Saturday, August 12, 2017

Make Trouble



Make Trouble is John Waters's commencement address to the graduating class of the Rhode Island School of Design of 2015. This is a slight book--only 71 pages--with minimal text and decorated with illustrations by Eric Hanson. I am a fan of Waters and have read and posted reviews of his books Role Models and Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America however I was not too thrilled with Make Trouble. Maybe it was because I expected more out of a graduation address. Its basic premise was that in order to become successful, you have to make trouble, or as only Waters could say it, "Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully." Waters is never afraid to tell it like it is, and I can hear his ebullience and see his pencil-thin moustache curl into a parenthesis as he tells impressionable twenty-year-olds "And, young adults, maybe today is the day you stop blaming your parents for every problem you've ever had. Whining is never appealing in a college graduate. Yes, it's a drag you were kept locked in a cardboard box under their bed and whipped daily with a car aerial, but it's time to move on. We've all been dealt a hand. Deal with it!"
Waters recounts--briefly, of course--his past subversive successes by having made trouble. About his original film "Hairspray":

"You need to prepare sneak attacks on society. Hairspray is the only really devious movie I ever made. The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America--and nobody seems to notice it's a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys. Pink Flamingos was preaching to the converted. But Hairspray is a Trojan horse: it snuck into Middle America and never got caught. You can do the same thing."

I have read all of Waters's books but would not recommend Make Trouble. It is far too short even for a commencement address. You can sit comfortably with it and read it--unrushed--in fifteen minutes.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through The Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created


An interesting collection of make-believe worlds crafted by the minds of some of the globe's greatest writers. It is the kind of book that is filled with surprises. I read the work cover to cover but I can foresee others picking sections willy-nilly and enjoying the work that way.

Literary Wonderlands is organised into five major sections each based on a historical time period beginning with ancient myths and legends and ending with the computer age. Within each section are a range of chapters highlighting an author and one of their works (often mentioning other works by the same author that are related). The works chosen to fill this volume are ones where the author has created an imaginary world. There are famous ones like Tolkien’s Middle Earth and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe. There are also lesser known works for example Bernardo Atxaga’s Obabakoak and Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut. The chapters are short usually only a couple of pages to four pages long. Many of the chapters are illustrated and show either an image of the author or a scene from the work. It is all nicely packaged.

The value of this sort of work is in its readers advisory potential. There are many works and imagined places I had never heard of (Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright comes to mind). I also enjoyed the chapters about the works that I have read like Peake’s Gormenghast books—It is always interesting to read another person’s perspective on a book I like. In summation, I recommend picking this up because you will find something of interest in it, a path that will lead you to another great read.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads


The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads by Ammon Shea was written in 2010 but even at seven years old I take issue with the statement that everyone uses it. Shea should know upfront that I am a rotary-dial-loving non-cellphone-owning telephonophile, yet when I need to look up a number even I look for it on-line. I admit it would be handy to have an up-to-date phone book as I keep all of my directories downstairs in the cupboard above my fridge, yet my computer is upstairs so I always have to go up a flight to make a call when I don't already know the number. However even if I did have a current phone book, it would be murder on my eyes as the size of font has shrunk to minuscule proportions in the last few years. Phone books in my youth also had fewer columns per page and were thus much easier to read.

What I do share with Shea is a love of phone books. As a child I was genuinely excited when the new Toronto and Mississauga-area phone books arrived. I turned over the pages of the massive Toronto directory looking for unusual last names. I still remember a heckuva lot of them, like Ggoome, someone listed with the surname and initial Ee E, and the stalwart listing Q'Part Mrs, whom I actually phoned in order to enquire specifically about her last name. I cannot recall a word of that conversation from forty years ago, yet I addressed her as if her last name was French, hence que - PAR. All the Pizza Pizza franchises used to be listed alphabetically by the street they were on, and every single one of them had the same number, 967-1111. I also remember the Royal Ontario Museum controversy, or should I say, The Royal Ontario Museum controversy, as Canada's preeminent museum was listed in the white pages under T.

Why am I so interested in phone books? I love words, names, lists of words and names, and ordered lists of words and names to be particular. The phone book is a book with my name both figuratively on it as well as literally in it. I started reading The Phone Book on a train ride from Helsinki to Joensuu and finished it two days later on the flight home to Toronto. Shea covered many topics--often, too many--starting with the debate over the true inventor of the telephone. An introduction such as this could be deemed necessary as a lead-in to the main topic at hand, telephone books. But Shea often drifted off-topic, taking up pages discussing the effect of scents on his senses and how synaesthesia draws him to buy books. There was no reason to go on and on about the fetish he has for the smell of books (he denies that it's a fetish, but I am calling a spade a spade here). I got the feeling pretty soon that these tangential topics were merely page fillers for what would have been an otherwise shorter book (202 pages). 

The first phone book was not even a book. It was a list of fifty names published in 1878. In the earliest days of telephones, one didn't need to know any phone numbers, as an operator used to connect callers on a switchboard. In the early twentieth century tests were conducted on phone book layouts to ease as well as accelerate number lookups. Column width, indentation, print size and many other factors were analyzed to produce the most effective print layout. Even as early as the fourth decade of the last century did people look to the phone book for exploitative commercial reasons. Shea wrote of one midwest business that looked to use the Manhattan directory to create its own mailing list:

"Templin [directory supervisor of the New York Telephone Company in the 1930's], not a man to take kindly to such deliberate misuse of his book, flat out refused to assist, saying that he had 'no intention of aiding them in their nefarious schemes.'"

If only we had Russell Templin around today to deal with telemarketers.

The phone book can be blamed for one of the greatest election miscalls in American history. The November 3, 1948 headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune, "Dewey Defeats Truman", can blame its own telephone exit polls on the phone book for this inaccurate result:

"In 1948 the telephone was not yet as ubiquitous a household fixture as it is today; it was more an implement owned by the upper class, the members of which greatly favored Dewey. The pollsters took what they thought to be the pulse of the electorate by calling random numbers taken from telephone books across the country. Except that they weren't truly random--as soon as they chose the telephone book, they unwittingly skewed their results in favor of the people who owned telephones and who happened to be more inclined to vote for Dewey."

In addition to the white-paged residential listings of phone books, Shea provided a history of the yellow pages and explained why its pages were traditionally yellow. He compared the Manhattan pages of 1979 to those at the time of writing, thirty years later, and had many interesting observations about the state of technology and how it affects advertising. The yellow pages of Manhattan, keep in mind, so we're not talking about a small rural town, had no listings whatsoever for funeral preplanning in 1979, yet 23 listings in 2009. The yellow pages of 1979 had more than a dozen pages of ads and listings for typewriters, yet in 2009 there was "but a single store that has chosen to run an ad in the small corner of the current telephone directory that deals with typewriters. It reads, 'YES! We still repair IBM Selectric and Wheelwriter Typewriters'--with an enthusiasm that feels born of desperation."

Shea is charming when he takes the reader on a trip down memory lane as he relives his childhood through a copy of a phone book. After having found a directory that was around when he was a boy, Shea lets his fingers go walking through the list of names and he discovers people--and memories--that had been dormant for decades. He can take a different path each time he opens the book, so each trip down memory lane is a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story. He invites the reader to do the same:

"Find an old phone book from some point in your life and take a trip through its pages and your past. Skim the pages or examine them closely. You needn't read it as one reads a book--the plotline is your own, and you can experience it however you prefer."

There are organized groups that wish to ban the phone book on account of its colossal waste of paper and resources. Shea writes about these groups yet offers in defence how profitable it is for the yellow pages to remain in print. As long as it makes money for the publisher and advertisers, we will still have print yellow pages. Offering the public a choice, such as opting in if you wish to receive a phone book, or alternatively opting out if you don't, do not seem to be very effective. Shea provided statistics on municipalities that offered these choices with only minimal percentages taking the opt-out preference.

Shea is a bibliophile at heart who would be a poor second-hand bookseller, as I am afraid he would buy everything everyone brings in to try to sell him. Yet after stating how tragic it is to throw away books, he does admit to a need (however prejudiced) to dispose of books: 

"I am not entirely in favor of abstaining from throwing books away. Indeed, there are many books that I feel deserve nothing more than a quick trip to the trash heap and should very likely have never been published in the first place. Astonishing numbers of new titles are published every year--the figure is estimated at over 250,000 in the United States alone. Surely some of these titles should never have seen the light of day. And yet it still tugs at my heartstrings to see so many telephone books thrown away, often still encased in their cheap plastic wrap, obviously not just unwanted but not even judged worthy of perusal."

What Shea finds so sad is the tendency to throw away old phone books. Even the phone companies encourage this, in order to ensure that their latest editions are available. No one keeps old phone books because they are obsolete within a year, as well as being of exceptional girth. Sadly, Shea found that some libraries even disposed of their old phone book collections because of lack of use. In the end, Shea calls for the continuation of the printed phone book for a reason beyond mere childish sentimentality:

"Whenever there is a discussion, or a debate, about why it is that telephone companies continue to print the white pages, there is invariably mention of the fact that some small portion of the population does not have access to the Internet or that some people who have used the telephone book all their lives just don't understand how to make the transition from newsprint to hyperlink.
"But there will always be some portion of the population that does not keep up with the current technology, whether it is because they are Luddites by choice or because technology has simply passed them by. This in itself is not enough of a reason to insist on continuing to use the white pages.
"It should be enough that some people just prefer to have the feel of paper on their hands when they are reading something. I know I do."

I would gladly take in the latest copy of the local phone directory if the phone company knew that there were still customers who used them.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Pit Bull: the Battle Over an American Icon


If you have an opinion about pitbulls, chances are good that it's based on myth, misinformation, and even disinformation. I know a good deal about dogs, and I thought I knew a lot about pitbulls, yet I was constantly amazed and enlightened by Bronwen Dickey's Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon.

Here are some of the things you will learn if you read this book.

There is no agreement on what a pit bull is.

No one can correctly identify a dog's breed-mix based on the dog's appearance, including experts.

Many or most media stories about pitbulls are based on uncorroborated heresay and myths, and many are actually fiction.

Many dog-bite incidents reported as involving pitbulls actually involved Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Poodles, and other breeds.

Accurate statistics about dog bites, especially those that account for severity, do not exist.

There is nothing special about a pitbull's jaws or the strength of its bite. In fact, no test exists to measure the strength of a dog's bite, thus "facts" about a pitbull's bite being x pounds of pressure compared to other dogs' bites, are pure fiction.

Reading this book, you will consider connections between the media's portrayal of pitbulls and racism, between fear of pitbulls and fear of urban youth, the dynamics of a social phenomenon known as "moral panic", and how the moral panic over pitbulls mirrors the one about crack cocaine. And did you know that in pre-Civil War America, dogs of slaves were confiscated and put to death, as were dogs in Jewish homes in Nazi Germany?

All this might be merely interesting, or perhaps fascinating, if ignorance and moral panic didn't inform law-making. Sadly and infuriatingly, this is not the case. Thousands of dogs labeled as pitbulls that never harmed anyone or showed any signs of aggression have been killed. Thousands of people were forced to choose between their beloved dogs and homelessness, when any dog deemed a pitbull was banned from most public housing and much private housing. This is not about a dangerous dog being euthanized. This is the wholesale round-up and (attempted) eradication of dogs based on appearance only.

In one of the many insightful looks into media coverage of dog-bite stories, Dickey uncovers the total lack of credentials, expertise, and experience of the owner of a professional-looking website called dogsbite.org. She notes that on one side of the so-called debate are the Center for Disease Control, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the National Animal Care and Control Association, the Animal Behavior Society, the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. and all but one animal welfare organization. On the other side, the owner of an attractive website with unsourced claims. But the media, in the name of "balance", will give these two sides equal weight, without questioning where dogsbite.org gets its information. The answer is: they make it up.

Dickey introduces the reader to two important, remarkable organizations: the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, now called Beyond Fences, and a Humane Society program called Pets for Life. In the past, the only thing animal control organizations could do for neglected dogs was remove them from homes -- a chilling echo of how children were removed from certain homes under the guise of protection. These two groups help people keep their animals, by offering free veterinary care, free quality dog food, and free dog-care education. Because -- go figure -- it turns out low-income families love their animals just as much as affluent families. The descriptions of dogs and people whose lives have been transformed by the dedicated people of these organizations are the most beautiful and hopeful parts of this book.

Dickey introduces the reader to many amazing people -- dedicated rescuers and trainers, as well as people who are amazing for all the wrong reasons -- amazingly ignorant, willfully ill-informed, and close-minded, determined to rid the world of one supposed breed based on a refusal to acknowledge facts.

Dickey's book is a tour de force of research and synthesis. It's not so much a book about dogs, as a book of history, sociology, science, and information studies where dogs are the organizing principle. I wish that everyone who has an opinion about pitbulls was required to read this book. (This review was originally published on wmtc.)



Saturday, June 10, 2017

Words on the Move: Why English Won't - and Can't - Sit Still (Like, Literally)


John McWhorter is changing my mind about language. And that is no easy thing to do.

I'm a grammarphile. Word nerd, language junkie, spelling nut, stickler -- whatever you want to call it. I appreciate proper spelling and good grammar, and I cringe at all the bad grammar all around us. Apostrophe abuse drives me insane. Same for unnecessary quotation marks. Misspelled words on websites, signs, flyers, and official documents... don't get me started.

Yet I also part ways with some of my fellow grammar-lovers. I believe grammar is important for writing, but not necessarily for speech -- and certainly not for casual speech. I hate seeing knowledge of grammar used to shame or exclude, or worse, as an excuse to not listen.

Even further, I believe it's perfectly all right to relax certain writing rules for casual writing. It's not necessary, in my view, to use awkward phrasing in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition in a casual email. It's all right to use sentence fragments, or to start a sentence with but. I don't think the English language is being killed off by texting; in fact, I know it's not. And most importantly, I don't think I'm better or smarter than anyone else because I use apostrophes correctly and they don't. But those unnecessary apostrophes still drive me insane!

So perhaps I was pre-disposed to enjoy John Whorter's enlightening and entertaining book, Words on the Move: Why English Won't -- and Can't -- Sit Still (Like Literally). But I do think that anyone who enjoys thinking about language would like this book.

McWhorter's most important message is in the title: language is never still. The meanings of words always change. Meanings have always changed, they are changing now, and they will continue to change in the future.
It isn't that a certain curiosity cabinet of a few dozen words happened to have different meanings hundreds of years ago. Just about all words in any language have different meanings now than they did in the past. Some words' meanings hold on longer than others. Some few even hold on to the same meaning for thousands of years. However, it is they...that are the oddities.
The book presents some illustrations of every day objects such as bread, fruit, meat, and fuel, and the words that have been used to convey those meanings over centuries. Then, the author writes,
Picture this process happening across tens of thousands of words all the time. That is the essence of what words are, and why the dictionary can qualify only as a snapshot of how the film was situated on the grid at one particular point in time.
McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature, says this throughout the book, in many different, entertaining ways. One of his strengths is creating lovely little analogies to illustrate his meaning. He's also very adept at shooting holes in the corrections most beloved by correcters, by showing us how inconsistent we all are.

If there's an expression that drives you crazy because it's usually used "wrong," chances are, it meant your particular version of "correct" only for a period of time in between its other meanings and uses. Most likely, the meaning has changed and you need to update your personal lexicon. Whatever your favourite bugaboo -- decimate, irregardless, sink down, used to, literally -- McWhorter has a slew of examples to prove that your objections are inconsistent at best, and might even be ridiculous. Those of us who hate the overuse of literally to mean its opposite may be surprised at how many words now mean their opposite that we never bother to complain about -- because those words changed in a different time and bothered different people. And it's not just English. It's all languages, all the time. Change, change, change.

Some of McWhorter's ideas are controversial. He explains speech tics such as "like" and "you know," and why we shouldn't care about them. He maintains that slang, including shorthands we use online and in text messages, are as old as language itself, and don't hurt the language. He counsels us to embrace "the euphemism treadmill" -- from Colored to Negro to Black to African American -- and explains why cultures make these shifts.

Perhaps most controversially, McWhorter argues that Shakespeare should be cautiously and judiciously translated, to make the plays more accessible to contemporary audiences.

If you love Shakespeare as I do, let me elaborate before your blood pressure elevates. About 10 percent of the words Shakespeare used now mean something completely different than they did when he wrote them. If we read Shakespeare, we can use footnotes, but when we watch a play or film adaptation -- and the words were meant to be performed, after all -- we can often follow the action through context and prior knowledge, and we might get the gist of the language, but we miss a good deal of the meaning. We miss more than we think, something the author illustrates very well. McWhorter believes that Shakespearean scholars should tweak the language for greater understanding.
Yes, I have been one of those people, and have experienced resistance (and even dribbles of vitriol) in response. However, most of this resistance has been based on the idea that the difference between our language and Shakespeare's is only one of poetry, density, or elevation.

The reason Shakespeare's prose sounds so "poetic" is partly because it is. But it is also partly for the more mundane reasons that his language is not, to a larger extent than we might prefer to know, inaccessible to us without careful study on the page.

Many assume that the translation I refer to would have to be into slang. I suspect this is because it can be hard to perceive that the very meanings of even the most mundane of words have often changed so much -- if one thinks the difficulty of the language is merely a matter of "poetry," then it's easy to think that no translation in neutral current English could be at issue, and hence the notion of "Yo, whaddup, Calpurnia?" as a serious literary suggestion.
He gives a few elegant examples, which are "hardly a desecration" -- the language is still "challenging and even beautiful, especially since most of it is the original." I must agree. He explains that he's not suggesting the original plays be withdrawn and never read.
However a world where the usual experience of a Shakespeare play outside universities was in today's English would be one where, quite simply, more people were capable of truly understanding and enjoying the Bard's work rather than genuflecting to it. Seeing Shakespeare shouldn't be like eating your vegetables -- even tasty vegetables. Nor is it much more inspiring for us to treat Shakespeare as a kind of verbal wallpaper or scent that we sit back and allow to "wash over" us. . . . Shakespeare translated into today's English wouldn't be exactly Shakespeare, no. But given a choice between Shakespeare as an elite taste and Shakespeare engaged the way Russians engage Chekhov and Americans engage Scorsese films and "Arrested Development", some may judge Shakespeare that isn't always exactly what Shakespeare wrote as less than a tragedy.
Like the novel, theatre, and baseball, language is something people often claim is dying or already dead. But if no one ever writes or reads another novel, and the great game of baseball is never played again, we will still have language -- because we are human. And language will still be changing, because that's what it does. (This was originally published on wmtc.)


The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom


The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom is another lengthy title by Blaine Harden. He in fact tells two stories, which are only remotely connected. Over 240 pages Harden gives a brief history of the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and its founding father, the Great Leader and Hero of the Revolution, the Father of the Korean People, Marshall Kim Il Sung. The second story is that of MiG pilot No Kum Sok and his defection to the South. Harden tries to link the two starting with a wholly unbelievable encounter No is alleged to have had with the Great Leader. In a reminiscence that reads more like a rose-coloured coulda-shoulda than a piece of credible history, No claims to have have the chance to murder Kim Il Sung at point-blank range, and has regretted not doing so ever since. I had a problem with Harden's earlier book, Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West because it lacked credibility. In that book as in this one, Harden comes off as exceptionally gullible, accepting whatever his North Korean subjects tell him. No's testimony has been tainted by sixty years of delusional revisionism, wherein he imagines himself as an uncrowned hero of a united Korean peninsula if only he had finished Kim off when he had the chance.

While Harden's story of No's escape by flying his MiG across the DMZ was sullied by its lack of credibility and delusions of convenience, I found his account of Kim Il Sung's role in the establishment of the DPRK, as well as his ways of holding a tight rein on power by liquidating all opposition, to be a gripping read. I have read many books on North Korean history, and Harden seems to know when to ice the story with sensationalism and when to lay off. I found it most interesting how Kim played both Stalin and Mao and used each leader to his advantage.

The detailed map at the beginning of the book misplaces Mount Paektu, where the Great Leader established his secret camp during the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. Harden assigned it about 100 km northeast of its actual location on the DPRK-PR China frontier. This is a significant error, as much of the story about the founding of the DPRK takes place at the secret camp.
 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


When I first heard the incarceration of African Americans in the United States referred to as a "new Jim Crow," I thought it must be hyperbole. So did Michelle Alexander, a fact she discloses in the introduction to her book. As Alexander researched the concept, the more she learned, the more she changed her mind. She changed my mind, too.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander builds an unassailable case that mass incarceration through the (so-called) War on Drugs is the third large-scale caste system that holds Black Americans in a second-class status. This is true even in a society that includes Oprah Winfrey, Clarence Thomas, and, of course, Barack Obama.

The first caste system was slavery. The second was the laws and customs of segregation, discrimination, and terror known as Jim Crow. The third and current system is mass incarceration. This includes rules governing local policing, key court rulings, the court system itself, the parole and probation system, and laws that discriminate against former inmates.

* * * *

The numbers are staggering. More African Americans are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. A greater percentage of African Americans are under correctional control now than black South Africans were during apartheid.

The US is 5% of the world population and has 25% of world's prisoners. Black and Latino Americans comprise one-quarter of the US population, but almost 60% of the prison population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white Americans.

In terms of the War on Drugs, one might think these disparities could be explained by differences in rates of illegal activity. One would be wrong. The data shows that people of all colours use and sell illegal drugs at very similar rates. When there is a difference by skin colour, the numbers skew towards whites.
Thus, the very same year Human Rights Watch was reporting that African Americans were being arrested and imprisoned at unprecedented rates, government data revealed that blacks were no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites and that white youth were actually the most likely of any racial or ethnic group to be guilty of illegal drug possession and sales.
The fact of incarceration alone is only one piece of the picture. Before incarceration, there is a series of court rulings that have gutted constitutional protections (especially the Fourth Amendment, the right to be free of unwarranted search and seizure), and make it impossible for citizens to argue racial bias in any criminal proceeding. There are draconian mandatory sentencing laws, which lead to the normalization of plea bargaining, in which people who have committed no crime plead guilty to some crime, in order to avoid a life sentence. There are huge financial incentives to municipalities to militarize their police forces, and to states for building -- and filling -- prisons.

After incarceration, the system prevents almost everyone who has been incarcerated from re-entering mainstream life. It is virtually impossible for anyone convicted of a felony to access housing, education loans, or jobs. In most states, formerly incarcerated people are stripped of voting rights and from jury rolls -- forever.

Former inmates, as Alexander writes, "will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Right now, about 30% of African American men are automatically banned from jury duty -- for life.

There is a terrible circular logic to the system. As a former US attorney general explained:
Law enforcement officials often point to the racial composition of our prisons and jails as a justification for targeting racial minorities, but the empirical evidence actually suggested the opposite conclusion was warranted. The disproportionate imprisonment of people of color was, in part, a product of racial profiling -- not a justification for it.

In the years following the release of the New Jersey and Maryland data, dozens of other studies of racial profiling have been conducted. A brief sampling:

• In Volusia County, Florida, a reporter obtained 148 hours of video footage documenting more than 1,000 highway stops conducted by state troopers. Only 5 percent of the drivers on the road were African American or Latino, but more than 80 percent of the people stopped and searched were minorities.

• In Illinois, the state police initiated a drug interdiction program known as Operation Valkyrie that targeted Latino motorists. While Latinos comprised less than 8 percent of the Illinois population and took fewer than 3 percent of the personal vehicle trips in Illinois, they comprised approximately 30 percent of the motorists stopped by drug interdiction officers for discretionary offenses, such as failure to signal a lane change. [These discretionary offenses are often an excuse to search vehicles or to arrest people for "resisting".] Latinos, however, were significantly less likely than whites to have illegal contraband in their vehicles.

• A racial profiling study in Oakland, California, in 2001 showed that African Americans were approximately twice as likely as whites to be stopped, and three times as likely to be searched.

Pedestrian stops, too, have been the subject of study and controversy. The New York Police Department released statistics in February 2007 showing that during the prior year its officers stopped an astounding 508,540 people -- an average of 1,393 per day -- who were walking down the street, perhaps on their way to the subway, grocery store, or bus stop. Often the stops included searches for illegal drugs or guns -- searches that frequently required people to lie face down on the pavement or stand spreadeagled against a wall while police officers aggressively groped all over their bodies while bystanders watched or walked by. The vast majority of those stopped and searched were racial minorities, and more than half were African American. . . . . 
Although the NYPD attempted to justify the stops on the grounds that they were designed to get guns off the street, stops by the Street Crime Unit -- the group of officers who supposedly are specially trained to identify gun-toting thugs -- yielded a weapon in only 2.5 percent of all stops. . . .

Rather than reducing reliance on stop-and-frisk tactics following the Diallo shooting* and the release of this disturbing data, the NYPD dramatically increased its number of pedestrian stops and continued to stop and frisk African Americans at grossly disproportionate rates. The NYPD stopped five times more people in 2005 than in 2002 -- the overwhelming majority of whom were African American or Latino.
Perhaps the most surprising portion of The New Jim Crow is Alexander's history of the War on Drugs. The "tough on crime" stance that began under President Nixon and intensified under Presidents Reagan and Clinton was born when rates of drug use and crime were low.

Today nearly one-third of African American men are likely to spend time in prison. Once released, they live in a state of permanent second-class citizenship. Alexander builds a case that the War on Drugs was not a response to higher crime rates, but a deliberate plan to dismantle the gains of the civil rights movement. If this sounds unlikely, I highly recommend reading this book.

Alexander has clearly done exhaustive research, but she doesn't exhaust the reader with statistics. Although the numbers are extremely convincing, they are woven into a compelling, readable narrative. It's a disturbing book, as it should be, and an excellent one. [This review originally appeared here on wtmc.]


-----
* Amadou Diallo was an African immigrant living in New York City. In 1999, when stopped by the police and asked for identification, he reached for his wallet. Police later said they thought the wallet was a gun. The police shot 41 times. Diallo was 22 years old, and unarmed.





Thursday, March 23, 2017

Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow


This is what humanity will aim to accomplish in the not too distant future: immortality, bliss and divinity. The claim was so bold I had to read the book and discover if author Yuval Noah Harari could support it. In his last book Homo Sapiens (a book I reviewed earlier) Harari achieved international bestseller status. That book covered the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the rise of the near god-like technological prowess of human beings. In this latest study, Homo Deus, which the author admits is more an exercise in that most precarious of all academic endeavours predicting the future, Harari looks at global and technological trends and surmises what they suggest about the direction our world is heading in.

The book is full of really interesting ideas (much like the previous Homo Sapiens book). I’ll take a moment to list some that I liked. He plots the advent of our species as supreme over all other sentient life on earth. We are thoroughly now the bosses of this corner of the universe. No controversy there. Harari goes on to make bolder claims about humanism as the great creed of the world; an argument I find convincing with some qualifications. Harari makes interesting use of the idea of algorithms. I have read and reread what he has to say on this topic and it is still not clear to me. My confusion stems from an ambiguity in his argument. Is he making a claim that all things in the universe (from rocks to humans) operate like algorithms or is he making the much stronger claim that the universe is a series of algorithms (what I would call an ontological or metaphysical claim)? What about consciousness? This is something that, notoriously, does not fit well into the algorithm analogy. Once again, Harari makes some audacious assertions. Biology is an elaborate algorithm and consciousness may just be really complicated biology. When we develop super computers perhaps we can reduce history to biology and so history will be an algorithm also (114—151). If after reading these lines you have images of Neo navigating the Matrix (red pill or blue pill?) then you’re not alone. This, to my mind, is the most startling claim of the book: if everything is algorithms, and we as algorithms ourselves come to know this, then we can remake the universe to suit our desires. Wow.

Science had knocked humans off the pedestal of specialness after having first knocked God off of His—much bigger—pedestal. They (the scientists) had told us our planet was just one of billions in an unimportant part of a galaxy that is itself just one of billions of galaxies. Well, that was then. Harari is suggesting humans are about to make a colossal return to specialness status as Homo Deus. Sounds great but there may be a very dark side to this new status—power and corruption and nihilism.

Predictions. These are just predictions. The paradox of knowledge may alter these predictions. What is the paradox of knowledge? It is this: knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless; knowledge that changes behaviour quickly becomes irrelevant (57).  The more we know about the course history is taking (the more data we accumulate) the faster we alter the situation, thus rendering our information and data collection quaint. Karl Marx wrote about an impending revolution in the world order, the great class struggle as he called it—but it never came to pass. Why? Because capitalists also read books. Governments around the world read Das Kapital and his other writings and came up with (socialist) fixes to many capitalist problems and voila, no revolution! The paradox of knowledge.

I like books in the Homo Deus vein. They give me this weird, almost guilty pleasure of seeing the future and knowing something others don’t about where the world is heading. But the prediction game is fraught with difficulties. Most future forecasts never come to pass. Predicting is hard because life has a funny way of grooving along to its own non-algorithm-rhythm. Some of what Harari says may come to pass, technology is sure to impact our lives in ways we can barely conceive. But I think he has the human bit wrong. We are more than biological beings; if pressed (as I’m sure Harari would insist on pressing) to explain the “more” I could offer nothing that would count as scientific—yet we are more. We (every single one of us) is a unique combination of utter contradictions. Predicting what we will do next, even with all the computing power in the universe, is hard (is it impossible?).  Homo Deus is very much worth the read if you enjoy thinking about these ideas.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy



On April 20, 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two teenagers from Littleton, Colorado, marched into Columbine High School with explosives and automatic weapons. Their plan to blow up the entire school failed -- only because their homemade bombs did not explode -- so they walked around the school shooting people. They killed 12 students and one teacher, wounded 24 others, and unleashed untold mental suffering on their entire community, before killing themselves.

I very clearly remember hearing about this, and just as clearly remember thinking that the Klebold and Harris families had suffered the worst tragedy of all. What could be worse than your child dying in a school shooting? To me, the answer is all too obvious: knowing your child took the lives of other children. I remember, too, feeling so sad and discouraged when some Columbine parents refused to allow Klebold and Harris to be memorialized along with the other victims, insisting the memorials acknowledge 13 dead, not 15.

When I saw a book review and noticed the author's last name, I knew instantly who she was, and immediately put the book on hold at our library. This is a rare opportunity to look behind the scenes at the bizarre phenomenon of mass shootings, from a perspective of kindness and mercy.

In the first half of the book, Sue Klebold details the day of the shooting, and the days and weeks that followed, from her own perspective. In the second half, she writes about her journey to try to understand her son's actions, and her long-term survival, as she finds community -- in this case, survivors of suicide loss -- and becomes a suicide-prevention activist. Her writing is vivid and intensely emotional. Some parts of this book are so raw and laden with such pain that they are barely readable. Reading this book sometimes feels like peering too deeply into someone's most private heart.

Throughout, Klebold is meticulously careful to explain that seeking to understand what her son did does not mean she is excusing it. Again and again, she writes that Dylan was responsible for his own actions and that probing his mental illness does not negate that. She writes this so often, as though she wants anyone who opens the book to any random page to read this. I found it very sad that she felt she needed to do that -- but her story makes it obvious why she did.

It did not surprise me to learn that almost everything written or said in the media about the Klebold family was completely wrong. This book is clearly, in part, an attempt to set the record straight, or at least get another perspective in the public view. And again, when one reads what was said versus what actually existed, the writer's desire to do this is very understandable.

The book is suffused in regret. Sue Klebold remembers every instance, every tiny moment, where she chided or nagged when she could have hugged, when she said, "Get yourself together!" instead of "How can I help you?" Yet these instances, as she recounts them, are so ordinary, so commonplace. She was a loving mother and if at times she was irritated with or tough on her teenage son, it was all within the bounds of normalcy.

One might say that Dylan Klebold exhibited no signs of depression or other mental illness before the shooting. Sue Klebold emphatically rejects this idea, and insists there were signs, but she and Dylan's father didn't know how to read them.

I cannot agree. I didn't think any of the instances she recounts were a red flag for such violence, nor did there seem to be a pattern. All the behaviour seemed like that of a normal, if somewhat troubled, teenager -- and "troubled teenager" can be a redundancy. After reading this book, I believe the only way Sue and Tom Klebold could have known that their son was at risk for violence is if they had constantly searched his room -- something they had no cause to do and an act that might have driven him further out of reach.

When Sue Klebold read her son's journals (found by police) and saw the videos the two boys made, she felt as though she was looking at a total stranger. Dylan Klebold led two lives. As some supportive letter-writers told Sue Klebold, if someone really wants to hide something, they will. (Eric Harris is a different story. There were many clear signs.)

I knew that many Columbine families blamed the parents for the boys' actions, which strikes me as strange, cruel, and grossly unfair. Because of that, I was very heartened to know that the Klebolds received thousands of letters of sympathy and support -- from people whose children had committed atrocities, from survivors of suicide loss, from victims of bullying who thought it lucky incidents like this don't happen more often. Many people understood the family's pain and wanted them to know they were not alone. I took great relief from this.

The latter portion of the book is largely about suicide prevention, and recognizing the signs of clinical depression in children and teens, which are different than in adults. Klebold calls for nothing less than an entirely new approach to mental health.

This is a very sad book, but in the end, it's a book about survival. Sue Klebold lived through a tragedy of immense proportions. She chose to survive and, eventually, found a way to create meaning from her loss. Her book is sure to help many other people do that, too. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Richest Man Who Ever Lived



Jacob Fugger of Augsburg (1459 – 1525) must be considered one of the wealthiest people, if not the wealthiest, to ever live. You can likely mention a few other individuals that surely, you would argue, were (or are) richer. But I don’t think so. Why? Because he arrived at a time when the rules of business were not clearly understood. Entrepreneurial savvy was not common. He was like a wolf among sheep. There were few restrictions to rampant wealth accumulation and he had business acumen to spare. His money touched everything—politics, religion, art, the military, natural resources, kings and queens, banks, transportation, legal systems, entire national states—everything!

You haven’t heard of Jacob Fugger “The Rich”? Neither had I until I read a book about the Medici (a wealthy and influential renaissance family—see my review of The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance). The Medici were wealthy, most definitely, but Fugger was richer. Like the Medici, Jacob Fugger entered the banking trade (he had started life in the family’s textile trade). He proved in the long run to have had better business sense than Giovanni, Cosimo or Lorenzo de' Medici. Jacob had an uncanny ability to smell a good deal.  He bought mines, funded merchant ships, acquired jewels and much more—and it all turned a profit. He collected castles. Collected them! Five hundred years on and his descendants are still reaping the benefits of his property owning activities.His money begat more money, which begat more money. And on and on. Martin Luther hated his guts.

In The Richest Man Who Ever Lived author Greg Steinmetz describes how Jacob Fugger amassed his wealth at a time when individuals were only slowly realizing that wealth could be pursued as an end in itself and that having a lot of it could win you the king’s ear. Jacob was low key. He made his money quietly all the while staying in the shadows and influencing politics. He pulled the (coin) strings to ensure legislation matched (that is, didn’t impede) business enterprise. He made emperors. Charles V would not have made it to the imperial heights he did without Fugger money.

Jacob’s life was full of incident and he seemed to get caught up in the middle of world altering events. One example will suffice to show you what I mean. There was a revolt in the German states; historians call it the German Peasants War. “The peasants” had the wonderful idea that wealth should be shared equally by all. We call that communism today. The conceptual apparatus of communism didn’t exist in Fugger’s time but the animating idea was the same. Fugger, capitalist that he was, thought that the imposition of forced sharing would inhibit business creativity; it would quash the incentive to find new products and new efficiencies in manufacturing goods, it would hurt investment. Simply put, it would be bad for business. So Fugger money funded the army that went on to crush the revolt.

Jacob Fugger wasn’t the nicest guy. He didn’t have many friends. When he lay in bed dying his wife was off with her lover. He breathed his last surrounded by paid assistants. Money, ultimately, didn’t make him happy (at least it seems that way to this reader). The sense I have of the man after having read this book is that wealth accumulation was a kind of addictive game for Jacob. He was good at it. He was aggressive and sharp eyed and ambitious. He liked what money could do. Nowadays there are plenty of people who chase after wealth for its own sake. Jacob Fugger was the first and perhaps the supreme model of this personality type.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Isabella: The Warrior Queen



When authors choose their subjects for the biographies they plan to write, I wonder how many of them ask themselves the simple question: How much did this individual accomplish in his/her lifetime? Few individuals, I would suggest, can compare with the array of items on the “To Do List” of Queen Isabella of Castile (1451—1504). In this sense, author Kirstin Downey chose her subject wisely.
 
Isabella had little down-time in her eventful life yet things started off rather quietly for her. Isabella, a girl (obviously), 2nd child of King John II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal was not expected to rule and her birth was not celebrated or even widely known in her homeland of Castile y Leon. Yet by the whims and quirks of historical circumstances, and with no small measure of guile, planning, courage and luck, Isabella ascended to the throne. Actually, amidst the succession mayhem that ensued upon the death of King Enrique, she essentially crowned herself. You would have to dust off some very old history books in search of a precedent for a female as sole ruler of a kingdom in Iberia, or any place in all of Europe for that matter. Names such as Urraca and Queen Berenguela are Iberian figures from the deep middle ages, figures obscured by time. Isabella was acutely aware of the rarity of what she was trying to accomplish; she wanted to be THE queen with ultimate say regarding the affairs of Castile (her husband Ferdinand had ultimate say in Aragon, it was how they worked out their particular marital arrangement). Queens did rule in Europe but only at the pleasure of their husbands, the Kings, who ensured the populace bent their collective knees when the female royal so ordered.
 
Life as queen of a troubled kingdom was not easy. A war with Portugal, not to mention appeasing many disgruntled Spanish Grandees, was her introduction to high-stakes politics in the Renaissance age. But she handled matters effectively. Isabella had grit and determination in abundance. Besides overseeing a war abroad against the king of Portugal over her succession and dealing with the bitter rivalries of nobles and courtiers at home, what else occupied the time of the Queen of Castile? To begin, she initiated and completed the conquering of Granada (the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula), she sponsored the voyages of a wannabe explorer named Christopher Columbus with his tantalizing plan to sail to India by crossing the Atlantic Ocean, she brought considerable pressure to bear on Papal elections (the notorious Pope Alexander VI, patriarch of the influential Spanish Borgia family, was a sometimes friend-sometimes enemy of Isabella), she helped keep the powerful French armies out of Aragon, she was instrumental in organizing a pan-Christian-European response to the very aggressive Ottoman Empire. If this seems like a lot for a person to handle in one lifetime, you would be absolutely correct. Yet Isabella had more on her plate. Columbus, as we know, didn’t land in India he landed on the as-yet unknown (to Europeans) continents of the Americans. Isabella alone among European monarchs was first to realize the magnitude of the discovery and its future possibilities. Now she added to her already busy schedule the colonization of the “new world.” Isabella was also principally responsible for bringing the cultural spirit of the Renaissance to the Iberian Peninsula. She had a deep appreciation for the value of art and education and felt keenly her own lack of education; her parents didn’t think educating her beyond the intricacies of needlepoint was worthwhile. Isabella insisted that all of her children (girls included) receive the best education Spanish gold could buy. She accomplished more, too much for me to list for you here. You’ll have to read the book if your curious.
 
Downey’s book does a very good job bringing Isabella to life. The author pays particular attention to the challenges Isabella faced as a woman in a man’s world. This aspect of Isabella’s life story does not define her, but it was a major theme throughout her life. Isabella: The Warrior Queen is a rags to riches tale featuring a very gutsy, likable heroine and is recommended for fans of royal biographies and Spanish history buffs.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Who Needs Books?


This little booklet is the transcript of a lecture given for the Canadian Literature Centre as part of the Kreisel Lecture Series. At 49 pages, it is more than ideal for a coffee-talk or brief book club meeting. It is written (and was delivered) by Lynn Coady, author of Hellgoing and The Antagonist.
The premise is that books are at their marketable end and “who needs ‘em?” The fact that this essay was published as a book after being a lecture might head-off the reader where the author is going to go. The medium is indeed the message in this case.
Coady begins with relating her first introduction to an interactive metafiction.   The book in question was narrated by Grover, as in Sesame Street’s blue furry monster, who doesn’t want the young reader to make it to the end of the book, where there is a terrible monster.
The fact that this book celebrated the physical experience of moving through a book, engaging each page as the weight of the pages shift from the one side of the cover to the other, is just as important as the fact that this brilliant little book was based on a TV show. Wasn’t television seen as “the idiot box”, or the “natural enemy of books in the wilds of modern life”, as described (tongue-in-cheek) by Coady?  Does that one villainous fact outweigh the other virtues inherent in this book that so inspired young Coady?
It is important to point out that books did not disappear in the ensuing years after television.   Readers did not give up reading in order to only watch TV. Yet here we are, bemoaning again the loss of the book under the shadow of another medium. This time it is the Internet. Despite all the worry inspired by other well-established authors who are quoted in this treatise (Jonathan Franzen, Will Self), this anxiety has proven to have little foundation.
Coady offers perspective by quoting from an 1859 Scientific American article that finds the pervasiveness of a new hobby “an amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements.” The writer is lamenting about a preoccupation with the game of chess.
Chess did not supplant books. Nor did the printing press cause cathedrals to fall (another terrific citation found by Coady), but it did make people aware that spellings and grammar vary constantly, that language is always changing--or deteriorating, if you are a negative thinker. But the presses are still churning out physical books 577 years later. And stories are not born until they are received; read, heard, seen, felt in whatever form.
 Don't you need books?


Friday, January 13, 2017

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450 --1650


The title is what first caught my eye when I browsed the new books shelf at my library. Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450 – 1650 by Carlos M. N. Eire. It is arresting because of the pluralized form of the word: reformation. Normally we think of the great disruptions that rocked the religious world of early modern Europe as all falling under the rubric of “The Reformation” a label that encompasses the great discontent of a nascent Protestant movement against the perceived corruption and moral laxity of the Catholic Church. This book by Carlos M. N. Eire seeks to complicate the picture and does an excellent job at that.

The years covered span 1450 to 1650, a sizable chunk of time with a lot going on. For the most part the setting is Europe though the new world (North America) and the Middle East are discussed tangentially. There are four main sections to the book each a logical step in the historical development of the era. We begin with a section on the pre-reformation time of the late middle ages, a time of growing unhappiness and overall disgruntlement with the status quo. The next section is simply titled Protestants and covers the religious revolution brought on by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others. The proceeding section is titled Catholics and covers the reaction of that camp to the movements of the Protestants (a period often referred to as the counter-reformation). Lastly a section called Consequences fills out the picture of these tumultuous two hundred years.  As I said the outline is logical and it makes the rather lengthy treatise (the book runs to about 760 pages) flow a little quicker.

The simplicity of the outline is, however, misleading---in a good way. What Eire does is demonstrate the dynamics of influence ebbing and flowing between all of the participants in this historical drama. For example, at one point Eire talks about the Deists and their rational-religious movement and how the Protestants and Catholics both reacted to them in similar ways with similar critiques. The inclusion of such disparate players on the political stage with the usual participants (Protestants and Catholics) makes for a fuller account of the era. Another example of the dynamics of influence is the inclusion by the author of critiques of geographic place. The reformation was viewed differently and reaction to the events of this time played out differently depending on where one was on the continent, that is to say, the energy of the epoch diffused differently depending on where one lived. The Scots were restless in one way the Spaniards in another. I appreciate how the author shows the different actions and reactions to all that was happening at the time. I like that the picture of the time is muddied.

This is essentially the great merit of this work, it demonstrates how complicated the era was. Most accounts of the Reformation simplify the narrative to Protestants vs Catholics. But Eire shows how there were smaller reformations occurring even within these two larger camps. There were reactions to various renditions of the Protestant theological outlook happening within the Protestant communities that did as much to divide them as to unite them. Similarly, the Catholic Church was having to deal with many different and often competing catholicisms (if I can use that word). For example, heresy flirting mystics did battle with theologians who insisted on their form of orthodoxy. Add to this interesting Catholic-political-theological cocktail the explosion of new religious orders, with the Jesuit order being one conspicuous example, and you have a recipe for fascinating political history; fascinating because it’s messy.

All of it, the nuances in theological debates, the new religious orders, the rational and atheistic reactions to the ongoing religious strife, the shifting alliances, makes for enjoyable and informative reading. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in religious ideas, high stakes political debate and conflict and, generally, a love of European history.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women



Twenty-one women contributed to The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women, edited by Saima S. Hussain. Hussain selected a diverse assortment of stories to reflect the myriad lives of Canadian Muslim women, thus no two stories were the same. Some women were born in Canada, while some were from immigrant families. Some women wore hijab or niqab, while others didn't. Some were not heterosexual while others cussed like sailors. Most women were able-bodied but one was blind and used a wheelchair. The point in selecting these contributions was to show the reader that there was more than one kind of Muslim woman out there, and she could be as diverse within her faith as in any other religious group. I was touched by the stories by women who were struggling in their marriages or going through divorces. 

Many of the immigrant women wrote to praise Canada for its openness to diversity and acceptance of Islam and the choice of some Muslim women to wear hijab. These testimonials touched me most of all. Azmina Kassam wrote:

"I was learning more about being Canadian, which has meant for me openness, tolerance, curiosity, and respect. It has been about engaging the other in meaningful dialogue so as to learn and expand one's understanding."

Mona Hashim, who wears hijab, wrote: "I have to admit that throughout my ten years in Toronto, I always felt welcome wherever I went. People helped me to get my shopping cart to the bus, guided me through the downtown streets. Once, on a dark and cold Christmas eve, a nice bus driver pointed out to us the mosque in Scarborough. Of course there were a few incidents where I was called names and had the middle finger raised at me. But generally speaking, I didn't feel like a stranger."

The hijab is a major theme in some of the stories, as the writers shared their reasons for abandoning it when they came to Canada, or for deciding to wear it later. Each woman had her own reasons for wearing hijab or niqab, and all of them do so freely as their own personal choice. Mariam Hamaoui sums up the whole "issue" of wearing hijab in a paragraph that the French government should read and apply:

"I support those who wear the hijab and I support those who don't wear the hijab. Hijab is a choice. Often difficult, but the choice has to be made by the woman. If a woman chooses to wear it, it is not for the sake of anyone else but for herself and God. Neither her mother nor her father can order her to wear it. Neither her brother nor her husband can order her to wear it. It is a choice and as such should be respected. By the same token, women who decide that the hijab is not for them should be respected equally and should not be ridiculed or disrespected."

Yet Tammara Soma summed it up the most succinctly:

"It takes a strong heart and a thick skin to wear a hijab."

If I ever hear Islamophobic prejudice against the hijab or niqab, I draw attention to women of another religious group, a group protected in our own constitution: Catholic nuns. Nuns are covered in a garb very close in resemblance to that worn by some Muslim women. Why does a nun's head and body covering threaten no one, yet a Muslimah's gives rise to such prejudice? 

The women write about their struggles with mental illness, integrating and finding work, yet the comic relief is provided by the stories about overbearing relatives who try to fix them up with potential husbands. I especially liked the poems and vignettes by Meharoona Ghani in "Letters to Rumi". In it, she feels conflicted while ogling a muscular construction worker:

"We passed a construction worker whose tight white t-shirt outlined his muscular upper arms and chest, revealing a hint of a tattoo below his collarbone. 'I've always wanted a tattoo...wait...I don't think I should be staring at him while I'm wearing a hijab and observing Ramadan!'"

Almost all of the stories followed a similar style of narrative, as a first-person chronological account of each writer's history as a Muslim woman in Canada. Two of the stories were endnoted and one in particular was like a formal dissertation: Maryam Khan's "Queering Islam Through Ijtihad", who tripped over herself from the very first paragraph in trying not to offend. Two stories integrated the authors' own poetry, which was a welcome treat within the reading experience.  

Hussain left the writers' stories in their original states, without any kind of editorial explanations or parenthetical insertions to elaborate on some Muslim (or specifically Arabic) terminology. For the most part, meanings could be derived from context, yet there were some instances where an explanation would have been helpful. Perhaps Hussain left the texts in their original states to show the authenticity of the writers, however I feel that the following grammatical gaffes should have been corrected. In all of the quotations below, the I in italics should be me:

"As we settled into our new life in Cairo, my parents had to make some difficult choices regarding schooling for my siblings and I." (pp. 34-35)

"...and as our family grew bigger, the distance between my biological father and I grew wider." (p. 73)

"It eventually become [sic] a home to my brother and I when many years later my mom remarried..." (p. 99)

"Yup, those white kids surrounded my sister and I, made fun of our names and yelled 'Paki' and 'Hindu.'" (p. 153)

The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth took its name from one of the stories within, and its author, Munirah MacLean, explained the origin of the title. It certainly is a brilliant title for this collection. As a non-Muslim man, the twenty-one stories left me feeling proud of Canada and of being Canadian, yet most of all proud of living in a country that welcomes diversity and thrives on it, while our neighbour to the south recoils in horror at the thought of a threat to its national security from Syrian refugees. The US should hang its head in shame. Please take the opportunity to see Hussain and some of the contributing authors as they promote this book in public readings throughout the Greater Toronto Area.