Not To Be Trusted With Knives

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Summer Reading

Since I last reviewed the books I’d read this year here on ye ole blog, I’ve been on quite a roll with reading and have read SEVEN books in those TWO months! What follows are my brief reviews of these books – expect spoilers!

Vancouver Is Ashes: The Great Fire of 1886 by Lisa Anne Smith

My friend Linda gave me this book two birthdays ago. I finally got around to reading it and I can’t believe I left it sitting on the shelf for so long because it was soooo good! As the name suggests, it is about the great fire of 1886 when the brand new City of Vancouver burned down. The city was so new that it had only had a grand total of one city council meeting (the city clerk made a big effort to save the minutes of that meeting from the flames!). They didn’t have a fire engine, and thus fire fighting techniques included filling buckets with water to dump on the flames and hitting flames with wet blankets. People jumped on boats, and when there were no more boats, they grabbed onto anything that could float, and went out into the water between Vancouver and Moodyville (part of what is today known as North Vancouver) to escape the flames. The descriptions in the book are really rich – you can picture what the city would have looked like and can almost feel the panic that the citizens felt as the fire got worse and worse. There are some funny stories – like a guy who tried to use a discarded briefcase he found to shield himself from the flames, only to learn that the briefcase was full of bullets (which someone had tried to take with them on their way to escape but ended up discarding along the way) when the bullets started exploding as the heat of the flames approached! The book also talks about how the city worked to recover after the fire – the picture on the front of the book is of a city council meeting, which was held outside a tent that had a hand written “City Hall” sign on it.

If you are at all interested in the history of Vancouver, I’d definitely recommend you check out this book.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

This is a short book of writings by Christopher Hitchens – best known for his writing and speaking on atheism – about his experience of “living dyingly”, which he wrote after being diagnosed with terminal cancer (So, you know, a nice light summer read). He pointed out that technically everyone is living dyingly, but healthy people are doing it in slow motion compared to him at that point in his life. He also mentions a few times the “materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body”, which struck me as I’d recently had a discussion with a colleague who has taught a course on the “anthropology of the body” and had his students write essays on whether they believed they “had” a body or “were” a body. I’d not heard that phrase before, but it sort of captured my attention, so when I read Hitchens’ talking about it, that captured my attention too. At one point he said that despite believing that “I don’t have a body, I am a body”, he “consciously and regularly acted as if this was not true, or as if any exception would be made in my case.” (Hitchens was known for his heavy drinking and smoking). The other striking thing in this book was that when you get toward the end, there’s a section of “unfinished fragmentary jottings” (as his wife described them in the afterward); some of them were things you’d read fleshed out in an earlier section of the book, but some that were just ideas of his that he didn’t get a chance to flesh out before he died. It really gave you a sense of the finality – and that death waits for no one. I guess all of us will leave many things unfinished when we go.

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story by Dan Harris.

I read this book after Cath told me she was reading Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, also by Dan Harris. Cath knows that I’m interested in mindfulness and also that I’m a skeptic, and she said that she was finding MfFS really good. So I decided to first read Harris’ earlier book, 10% Happier, which chronicles his experience of being stressed out after being a war correspondent, to the point of having a panic attack while he was reporting on live television, and then his search for some way to deal with this anxiety, but without losing his drive to succeed. I enjoyed this book – it was interesting to read about his journey and it also got me motivated to make more of an effort to do some mindfulness practice.

Now I want to read Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book. I do most of my reading on transit on my way to and from work, but this book won’t really be appropriate for that, as it’s filled with mindfulness activities that you need to do as you read through the book. So it looks like I’ll need to carve out some time to actually do reading – and mindfulness practice – at home.

White American Youth: My Descent into America’s Most Violent Hate Movement–and How I Got Out by Christian Picciolini

I heard about this book when I heard the author, Christian Picciolini, being interviewed on a podcast. Picciolini is a former white supremacist who eventually left the movement and now works to try to help other people get out of extremist movements. The book wasn’t particularly well-written (I felt like it jumped from his present day perspective to his perspective at the time a bit erratically, making it a bit hard to follow in places), but it did provide an interesting perspective on how vulnerable young people can end up as extremists. In Picciolini’s case, he was the child of Italian immigrants to the US who spent a lot of time working and, he felt, did not pay attention to him. He didn’t have many friends and he felt picked on. And then the leader of a skinhead group recruited him to the white power movement and he learned that he could get respect by being violent when he fought a school bully and won. When the skinhead leader got sent to jail, Picciolini took over – he was only 14 years old at the time.  He talks about some of the horrible things he did as part of the movement. I kind of expected there would be a poignant moment where he saw the error of his ways, but it really just came down to him opening a record store to try to earn money to support his young family and he got to know some Jewish people and black people and gay people who all came into this store to buy stuff and learned that these were good people, not at all the stereotypes he had believed. He also talks about the fact that those stereotypes he believed in were really just things that he was told by other people in the white power movement, and even realizes that he, he constantly went on unemployment when the construction work he did in the summer time ended, fit the stereotype of “leaching off the system” more than any minority he’d ever met. In the end, this book supports a lot of what I’ve read about lately – people join hate movements when they feel lonely and disconnected, and someone comes along and invites them into a community – and gives them a scapegoat to blame all their perceived problems on.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm is a classic that I somehow never read until now. I think a lot of people read it in high school, but it just never ended up on any of the reading lists in any of my high school English classes. I did read Nineteen Eighty Four, another George Orwell classic, back in high school, but not Animal Farm. It was a pretty quick read – it’s a short book and styled like a fairy tale1 and it was written as a satire of the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist regime. It seems an apt time in history to be reading this book, as part of that satire is about the “cult of personality” of Stalin (as represented by a pig named Napoleon) and about totalitarianism, which really resonates with a certain president who shall remain nameless. One of the things that reminded me of the current state of affairs was how the pigs would change their stories on things and the other animals on the farm would just believe it, assuming their memory must be mistaken. For example, there was a pig named Snowball who was a hero in the “Battle of the Cowshed”, during which the animals fought off some people who tried to take the farm back from the animals (who had taken it over from the original human farmer who owned it), but later Napoleon runs Snowball off the farm so that he can have all the power and then changes the story, first to say that Snowball hid during the battle, and later to say that Snowball fought alongside the humans against the animals. Despite the fact that the animals were there and remembered Snowball being a hero who drove the humans away, they decide “I guess I must have misremembered that.” Similarly, there are a bunch of commandments painted on the side of the barn, but as the pigs decide to make their own lives more comfortable, they break those commandments and when the rest of the animals say “Hey, didn’t we have a commandment that say not to do that thing the pigs are doing?”, they would see that additional words had been added to the commandments (e.g., “No animal shall consume alcohol” was changed to “No animal shall consume alcohol to excess” and “No animal shall sleep in a bed” was changed to say “No animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets.”) and say “Oh, I guess I forgot about that last part of the commandment”. It’s really reminiscent of how a certain president who shall remain nameless will completely contradict himself on what feels like a daily basis and, despite videotaped evidence of him having said the opposite thing, his followers will just shrug it off. The lives of the animals (other than pigs) weren’t better off in this new world – they didn’t get much to eat, they worked harder than ever, they didn’t get to retire when they got old, and the pigs would kill animals that displeased them in some way. So, all in all, this was a rather depressing book to read – especially given that the ending is just that the pigs are walking around on hind legs (which was against one of the original commandments) and hanging out with people while the rest of the animals suffer.

The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

Cath gave me these two books to read and now I’m totally hooked on this series, which revolves around a woman named Thursday Next, who is a literary detective. It’s set in an alternative world version of Britain where all sorts of crazy things happen, and it’s sort of similar in style to the work of Douglas Adams (which almost seems blasphemous to say!). I don’t want to say too much and spoil these for anyone who wants to read these series, which you totally should if you like that style of British humour, but I will say that they involve time travel, the ability to actually enter books, an over-the-top villain, and some very punny character names. They also require you to have a working knowledge of some of the classic which, like Animal Farm as I mention above, I haven’t necessarily read. I’ve never read Jane Eyre, in fact, so I had to go read the Wikipedia entry on it to be able to understand some of the things that happened in The Eyre Affair. Similarly, I haven’t read Great Expectations and since the character of Miss Havisham features in Lost in a Good Book, I had to read the Wikipedia entry on her too! I’ve already got the rest of the books in the series, but I’m trying to savour them, so I decided to read another book in between finishing Lost in a Good Book and the next one in the series.

So, there you have it. I’ve now completed 78% of my goal of reading 18 books this year, and we are 71% of the way through the year. I’m also almost halfway through the next book that I’m reading (Brain Rules for Aging Well), plus I’ve read the better part of several textbooks for the course I’m teaching this semester, so I’m reasonably confident that I can achieve my reading goal this year!

  1. The original title had “A Fairy Story” as a subtitle, but that was dropped. []

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