Category: Biography

Fall 2017 Non-Fiction Mini-Reviews

We’re three weeks post-move now, and I’m still digging out from under the chaos, and trying not to think too hard about the fact that the holidays are basically upon us! Unpacking will barely be finished before its time to start hauling out the Christmas decorations. In the meantime, here are a few more mini-reviews of some of the non-fiction I’ve been reading over the last few months while I was on hiatus.

A Really Good Day

Cover image for A Really Good Day by Ayeley Waldmanby Ayelet Waldman

ISBN 9780451494092

This memoir chronicles Waldman’s unique and illegal experiment using microdoses of LSD to regulate her mood disorder. The book follows the experiment diary-style, but also incorporates discursions on drug history and policy. In her career as a lawyer, Waldman has consulted on drug policy and taught courses covering drug history, so she has a solid grounding in the context of what she is undertaking. Much of the existing data she is able to bring up is compromised by the fact that early experimenters, in addition to giving the drugs to their subjects, were also sampling their own wares, and seem more like psychedelic enthusiasts than legitimate investigators. Along the way she must cope with questions like what she will tell her children about what she is doing when they inevitably notice the shifts in her mood, and what she will do once her very limited supply of LSD runs out. Every disclosure about her drug use risks both her reputation and potential legal repercussions, and the idea of purchasing on the illegal market is even more fraught. Ultimately, she concludes that what she really wants is “the kind of answer only real research by legitimate scientists under controlled circumstances can provide.”

A Mother’s Reckoning

Cover image for A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Kleboldby Sue Klebold

ISBN 9781101902769

This memoir is an intimate and gut-wrenching look inside the home of an ordinary little boy who grew up to be a high school mass murderer. Her son’s suicide inside the school library following the rampage left Sue Klebold heartbroken and in search of answers, with no one to whom she could pose the questions. She comes to conclude that a deep depression she failed to recognize played a significant role in her son’s involvement in the shooting, and advocates strongly for health care and suicide prevention—though she also clearly states that mental illness should not be assumed to lead to violence. Klebold does her best to recount the events in a way that is compatible with existing guidelines for responsible reporting on such tragedies in order to prevent imitation, something which she sharply calls out the media for failing to do in their treatment of the events at Columbine High School. It is a harrowing read because it shows people who commit terrible acts of evil as human, leaving aside the question of whether those who do monstrous things need to be humanized. I can’t imagine how upsetting this account might be for anyone who lost loved ones at Columbine.

How to Survive a Plague

Cover image for How to Survive a Plague by David France by David France

ISBN 9780307700636

This history is an insider’s look at the activists who advocated for AIDS treatments and victim’s rights in the early days of the epidemic. France’s account centers on New York, and the founding of such organizations as ACT UP and the Treatment Action Group, as well as the safe sex movement. France truly makes the reader feel the uncertainty and fear of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when even the cause of the disease was a mystery. Some early and influential activists believed that AIDS was the result of immune overload in “promiscuous” gay men, and advocated abstinence as treatment. While this theory was controversial and eventually thoroughly debunked, it did lead to the creation and promotion of the safer sex guidelines that helped curtail transmission of the disease. France also delves into the bureaucracy and homophobia that delayed the development of effective AIDS treatments by researchers and public health officials. Desperation led to thriving experimental drug undergrounds without proper oversight or data collection. Especially if you were born after AIDS went from being a death sentence to a manageable health condition, this is an essential and illuminating read.

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Cork Dork

Cover image for Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker by Bianca Bosker

ISBN 978-0-14-312809-0

Bianca Bosker had a successful career as a technology journalist when she became fascinated with the world of wine, and blind taste testing in particular. How could expert tasters identify the grape, vintage, and even the vineyard of what they were drinking, without ever seeing the bottle? Cork Dork is the story of the eighteen months she spent following this obsession, quitting her job as a journalist in order to study to become a certified sommelier, while also interviewing vintners, sommeliers, chemists, and collectors.

Cork Dork is a fascinating look behind the scenes of the wine world, approached from the broad perspective of a reporter. Bosker looks at blind tasting, tasting notes, and sommelier certification, but also the history of how the current batch of terms for describing wine came into use, how science and chemistry are changing wine making, and the evolution of the sommelier profession. Much of the book takes place in restaurants, the setting we usually associate with sommeliers, but Bosker also ventures out to wine festivals, vineyards, and private tasting groups, providing a perspective that goes beyond the service we’ve come to expect with our meals.

Cork Dork is mostly a behind the scenes look at the wine world, but Bosker does spend some time unpacking the basic elements of wine tasting for beginners. If they’re not just doing it to be pretentious, then what are connoisseurs looking for when they swirl a glass of wine and watch it run down the inside of the glass? The size and speed of the drops that run down hint at the alcohol level of the wine. Ever get that puckery feeling in your mouth after sipping wine? Those are the tannins, which come from either the skin of the grape, or the barrels in which the wine is aged. Most of the book, however, is dedicated to letting civilians see the aspects of the wine world they might otherwise never have access to, rather than outright instruction.

The rubber really hits the road in Cork Dork when Bosker tries to make her way into the restaurant industry armed with her freshly polished but highly theoretical knowledge of wine and wine service. She starts out as a cellar rat, keeping inventory, and stocking bottles, and job shadows sommelier friends in high end Manhattan restaurants. A good deal of the humour of the book comes from the fact that Bosker is an outsider, with very little practical experience in the wine world. Even as she studies varieties and vintages, and memorizes vast wine trivia, she can barely decant a bottle, let alone smoothly execute proper service to a table of expectant diners. It is also here that she touches on the perils of being a woman in the wine world. Other women working as sommeliers warn her to always address the wife, lest she be accused of flirting, and to be especially demure and respectful when dealing with older people who may be skeptical of her knowledge.

With her journalism background, Bosker would be remiss if she did not address studies that have discredited wine expertise, including a study by Frederic Brochet which dyed white wine red, then asked oenology students to describe the flavour. They overwhelmingly used terms associated with red wine. This might indicate that even experts cannot tell red and white wine apart, or that even experts can be manipulated by environmental factors. Similar experiments have been performed by dyeing lemon Jello red, and asking tasters to identify the flavour, a test which regularly confounds people. By the end of the book, Bosker lies in an fMRI machine, and correctly identifies two wines given to her through a straw, sight unseen, with no bottles, labels, or prices to sway her judgement. She identifies both correctly, a task that utterly baffled her during her first forays into blind tasting groups at the beginning of the book.

Bosker also acknowledges the high degree of subjectivity and inconsistency among experts as to what constitutes a “good” wine. Experiments have shown that wine awards are no better than random, and that the same judge can vary wildly in their assessment of the same wine in a blind test. Bosker spends a lengthy section of the book trying to get to define “good” wine. With the refinements of science and modern technology, very few wines today are legitimately bad, that is to say, poorly made or gone off. An acceptable modern wine is narrowly separated from an excellent one compared to the range and uncertainty that once existed. Yet some bottles of wine cost as much as a latte, and others could consume your entire annual salary. Bosker ultimately decides on a highly subjective measure of quality suggested to her by a mentor—“one sip leads to another,” that is, you want to keep drinking it.

Cork Dork has a strong balance of history, humour, and reportage that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the world of sommeliers and wine connoisseurs. Even a reader skeptical about the science can be fascinated by the history of wine and the complex culture that has grown up around it, and Bosker makes for an excellent guide.

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You might also like Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub

March: Book Three

Cover image for March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin with art by Nate Powell by John Lewis and Andrew Ayden

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-402-3

“For so many months I’d kept my emotions bottled up to be strong for those counting on me to lead, but there I was alone in the dark with it all.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the third and final volume in the trilogy. Catch up with March: Book One and March: Book Two here.

March: Book Three opens where March: Book Two left off, with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. The third volume is by far the longest in the trilogy, and has the most ground to cover, not necessarily in terms of time, but in terms of significant events in the civil rights movement, when participation and media attention gained critical mass. This installment includes the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcom X, the Freedom Summer voter registration project, the Selma march, and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act. The frame narrative that anchored the first volume has mostly slipped away, with only occasional references back to the inauguration of Barack Obama. It concludes on a meta note, with Lewis and Aydin discussing the idea of turning Lewis’ memoirs into a comic book.

Book three continues to chronicle the violence faced by peaceful protestors, particularly in Mississippi and Alabama as the civil rights movement gained steam. Scene after scene shows demonstrators beaten by police, or police standing by while they are attacked by white supremacists. Volunteers knew they might face violence when they signed up to register black voters in the South, but no one expected three volunteers to be intercepted and murdered before the Freedom Summer even began. Nate Powell’s black and white art chillingly depicts dredging the Mississippi swamps in search of the bodies of the three missing young men. Over and over, it shows the terrible price paid to bring in the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act.

In addition to teaching the history of the civil rights movement, Lewis also provides a behind the scenes perspective on the growing pains of a swelling movement, and the ideological differences that arose. He highlights disagreements about the role of white people in the movement, and the role of gender equality as more women began participating. Different organizations often had profoundly different ideas about how to approach their advocacy, which Lewis presents in a diplomatic fashion. We also see Lewis beginning to move in powerful circles, not just the leadership of the student movement, but also among other civil rights organizations, and even meeting the president. This might be a little inside baseball for some readers, but it does drive home the amount of behind the scenes work and debate involved in bringing about change.

Throughout March, Lewis emphasizes action over legislation, highlight the fact that while laws are important, they mean nothing without practical enforcement or compliance. Even as it concludes at a triumphal moment, with the inauguration of the United States’ first black president, there is a note of sadness and caution. One of the last scenes depicts Lewis listening to his voicemail. “I was thinking about the years of work, the bloodshed…the people who didn’t live to see this day,” Ted Kennedy says as Lewis listens in the dark, head in his hands. March is dedicated to “the past and future children of the movement.” And the next day, Congressman Lewis is back at his office, planning to educate those future children about what was lost, what was gained, and the work yet to be done.

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You might also like The Outside Circle by Patti Laboucane-Benson

Maus

Cover image for The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelmanby Art Spiegelman

ISBN 9780141014081

“At that time it wasn’t anymore families. It was everybody to take care for himself.”

Polish Jews Vladek and Anja Spiegelman survived the Holocaust and immigrated to America with their son, Art, who was born in Sweden after the war. But the atrocities of the war cast a long shadow over their family. Beginning in 1978, Art Spiegelman interviewed his father about his experiences during the war, and serialized them in comic form. He would ultimately spend thirteen years of his life capturing this history, grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust, and his complicated relationship with his father.

Maus is famous for depicting the characters as anthropomorphized animals, in the tradition of Aesop’s Fables or Animal Farm. However, the visual medium really emphasizes this narrative choice, which allows Spiegelman to approach the unspeakable. Jews are depicted as mice, and Nazis as the cats that prey on them. Nazi propaganda often compared Jews to rats and vermin, so Spiegelman’s technique is an interesting way of turning that prejudice around into social commentary. The metaphor does occasionally become overextended, such as the scene where Anja is hiding in the dark, and is afraid that there are rats, while Vladek reassures her that they are only mice. Spiegelman also sometimes deliberately breaks the metaphor, as in the early pages of Volume II, where panels showing characters from the side show that the mouse faces are only masks.

Maus is certainly a story about the Holocaust, but it is also about Art and Vladek’s tense and complicated father-son relationship. Because he interviewed and recorded his father, the dialogue really seems to capture Vladek’s voice in an authentic way. The story of collecting and preserving the story is as significant to Maus as the Holocaust narrative itself. Maus includes material that Vladek asked Art not to put in the book, and this question of what to preserve is grappled with publicly rather than privately, since Spiegelman puts this scene in the book. On page scenes also show his worries about how to depict his father honestly when “in some ways he’s just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew.” Much of the power of the narrative comes from this grappling with the lingering effects of the war on those who survived it. The effects are multigenerational, as Art also confronts his own feelings about being born after the war, while the older brother he never knew did not survive.

If Vladek heavily defines the narrative by his voice, and combative relationship with Art, Anja’s influence on the story is largely a question of her absence. Because she died before Art began documenting the family’s history, the narrative rests squarely in Vladek’s hands, even if it is Anja’s story as well. Art can provide limited memories of his mother from his childhood, but we have access to her experiences during the war only through Vladek’s eyes. Seeing how Vladek behaves with his second wife, Mala, there is much to wonder about how Anja saw things, and what her perspective would have added to the story. Vladek’s destruction of her diaries only adds to that sense of loss, and wondering what more Maus might have been if her voice could have been heard.

Spiegelman’s unusual metaphor of cats and mice approaches the Holocaust in a unique way that lends a fresh perspective to a period of history that is much covered. But Maus stands out just as much for its complex depiction of familial relationships, and the inter-generational consequences of such tragedies. The story of the story adds context and depth to Vladek’s recollections.

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You might also like John Lewis’s March 

March: Book Two

Cover image for March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew Aydinby John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-400-9

“The fare was paid in blood, but the Freedom Rides stirred the national consciousness, and awoke the hearts and minds of a generation.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the second volume in what has become a highly-acclaimed trilogy since its 2013 release. Catch up with March: Book One here.

March: Book Two opens on Inauguration Day 2009, and then transitions back to Nashville in November 1960. After successfully integrating the city’s department store lunch counters, Lewis and the Nashville Student Movement continued in the same vein by trying to integrate cafeterias and fast food restaurants. They also turned their attention to segregated movie theatres. However, the heart of the second volume focuses on the Freedom Riders and the March on Washington, as Lewis rises to national prominence within the civil rights movement. Despite covering several climactic events, tension remains high, as the volume closes with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.

Book two recounts the increasing force with which non-violent protests were met as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Powell continues to walk the fine line in depicting the events truthfully but without exploiting the horror. However, the severity of the violence undeniably increases in this installment. The violence did not come as a surprise to the activists. In fact, Freedom Riders signed wills before undertaking their journeys, which were designed to test whether the Supreme Court decision that integrated interstate buses was being upheld in practice. Lewis also describes watching news coverage of protests in Alabama, where activists faced fire hoses and police dogs, resulting in what “looked like footage from a war.”

As in the first volume, Lewis is not afraid to chronicle philosophical differences within the movement, and his worries that as the number of protestors swelled, the new recruits lacked the discipline to adhere to the principles of non-violence. At the back of the book, the original draft of his speech for the March on Washington is included. The comic itself depicts the intense negotiations that surrounded certain aspects of his wording, which led to him delivering a highly revised version. While Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is the most famous address from this event, Lewis’ speech is powerful in its own right, and receives a six page spread. Yet the book also highlights the many other players and contributors, while also remaining Lewis’ story. Malcom X makes a brief appearance, though Lewis clearly disapproves of his philosophy. Dr. King is depicted respectfully but sometimes critically, without the idolatry that often surrounds his legacy. But Lewis is most interested in A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the architects of the March on Washington. Rustin, in particular, was the logistical brains of the operation, but could not play a prominent public role because of his communist connections and homosexuality. March memorializes his key contributions.

March continues to move back and forth between Lewis’ life story, and Barack Obama’s inauguration. The first volume used a slightly stilted frame narrative of Lewis recounting his childhood to two boys who visit his office with their mother, who wants to teach them about the history of the civil rights movement. The second volume is purely Lewis reflecting alone on his experiences as the inauguration progresses, which works more smoothly, and also creates some interesting juxtapositions. Lewis’ election as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee is placed alongside Obama taking the oath of office. The scenes depicting famous speeches given at the March on Washington are followed by the opening words of President Obama’s inaugural address. Aretha Franklin sings “My Country Tis of Thee” in 2009 as Freedom Riders are beaten in the streets of Alabama in 1963. This creates an effect that conveys the breadth of history, even as the closing on the church bombing creates a sobering, cautionary finish. There is always a backlash.

March: Book One

Cover image for March Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-300-2

“The thing is, when I was young, there wasn’t much of a civil rights movement. I wanted to work at something, but growing up in rural Alabama, my parents knew it could be dangerous to make any waves.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past thirty years. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the first volume in what has become a highly-acclaimed trilogy since its 2013 release.

March opens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the march from Selma is about to be confronted by troopers armed for a riot, then flashes forward to Inauguration Day 2009, when Barack Obama is about to be sworn in as the first African American president of the United States. The frame narrative takes place in Congressman Lewis’ Washington D.C. office when a black woman from Atlanta arrives with her two sons to see the office of their representative. The congressman begins to tell the boys about his early life, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement, and continues through the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters in 1960. The transitions between past and present are not always smooth, but have the effect of emphasizing the currency of the narrative, and its continued relevance to the present moment.

March is part autobiography, and part civil rights primer. It both chronicles Lewis’ childhood on an Alabama farm with former sharecroppers for parents, and his early involvement in civil rights with the Nashville Student Movement. The early days are particularly interesting, as they show differences within the movement, and how the younger generation of activists made an impact by refusing to accept the more modest rollbacks of segregation that some older leaders were pushing for. The book also depicts the organizing and training that goes into building an effective and coordinated strategy for a movement. One particularly powerful scene shows activists roleplaying, insulting and abusing one another in order to prepare for the challenges they will face at the lunch counter sit-ins.

The graphic memoir format is particular suitable for illustrating the abuses faced by early civil rights activists, and Nate Powell powerfully captures the fear and tension in his art. The decision to illustrate the book in black and white renders these events in all their stark ugliness. The violence is not sugar-coated, but nor is it gratuitous. Notably, part of John Lewis’ introduction to the civil rights movement was the 1956 comic Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story, which was an educational comic designed to teach the principles of non-violent resistance. March carries on in that tradition.

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You might also like The Outside Circle by Patti Laboucane-Benson

Becoming Queen Victoria

Cover image for Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams by Kate Williams

ISBN 978-0-345-47239-7

“The newspapers fizzed with gossip about the wayward brothers who succeeded only at plunging the monarchy into disgrace. Through it all, Charlotte was their one hope: the blue-eyed, golden-haired girl who seemed so spirited and innocent. The public took to idealizing her as the perfect princess: sweet, reserved, possessed of a kind heart, and entirely unlike her self-centered father.”

Royal historian Kate Williams’ portrait of two British princesses has been published under the title Becoming Queen, as well as the somewhat less accurate Becoming Queen Victoria. While it certainly is an account of how Victoria gained the throne, it dedicates a nearly equal measure of attention to Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, the woman who would have been queen but for her untimely death in childbirth. The book is divided into two parts, first chronicling the life and death of Princess Charlotte, before moving on to the second part dealing with the childhood and early reign of Queen Victoria. The short interlude between the two sections follows the scramble to secure the succession that took place in the wake of Charlotte’s unexpected death at the age of twenty-one.

Williams begins her account with the marriage of the Prince of Wales—the future George IV—to his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick in 1796. Though Prince George had more than a dozen siblings, he was one of the few to make a legitimate marriage, and he was not pleased with his German princess from the outset. George III preferred to keep his daughters at home, refusing them permission to marry, and most of his sons chose mistresses over marriage, earning them a debauched reputation as they drained the royal treasury with their antics. George and Caroline managed to get along long enough to produce Princess Charlotte, securing the succession, but their animosity only grew, and Charlotte became the frequent subject of an ongoing tug-of-war between her estranged parents throughout her childhood.

The drama surrounding Charlotte’s childhood paints an effective picture of the unpopularity of the Hanoverian monarchs, and Williams spins out a dramatic vision of what the young princess endured. In addition to being a pawn in the cold war between her parents, Charlotte was also much more popular with the public than her father, who served as Prince Regent during his father’s periods of madness. The more the public idealized her, the more her father mistrusted her, having spent his own youth consolidating power and building a rival circle of support around himself. For this reason, her father hoped to marry her off to a foreign prince, and send her abroad so that she could not set up a rival court in London. Grasping after independence from her relatives, Charlotte married Prince Leopold, who hailed from the Saxe-Coburg family, rulers of a small German duchy. However, she was successful in making living in England one of the conditions of the marriage.

As one of Britain’s longest ruling monarchs, as well as the sovereign who presided over the British Empire, and the Industrial Revolution, Queen Victoria has received her fair share of attention. She is currently the subject of ITV’s television series Victoria, and features in many biopics and historical fiction novels. But her cousin Charlotte is a less well-known figure, the queen who never was. For this reason, I found myself more riveted by the first half of the book. Depictions of the turmoil of the Regency period usually focus on the mad king and the Napoleonic wars, but through Charlotte, Williams highlights another aspect of the tumultuous Hanoverian dynasty, a corrupt and licentious monarchy riven by a rotten family dynamic. And of course, all of this provides context to the famous Kensington System, under which the Duchess of Kent would eventually raise her daughter.

What Williams also makes clear by beginning the story of Victoria’s ascension more than twenty years before her birth is that Victoria did not become heir to the throne simply because Charlotte died; she literally existed because of her cousin’s death. The sons and daughters of George III had more than fifty children between them, and all but Charlotte were illegitimate. With George IV still married to Charlotte’s estranged mother despite repeated efforts to divorce her, Charlotte’s death set off a scramble amongst George’s younger brothers to procure suitable wives, and secure the succession. Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, jettisoned his mistress of nearly thirty years in order to marry Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. Alexandrina Victoria was born to the couple within eighteen months of her cousin’s death. And while the possibility remained that one of her father’s older brother’s might yet produce an heir that would displace her, Victoria was heir presumptive for much of her young life.

Like Charlotte, Victoria’s position meant an unhappy childhood. Whereas Charlotte was neglected and haphazardly educated, Victoria was highly controlled and abused in an effort to shape her into a popular heir, as well as one who would be obedient to her mother, and her advisor Sir John Conroy, after her father died in her infancy. Given the ages of her uncles, the Duchess and Sir John long operated on the assumption that Victoria would require a regency, and worked to ensure that they would have that power. They also worked hard to keep Victoria separate from her uncles in the public mind, so that she would not be tainted by their shenanigans. But the Kensington System destroyed Victoria’s relationship with her mother, and led her to oust both the duchess and Sir John from her circle immediately upon her ascension to the throne. The only advisor she retained was her governess, Baroness Lehzen.

For fans of ITV’s Victoria, Williams touches on the major events depicted in the series.  Notably, however, she agrees with most other historians that the relationship between Queen Victoria and her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, was more paternal than romantic, a point of departure that series creator Daisy Goodwin leans heavily on. By profiling Charlotte and Victoria together, Williams succeeds in highlighting the perils facing a female monarch, particularly in the realms of marriage and family, creating a rather personal history. An alternative history can also easily be imagined, in which Charlotte and Leopold ruled over England together. Instead, Leopold was instrumental in facilitating the marriage of his nephew to the young queen, and the Victorian age was born.

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You might also like:

How to Be Victorian by Ruth Goodman

The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones

Canada Reads Along: The Right to Be Cold

Cover image for The Right to Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutierby Sheila Watt-Cloutier

ISBN 978-0-14-318764-6

“Climate change is about people as much as it is about the earth, and the science, economics and politics of our changing environment must always have a human face.”

Born in Kuujuuaq in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec in 1953, Sheila Watt-Cloutier has borne witness to tremendous change in the Inuit way of life over the past six decades. Her diverse career has included work in the fields of health and education before she turned to climate activism in the 1990s. However, all of these pursuits have a unifying purpose; the protection of Inuit culture and the well-being of Inuit people. Part memoir and part call to action, The Right to Be Cold combines scientific evidence and Inuit traditional knowledge, putting a human face on the impact of climate change, which has been acutely felt in the Arctic region Watt-Cloutier calls home. Focusing on the interconnectedness of all things, Watt-Cloutier positions Inuit as sentinels, sounding the alarm about issues that have already devastated the Arctic, but must eventually impact the entire world.

Watt-Cloutier does a wonderful job of putting a human face on climate change, both by giving accounts of traditional Inuit practices, and chronicling how they have changed as the Arctic warms. She also writes very understandable explanations of the scientific processes that are involved in climate change, including explaining why the poles are experiencing the phenomenon at a more rapid rate than other parts of the planet. By describing her Inuit childhood, Watt-Cloutier is able to illustrate how much has changed in such a short period. For the first the first ten years of her life she traveled only by dog sled, until the government executed most of the sled dogs in the 1960s. Today, travel by sled or snow machine is difficult because the texture of the snow has changed due to rising temperatures. Travel over once-solid sea ice has also been made dangerous by the changes wrought by temperature and pollutants. The traditional knowledge of the elders that once kept hunters safe is rapidly becoming obsolete in a swiftly-changing environment.

While humanizing the issues is certainly one of Watt-Cloutier’s strengths, the book does get bogged down in the middle, in the chapters “POPs and the Inuit Journey,” and “The Right to Be Cold.” These chapters chronicle her international political advocacy as the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, where she served for eleven years beginning in 1995. Her first major issue was Persistent Organic Pollutants which, due to weather systems, tend to gather in the Arctic and poison traditional Inuit food sources as they accumulate at the top of the food chain. After the Stockholm Convention, the organization turned its attention to climate change. Watt-Cloutier then advanced the argument that climate change is a human rights issue, because it directly impacts all of the other recognized human rights. Unfortunately, these chapters can be a little bit inside baseball, consisting of long lists of the many international players, which will not be relevant to the average reader. These chapters do serve to illustrate the immense difficulty and cooperation needed to orchestrate an agreement on an international issue, but this could have been accomplished with only a few of the telling anecdotes. For example, at a conference where the ICC was only an observer, the organization tried to get the Canadian delegation to mention the impacts on the Arctic in relation to climate change. When they dismissed the request, the ICC instead turned to the Samoan delegation, which agreed to mention that the flooding they were experiencing from rising sea levels was a direct result of the rapidly melting Arctic ice cap.

The Right to Be Cold was represented in this year’s Canada Reads competition by singer Chantal Kreviazuk, who had a couple of disadvantages representing this title. While all of the other panelists appeared live in the studio in Toronto, Kreviazuk appeared by video link from Los Angeles due to the fact that her son was in the hospital there. Kreviazuk did her best to try to turn this to the book’s advantage by pointing out that her son’s acute asthma attack was caused by increased pollen levels that are a direct result of a warmer climate. However, due to the slight lag in the video link, it was difficult for Kreviazuk to jump into the back and forth of the debate, although host Ali Hassan did a good job of ensuring that questions were addressed to her, and offering her opportunities to respond. Kreviazuk was also defending the only non-fiction title among this year’s selections, which has historically been a disadvantage. Since Canada Reads began in 2002, Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre has been the only non-fiction winner in 2012, although the 2015 winner Ru was heavily based on autobiographical elements of Kim Thuy’s life.

Despite these disadvantages, Kreviazuk mounted a strong case for The Right to Be Cold based on this year’s Canada Reads theme, “the one book Canada needs now.” Climate change is a compelling and time-sensitive issue that fits well with this topic. Kreviazuk also gained a vocal ally when Candy Palmater became a free agent after The Break was eliminated on day one. Although Palmater cast a strategic vote against The Right to Be Cold in an effort to save her own book on the first day, she subsequently fought strongly for the book she initially voted to eliminate. In addition to bringing forth some Indigenous perspectives on aspects of the book, Palmater also pointed out the apples to oranges comparison of pitting one non-fiction title against the two remaining novels.

Throughout the week, the main argument against The Right to Be Cold centered on the amount of information provided and its readability as a result. Kreviazuk felt the wealth of information was necessary to ensure that the book was not dismissed as “just an opinion.” Jody Mitic felt that there was too much information not about Sheila herself. Measha Breuggergosman acknowledged that the topic was essential, but argued that The Right to Be Cold was simply not as engaging as the other books on the table. Humble the Poet also repeatedly raised the question of readability. The tension centered on the disconnect some panelists felt between the undisputed significance of the issue, and the accessibility of the manner in which it was presented. When it came time to vote, Palmater and Kreviazuk voted against Company Town, while Humble the Poet, Brueggergosman, and Mitic all cast their ballots against The Right to Be Cold, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to get caught up with Canada Reads Along 2017? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette