depression.

There are many reasons why I wouldn’t like, or even want to read, this book. Admittedly the goshawk is a bird I had never heard of. I looked it up in our birding books at the cottage. My closest experience is with “Ossie”, the osprey that visits the tallest branch of the tree at the cottage next to ours. Ospreys are related to eagles, not hawks. Both eat meat (well, ospreys eat fish). The book contains many vivid descriptions of hawks tearing apart rabbits or being fed baby chicks. More correctly, during the training process, Mabel the hawk would catch the rabbits and Helen the trainer would kill them. Not exactly a book for vegans, one would think.

The other reason the book wouldn’t seemingly be fit for me is that it is a literary exploration of falconry through the ages, and I, directly, don’t do literature. In particular, Macdonald weaves into her personal story the biography and work of TH White, author of The Once and Future King, the source material for the play Camelot. I know nothing about King Arthur and Merlyn and all that stuff. Have no interest in it whatsoever. However, Helen Macdonald does a masterful job of making the reader care about this complicated character, even a misfit,  who also tried to train a goshawk.

Now on to finish David Remnick’s King of the World: Muhammad Ali and Rise of an American Hero which I started a few months ago at the cottage. Ali (then still Cassius Clay) is about to win his first big fight against Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston. From great nature writing to masterful sports writing.

Alternative view 1 of King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero


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