Category: Non-Fiction

Midnight in Broad Daylight

Cover image for Midnight in Broad Daylight by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto

ISBN 978-0-06-235193-7

The kibei were among the most disillusioned. They felt as if the nisei blamed them with their fluent Japanese and broken English for having attracted undue negative attention to the entire ethnic group. In Japan, the kibei had been scorned as children of emigrants, suspect for their fluent English. Nowhere did they belong.”

In 1933, following the death of the family patriarch, Katsuji, the Fukuhara family returned to Kinu Fukuhara’s home city of Hiroshima. Two of her children, Victor and Mary, had previously lived there with her sister, Kiyo, though like her younger children, Pierce, Harry, and Frank, they were American-born. The family had already lived a life divided between two countries, but that division would become a vast rift as Japan set a course for war. Harry and Mary both returned to America after they completed school, and were trying to rebuild their lives on the West Coast when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941. While Harry and Mary faced internment in America, their brothers in Japan saw their schools militarized, and tried to stay one step ahead of the inevitable creep of the draft. Despite failing the physical exam on his first attempt to enlist in the army due to poor eyesight, Harry would eventually volunteer for a valuable position in the Military Intelligence Service, one of very few truly bilingual men who could help translate a growing load of documents and prisoner interrogations in the Pacific Theater. However, this set Harry on a looming course towards the invasion of the Japanese mainland, and a potential confrontation with his family. Unbeknownst to them all, but ever-present to the reader, decisions being made in Washington would drive history astray from the confrontation they feared, placing the family in the middle of a historic deployment of new military technology that none of them could have imagined.

Midnight in Broad Daylight zooms in and out between the minutiae of the Fukuhara’s wartime lives, and the broader context of the global conflict that was shaping their everyday experiences. Pamela Rotner Sakamoto—a Holocaust scholar who spent seventeen years living in Japan—focuses largely on Harry and Frank, the two brothers who shared their stories, and helped her conduct her research. Mary features in the story during the internment, but when Harry enlists as a linguist in the military, and Mary takes resettlement to the East, she mostly fades from the book. The other two brothers, Victor and Pierce, are enigmatic figures. For Victor in particular, the author has noted that it was difficult to find people with enough recollections of him to help flesh out his story. As the eldest, he was conscripted first, beginning his service while Japan was still at war only with China. Matriarch Kinu, and her larger-than-life sister Kiyo, also play a prominent role in the narrative. While I would have liked to know more about Victor and Pierce, as well as Mary’s wartime life in Chicago, I understand that the breadth of this already long book had to be limited somewhere, and certainly the juxtaposition provided by Harry and Frank’s situations is the most compelling.

On the Japanese side of the Pacific, I was interested in how little information Kinu and Frank had access to. Daily news was extremely limited, and access to the outside world was cut off. Mary and Harry’s whereabouts and circumstances throughout the war were unknown to their mother. Once Frank was finally conscripted, reading or accessing what little outside news was available was actively discouraged; it was expected that soldiers, especially lowly foot soldiers, needed no information but what their commanding officers saw fit to provide them. And the Japanese military command was actively shaping the information that both enlisted men and the public were receiving, even coining a new term, “sideward advance” to euphemistically describe the Empire’s worsening position in the Pacific Theater. Focused on day-to-day survival, the author is able to effectively show how Japanese civilians and low-level military conscripts had their broader world view slowly whittled away, until the only alternatives were hardscrabble survival, or a sacrifice of life in service of the Empire.

Midnight in Broad Daylight combines both primary research and family narratives. In some cases, the author’s research uncovered details the family was unaware, such as the exact date of Katsuji Fukuhara’s immigration. When primary sources conflict with historical accounts, she notes both what has been passed down in the oral history, as well as the evidence that might refute these memories. The book was written at a remove of many years; the author met Harry Fukuhara in 1994, and Midnight in Broad Daylight was finally published in January 2016. While four of the five Fukuhara siblings were alive when the author began her work, unfortunately none of them lived to see its publication; Harry and Frank, the longest survivors, passed away within months of one another in early 2015. However, Midnight in Broad Daylight is a compelling legacy of their family’s unique history.

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Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy

Cover image for Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy by Anne Boyd Riouxby Anne Boyd Rioux

ISBN 978-0-393-25473-0

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

“Alcott’s novel is not what it at first appears to be. What seems like a tale from a simpler time turns out to be the product of a difficult and sometimes troubled life. What appears to be a sweet, light story of four girls growing up is also very much about how hard it was (and is) to come of age in a culture that prizes a woman’s appearance over her substance.”

In 1868, Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, a work for girls that had been requested by her publisher. It was not the kind of thing Alcott usually wrote, but she had compelling financial considerations in supporting her parents and siblings that prompted her to take the leap. The result would be a best-selling novel first published in two parts, but known in America today as a single story, which has remained alive through the generations, adapted into stage plays, radio dramas, films, and television mini-series. 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the novel, and in Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, University of New Orleans professor Anne Boyd Rioux examines the legacy of the novel in the American canon and popular culture, arguing that while the novel has a special place in readers’ hearts, its acknowledgement as a significant work of American literature has been circumscribed by sexism in a society that continues to devalue women writers, young female readers, and especially works that center their experiences.

Anne Boyd Rioux is an academic, known for her studies on the work of American novelist and poet Constance Fenimore Woolson. However, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is written for a general audience, inclusive of the many types of reader that have appreciated Little Women over the years. The scholarship is not lacking, and the book includes a significant section of notes and references. Rioux clearly comes down in favour of the historical value of the text, and argues for it to be taught more broadly, but she is also able to acknowledge the complexity and contradictions of its feminist legacy, and the many different ways that readers have interpreted Alcott’s choices. In the UK, for example, where the book is often published in two volumes, many readers remain blissfully unaware of a second part of the novel in which (spoilers!) Beth dies, Amy and Laurie marry, and Jo puts her dreams of becoming a writer on hold when she marries Professor Bhaer and opens a school. And American readers who never continued on to Little Men or Jo’s Boys may feel betrayed by Jo giving up her dream, never realizing that she picks up her pen once more in the sequels, and becomes a famous writer.

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy might be considered a biography of both Louisa May Alcott, and the novel she wrote, though significantly more of the book is dedicated to the latter. Whereas the early part of the books draws heavily on existing biographical work about Alcott, the later chapters incorporate more of Rioux’s own exploration and analysis of the work and its legacy. There are chapters dedicated to examining the various editions the book went through, and how the different illustrators have put their mark on, and changed perceptions of, the book over time. I found this section particularly interesting given that the edition of the book I am most familiar with has a cover image, but no interior illustrations whatsoever. Rioux also analyzes the choices made in the various adaptations—including a 1933 version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo, a 1949 version with June Allyson, and the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder that is best known to my own generation—and the role media played in keeping Little Women alive in the public imagination. This certainly rings true to how the book initially came into my own life; the box set I first read was published simultaneously with the 1994 film adaptation, with an introduction by Anna Quindlen. Rioux notes that the early film versions were heavily driven by romance, despite the significant emphasis placed on familial relationships in the book, but does not delve further into how romance tends to be feminized and devalued.

A significant part of the book is dedicated to addressing the feminist issues that have hindered the work’s path to being considered a classic or taught in schools. In the early days, the book was actually considered too radical and insufficiently Christian, since Alcott’s transcendentalist upbringing did not jive with more conservative Christian practices. The Sunday School market actively encouraged a boycott of her work for many years for this reason. Meanwhile, despite the novel’s initial popularity with boys and girls, adults and children, over the years Little Women’s target audience has been circumscribed, and it has gained a reputation as a sappy novel suitable only for young girls. According to Rioux, the devaluation of books for girls has played a significant role in preventing Little Women from taking its place in the American canon of great novels, alongside works for boys like Tom Sawyer, which has suffered no such limitations. Rioux does acknowledge that the length of the book might also be a limiting factor for teachers, and suggests teaching only the first part of the novel, as it was originally published, to overcome this hurdle.

My own relationship with Little Women has been as complex as this history acknowledges. On first encounter, I found it incredibly tedious, and if memory serves, it was actually Laurie’s romantic mooning that drove me off. On second pass, only a couple of years later, I was gripped by the story, which of course hadn’t changed a jot since my last attempt. This time I was devastated by what I perceived as Laurie’s betrayal of Jo. Yet on rereading the book this year for the first time in well over a decade, I was struck most by its lessons on morality. It is almost incomprehensible that the book was once considered insufficiently Christian given Marmee’s preachy asides and little lessons. This isn’t a book that is easily encompassed, and Rioux does her best to incorporate the complexities and contradictions inherent in Alcott’s legacy, which inexorably shape how we view the book today.

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Fall 2018 Non-Fiction Preview

Last month, I spent an extended weekend in New Orleans, attending the American Library Association’s annual conference. In addition to meeting up with colleagues, and attending workshops, I also hit up several book buzz sessions, and visited the various publishers in the exhibit hall. Disclaimer: the publishers were giving out ARCs of many of these titles, and I picked up copies where I could, but I haven’t had a chance to get down to reading yet, so these are just a few of the titles I’m particularly excited to read in the coming months.

Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly

Cover image for Rage Becomes Her by Soraya ChemalyWomen are often derided for being emotional, but if there is one emotion that is taboo for women, it is anger, which is regarded as the domain of men. Yet anger in the face of injustice is a perfectly normal reaction, and, Chemaly argues, can even be a source of power, as well as energy for resistance. In Rage Becomes Her, Chemaly seeks to normalize an emotion that, when expressed constructively, has the power to change the world for the better.  Available September 11, 2018 from Simon and Schuster.

The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman

For true crime fans who enjoy a literary connection, The Real Lolita investigates the story of Sally Horner, whose 1948 kidnapping is referenced in, and likely partly inspired, Vladimir Nobokov’s infamous work, which was originally published in 1955.  Although Horner survived her kidnapping, and eventually escaped her captor, she died young, and her story, as well as its connection to Lolita, has largely been forgotten. The book expands on an essay Weinman originally wrote for Hazlitt in 2014. Look for this HarperCollins title in stores on September 11, 2018.

Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas

Cover image for Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas

Dubbed America’s most famous undocumented immigrant, Dear America is Vargas’ memoir about emotional homelessness, the state that arises from living in the United States without truly being able to call it home. Vargas was at ALA, but sadly our schedules never aligned, though I heard a lot of buzz from other attendees about his program alongside poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. However, I was able to snag a copy of his memoir and I’m looking forward to reading more about his experiences as an undocumented American. Coming September 18, 2018 from HarperCollins.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

Cover image for All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung This forthcoming memoir is about a Korean adoptee who was raised by a white family in small town Oregon. At ALA, Chung spoke movingly about finding her way to writing about her adoption after skirting the topic for many years. Eventually, the prospect of starting her own family prompted her to finally seek answers about where she came from, and All You Can Ever Know chronicles that journey. She is quick to note that her adoptive family was wonderful, but that they were not able to see some of the struggles she faced, and that it was important for her to reckon with the prejudice and disconnection from identity that her circumstances engendered. This Catapult title is scheduled to hit the shelves October 2, 2018.

Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

Cover image for Astounding by Alec Nevala-LeeThis is a big, ambitious book that includes four biographies of major and sometimes controversial figures from the early days of science fiction, including Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, John W. Campbell, and L. Ron Hubbard. I had a chance to meet Nevala-Lee at ALA, and we had a good time chatting about the work of Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin while he signed an ARC for me. This is the first biography that takes Campbell as a subject, and Hubbard is of course a famed and controversial figure for his journey from pulp fiction writer to founder of a religion, so I expect that this will be an interesting and informative read! Look for it October 23, 2018 from HarperCollins.

30 Before 30

Cover image for 30 Before 30 by Marina Shifrin by Marina V. Shifrin

ISBN 978-1-250-31130-6

Disclaimer: I received an early review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2018.

Shadow careers are easy to get trapped in because they bring you as close as possible to your dream job without the risk of failure. Failing at a job you don’t care about does not carry the breath-stealing pain of failing at your dream job.”

The daughter of Russian immigrants, Marina Shifrin reached her twenties feeling like she had somehow failed to live up to the “American Dream” her parents had worked so hard to provide her. Weighed down with student loan debt, and a “real” job that she hated, it took a drunken night with a likewise encumbered friend for her to realize that something had to give. She woke up the next morning with a hangover, and a list of thirty things she wanted to accomplish before her thirtieth birthday. First and foremost: “Quit My Shitty Job.” Shifrin would end up doing this in spectacular fashion, propelling her to a brief moment of viral YouTube fame when she danced around her empty office, and posted it to the company’s YouTube account to tell her boss she was quitting. 30 Before 30 recounts the messy path through her twenties, to feeling like she is starting off her thirties on the right foot.

Readers who have followed my blog for a while know that I am always down to read about a year-long blog-turned-book experiment. So I was doubly intrigued to read about what a similar premise would look like, stretched out over a decade-long timeline. 30 Before 30 is structured as a list-turned-memoir, taking each item on the list and using it to recount not just the accomplishment, but the life circumstances that contextualize it. Some of the chapters are tongue in cheek. Chapter Sixteen, “Take a City Bus Tour” simply reads “I went on a sightseeing bus tour in Chicago. That’s it. Holy cow, not everything has a lesson.” Chapter Thirty, “Write a Book,” says only “Please go to page one.” However most of the chapters are more serious and heartfelt, though as a former stand-up comedian and current comedy writer, Shifrin has no problem poking fun at herself. The most harrowing chapter was Shifrin’s account of the unhealthy, codependent pseudo-friendship she got into with her older boss at the digital content company she worked for in Taiwan, and how she ended up publicly nuking that job in order to get out. “Watch All Three Godfather Movies” turned out to be a touching story of trying to relate to her conservative, Russian immigrant father in the aftermath the 2016 presidential election.

Despite fairly different life circumstances, I related to this book pretty hard for a couple of reasons. Shifrin and I are the same age, and neither of us are quite where we thought we would be by thirty, because life is funny like that. But Shifrin embraces the messy direction changes of her twenties, and has polished them into interesting and relatable essays about stumbling your way into adulthood. Her viral media fame was no accident; Shifrin worked for a digital media content company, living and dying by clicks and views, and her memoir freely admits that she designed her Quit My Shitty Job video to be the perfect clickbait. She’s equally candid about what she did and didn’t enjoy about the “sixteen minutes of fame” that followed. Like getting an essay published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, neither feat quite launched her career in the way she initially imagined, because it turns out “there’s no such thing as a big break—just little pushes forward in the endless pursuit of success.”

Some of the strongest stories in the collection relate to Shifrin’s Russian immigrant family. They are both funny and touching. But while Shifrin was very comfortable poking fun at herself, she almost seemed a little protective of her parents, revealing some parts, but reluctant to expose them too much in others. Being an immigrant—albeit one who arrived as a toddler—has clearly strongly shaped Shifrin’s ideas about herself and what she owes to society and her parents. Although plenty of the stories were cringe-worthy, and I suffer mightily from vicarious embarrassment, I still genuinely enjoyed reading about a contemporary stumbling along the same messy path to adulting.

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The Nature Fix

Cover image for The Nature Fix by Florence WIlliams by Florence Williams

ISBN 978-0-393-35557-4

Science is now bearing out what the Romantics knew to be true.”

After a move from mountainous Colorado to the intense urbanity of Washington, DC, journalist Florence Williams found herself stressed and even depressed by the change of scene. DC was grey and full of concrete, traffic, and the constant sound of airplanes arriving and departing the nearby Regan National Airport. The idea of the evils of the city, and the virtues of the countryside is age old, and was particularly popular during the Romantic period, which was a backlash to the Industrial Revolution. But Williams interests herself in the much newer science of the benefits of exposure to nature on human health, both physical and mental. From the wilds of America’s national parks, to the mountains of Japan, and the urban greenery of Singapore and Glasgow, she talks with the various scientists who have been investigating the effects of nature since E.O. Wilson proposed the biophilia hypothesis.

Because this is a newer area of investigation, the exact mechanism by which nature benefits people is still under debate and investigation, making it a particularly interesting area of exploration. Much outdoor activity involves exercise, for example, which has its own well-documented beneficial effects. Williams engages with the different scientists and their various hypotheses about why these interventions are effective, but she is understandably more interested in knowing what works and can be put into practice. But despite her own experiences, she still approaches the subject with a journalist’s skepticism, asking rigorous questions about potentially cofounding variables.

Williams structures her book to look at nature exposure in terms of dosing. What is the effect of mere urban vegetation, for example, a tree outside a hospital window, or a small city park? She then progresses through relatively larger doses, considering what happens when we go for a day hike, or a weekend camping trip, or a long nature retreat. She finishes with a group of female veterans on a weeks-long rafting trip. The women are suffering from PTSD, either from their time in combat zones, or from experiencing sexual assault while in the service, but many experience significant improvement from a multi-week outdoor adventure.

Traveling widely in pursuit of her subject, Williams investigates interesting practices such as shinrin-yoku, or Japanese forest bathing. This a sort of mindful hiking popular in Japan and, increasingly, Korea. It emphasizes a multisensory experience, and researchers there have deeply studied the effects of the scent of the hinoki cypress tree. However, it also has a business aspect, encouraging tourism to Japan’s natural areas, and helping to justify their preservation. The term shinrin-yoku itself was officially created by the Japanese government, Williams finds, although the practice has older roots in Shinto practices.

For those looking for the brief download, Williams provides it in the form of a quote from Qing Li, chairman of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, who advises, “If you have time for a vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month. Visit a park at least once a week. Gardening is good. On urban walks, try to walk under trees, not across fields. Go to a quiet place. Near water is also good.” These practices can lower the stress hormone cortisol, and even measurably reduce your blood pressure. Anxiety can only be subjectively measured, but researchers have also found reductions in this form of mental distress.

In addition to the benefits of nature, Williams also explores some of the aspects of urban living that can be less than good for the body and mind, such as soundscapes. Traffic and other urban noise can be a surprisingly significant stressor, especially for sensitive people. Even if you aren’t aware of urban noises actively waking you up in the night, they can disturb the quality of your sleep and leave you feeling less rejuvenated come morning. Other studies have shown the deleterious effects of living too close to a freeway, which is a major source of both noise and air pollution for urbanites. Taken together, these studies make a compelling argument for urban design that preserves or enhances natural features, rather than paving over them.

The Nature Fix is a well-rounded exploration of the budding investigation into the benefits of nature on human health written in the style of readable science journalism with a touch of the travelogue.

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Summer Reading Suggestions 2018

Each summer my book club goes on break, as members scatter to the four winds for visits and vacations. But being too busy to meet isn’t the same thing as too busy to read. So here’s this year’s list of suggestions for my book club members looking for something to read over the hiatus. September will be here before you know it! Click the headlines for links to full length reviews where applicable.

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

Cover image for Cork Dork by Bianca BoskerBianca 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. But 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, with often humourous results.

The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

Cover image for The Other Alcott by Elise HooperFans of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women will already be aware that the much beloved children’s story was loosely based on the Alcott sisters’ childhood. The Other Alcott follows Louisa’s youngest sister, May, who lives under the shadow of her fame as the inspiration for the much-hated Amy March. May aspired to be an artist, and illustrated the first edition of Little Women. But while her sister’s novel was a critical success, May’s illustrations were panned. If Jo is the rough but shining favourite of Little Women, then The Other Alcott tries to imagine what it would be like to be the youngest sister of the person who penned this fictionalized version of herself. The Other Alcott follows May into Europe’s art scene at a fascinating period when the Impressionists were beginning to rock the French art establishment with their radical ideas, and more women were finding ways to formally study art.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Cover image for One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi KoulIn this humourous collection of essays, Scaachi Koul vividly sketches a portrait of her Kashmiri immigrant family, including her parents, much older brother, and young niece. Her father in particular is a vivid character, the kind of person who will decide a year later that he isn’t done being mad at you about something you did that he didn’t approve of, and abruptly stop talking to you for months at time. The inter-generational conflict is at once unique to her situation, and recognizable to parents and children everywhere. With a deft hand, Koul combines funny family stories with insightful cultural commentary about growing up as first generation Canadian in an immigrant family.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

Cover image for The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. FlynnWhen Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane arrive in England in 1815, it is by unusual means, and with an even more unusual mission. Sent back in time from a somewhat dystopian near-future, they are charged with identifying the cause of Jane Austen’s untimely demise in 1817 at the young age of 41, and with recovering and bringing back her lost manuscript of The Watsons. This top-secret mission is known as The Jane Austen Project, and it has one very important rule; they must change the future as little as possible while achieving their objectives, or risk being stranded in Regency England forever. With this highly unusual premise, copy editor and ardent Austenite Kathleen A. Flynn has captured something of Austen’s tone and pacing, without trying to entirely mimic her style. Highly recommended for fans of time travel fiction that is more about the destination than the science of such an endeavour.

Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi

Cover image for Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma LakshmiPadma Lakshmi has had a varied career. In her twenties she was a model, and then a television host and actress. She published a cookbook about what she ate to lose weight after a movie role required her to put on twenty pounds, and as a result made the improbable transition from model to foodie, co-hosting the popular cooking competition Top ChefLove, Loss, and What We Ate is a chronicle of the role food has played in her life, through times of love, and times of loss, and how she navigated the jump from a career that was based on her looks to one that engaged her heart and her mind. From a childhood in India, to an early adulthood spent traveling Europe, to a second career in America, she shows how food can be a source of comfort, a connection to identity, and an occasion to examine our biases about beauty.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

Cover image for Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie FordLocal author Jamie Ford’s third historical novel is set in Seattle during the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition. Ford opens on the better remembered 1962 fair, and uses it to echo and reflect the main action of 1909. The plot was inspired by a fascinating newspaper clipping from the AYP Expo, advertising the fact that an orphan boy was one of the raffle prizes at the fair. The fate of the real boy is unknown, but in his novel, Ford imagines what might have become of a young half-Chinese boy named Ernest, whose winning ticket is sold to the madam of an infamous brothel. Raised in a Catholic orphanage, Ernest comes to the red light district as the temperance movement is surging in the city, and finds himself caught between the Japanese house girl, Fahn, and Madam Flora’s stubborn daughter, Maisie. Through fiction, Ford explores the history of the city.

The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu

Cover image for The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu So much of the web is free, at least in terms of money paid by the users who access its vast array of content. From eyeballs on ads, to time on site, these are the metrics that the tech industry thrives on, as free-of-charge enterprises find ways to monetize. Wu explores the attention economy, and how we pay for all this free content with our time, and our personal information. Through the history of advertising, this book explores how we got to the present state of the advertising industry, and how it is morphing to adapt to our new technologies.

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam

Cover image for Bloodletting and Miraculous CuresFour young medical school students start out on the road to becoming doctors, sure of their nobility of purpose and their calling, the real and trying rigours of the medical profession still ahead of them. Ming, Fitz, Sri, and Chen come from different backgrounds and have different career paths awaiting them. In a series of twelve interlinked short stories, Dr. Vincent Lam takes the reader behind the scenes of the medical world, from medical school to residency to the emergency room and the operating room. Lam’s characters are complicated and flawed, fallible humans who have been trusted with unthinkable responsibility, and faced with terrible dilemmas. This adds depth to the rich detail of the author’s own medical experience, making for an intriguing collection.

Reset by Ellen Pao

Cover image for Reset by Ellen K. PaoGet a glimpse into the boy’s club that powers the venture capital world funding today’s hottest tech start ups, and your favourite websites. Ellen Pao speaks up about her experience as an Asian American woman in this cliquey world, and offers her insights into why Silicon Valley’s diversity initiatives have failed. Going beyond the “pipeline problem,” Pao examines why women who made it through school and into lucrative careers later drop out of tech jobs in astonishing numbers, and what it would take to reset the industry culture so that everyone can thrive.

The Book Thieves

Cover image for The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell translated by Henning Kochby Anders Rydell

Translated by Henning Koch

ISBN 978-0-73522123-9

 “The image of Nazis as anti-intellectual cultural vandals has been persistent, possibly to some degree because it is easy to comprehend, and possibly because we would like to see literature and the written word as fundamentally good. But even the Nazis realized that if there was something that gave more power than merely destroying the word, it was owning and controlling it. There was a power in books.”

The image of Nazis burning books is a striking and pervasive one, because of course it is based in the truth of the pyres that were made in public squares across Germany as the Third Reich rose to power. But in The Book Thieves, Anders Rydell tackles and attempts to recontextualize that image by uncovering the extent to which the Nazis were collectors of stolen literature—not just of valuable manuscripts as you might already be familiar with from Monuments Men—but of books of all types, from all across Europe. Rydell, a Swedish journalist, follows the trail of the pillagers from Berlin to Amsterdam and Paris, and beyond to Vilnius and Thessaloniki, demonstrating the far reach of the Nazi looters. Entire libraries disappeared, sometimes untraceably, into the mists of the war. Rydell chronicles the actors who seized and dispersed the libraries, as well as the modern librarians who now face the unenviable task of uncovering and facing up to the origins of their collections.

For decades, German libraries have tried to ignore or hide the provenance of many of the items in their collections acquired during or as a result of the war. Fly leaves were cut out, and ex libris labels were scraped or torn away. Some libraries went so far as to forge a different provenance for their acquisitions. But a new generation of library professionals have refused to look away any longer, and “they are fighting a retroactive battle against their former colleagues, who for decades have been rubbing out, tearing off, or falsifying the provenance of these books—all to make them blend into the collection.” Without an ex libris, or inscription, most privately owned books are untraceable. But others come from famous libraries, some of which are now lost to history, and others which still operate despite their losses.

While some books were stolen outright from synagogues, libraries, and Freemason’s Lodges, or plundered from abandoned Jewish residences, others were obtained by coercion. Some very rare and valuable items were added to the Goethe Archive by means of an extortionate deal with a Jewish book collector who knew that he would not be able to flee the country with these famous national treasures, and so was forced to sell them for a pittance. Only in 2006 were his descendants compensated for the discrepancy between the value of the collection, and what was paid for it at the time.

The darkest twist in Rydell’s narrative comes in the chapters that address the Jewish scholars and intellectuals whose forced labour made the creation of the Nazi book depositories possible. In Berlin, they were required to translate and explain Hebrew and Yiddish texts for the SS, because there were not enough “Aryan” translators who knew these languages. In Vilnius, Belarus, a group of Jews were put to work sorting the plunder that would be sent back to Germany by the occupiers. This “intellectual slave labor” forced the prisoners into a terrible choice between consigning their books to the invaders and hoping that they would survive the war to perhaps be reclaimed, or keeping them from Nazi hands and seeing them destroyed. They also knew that when the work ran out and there were no more books to sort, they too would be sent to the death camps. A resistance of book smugglers nevertheless emerged in the group.

What is perhaps most interesting about The Book Thieves is trying to understand why the Nazis stole various texts and libraries. The desire for books by national heroes, or to control the image of famous literary Germans shaped some of their work at home. To this end, they also seized control of publishing, literary awards, and even book clubs. In the Jewish libraries, they were seeking an understanding of their “enemy” and searching for evidence of the great Jewish world conspiracy that drove their hatred. The Freemasons were suspect thanks to their international connections, but certain groups within the party were nevertheless desirous of their rumoured occult knowledge, and the libraries that supported it. In the occupied territories, even books that were of no interest for the purposes of Nazi “research” were taken, and often destroyed, in an attempt to crush the unique cultural identities of the people in those countries. In short, it was never as simple as just seizing and burning the work of undesirables, or asking Germans to purge their own collections to this end. Various groups within the party were at work to further the creation of the “Thousand Year Reich,” and books played a part in many of their plans.

The Book Thieves gives greater depth to our understanding of how the Nazis treated books and literature both before and during the war. I also felt it as a sort of professional call to arms, a reminder to librarians everywhere that we can and have been complicit in atrocities for which full restitution can never be made. And the end of the war did not end the thefts; the Red Army stole in kind, not just taking back stolen books, but laying claim to the Russian books that had belonged to an expatriate library in Paris. Individual soldiers also stole books, scattering some of the lost volumes across the world when the armies dispersed. And more than a million books were sent to the Library of Congress by a delegation sent from Washington, D.C. The problem of restitution is not merely a German one, and The Book Thieves is a means to understand both oppression and complicity in an ongoing tragedy.

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You might also like In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Canada Reads Along 2018: Forgiveness

Cover image for Forgiveness by Mark Sakamotoby Mark Sakamoto

ISBN 9781443417990

History has proven all too many times that discrimination in any form is a downward spiral.”

On opposite sides of the Pacific, two Canadians become prisoners of World War II. In December 1941, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese, and more than 1500 Canadian soldiers were captured and rounded up into camps. Among them was Ralph McLean, a young man from Canada’s eastern Magdalen Islands. For the remainder of the war, the prisoners would endure dire, often life threatening conditions. That same month, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ratcheted up anti-Asian sentiment in Canada, particularly on the West Coast. Mitsue Sakamoto, recently married, found herself and her family forced out of their homes, and given a choice between internment and hard labour on a farm to help supplement war rationing. They would never be able to return home to Vancouver. Decades later, these war survivors would be united by the marriage of their children, and the birth of their shared grandchildren. But tragedy would continue to touch the family down through the years, in the form of divorce and addiction and loss.

Forgiveness is a book with three main acts or movements. We first follow Grandpa Ralph through an abusive childhood with his alcoholic father through to his enlistment in the war in order to escape home. On the opposite coast, Mark’s grandmother, Mitsue, is beginning her career as a seamstress, meeting her husband-to-be, and facing the rising tide of anti-Japanese sentiment fostered by their dominance in the coastal fishing industry. Mark Sakamoto follows his grandparents through the war, recounts the meeting and marriage of his parents, as well as the first dinner between his maternal and paternal grandparents. The third act of the book is concerned with his parents’ divorce, and his mother’s subsequent descent into alcoholism, near-homelessness, and an abusive relationship. Each section carries its own unique and heavy weight of tragedy and loss.

The cover copy for this book describes it as being about “two families on either side of the Second World War.” But what struck me about Forgiveness is that it is actually about two families that were supposed to be on the same side of the war. Mitsue was not even a Japanese citizen; she was born and raised in Canada, and had never set foot in the country of her parents’ birth. Grandpa Ralph was imprisoned by enemy combatants. Mitsue Sakamoto was forced out of her home and given a choice between near-slave labour and imprisonment by her fellow Canadian citizens and her own government. Throughout Canada Reads week, Grandpa Ralph was by far the most frequently spoken about by the panelists, but for me it was Mitsue whose story and character were of greatest interest. And while the theme of the book is forgiveness, it remains largely on a personal level, dealing with Ralph and Mitsue’s ability to put their pasts behind them in order to allow their families to come together, and then with Mark’s need to forgive himself for not being able to save his mother. The book never digs deeper to try to reckon with the much bigger forgiveness and reconciliation that needs to happen on a national level in order for Canada to move on from the wrong that was done to Canadians of Japanese descent during the war, and to ensure that such injustice is not repeated.

After the death of his paternal grandfather, Hideo Sakamoto, Mark helped his grandmother clean out their basement. There they found Ralph McLean’s war medals, and Mitsue asked Mark to return them to his maternal grandfather. In this early scene, Mark describes the profound respect that existed between Mitsue and Ralph, so I was disappointed that the book did not go on to recount many interactions between them. The first dinner between the two families is described, but very few other scenes place them together. Rather, after the war years, Mark’s focus turns to his parents’ marriage and divorce, and his mother’s struggle with addiction, and his own difficulties as a young man trying to find ways to help her, and eventually to free himself from her cycle of destruction. We never do circle back to those war medals, to the friendship that developed between the two sets of grandparents, and how the medals came to be gifted from one side to the other.

Forgiveness was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by fashion television host Jeanne Beker. In her opening argument, Beker highlighted the importance of remembering the darker chapters in Canada’s history, while also forgiving them in order for healing to take place. The hopefulness of Mark Sakamoto’s narrative became a key pillar in her defense of the book throughout the week, with Beker arguing that it is necessary to heal our own hurts before we can turn to healing anything outside of ourselves.

Working on this basis, Beker took relentless aim at the darkness and tragedy in other books on the table, particularly The Marrow Thieves, and American War. She described The Marrow Thieves as being too fearful, since much of the book is spent on the run in the woods, and ascribed her aversion as being a product of hearing her parents’ stories about being Holocaust survivors, and fleeing the Nazis. Beker took a similar tactic against American War, describing the book as a “soul destroying” revenge narrative. Despite these arguments, on Day Two, Beker cast the tie breaking vote between American War and Precious Cargo, which eliminated Precious Cargo from the competition, leading some viewers to speculate that she was voting strategically, since it was the only book on the table that was more upbeat and arguably more hopeful than her own. Beker went on to explain her vote by saying she didn’t feel that Precious Cargo had the “gravitas” to compete against the other books.

Going into the final day of debates, not one panelist had cast a vote to eliminate Forgiveness. By contrast, the last opponent standing, American War, had been voted against every day, and narrowly survived the Day Two tie against Precious Cargo. With the only other memoir having been eliminated, Beker dodged many questions by refusing to compare fiction and non-fiction, selecting Ralph McLean as her favourite character in the books because he was real, and describing the question “what does Forgiveness have that American War doesn’t” as “ridiculous,” because the two books were apples and oranges. Beker closed with an appeal to the values of the book, including forgiveness, healing, and remembrance. By contrast, Tahmoh Penikett asked his fellow panelists to be open to hearing and acknowledging the hard truths of American War, and thanking them for their passionate defenses of their own books. Jully Black, who had fiercely challenged Beker’s negative characterization of difficult books throughout the week, voted with Penikett against Forgiveness. However, Beker’s appeals to positivity and true stories over fiction were effective with Greg Johnson and Mozdah Jamalzadah, who voted with Beker to make Forgiveness the winner of Canada Reads 2018.

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That’s it for Canada Reads Along 2018! Catch up on my recaps starting here.