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Tell It Like It Is: A List of Fearless Books
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Tell It Like It Is: A List of Fearless Books

By 49thShelf
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In honour of Freedom to Read Week, this is a list of Canadian books that stand out for being powerfully—even ruthlessly—honest and brave. Whether fiction or non-fiction, serious or funny (or both), the books on this list share one trait: they deal with important issues (depression, murder, inequity, disability, persecution, sex, gender, identity, family, etc.) in fearless ways that could only happen in a country that values free expression and thinking. We're talking about you, Canada.
Murder Without Borders

Murder Without Borders

Dying for the Story in the World's Most Dangerous Places
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Introduction
The psychology of Sacrifice

Efraín Varela knew he would be murdered. He even knew the options his assassins would consider. “If they kill me in the town, they are going to shoot me,” he told his fellow journalists two weeks before his death. “If they take me in the rural area, I am going to be tortured first.” Varela specialized in exposing paramilitary atrocities and corrupt politicians in Arauca, a remote town on Colombia’s lawless plains. Over the years he’d refused bribes and survived other assassination attempts. Then, in June 2002, a hair’s breadth escape from kidnappers convinced him his moment was near. Against the advice of his colleagues, he continued his exposés, until, as he’d predicted, he was seized in the countryside, tortured and shot.

When most people think of journalists dying for a story, they picture war correspondents caught in a cross fire, but Varela’s death is a more typical case. Almost three-quarters of the more than 720 journalists who have died in the line of duty since 1992 have been targeted and murdered. The majority of the fallen – more than 85 percent – have been local journalists. Almost all the masterminds of these murders – 95 percent – have escaped punishment.

I first encountered this plague of murder-with-impunity while researching a book in the Philippines between 2000 and 2003. Fourteen journalists were assassinated outside Manila during that period and not one of their killers was brought to justice. Philippine press freedom advocates complained to the nation’s president that many of the slain had been publicly threatened by politicians and businessmen. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism predicted worse to come if the perpetrators were not prosecuted. None were, and in 2004 another eight journalists were murdered after being warned to stay silent.

The international organizations that attempted to bring worldwide attention to these unpunished killings were the New York—based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters sans frontières. To government leaders and the general public they made the case that while the murder of any person was reprehensible, the murder of a journalist for his or her reporting had consequences that went far beyond the individual’s death. Journalists stood for the public’s right to know what public figures were doing; they exposed criminality when the police refused to pursue it (or were part of it); and they enlightened communities to the activities of illegal armed groups and terrorists in their area. If journalists could be murdered in retaliation for their work and the killers suffered no consequences, then the societies in which these murders occurred would be at the mercy of sociopaths.

In May 2005, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a bulletin called “Marked for Death,” reporting that the top five countries where journalists had been assassinated since 2000 were, in order of most killed, the Philippines, Iraq, Colombia, Bangladesh and Russia. These nations were weighted with problems specific to their regions and cultures, but they bore striking similarities in the systematic way criminality was licensed and protected. The journalists, too, bore striking similarities. Most worked low-paying jobs in remote areas controlled by corrupt officials. In their districts, bribery of journalists was the norm, but a lot of those assassinated were famous for being clean. Many had predicted they would be murdered if they kept at their reporting, but they persisted until the bloody end.

Though both the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters sans frontières were scrupulous in their analyses of hundreds of “kill cases,” their summaries of the lives of these journalists were necessarily short, rarely more than an account of their last stories and a paragraph or two of professional résumé. Neither organization attempted to guess at what made these individuals tick. Reading the brief descriptions of the victims left me wondering at the source of their bravery. They had dogged the lives of people who were immune to prosecution but hadn’t lived in the kinds of secure hotels used by foreign correspondents. Often they went home to bungalows with nothing between them and murder but a quarter-inch plywood door. Indeed, a lot of them had publicly announced their intention of pursuing stories in the face of an ethic of impunity that guaranteed retribution. Were they idealists? Egotists? Devout believers in God? Were they motivated by a macho defiance of thugs? A revolutionary’s zeal to help the masses? Perhaps they had become so obsessed with a great story that they were blind to its consequences? Or were their lives so personally buffeted by bandits and death squads that they felt that sacrificing themselves was the price that had to be paid to get the story out?

In the fall of 2005, I chose representative cases in the five most murderous countries and set out to visit their hometowns, interview their families, friends and colleagues, and try to understand their personal motivations. I had two questions in mind:

What makes a poor, small-town reporter stay on a story even though he has been threatened with certain death and offered handsome rewards if he looks the other way?

What is it that allows entire societies to function like criminal enterprises, where truth tellers are publicly killed and no charges are brought against the public figures who ordered the killings?

When journalists are murdered, their lives and work explode, the shards driving deep into the bodies of those closest to them. The people who bore the pieces of these abbreviated lives shared with me the journalists’ private and public sides, noble and flawed. The tales they told revealed that while each risked being murdered according to his or her own unique psychology, these journalists’ professional goals were the same. They believed passionately in the principle that the powerful should be prevented from oppressing the weak. While fallible themselves, they went to work each morning with the conviction that the calling of journalism was to defend the defenseless.

The criminals they faced believed in the opposite principle: that the weak offered opportunities for the enrichment of the powerful. Political and religious predators who organize governments permit no investigation into their ultimate motives, and they react violently when journalists reveal that they serve themselves. In one form or another, all of the slain journalists in this book attempted to expose the organized criminal structure that ruled their nations, and came fatally close to its true workings and affiliations.

At its most fundamental level, organized crime is a licensing system. A gangster maneuvers or murders his way to the top and, to ensure he stays there, awards the right to engage in illegal activities in his territory, expecting tribute in return and providing protection from the law. That single mechanism governs all the nations where journalists are being murdered in greatest numbers. It follows the universal modus operandi: the rise to power is always accompanied by the return of favors – but with a twist. In nations run according to the principle of organized crime, favors are returned in the currency of impunity. Thus, political or religious rulers act like gang bosses, appointing their subordinates to bureaucracies with the understanding that while their salaries will be low, their incomes will be high. Corruption, an ad hoc arrangement in some countries, becomes a formal structure in these places. Lawlessness occurs within the law, and the system of organized crime is locked into the business of the nation. In this manner, the people are robbed and the rulers get rich, and anyone who attempts to defy the rulers finds out very quickly how “organized” organized crime can be.

Across borders and across time, this national licensing system is uniform. Understanding that system, and how governments use it to rule billions of people over millions of square miles, is crucial to understanding how much of the world works. It is also crucial to understanding why journalists are murdered with impunity when they attempt to expose it. In societies where everyone knows the truth but is afraid to speak it, laying out the facts can be an invitation to death. Yet for journalists who are motivated to expose destructive forces, publishing the truth is often the only option – an unavoidable step on the road to societal change, and, in some cases, personal redemption.

During my travels for this book, I tried to discover if there was one moment in the lives of these men and women when they realized they were willing to die for their stories. I am still not certain if all of them deliberately chose martyrdom, or merely used the acceptance of death as a psychological tool that was necessary to do their work. Some were so outraged by the criminality of their nations that they pushed their reporting into the realm of contemptuous editorializing, and were murdered shortly thereafter. Many of their colleagues were equally outraged but survived, and they offered me insights into what journalists had to do to increase their longevity when covering very dangerous territory. In one case, I was scheduled to interview a journalist who had defied the odds and, under constant threat of assassination, was still producing work even more defiant than that of her murdered colleagues. Her name was Anna Politkovskaya, and when I landed in Moscow I learned she had been shot to death while I had been in the air on my way to meet her. Politkovskaya is the subject of one of the chapters in this book.

Her murder, and other unexpected events in the countries I visited, turned what I thought would be a one-year project into one that has lasted four years. At all times I followed the advice of local journalists, pursuing the research slowly. At no time did I put myself in the crosshairs of the danger the victims had faced. I did not go into their towns announcing that I was there to incriminate evil-doers, as the murdered journalists had done. I did not conduct a series of murder investigations, but life investigations.

My greatest fear is that I have fallen short of doing justice to my subjects’ work. When murdered, all of them were in the midst of exposés that went a long way to explaining the problems of their countries. In turn, the problems of their countries went a long way to explaining the problems of their regions: Latin America, the Pacific Rim, South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. When put together, the historical and emotional contexts of the journalists’ exposés amounted to a compendium of the social and political forces at play in the world today. The way the journalists died underscored the power of these forces. I can only hope that I have conveyed at least part of what they taught me.

There is little doubt that in many countries murder works. It is the ultimate form of press censorship, eliminating the immediate problem and often intimidating others into silence. It works best when it occurs with impunity; and in the most murderous places for journalists, impunity reigns. Impunity scars the lives of innocent people, and it scarred the lives of the journalists in this book. And yet they kept at their work, with the full knowledge that their countries were ruled by murderous thugs who lived by the principle of organized crime. I have tried to honor them by bringing their lives and the stories they worked on to light, telling truth to those who would murder truth tellers.

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Why it's on the list ...
"Murder Without Borders is a book of love and passion. The portraits of slain journalists who reported from the world’s most dangerous places are unquestionably tragic, but this book is uplifting and even inspiring. Through his meticulous reporting and his compassionate storytelling, Gould performs a small miracle, a literary resurrection, allowing journalists so cruelly killed to tell their own stories completely and honestly. In an age when journalism is threatened by economic collapse and deep public cynicism, Gould’s book reminds us that journalism can be beautiful and meaningful and that its power to combat injustice so great that some journalists around the world are willing to give their lives to tell the truth.”

—Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists
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Intolerable
Why it's on the list ...
"Intolerable crosses so many lines of identity as to make a reader’s head spin: class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion and degrees of religious observance. This beautiful book about a family’s tortured relationship to history – and a region’s fraught relationship to modernity – is everything a great memoir should be: It’s as moving as it is complex."
—Matthew Hays, writing for the Globe and Mail
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The Boy in the Moon

The Boy in the Moon

A Father's Search for His Disabled Son
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One
For the first eight years of Walker's life, every night is the same. The same routine of tiny details, connected in precise order, each mundane, each crucial.

The routine makes the eight years seem long, almost endless, until I try to think about them afterwards, and then eight years evaporate to nothing, because nothing has changed.

Tonight I wake up in the dark to a steady, motorized noise. Something wrong with the water heater. Nnngah. Pause. Nnngah. Nnngah.
But it's not the water heater. It's my boy, Walker, grunting as he punches himself in the head, again and again.

He has done this since before he was two. He was born with an impossibly rare genetic mutation, cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, a technical name for a mash of symptoms. He is globally delayed and can't speak, so I never know what's wrong. No one does. There are just over a hundred people with CFC around the world. The disorder turns up randomly, a misfire that has no certain cause or roots; doctors call it an orphan syndrome because it seems to come from nowhere.

I count the grunts as I pad my way into his room: one a second. To get him to stop hitting himself, I have to lure him back to sleep, which means taking him downstairs and making him a bottle and bringing him back into bed with me.

That sounds simple enough, doesn' t it? But with Walker, everything is complicated. Because of his syndrome, he can' t eat solid food by mouth, or swallow easily. Because he can't eat, he takes in formula through the night via a feeding system. The formula runs along a line from a feedbag and a pump on a metal IV stand, through a hole in Walker's sleeper and into a clever-looking permanent valve in his belly, sometimes known as a G-tube, or mickey. To take him out of bed and down to the kitchen to prepare the bottle that will ease him back to sleep, I have to disconnect the line from the mickey. To do this, I first have to turn off the pump (in the dark, so he doesn't wake up completely) and close the feed line. If I don't clamp the line, the sticky formula pours out onto the bed or the floor (the carpet in Walker's room is pale blue: there are patches that feel like the Gobi Desert under my feet, from all the times I have forgotten). To crimp the tube, I thumb a tiny red plastic roller down a slide. (It's my favourite part of the routine–one thing, at least, is easy, under my control.) I unzip his one-piece sleeper (Walker's small, and grows so slowly he wears the same sleepers for a year and a half at a time), reach inside to unlock the line from the mickey, pull the line out through the hole in his sleeper and hang it on the IV rack that holds the pump and feedbag. Close the mickey, rezip the sleeper. Then I reach in and lift all 45 pounds of Walker from the depths of the crib. He still sleeps in a crib. It's the only way we can keep him in bed at night. He can do a lot of damage on his own.
_

This isn't a list of complaints. There's no point to complaining. As the mother of another CFC child once told me, "You do what you have to do." If anything, that' s the easy part. The hard part is trying to answer the questions Walker raises in my mind every time I pick him up. What is the value of a life like his–a life lived in the twilight, and often in pain? What is the cost of his life to those around him? "We spend a million dollars to save them," a doctor said to me not long ago. "But then when they're discharged, we ignore them." We were sitting in her office, and she was crying. When I asked her why, she said "Because I see it all the time."

Sometimes watching Walker is like looking at the moon: you see the face of the man in the moon, yet you know there's actually no man there. But if Walker is so insubstantial, why does he feel so important? What is he trying to show me? All I really want to know is what goes on inside his off-shaped head, in his jumped-up heart. But every time I ask, he somehow persuades me to look into my own.
_

But there is another complication here. Before I can slip downstairs with Walker for a bottle, the bloom of his diaper pillows up around me. He's not toilet-trained. Without a new diaper, he won't fall back to sleep and stop smacking his head and ears. And so we detour from the routine of the feeding tube to the routine of the diaper.

I spin 180 degrees to the battered changing table, wondering, as I do every time, how this will work when he's twenty and I'm sixty. The trick is to pin his arms to keep him from whacking himself. But how do you change a 45-pound boy's brimming diaper while immobilizing both his hands so he doesn't bang his head or (even worse) reach down to scratch his tiny, plum-like but suddenly liberated backside, thereby smearing excrement everywhere? While at the same time immobilizing his feet, because ditto? You can't let your attention wander for a second. All this is done in the dark as well.

But I have my routine. I hold his left hand with my left hand, and tuck his right hand out of commission under my left armpit. I've done it so many times, it's like walking. I keep his heels out of the disaster zone by using my right elbow to stop his knees from bending, and do all the actual nasty business with my right hand. My wife, Johanna, can't manage this alone any longer and sometimes calls me to help her. I am never charming when she does.

And the change itself: a task to be approached with all the delicacy of a munitions expert in a Bond movie defusing an atomic device. The unfolding and positioning of a new nappy; the signature feel of the scratchy Velcro tabs on the soft paper of the nappy, the disbelief that it will ever hold; the immense, surging relief of finally refastening it–we made it! The world is safe again! The reinsertion of his legs into the sleeper.

Now we're ready to head downstairs to make the bottle.

Three flights, taking it in the knees, looking out the landing windows as we go. He's stirring, so I describe the night to him in a low voice. There's no moon tonight and it's damp for November.

In the kitchen, I perform the bottle ritual. The weightless plastic bottle (the third model we tried before we found one that worked, big enough for his not-so-fine motor skills yet light enough for him to hold), the economy-sized vat of Enfamil (whose bulk alone is discouraging, it implies so much), the tricky one-handed titrating of tiny tablespoonfuls of Pablum and oatmeal (he aspirates thin fluids; it took us months to find these exact manageable proportions that produced the exact manageable consistency. I have a head full of these numbers: dosages, warm-up times, the frequency of his bowel movements/scratchings/cries/naps). The nightly pang about the fine film of Pablum dust everywhere: Will we ever again have anything like an ordered life? The second pang, of shame, for having such thoughts in the first place. The rummage in the ever-full blue and white dish drainer (we're always washing something, a pipette or a syringe or a bottle or a medicine measuring cup) for a nipple (but the right nipple, one whose hole I have enlarged into an X, to let the thickened liquid out) and a plastic nipple cap. Pull the nipple into the cap, the satisfying pop as it slips into place. The gonad-shrinking microwave.

Back up three flights. He's still trying to smash his head. Why does he do it? Because he wants to talk, but can't? Because–this is my latest theory–he can't do what he can see other people doing? I'm sure he's aware of his own difference.

Cart him into the bed in his older sister Hayley's room on the third floor where I have been sleeping, so I can be near him. Hayley, meanwhile, is downstairs with her mother in our bedroom so they can get some sleep. We take turns like this, reduced by the boy to bedroom Bedouins. Neither Johanna nor I has slept two full nights in a row in eight years. We both work during the day. After the first six months, I stopped noticing how tired I was: my days and nights simply became more elastic and similar.

Lay him down on the bed. Oh, fuck me dead–forgot the pump! Build a wall of pillows around him so he doesn't escape or fall off the bed while I nip back into the other room. Remember 4 cc's (or is it 6?) of chloral hydrate, prescribed for sleep and to calm his self-mutilation. (I tried a dose once: the kick of a double martini. William S. Burroughs was thrown out of school as a kid for experimenting with it.) Reprogram the pump, restart the familiar mild repetitive whine, his night pulse.

At last I sink into bed beside him and pull the wriggling boy close. He begins to hit his head again, and because we know of no acceptable way to restrain him mechanically, I hold down his small right hand with my large right one. This brings his left hand up to his other ear–"he's a genius for finding ways to hurt himself," his teacher told me the other day. I grab his left in my left, which I have threaded behind his head. He begins to kick himself in the crotch with his right heel, so hard it makes me wince. I run my big leg over his little leg, and lay my right hand (holding his right hand) on his left thigh, to keep it still. He's stronger than he looks. Under his birdy limbs, he's granite. He'll mash his ears to a pulp if no one stops him.

There is a chance, of course, that none of this will work. Every once in a while, the chloral hydrate rebounds and transforms him into a giggling drunk. It's not unusual to have to perform the entire routine again an hour later. When he has a cold (eight, ten times a year), he coughs himself awake every twenty minutes. Sometimes he cries for hours for no reason. There are nights when nothing works, and nights when he is up and at it, laughing and playing and crawling all over me. I don't mind those nights, tired as I am: his sight is poor, but in the dark we're equal, and I know this makes him happy. In the night, there can be stretches when he is no different from any normal lively boy. It makes me almost cry to tell you that.

Tonight is a lucky night: I can feel him slip off after ten minutes. He stops grunting, strokes his bottle, turns his back and jams his bony little ass into my hip, a sure sign. He falls asleep.

I hurry after him. For all this nightly nightmare–the years of desperate worry and illness and chronic sleep deprivation, the havoc he has caused in our lives, threatening our marriage and our finances and our sanity–I long for the moment when he lets his crazy formless body fall asleep against me. For a short while, I feel like a regular little boy's father. Sometimes I think this is his gift to me–parcelled out, to show me how rare and valuable it is. Walker, my teacher, my sweet, sweet, lost and broken boy.
_

In the early years, after Walker was first diagnosed with CFC syndrome at the age of seven months, the estimated number of people who suffered from the syndrome changed every time we visited the doctor. The medical profession–at least the handful of doctors who studied cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome, or knew what it was–was learning about the syndrome as we did. The name itself was nothing more than an amalgam of the syndrome' s most prominent symptoms: cardio, for ever-present murmurs and malformations and enlargements of the heart; facio, for the facial dysmorphia that was its signal characteristic, a prominent brow and down-sloping eyes; cutaneous, for its many skin irregularities. The first time a geneticist ever described the syndrome to me, he told me there were eight other children in the world with CFC. Eight: it wasn't possible. Surely we had been blasted out to an unknown galaxy.

But within a year, after our doctors had begun to sweep the medical literature for references to CFC, I was informed there were 20 cases, because more had turned up in Italy. Then there were 40. (The speed with which the number changed made me sneer at the doctors: they were trained medical professionals, surely they ought to know more than we did.) More than 100 cases of CFC have been reported since the syndrome was first described publicly in three people in 1979; some estimates are as high as 300. Everything about the syndrome was a mystery, an unknown. It was 1986 before it had a name. Symptoms ranged wildly in severity and kind. (Some researchers believe there may be thousands of people with CFC, but with symptoms so mild the condition has never been noticed.) Some CFC children hit themselves, though most didn't. Some could speak or sign. All but a few were anywhere from mildly to severely retarded. Heart defects ranged from serious to unimportant. (Walker had a mild murmur.) Their skin was often sensitive to touch, to the point of agony. Like many CFC children, Walker couldn't chew or swallow easily; he couldn' t speak; his vision and hearing were compromised (he had narrowed optic nerves, one more than the other, and skinny ear canals subject to incessant infection); he was thin and wobbly, "hypotonic" in the medical jargon.

Like virtually all CFC children, he had no eyebrows, sparse curly hair, a prominent brow, wide-set eyes, low-set ears and an often charming cocktail-party personality. The CFC features grew more noticeable, more "abnormal," as he grew older. I assumed my little boy was an average example of the condition. It turned out I was wrong. It turned out the average didn't exist– not here.

Nor did those conditions change. Today, at thirteen, mentally, developmentally– I'm terrified even to write these words–he's somewhere between one and three years old. Physically, he's better off than many CFC children (he doesn't have frequent seizures, doesn't have ulcerated intestines); cognitively, less so. He could live to middle age. Would that be good luck, or bad?

Minus a few new genetic details, this was and still is the sum total of what the medical profession knows about CFC. It isn't widely studied, as autism is. Most parents of CFC children know more about the affliction than their pediatricians. The CFC population isn't large and politically powerful like that of Down syndrome, which more than 350,000 people live with in North America, and which occurs once in every 800 births. CFC shows up no more often than once in every 300,000 births, and possibly as rarely as once in a million. The National Institutes of Health Office of Rare Diseases characterized CFC as "extremely rare," way out at the far, thin end of the statistical branch, alongside bizarre genetic anomalies such as Chédiak—Higashi syndrome, a bleeding disorder caused by platelet dysfunction and white cell abnormalities. There were only two hundred known cases of Chédiak—Higashi, in part because so few born with it ever survived.

Raising Walker was like raising a question mark. I often wanted to tell someone the story, what the adventure felt and smelled and sounded like, what I noticed when I wasn' t running through darkness. But who could relate to such a human anomaly, to the rare and exotic corner of existence where we suddenly found ourselves? Eleven years would pass before I met anyone like him.

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Why it's on the list ...
"... [Brown] knows that an account of the plain facts will bring us to our knees more efficiently than a dressed-up version. [His son] Walker (the sad irony of the name) was born with cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (CFC), a genetic mutation so rare that just over 100 cases have been reported worldwide. Over the course of this book, the truth that Brown learns from his son is also rare — that the life that appears to destroy you is the one you long to embrace. Whatever is human is disabled. Walker is unable to stop bashing himself, and his father is unable to understand him. The boy is likened to the man in the moon, whose face we see though we know it is not there. The face is revealed by our believing in it. As Brown searches for his son’s mind, he finds his own."
—Roger Rosenblatt, writing for the New York Times.
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With Or Without God

With Or Without God

edition:Hardcover
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Envisioning a future in which the Christian church plays a viable and transformative role in shaping society, Gretta Vosper argues that if the church is to survive at all, the heart of faith must undergo a radical change. Vosper, founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity and a minister in Toronto, believes that what will save the church is an emphasis on just and compassionate living—a new and wholly humanistic approach to religion. Without this reform, the church as we know …

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Three Wishes

Three Wishes

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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Why it's on the list ...
"In her Breadwinner trilogy, Governor- General’s Award-winning author Deborah Ellis used fiction to explore the plight of children in war-torn Afghanistan. In this new book, she once again presents the situation of children in a troubled part of the world. This time, however, she has real children speak, in their own voices, about their lives, their feelings about their homeland, and their wishes for the future. The group of children interviewed contains both Israelis and Palestinians, a choice that caused the parents of some children to deny permission for publication of interviews. Those published, however, are a moving, sometimes chilling, expression of the disruption and distress created in young people’s lives by the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, as well as a reminder of the human capacity for hope and renewal."
—Gwyneth Evans, writing for Quill & Quire
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The Inconvenient Indian

The Inconvenient Indian

A Curious Account of Native People in North America
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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About fifteen years back, a bunch of us got together to form a drum group. John Samosi, one of our lead singers, suggested we call ourselves “The Pesky Redskins.” Since we couldn’t sing all that well, John argued, we needed a name that would make people smile and encourage them to overlook our musical deficiencies.

We eventually settled on the Waa-Chi-Waasa Singers, which was a more stately name. Sandy Benson came up with it, and as I remember, waa-chi-waasa is Ojibway for “far away.” Appropriate enough, since most of the boys who sit around the drum here in Guelph, Ontario, come from somewhere other than here. John’s from Saskatoon. Sandy calls Rama home. Harold Rice was raised on the coast of British Columbia. Mike Duke’s home community is near London, Ontario. James Gordon is originally from Toronto. I hail from California’s central valley, while my son Benjamin was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, and was dragged around North America with his older brother and younger sister. I don’t know
where he considers home to be.

Anishinaabe, Métis, Coastal Salish, Cree, Cherokee. We have nothing much in common. We’re all Aboriginal and we have the drum. That’s about it.

I had forgotten about “Pesky Redskins” but it must have been kicking around in my brain because, when I went looking for a title for this book, something with a bit of irony to it, there it was.

Pesky Redskins: A Curious History of Indians in North America.

Problem was, no one else liked the title. Several people I trust told me that Pesky Redskins sounded too flip and, in the end, I had to agree. Native people haven’t been so much pesky as we’ve been . . . inconvenient.

So I changed the title to The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious History of Native People in North America, at which point my partner, Helen Hoy, who teaches English at the University of Guelph, weighed in, cautioning that “history” might be too grand a word for what I was attempting. Benjamin, who is finishing a Ph.D. in History at Stanford, agreed with his mother and pointed out that if I was going to call the book a history, I would be obliged to pay attention to the demands of scholarship and work within an organized and clearly delineated chronology.

Now, it’s not that I think such things as chronologies are a bad idea, but I’m somewhat attached to the Ezra Pound School of History. While not subscribing to his political beliefs, I do agree with Pound that “We do NOT know the past in chronological sequence. It may be convenient to lay it out anesthetized on the table with dates pasted on here and there, but what we know we know by ripples and spirals eddying out from us and from our own time.”

There’s nothing like a good quotation to help a body escape an onerous task. So I tweaked the title one more time, swapped the word “history” for “account,” and settled on The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Mind you, there
is a great deal in The Inconvenient Indian that is history. I’m just not the historian you had in mind. While it might not show immediately, I have a great deal of respect for the discipline of history. I studied history as part of my doctoral work in English and American Studies at the University of Utah. I even worked at the American West Center on that campus when Floyd O’Neil and S. Lyman Tyler ran the show, and, over the years, I’ve met and talked with other historians such as Brian Dippie, Richard White, Patricia Limerick, Jean O’Brien, Vine Deloria, Jr., Francis Paul Prucha, David Edmunds, Olive Dickason, Jace Weaver, Donald Smith, Alvin Josephy, Ken Coates, and Arrel Morgan Gibson, and we’ve had some very stimulating conversations about . . . history. And in consideration of those conversations and the respect that I have for history, I’ve salted my narrative with those things we call facts, even though we should know by now that facts will not save us.

Truth be known, I prefer fiction. I dislike the way facts try to thrust themselves upon me. I’d rather make up my own world. Fictions are less unruly than histories. The beginnings are more engaging, the characters more co-operative, the endings more in line with expectations of morality and justice. This is not to imply that fiction is exciting and that history is boring. Historical narratives can be as enchanting as a Stephen Leacock satire or as terrifying as a Stephen King thriller.

Still, for me at least, writing a novel is buttering warm toast, while writing a history is herding porcupines with your elbows.

As a result, although The Inconvenient Indian is fraught with history, the underlying narrative is a series of conversations and arguments that I’ve been having with myself and others for most of my adult life, and if there is any methodology in my approach to the subject, it draws more on storytelling techniques than historiography. A good historian would have tried to keep biases under control. A good historian would have tried to keep personal anecdotes
in check. A good historian would have provided footnotes.

I have not.

And, while I’m making excuses, I suppose I should also apologize if my views cause anyone undue distress. But I hope we can agree that any discussion of Indians in North America is likely to conjure up a certain amount of rage. And sorrow. Along with moments of irony and humour.

When I was a kid, Indians were Indians. Sometimes Indians were Mohawks or Cherokees or Crees or Blackfoot or Tlingits or Seminoles. But mostly they were Indians. Columbus gets blamed for the term, but he wasn’t being malicious. He was looking for India and thought he had found it. He was mistaken, of course, and as time went on, various folks and institutions tried to make the matter right. Indians became Amerindians and Aboriginals and Indigenous People and American Indians. Lately, Indians have become First Nations in Canada and Native Americans in the United States, but the fact of the matter is that there has never
been a good collective noun because there never was a collective to begin with.

I’m not going to try to argue for a single word. I don’t see that one term is much better or worse than another. “First Nations” is the current term of choice in Canada, while “Native Americans” is the fashionable preference in the United States. I’m fond of both of these terms, but, for all its faults and problems—especially in Canada—“Indian,” as a general designation, remains for me, at least, the North American default.

Since I’m on the subject of terminology and names, I should mention the Métis. The Métis are one of Canada’s three official Aboriginal groups, Indians (First Nations) and the Inuit being the other two. The Métis are mixed-bloods, Indian and English, Indian and French, for the most part. They don’t have Status under the Indian Act, but they do have designated settlements and homelands in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Many of these communities maintain a separate culture from their White and First Nations neighbours, as well as a separate language—Michif—which features components of French and Aboriginal languages.

Terminology is always a rascal. I’ve tried to use “reservations” for Native communities in the United States and “reserves” for Native communities in Canada, and “tribes” for Native groups in the United States and “bands” for Native groups in Canada. But in a number of instances, when I’m talking about both sides of the border, I might use “reservation” or “reserve” and “band” or “tribe” or “Nation,” depending on rhythm and syntax. I actually prefer “Nation” or a specific band or tribal name, and I try to use this whenever possible.

And Whites. Well, I struggled with this one. A Japanese friend of mine likes to call Anglos “crazy Caucasoids,” while another friend told me that if I was going to use the term “Indians” I should call everyone else “cowboys.” Both of these possibilities are fun, but there are limits to satire. Besides, “Whites” is a perfectly serviceable term. Native people have been using it for years, sometimes as a description and sometimes as something else. Let’s agree that within the confines of this book the term is neutral and refers to a general group of people as diverse and indefinable as “Indians.”

There is an error in the text of the book that I have not corrected. “The Bureau of Indian Affairs” is the correct designation for the U.S. agency that is charged with looking after matters pertaining to Indians in that country, but for Canada, I have continued to use the “Department of Indian Affairs” even though the ministry is now called “Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.” I simply like the older name and find it less disingenuous.

In the end, I’m not so much concerned with designing a strict vocabulary as I am with crafting a coherent and readable narrative.

One of the difficulties with trying to contain any account of Indians in North America in a volume as modest as this is that it can’t be done. Perhaps I should have called the book The  Inconvenient Indian: An Incomplete Account of Indians in North America. For whatever
I’ve included in this book, I’ve left a great deal more out. I don’t talk about European explorers and their early relationships with  Native people. I haven’t written much about the Métis in Canada and, with the exception of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, I don’t deal with the Inuit at all. I touch on early settlement and conflicts, but only in passing. I spend a great deal of time on Native people and film, because film, in all its forms, has been the only
place where most North Americans have seen Indians. I talk about some of the resistance organizations and the moments that marked them, but I don’t spend any time on Anna Mae Aquash’s murder or on the travesty of Leonard Peltier’s trial and imprisonment.

Nor do I talk about Native women such as Brenda Wolfe, Georgina Papin, and Mona Wilson, women whom Robert “Willie” Pickton murdered at his pig farm in British Columbia, or the Native women who have gone missing in Vancouver and along the highway between Prince Rupert and Prince George. Nor do I bring up the murder of Ditidaht First Nation carver
John T. Williams, who, in 2010, was gunned down in Seattle by a trigger-happy cop.

While I spend time in the distant and the immediate past, I’ve also pushed the narrative into the present in order to consider contemporary people and events. This probably isn’t the best idea. The present tends to be too fresh and fluid to hold with any surety. Still, as I argue in the book, when we look at Native–non-Native relations, there is no great difference between the past and the present. While we have dispensed with guns and bugles, and while North America’s sense of its own superiority is better hidden, its disdain muted, twenty-first-century attitudes towards Native people are remarkably similar to those of the previous centuries. Finally, no doubt, someone will wonder why I decided to take on both Canada and the United States at the same time, when choosing one or the other would have made for a less involved and more focused conversation. The answer to this is somewhat complicated by perspective. While the line that divides the two countries is a political reality, and while the border affects bandsand tribes in a variety of ways, I would have found it impossible
to talk about the one without talking about the other.

For most Aboriginal people, that line doesn’t exist. It’s a figment of someone else’s  imagination. Historical figures such as Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull and Louis Riel moved back and forth between the two countries, and while they understood the importance of that border to Whites, there is nothing to indicate that they believed in its legitimacy.

I get stopped every time I try to cross that border, but stories go wherever they please.

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Why it's on the list ...
"[King is] a master of the lethal one-liner. On the supposed need for Indians to compromise on their right to run casinos: “Compromise is a fine word. So much more generous than blackmail.” On the romance of non-natives dressing up in aboriginal costume and taking part in powwows: “The Dead Indian is what North America wants to be.” On the desire of those who ran the residential schools to stamp out traditional beliefs: “Why give children choices when it would only confuse them?” King wants to make his readers smile even as they wince .... Make no mistake, this is a polemical book. “What do Whites want?” he asks toward the end. “I’m not being sarcastic. Native history in North America as writ has never really been about Native people. It’s been about Whites and their needs and desires. What Native peoples wanted has never been a vital concern.”
—Mark Abley, in a special to the Montreal Gazette
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The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

edition:Paperback
tagged : gay studies
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
"Bear Bergman is an endearing, gallant, sexy fellow, the queer world's daddy, brother, and son. In Nearest Exit, he's writing it all down for us, today's transgender experience. This is a landmark book for both queer theory and literature, written by an accomplished teller of tales. It's a book that will be cherished by generations of queer youth and adults alike. My heart overflows the brim with love and pride when I read his words.
—Kate Bornstein, author of Hello, Cruel World
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Skim

Skim

by Mariko Tamaki
illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
"Mariko Tamaki’s prose captures an authentic adolescent voice that’s dramatic, self-obsessed, funny, earnest, and sometimes glib. Using teenage vernacular, Skim’s voice ranges from adolescent rage (“I’m a freak”) to inner sensitivity (“I had a dream/ I put my hands/ inside my chest/ and held my heart/ to try to keep it still”). Skim is an unforgettable character in the tradition of Holden Caulfield – a clear social commentator on adult and adolescent behaviour whose ironic observations on social hypocrisy ring sharp and true."
—Judith Saltman, writing for Quill & Quire
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