The Upside of Unrequited

Cover image for The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

ISBN 978-0-06-234870-8

“There’s this feeling I get when I watch other people kiss. I become a different form of matter. Like they’re water, and I’m an ice cube. Like I’m the most alone person in the entire world.”

Molly Peskin-Suso is the queen of unrequited love. At seventeen, she has had twenty-six crushes, but zero boyfriends. She hasn’t even been kissed. By contrast, Molly’s twin sister Cassie has an easy confidence when it comes to hooking up with girls, and she always tells Molly everything. But then Mina arrives on the scene, and for the first time ever, Cassie is totally crushed out, and a little bit secretive, leaving Molly out in the cold. But Mina has a cute best friend named Will, and Molly might not feel so left out if he was her boyfriend. So why can’t Molly stop thinking about her nerdy co-worker, Reid?

One of the chief themes Becky Albertalli touches on in The Upside of Unrequited is the necessity of vulnerability in order to get what you want. Molly has had twenty-six crushes, but she has never asked anyone out, or told any of her crushes that she liked them. Molly is basically allergic to being deliberately vulnerable, since going through life as a fat girl is already a highly visible form of vulnerability to bullying from her classmates and pointed comments from her grandmother. Add in social anxiety, and the idea of ever getting into a relationship seems like an insurmountable obstacle. But Molly slowly comes to realize that she might have to be less careful in order to get what she wants, even if the idea is terrifying. Even if she isn’t sure who she should be less careful about.

Molly’s romantic conflict is between Mina’s cute hipster best friend, Will, and her new co-worker Reid, a nerdy Jewish boy. Will seems like the easy and obvious answer. He is best friends with Cassie’s girlfriend, which would make Molly feel like less of third wheel when she hangs out with Cassie and Mina. And Cassie seems pretty determined to get the two of them together. Her twin sister seems to be drifting away, and Molly will do anything to keep her close. But the more time she spends with Reid at the store, working, and talking, and laughing, the more she can’t stop thinking about him instead, even if he takes her further away from Cassie. It is a story about a struggle to reconcile two seemingly conflicting impulses.

Although Molly is caught between two boys, the central relationship in The Upside of Unrequited is really the sibling relationship between Molly and Cassie. Cassie has dated before, but she has never had a serious girlfriend before Mina, and this presages some changes in her relationship with Molly. Cassie has always been Molly’s person, but suddenly she is faced with the fact that siblings are rarely one another’s main person in adulthood. Her moms have one another, and Nadine barely talks to her sister Karen, even though they were very close growing up. Molly recognizes change as “the most basic of all tragedies,” an inevitability that she is determined to avert, even when struggling against change only seems to make matters worse.

Becky Albertalli’s sophomore novel has a loose connection to her first book, Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Molly’s cousin Abby recently moved to Georgia, where she met a new guy named Nick, and became friends with Simon. Although there are a couple fannish nods to Simon, and some interactions with Abby, The Upside of Unrequited really stands on its own. It is a sweet story of love and family, featuring a diverse cast of characters all with their own unique charms and struggles. Relationships of all kinds are the driving force of this coming-of-age story.

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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

Scythe

Cover image for Scythe by Neal Shusterman by Neal Shusterman

ISBN 978-1-4424-7242-6

“She wanted to believe she wasn’t capable of it. She desperately wanted to believe she wasn’t Scythe material. It was the first time in her life that she aspired to fail.”

It has been three hundred years since humanity turned the corner, leaving behind the Age of Mortality. With the arrival of infinite computing power, a benevolent AI known as the Thunderhead emerged to rule this new deathless society. But although accidental death is a thing of the past, humanity still lives on a single finite planet, and so population growth must be limited. This task was deemed to require a human conscience, not to be entrusted to a computer, and so the Scythedom was born. Citra and Rowan have been selected to apprentice to Scythe Faraday, a job that neither of them wants. But there is corruption at the heart of Scythedom, and the Thunderhead is powerless to intervene. Reform must come from within.

There are a lot of practical world-building questions that can be raised about Scythe. How, for example, has humanity advanced so far as to be able to reverse the aging process, but been unable to master space travel, or some other method of supporting an increasing population? And if it is necessary to limit the population, why kill people in often gruesome ways to achieve that end? If you are the nit-picking type, you will probably have a hard time accepting the basic premise of this novel and some of the devices. But if you can achieve the necessary willing suspension of disbelief, you are in for a twisty and thought-provoking adventure that continually ups the stakes.

The main narrative focuses on Citra and Rowan, who are real teenagers who have yet to turn a corner to reset themselves back to youth. They have a limited idea of what life was like in the Mortal Age. Even with the existence of Scythes, they had to give very little thought to death and dying until they were called to perform the task. Interspersed with their perspectives are journal entries from the mandatory gleaning journal of the Honorable Scythe Curie, who is often known as the Grand Dame of Death. Her age and experience interject the perspective that Rowan and Citra lack, providing context to the events of their yearlong apprenticeship. We also get the occasional glimpse into the mind of Scythe Goddard, the main antagonist, who is simultaneously realistic and yet a bit one dimensional.

Scythe depicts a futuristic society with a vastly changed relationship to death and violence. Someone who is accidentally killed is not dead, but deadish, since only Scythes have the authority to take life; no one else can kill you, and you may not kill yourself. One mandatory trip the revival centre later, the deadish person will be back on their feet within a week. The resulting changes are quietly disturbing. Since actual suicide leads to mandatory revival, it has largely passed from memory, but attempting suicide has become a grisly form of entertainment. Rowan’s best friend Tyger is a splatter—someone who deliberately gets deadish by jumping off of buildings. The boredom of immortality is a common trope in vampire fiction, but it is less commonly explored in relation to humanity as a whole.

Due to the non-interference built into the Thunderhead, which rules everything else about this world except death, Scythes have almost unlimited discretionary power. They operate within a quota set for the year by their conclave, but they are free to choose who they will glean and their method of killing. Bias in their selections—such as by race, though almost everyone is mixed race—earns a mild reprimand at best from the conclave. They also have the discretion to grant a year of immunity from gleaning to anyone they choose, though it is customary to offer it to the families of those who have been gleaned, as well as to the families of Scythes and their apprentices, for as long as the Scythes serve. This nearly unbounded power and terrible responsibility has naturally created an order that is isolated from normal people, and sinking further into corruption as the centuries pass. A schism has occurred between the traditional Scythes, and revolutionaries who want to remove the few checks and balances that are in place.

Scythe begins a series, so while it stands alone quite well, there are certainly more issues to explore and questions to be answered. The lines of good and evil are quite starkly drawn here, but there is room to go deeper. Scythe Faraday, for example, is depicted as being part of the traditional group of Scythes who conduct their duties with care and honour, yet he gives some people deaths that are painful, and fill his quotas by mimicking the death statistics of the Age of Mortality. He and Rowan meet when Faraday gleans one of his teenage classmates, a selection that is intended to imitate a drunk driving death from before the turn. In the Age of Immortality, what reason is there for everyone not to have the chance for at least one full life before they face gleaning? Or is gleaning really necessary at all? It will be interesting to see how the morality of this thought-provoking series evolves.

Evicted

Cover image for Evicted by Matthew Desmondby Matthew Desmond

ISBN 9780553447446

“There are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”

Between 2007 and 2009, the American housing market was shaken by the subprime mortgage crisis, in which banks foreclosed on millions of homeowners who could not keep up with their rapidly inflating mortgage payments. But another group of people is deeply affected by the trauma of displacement on a more regular basis: the renting poor. Many of these families are spending between fifty and seventy percent of their monthly income on housing, and even a small crisis can easily cause them to fall behind on the rent, making them subject to eviction.  Sociologist Matthew Desmond takes the reader into two of Milwaukee’s poorest neighbourhoods, one predominantly white, the other mostly black, and spends eighteen months examining what happens when landlords evict those who have fallen behind on the rent.

Desmond begins on Milwaukee’s black North side, with the properties own and managed by a black couple named Sherrena and Quentin. Sherrena’s motto was “the hood is good,” and they regularly bought and rented out marginal properties that required more work that they could honestly keep up with to really be fit for habitation. They could regularly expect to collect $20 000 in rents on the first of every month. On the South side, Desmond examines a run-down trailer park owned by a man called Tobin, who attracted press attention because the park was so dilapidated that the city considered it an “environmental biohazard.” Despite this state of affairs, Tobin earned nearly half a million dollars a year from his property. Landlords can ask tenants to move out with only twenty-eight days’ notice, but when they are behind on the rent, an eviction notice may provide only one to five days’ warning before the sheriff’s deputies and a crew of movers show up to clear the home. The contents of the home are then deposited on the curb, or taken to storage and held for payment, driving the family further into debt.

A significant factor that emerges in both of the neighbourhoods Desmond examines is the presence of children. As a single mother with two sons, Arleen struggled terribly to find a new place to rent that would accept her children. When Pam and Ned were evicted from Tobin’s trailer park, they faced an even bigger dilemma. Pam had two daughters from a previous relationship, her daughters with Ned, and another baby on the way. No landlord wanted that many children causing additional wear and tear on the property. When an eviction comes, children often lose many or most of their possessions, miss or have to change schools, and are sometimes separated from their immediate families as they are shunted off to different relatives who can provide shelter while the parents look for a new home.

Desmond draws particular attention to the plight of black women, who face a disproportionate rate of eviction. Desmond points out that “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” The problem is compounded by the fact that with so many men in jail, the women are frequently raising children alone. Black women with children are by far the most likely to face eviction. Unable to miss work or obtain childcare, they are often unable to attend housing court to contest their eviction. An eviction record then further decreases their likelihood of being able to secure housing in the future. If they choose to miss work to attend court, they may find themselves both homeless, and out of a job.

One very interesting aspect of the book comes not in the body of the work, but in the author’s note, where Desmond describes the process of researching and writing Evicted. He not only went into these neighbourhoods to conduct interviews, but actually lived in them, renting a trailer in Tobin’s mobile home park, and later moving in with an acquaintance on Milwaukee’s black North side. Most interestingly, the landlords were fully aware of what he was working on, and it actually seems as if they trusted him more readily than many of the tenants, some of whom believed that Desmond was probably an undercover cop, or maybe working for the landlord.

Evicted is a book that is largely about documenting the problem, and putting a human face on it. However, Desmond does offer some policy suggestions at the end of the book, such as expanding the housing voucher program, and providing a right to legal representation in housing court.  I was surprised by his support of housing vouchers, because earlier in the book he discussed how landlords overcharge by an average of $55 a month when they know that a tenant has a housing voucher. This means that the tenant pays up to 30% of their monthly income towards the rent, and the rest is paid for by tax dollars through the housing voucher. But Desmond does point out that this program is much more scalable than trying to build more public housing. The idea of representation in housing court made a lot of sense; Desmond describes how seventy percent of tenants do not even go to court, which means a default eviction, and ninety percent of those who do show up do not have a lawyer. This means that housing court, as it currently stands, essentially functions as an eviction assembly line. No doubt another entire book could be written about the possible policy solutions to the eviction problem.

Evicted offers a series of portraits of instability, of chronic poverty in a life with no centre or grounding. It chronicles the rise of eviction rates, and paints an empathetic portrait of the impact this constant uncertainty has on poor families. It also upends the notion that homelessness is caused solely by poverty, and examines the ways in which eviction can contribute to impoverishment. Desmond makes the case that housing is an overlooked issue in our efforts to address poverty, and asks the reader to consider what it means about our values if we refuse to confront this problem.

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You might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

The Hate U Give

Cover image for The Hate U Give by Angie Thomasby Angie Thomas

ISBN 978-0-06-249853-3

“It seems like they always talk about what he may have said, what he may have done, what he may not have done. I didn’t know a dead person could be charged in his own murder, you know?”

Starr Carter is a girl with a foot in two worlds. By day, she attends Williamson, a suburban prep school where she is one of only two black students in her year. In the evening, she goes home to Garden Heights, the city’s poor, black neighbourhood, where she has lived all her life. She is one person at home and another person at school, because she can’t be too “bougie” in the neighbourhood, or too “ghetto” at school. But the wall she has carefully built between her two selves begins to crumble when she is the only witness to a police officer shooting and killing her childhood friend, Khalil. The killing gains national headlines as protestors take to the streets to protest the murder of yet another unarmed black boy. In the day’s following Khalil’s death, Starr faces a choice between remaining silent, and speaking up. But even if she can find her voice, will it be enough to get justice for Khalil?

One of my favourite aspects of The Hate U Give was Starr’s family. Her mother is a nurse, and her father is an ex-gang member who now runs a convenience store. Her mother wants to move the family out of Garden Heights, while her father is determined to remain in the neighbourhood and contribute to its betterment. She has a younger brother who isn’t old enough to quite grasp what is going on, and an older half-brother who is fully part of their family, yet still connected to his mother and other sisters. Her uncle is a police officer who works in the same department as the man who killed Khalil. Starr’s family feels warm and incredibly real, complicated, and human. Most of the story’s more didactic moments are seamlessly written into conversations with her parents as they try to help her through the aftermath of Khalil’s murder. Starr’s father, Big Mav, was perhaps my favourite character, especially with his theory about how Hogwarts houses are like gangs. After getting out of the gang life himself, Big Mav is determined to keep his children safe, but he struggles with how to do that while also keeping them connected to where they came from.

While I loved Starr’s family best, her peer relationships are equally notable. Even before Khalil’s death, Starr notices that her relationship with her best friends, Maya and Hailey, is changing. Angie Thomas really captures the painful experience of growing apart from childhood friends. In the case of Khalil, Starr is left to regret that she let him slip largely out of her life, and now he is gone forever. And as she watches Hailey and Maya react to Khalil’s murder—without knowing she is the witness—she is left with difficult choices about whether or not her school friendships can survive the class and cultural divides between them. For the past year, Starr has also been hiding from her father the fact that she is dating Chris, a white classmate, and the time has come for her to face up to her complicated feelings about this relationship. Starr learns a lot by talking things through with her dad, but she also has to figure out how to have difficult conversations with her friends.

Someone who we don’t get to know very well is Khalil himself. His murder is the book’s inciting incident, so he is alive only for the first couple of chapters. Afterward, there is a stark conflict between Starr’s memory of her friend, and the image of him portrayed in the media. He becomes a symbol more than a person. While we learn a few new facts over the course of the story that help flesh Khalil out, he is still someone we did not know until he was already gone—which of course is true of the real-life victims of police brutality. I was reminded of Claudia Rankine’s essay “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” in The Fire This Time, in which she writes about how victims are transformed from individuals to evidence, a process which their loved ones are helpless to prevent.

The Hate U Give is a brutal coming-of-age story about the harsh realities that face young black men and women in America. It is fundamentally about identity, and Starr’s struggle to bring the two halves of herself together. But it is also about families, communities, and building relationships. The strength of this narrative is in the way it balances the hard topics—racism, police violence, gangs, drugs—with themes of family, friendship, justice, and love.

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Imbeciles

Cover image for Imbeciles by Adam Cohenby Adam Cohen

ISBN 978-0-14-310999-0

“Whitehead’s representation of Carrie at the trial and on appeal was an extraordinary case of malfeasance. Not only did he violate well-established ethical rules about the duty of loyalty to a client…but his entire representation of Carrie, in a case of enormous importance to her, was a fraud.”

In 1907, Indiana passed the first law authorizing a state to engage in eugenic sterilization, which permitted medical operations that cut off the reproductive abilities of those who were deemed “unfit” to procreate for a variety of reasons. However, it would take twenty years for the constitutionality of such laws to be sanctioned by the Supreme Court, and that case would come from Virginia, a relatively late adopter of eugenic sterilization. At the centre of that case was Carrie Buck, a girl of nineteen who had already borne one illegitimate child, and who was the daughter of a woman who had also been deemed “feebleminded.” In a nearly unanimous decision that has never been overturned, the Supreme Court ruled on Buck v. Bell in 1927, upholding eugenics laws broadly, and Carrie’s sterilization specifically. In Imbeciles, Adam Cohen investigates this miscarriage of justice, chronicling the rise of the eugenics movement in America, and how Carrie Buck was actively misrepresented for the sake of this cause.

It is difficult to understate the tragedy of Carrie’s situation. The family that took her in when her mother was unable to care for her did not adopt her, so much as they used her for free labour. When their nephew raped her, they dealt with the situation by having Carrie committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, where the main evidence of her supposed feeblemindedness was the promiscuity evidenced only by her pregnancy. Because her mother was already a resident of the colony, the doctors who were supposed to be caring for her singled Carrie out to be the guinea-pig of their schemes for improving the “American stock.” Every guardian, advocate, and caretaker who should have protected her not only failed in their duty, but actively colluded in her victimization. Two in particular stand out: Irving Whitehead, the lawyer who was supposed to be representing her, but who instead cooperated with the opposition, and Aubrey Strode, the lawyer for the colony, who the evidence suggests was not a believer in eugenics, and yet bent himself tirelessly to the task of seeing it upheld by the nation’s highest court.

As a history, Imbeciles deals primarily with the men who shaped Carrie’s fate, rather than with the woman herself. No doubt these prestigious and well-educated men left a larger record than a woman who had to leave school after the fifth grade, and who did not speak publicly about her situation until the 1980s. Cohen profiles the four men who played the largest roles in forming and deciding Carrie’s case: Dr. Albert Priddy, Harry Laughlin, Aubrey Strode, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Priddy was the head of the Virginia colony where Carrie was committed, and he was avid advocate of eugenic sterilization, as well as the person who chose Carrie to be at the centre of a test case that would confirm the constitutionality of eugenic sterilization. Aubrey Strode, the colony’s lawyer, both drafted the Virginia eugenics law, and defended the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the majority opinion in favour of Carrie’s sterilization was penned by Holmes. Though he never met Carrie, Harry Laughlin, head of the Eugenics Record Office, and a eugenics evangelist, was an expert witness in the case. Together, they sealed her fate. Each man merits two chapters, a structure that bogs down the narrative and creates repetition as Cohen retreads portions of the timeline with each new figure.

Cohen touches only a little on the decided misogyny that pervaded eugenics legislation. Women could be deemed feebleminded simply for being too sexual, as was a significant factor in Carrie’s case. In covering up the rape committed by their nephew, the Dobbs family cast Carrie as an immoral woman unable to control her own base urges. All evidence not created by those with a personal stake in the matter suggests that Carrie was of normal intelligence, if undereducated. She performed perfectly well in school, completing the fifth grade before the Dobbs family pulled her out so that she could do more work. She communicated with the colony via letter during her parole, and after her discharge. When she was placed in a home during her parole, the family assumed she must be an epileptic, because she seemed to be of perfectly normal intelligence. Although men were also sterilized, 67% of the operations performed in the wake of Buck v. Bell were conducted on women, who often did not understand the purpose of the procedure they were being subjected to. And since Carrie Buck was white, Cohen touches even less on the implications of such laws for African Americans and other non-white citizens.

Imbeciles in is a revealing history of American sterilization, with a somewhat repetitive focus on the legal process of the case, and its shortcomings. Cohen points out the continued relevance of this subject as genetic science continues to advance, and also highlights the ways in which such sentiments tend to get tied up in anti-immigration rhetoric. Words that we use lightly today—idiot, imbecile, moron—carry a weight of historical baggage that many people are unaware of, and Imbeciles shines a light on that history.

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Forgotten

Cover image for Forgotten by Linda Hervieuxby Linda Hervieux

ISBN 978-0-06-231379-9

“For many African Americans, their parting view of Lady Liberty was a bittersweet reminder that they were off to fight, and perhaps die, to protect freedoms afar that they had never known at home.”

Watching movies about World War II, you might be forgiven for thinking that no African American soldiers served in that war. Yet more than two thousand African Americans were on Utah and Omaha beaches on D-Day, a mere fraction of the 130 000 sent to England over the preceding months in anticipation of the invasion of the continent. Most of the African Americans at D-Day were service troops, working as stevedores and truck drivers, but one black combat unit participated, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Over six-hundred men strong, the battalion was spread out over more than 125 landing craft arriving on the beaches on June 6, and in the weeks that followed. Their job was to raise a defensive curtain into the skies, protecting the invading forces from low altitude bombing runs and strafing by the Luftwaffe. Yet there is nary a black face to be seen anywhere in the storming of Omaha Beach depicted in such films as Saving Private Ryan. But they were there, and Forgotten is Linda Hervieux’s effort to write those men back into their rightful place in history.

Hervieux became aware of the existence of the 320th after writing a story about veteran Bill Dabney, who was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Organizers believed that Dabney was likely the last living member of the battalion, but when Hervieux dug into that claim, she discovered that it was unfounded. Moreover, time was running out to capture the stories of these men; most of the remaining veterans would be in their nineties. Military historians warned Hervieux, a journalist, that there were not enough records to support a book about the unit, but Hervieux persisted, unearthing at least twelve 320th veterans who were still alive and able to talk about their experiences. She also uncovered the only proof that a member of the 320th was recommended for the Medal of Honor, medic Waverly Woodson, who passed away in 2005.

Forgotten opens on Atlantic City in 1941, where Wilson Caldwell Monk—future member of the 320th—was waiting tables on the Boardwalk. Though New Jersey was a northern state, Atlantic City practiced a form of de facto segregation; the restaurants where Monk worked during the Season would never serve a black man. In addition to Dabney and Woodson, Monk is one of the main figures in the book, along with Henry Parham, who hailed from sharecropping country, and was working as a porter in Richmond, Virginia when he received his draft notice. Dabney, Monk, and Parham were all alive for Hervieux to interview, while the accounts of Woodson are based on newspaper articles from the period, and interviews he gave before his death, as well as the cooperation of his widow.

After the players are introduced, the first third of the book is largely contextual, including sections on Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, the history of black military units, and the use of various types of balloons in the military, beginning with the Napoleonic wars. Although she talks about Jim Crow generally, Hervieux also examines its specific effect on the military experience. The army itself was segregated, and most of the training camps were located in the South. Far from being welcomed into the military, blacks were discouraged because they were believed to be less brave and less intelligent than white people. Black soldiers were regularly insulted and even assaulted, as white Southerners struggled with the cognitive dissonance of their respect for the military colliding with their dehumanization of African Americans. A black man in uniform was perceived as a provocation, a demand for respect, and the situation was so fraught that trains carrying black soldiers through the South traveled with curtains drawn, because white Southerners were known to shoot at trains carrying African American troops.

Perhaps the most revelatory section comes in the middle of the book, which covers the 320th deploying overseas, landing in Scotland, and proceeding south. They were encamped in Oxfordshire and Wales, where they were part of the growing mass of American forces being squirreled away in anticipation of Operation Overlord, as the invasion of France was known among the planners. Britons, by and large, did not discriminate against the black soldiers, and in some cases even preferred them, finding that they were usually more polite than their white counterparts, and better accustomed to the hard living conditions imposed by war-time rationing. In England, a black man could drink in any pub, go to any church, and dance with any girl, unencumbered by the colour of his skin. But this treatment caused tension with white American troops, who had somehow expected that Britons would participate in American-style segregation and subjugation. In fact, Britons roundly refused, and even raised public outcry against the harsher treatment they saw African American soldiers receiving from the American military command.

Only the last few chapters of Forgotten deal with the event itself, the crossing of the channel, the landing at D-Day, and the long fight to control the beaches. Nothing went as planned that day, and the first 320th men on the ground, including Waverly Woodson, were more infantry troops than balloon men, given the amount of artillery fire that was still underway. Fortunately most of the Luftwaffe was elsewhere, and later waves of 320th men were able to raise their balloons. Hervieux also briefly deals with the aftermath of the war, recounting the difficulties African American veterans faced in accessing the benefits of the GI Bill. Black veterans were still unable to obtain loans from most banks, and while educational benefits were available, African Americans were shunted into vocational training programs of dubious quality, and often emerged to find no jobs available to them.

Anyone who is very knowledgeable about either African American history or military history will probably find that this book retreads a lot of ground in an effort to contextualize the experiences of the men of the 320th. Perhaps due to the sparseness of the military records, Hervieux relies on this background material to flesh out the narrative, as a military history cannot rest on personal accounts alone. Yet if anything she is simultaneously a little too wary of personalizing the narrative, and letting the personalities of the men shine through. It is hard to get a good sense of them individually, and that is a bit of shame. Nevertheless, Hervieux successfully sheds light on the contributions of a group that has almost been erased from history.

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You might also like Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Canada Reads Along: Fifteen Dogs

Cover image for Fifteen Dogs by André Alexisby André Alexis

ISBN 978-1-55245-305-6

“Perfect understanding between beings is no guarantor of happiness. To perfectly understand another’s madness, for instance, is to be mad oneself. The veil that separates earthly beings is, at times, a tragic barrier, but it is also, at times, a great kindness.”

In a Toronto tavern, the gods Apollo and Hermes strike a bet. When Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had human intelligence, his brother Apollo wagers a year’s servitude that the animals—any animals Hermes would like—would be unhappier than humans if given human intelligence. The wager is struck, and fifteen dogs in a nearby animal shelter suddenly gain human consciousness—all while still in possession of their canine urges and instincts. As they develop a new language to convey their transformed understanding of the world, the pack becomes divided between those who embrace the new way of thinking and communicating, and those who wish to resist change at all costs. The gods watch—and occasionally interfere—as the dogs try to navigate this abrupt transition. But will any of them die happy?

Fifteen Dogs is an apologue, which is a fancy term for a fable, of which the beast fable is the most common type. Here the twist is that the dogs aren’t just unquestioned allegories for humans, but literal dogs given human intelligence by outside intervention. The distance—or lack thereof—between the two is what drives home the point. We are reminded that humans, too, have baser instincts and urges. It is a sort of defamiliarization that gives us just enough distance from our own nature and behaviour that we are able to see it with fresh eyes. The events of Fifteen Dogs can be rather brutal, and yet this clever devoice only serves to amplify that fact of our nature, lending the story additional poignancy.

Although we begin with fifteen dogs, the story quickly narrows to focus on three: Majnoun, Benjy, and Prince. Majnoun and Prince both depart the pack when the leader, Atticus, decides that the dogs will no longer use their new language, and will instead try to live as if the change never took place. This makes for an interesting allegory about traditionalist thinking and anti-intellectualism. Prince in particular is ousted due to his invention of canine poetry, which several of the other dogs find disturbing. However, most of the story follows Majnoun as he joins a human family, and forges an unusual bond with Nira, who knows he possesses human intelligence, and her husband Miguel, who refuses to acknowledge that fact. All but one of the female dogs are killed by page 35, and Nira is the most significant female character in the story. The dogs continue to refer to the females as bitches, a fact that becomes increasingly uncomfortable after they gain human intelligence. The ousting of the female perspective is noteworthy, even if it could potentially be intended as a commentary on human nature.

Fifteen Dogs was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by YouTube star and spoken word artist Humble the Poet. The theme for this year’s program was “the one book Canada needs now.” The other candidates chose to highlight specific issues, from the plight of Indigenous women, to climate change, to the consequences of technology, and Humble differentiated Fifteen Dogs from the other books in his defence by arguing that it helps us understand all of these issues by giving readers a deeper understanding of our fundamental human nature, which is the root of all of our other problems. Humble described the book as both timeless and current in his opening remarks, and he returned to this point repeatedly throughout the week.

Over the course of the week, many of the panelists discussed whether or not they were dog people, and whether that affected their reading of the book. For some, it helped them relate to the story, while others found it alienating. However, the best point in this regard was not raised by a panelist, but by an audience member in the Q&A after the show. She pointed out how different the impact of this book would be if it was Fifteen Chickens or Fifteen Cows. Indeed, the close relationship humans enjoy with dogs is precisely what makes the allegory so effective, as the panelists readily acknowledged.

Candy Palmater repeatedly tried to raise questions about the fact that almost all of the female dogs die early in the book, with Chantal Kreviazuk seconding this perspective. When Palmater tried to bring it up again during another question on the final day of debate, host Ali Hassan redirected, promising that they would get to that later, but it was not substantially addressed, as Humble always avoided the issue by pointing to Nira. It was especially frustrating to see this line of questioning downplayed after The Break was ousted on the first day, largely based on Brueggergosman’s argument that it lacked redeemable male characters. Author André Alexis did speak about it later, on q with Tom Powers, but it did not inform the debate. Alexis also highlighted Nira as the most sympathetic character, the one who has to overcome her own prejudice to accept Majnoun as an intelligent being. However, he admits that he did miss out on the opportunity to explore Rosie’s perspective as the only surviving female dog. I was very happy to hear him acknowledge this, after Humble danced around it all week.

It was suggested a couple times over the course of the week that, because Fifteen Dogs had already won the Giller Prize as well as the Writers Trust Fiction Prize, that Canada Reads should take the opportunity to highlight a different voice. (Interestingly, this is the only book from the short-list that I already owned before the contenders were announced.) Both Brueggergosman and Kreviazuk brought this up, and Brueggergosman made it the core of her closing remarks as she defended Company Town in the finale. Though it received some criticism over the course of the week, prior to the finale, Jody Mitic was the only person who actually cast a vote against Fifteen Dogs, on day two. Candy Palmater had originally planned to vote against it on day one, but changed her mind to cast a strategic vote in an attempt to save The Break. When it came down to the final vote, however, all of the free agents chose to vote against Company Town, making Fifteen Dogs the winner of Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette