Diversity beyond the prize lists

As I posted a few months back, I’m trying to improve author diversity in my reading lists. I’ve done pretty well as far as “worthy” books – the ones people review in prestigious publications or recommend to their book clubs – but one thing holding me back is in what I call my “in between” books.

Between all the great, worthy, moving, incredible reads, I like to read something lighter and fluffier. For example, last year before I read 14 Jim Butcher novels. Early this year I read 12 Suzanne Brockmann thriller/romance novels (which I would recommend if you like that kind of book – she’s very good). Nora Roberts, Linda Jackson, Karen Robard, Lee Childs – they’re fun, let me switch off for a bit and just enjoy a crazy adventure. But all those authors are white American. It’s been pretty easy to find amazing books by authors from all over the world and all walks of life, but if I really want to improve my overall diversity, I need to find equivalents for the books I read in two hours then hunt desperately at the library for the sequels.

Enter Beverly Jenkins. I just finished Edge of Dawn, about a woman whose father has been killed in a house fire. On her way home from burying him, she gets drawn into a terrifying international plot surrounding a diamond entrusted to her father before she was even born. Can she outwit, outlast and outplay the bad guys, while still finding time to fall in love, make witty quips, fire a rocket launcher from a car and meet long lost relatives who shoot first and ask questions later? Of course she can – that’s what kind of book this is 🙂

I’ll definitely pick up more by Jenkins – and check out some of the other recommendations I found under “If you like Barbara Jenkins you’ll love…” lists. Her characters are really fun, with the kind of details and personality tics that draw me to Nora Roberts, and at 350 pages it’s the perfect length for a palate cleanser between Worthy Books.

If anyone has other recommendations in this vein let me know in the comments. I’ve found lots of lists out of the US of things like “African American Romance Writers” or “Asian American Mystery Writers” but haven’t had as much luck finding things from outside the US. That might be because of how the market works, but I’d be interested in hearing recommendations from Canada, the UK etc. Or, if they’re available in translation, anywhere in the world. Next week I’m going to start hunting for the home-grown mystery novels being written in Nigeria and Japan and India (etc.).

Year to date:
Read 48 books
32 by women (66%)
12 by people of colour (25%)


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Moving beyond dead white men

This week Toronto councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong suggested Union Station should be renamed John A. Macdonald Station after Canada’s first prime minister. There has been some moderate debate around the proposal, but no real controversy because it’s basically the most boring suggestion ever. If you were going to ask a Canadian to name a national historic figure John A. Macdonald would definitely be one of the top five answers.

Macdonald has an airport, a bridge, a couple buildings and quite a few schools named after him already, not to mention probably dozens of statues scattered across the country. Oh, and he’s on the ten dollar bill. As far as honouring the first prime minister, I think we’re set. In fact, the only woman on any Canadian money is the Queen of England – all the rest are dead white men.

It stands out to me especially coming from New Zealand, where the people on our notes include Edmund Hillary (first to climb Mt Everest), Apirana Ngata (one of the first Maori politicians), Kate Sheppard (lead the suffragette movement) and Ernest Rutherford (split the atom) – representing a range of different groups and movements. It seems really strange to me that the people Canada thinks are most important in its history are those that represent the establishment, not those that inspired change or lead movements.

So, here is my suggestion: let’s rename Union Station as Mary Ann Shadd Station (or Shadd-Cary Station maybe). Mary Ann Shadd was a black Canadian-American journalist, activist and lawyer. She ran a newspaper, helped escaped slaves find jobs and homes, and was also later a suffragette. She represents Toronto’s diverse history of welcoming people from anywhere and everywhere, and I can’t think of a better name to put on one of the country’s main transportation hubs.

I’m not an expert. Maybe Shadd isn’t suitable for two dozen reasons. But let’s have that conversation. Who would you name Union Station after? Which Canadians deserve more attention? Do we really think Dead White Men alone made this country what it is? Because that’s the only conclusion I can draw looking around at the names we put on buildings.

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On improving diversity in what I read

For the last two years I’ve been recording every book I read, mostly just for interest sake. However, this afternoon I realised that I had a lot of data at my fingertips about my reading habits, specifically gender and ethnic diversity.

In 2013 I read 171 books. When I marked each entry that was by a woman it totalled 85. Now, this is rough because sometimes if I read four books in a series I write “Protector of the Small x4” so that’s four books by one female author, but other times I have a number of different books by the same author spread out throughout. However, I think it’s safe to say that about half the books I read were by female authors. Yay me! High fives all around! Oh wait… that’s just the good news…

The bad news is that when I tracked authors of colour it’s abysmal. Seriously. Emabrrassingly. Abysmal. The total at the end of my list was 14 – less than 10%. Yikes. What’s more, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and N.K. Jemisin both feature twice, so that’s only 12 authors overall. Interesting: of the 14 books I read, half were non-fiction, a much higher proportion than overall.

The good news is that 2014 is already on a better track. I’ve read 12 books so far – four by non-white authors. So, slightly late 2014 resolution: 20% of the books I read this year will be by people of colour.

I’m really excited about this because it means being more aware of what I’m picking up and what I’m consuming. In some ways it doesn’t matter if I get to 19% or 21%, it’s about paying attention and seeking out great books rather than just accepting the ones that cross my path.

I’ve taken a pretty good first step in signing up to the Kinna Reads Africa Reading Challenge and I’ve already read Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, which was amazing. I’m also going to follow what other people post and aim to read more than just the five of the challenge.

On that note, I would love any suggestions people have for me to add to my list. I’m going through Tumblr rec lists (there are a lot!) but would definitely take some input from anyone with favourites.

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“Don’t you get confused?”

I read a lot, and usually have multiple books on the go at a time, and invariably get asked “Doesn’t that get confusing?” People think I’ll get plots and characters mixed up – which can happen on occasion if books are too similar – but usually the different books vary enough I can easily separate them. For example, at the moment I’m reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami; Open City by Teju Cole; and Canadian History for Dummies, by Will Ferguson. Not easy to mix up plot points.

However the answer to “Don’t you get confused?” is actually “Yes, often, in beautiful ways.” In the past few days I read Rob Delaney’s memoir, and Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih. So when I put down Open City to get in the shower this morning I had a strange moment of not knowing where or who I was. I’m not a Nigerian-American doctor exploring New York City. I’m not a recovering-alcoholic comedian. I’m not a highly educated Sudanese bureaucrat trying to unravel the story of a man’s life. Yet at different points this week I have been all these things.

George R. R. Martin wrote (through one of his characters) that “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies” and I have certainly lived pieces of more than a thousand. Some I remember more clearly than many of my own memories, others faded like past lives that surface only occasionally. They have all informed how I live and experience the world. They have given me a richer internal life, and a breadth of experience that could not possibly be managed in one lifetime.

In a glorious talk defending libraries from the ever-enclosing budget cut, Neil Gaiman said fiction builds empathy. This is also why it’s vital to read as wide a variety of books as possible. Books about people who are as different from us as imaginable. Fantasy worlds that teach us about our own lives, science fiction that informs us about humanity, speculative fiction that pushes current trends to their most extreme conclusions.

We only get one life to live but luckily we have hundreds of thousands of lives to experience thanks to people who share their lives, experiences, imagination and ideas.

On rare occasion someone tells me they’d rather go out and experience life for themselves than read a book. I’m all for “real life” experiences, I wouldn’t trade my travels and life and friendships for more books (well… it might depend on the book and the friend) but it’s not an “either/or” to me.

I have travelled alone through Tanzania, but it is Tayeb Salih (among others) who informed me about what it is to live through and after colonization. I held a Neanderthal stone axe in my hands, but Jean Auel who made me think about what it could have been like to be on evolution’s losing team.

I read because one life isn’t enough and because I want to experience as much as possible. So if you interrupt me reading and I look confused, just give me a minute to figure out where and who I am.

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Another win for the ever-hilarious patriarchy

So apparently Brookfield thinks that we’re all men who like sports and have annoying girlfriends. High five, bro!


I walk past this every single day and it’s unlikely to make me into a raving fan of the company, which has already annoyed me by making me unnecessarily cross the road on my way to work every day for almost a year. It’s indicative of the fact that there is zero respect for pedestrians in this city (a topic for a different post) and now this shows the company has no respect for, well, anyone. All women are harpies who ruin sport-watching experiences, all men are “bros” who just want to watch a game instead of listening to their girlfriends. I’m sure someone somewhere will say this was just an attempt to be funny, but it’s such an overdone trope that it’s not funny. It wasn’t funny when the first male stand-up comic did this in the 1960s. It wasn’t funny when one Roman guy said to his neighbour how he’d love to go to the Colloseum and watch some Christian vs lion action but his wife always ruins it by nattering on about how she really needed a new stola for Claudia’s next dinner party.

Is their entire team made up of 50+ year old straight men? Whoever came up with this for Brookfield needs a kick in the pants.

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January 10, 2014 · 10:31 pm

Rules to using Toronto’s PATH system

As the streets get icier and the wind chill gets chillier Toronto’s series of underground walkways and shopping areas get busier, mostly people getting to work from the subway or their downtown apartment buildings. It’s convenient and warm and just like up above, there is a Starbucks every 200 metres.

However, there are some people who do not understand how PATH works. They treat it like a mall or a gathering place or just their own personal shortcut to work.

1. Do not walk more than two across in a line

This should be a general walking in public rule, but it is even more important underground where the paths are narrow, serve people going both directions and where a subway arriving in one stop can affect people in an entirely different part of the system. You and your three colleagues might have lots to talk about but spreading across the space like a gaggle of teens at the mall actually puts you at serious risk of a Hulk Rage attack from someone stuck behind you.

1a) This should go without saying, but don’t stop suddenly. You will get run into/over or at least sworn at. If you need to stop, look behind you, then look around for an out of the way spot. For example, a corner that is off the direct pathway.

2. Watch where you’re going

This list was inspired by an incident this morning when I almost got run over by a guy who thought he’d do a clever little u-turn into the Tim Hortons line, but didn’t look before executing the move. Unfortunately for both of us I was using the door he intended to duck through and we almost collided. I’ve also been on the running-over end of this scenario by cutting corners too closely (in my head leaving more than 10cm between me and the wall is tantamount to losing the Indy 500 by half a car length). Just try to be aware of where the people around you are and apologize if/when you run someone over.

3. Do hit the wheelchair door buttons

It’s the most coveted door of all. The One Door. The Magic Door.

Every set of doors throughout the path has one door that has a disabled access button to open it automatically. If you’re in an empty space, it’s actually much slower to use the button than it is to just open the heavy door, but during rush hour other people ahead of you hitting the button means these Magic Doors stay open and no one has to lose precious seconds pulling or pushing heavy doors (shut up, they are actually quite heavy, okay! They’re all fire doors or something…) They did you a favour, do the guy behind you a favour and hit the button on your way through. They’re usually on the wall immediately to the right of the door, both before and after the door so you have two opportunities to get it right.

Also, if you see someone with an actual disability coming give way. We’re all in a hurry to get to our destinations, that’s not an excuse to be a jerk.

4. Respect the right of way

Majority rules underground. If you’re fighting against the flow of foot traffic get all the way over to your side (same as the road – walk right) and consider that your “lane”. In the mornings, this is most commonly seen around subway stations. For example, heading west from First Canadian Place to Metro Hall, you’ll be fighting against the flow through to the Sun Life Centre, then it’s a matter of battling through the mayhem in the actual station, and finally you’ll be one of the many salmon swimming the same direction once you get through to the other side towards Roy Thomson Hall. Understanding the patterns makes it easier to navigate your own commute, but it also reduces how much you get in other commuters way.

These are Caitlin’s Cardinal Rules of PATH Use. What are yours?

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Non-fiction recommendations

My 2012 resolution was to read more non-fiction, which I’ve been very successful at. I’ve aimed to read one a month and overal I’ve probably managed to average that. I’ve had a few people ask me for recs so here are the top non-fiction books I’ve read over the past two years.

Game Change (Heilemann/Halperin)

A really interesting look at the 2008 US elections. While I’m not usually that interested in US politics beyond facepalming and feeling sympathy for people who live there, this was well written, well researched and the authors created a narrative that made it a fast-paced and engaging read.

Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick)

The story of six people who escaped North Korea, from their childhoods as true believers, to what motivated them to leave and how they got out – and how they adjusted to a world that had sped rapidly forward as North Korea remained the same. Highly recommended.

The Black Count (Tom Reiss)

One of the top books on this list, and one of the first I recommend to people who usually read fiction because it has a strong narrative and a lot of emotional impact. It follows Alexander Dumas (father to the author) from his birth in what is now Haiti, to becoming a succesfull soldier and eventually general fighting along side Napoleon. A fascinating look at an age that gets a lot of attention but from an angle I wasn’t familiar with.

Sex at Dawn (Jetha/Ryan)

An investigation into the sex lives of early humans. Looking at what we can tell from biology, current hunter-gatherer societies, and close ape relatives, the authors discuss the “Monogamy Myth” and how it’s created unrealistic expectations and unhappy partnerships.

The Etymologicon (Mark Forsyth)

Another top pick from this list, especially for word geeks. Starting, appropriately, with the word “book” Forsyth works his way from word to word, history to history and language to language. My favourite was tautological place names in England, where each new group doesn’t recognize the word from the earlier group so you get places like Torpenhow Hill, which actually means “Hillhillhill Hill” in Brythonic, Norse and English.

Delusions of Gender (Cordelia Fine)

Gender is a social construct. Don’t believe me? Read this book. There are no gender differences that have been consistently measured in circumstances that account for socialized differences. Also, it’s really useful to read this if you ever debate “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” type gender binary believers.

Lost at Sea (Jon Ronson)

This is a really good one if you want something you can pick up and put down in between other reads. All shorter journalism pieces, from The Insane Clown Posse to the too-easy debt that lead to the global economic crisis. Solid reproting, a wide range of topics and lots of different lengths so you can jump around the articles without worrying about reading in order.

Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? (Everly Daniel Tatum)

This was actually recommended elsewhere on Tumblr as a way to better understand privilege and racism. It does focus on the USA, but certainly still offers insights into other countries. Because I’m not from the USA, sometimes the things I see there seem ridiculous and I can’t understand how the country got to such a divided point. This offered a lot of history and insight into the patterns at work and gave me a better understanding and empathy for all the groups involved.

Wild (Cheryl Strayed)

I hesitated over adding this to the list even though it was one of my favourite books of 2013 because it’s a memoir, which I sort of think of as semi-non-fiction. However, it was too good to leave off so I’ll leave it to you guys to decide whether you’ll give it a go. It was a beautifully written, emotional ride about grief, independence and taking risks from the writer behind The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar. It made me cry, then I bought it and mailed it to my mother.

The Plutocrats (Chrystia Freeland)

Soon there won’t be any middle class as the gap between rich and poor gets bigger. Which side of the divde will you be on? Freeland (fun fact, she’s also my MP) looks at teh bigger economics at work, and the trends of the last 10 years, plus looking forward. It’s scary and makes me kinda wish I had a private plane.

Incognito (David Eagleman)

I’m really interested in brain structure and the research is just constantly updating what we know and understand about how our own minds work. This was a fairly comprehensive look at some of the more recent research into what we know about the processes that go into how we react and how our senses trick us.

The Elegant Universe (Brian Greene)

So I’m still reading this but it’s a great introduction to string theory and I’ve found it really interesting. It’s a bit slow to read, partly because it doesn’t have a narrative and partly because it is such a high level topic that I have to read it slowly and occasionally reread to really get it, but it’s definitely worth it. I wouldn’t recommend getting it from the library because I had to renew it twice, so it might be one to buy or borrow from a friend.

The Emperor of the Maladies (Siddhartha Muckerjee)

I picked this up on a recommendation from a friend. and definitely didn’t regret it. A great overview of the history of cancer and the attempts at treating it throughout the ages. It gets pretty dark in some places, but it has a lot of hopeful pieces, and the chapters on where we’re at now and where we’re heading is really encouraging and uplifting. Muckerjee does a great job of balancing history with personal stories and the science side. It was a very engaging read, but again a bit of a slower read, partly for the length and partly because of the heavy subject matter.

Hope that gives everyone some ideas. If you have any other great non-fiction suggestions for me, pass them on, I’m always looking for recommendations.

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January 4, 2014 · 3:53 am