nonfiction

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?


nonfiction

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?


nonfiction

Non-Fiction Friday: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell

theawkwardthoughtsNo one likes to admit to judging a book by its cover but I will freely admit that I picked this book up for two reasons (1) The word awkward in the title and (2) The front matter description on the cover: “Tales of a 6’4″, African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian.” How could I resist?

After reading Awkward, The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome I have come to embrace my own awkwardness as a gift (and a curse) and find myself on the lookout for other awkward people. Truthfully, I had never heard of Mr. Bell until I read his book. This is certainly not a statement on his popularity, rather on my being approximately five years behind on television shows and without access to anything but basic cable and some instant gratification internet platforms. Except, now I have Hulu and therefore access to his fantastic CNN show United Shades of America.

Mr. Bell is extremely funny in my most favorite manner – smart funny. He observes, ponders, and pours over issues that the rest of society either doesn’t notice or spends no time reflecting upon. I wouldn’t call him awkward but I like that he used the word awkward to spark important conversations.

For example, “Awkward Thoughts about Superheroes and Doc McStuffins.” I remember wondering why there were so fewer black superheroes when I was a kid. Really, I was only into the female superheroes (early feminist) and so I only knew Storm. And when they came out with a Black Barbie I was so happy that kids would have a beautiful doll that looked like them. But, these little tiny burst of awareness didn’t extend to imagining what everyday life was like for a nerdy black kid (hello privilege!). I was surprised to find that Mr. Bell’s favorites were The Incredible Hulk and Spider-man because he could easily picture himself under their green skin or red and blue costume. He also points out that the world is changing and including more representation which is essential for his daughters to see. He credits Doc McStuffins, a Disney show I am aware of but have never seen, as one of the most important shows on television because his daughter’s reality includes a female Black doctor. I don’t love Disney but kudos to them for this show.

I volunteer at my neighborhood elementary school that has a high population of Black children. I love to read and they all know it. When I first started volunteering there years ago I would give book recommendations to the kids. And I was shocked (and then embarrassed again by my privilege) by the lack of representation in children’s literature. Have you ever tried to find a book for a Black kid that wasn’t about the Civil Rights Movement? The remaining books seem to only feature a child who lives in the wrong / dangerous / graffiti-ridden neighborhood and is being raised by their grandmother. Or books about sports heroes. In the past two years things have improved slightly in the publishing world. Kids (white ones too!) need to know about racism. But it is vital that all kids are able to imagine themselves as heroes, magicians, time travelers and powerful people. I do not think, as Mr. Bell put it, that white people are uncomfortable imagining themselves as Black heroes. Instead, we just never had to do it. Pick up a book. Oh, this features a child of color? Put down that book and peruse the one hundred next to it with kids that look just like you! We haven’t practiced it like Black children have had to for generations.

I do agree with him that many white people are uncomfortable with Black people playing a role previously held by a white person. He uses James Bond and Idris Elba as an example and he is right. Every time it comes up it becomes a stupid controversy. I vote that we just stop making Bond films altogether. Bond is boring.

The chapters “My Most Awkward Birthday Ever” and “My Awkward Joking Around with the KKK” really struck a chord with me because they directly confront the continuing and pervasive racism in America. Every chapter is woven with the theme of racism but these two in particular stand out in my mind.

In “My Most Awkward Birthday Ever” Mr. Bell is the center of a coffee shop controversy not unlike the one that just unfolded at Starbucks. He was literally shooed away from his wife and daughter in front of a group of her friends (new friends too), on his birthday after he had eaten there earlier in the day. The stand out part for me was how many of his so-called white friends said, “How do you know it was racism?…I mean that sucks, but how can you be sure?”

This statement has been said or thought by, I would guess, all white people at one time or another. We think it and say it because we don’t understand and, perhaps more importantly, we aren’t trying to understand or empathize. We just want it to not be racism. But, it is.

And that brings me to “My Awkward Joking Around with the KKK.” While filming, Mr. Bell was put in close proximity at night to a barbershop owned by a KKK member and proudly flying the Confederate flag. His show runner was telling him repeatedly to get closer without any comprehension of the fear that Mr. Bell must have felt.

When I read this chapter I wanted to punch his show runner. How anyone could be so unfeeling is beyond my comprehension. I find the KKK terrifying and they would never even give me and my bland Irish looks a second glance. In the first five minutes of the episode (which I watched after finishing the book) Mr. Bell walks along a dirt road to politely greet a man dressed in full klan gear with his voice disguised. The klansman is clearly a coward – show your face, let me hear your voice! But Mr. Bell had every right to be terrified and he still shook his hand. I had two hopes after viewing this exchange: I hope his Mother isn’t watching and I hope he washed his hands. But again, here is Mr. Bell putting into action something he has probably practiced over and over again throughout his life – being polite to a racist.

This book really showcases what I have come to learn is W. Kamau Bell doing what he does best: socio-political comedy. I am working my way through all of the United Shades of America backlogs and they are excellent. However, if you want to hear the more unfiltered awkward thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, pick up his book.


Tell me, please!

What non-fiction book jolted your awareness even a smidge?


nonfiction

Ask an Astronaut by Tim Peake

Let me be clear, I am never going to space. Nope. Can’t make me. I went to an exhibit years ago about life on Mars. On the way into the exhibit you had to choose whether you would want to go live on Mars or not and the same question was asked on the way out. Upon entry I was all “Meh, no thanks.” After the exhibit I was a firm, “Hell no. Can’t make me. Never happening.”

askanastronautBut that is the beauty of books! In Ask an Astronaut, My Guide to Life in Space Tim Peake answers all of our questions about traveling to and living on the International Space Station for six months. I get all the fun learning without having to leave the safety and comfort of my home.

The majority of the questions to Tim were asked by children but, honestly, they were all things I had pondered. Questions like, “How do you go to the bathroom in space,” were answered with equal sincerity as, “What is the best advice you ever received?” I quickly learned to appreciate the depth of knowledge possessed by the author as well as how humble he continued to be in the face of his enormous accomplishments.

As to his accomplishments, Tim Peake is the first British ESA astronaut and the first British person to spacewalk wearing the Union Flag. When asked what souvenirs he brought back from space he listed his space cutlery, a crushed Russian coin and the Union Flag patch. Then, almost as a side note he mentions that this flag represents a new chapter in the UK’s long and distinguished history of exploration and scientific research so he had the “honor of presenting this Union Flag to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II” so that it could be placed in the Royal Archives and Royal Collection. So very wonderfully British and modest.

The book is a delightful read and is probably appropriate for all ages. However, the science and technology reference made by the author (again, in that easy breezy manner) are a little more complex. I learned a tremendous amount about the methods for getting to and from the ISS, what arduous work is being done on the space station as well as how much scientific research is being performed on a daily basis as they revolve around the Earth in microgravity. I have a lifelong awe of astronauts but I always considered them elite athletes. Now I understand how incredibly intelligent and multi-talented an astronaut needs to be, as well as fairly lucky, to actually have the opportunity to travel outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Also, astronauts know a lot of acronyms.

Tim Peake’s book will give you a taste of life on the ISS and the adventure of traveling into, walking among the stars, and returning back to Earth. He does so with intelligence, a lovely dry British humor and an unbelievable amount of modesty. I’m still not traveling to space but I loved reading about it.


Tell me, please!

Would you want to travel to space? Where would you go?


 

nonfiction

Non-Fiction Friday: I Work at a Public Library… by Gina Sheridan

I have had a serious dry spell in good non-fiction! I read and read but haven’t loved anything enough to recommend it. Then, I picked up I Work at a Public Library, A Collection of Crazy Stories from the Stacks, by Gina Sheridan. I initially chose the slim book because I needed one that could be read in a day for one of my reading challenges. Then I enjoyed it so much I wished it was longer! Imagine my joy when I discovered that it began as a blog and she continues to add entries. You can find the blog here.

iworkI was also interested in reading the stories because my first, third, fourth and fifth jobs were all at libraries. I worked as a page (that person who re-shelves your books), a reference assistant and later a legal reference librarian (worst.job.ever – no books!). I loved being a page because I spent my days looking at the books and seeing what people loved checking out and returning. And, in case you haven’t visited one lately, the public library is amazing people watching. Amazing. There are very few things in life I enjoy more than people watching.

Gina Sheridan embraced the people watching without making me feel like she was mocking the patrons of the library. From innocent questions about internet porn to the crazy antics of the usual customers, it was clear that these people were important to the author. And, I was incredible impressed with her diplomatic answers to some truly rude and probing questions.

For a small taste: One entry on her blog from December 2017 reads,

“Today a patron brought in his own (large) TV and game console and set them up in a study room. He played for hours with no explanation or disruption.”

This is what I love about the public library. It’s public but for many people it is their home away from home. And they treat it just like it belongs to them – for better or worse.

I really enjoyed this funny quick read but the last chapter, the one that focuses on the patrons that return to thank their librarians, made me happy-cry. Librarians are heroes and Gina’s humurous book and blog embrace the beautiful and sometimes weird things our librarians do for all of us.


Tell me, please!

Do you love your public library?