Ah, yes, it’s that time of year again, where the holidays bunch up like they’ve put off celebrating til the last minute and suddenly it’s time to give All The Gifts. Of course, this being 2020, and many of us being in America where the ostensible leader can’t see reality past his artificially inflated ego, this is a complicated holiday season. Many of us will be socially distancing still. Viruses don’t take holidays, even when we wish they would.
Thanks to eCommerce, though, we can still give our loved ones some nice little gifts if we don’t want to skip that part, many of which will help while away a long pandemic winter. Let’s explore!
You know how sometimes you’re kinda sad when finishing a book, because despite having approximately 4,568,892,626,942 other books you need to read, none of them will be quite like this book? Yeah, I felt that way about Raoul McLaughlin’s The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy and the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia and Han China. There are few books that manage to straddle the line between interesting enough to keep me plugging through to the end, but soporific enough to be a reliable insomnia cure. This book struck that exact balance.
Why shouldn’t women be singing “A pirate’s life for me!” right alongside the men? Laura Sook Duncombe’s exquisite Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled The Seven Seas certainly proves that women have always had the skill and determination to sail and plunder. Many answered the siren call of the sea. Men have tried to write them out of history, but good evidence for pirate women exists, and Laura found plenty of it.
Pirates are for many of us, an inherently fascinating subject. Tales of famous pirates both historical and fictional abound. We dress like them for Halloween, talk like them on one special September day, and flock to movies about them. But outside of a few notable exceptions, most of those pirates we encounter in song, story, and screen are dudes. So many dudes.
Laura uncovers a world full of lady pirates from around the world.
I’ve been a Dame Agatha Christie fan for very many decades now. She wasn’t my fave when I was young – I was a misogynistic jackass and thought she was a pale imitation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve realized that she’s the better writer. I guess I’ll have to do an entire post on that eventually. But for now, just know I respect her story craft immensely.
And after reading A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup, I respect her a hell of a lot more.
This is a very necessary book for any Christie fan. It’s super neat getting to know her killers’ poisons better, especially the rare ones that are featured in this wonderful book. Kathryn does a marvelous job explaining such uncommon death-dealers as eserine, monkshood, nicotine, and veronal. There are even chemical structure diagrams as the section break symbols. If you’re a geek or a nerd, this book will make your heart grow three sizes.
Kathryn begins by singing Christie’s praises for knowing her poisons. She describes Christie’s work as a nurse during WWI, when she worked in a hospital dispensary. She was a natural, and keen-eyed, and saved a patient from getting an overdose when she spotted a grave mistake made by the man who was training her. (That dude later got memorialized as the pharmacist in Christie’s The Pale Horse. Having read this book recently, I can assure you that was a dubious honor indeed.)
Learning that she was actually a trained apothecary, and drew directly on her medical knowledge for her books, shot my respect for her through the stratosphere. And it makes The Mysterious Affair at Styles pop with elements that were taken from her direct experience. This chapter is wonderful for those of us who love her works, but haven’t learned much about her life.
The rest of the book is divided into chapters that are each devoted to a particular poison, and the Christie novel(s) they appear in. Spoilers abound, so if you haven’t read all of Christie’s books, and don’t want to know details, you’ll need to skim in places. Kathryn does warn when major plot elements are being discussed.
Each chapter gives a history of the poison in question, talks about how it affects the human body, and discusses the biochemistry behind its effects. We also learn how Christie’s characters used it, what details she got right, and what she got wrong and/or took some dramatic license with. Kathryn also talks about real-life criminal cases that may have inspired Christie’s stories. There is so much good stuff packed into a not particularly large book!
The appendices are one of my favorite parts. Appendix 1 gives a table that shows cause of death for all of Christie’s novels and short stories, in order of publication, and listed by both UK and US titles. This has simplified my quest to complete my collection by 1000%. The second appendix gives the chemical structures of the poisons. And if you want further reading, there’s a very nice bibliography.
This is one of the books I enjoyed most this year, and I finished it hoping Kathryn has enough material for a Part II. If you love Christie, chemistry, and/or crime, treat yourself to this book. You deserve it!
P.S. The Kindle version of The Pale Horse is free to borrow for Prime members right now. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re going to love it.
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Thank you so much for your support!
We’re reading Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy. Today, we’re covering the rest of Part I: Who is this work for?, What you will need to do this work, How to use this book, and Self-care, support, and sustainability.
There’s a lot to unpack before we even get to the work! But we’re almost there.
Layla gives a shout-out to trans and non-binary folks in her “Who is this work for?” section. In addition to white people of all genders, she also points out that the work is for white-passing people. But while people who can “pass” as white do derive some (conditional) benefits from white supremacy, and therefore need to work to dismantle it, things are more complicated.
It is also important to know that this work will bring up some challenging feelings around your internalized oppression against yourself and your marginalized identities and about how you have also been oppressed by a system that only benefits you to the extent that you are able to present or pass as white and be anti-Black.
Do not use this work as a stick to beat yourself with, but rather use it to interrogate your complicity within a system of privilege that is only designed to benefit you to the extent that you can conform to the rules of whiteness.
So if you’re a part of that group, definitely get all of your self care plans prepped and ready.
Layla says we’ll need three things for this anti-racism work: our truth, our love, and our commitment. She says something critically important under truth I think that we all need to pause and take fully on board:
I cannot emphasize this enough: This work is not an intellectual exercise or a mental thought experiment. When we talk about racism, we are talking about people’s lives. This is not a personal growth book that is designed to make you feel good about yourself. It is likely that in doing this work consistently, you will find some level of personal healing. However, I want to make it very clear that this is not the purpose of this work. The purpose is the healing and restored dignity of BIPOC.
Let me assure you from personal experience with confronting internalized misogyny and the fact we live in a world that hates women: this isn’t going to feel great. In fact, it’s going to probably suck quite a lot. But it’s necessary. And it gets better, especially when you’re working to change things for the better.
Under love, Layla reminds us that
Pain and shame are neither desirable nor sustainable as long-term strategies for transformational change. It is my hope that love is what initially brought you to this work. It is my conviction that love is what will keep you going.
We’re going to need a lot of love to power through and change the world. Self-flagellation won’t help. We absolutely need to avoid wallowing in shame: not only does render us less effective, it diverts people’s efforts from fixing problems when they feel compelled to comfort us. Tell your shame and pain to pipe down and let love have the driver’s seat.
Add love to a healthy measure of old-fashioned stubborness, and we can do this thing.
How to use this book is a fairly straightforward section, with recommendations like keep a journal and go at your own pace. I just want to highlight what I see as some critical bits.
When answering the prompts, do not generalize about white people broadly. Do not talk about white people as if you are not a white person or as if you do not benefit from white privilege. Remember this book is about your own personal experiences, thoughts, and beliefs, not those of other people.
The temptation will be strong to generalize and push things off onto other people in order to protect our egos. Realizing you’ve engaged in problematic behaviors hurts. We have to do our best to face our own culpability head-on. We can’t change anything much if we refuse to admit we, too, are part of the problem, whether we want to be or not.
And this next bit is equally important:
Keep Asking Questions
As you move through the book answering each prompt to the best of your ability, dig deeper by asking yourself when, how, and why questions. For example: When do I react this way? When do these thoughts or feelings come up for me? How does this specific aspect of white supremacy show up for me? How does thinking or feeling this way benefit me? Why do I feel this way? Why do I believe this? Why do I think this is true? Why do I hold on to these beliefs? Asking when, how, and why will help you to get down into the deeper unconscious layers of your internalized white supremacy, thus taking your work a lot deeper.
Many of us here either work in STEM fields or are science fans. Asking questions, interrogating our assumptions, and not taking superficial answers as final should be easier for us than it is for people who haven’t been trained to investigate.
Just remember, though, that white supremacy is a helluva drug. It’ll make us want to stop at the surface, where things are comfortable. Push past that and keep asking!
Layla finishes Part I with some self care tips. One of the most important tips is to reach out to others doing this work for mutual support. I encourage you to use the comments here if you want to connect with me and others (click here to report any issues). We can also start a Facebook group if you’d like.
Another important reminder:
Feeling the feelings—which are an appropriate human response to racism and oppression—is an important part of the process.
No matter how bad it feels to wake up to the pain, shame, and guilt of your racism, those feelings will never come anywhere close to the pain BIPOC experience as a result of your racism. So instead of getting stuck or overwhelmed, channel those feelings into action and change. Talking to a friend, family member, support group, therapist, or coach will be helpful in supporting you to process what is coming up for you so you can keep moving forward. [Emphasis added]
Just, in talking out your feelings, please don’t dump those on your BIPOC friends, okay? They’ve got enough to handle as targets of white supremacy.
To close Part I, let’s reiterate one of the most important points:
You will have to learn to wean yourself off the addiction to instant gratification and instead develop a consciousness for doing what is right even if nobody ever thanks you for it.
None of us should get cookies for doing the right thing. We need to be very, very careful that we aren’t running to BIPOC and demanding praise and treat every time we do something decent. We’re not dogs. Most of us aren’t children. We shouldn’t need gold star stickers to do what we ought.
The groundwork is laid. Next, we’ll begin the work. Get your tools together, and I’ll see you there!
My earliest bookstore memory is of going to the mall (remember when malls had bookstores? Good times) and leaving with two books. One was the first Garfield collection. The other was Little House in the Big Woods.
Thus began a childhood reading the Little House series til the paperbacks disintegrated. I’d read them through probably at least twice a year. My poor patient field spaniel became my baby, stuffed into the wheelbarrow I’d converted into a covered wagon, as we lived the pioneer life every summer. Every few days, we’d pack our belongings into the wagon and migrate to a new homestead in the yard, following the lead of the Ingalls family. I swept my dirt floors clean with handmade brooms, and made a mattress stuffed with dried grass. I longed for real maple sugar candy and Indian beads. I wanted to make hay in the sunshine. I fully identified with that dark-haired, headstrong little pioneer girl.
Still do, actually.
Eventually, I outgrew the books. Other series replaced them in my regular rotations. But I still harbor all the warm fuzzy feels, and sometimes I remember my favorite bits and get transported back to those happy times.
So reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder was sort of like watching that grass fire leap Pa and Ma’s hasty fire break and burn the cozy little log cabin to the ground.
Pa, rather than being an enterprising pioneer whose misfortunes were due to circumstances beyond his control, turns out to be a man who had a disastrous knack for making foolish financial decisions. Laura had to get a job as a child because her family couldn’t make homesteading pay. Shit got a lot more real than she ever let on. Domestic violence and attempted murder were things she witnessed all too frequently. Babies died a lot, including her Ma’s, hers, and her daughter’s.
And speaking of daughters: her darling Rose was probably an actual psychopath.
There are always myths involved with fictionalized versions of a life, but the foundational myth of the Little House series, that rugged pioneer folk don’t need no help from the gubmint, proves to be a gigantic lie. Libertarians would probably scream in horror finding out the truth behind the Wilder myth, but I doubt they’ll read this book. And if they do, they’ll probably pretend Caroline is a lying librul shill. Too bad for them she’s got the sources to prove her claims.
So yes, this book kicks childhood nostalgia right in the teeth. But it’s worth it. It’s fascinating learning how the Ingalls really lived. Caroline is so very good at tying together historical events and providing social context. We get a bitter but compelling taste of the real pioneer life, and get to see how pioneers fared as the Old West ended and the 20th Century began. We learn how Laura’s life went after the books ended. We get to gawk at the utter shit show that is Rose Wilder Lane. And there are new, older, wiser fuzzy feels as we survey Laura’s legacy.
If you were even a casual fan of the Little House books, or if you want to see the rugged individual American myth busted, this is a book you need.
You also need Ana Mardoll’s review of it. Trust me. It makes excellent companion reading to this book.
We’re reading Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy. Today, we’re covering Part I: What is white supremacy?
If we’re going to combat a thing, we need to know what that thing is. Layla defines it clearly and simply:
White supremacy is a racist ideology that is based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore, white people should be dominant over other races.
Okay, so we know that’s bullshit, right? But we’re swimming in a society that reinforces that idea. Our classics, our companies, our entertainment, our government all are overwhelmingly white. Conscious and unconscious bias upholds systems and institutions built – and too often maintained – by that erroneous belief.
Layla hopes that by “exploring and unpacking what white supremacy looks like at the personal and individual level,” we’ll be able to change those systems and institutions. If enough of us commit to doing this work, chances are good we’ll at least be able to better help bend them toward justice and equity.
Next, we have to confront this truth:
White supremacy is far from fringe. In white-centered societies and communities, it is the dominant paradigm that forms the foundation from which norms, rules, and laws are created.
None of us are exempt. None of us are exceptions. It’s just like men living in misogynist societies hold some misogynistic ideas and participate in misogynistic institutions no matter how egalitarian they wish to be. The sooner we accept that, the more effective we’ll be at changing it.
She points out that yes, the most overt expressions of white supremacy, like chattel slavery and apartheid, aren’t legal now, but unequal treatment hasn’t stopped. “[W]hite supremacy continues to be the dominant paradigm under which white societies operate.” We can’t flinch away from that truth anymore.
Feminists should be able to understand this pretty easily. Coverture is dead, women can vote, marital rape is now a crime, and discrimination on the basis of sex is officially illegal. But none of us pretend women still don’t face serious problems. We don’t declare sexism dead just because the most glaring overreaches of the patriarchy have been ended. We know there’s a lot of work still to do. It’s the same deal with white supremacy.
White supremacy is a system you have been born into. Whether or not you have known it, it is a system that has granted you unearned privileges, protection, and power. It is also a system that has been designed to keep you asleep and unaware of what having that privilege, protection, and power has meant for people who do not look like you. What you receive for your whiteness comes at a steep cost for those who are not white. This may sicken you and cause you to feel guilt, anger, and frustration. But you cannot change your white skin color to stop receiving these privileges, just like BIPOC cannot change their skin color to stop receiving racism. But what you can do is wake up to what is really going on. I invite you to challenge your complicity in this system and work to dismantle it within yourself and the world.
We can do this. The question is, will we?
We’re reading Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy. Today, we’re covering Part I: Welcome to the Work and A Little about Me.
You’ve decided to make a difference, to not just be “not racist” but actively anti-racist. You’ve got this book. The introduction didn’t scare you off. It’s a good start!
So now we’re getting to the gritty stuff. Fighting racism means recognizing the fact that we ourselves perpetuate racist systems, that we benefit from a social structure built by white supremacists, and it’s up to us to dismantle it. Thankfully, Layla Saad is going to give us some much needed guidance.
She gives us a good, concise introduction to the social conditions we face, and reminds us that the issues with racist people and institutions that we white folk are only now waking up to have been there all along for Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC). And then she says something about the work that bears repeating here:
This work is not about those white people ”out there.”
It is about you. Just you.
I’m putting that in bold, because so many of us resist it. “I’m not part of the problem! I’m part of the solution!” We believe that so strongly that we refuse to see where we’re complicit. We let our hurt feels take over when BIPOC folks try to gently call us out on problem behaviors. We get angry, we deny, we disregard, and we hurt the people we thought we were going to help. Sometimes, we even get so upset we stop doing the work.
We need to do better. We need to own the fact that we, by virtue of being white people born and raised in a civilization designed and built by white supremacists, are part of the problem. We have to work on fixing ourselves right here, not “those white people ‘out there.'”
Still with me? Good. Let’s continue.
This is where those of us who thrive on recognition and like to think the best of ourselves get some really bad news:
This work sounds overwhelming, intimidating, and unrewarding. I won’t lie to you: it is. You will become overwhelmed when you begin to discover the depths of your internalized white supremacy. You will become intimidated when you begin to realize how this work will necessitate seismic change in your life. You will feel unrewarded because there will be nobody rushing to thank you for doing this work. But if you are a person who believes in love, justice, integrity, and equity for all people, then you know that this work is nonnegotiable. If you are a person who wants to become a good ancestor, then you know that this work is some of the most important work that you will be called to do in your lifetime.
Yeah, it really is.
Layla takes a moment to introduce herself. She’s a Black British Muslim woman who has only experienced overt racism a handful of times, but has been subjected to daily microaggressions throughout her life:
And those indirect messages—from being treated slightly differently by schoolteachers, to hardly ever seeing fictional characters or media representations that looked like me, to understanding that I would have to work a lot harder than my white peers to be treated the same, to understanding that my needs were always an afterthought (why could I never find a foundation shade that matched me exactly while my white friends always could?)—painted an indelible picture in my mind. A picture that taught me this: Black girls like me did not matter in a white world. I will spend the rest of my life tearing down this picture and painting a new one that reflects the truth: Black girls matter. Everywhere.
This is the kind of stuff we white folks just don’t notice, because we don’t have to. We aren’t treated as “other” because of our skin. We see people who look like usin media, in STEM, in the halls of power. Makeup, skin and hair products that match our traits are everywhere. Heck, even adhesive bandages are made with us in mind!
Those are things we must train ourselves to notice. They are things we can and must help change.
Layla now lives in the Middle East, and she has a paragraph’s worth of privileges she can claim. But white supremacy still impacts her life. That’s why she does the work to help dismantle those systems, and why she’s showing us how to do our part. She’s our inside guide.
And now, we have a lot of work to do.
I bought Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything on a whim. It was on sale, and I loves me some sneering at snake oil. I figured it would be enjoyable.
Friends. It far surpassed expectations. Lydia and Nate’s style is easy, breezy, and delightfully snarky. They give a wonderful amount of detail: not enough to get bogged down, plenty to really relish the quackery. They do their best to explain why rational people fall for irrational nonsense, and while the medical shysters preying on vulnerable people get no quarter from them, the victims get empathy. It’s so great!