Tag: Tom Reiss

We Need Diverse Books

Over the past week or so, I’ve been quietly watching and listening to the We Need Diverse Books campaign and conversation. Being white, straight, and able-bodied, and generally pretty privileged, I felt like listening was my job. But I also need to speak up at least long enough to say that I read and support diverse books, and I want more of them. It’s wonderful to see myself in literature, but it would be pretty damn boring if every character was just like me. I want to hear from, and about, people from all walks of life. Here are some fantastic diverse books that I have enjoyed:

Cover image for The Buddha in the Attic by Julie OtsukaWritten from the perspective of a collective “we,” Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic relates the experiences of the Japanese picture brides who came to America in the early 1900s. Betrothed to men they had chosen from photographs, and promised a more comfortable life across the sea, these women left their homes and families for a hard new life on America’s frontier. Many arrive to realize that the husbands they were promised were mere fictions, and the men they are expected to marry are poor migrant agricultural workers. The lives they are able to build for themselves over years of hard work are abruptly yanked away from them with the onset of World War II and the institution of the Japanese internment camps.

Cover image for Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

In Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan takes us back to World War II Europe, as jazz musicians Chip Jones and Sid Griffiths relive their memories of that time. They lost many of their friends and fellow musicians, first in Nazi Berlin, and then in occupied Paris. But none of those friends haunt them quite like Hieronymous Falk, also known as The Kid, a jazz horn player who could have been the next Louis Armstrong. Hiero was a Mischling, a black German made stateless by his race. Just hours after laying down the legendary track known as Half-Blood Blues, Hiero was captured by the Germans, and sent to an internment camp. Everyone agrees that Hiero died in the aftermath of the war, although there are many competing theories about how he met his fate. Chip and Sid are about to travel back to Berlin for the premiere of a documentary on Hiero’s life and music, but just before they depart, Chip receives a letter from Poland from someone who claims to be Hieronymous Falk. 

Cover image for Golden Boy by Abigail TarttelinIn Golden Boy, Abigail Tarttlein tells the story of Max Walker. Smart, athletic, and popular, Max seems to have everything going for him. He is loved by his parents, idolized by his younger brother,  and adored by his peers. But all his life, Max and his parents have been hiding a secret; he is intersex. Dating makes it hard enough to conceal this fact, but when Max is raped by a childhood friend, it seems that his secret will inevitably come out. The upheaval comes at the worst possible time; Steven Walker is about to stand for Parliament, and the ravenous British paparazzi that ran the previous candidate out of office may descend on the Walkers at any moment.

Cover Image for The Silvered by Tanya HuffCanadian LGBT author Tanya Huff often writes about straight protagonists, but in every book, you will find queer secondary characters, and wonderful female heroes. IThe Silvered, she reworks the concept of the werewolf, creating a complex social structure which combines werewolves and mages. Their country and their culture are under siege by an ever-expanding, Napoleon-esque Empire which regards the Pack as abomination. Bigotry, xenophobia, and racism complicate novice mage Mirian Maylin’s efforts to save the Mage-Pack after five members are kidnapped by the Emperor. 

Cover image for Maggot Moon by Sally GardnerMaggot Moon is the story of Standish Treadwell, a dyslexic boy keeps his mismatched eyes downcast, and tries to be invisible at school. In the dystopian society where Standish lives, being different is dangerous. Dyslexic herself, author Sally Gardner has created a wonderfully relatable hero whose learning disability isn’t a secret super power. This novel is best read with as few spoilers as possible. 

 

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissSometimes truth is better than fiction, and more diverse, too. In The Black Count, Tom Reiss profiles Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous novelist. The son of an itinerant French nobleman and his black slave mistress, Dumas was born on Saint-Domingue, and became a free man when his father took him to France, where slavery was illegal. He received a traditional French education before joining the army. As a person of colour, Dumas arrived in France at a peculiar moment in history, when rising Republican ideals would enable him to achieve incredible military acclaim despite his race, eventually becoming a general in the French Revolutionary Army. Unfortunately for Dumas, the window of opportunity was short, and when Napoleon rose to power, the fortunes of the gens de couleur did not rise with him. 

 

Advertisements

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (ISBN 978-0-14-312201-2)

Cover image for The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven PinkerThis was the first book I started in 2013, and it proved to be the most difficult and rewarding read I tackled the entire year. It is not uncommon for people to believe that we are living in the most violent period in human history. The record size of our current population means that the absolute number of violent deaths recorded today are larger than the numbers of historical violent deaths. Our global media structure also means that knowledge of these events is more widespread. But as a percentage of the population, Steven Pinker shows that the number of violent deaths in the modern world is lower than it has ever been in recorded history; you are less likely to die of violent causes today than at any other time in human history. Pinker expects readers to doubt his hypothesis, and the first part of the book is spent marshaling evidence for his claim, while the second part focuses on identifying the factors that may have contributed to this decline. Although the numerous examples of historical and modern violence make for heavy emotional reading, Pinker’s optimism that we can do better, and his insights into how, are incredibly important.

Categories: Science, History, Psychology, Sociology

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (eISBN 978-0-307-95295-0)

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissLiterary history records two men called Alexandre Dumas, a father, who wrote well-known novels such as The Three Musketeers, and his somewhat less famous son, the playwright. But the novelist’s father, also Alexandre Dumas, the first of that name, is formidable character in his own right, and it his life that is chronicled here by Tom Reiss. Born the illegitimate son of an itinerant French noble on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Dumas became a free man upon his arrival in France. Dumas achieved power and success in the French Revolutionary Army, before the colour of his skin brought his fortunes crashing back to earth when Napoleon assumed power. His son eventually drew inspiration from his life story for many of his novels, but the real story is perhaps even more interesting. The Black Count is as much a history of revolutionary and Napoleonic France as a biography, but Reiss writes about history with an immediacy that makes his overviews extremely readable.

Categories: Biography, History 

I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies  (ISBN 978-0-307-26916-4)

Cover image for I Do and I Don't by Jeanine BasingerI Do and I Don’t articulates the important differences between romantic comedies and the genre  Jeanine Basinger defines as the marriage movie. The work is descriptive rather than analytic, assembling evidence for the existence of this new genre, and laying out the types of plots and problems most commonly dealt with in movies that are about marriages rather than courtships. Basinger’s encyclopedic knowledge of American cinema, sense of humour, and willingness to go against popular opinion make her the perfect guide. Existing in a space somewhere between academic writing and popular nonfiction, I wouldn’t recommend this book to just any reader, but if you have an interest in film studies, or cultural portrayals of marriage, I Do and I Don’t delivers.

Categories: Criticism, Film, History

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (ISBN 978-0-393-08157-2)

Cover image for Gulp by Mary RoachTake a sharp sense of humour, ruthless inquisitiveness, and the willingness to ask awkward questions, and you have the popular science oeuvre of Mary Roach, who is able to hit the mark time and time again with her humourous investigations into the grossest and most obscure areas of scientific research. Her sense of humour can carry even a squeamish reader through these topics, and her explanations and anecdotes are accessible even to those with little to no science background. In Gulp, Roach takes on the science of the digestive system, from saliva to flatulence and everything in between.

Categories: Science 

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (ISBN 978-1-4000-6980-4)

Cover image for Salt Sugar Fat by Michael MossWell known for his investigative reporting on food issues, Michael Moss takes on the processed food industry, examining the roles that salt, sugar, and fat play in making these food products edible and craveable. Flavour and taste have been extensively researched, and food companies use this knowledge to design products with precisely honed “bliss points” that make them almost irresistible. However, this book is interesting not because it retreads the well known harms associated with processed food products, but because Moss delves into the difficulties these companies face in improving the health profiles of their products in the face of killer competition, and minimal government regulation. In fact, American government food subsidies for meat and cheese may even play a role in the high fat content of the American diet.

Categories: Business, Science 

___

Looking for more recommended reads? Check out my top five non-fiction reads from 2012. 

The Black Count

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom Reissby Tom Reiss

eISBN 978-0-307-95295-0

The novelist Alexandre Dumas is sometimes called Dumas père (Dumas the father), in order to distinguish him from his son, also Alexandre Dumas, a playwright, sometimes called Dumas fils (Dumas the son). Dumas père is well known for his novels The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, while his son is somewhat less famous, particularly in North America. But in fact there was another Alexandre Dumas, the father of the novelist. Perhaps we should call him Dumas grand-père. It is this formidable man who is the subject of Tom Reiss’s biography The Black Count.

The first Alexandre Dumas was born to an itinerant French noble, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, and his black slave mistress, Marie-Cessette Dumas on the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1762. He grew up in Jérémie, a largely mixed-race town as far as possible from the influence of the ruling class comprised of white sugar plantation owners. In 1776, Dumas’ near-penniless father decided to return to France, and sold his son into slavery, albeit with the right to repurchase him, apparently in order to get the boy passage to Europe. His siblings were not so lucky. When he disembarked in France, where slavery was illegal, Dumas became a free man.

As a person of colour, Dumas arrived in France at a peculiar moment in history, when rising Republican ideals would enable him to achieve incredible military acclaim despite his race, eventually becoming a general in the French Revolutionary Army. Although it was still difficult for mixed race men to claim noble titles, Dumas was a count, and perhaps even a marquis after his father’s death, though he had left that life behind. He obtained a traditional French education supported by his father, but when he entered the army as a private, rather than an officer, despite his father’s protests, he took up his mother’s name. Formerly known as Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, he became simply Alexandre Dumas. Within seven years he was commanding over 50 000 men, though he always did his best work in small patrols and skirmishes.

Unfortunately for Dumas, the window of opportunity was short, and when Napoleon rose to power, the fortunes of the gens de couleur did not rise with him. Dumas was part of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, and was left behind there when the soon-to-be-Emperor departed unexpectedly. Making his own way back to France, Dumas was captured and imprisoned in Italy for two years. He was finally released and returned to France just as Napoleon rose to power. He was unable to gain readmission to the French army, and he died at home, likely of stomach cancer, in 1806. His life became the inspiration for many of his son’s novels, particularly The Count of Monte Cristo.

Dumas’ life spans an intriguing and tumultuous period of French history, including the final years of the monarchy, the French Revolution, and the early years of the Napoleonic Empire. As such it is necessarily as much a history of France as a biography of Dumas, with particular attention paid to issues of race and slavery. Indeed, Reiss’ particular attention to these issues is the distinguishing feature of this book. At 200 years remove, there is a limit to how much can be pieced together about Dumas’ life from the remaining documents. Fortunately, Reiss’ historical overviews are entertaining and fast-paced, making The Black Count incredibly accessible for the general reader. He achieves this, to some extent, by playing up a slenderly supported personal rivalry between Dumas and Bonaparte during their time in the army. The remainder of the narrative is fleshed out with entertaining historical details, amusing imagined conversations from the papers of Dumas père, and tales of Reiss’ research travails. Although the personal rivalry is a matter of some speculation, Napoleon’s regressive policies with regards to race are a matter of historical record.

While Reiss refers often to the documents Dumas père wrote about his father, he does not, rely too heavily on them. Reiss often counterpoints to stories of Dumas père with other available historical documents, in order to determine whether the novelist was looking back at his father through rose coloured glasses. Reiss paints a clear picture of a young man very much in awe of his father—who died when he was only four years old—but it is also clear that the historical record bears out General Dumas’s sterling reputation. Errors or revisions in the accounts of Dumas père tend to show his father getting the better of a situation in which he was discriminated against or humiliated, as opposed to glossing over faults in his father’s character. However, as evidenced by Reiss’s extensive research, the life and legacy of General Dumas hardly needed to be embroidered or polished by his son, for all that he was fond of doing so.