April 2020: Staff Book Picks

Looking for something to read during this time of physical distancing? Scholars Portal staff recommend some of our favourite titles on the Scholars Portal Books platform.

Snacks: a Canadian food history

Cover imageThiessen, Janis
University of Manitoba Press, 2017

Sabina says: “Gather your supply of snacks beforehand, because this book will make you hungry but it’s so interesting you won’t be able to put it down!”

Snacks is a history of Canadian snack foods, the independent producers and workers who make them, and the consumers who can’t put them down. Janis Thiessen profiles several iconic Canadian snack food companies, including Old Dutch Potato Chips, Hawkins Cheezies, and chocolatier Ganong. These companies have developed in distinctive ways, reflecting the unique stories of their founders and their intense connection to specific places. These stories of salty or sweet confections also reveal a history that is at odds with popular notions of ‘junk food.’ Through extensive oral history and archival research, Thiessen uncovers the roots of our deep loyalties to different snack foods, what it means to be an independent snack food producer, and the often-quirky ways snacks have been created and marketed. Clearly written, extensively illustrated, and lavish with detail about some of Canadians’ favorite snacks, this is a lively and entertaining look at food and labour history.


The fixer: visa lottery chronicles

Cover imagePiot, Charles; Batema, Kodjo Nicolas
Duke University Press, 2019

Jacqueline says: “This was absolutely fascinating. A reminder of how much I don’t know about how the world works.”

In the West African nation of Togo, applying for the U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery is a national obsession, with hundreds of thousands of Togolese entering each year. From the street frenzy of the lottery sign-up period and the scramble to raise money for the embassy interview, to the gamesmanship of those adding spouses and dependents to their dossiers, the application process is complicated, expensive, and unpredictable. In ‘The Fixer’ Charles Piot follows Kodjo Nicolas Batema, a Togolese visa broker-known as a “fixer”-as he shepherds his clients through the application and interview process. Relaying the experiences of the fixer, his clients, and embassy officials, Piot captures the ever-evolving cat-and-mouse game between the embassy and the hopeful Togolese, as well as the disappointments and successes of lottery winners in the United States. These detailed and compelling stories uniquely illustrate the desire and savviness of migrants as they work to find what they hope will be a better life.


Pursuing giraffe: a 1950s adventure

Cover imageDagg, Anne Innis
Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006

Recommended by Amy

In the 1950s, Anne Innis Dagg was a young zoologist with a lifelong love of giraffe and a dream to study them in Africa. Based on extensive journals and letters home, Pursuing Giraffe vividly chronicles the realization of that dream and the year that she spent studying and documenting giraffe behaviour. Dagg was one of the first zoologists to study wild animals in Africa (before Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey); her memoir captures her youthful enthusiasm for her journey, as well as her naiveté about the complex social and political issues in Africa. Once in the field, she recorded the complexities of giraffe social relationships but also learned about human relationships in the context of apartheid in South Africa and colonialism in Tanganyika (Tanzania) and Kenya. Hospitality and friendship were readily extended to her as a white woman, but she was shocked by the racism of the colonial whites in Africa. Reflecting the twenty-three-year-old author’s response to an “exotic” world far removed from the Toronto where she grew up, the book records her visits to Zanzibar and Victoria Falls and her climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. Pursuing Giraffe is a fascinating account that has much to say about the status of women in the mid-twentieth century.


Compact, contract, covenant: Aboriginal treaty-making in Canada

Cover imageMiller, J. R.
University of Toronto Press, 2009

Bart says: “The title sounds dry, but J.R. Miller is a fantastic writer and it’s such an engaging read into Canadian history.”

One of Canada’s longest unresolved issues is the historical and present-day failure of the country’s governments to recognize treaties made between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown. Compact, Contract, Covenant is renowned historian of Native-newcomer relations J.R. Miller’s exploration and explanation of more than four centuries of treaty-making. The first historical account of treaty-making in Canada, Miller untangles the complicated threads of treaties, pacts, and arrangements with the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Crown, as well as modern treaties to provide a remarkably clear and comprehensive overview of this little-understood and vitally important relationship. Covering everything from pre-contact Aboriginal treaties to contemporary agreements in Nunavut and recent treaties negotiated under the British Columbia Treaty Process, Miller emphasizes both Native and non-Native motivations in negotiating, the impact of treaties on the peoples involved, and the lessons that are relevant to Native-newcomer relations today. Accessible and informative, Compact, Contract, Covenant is a much-needed history of the evolution of treaty-making and will be required reading for decades to come.


The myth of the age of entitlement: millennials, austerity, and hope

Cover imageCairns, James Irvine
University of Toronto Press, 2017

Sabina says: “As a millennial myself, I found this book both #relatable and a vindication of what so many in this generation already know to be true about ‘entitlement’.”

Drawing on interviews, economic data, and popular media, Cairns debunks the popular age of entitlement myth – where Millennials and Generation Y are accused of expecting good grades, top jobs, and exciting lifestyles without having to pay their dues. Instead, Cairns suggests that rather than being overly entitled, millennials are being dis-entitled on multiple fronts. Precarious employment, student debt, and global ecological disaster mark their present and future. The age of entitlement ignores this reality, but more importantly it undercuts the possibility that young people should be entitled to something better. It legitimizes austerity politics, demanding that people settle for less. The book explains that forms of “democratic entitlement” have driven struggles for social justice throughout history. In contrast to dominant depictions of Generation Y, the case studies show youth-led justice movements struggling for better jobs, more democratic education, and ecological sustainability. It concludes that forces of “oppressive entitlement” that dominate much of society today will be diminished only through the expansion of new democratic entitlements.


CanLit across media: unarchiving the literary event

Cover imageMcLeod, Katherine; Camlot, Jason
McGill Queen’s University Press, 2019

Recommended by Jacqueline

The materials we turn to for the construction of our literary pasts–the texts, performances, and discussions selected for storage and cataloguing in archives–shape what we know and teach about literature today. The ways in which archival materials have been structured into forms of preservation, in turn, impact their transference and transformation into new forms of presentation and re-presentation. Exploring the production of culture through and outside of the archives that preserve and produce CanLit as an entity, CanLit Across Media asserts that CanLit arises from acts of archival, critical, and creative analysis. Each chapter investigates, challenges, and provokes this premise by examining methods of “unarchiving” Canadian and Indigenous literary texts and events from the 1950s to the present. Engaging with a remediated archive, or “unarchiving,” allows the authors and editors to uncover how the materials that document past acts of literary production are transformed into new forms and experiences in the present. The chapters consider literature and literary events that occurred before live audiences or were broadcast, and which are now recorded in print publications and documents, drawings, photographs, flat disc records, magnetic tape, film, videotape, and digitized files. Showcasing the range of methods and theories researchers use to engage with these materials, CanLit Across Media reanimates archives of cultural meaning and literary performance.


Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World

Cover imageBroussard, Meredith
MIT Press, 2018

Recommended by Amy

In Artificial Unintelligence, Meredith Broussard argues that our collective enthusiasm for applying computer technology to every aspect of life has resulted in a tremendous amount of poorly designed systems. We are so eager to do everything digitally—hiring, driving, paying bills, even choosing romantic partners—that we have stopped demanding that our technology actually work. Broussard, a software developer and journalist, reminds us that there are fundamental limits to what we can (and should) do with technology. With this book, she offers a guide to understanding the inner workings and outer limits of technology—and issues a warning that we should never assume that computers always get things right. Making a case against technochauvinism—the belief that technology is always the solution—Broussard argues that it’s just not true that social problems would inevitably retreat before a digitally enabled Utopia. To prove her point, she undertakes a series of adventures in computer programming. She goes for an alarming ride in a driverless car, concluding “the cyborg future is not coming any time soon”; uses artificial intelligence to investigate why students can’t pass standardized tests; deploys machine learning to predict which passengers survived the Titanic disaster; and attempts to repair the U.S. campaign finance system by building AI software. If we understand the limits of what we can do with technology, Broussard tells us, we can make better choices about what we should do with it to make the world better for everyone.


Roughing it in the bush, or, Life in Canada

Cover imageMoodie, Susanna; Ballstadt, Carl
Carleton University Press, 1988

Grant says: “Susanna Moodie arrives as an immigrant to Canada in the middle of the deadly cholera epidemic of 1832, and proceeds to try and raise her family in the ‘bush’ near what is now Peterborough. I’ve been enjoying her often grumpy, but frequently funny and touching account of her homesteading experience as a reminder of the ways humans persist through tough times with black humour, frequent kvetching, and failed attempts at baking bread.”

Probably Canada’s best known settlement story, this autobiographical account of frontier conditions in the 1830s is a compelling narrative that emphasizes both the tragedies and the triumphs of a sensible and sensitive woman and her family as they come to terms with their new environment.


L.M. Montgomery and war

Cover imageMcKenzie, Andrea; Ledwell, Jane; McKenzie, Andrea
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017

Sabina says: “If you (like me) loved the Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon series as a kid, this book is a fascinating look at how the First World War shaped L.M. Montgomery’s writing, and how her writing about the First World War shaped Canada’s collective memory of that conflict.”

War marked L.M. Montgomery’s personal life and writing. As an eleven-year-old, she experienced the suspense of waiting months for news about her father, who fought during the North-West Resistance of 1885. During the First World War, she actively led women’s war efforts in her community, while suffering anguish at the horrors taking place overseas. Through her novels, Montgomery engages directly with the global conflicts of her time, from the North-West Resistance to the Second World War. Given the influence of her wartime writing on Canada’s cultural memories, L.M. Montgomery and War restores Montgomery to her rightful place as a major war writer. Reassessing Montgomery’s position in the canon of war literature, contributors to this volume explore three central themes in their essays: her writing in the context of contemporaneous Canadian novelists, artists, and poets; questions about her conceptions of gender identity, war work, and nationalism across enemy lines; and the themes of hurt and healing in her interwar works. Drawing on new perspectives from war studies, literary studies, historical studies, gender studies, and visual art, L.M. Montgomery and War explores new ways to consider the iconic Canadian writer and her work.


Cloud ethics:algorithms and the attributes of ourselves and others

Cover imageAmoore, Louise
Duke University Press, 2020

Jacqueline says: “Big data, big questions! Truly a book for our times.”

In Cloud Ethics Louise Amoore examines how machine learning algorithms are transforming the ethics and politics of contemporary society. Conceptualizing algorithms as ethicopolitical entities that are entangled with the data attributes of people, Amoore outlines how algorithms give incomplete accounts of themselves, learn through relationships with human practices, and exist in the world in ways that exceed their source code. In these ways, algorithms and their relations to people cannot be understood by simply examining their code, nor can ethics be encoded into algorithms. Instead, Amoore locates the ethical responsibility of algorithms in the conditions of partiality and opacity that haunt both human and algorithmic decisions. To this end, she proposes what she calls cloud ethics–an approach to holding algorithms accountable by engaging with the social and technical conditions under which they emerge and operate.


The Mathematics of Secrets:Cryptography from Caesar Ciphers to Digital Encryption

Cover imageHolden, Joshua
Princeton University Press, 2017

Recommended by Guinsly

The Mathematics of Secrets takes readers on a fascinating tour of the mathematics behind cryptography—the science of sending secret messages. Using a wide range of historical anecdotes and real-world examples, Joshua Holden shows how mathematical principles underpin the ways that different codes and ciphers work. He focuses on both code making and code breaking and discusses most of the ancient and modern ciphers that are currently known. He begins by looking at substitution ciphers, and then discusses how to introduce flexibility and additional notation. Holden goes on to explore polyalphabetic substitution ciphers, transposition ciphers, connections between ciphers and computer encryption, stream ciphers, public-key ciphers, and ciphers involving exponentiation. He concludes by looking at the future of ciphers and where cryptography might be headed. The Mathematics of Secrets reveals the mathematics working stealthily in the science of coded messages.