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Books I Read in January

It’s funny — now that I’ve given myself permission not to review every single book I read in-depth, I have a whole lot more I want to say about what I’m reading, and why. So here are some capsule reviews about what I read in January 2019.

The Hacking of the American Mind by Robert Lustig

I think I was first turned on to this book by YouTuber Hannah Louise Poston, who in 2018 examined her relationship to beauty products and consumerism by doing a “no-buy” year. In one video, she talked about how she was learning about neuroscience, dopamine vs serotonin, and the difference between pleasure and happiness as a result of this book.

I was intrigued, because I know my own habits need to change. I spend way too much time online, and this book seemed like a handy way to help me understand my habits/addictions (Twitter, Reddit, staying up too late reading the same).

And….oof. Lustig may be a talented endocrinologist, and he may have done the world a service by being a whistleblower about the sugar industry, but The Hacking of the American Mind feels like a classic example of a book’s thesis being undone by poor presentation.

Lustig has A Lot to Talk About, and he does so with the fervour of a zealot. His understanding of brain chemistry is obvious, but his understanding of social issues is not. His thesis is that the American business, politics, and legal apparatus  has been systematically encouraging the American populace to seek short-term pleasure (aka: dopamine, sugar, and consumerism) over long-term happiness (aka: serotonin, healthy foods, and personal development).

The argument itself is sound. But his solutions for undoing the damage this confluence of political and economic interests has caused is not. His solutions? Cook healthy food! Meditate and develop mindfulness! Volunteer in your community!

These are all valuable things, but these are individualistic solutions to society-wide problems. Does he advocate for tax reform and reducing income inequality? No. Does he say that the labour movement needs widescale restoration to regain lost rights? Not really. For all his emphasis on how politics and money corrupt society, he seems surprisingly ignorant about the whole concept of social determinants of health.

Oh, and also Lustig engages in a lot of fat-shaming and neurotypical bias. No thanks.

Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment by Gregory Berns

In some ways, this book was the polar opposite to The Hacking of the American Mind. Both talk about neuroscience, pleasure, and how the brain responds to stimuli, but they do so in very different ways. When I opened Satisfaction, the straightforwardness of the prose in the opening first few pages made me feel like I had just put a cool, soothing cloth to my forehead.

Because of this immediate reaction of “Ah, finally, this author is so decorous!”, it took me a while to feel underwhelmed. In Hacking, Lustig Has A Point, and attempts to prove  it in a frenzied, impassioned, and clumsy way. Satisfaction, however, despite its fine prose, just kinda… sits there. Despite Berns’ discussion of dopamine and brain structures, his book’s thesis — that satisfaction/happiness lies in constantly exposing the brain to new experiences — is boring.

What’s more, the narrative throughline is clunky. There are interesting chapters, like the ones about sensory experiences during a fine meal and travelling to Iceland. However, they are intermingled with so-so ones about topics like BDSM. The final chapter, in particular, contains a lot of woo-sounding advice about long-term relationships, as well as some cringe-inducing passages discussing the author’s own sexual relationship with his wife.

Brother by David Chariandy

Hands down the best book of the month. Growing up, Michael and his brother Francis knew that despite how hard their mother worked to support them and give them a chance to succeed in life, they had few options. Constrained by intersecting issues of race and class, suspicion falls upon them and their peers in the wake of a shooting in their housing complex. Michael finds ways to cope, but Francis’ trajectory is much more tragic. Brother is an exploration of growing up as a marginalized youth of colour in the early 90s, and the prose is spare and haunting.

However, what really made me connect with it is that it’s set very close to where I live. When the opening pages talk about a bridge on Lawrence Avenue in Scarborough, I know that bridge because it’s within walking distance of my house. When Michael recollects escaping into the Rouge Valley, I know where and what he’s escaping to. When Michael talks about the buses and commuter trains and the “good” neighbourhood of “Port Junction”, I know exactly who and what he is describing, because that infrastructure has been with me my whole life.

Perhaps, when the snow melts and the sun comes back, I’ll share some pictures of the Rouge here, so you can conjure them in your minds eye when you decide to read this magnificent book.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. 9: Squirrels Fall Like Dominoes

As I have mentioned previously, I love Squirrel Girl. So any time a new volume comes out, it’s a delight. This time, the crux of the story involves her friendship with Kraven, a Marvel villain, and how she encourages him to turn a new leaf. Kraven is always a delight whenever he pops up in the SG universe, so it’s nice to see him get an extended plot arc here.

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

I read Hacking and Satisfaction at the beginning of the month because I wanted to understand my own brain, and to see if these books would give me some insight into how to “rewire” myself away from constantly needing to be connected to the internet. I should have just ignored both of these and read The Shallows instead.

In this book, Nicholas Carr manages to find the happy medium between the other two. It contains both the literary quality of Satisfaction and the hefty neurological exploration of Hacking. More importantly, The Shallows goes into detail about how exactly technology changes our brains without sounding alarmist — even when those details themselves are, in fact, alarming.

What’s also surprising is that although this book was written 8 years ago, and thus discusses the technology of 8 years ago, it doesn’t feel dated. The trends he identified have only become amplified since then – the chapter on Google’s quest for “content” in order to develop truly functional AI  is particularly relevant.

January’s reads were kind of a mix, but in a good way.  In February, I hope to continue this mix of fiction and non-fiction, while also focusing on Black authors for Black History Month.

Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon

Title: Harriet the Invincible (Hamster Princess #1)
Author: Ursula Vernon
Publisher: Dial Books
Format: Hardcover
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: Purchased a copy from Indigo

Now, I know what you’re thinking: hamster princess? Huh?

It may help if you realize that despite the incongruous series name, you, dear reader, are in the capable hands of Ursula Vernon. You know, the person who wrote the Hugo-award-winning webcomic Digger, about a talking wombat, the god Ganesh, oracular slugs, vampire squash, and a long-foretold prophecy coming due. That Ursula Vernon. (Here’s a full review of Digger from a few years ago if you’re so inclined.)

Here, Vernon takes her considerable sense of humour and lovely line art and puts it in service of a funky, kid-friendly retelling of Sleeping Beauty.

Harriet Hamsterbone is pragmatic, adventure-seeking, and strong — pretty much everything that a respectable princess shouldn’t be. But there is one thing princess-like about herself that she can’t avoid: she’s living under the curse of the evil witch Ratshade. You know the deal: not invited to the Christening, Ratshade shows up out of spite and curses her, only a prince’s kiss can break the spell, yadda yadda yadda.

When Harriet learns at age 10 the truth about the curse, she’s delighted. She’s doomed to prick her paw on a hamster wheel on her 12th birthday, but that’s two whole years away. Which means that for the next two years, she’s effectively invincible — what good would such a curse be if anything else could finish her off in the meantime?

So she takes off to the countryside with her trusty steed Mumfrey the quail, fights all sorts of ogres and trolls, and makes friends with the local hag. However, if Ratshade thinks that Harriet the Invincible will submit quietly to the curse on her 12th birthday, Ratshade has another think coming.

I bought this book because I was attending a book tour stop for Big Mushy Happy Lump, the new comic collection by Sarah C. Andersen. I was waiting in the nearby kids’ books section for the author to sign my book, and needed something to pass the time. Harriet the Invincible sat on a nearby shelf and caught my eye. By the time I was at the front of the line for the autograph, I was only about 20 pages away from the end — it’s that quick and breezy a read. When my husband pointed out that Chapters had a few other things on sale, I decided that it would be cruel to read so much of the book, not finish it, and not even pay for the fun I had.

This is an excellent choice for bedtime reading if you’ve got a kid and want to introduce them to the subgenre of stories that subvert fairy tale tropes. I can see Harriet the Invincible working particularly well for those in the range of 5-8 years — the text is engaging and Vernon’s drawings (which are there, but don’t dominate the text) are frequent enough to keep kids interested. (Please note that you should take my age suggestion with a huge grain of salt, since I don’t have any kids of my own.)

I don’t normally read kids’ books, but this one was fun, and I enjoy Vernon’s work in general so much that I couldn’t resist.

The March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

Title: March, vols 1-3
Authors: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Illustrator: Nate Powell
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5 (the entire set)
How I got a copy: I purchased the slipcase set from Indigo

Today is John Lewis’s birthday. Today is also the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X.

There’s a perverse symmetry in that — that two leading figures of Civil Rights and African American liberation should have their lives bookended by this date.

John Lewis is still alive. Of the prominent leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, he’s the only one left. He shook hands with JFK. He was colleagues with Martin Luther King Jr. He helped lead the march from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama. He’s been arrested, beaten, spat on, and denied vindications and liberties more times than I can count. He’s represented his congressional district in Georgia for 30 years. By any meaningful sense of the term, John Lewis is a living legend.

Which means that it’s a damn shame that I, as a Canadian, only recently heard about him in great detail when, last month, he announced that he would refuse to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration.

As a result, his books flew off the shelves. I followed suit and ordered a copy of his March trilogy, a series of graphic novels about his life. I spent the whole past weekend reading them, and only just finished them this evening.

The March trilogy details the life of John Lewis from his childhood on a sharecropping farm in Alabama through to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the late 50s and 60s. He was an instrumental member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As a child, he was committed to his schoolwork and his religious study, but also aware of the hypocrasies of the segregated school system in which he was taught.

When Martin Luther King Jr first came to his attention in 1955, he immediately saw the value of King’s form of social gospel, and learned more about non-violent activist techniques. He was an architect of them in his own right, helping to coordinate lunch counter sit-ins. As time progressed, his work with the SNCC led to him being considered one of the chief movers of the Civil Rights movement.

The March trilogy shuttles back and forth between Lewis’s memories of the past as an activist and the present day – said present day being January 20th, 2009, the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The series ends with the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

In light of the struggles and violence that Civil Rights protesters faced, the fact that the US elected Barack Obama is a signal achievement. It’s amazing to think that it took just over 40 years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act for such a thing to occur, after years — centuries — of disenfranchisement.

When Obama started office in 2009, the Voting Rights Act still ensured that marginalized communities across the country had the right to vote. However, in 2013, key provisions of the act were struck down by the Supreme Court. Voting restrictions have popped up like mushrooms in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

As someone viewing all this from the outside — as someone who knew only the barest outlines of the Civil Rights movement — the brutality that Civil Rights protesters met with as they struggled to gain the unfettered ability to vote is astonishing. But it’s disheartening to realize that we haven’t really improved that much in the interim, despite advances in legislative protections.

We still need to be reminded daily that black lives matter, even though this should be a given in our society. Black people still face an increased risk of incarceration or death at the hand of police departments. Looking at how much further we have yet to go, despite the lifelong efforts of Lewis and his political descendants, it’s a shame to see how quickly such changes have been rolled back after it took years of monumental, bloody effort to ensure they ocurred in the first place.

It’s a privilege to be able to hold this set of books, a privilege that the lessons within are being presented to a new (perhaps more complacent?) generation in a format that is both compelling and easy to absorb. On a personal level, I found it really interesting to see the nitty, day-to-day work involved in organizing a protest, the calculation and strategy involved in doing test efforts to determine what actions would have the most impact. The March trilogy is essential as both a historical primer and as an introduction to the art of successful resistance.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

30 Days of Reviews: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In the spirit of the month, instead of writing 50,000 words in 30 days, I’m going to write a short review every day, up to a maximum of 300 words. Think of it is NaNoReMo (National Novel Review Month). This month I’ll do short reviews of books, varieties of tea, and even individual short stories as the mood strikes. So read on!

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel UniverseTitle: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe
Author: Ryan North
Illustrator: Erica Henderson
Publisher: Marvel
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Squirrel Girl is no stranger to this blog. It’s a witty series! It’s funny! It’s got heart! It’s meta! It scratches a lot of my itches.

What I wasn’t expecting, in this world where we suddenly find ourselves contending with the reality of Trump having won the election, is that The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe is a surprisingly timely and relevant story about the perils of autocracy and the value of community and togetherness.

Quick summary: After inadvertently coming into contact with some alien technology that Iron Man has jury-rigged together, Doreen Green, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, now has a clone, Allene. Things are hunky-dory at first, but go south quickly when Allene feels that the only way to really keep the world safe is by getting rid of the true source of its problems — other people — and instituting a squirrel-ocracy in its place.

I mean, “She alone can fix it”, right?

Thus Allene concocts a surprisingly successful plan to defeat every single Marvel superhero and villain, progressively working her way up the ladder by treating it like an RPG with loot drops and boss fights. It’s only when Doreen and her mascot, Tippy-Toe, sacrifice themselves for the greater good that Allene has a change of heart.

I’ve been heartsick for the past few days. Scared, overwhelmed, tired. Reviewing books and tea feels  like fiddling while Rome burns. So imagine my surprise when I read The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe and genuinely laughed and forgot our political situation for a few minutes — up until I saw its parallels to the current state of world politics and got unhappy and uncomfortable all over again.

It’s really interesting having a see-sawing reaction like that. So while I liked the book, I’m still guarded about it.

Bitch Planet, Vol 1: Beautiful Machine

bitch_planet_coverTitle: Bitch Planet, Vol 1: Beautiful Machine
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Illustrator: Valentine De Landro
Publisher: Image Comics
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: Borrowed a copy from the library

Earlier today I read an article on Jezebel about a man who shot a 3-year-old girl after her mother rejected his advances. The sad thing is that stories like this — where men get violent after women reject them — happen all the goddamn time. If you don’t read stories like that, there are others on the gender wage gap. Or on the whole idea of the second shift. Or on the entrenchment of tech-bro culture in Silicon Valley. Stories to invoke outrage are endless. The worst part is that, at this point, it’s typical for our outrage to be mingled with a sense of world-weary fatigue.

Bitch Planet is a comic book that transforms that fatigue back into a howl of rage.

In a not-so-implausible world where “non-compliant” or “NC” women (aka: those who are too fat, too ugly, too sexually unwilling, too mouthy) get shipped off to a prison planet in space, a group of such NCs are offered the chance to participate in a deadly contact sport called “megaton” (which is normally played by men only) in order to gain a scrap of respect. Of course, the religious overlords responsible for determining a woman’s level of compliance are more than happy to partner up with the corporate overlords looking for the next big ratings magnet. Global audience engagement has been flagging and the ratings that such a mixed-sex game would generate are too tempting to ignore.

Into this confluence of backstage jockeying arrives Kamau Kogo, a new arrival on Bitch Planet who’s been offered the unheard of chance to lead an all-woman megaton team. But she knows that the odds are stacked against her, so she’s got to find an unconventional strategy to win.

Well, where better to find players who can break a game’s rules than a space station full of women who’ve been exiled for breaking the rules of society?

Bitch Planet, Vol 1 is a collection of the comic’s first 5 issues. I’ve been thinking a lot about the volume’s subtitle, “Beautiful Machine.” There are a lot of ways you can interpret that phrase. The society of Bitch Planet operates on strict, unyielding logic to achieve a certain result: the entrenchment of male entitlement, consumer capitalist culture, and the hemming in of women so that only a small number of socially-acceptable roles are available to them. Is it beautiful? On the surface, maybe, but on the inside it’s rotten. It may be a pretty machine, but it’s a hateful one too.

What about our bodies? Are they machines? Legs pump like pistons, muscles require food like cars require fuel. We move, we breathe, we emit exhaust/exude exhaustion. And if there is a single person on Bitch Planet that embodies non-compliance, it’s Penelope Rolle, an extremely large, extremely strong, and extremely violent baker who’s had everything — her family, her livelihood — stripped away from her. Watching Penelope fight and steamroll her opponents on the field is its own form of beauty.

I have really mixed feelings about Bitch Planet, Vol 1. I want to read the rest of the series and see how things turn out. Will Kamau manage to subvert the system? Is there an overarching plot point behind the pulpy, fake ads at the end of each issue? However, my appreciation of the comic’s aesthetic and the points its making about society are just that: appreciation, rather than true enjoyment. This is a comic that has Things To Say. But I’m also tired, so tired, of living in the kind of world that makes comics like this necessary in the first place.

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