nonfiction

If At Birth You Don’t Succeed: My Adventures With Disaster and Destiny by Zach Anner

People aren’t inspirational simply because they exist in a way that makes other people uncomfortable. Instead, Zach Anner’s story will motivate you because of his positivity, smart and sarcastic sense of humor, endless pursuit of adventure and continuous personal growth in a way that no neurological injury ever could.


SUMMARY

Comedian Zach Anner opens his frank and devilishly funny book, If at Birth You Don’t Succeed, with an admission: he botched his own birth. Two months early, underweight and under-prepared for life, he entered the world with cerebral palsy and an uncertain future. So how did this hairless mole-rat of a boy blossom into a viral internet sensation who’s hosted two travel shows, impressed Oprah, driven the Mars Rover, and inspired a John Mayer song? (It wasn’t Your Body is a Wonderland.)

Zach lives by the mantra: when life gives you wheelchair, make lemonade. Whether recounting a valiant childhood attempt to woo Cindy Crawford, encounters with zealous faith healers, or the time he crapped his pants mere feet from Dr. Phil, Zach shares his fumbles with unflinching honesty and characteristic charm. By his thirtieth birthday, Zach had grown into an adult with a career in entertainment, millions of fans, a loving family, and friends who would literally carry him up mountains.

If at Birth You Don’t Succeed is a hilariously irreverent and heartfelt memoir about finding your passion and your path even when it’s paved with epic misadventure. This is the unlikely but not unlucky story of a man who couldn’t safely open a bag of Skittles, but still became a fitness guru with fans around the world. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll fall in love with the Olive Garden all over again, and learn why cerebral palsy is, definitively, “the sexiest of the palsies.” from Goodreads.

ifatbirthyoudont
Cover of book shows a half cracked empty eggshell and the title.

REVIEW

I’ve been a fan of Zach’s comedy for years but my favorite of his videos is his adventure through New York to try and buy a rainbow bagel. You can see the video here and, honestly, I’ve probably seen it fifty times. It is hilarious. Obviously, it is not humorous that one of America’s largest and “most accessible” cities provides this level of frustration in buying a bagel. But, with Zach’s smart, true, sarcastic and observational comments, each set of stairs and inaccessible elevator provides an opportunity to figure out a solution to an issue even if the only option is to laugh.

So why did I wait so long to read this book then, hmmm? Honestly, it was the blurb from Lena Dunham on the front that made me pause time and again. It reads, “Zach Anner is way more than an inspirational figure….he’s also a great f**king writer.” I never saw Girls but what I have seen of Lena Dunham hasn’t impressed me much. Still, it was the word “inspirational” that had me putting the book back on the shelf every time. I just plain old hate that word when applied to people because, typically, what people mean by inspiring is something like, “their life is terrible because they have a disability / illness / hardship and I couldn’t imagine living like that,” and quite simply, that’s rude.

***Side note: I’m also bothered by the word “brave” when applied to normal, everyday things done by people just because someone things this is a-typical. For example, a forty year old woman taking music lessons isn’t brave. Cool? Yes. Brave? Nope.***

I did finally pull the book off my shelf because I had to believe, based on his comedy alone, that Zach wouldn’t just fill these pages with junk. And he didn’t let me down. In the end, I couldn’t help but admit that Zach Anner’s energy is pretty inspirational. He isn’t so simply because he happens to be a person with cerebral palsy. Instead, it is his ability, which might be natural but definitely requires effort to maintain, of being positive and adventurous. I found the stories of his childhood valuable (and hilarious) because Zach is introspective and constantly seeking to grow as a person. Also, I’ll admit it, I found his wanton disregard for what is “cool” to be the very essence of coolness. And I am seriously re-thinking my disdain for the Olive Garden.

This book, like many memoirs, falls a little short of perfection in the usual ways. The stories and vignettes are a little formulaic but lack a sense of cohesion. Furthermore, I would like to cut and paste all the repetitious mentions and put them into their own chapters. I would have enjoyed the story more if it followed a timeline but, instead, it bounced around with mentions of childhood, teenage angst, and adulthood all mingled into chapters and brought up again if needed. This storytelling works beautifully in live comedy but is more difficult to follow and enjoy in written form.

None of these small imperfections detracted from the story enough to keep me from laughing out loud again and again. His approach to life, his sense of humor, his work ethic, his dedication to his family and friends all made for a wonderful book. Also, did I mention that it is funny? In one section of the book I laughed so hard I choked on my coffee. Inspiration junk aside, couldn’t we all use a little coffee-choking-laughter right now?


Tell me, please!

What innocuous word bothers you?


 

nonfiction

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty

This quick and oddly enjoyable book provides no nonsense, frequently humorous, answers to questions about death. The questions may be posed by children but the answers are definitely mature!


SUMMARY

Every day, funeral director Caitlin Doughty receives dozens of questions about death. What would happen to an astronaut’s body if it were pushed out of a space shuttle? Do people poop when they die? Can Grandma have a Viking funeral?

In Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?, Doughty blends her mortician’s knowledge of the body and the intriguing history behind common misconceptions about corpses to offer factual, hilarious, and candid answers to thirty-five distinctive questions posed by her youngest fans. In her inimitable voice, Doughty details lore and science of what happens to, and inside, our bodies after we die. Why do corpses groan? What causes bodies to turn colors during decomposition? And why do hair and nails appear longer after death? Readers will learn the best soil for mummifying your body, whether you can preserve your best friend’s skull as a keepsake, and what happens when you die on a plane. Beautifully illustrated by Dianné Ruz, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? shows us that death is science and art, and only by asking questions can we begin to embrace it. from Goodreads.


willmycateat


REVIEW

It felt…inappropriate (?) to be reading this book during a pandemic. But Caitlin Doughty, like many funeral directors and morticians, deals with death everyday and so speaks in a comfortable manner-of-fact way. I appreciated that her answers and anecdotes weren’t personalized stories. Instead this book contains plain facts about what happens to a human body after death and why.

This book is a much lighter take on than the excellent, STIFF: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. The lighter feel is appropriate considering Doughty is answering questions posed by children. However, this book does not feel written for children. The worries and curiosities of children may spark the conversation but the science and reality of death is plainly address right down to the microscopic details.

For example: Why do we turn funny colors when we die? The answer begins with the simple explanation of the cardiovascular system but doesn’t stop as it wanders through liver mortis, the effects of the digestive system, and how this kaleidoscope of change can leave clues for forensic experts. The kernel of the issue originates in the pure and unfiltered mind of a child but I wouldn’t feel automatically comfortable handing this book to kid. Especially considering the chapter on why Grandma is wrapped in plastic at her wake.

This did not stop me from enjoying each essay. I’m especially attached to Dr. Lisa, the fake astronaut that dies in space and is used to explain the many ways we may deal with death aboard a spacecraft or a space station. Hands down the answer that will stay with me addresses the question of whether we can give Grandma a Viking Funeral. The funeral pyre features in so many feature films that I just assumed it had a basis in some form of reality. Sadly (and fascinatingly), it doesn’t! Of course, now that I stop and think about all I know regarding the heat required to cremate a body this all make sense but grade school Molly is experiencing some serious shock. So, Darth Vadar’s body on the pyre…would that have even worked?!

There were times that this book absolutely tickled my darkly colored funny bone. There were occasions when the humor felt slightly repetitive but it was consistent and regular. There was no mocking of death, just the strange situations that the human body can find itself in when it arrives there.

It would be negligent of me to not mention the illustrations. The black and white work, done by Dianne Ruz, added perfectly to the tone of the book. Her instagram is found here and would probably be the best place to start when judging whether this book is for you or not.


Tell me, please!

What’s a NonFiction subject you find fascinating?


 

humor · nonfiction · Uncategorized

NonFiction Friday: Quackery by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen

This brief history of the worst ways to cure everything is the ideal nonfiction primer on the many ways humans have attempted to extend and enhance their lives through the years. Written by a practicing medical doctor, Lydia Kang, and historian / librarian, Nate Pedersen, the book reads like a duo of friends explaining to you the  various ways science put the cart before the horse and why we should be grateful to have been born late enough to avoid so many of these treatments.


SYNOPSIS

A tour of medicine’s most outlandish misfires, Quackery dives into 35 “treatments”, exploring their various uses and why they thankfully fell out of favour – some more recently than you might think. Looking back in horror and a dash of dark humour, the book provides readers with an illuminating lesson in how medicine is very much an evolving process of trial and error, and how the doctor doesn’t always know bests. from Book Depository.


quackery

Add to Goodreads


REVIEW

This book is divided into five different divisions. Elements, Plants and Soil, Tools, Animals, and Mysterious Powers. Each divisions covers both the history and the science behind a variety of techniques or thoughts about certain cures. Interspersed with sarcasm and dark humor, this book’s only downside is the inclination to read whole sections out to family and friends and become that person that just won’t shut up about they book they are reading.

Elements was, by far, my favorite section but that is because I am fascinated by poisons right now. In this section the authors comb through the various uses and reasoning behind using mercury, antimony, arsenic, gold, and radium. It turns out that in the past, being extremely pale but also plump was a difficult ideal to meet naturally. Apparently no one ever tried sitting inside during a pandemic and just eating through your food supply. Arsenic gave you all that and a painful death! I’ll take my lockdown and donuts please.

Plants and Soil were almost as fascinating because this section covers opiates, strychnine, tobacco, cocaine, alcohol, and earth. I knew that alcohol was used medicinally. But I had no idea that strychnine was considered an energy booster that was recommended to athletes. The 1904 winner of the Olympic marathon, Thomas Hicks, was given two strychnine doses and finished the race clearly in the throws of strychnine intoxication. Also of note, drinking water was considered unhealthy for athletes during this time.

This was also the section where I became completely annoying. After all, here is where I learned the origin of the term, “blow smoke up your arse.” Anyone over the age of 65 probably had someone blow tobacco smoke in their ear. It was a commonly recommended treatment for earaches. But, British physicians took it to the next level when they recommended a nice tobacco enema for any drowning victim. There was a whole organization dedicated to this cause! Just picture people walking up and down the banks of the Thames with their enema kits ready to pull someone out and save a life! There is no mention in this book on whether it worked (ever) but this is the fact that I just couldn’t stop taking about. Etymology, history, and science are rolled into renegade lifeguards? Yes, please!

After this section the book covers tools, animals, and mysterious powers. I enjoyed each of these sections in turn but the book had already won my heart. Although, the section on corpse medicine shouldn’t be read while eating…

It seems only fitting that, as I was finishing this book, President Trump was loudly touting the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as a promising treatment for COVID. Meanwhile Dr. Fauci, a veteran of outbreaks dating back to the HIV crisis here in America, emphasized a need for methodical clinical testing prior to taking these medicines. I am generally not pleased with our President but I would be more than happy to celebrate his instincts being correct in this situation. However, after reading Quackery, taking a medicine on a hutch smacks of another “worst way” to cure our current crisis.

This book emphasized what I have long held dear – quality testing. I don’t want anecdotal evidence that the King’s touch cures boils. Prove it to me. One of my biggest take aways from the whole book is that it was probably a good thing that so many people couldn’t afford medical treatments for large parts of history. Because, certainly, the radium spa would set you back a pretty penny. And, in a time when blood soaked aprons were the mark of a good doctor and hand washing wasn’t a thing, I don’t know that turning to a professional did anyone much good.


Tell me, please!

If you had to pick, are you more interested in science or history?


 

Audio Book · nonfiction

Nonfiction Friday: Cary Grant, A Class Apart by Graham McCann

Graham McCann’s autobiography of Cary Grant carries the reader through his life from birth to death with intimate looks at every stage. I have loved Cary Grant since the first time I laid eyes on him and this book did nothing to shake that love.


SYNOPSIS

A biography narrating how the English working-class boy Archie Leach transformed himself into the actor Cary Grant and a role model of elegance and class for the socially ambitious around the world. from Amazon.


carygrant


REVIEW

This is, quite possibly, the shortest synopsis I have ever seen for a book. Understandably so, since few people are ignorant of Cary Grant’s existence or his lasting impact on the silver screen. Take, for example, this classic bit.

An interview with a Two Hour Old Baby

Interviewer: Do you know the important people in the world today?

Two Hour Old Baby: Well, some. I don’t know, I’m not sure.

Interviewer: You don’t know what you know?

Two Hour Old Baby: No.

Interviewer: Do you know, for instance, Mickey Mouse?

Two Hour Old Baby: No.

Interviewer: Queen Elizabeth?

Two Hour Old Baby: No.

Interviewer: Winston Churchill?

Two Hour Old Baby: Ah, no,

Interviewer: Fidel Castro?

Two Hour Old Baby? No.

Interviewer: Pandit Nehru?

Two Hour Old Baby: No.

Interviewer: Have you heard of Cary Grant?

Two Hour Old Baby: Oh, sure! Everybody knows Cary Grant!

Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, “The Two Hour Old Baby” from Cary Grant, A Class Apart.

Before reading this book I felt the same as the Two Hour Baby. That I knew Cary Grant. After all, I possessed the knowledge that Cary Grant was born Archie Leach, that he had a strange relationship with his Mother, and that he made an enormous number of movies. I even knew about his solo front top tooth. Look at me – I’m a massive fan! Blah. I knew nothing.

Cary Grant was indeed born Archie Leach. But, he didn’t change his name until he was 27. That is a longtime to inhabit one name only to become intertwined with another. Which makes it all the more understandable that Grant frequently referred to Archie in real life and in movies.

A “strange relationship with his Mother”? That is the understatement of the year for me! Grant’s Mother was committed to an asylum when he was a child. She was home one day and gone the next. Grant was told she was going to a resort to rest and, at one point, he was told that she had died. Really, his father just wanted her out of the way so he could start a new life with his current mistress. Only after his Father’s death did the payments to the asylum stop and Grant found out his Mother was still alive. She disappeared when he was 11 and he discovered her again at 30.

Furthermore, I think I have seen 15-20 of Grant’s films. That isn’t even half of the SEVENTY-TWO films he made in his lifetime. I was just blown away by the sheer number of films. I am nearly as impressed by the number as I am by the fact that when Grant declared himself retired he actually retired.

This book is full of such interesting tidbits and information that the hours listening to it passed too quickly. The more I learned about Grant the more I realized I actually understood the most important thing: the magic of Cary Grant. Cary Grant was, and will probably remain forever, the master of making everyone feel that they knew and liked him through his movies. Whether a movie did well or not, Grant remained unscathed. It just took a moment, a small tug at the corner of his mouth, or the twinkle in his eye, to hook you. And once he did, it was forever.

Considering this magical quality, it would be difficult to write about someone like Cary Grant and not fall in love with him. McCann might be accused of this, but who wouldn’t be? Still, the biography feels balanced and fact-based in contrast to some that have been published before and have relied heavily on gossip and conjecture. In the end, I became just a little more infatuated with the actor. Which, if I were being honest, I didn’t think was possible.


Tell me, please!

Have you ever been a fan of someone’s work only to discover there was so much you didn’t know about them?


 

nonfiction

Nonfiction Friday: Burnout, The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski

For a term I had never heard of before, “Burnout” is my new go-term term for being at the edge of insanity. This engaging and insightful book is a must read for women everywhere who are just about to give up.


SYNOPSIS

Burnout. Many women in America have experienced it. What’s expected of women and what it’s really like to be a woman in today’s world are two very different things—and women exhaust themselves trying to close the gap between them. How can you “love your body” when every magazine cover has ten diet tips for becoming “your best self”? How do you “lean in” at work when you’re already operating at 110 percent and aren’t recognized for it? How can you live happily and healthily in a sexist world that is constantly telling you you’re too fat, too needy, too noisy, and too selfish?

Sisters Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amelia Nagoski, DMA, are here to help end the cycle of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Instead of asking us to ignore the very real obstacles and societal pressures that stand between women and well-being, they explain with compassion and optimism what we’re up against—and show us how to fight back. In these pages you’ll learn

• what you can do to complete the biological stress cycle—and return your body to a state of relaxation
• how to manage the “monitor” in your brain that regulates the emotion of frustration
• how the Bikini Industrial Complex makes it difficult for women to love their bodies—and how to defend yourself against it
• why rest, human connection, and befriending your inner critic are keys to recovering and preventing burnout

With the help of eye-opening science, prescriptive advice, and helpful worksheets and exercises, all women will find something transformative in these pages—and will be empowered to create positive change. Emily and Amelia aren’t here to preach the broad platitudes of expensive self-care or insist that we strive for the impossible goal of “having it all.” Instead, they tell us that we are enough, just as we are—and that wellness, true wellness, is within our reach. from Amazon.


burnout
“Burnout” Pink Cover with ripped page

REVIEW

Burnout is defined in this book by three components: (1) emotional exhaustion – the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long; (2) depersonalization – the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion; and (3) decreased sense of accomplishment – an unconquerable sense of futility; feeling that nothin you do makes any difference.

Upon first reading this, I felt I’d been spotted. There must be cracks in my facade!

But I am in good company. According to the authors, “burnout” is a phenomena affecting whole groups of people who work in positions of, “people helping people.” Teachers, medical professionals, humanitarian aid workers, and parents are all suffering from burnout in large numbers. Oddly, women are more deeply and specifically impacted.

Now, as a die-heard feminist I like to believe that men are just as susceptible to things as women are capable. However, in this case, I have to agree with the authors. As they walk the reader through historic gender problems, most specifically “human giver syndrome,” it is difficult to argue that differing treatment in childhood wouldn’t have some impact. I can accept that women who are raised to believe that being thin is good and looking pretty is important will result in burnout just as easily as toxic masculinity has roots in “boys will be boys” and “real men don’t cry.”

Be nice, be strong, be polite. No feelings for you

The chapters are broken down into manageable chunks of pertinent information. It was clear to me that the authors had taught because each chapter laid the foundation for the one before it and built on the prior. And, for those who need reminders or who are too busy to read the details they provided a Too Long Didn’t Read (TLDR) at the end of each chapter. By using personal anecdotes, stories from friends, and those from popular fiction, the book was as fun to read as it was informative. Although, I could have done with a lot less Moana references (but that’s just me!).

Chapters one and two clearly lay out what is causing stress in most women’s lives and how to deal with it. Some of the information was new to me but the fact that really stunned me was the notion that our bodies need to get rid of stress. Whether that it through exercise, affection, or even creative measures, we are biologically programmed to need that outlet. Sounds simple enough but they way they explained it resonated with me so deeply I have completely transformed the way I work out and how I prioritize sleep.

Things were a little less solid for me in certain sections. For example, chapter three was about meaning, as in the meaning of life. While your life having “meaning” is one of the main elements that promotes happiness finding your “Something Larger” is important for feeling that your life has a positive impact. Initially I struggled with this section because how can you have “something larger” and avoid falling victim to “human giver syndrome?” But, I suppose being a stay-at-home Mom because you want to be is entirely different than being one because society limits you to that role. Similarly, I can make monetary sacrificing in my career if I want to do that kind of work as long as I am not limited to my choice of jobs by what is appropriate for a woman.

The remainder of the book explains why what sounds simply is so difficult for women. From acknowledging that the game is rigged, fighting the patriarchy, and gaslighting, being a women is fundamentally difficult. And if you don’t get a chance to read the book just know this fact,

“The body mass index (BMI) chart and it labels – underweight, overweight, obese, etc. – were created by a panel of nine individuals, seven of whom were ’employed by weight-loss clinics and thus have an economic interest in encouraging use of their facilities.'”

For every woman out there who is feeling crushed under the weight of the world, this book really helped me. I used to look around at my male friends and wonder, “Why are they so carefree, what’s wrong with me?” There is nothing wrong with me. I was just experiencing burnout.


Tell me, please!

Do you ever feel uniquely stressed?


 

nonfiction

NonFiction Friday: Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Neil Gaiman

A nonfiction look at the science fiction Multiplatform phenomenon that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy told by master storyteller Neil Gaiman. Whether you are just a minor enthusiast or consider yourself full fledged fun, this book will make you fall just a little more in love with The Guide.

 


 

The first time I experienced The Hitchhiker’s Guide was via the 2005 movie starring Martin Freeman and narrated by Stephen Fry. The only time I had laid eyes on the book it was a compendium at a friend’s house that was approximately four inches thick and, at the time, I had no desire to read a sci-fi bible. I didn’t know that it was actually six books!

Fast forward: the movie was accessible, weird, and hooked me. I’m a fan. Since then, I have enjoyed the stories and even ventured into Dick Gently territory. During a bought of insomnia I spotted Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by none other than Neil Gaiman. Two obsessions in one! Would it be worth a read?

Spoiler: It was amazing


dontpanic


SYNOPSIS

Douglas Adams’s “six-part trilogy,” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy grew from a blip of a notion into an ever-expanding multimedia universe that amassed an unprecedented cult of followers and became an international sensation. As a young journalist, Neil Gaiman was given complete access to Adams’s life, times, gossip, unpublished outtakes, and files (and became privy to his writing process, insecurities, disillusionments, challenges, and triumphs). The resulting volume illuminates the unique, funny, dramatic, and improbable chronicle of an idea, an incredibly tall man, and a mind-boggling success story.

In Don’t Panic, Gaiman celebrates everything Hitchhiker: the original radio play, the books, comics, video and computer games, films, television series, record albums, stage musicals, one-man shows, the Great One himself, and towels. And as Douglas Adams himself attested: “It’s all absolutely devastatingly true—except the bits that are lies.”

Updated several times in the thirty years since its original publication, Don’t Panic is available for the first time in digital form. Part biography, part tell-all parody, part pop-culture history, part guide to a guide, Don’t Panic “deserves as much cult success as the Hitchhiker’s books themselves” (Time Out via Amazon)


REVIEW

The biggest surprise for me? That these stories began as a radio program, then were books, then a play, a television show, then video games and finally movies. I think. There were also records in there somewhere. In hindsight, it’s all so clear now. These wonderfully weird stories makes so much more sense when you know that they were originally intended for radio and radio alone. It was Adam’s curiosity and desire to do things he deemed “interesting” that spurred him to change platforms so frequently and to seek the best manner to do it.

Adam’s may have been known for his ingenuity but he was equally infamous for his inability to get a writing project in on time. As Gaiman puts it, “This not-writing quality was to become a hallmark of Douglas’s later work.” If you are a writer and you are feeling that procrastination picks on you, please read this book. Adam’s ability to put off his writing projects until past due and then lock himself up and finish the work is legendary. I, however, do not recommend some of his coping mechanisms or the lengths to which his friends would go to in order to seclude him until he finished his work.

Adams may have developed amazing world building and loved his many projects but this quote about writing fully encapsulates his feelings about his chosen profession, “Writing comes easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.” He even made notes for himself on his writing telling himself to find a regular job and then later noting that this was after a “regular day” of writing, not a bad one. And still the stories came.

Reading this book put the fear of God in me about the lengths publication companies would go to in order to get a book finished. Even though his publisher knew that he would turn in the second book late and they planned for it in their schedule, they still moved him out of his shared apartment and into a flat all his on one afternoon. As Adam’s remembers it,

“It was extraordinary. One of those times you really go mad…I can remember the moment I thought, ‘I can do it! I’ll actually get it finished in time!’ (Everything) contributed to the sense of insanity and hypnotism that allowed me to write a book in that time.”

How Gaiman manages to keep this book light and funny is a testament to his own writing because Adam’s struggle with writing and procrastination continued for the remainder of his life. Further complicating his path was the bold statement after the second Hitchhiker’s book that it would be his very last. But, then he wrote four more. Four more. And after each additional story he would boldly state that he would never again write another. But the story just had to come out. Or, you know, Adams needed a paycheck.

If you enjoyed The Hitchhiker’s Guide in any of the formats available to the general public you will undoubtedly enjoy Don’t Panic and the adventures of being Douglas Adams.


Tell me, please!

Who is your favorite Hitchhiker’s character?


 

Audio Book · FrighteninglyGoodRead · nonfiction · Over 18

NonFiction Friday: Me by Elton John

Elton John has been a major star my entire life. I remember him singing at Princess Diana’s funeral and I have always been impressed by the work his AIDS foundation does for the world. I love all of his popular songs and I was aware of his struggle with addiction. But I wouldn’t have considered myself an Elton John fan. That is, until I read Me, his new autobiography. All of the things that knew or liked about Elton John have been transformed into full blown admiration.

me
cover of Elton John book “”Me” featuring Elton wearing rainbow sunglasses

Here are the Top Ten things I learned and love about Elton John.

10. Elton John was born Reginald Dwight in Pinner, Middlesex. Pinner sounds like every small town everywhere in the developed world. His talent in music was evident from an early age and he quickly went from playing his grandmother’s piano to winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.

9. Elton John only met his long time writing partner Bernie Taupin when he was rejected for a job with Ray Williams. Even though Elton had been in Bluesology and working as a studio musician for years, he was really going nowhere until he met Bernie. Rejection + Happen Chance meeting = the success we know today. The mega-star Elton John we know today is a direct result of a failure.

8. Elton John was a late bloomer and didn’t understand sex or that he was gay until he was 21.

7. Elton John has a terrible temper and he knows it. I know a lot of people with terrible tempers but the ones that are aware of this defect in their nature have always been near and dear to my heart since I myself fly off the handle like a cartoon character on occasion.

6. Elton John is always looking for a new challenge and this desire for self improvement has led him to say yes to numerous opportunities he intially thought were outside of his comfort zone. The Lion King is just one of those projects. I can only hope that one day my growth mindset leads me to such an opportunity.

5. He maintains a strong connection with all the performers that inspired him and believes that artists should support the next generation of performers. Lady Gaga has changed his children’s diapers and he is Eminem’s sobriety sponsor. He found artists that inspired him and recorded with them, performed with them, or found them jobs when their jobs ran out. This open door policy didn’t always mean that he got along with everyone (ahem, Tina Turner), but it does mean that his mind is always open to the possibility of collaborating. This open door policy also applies to people who hold different ideals than Elton.

4. Even though Elton John is a gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s and 90’s and he sang on, “That’s What Friends are For,” in 1986, he didn’t become the fundraiser and humanitarian for AIDS that I always thought he was until the 1990s. His inspiration for getting involved was after the death of Ryan White in 1990 and Freddie Mercury’s subsequent death in 1991. In 1992 he founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation and, to date, it has raised over $450 Million dollars. It is never to late to get involved and make a difference.

3. Elton John loves his hometown football team of Watford. At one point he was a chairman for the team and he still takes his boys to games.

2. He knows that the surest way to failure is to surround yourself with people who always agree with you.

1. “There’s really no point in wondering ‘what if?’ but instead to focus on ‘what’s next'” is the quote Elton puts at the end of his autobiography. This sums up his life so perfectly.


I had the pleasure of listening to this as an audiobook and Taron Egerton is absolutely perfect as the narrator. I haven’t seen the biopic of Elton’s life starring Taron but it is clear that he really understands Elton John at his core. If I was going to make one criticism it is that now I am having a difficult time not picturing Taron Egerton as the real Elton John.

This will definitely be one of my top audiobooks of 2020.


Tell me, please!

Which autobiography is your favorite?


 

nonfiction

NonFiction Friday: January 3, 2020 The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss


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I first read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas in high school during a period of time when I fantasized almost constantly about revenge. I complained one too many times to my Dad who recommended I read what he called, “the ultimate book of revenge,” and I have been a fan of The Count since. I re-read it every five years or so and I am always struck by the sheer power and fortitude of Edmond Dantes. 

In 2018’s NonFiction November I saw The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. It was recommended for all fans of Dumas’ fiction work and I knew I had to read it. Sadly, it joined my shelf for more than a year until I pulled it off for 2019’s NonFiction November. But I must say, if you enjoyed the tale Dumas wove in The Count you will love the true story of his grandfather and the unbelievable life he lead that inspired so many of the author’s larger than life characters.

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Synopsis

WINNER OF THE 2013 PULITZER PRIZE FOR BIOGRAPHY

“General Alex Dumas is a man almost unknown today, yet his story is strikingly familiarbecause his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, used his larger-than-life feats as inspiration for such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

But, hidden behind General Dumas’s swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: he was the son of a black slavewho rose higher in the white world than any man of his race would before our own time. Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Alex Dumas made his way to Paris, where he rose to command armies at the height of the Revolutionuntil he met an implacable enemy he could not defeat.

The Black Count is simultaneously a riveting adventure story, a lushly textured evocation of 18th-century France, and a window into the modern world’s first multi-racial society. TIME magazine called The Black Count “one of those quintessentially human stories of strength and courage that sheds light on the historical moment that made it possible.” But it is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son.” The Black Count from Amazon.


Review

I had the pleasure of listening to this book as an audiobook and reading it in tandem. If you, like me, love a good accent, the narrator of the audiobook does the most glamorous and beautiful French pronunciation of all the individual’s names and geographical locations. Meanwhile, my brain reads everything like, “Alex-an-der Doo-maah.” For that reason alone, the audiobook is worth a listen.

I loved the characters that Dumas created but the deep and profound respect I have for his grandfather, Alex Dumas, cannot really be described. A man of honor and romance is hard to find but a powerfully built one who is a master sword fighter and dedicated family man? This is the stuff of legends. Apparently, his grandson agreed because between GeorgesThe Three Muskateers, and The Count of Monte Cristo, the author Dumas retolded his grandfather’s heroic feats again and again using him as inspiration for a range of characters.

Honestly, I assumed before reading The Black Count that many of Dumas’ tales and deeds had become wildly exaggerated. But the meticulous research done by Tom Reiss proved that there was more fact than familial fiction in these stories. The want-to-be historian in me was wildly applauding the length that Mr. Reiss went to in order to get his hands on the Dumas family documents. Listening to how he managed to get those documents out of the locked safe had me applauding as I walked down the street.

But, The Black Count didn’t just provide me with a well researched history of the Dumas family, it also gave me a real understanding of French revolutionary history. Balancing the economics, the wildly swinging social changes, and the general upheaval of the era Reiss brings the day to day craziness of the period alive. And, while economics are my least favorite part of history, the author brings bouts of humor in to break up any monotony. The confusion in France as to who were the ‘brigands’ was especially memorable and had me laughing every time the narrator said “brigand’ again for the remainder of the book.

Another aspect of The Black Count that will stay with me forever are the powerful letters Alex Dumas wrote to his wife. The loving way he addresses her, “my beloved,” and “to the only person I care about in the whole world,” is matched only by the manner of his signature, “your friend for life,” and “your best friend.” It set my romantic heart aflame. Just picturing this larger than life figure writing such beautiful things gave real depth to the character Dumas the author later created and renewed my adolescent crush on Edmond Dantes.

All of this aside, it should not be ignored that much like the Lone Ranger, this iconic character’s ancestry has been (white) washed away. General Dumas was born in present day Haiti and, as the son of a black slave, his rise to his own personal military history is fraught at every turn by changing social acceptance of black people. The range of thinking about the children of slaves or individuals with any black ancestry seemed to change on a whim during that time. The fact that General Dumas was able to rise so far with the addition of Napoleon and the social racism of the day just makes this individual even more unbelievable.

In deed, General Alex Dumas’ life and his place in historical is so audacious and fantastical that there were many times I could not believe I was reading a book of nonfiction. But not matter the fantasy feel, Reiss’ The Black Count is a masterfully researched historical piece that will now live alongside my copy of The Count of Monte Cristo.


Tell me, please!

Who Would You Cast as Edmond Dantes in a Remake of The Count of Monte Cristo?


 

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NonFiction Friday: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We Are Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling

factfulnessThis is, quite simply, the best and most uplifting book of nonfiction I have ever read.

Before reading this book I made the mistake of reading the news on a daily basis and I knew, in my heart, that everything was terrible. I could feel the terribleness of our tragic world in my bones. Around the world, people are worried about war, disease and the environment. Food shortages and genetically modified supplies haunt my dreams. Equality for all seems like a far-off goal. Let me add to that that I am an American. As an American, my country is deeply divided and, whatever your politics may be, people have become comfortable with name calling and outright lying. The drama is at an all-time high and nothing is getting accomplished. It’s all terrible. Worse, I cannot find facts on anything and so I worry about everything. 

One night, I awoke with a start, heart pounding. I reached for my middle-of-the-night buddy, my faithful Kindle. I searched for something to read and found Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. I remember thinking, “I would like to be both full of facts and wrong about the world.” I plunged into this book and I cannot stop thinking (and talking about it.)

It turns out, I’m not “wrong” about the world so much as I was using old information. I was letting the news convince me that there was nothing but horrors around every corner. And, I couldn’t distinguish between facts and overly dramatic editorials. If you want a quick look at how the facts can make you feel better and simultaneously change the way you see the world, watch this twenty minute Ted Talk given by Hans Rosling.

He refers to his questions a number of times in this video. At the beginning of the book there is a test to see how much you know about the world. I scored….poorly. A few things I knew had changed from my childhood, but I was shocked, shocked, by how quickly the world has changed when I wasn’t looking. It was like I met the world as an adorable toddler during my early educational experience, I went on with my life and now, twenty years later, I am all “Look how big you’ve gotten!” When I wasn’t looking whole countries went from mud-soaked poverty to looking like my hometown.

But, perhaps, you are not an American. Many Americans are well aware of how little we know about the world. Perhaps you are a well-educated world traveler and aren’t surprised at all by how everything is going. But, you find yourself still scared about the state of things. That might be because it is easy to find bad things happening in the world, good things are difficult to find. For example, 40 million commercial airplanes took off and landed safely in 2016 and ten crashed. Each crash was covered extensively. This gives the perception that air travel is not safe when, in fact, 2016 was the safest year on record to fly (this is also the last year of available statistics for the book so, don’t panic). We see this pattern repeated ad nauseam. Bad news gets people attention.

So we have copious amount of bad news. Some of us are using old information. Then there is the feeling that when there is more to do, we cannot talk about the successes we can see. We have dramatic instincts and we combine that with an overly dramatic worldview. It is no wonder we are sure we are all doomed.

To combat this, Factfulness has ten rules of thumb all designed to get our brains used to analyzing data and learning new things about our world everyday. The environment needs work, some people will always need help, and we can always do better. But, honestly, its not as bad as I thought it was.

I still read the news everyday. But I look for the facts. I watch for gaps, straight lines that are just assumed, and resist that feeling of urgency without knowledge. And I look for what isn’t being reported because that is where the good news is hiding.


Tell me, please!

Have you ever had a book radically change the way you look at the world?


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The Book of Joy by his Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams

thebookofjouyThis book has taken me quite some time to consume. It has been described as a three layer cake with the personal stories and teachings of joy from these two remarkable religious leaders, current studies on joy and the daily practices to root yourself in joy. But I found it to be more like a deliciously well rounded meal. There were parts I struggled to read – healthy bites I knew I needed but didn’t completely enjoy. Then there was the bulk of the book – the lovely meat and potatoes if you will. The background information about these two fascinating leaders and how they have continued to find peace and joy despite their personal difficulties and challenges is nothing short of remarkable. Finally, there was the decadant dessert. These two men may be some of the most well respected religious leaders in our world but they are naughty and hilariously engaging!

At times, I didn’t enjoy the application the author, Douglas Abrams, made of the teaching to his own life. However, there were moments when his astute explanations bolstered and clarified the messages. I also appreciated that, as a Jewish person, Abrams brought a fresh and neutral perspective to the discussions. At times, he made several comments which indicated that he was better acquainted with the Dalai Lama than the Archbishop and that may be why there was more information about Buddhism than Christianity woven into the book. Or, perhaps it was because the Archbishop had travelled to Dharamsala and therefore the meeting took place surrounded by Monks.

Regardless of the reasons, I was deeply humbled by the teachings of the Dalai Lama. While my religious background alines me more naturally with Archbishop Tutu, my fascination with other religions created a greater interest in the Buddhist teachings of this magnificently humble leader. The history of the Dalai Lama and his exile were vaguely in my brain but hearing of his isolation from family and country brought me greater understanding of the trials and tribulations of the Dalai Lama and his people.

Similarly, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a well known figure. However, his experiences in Africa during a tumultuous time coupled with his fascinating personal history made for such an interesting read.

Both men seem to almost casually mention death, fear, anxiety, depression and struggle only to use that experience to show the impact of choosing joy. Next to their experiences I felt unworthy of any unhappiness. Yet, just when I started to believe that perhaps this was a spiritual quest outside of my own abilities, the authors acknowledged that they have not always felt this deep sense of control over their joy. This allowed me to feel that I am still on my path.

I am a spiritual and religious person. There were parts of this book that seemed to be religious dogma and that did not bother me because religion is woven into my life. However, if you are searching for a message of hope without religious entanglement this book may not be for you. I believe that these amazing men are using their religion to explain how they choose joy. But, by comparing and contrasting their religious applications to life to support choosing joy they open the discussion to a more secular approach.

This book is full of solid advice, anecdotal stories and current scientific information about how joy can be found and held onto. The last section of the book includes options for daily practice to find joy in your own life should you want some specific direction. If you are struggling with finding joy I encourage you to read this book. It is far and beyond the best of all the books I have read regarding happiness, gratitude and finding joy.


Tell me, please!

Do you read self-help books? If so, what are you searching for in them?