Tag Archives: book reviews

Finished this book: The Invisible Empire: A History of Racism in Canada by Margaret Cannon

The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada book cover image

The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada book cover image

This book was published back in 1995 and I remember quite liking it then. I was at the tail end of my Women’s Studies degree and quite impressed with my own knowledge and open-mindedness. A book about racism in Canada was right up my alley. Not only would it look impressive when I read it on the bus, but it was also unlikely (I was certain) to challenge me in any real way, given all the recent reading and learning I had done around the intersections among race, class, power, sexuality, and gender.

Rereading this book almost a quarter of a century later has been a sobering experience. I don’t recall exactly what I thought and felt about this book back then; I just had a general feeling of it being an interesting look at the then-current state of race in my country.

Now, however, I am surprised that I would have bought a book by a white woman to learn about racism in Canada. Particularly not a person who is writing from such a place of power and privilege, with access to the media as a journalist, private school for her daughter, etc. It amazes me that I thought this might be a useful perspective.

There was some interesting information and research about such things as how the Heritage Front is constituted and connected to other people and groups (and how these groups exist to basically protect middle-aged white, middle-aged women like the author), some history of  immigration in Toronto, etc. But overall I was pretty disappointed in this book now. To put it in today’s terms, I felt it smelled strongly of #notallwhitepeople.

Things that made me feel this way:

  • lots of pointing out how different ethnic groups also dislike or discriminate against each other (felt like: “they do it too”)
  • lots of “trying to find the truth” between the lived experience of POC and the feelings of white people (felt like: “both sides of the story are equally valid and have to be heard”)
  • a discomfort with naming racism, hatred, and consequences clearly (felt like “try to remain polite”)
  • not enough analysis or placing of events / issues in a context of systemic oppression, but rather more explaining the way things are. Perhaps this descriptive rather than analytical approach comes from the writer’s journalist background. But description by a member of the oppressor’s group is not neutral.
  • too many protestations of the goodness of individual white people (for example, “June Callwood did so much good for the community and is being persecuted for this mistake / misunderstanding”; and, regarding the ROM Into the Heart of Darkness / Africa exhibit: “but the curators did a brilliant job; it’s just that people didn’t understand the cleverness and intellectualism and irony of it all!”; and how opening a new theatre with a production of Showboat was was a more of a lapse of good judgement than actual racism
  • blaming multiculturalism for a lot of these problems (which felt like: “immigrants should just adapt to our ways and there wouldn’t be a problem”

 

While Cannon does seem to be pushing her own comfort zone in this book, especially when venturing out to attend Heritage Front meetings and the like, and does seem to move toward an understanding of the fact that racism extends beyond the confines of actual “hate groups” to include the beliefs and actions of “ordinary people like you and me” (with the definite assumption that “we”—she and her readers— are white people), she does not take her understanding further to embed this in a systemic context.

On the one hand, I understand that this was a fairly new concept for a lot of us white people back in the nineties, but on the other hand, at that time, I certainly owned and worked hard at understanding an expensive pile of textbooks talking about this exact systemic dynamic, textbooks which would certainly have been accessible and parseable by someone with Cannon’s writerly qualifications.

I will put this book in the giveaway pile and wouldn’t recommend it now, but it was very interesting to take this trip backward and see how much my own views and understanding of racism have changed over time. It makes me wonder uncomfortably how much more I have yet to learn, and how another quarter century will (I hope) change my views and deepen my understanding of the toxic webs of systemic oppression and my place in them.

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Very Important Note: None of the phrases in quotation marks are direct quotes from the book.


 

Finished this book (a while ago): Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Cover of the book Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Cover of the book Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

 

I’ve been falling behind on posting book reviews lately, but the books themselves are all stacked up waiting for me to blog about them. Problem is, the more I read, the less I remember about each individual book I read last year to be able to review it… But here I go anyway!

My mom gave me Atwood’s book Hag-Seed a year or so ago, and although I was very much looking forward to reading it, it took me a while to get around to it. Around the time I had finally picked it off the shelf and placed it by my bed to read, I started seeing posts on Facebook about how Atwood was defending someone who’d been accused of sexual assault, and rules-lawyering about reasonable doubt and giving men a chance. I was so irritated and disappointed, as it seemed at that time that every time I turned around, another woman whom I had previously thought reasonable was siding against victims and with predators. So I ignored the book for a few more weeks, and once I did start to read it, I was in a frame of mind to be extra critical of it.

And I did indeed find much to criticise. Or at least much to be disappointed in. The only three female characters were 1) a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, 2) a trying-too-hard femme d’un certain âge scorned by the protagonist, and 3) the out-of-work actress he originally wanted as his Miranda twelve years earlier who is willing, available, flexible, and eager to rush in to fill the role. The protagonist himself, Felix, is a narcissistic, vengeful man who feels that his artistic brilliance justified anything he chooses to do. The prison, prison guards, and inmates are portrayed so unrealistically that I have to assume that even people who have never been to or worked in a jail must be unconvinced.

Now maybe, I thought while reading the book, perhaps this was all a brilliant work of irony or satire or theatrics. Maybe the theatrical nature of this—a book which creates a play within a play based on a play outside the book—is actually a fourth play—the book itself—with liberties taken for the sake of the staging and the plot.

But I found the protagonist tiresome and whiny, the two live female characters superficial and unrealistic, and the portrayal of jail guards and inmates condescending.

What I did enjoy was the dive into The Tempest itself, and the different interpretations of the play and its various parts. It’s not a play I’ve ever read or seen; having only picked up some of its pieces bit by bit through references elsewhere, it was interesting and intriguing to have this be my first real introduction to it, and I wonder how much more I might have appreciated this book if I had been familiar with The Tempest beforehand.

And the other thing, a little thing but something that gave me great pleasure, was that when Felix had the inmates working on the play, all regular curse words were forbidden. Instead, they could only use the curse words from the play itself. This playfulness and the way it is taken to heart by the inmate-actors was quite lovely.

After reading this book, I discovered that it is part of the Hogarth Project, which has contemporary authors re-imagine Shakespeare’s plays. That did put the book in a new light for me, seeing that Atwood was writing within certain constraints. It makes me more appreciate that Felix/Prospero is the protagonist not because Atwood decided to write about a self-involved man with little regard for others, but because he is, simply, the obvious protagonist. It also put the inmates in a different position: Atwood is not forcing them awkwardly into the various roles, but showing how the play’s characters are relevant to and reflected in people in all times. So I felt a bit more generous toward both the author and the book after discovering this context.

That said, I am sorely disappointed in the lack of feminism, woman-centredness, or politics beyond the petty (etc.) in this book. My expectations of Atwood were formed by Surfacing and The Edible Woman back when I just hitting puberty. Hag-Seed just doesn’t come close to that style, subtlety, or layering.

I have no interest in re-reading this book, and it will go into my giveaway pile.

Disclaimer: this review is thinner than it could have been, as I read the book quite a while ago…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finished this book: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Cover of The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

Cover of The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

I’m a big fan of dystopias and (post-)apocalyptic stories. And basically, when Margaret Atwood writes scifi, she is writing for me. I love her understated style, and the way she can write about the most horrible things in a matter-of-fact kind of way.

The Heart Goes Last is set in the USA after part of the country has experienced an utter economic collapse. The story follows a youngish heterosexual couple (Stan and Charmaine) as they make a lifetime commitment to an enclave that promises shelter, employment, and safety. Of course, once they sign up and are committed, they start to find out all kinds of things about the place (and their relationship), and Atwood does her usual morbidly thorough job at imagining the possibilities.

Charmaine is a fairly common type of female protagonist for Atwood. While they are all different, many of them share some basic elements of being concerned for social conventions, but also being almost ruthlessly  pragmatic and practical and sensible no matter what’s going on. There’s often a really delightful dissonance—and a simultaneous, almost inevitable consonance—between the character’s beliefs and actions. In this book, for example, Charmaine is very concerned with doing her job professionally, efficiently, and compassionately, and this leads her to (*major spoilers deleted*).

The last third of the book was… Oh, I hate to say this. It was not really up to Atwood’s usual work. it was as if she was trying to fit too much in, and so she couldn’t pay enough attention to each piece.

I found the ending a little too pat, but upon further reflection, it had something  to say about Charmaine’s ideas about relationships and her capacity for freedom. So while I had a bit of an eyeroll near the end, I have come to appreciate it more with some thought—although again, it was not as strong as I have come to expect of Atwood.

I devoured this book in a couple of days, fitting time for it around other stuff. It made me think of one of those massive holiday meals: so much preparation goes into it and then it gets eaten in no-time-flat. Fortunately, there are no dishes to do—but as with most of Atwood’s books, there’s always an aftermath for me as it takes me a while to get her books out of my head and move on to another.

 

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. 2015.