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Chester Brown, cartoonist

Chester Brown was born in 1960 in Montreal and grew up in the nearby suburb of Chateauguay. Toronto is where he has lived for most of the years since 1979. He is probably best known for his comic book series Yummy Fur (1983 - 1994) and for his graphic novels Louis Riel (2003) and Paying for It (2011). A small selection of some of the drawings from Louis Riel is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

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Arthur, Robert.
This book examines our society's taboos and questions their validity. While it does deal with some more minor taboos (like eating snot), it mostly focuses on sex and drugs. As someone who frequently pays for sex, I didn't find that section very shocking, although I thought Arthur did a great job of demonstrating how stupid our attitudes are about prostitution. What I found surprising was my reaction to the chapters on drugs. I ingested my fair share of "recreational" drugs when I was younger, and I believe that drug use should be decriminalized, so I thought I had a pretty liberal attitude on the subject. It was only while reading this book that I realized that, despite my liberal attitude, I was judgmental about people who use illegal drugs. I thought that they have a problem and that it would be good if they stop using drugs. Arthur challenged that position and got me thinking about the topic in a different way.
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Bagge, Peter author, artist.
When Margaret Sanger was born, the authorities were doing their best to keep birth control techniques out of the hands of women. Sanger worked to ensure that people could have sex without worrying about unwanted pregnancies. Like a lot of people, I had heard about Margaret Sanger's connection to the eugenics movement of the early 20th century and, as a result, I had dismissed her as an important figure in our history. Bagge wanted to rescue her tattered reputation and show how this activist changed our world for the better. The engaging narrative charges through Sanger's fascinating life at sonic speed. This is a graphic novel and, as a cartoonist, I have to say that I have enormous respect for Bagge's storytelling technique. He knows how to engage and hold a reader's attention.
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Magnanti, Brooke Leigh, author.
Modern attitudes toward sex will look as backward to future generations as those of Margaret Sanger's time seem to us. Magnanti's goal is to show how ridiculous many of our beliefs about the subject are. She knows what she's talking about; she used to work as a prostitute and now she's a scientist. (She has a Ph.D in genetic epidemiology.) Each chapter presents a different popular misconception about sex and then debunks it. I particularly appreciated the chapters on sex addiction and sex trafficking. Magnanti contends that "[c]alling compulsive sex an addiction blames bad choices on a disease" and that "trafficking is very rare in" the US and Britain. (Her conclusion applies to Canada, too.)
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Alexander, Eben.
This is one of those accounts of a near-death experience in which the person who comes close to dying has encounters with angelic beings in a heavenly setting. Such accounts are often dismissed by claiming that the person who had the experience was hallucinating. Alexander was in a hospital and his brain was being monitored during his near-death experience. Because he's a neurosurgeon who understands the information that the monitoring devices produced, he believes he's able to prove that his heavenly encounters couldn't have been a hallucination.
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Demick, Barbara.
It's virtually impossible for a journalist to get into North Korea and report on what life is like in that dictatorship, so Demick did the next best thing and interviewed North Koreans who had escaped from the country. I'm not sure which would be worse, the widespread hunger and poverty or the way that living in a totalitarian state makes it difficult to trust anyone. Demick focuses on the individual stories of the people she interviewed, accounts of hardship, escape and having to adapt to living in freedom, which isn't necessarily easy when you haven't experienced it before.
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Ryan, Christopher, 1962-
Read this book to be disabused of the idea that monogamy is "natural".
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Evans, M. Stanton (Medford Stanton), 1934-
Joe McCarthy is now seen as one of the great villains of US history. Over the years, as I realized more and more how nonsensical communism is and how horrible Stalin was, I came to wonder why McCarthy was supposedly so bad. According to Evans, McCarthy wasn't bad, he just told the truth. There were communist agents in the US government who were reporting to Stalin. There were also people in the government who had a stake in covering up their incompetence in hiring the communists, so McCarthy was crushed and vilified.
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Nathan, Debbie.
I was going to write that this is not a story that psychiatry can be proud of, but then I remembered that psychiatry has almost nothing to be proud of. It's a pseudo-science and this story of a psychiatrist who abused her power over a vulnerable patient is typical for the profession. Dr. Cornelia Wilbur convinced one of her female patients to falsely claim that she had multiple personalities. A supposedly nonfiction book about the case, with the title Sybil, was published in 1973, became a bestseller, and, as a result, it became popular for a while for psychiatrists to diagnose their patients as having Multiple Personality Disorder. The truth is, the woman who became known as Sybil was doing reasonably well in life until she let herself be treated by Dr. Wilbur. "Sybil" became reliant on the psychiatrist and never regained her independence.
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Dully, Howard, 1948-
Here's another story from psychiatry's disgusting history. Howard Dully was a boy who had been having some minor behavioural problems that are typical in childhood, like shoplifting. In 1960, when he was twelve years old, he was lobotomized. The irresponsible quack who performed the procedure was widely respected by his fellow psychiatrists. It's stunning what the profession gets away with. Dully recounts the negative effect this had on him even many years later and how he was able to get his life together despite the damage his brain suffered.
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Ruden, Sarah.
These days, the Biblical letter writer is often accused of being a homophobe and a misogynist and of having supported slavery. Ruden argues that Paul has been misunderstood. She further asserts that Paul was not interested in setting up a bunch of prohibitions. For the most part she does a great job of elucidating that his real message was one of love, not "thou shalt not", but I thought the weakest chapter was the one on homosexuality. Fortunately I found the next book on my list shortly after reading Ruden's
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Jennings, Theodore W., author.
Jennings shows that Paul's supposed pronouncements against sexual activity between people of the same gender are actually examples of mistranslation and misinterpretation. According to Jennings (and I think he's right) Paul neither condemns nor praises activities that we would now classify as homosexual or lesbian. The book attempts to demonstrate that homophobia developed, not out of Paul's writings, but (counterintuitively) out of Plato's, specifically out of his dialogue on Laws, which isn't well known in the modern world.
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Eisenbaum, Pamela Michelle.
Yes, another book about Paul; I've been quite interested in him for the last several years. While it's common these days to try to understand Jesus within the context of the Judaism of his time, it's also common to see Paul as someone who deviated from his Jewish upbringing, or to suspect that his claim that he was a Jew was untrue. (Barrie Wilson's How Jesus Became Christian would be an example of a book written from this perspective.) Eisenbaum argues that Paul was a Jew and never stopped being one. She thinks he was trying to set up Jewish colonies in non-Jewish territories.
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Boyarin, Daniel.
This book is similar to the previous one, but extends the argument to the four New Testament Gospels (which, of course, were written after Paul's letters). Boyarin thinks the Gospels are Jewish texts. He points out that, via the Jewish book Daniel, the idea of a semi-divine human figure was already part of Judaism before the birth of Jesus. "The reason that many Jews came to believe that Jesus was divine was because they were already expecting that the Messiah/Christ would be a god-man. This expectation was part and parcel of Jewish tradition." Boyarin makes a good case that runs counter to recent books that claim that Paul and the Gospel writers had pagan influences.
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Marion, Jim, 1945-
Marion decided at an early age to devote himself to living as a Christian mystic. He relates some of his autobiographical experiences and compares them with those of other mystics, usually Christian, although he also refers to other spiritual traditions. The book mostly consists of descriptions of the different levels of spiritual development. Although I was born a Christian, I've become more uncomfortable with defining myself as one since my religious beliefs are so different from those of other Christians, most of whom seem to think that the religion is about policing the behaviour and beliefs of others. Marion emphasizes the role of love in Christianity. I can't resist quoting a short passage that gives a sense of his unusual approach: "On occasion my adventures took me into what many people might call the 'sexual underworld,' a place of unconventional sexuality, drug-dealing, prostitution, heavy alcohol use, and other socially condemned practices. But I learned much in that world. I was given to see [...] that what Jesus said about many prostitutes and sinners entering the Kingdom of Heaven before the righteous is as true today as it was when Jesus spoke[. ... T]he path of these unconventional, marginalized people [...] can be, and often is, a much faster path to the Kingdom than the safe, lukewarm, socially approved, avoid-all-risk-factors path many Christians follow."
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Katie, Byron.
While I'm only putting this one title by Katie on the list, I recommend all of her books. They all say the same thing, but sometimes you need to hear something more than once to really understand it, or at least I do. Katie contends that all of our problems stem from our thoughts, and she's developed a simple, quick technique to short-circuit negative thinking. An acquaintance of mine who works in the "mental health" field pointed out to me that it's basically a simplified version of cognitive therapy, but it also resembles eastern philosophies including Taoism. (A connection Katie makes explicit in her book A Thousand Names for Joy, in which she interprets Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching.) Actually, what Katie's belief system most resembles is the one that the fictional philosopher Pangloss espouses in Voltaire's famous novel Candide. But, while Voltaire set out to ridicule Pangloss and his notion that "this is the best of all possible worlds", Katie convinced me that Voltaire was wrong and Pangloss was right. I don't hesitate to say that I think Byron Katie is the wisest person on the planet.
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Nehring, Cristina.
Those of you who read my memoir Paying for It and noticed all of the negative things I wrote about romantic love might be surprised to see this title on my list, but this is the best book about romantic love that I've read since I encountered Denis de Rougemont's Love in the Western World. Nehring deals with Rougemont's famous work respectfully but critically, and she makes some solid points. I also particularly liked the chapter about power imbalances in love. Here's a quote from that chapter: "There is an intrinsic suspense and ceremony in power-imbalanced relationships that - if not the same as the suspense and ceremony of romance - are easily confounded with them, and notoriously conducive to them. Much as there is no tennis without a net, there is no courtship without a barrier - and what more immediate barrier than a conspicuous difference in class or experience, age or employment?" She outright states that, when it comes to romance, equality is boring.
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