Category: book review

The Five – An Astonishing And Heart-Wrenching Book

By , December 1, 2023 3:28 pm

Hallie Rubenhold possesses the best of the writer’s and historian’s skills. She gets it – and is able to communicate such in a beautiful and frank way – that history isn’t solely about the past: it’s about bettering the world of today by making the reader see complexity instead of simplicity. Late Victorian British social history carries so many parallels with today, especially the gap between rich and poor and the moralizing that goes on when one group looks at the other.

Imagine this: a book about the victims of Jack the Ripper with not a single detail about their deaths. Rubenhold has investigated every detail that can be found (or triangulated) about the lives of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine “Kate” Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

The other day while waiting for the bus outside Dufferin Station, I saw a woman sitting on the ground, obviously not in the best of health. She had many bags, was coughing, and smoking something so horribly foul smelling. It’s easy to turn a blind (or crude) eye these days to people on the streets. But I caught myself: what is the difference between her and the five women? On that same day, on the bus, a man called a woman a “f-ing b_ _ _ _.” A woman chastised him, even challenging him to a fight. I felt the spirit of the women on that bus, not because they’d be quick to a fight but because they had to stand up for themselves every single day!

Rubenhold goes to great lengths to paint many-layered pictures of the five women’s lives. The common factor was struggle, both as women and as members of the working class. She is careful to say what is not known for sure (documents being lost, not all things being able to trace). But she also uses the conditional tense throughout to infer the potential feelings and conflicts of struggling women of that time and place. This is particularly true for their relationships with the men in their lives.

Rubenhold’s subjects are women who didn’t always have a place to stay at night. Gerunds abound: tramping, charring, prostituting themselves (in only one case for sure). Signing themselves in and out of work houses. Having children die in their arms. Coming from situations where multiple siblings died. Losing parents to disease at a young age. The tragedies went on and on.

There’s a lot of talk, not surprisingly but also sensitively, of alcohol and alcoholism. In the passage below discussing the fifth victim, Mary Jane Kelly, Rubenhold shows her gift of positing what might have run through the woman’s mind:

However, drink also offered a convenient escape from a miserable existence. It dulled the fear of unwanted pregnancy and disease, a very real possibility in every penetrative encounter. It obliterated and it quieted, even for a short time, feelings of self-loathing, guilt, and pain, and traumatic memories of violence.

Earlier in the book, Rubenhold tells the complicated story of Kate Eddowes, liver of an almost nomadic life, for a time, as a seller of chapter books and ballads. Travelling Britain with her ‘husband’ Thomas Conway, they often attended hangings in search of crowds to buy their tales. In one instance, the person being hung was a relative of Kate’s. Kate, being literate, would certainly have had a hand (if not sole authorship) in the writing though Thomas seemed to see himself as the author. Rubenhold quotes from the ballad which shows sensitivity to the plight of the condemned relative. Once again Rubenhold sees the humanity in Kate even at the most gruesome time:

Satan, Thou Demon strong,

Why didst thou on me bind?

O why did I allow thy chains

To enwrap my feeble mind?

Before my eyes she did appear

All others to excel

And it was through jealousy,

I poor Harriet Segar killed.

May my end a warning be

Unto all mankind,

Think on my unhappy fate

And bear me in your mind.

Whether you be rich or poor

Your friends and sweethearts love,

And God will crown your fleeting days,

With blessings from above.

At the end of the book, Rubenhold includes a list of the items found on four of the women. I find this a particularly effective, if chilling, way to end the book. Mostly the lists are filled with items of clothing, for layers were probably a survival tactic. Kate’s list is the most interesting to me. In addition to bonnet, jacket, and multiple skirts she had tin boxes of tea and sugar, soap, knife, teaspoon, cigarette case, pawn tickets, a partial pair of glasses. Finally, “twelve pieces white rag (some slightly bloodstained (menstrual rags).”

Hallie Rubenhold has brought hidden lives back into the light.

American Prometheus

By , October 18, 2023 8:55 am

Started Sept. 20. Finished Oct. 17. Nearly 600 pages (more for the notes and bibliography)!!!

I have not seen Oppenheimer (the movie) but now I want to! I really want to record my thoughts about the book first, however.

The first thing I want to say, without meaning to overblow anything, is that this is one of the best books I have ever read. And most of the books I have read in my life are in this genre: American history (though this is technically a biography).

I absolutely love the writing style of Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. How two authors so seamlessly put together a book I do not know!?! Their research is meticulous. They are so matter of fact and relatively balanced in their interpretation of their very complex subject. Oppenheimer, if I am to believe these wonderful authors, was an incredibly layered person. I found him absolutely fascinating. That doesn’t mean that I love him; I take my cue from authors who clearly respect him but are honest and candid about his good and bad aspects. I will say, though, that I cried when he died, fittingly, at the end of the book. I was sitting in my chiropractor’s office waiting for him to come in. I think I was crying because the story was over.

My purpose here is not to review Oppenheimer’s life – read the book for that. It’s to talk about how to incorporate history into biography, successfully. The subject of a biography is usually both a reflection of their times and a shaper of their times. The best subject of a biography is also someone who grows and changes. Static subjects are boring.

Oppenheimer checks all the boxes. He came of age as a scientist near the dawn of quantum physics. He used his skills – especially of integrating other people’s work – to manage a large project (the creation of the first atomic bomb) driven by his desire to defeat the Nazis. But his true imprint lay in his attitude toward the burgeoning nuclear arms race after the war. And in his openness to new ideas across so many disciplines, not just science. So, yes, a kind of renaissance man.

What would his story have been without the context of the cold war? What would this book be without that background? It would be flat: A smart guy builds a world-changing tool and goes on to worldwide acclaim.

The full story is how Oppenheimer, a former leftist, or fellow traveller, got trapped in the cold war “purges” during the McCarthy-Hoover era. The genius of this book is how it builds to that climax so expertly, by charting how so many of his moves and those of his political enemies eventually led to the ‘trial’ that saw him lose his security clearance.

Though this book was published in 2006 – pre-Trump (almost a different world) – it is so resonant in today’s insanely polarized climate. Democracy and the civil society need to be protected. Nations need to work toward not just diplomacy, but openness and a shared purpose: protecting people. Oppenheimer wasn’t a perfect person; he made many mistakes, had difficult qualities, helped create a deadly weapon. In this book, however, he comes across as someone of purpose with a wider vision.

We can all use more of that quality, especially people serving in our governments.

Slow Summer Reading

By , August 7, 2023 7:55 pm

Less TTC, less reading.

I finally got through Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (2017).

I would not say I loved this book due to the writing style – just not my style, nothing wrong with it; however, I found it interesting enough to keep at it. And I certainly learned a lot about the Osage people and their history. I also took on board lots of new information about the early years of the FBI, but that I was not so keen on. Maybe that’s why it took me about a month to get through this book.

Note: I didn’t choose it because of the upcoming movie, though that may have helped. I was actually browsing on my local book store’s website when it came up. There were a few times when I was reading when I pictured Leonardo DiCaprio in my head. Weird.

Simply put, the book tells the true, very sad, and angering tale of the mass murder of Osage in the 1920s, up until the 1930s. Its premise is that a very well-connected white guy lauds himself as a friend of the Osage. Quite a lot of white people make their way in, too. That’s because the Osage are earning tonnes of money from their underground reservation, oil, in Osage County, Oklahoma. It was an oil rush! However, given the underlying racism of the country at the time (and probably still so), the Osage are required to have non-Indigenous guardians to manage their headrights. That’s how the murders started – greed, manipulation, and an unjust system that made it possible. Though there were some good people who worked hard to find the killer (it was suspected that the multiple murders were all directed by one man), the US and state governments, the nascent FBI, and the open-to-corruption court system just didn’t put enough into the investigation. In fact, as Grann points out at the end of the book, more people were killed than originally suspected. That’s one thing I definitely appreciated about David Grann’s narrative approach was his delineation of his historical research methods: archives, interviews, other books, etc. Working with Osage and descendants of other victims allowed Grann to piece together unknown parts of the story, expanding the conspiracy.

At the start of the book Grann goes into the history of the Osage prior to arriving in Oklahoma – look it up; it’s maddening. Given what we now know of the Canadian government’s treatment of Indigenous people here, it’s not a surprise that whatever little was given was taken away. However, they lucked out, initially, in arriving in northeastern Oklahoma because of the oil. Obviously, the moral of the story is that money does not bring happiness, especially when that money comes with conditions that put the Osage in great jeopardy.

Will I see the movie? Not if it’s on Apple TV.

Worth reading.

Spring Subway Reads

By , July 2, 2023 2:03 pm

I wanted something a bit lighter and quicker for my spring subway reading so I turned to YA fiction to keep up with possibilities for credit recovery (NOT next year). Earlier in the year I had read the entire Hunger Games series for credit recovery, though it turned out the neither student got past chapter 10. No worries, I enjoyed all three books – far more than the movies (which I also watched simultaneously on Netflix). I also read Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, more of a children’s book, as I was using it for two students in credit recovery on Mr. Bryant’s excellent recommendation. It is an excellent, easy reading book with a powerful story about a 12-year old Black boy shot in Chicago. He tells the story from the perspectives both of being dead and alive. He is taught to be a ghost boy by the ghost of Emmett Till. I wish my students had cared more about the moving nature of the book. Though it only took about two days to read, I cried a bunch of times. They got through it (which is meaningful) without much connection.

The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon; A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

I very much enjoyed the dual perspectives (two characters relate an event in different ways) in The Sun Is Also a Star. The whole time I was reading the book (about 3 days) I was thinking about how I could use these perspectives with students in English credit recovery even if they don’t read the whole book. I heard it was made into a movie as well. However, after watching the trailer I buried what I had seen. The book IS always better.

I had started A Very Large Expanse of Sea about a year ago. I got about a chapter in and decided I didn’t like it because the main character swore too much; this felt too forced. So I put it away. I decided to give it another go. This time I loved it. I guess I had to be in the right headspace to read young adult fiction. The narrator has a very strong voice and is an interesting character, not an easy-going character. I like her sharp tone. I will admit the book brought back a lot of high school memories, some pretty painful in retrospect.

How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith

This is a highly engaging, relevant, hard-hitting book. I had heard about it from the New York Times best seller list last year. So I bought it in February as part of a collection of books to be given as gifts from THHSSSC to people who came to the subject council session at the SWSH PD conference at York Mills. No one wanted it so I kept if for myself but held off taking it home feeling kind of guilty. It was worth the wait.

The subject matter is exactly the hard stuff I love reading about: the history of slavery in the US. But the framework is so clever. Clint Smith travelled to sites – museums, cemeteries, plantations, Angola state prison in Louisiana, to name a few – that have deep connections with slavery; some of them are honest about that history, some of them are not. He went on tours and spoke to fellow tour members and tour leaders. He spoke to experts and researched on his own as well. The result is a meshing of excellent history with beautifully written prose. It is both a timely book given the polarization in the US, and a timeless book given its deep, pensive approach to a very difficult conundrum: how Americans consider (or don’t) slavery in their view of their country’s history.

There were times while reading this book on the subway that I had to stop, put it down, and shake my head. During the author’s tour of the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola, I learned that the US – to this day – has a number of states that do not require unanimous jury verdicts in trials. I was floored but not shocked when I learned the reason was to sideline Black jurors. Similarly, when Smith relayed the average length of sentence in the prison is 87 years I just had to stop reading for a while. All of the chapters are very indicting but the Angola one really shocked me. I don’t know why; it is obvious that mass incarceration is a direct descendant of enslavement.

I’d like to divert to a film review here. About a month before I started reading How the Word Is Passed, I saw a meaningful documentary on Netflix. In retrospect, it pairs very effectively with this book. Descendant shares with the book the perspective that history matters, memories matter. It is the story of a community of people in Alabama who are the direct descendants of the last enslaved people brought to America from Africa over 50 years AFTER the slave trade was made illegal. The premise for the movie is that the there is a new search for the ship, the Clotilda, that was scuttled by the owners in 1860 after it dropped off 110 people in Mobile. The community, Africatown, part of Mobile, Alabama, is coming to grips with what it means, how it should be commemorated, and, for some, how it can bring tourism to the town. It turns out the story isn’t just about the ship and the people who began their forced journey to enslavement on it. The town, very similar to Africville in Nova Scotia, has been a dumping ground for heavy industry for decades as Mobile encroached. There is one moment in the film where a person is walking in a leafy, green section of the town. The camera suddenly pans up to an overhead drone shot and huge smoke stacks are revealed. The town is surrounded by pollution and has high cancer rates (reminds me of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta). One of the last scenes in the film is of a young activist who is taken on a tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC led by one of the curators who has been to Africatown to work with the community in the aftermath of the discovery of Clotilda. She is awakened to the power of history. I was ALL in.

Back to the book, I learned a lot even though I consider myself knowledgeable about slavery in the US. Starting with Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia, Monticello, Smith reports facts about his selling and moving of enslaved people as a means of paying off his personal debts. Some white women on the tour were shocked. Their education on slavery had been limited, part of Smith’s point. Then he goes to Whitney Plantation in Louisiana to learn about a plantation with its enslaved people centered in telling its story. Then to Angola where the prison obfuscates about its history as a plantation and its smooth transition post-slavery to using essentially unpaid the labour of the inmates. Following the prison tour, Smith goes to Galveston to experience and investigate Juneteenth, the celebration/commemoration of Texas’ freeing of the enslaved people. Here he explores the intersection of facts and memory. Next, Smith visits a Civil War cemetery where folks are commemorating the Lost Cause view of the Civil War pretty much completely in opposition to what the war was really about. Interestingly, he also travels to New York City and takes a tour of several areas of the city with Black pasts that aren’t very well known, including to a section of Central Park which was once a Black community. In the penultimate chapter Smith travels to Senegal to look at the telling of the story of slavery from the African perspective and confronts, once again, the complicated relationship between historical fact and historical memory, this time in relation to the infamous House of Slaves which cruelly sent off thousands of enslaved people to their fate in the new world. I found it quite poignant that Smith chose to end his book by exploring the history of his own grandparents by having them share their experiences with racism, Jim Crow, education, and finally, memory.

This book reaffirms for me how much I am grateful to have a career in which I get to instill the importance of history to current day life. Without it, we flail and move backwards.

The 99% Invisible City by Kurt Kholstedt and Roman Mars.

Val bought this book. It’s by the guy who hosts the 99% Invisible podcast, apparently. I haven’t listened to it but I enjoyed the book as its focus is on urban architecture and design (one of Val’s favourite topics, and thus mine, too). It has very short chapters (about 2 pages) that reveal little known facts about cities, ranging from the design of emergency vehicles to the design of lamp posts. Perhaps the podcast is a little bit more in depth. I enjoyed it (note – I am 99% done reading it). But it was too heavy to read on the subway. It’s more for my night table.

What If? 2 by Randall Munroe

This book is also too heavy to read on the subway, but I took it for a few weeks as I needed some lighter fare. The best way to describe this book is: smart, funny, really useless stuff based on science. In other words, Donald Trump wouldn’t read it. Well, I don’t know if he can read. It’s not exactly my thing – I will probably never finish this book. But when I need a ‘smart’ laugh, I will pick it up and learn something that I will never be able to use in real life since I am not planning to create a tower from here to the moon or to know if a plane can be launched by catapult.

New Devilishly Good Book Review

By , February 5, 2023 10:20 pm
Mairi Cowan, author of The Possession of Barbe Hallay

Readers familiar with my book reviews know that I like to email authors after I finish their books. I did it again, but this time I was not emailing a stranger. Mairi Cowan, amazing author and history professor at UTM, is a friend I met through a colleague.

Her new book, The Possession of Barbe Hallay: Diabolical Arts and Daily Life in Early Canada, was an amazing read. It tells the story of a young woman who migrated to Quebec from France in the mid 1600s and experienced some kind of “infestation” by devilish forces. But really it is a book about how to approach a historical mystery or story. I would have read Mairi’s new book no matter what, but I especially love its devilish connection. Ever since I learned about Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches, 1486), I have been interested in the topic of women and witchcraft. Luckily, as Mairi points out, by the time of Barbe Hallay, Europeans (or in this case Canadian settlers) religious officials didn’t get quite so worked up and no major panic ensued like in Salem, Massachusetts a few decades later to the south.

I love how didactic this book is. I mean that in the most complimentary way. In fact, I am reading “Barbe” again with a highlighter in hand – yes, on the subway. Out of this I intend to create some new content for my grade 12 world history course; I’ve already adjusted a few things based on things I was reminded of while reading about 17th century Quebec.

I even told my grade 12 history class, on the first day of the semester, that I felt guilty for not including Canada in world history for the last 20+ years of teaching this course. Of course Canada fits in with all the negative themes of colonization, empire, genocide, conversion. It just doesn’t get mentioned very often – my fault.

Since I haven’t taken a university level history course since 2002 (I took Roman history in the summer after my fourth year of teaching), I’ve lost touch with some trends in the discipline. Mairi’s book connected me with microhistory. In her introduction she quotes Edward Muir on the purpose of microhistory: “to elucidate historical causation on the level of small groups where most of real life takes place and to open history to peoples who would be left out by other methods.” Love it, especially Mairi Cowan’s inclusion of the story of watermelon making its way around the world into the hands of a French nun in 17th century Quebec.

She also quotes historian Johan Huizinga: “‘the mainspring of all historical knowledge” is “our perpetual astonishment that the past was once a living reality.'” I suppose that is akin to the saying, “the past is a foreign country.” It’s a good quote to help students understand the importance of context. And perhaps it also helps explain why I like history. I can never answer that big “why” question when students ask. You’d think I’d have one by now, 25 years into my history teaching career.

This book has prompted me to add some Quebec-based figures into my unit one culminating activity, the Global Gathering. It also got me thinking about ways to add more Indigenous content into my course. I’ve done so with some topics in unit two related to the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Royal Proclamation, and some Indigenous figures I never learned about during my education.

Learning is growing.

Take a listen to Mairi Cowan on CBC’s Ideas.

Next up, Val and I are reading David Javerbaum’s The Book of Pslams. NO, that is not a spelling error. Yes, we are reading it together because it is so hysterical. I’ll be sure to give it a puritanically glowing review.

Last 3 Books

By , December 4, 2022 6:09 pm

It has been a while since I’ve reported on recently read books. Taking the TTC still allows me lots of time to read, mostly in the mornings when service is more reliable. It’s hard to read standing up on the way home.

Val recommended this book to me after he read it. Val and I don’t always enjoy the same kinds of books, however, we both enjoyed this one.

I had never heard of Elamin Abdelmahmoud even though I’m a CBC person. He’s a CBC host, apparently, but his field is popular culture so I would never have known about him. I’m rather an outsider when it comes to popular culture. His book, in a nutshell, is about immigrating to Canada at a young age from Sudan. The glitch: he moved to Kingston, Ontario, where he came to learn he was seen as Black in Canada. He writes about this with humour and sensitivity. It was a great book for a white person such as me who has had no life experience of having to fit in.

Elamin definitely has an interesting personality. His writing is sweet and quirky and metaphorical. Highway 401, seen on the cover, emerges as the dominant metaphor in his life as he travels up and down, from his restricted life at home in Kingston with his family to his new and more freeing opportunities down the road in Toronto and beyond.

Elamin came to love wrestling, particularly writing fantasy wrestling scenarios. Who had ever heard of this? It got him into writing. He became very methodical about it. And thankfully so for he has written a great gem.

Since I had enjoyed Val’s recommendation of “Son of Elsewhere” so much, I asked him to suggest another book for me as I had nothing lined up. The previous two books I had read were kind of fast moving so I wanted something longer. He went with Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Wow, what a different kind of book. Very heavy and academic, but also really well written, funny at times.

The last time I read a book with a section on economics was in a biography of Karl Marx. The chapter on his economic views for Das Kapital put me to sleep. I hardly ever skim over a chapter when reading. This time I made it through an entire 400-page book by an economist – well, he’s actually a psychologist. That’s mostly because he is a very entertaining writer. I loved it when he totally dissed people who pick stocks. It’s just the law of averages, he says. More so than the material, I enjoyed Kahneman’s descriptions of the life of a professor. Interesting life. His wife, it turns out as revealed in the post-script, is also a great writer. She wrote short summaries at the end of each chapter that made the complex psychological concepts much more digestible.

The major theme of the book is that our brain has two systems: one that think quickly and without deep consideration; the other that considers and analyzes. If we can learn more about these systems, we can make better decisions and become more aware of when we’re not making decisions at all. I find a lot of this applicable to my job as a teacher. However, most likely I’ll forget it because it’s so complex. That is the current state of my brain (my memory).

Last year I attended an equity workshop that mentioned this book by Beverly Tatum, originally published in 1997. When I saw this 20th anniversary edition in my local bookstore I jumped at it. And that was not a mistake.

The first chapter, a prologue written in 2017 after the Obama years and just as Trump was elected, was a highly depressing summary of the history of the last 20 years in the US replete with police shootings and entrenched white supremacy.

The premise of this beautifully written, personal and heartfelt book is that all children and teenagers, regardless of race, develop their racial/ethnic/cultural identities in their social contexts, whether that’s in situations where they’re in the majority or the minority.

Even though the book is American, I found it really helpful for prompting me to consider my students’ identity development processes. I sincerely hope that the Canadian context is different the American one, though this may be inherently naïve. Like all equity materials I have read over the past few years, it reminds me that racism is best understood as institutional, systemic.

One resource that Tatum relies on often is comments from students in her past university seminars on racial awareness. I found these the best parts of the book, honestly addressing the challenges of all kinds of students in living in a rapidly changing world. I loved reading their words, first person. Tatum is an optimistic – some might say slightly naïve, person who feels change is possible through hard work and deliberate interactions between people of different backgrounds overcoming their fears, ignorance, and lack of past experience.

This line really got my attention on the subway: “Institutional policies and practices are created and carried out by individuals, and when those individuals have homogeneous social networks, they too often lack empathy for those whose lives are outside their own frame of reference. I believe opening social networks and closing the empathy gap is a step toward bringing about positive change (Tatum, 345-46).”

I don’t have a next book. This one was really hard to top.


By , August 14, 2022 1:39 pm

“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari, published in 2018, offers an interesting take on the current world even though it was written pre-pandemic. It’s supposed to be about the future but I don’t take it that way since we are living in the future according to when the book was written.

I don’t want anyone to think this is a self-help book, or one of those Jordan Peterson type guides to understanding the world. I don’t read such things. It’s a very thoughtful book written by a left-leaning history professor/public intellectual (a catchall term if ever there were one) with a deep interest in the effect of living in such a changing, global world. As for its purpose, I still can’t discern that even after finishing it. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Sometimes when you live in a fishbowl (the world) you have a hard time seeing the water. This means you don’t realize what’s around you on a daily basis. I feel that Harari’s role is to make the fishbowl visible. He describes the world as incredibly complex and constantly changing. He is critical, sarcastic, blunt. Sometimes he goes on weird tangents, as in the last bit of the book where he goes on about meditation. It was above my head, for sure. But there were a lot of chapters I thoroughly enjoyed, such as his critiques of religion (a human invention) and nationalism (another story humans tell themselves to simplify the world through focus on their country’s excellence.)

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on secularism. As an atheist (a term he did not use), I was curious to see what he’d say about secularism. Not that I don’t know the definition of the word – it’s actually one of the driving concepts in my unphilosophical life. Rather, I wanted to know what his critique would be. Harari (who I’d assume is a secularist) identifies the main preoccupations of secularism as ‘commitment to the truth’, lack of obsession with “any group, person, or book as if it and it alone has sole custody of the truth”, ‘compassion’, ‘equality’. ‘freedom’, ability to doubt and admit ignorance, and finally ‘responsibility’ – that humans care about what is wrong and want to make it better, actively, without invoking some kind of deity. Ironically, his criticism of these ideals is that they’re too idealistic for the needs of the world and can default into the creation of emotion-based stories rather than realities, like any other movement. He calls this the ‘shadow’ of secularism. I will take one for the team and accept that fault.

My favourite quote from the book might be my hook for grade 12 history class this coming school year: “Human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history, yet we often tend to discount it.” This pearl of wisdom comes in the chapter on war. He follows it up with “…even rational leaders frequently end up doing very stupid things.” I love it! So true. And hard to convey in history class when students want to understand why people do things.

For the Careers class I must teach this coming year, I will refer to the chapter entitled “Education” in the part of the book called, interestingly, “Resilience.” Here his premise is that the world is changing so quickly we teachers won’t even know what our students’ futures will be like. I often think about the paradox of me teaching careers class; I’ve been in the same career for 24 years, overridingly at the same workplace, too. Here’s a relevant passage: “In such a [information saturated] world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.” I sincerely hope that is what I do, or at least try to do, as a teacher. Later in the chapter he thinks “schools should downplay technical skills and emphasize general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, learn new things, and preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products but above all to reinvent yourself again and again.”

Me teaching the inventing part? I’m not sure about that, but I can definitely help with the life skills part. I don’t hate the Careers curriculum, and it overlaps a lot with the GLS (learning strategies) curriculum that is one of my mainstays in student success. We’ll see how I do offering guidance for the future.

On the whole “21” is a really interesting read with a few weird bits about science fiction and meditation thrown in. It proves to me that the pandemic is not adding new problems to society; it’s just elaborating on ones we already faced. Sadly, we’re not getting better at coming up with long-term solutions.

Next up? I may check out one of Val’s previous recommendations, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

Two Books: Metal and Marrow

By , July 24, 2022 7:48 am

Charlie Angus’s book, Cobalt, went everywhere with me – backyard, streetcar, subway, doctor’s waiting room, cottage – because it’s highly readable and really well done. I zipped through it even though it’s a depressing topic. Initially I picked Cobalt for two reasons: one, I heard Charlie Angus speak many years ago and found him to be very insightful; two, one of my family members was born in Cobalt and it is part of family lore of the “northland.” Of Ontario, that is.

Cobalt is the story of exploitation of northern Ontario. It starts not with the mining of the precious and elusive metal, but with internal colonization of the north of the province for the purpose of what all mother countries want – extraction of resources. And that meant, consistent with the rest of Canada’s history, disempowerment of the Indigenous people who were there. They lost their land and their rights to its riches.

Next came the exploitation of the workers who mined the silver for the benefit of large corporate interests. Cobalt was a boom town in the early 1900s. Like most, it saw its share of highs and lows, but the town is still there. It’s a real, thriving town, not a ghost town. That I like about Charlie Angus’s attitude toward the town where he lives. He details the ins and outs and who’s who of corporate control that essentially built the Toronto stock exchange, while he details the absolute mess they made of the town site. Poisoned water, no infrastructure, garbage everywhere. The Ontario government just didn’t want to pay and it didn’t want to force rules on precious corporations. Sound familiar? Eerily so.

Cobalt attracted a multicultural workforce from the start, and that’s where my family’s history comes in. While experienced American miners made their way there, so did Poles, Ukrainians, Finns (that’s Val’s family history), and Jews. From what I know, my family came from a small town (a shtetl, probably) in Belarus called Bichov. I may be mixing up different sides of my mom’s family, but suffice to say that they came from the former Russian empire. They set themselves up following the extension of the railroad in northern Ontario and sold supplies to local miners and lumberjacks. Eventually they settled in South Porcupine and then Timmins setting up a store and provisioning business. Timmins and Porcupine feature prominently in the book as the mining boom travelled north for gold after it was finished with Cobalt.

Like that, Cobalt’s story mirrors the Canadian experience that all started with the total exploitation of Indigenous peoples. We are all colonization and its after-effects, sadly.

My next book imagined the dystopian future of a colonizing past. The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline was an excellent if highly disturbing book. Written for young adult readers, it picks up the story of Indigenous people in the future after some kind of climate disaster has rocked the world. People can no longer dream, except for Indigenous people, so they are hunted for their bone marrow which supposedly returns the power to dream. It’s basically residential schools the second time around except that that the inmates are all killed for their marrow.

I picked up this book in my school’s English department book room. In case I recover grade 9 or 10 English, I like to read a few of the books they use. So was the story with with Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse. I found a lot of parallels with the The Marrow Thieves though they deal in different time periods. Both books were very tough to read but also very hard to put down. The protagonist in The Marrow Thieves, Frenchie, is a boy who has been on the run after losing his family. He finds a new ‘family’ with a group of fellow travelers who are trying to escape the recruiters who literally hunt Indigenous people. It’s really the story of people trying to hang on not only to their existence but to their culture. There are many scenes in which the elders astound the youngsters with their knowledge of their language. Sound familiar? After taking a quick look through some reviews of this book, I don’t understand why so many negative readers couldn’t see that. It’s not really about running or dystopia. Those are just frames.

It’s a nicely written book. I liked Dimaline’s style: simple yet poignant in a very to the point way. I think Indian Horse has more depth and detail to it (the setting and the characters), but I don’t really think they’re meant to be compared. They are complimentary. After finishing The Marrow Thieves, I started up another YA book I had picked up: A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi. It didn’t last long before I decided it was poorly written and I put it down. Every sentence was written as if a teenager was speaking it. I guess for some people that is the point of YA’s realistic appeal. For me, I may swear A LOT when I speak, but I don’t want to read it. I’d like to (if I’m going to read fiction, that is) read a more idealistic voice at least in terms of language.

I think a 14 or 15 year old kid could do a lot worse than read the prose and the subject matter in The Marrow Thieves. We all need to keep learning the true history of our country.

Next, I have returned to a book I put down about four years ago because I found it too negative: Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Now, the pandemic makes the book seem more tame and less depressing so I’ll give it another try.

Three Books

By , June 28, 2022 5:59 pm

Ai Wei Wei, Ross King and Catherine Hernandez are the authors of the three books I read on my time off from school.

A few days after surgery I walked with Val to the local bookstore. It’s not really that far but it was a nearly exhausting experience. However, I knew I had to have something to read during my recovery.

I started with Ai Wei Wei’s memoir. I can’t say I previously knew too much about him; I’d seen a few documentaries and studied a bit of his art for the grade 12 World History e-learning course. I’m familiar enough with Chinese history to be able to contextualize him. The first half of the book was a quick read in which he detailed his father’s experiences in various camps and forms of detention in the Mao era (and not just the Cultural Revolution). So young Wei Wei lived with his poet father in these isolated, harsh places and learned to make the best of them. His free spirited nature as an artist surely developed out of those experiences.

Similarly, in Scarborough, the characters live difficult lives, some of which they overcome, and some they don’t. The novel is hard to put down – this coming from a reader of primarily non-fiction. Hernandez gets right to the point and doesn’t mince any words in narrating and describing the lives of families who make use of an early learning centre in a public school. All of them face challenges, not just economic ones. The teacher (or social worker) who runs the centre is caring and compassionate, though her boss is not. The boss does not want her to provide food to the families and children. Sick political angle.

Ross King’s latest Renaissance book follows the life and career of Vespasiano, a man who commissioned the hand-scribing of manuscripts – primarily editions of Greek philosophy – in Florence and beyond during the 1400s. He became so good at his craft that he worked with Medici’s and popes. The book was interesting to me not so much for the content of the Humanist books that Vepasiano created, but for the descriptions of the process: paper, parchment or vellum; modern or Gothic script; rubricated (I love that word)! At the same time as this self-made bookseller reached his zenith, the new technology of printing was spreading across Europe. The competition began.

Great spring reading. I highly recommend all three.

Now on to Charlie Angus’ Cobalt!

Subway Reading

By , March 15, 2022 3:56 pm

Recently I read a book whose cover I wanted to hide when I was on the subway or bus:

It was actually a fast and interesting read but often a horrifying one due to the subject matter – how to be a Roman slave master. Written by a modern day professor, Jerry Toner, it takes on the ‘voice’ of a Roman slave owner as author. Each chapter offers the view of slave owner Marcus Sidonius Falx on a particular aspect of slave ownership such as punishment or manumission. Falx is of course a fictional character based on Toner’s research. After each chapter there’s a brief commentary section where the professor addresses the original Roman sources he has relied on and spends a lot of care making sure the readers don’t think the Romans were anything like us.

Though I am relatively well versed in Roman history and society, I found it quite a deep dive into the patrician class and their snobby views of their own superiority, obviously as pertaining to their perceived social inferiors. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that Romans were nasty people. I don’t know if Toner set out to generalize about slave owners or felt that by crafting such a hypocritical and callous character as Falx he would attract more readers.

Falx considers himself a kind and generous owner for his positive relations with his slaves (including fathering many children out of such relations), his generosity to those who have served him well, his fair punishments for those who trespass against him and his property, and his genius theories of what motivates slaves to work harder. He is aware of the problems of slavery in the empire (the book is set before Rome’s long downfall really began) in that he admits that Romans have become too dependent on slavery. However, he makes it more than clear that he’s unwilling to do anything he finds beneath him as a member of a ‘chosen’ class.

One subtext that I picked up while reading is just how litigious the Romans were. Many cases relating to slavery ended up in the law courts. This, to me, says both good and bad things about the Romans. They had laws to guide them in their social relations; however, those laws were never about being good or bad.

By HUGE contrast, my next book is a gentle and calm tract on people and nature. I feel no need to hide it when I’m on the subway. In fact I finished it on the Bathurst streetcar and was looking for someone to discuss it with.

Forgive me if it’s naïve to ask, “where has this book been all my life?” I find it very calming. The author is an Indigenous American woman from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a biology professor, and a lifelong student of the relationship between humans and nature. I like that she has a teacher voice but one that also recognizes there’s always more to learn.

While I love the material, possibly because I’m a vegan, I am absolutely mesmerized by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writing style: descriptive in an earthy way. Not frilly. Not pious. Not sanctimonious. Calm and easy going.

The book’s main argument is that our relationship with nature must be reciprocal in order to help both us and the planet survive. We have to give, not just take.

As a history teacher, I know that we cannot judge the people of the past for acting within the norms of their own societies. But there were always dissenters and voices (though not loud or powerful enough at the time) who make it impossible for us to say that things could not have been different. I often think back to England in the late 1700s when industrialization was getting started. While no one could have foreseen the damage that would be done to our climate, there surely were those who saw the new way of life as being anti-nature. Robin Wall Kimmerer asks us to listen to those voices in our society. People who think there is another way. Really she’s asking us to listen to nature.

It may be surprising that this vegan found the chapter on the trapper quite interesting. Morally I am squeamish about hunting, trapping, even fishing. But if it’s for sustenance and done in as humane a way as possible, I accept it as part of the relationship Indigenous people have with the environment. Sport hunting? Absolutely not. Fishing so buddies can drink some beer (as I often see on Rice Lake), not in my book.

The book is probably not going to make me change my lifestyle further. However, it makes me more thoughtful about nature and how young people could learn to interact with it. Perhaps along with the land acknowledgement that we recite every morning we should take to heart parts of the Honorable Harvest:

“Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.” …

“Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”

No coincidence here … I just watched “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix. I was already pre-disposed to love this species after watching PBS’s Nature: Octopus – Making Contact. I’m not going to go out and seek to meet an octopus, nor do I think the Octopus trusted the man (Craig Foster). They were just curious about each other and that, in my books, is just fine, if no harm was done.

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