Category Archives: Non fiction

** Blueprint by Nicholas Christakis

I’m not sure I quite understood what the author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society was trying to accomplish. He starts by a lengthy review of shipwrecks, arguing that the surviving crews can be good models of what human societies can look like. I would beg to differ, and he opines that crews tend to be young, male, and fit, even as he continues his analysis.

He then presents a “social suite”, criteria he considers essential for good (meaning lasting and stable) societies. with not too much justification for the criteria, before proceeding to share examples taken from ethnographic studies (those poor Hadza, forever studied; I wonder if they have a “fool the anthropologist” set of tricks!) and classic psychology studies, along with many animal observations and studies.  With such a rich and long book, there are many interesting tales, but I wish the author did not try so hard to tie everything together into a grand theory.

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* Women Rowing North by Mary Pipher

Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age should be an uplifting story of how older women can and do flourish. I found it frustrating, with a rather amorphous mix of inspiring stories (usually too perfect to be true, or at least realistic, they made me think of an Instagram fro grannies) and bland success guidelines.

Perhaps I refuse to be guided into anything, including a blissful old age?

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*** The White Devil’s Daughters by Julia Flynn Siler

The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown recounts the story of a religious rescue mission for trafficked Chinese women in San Francisco. We see women in sensible shoes and perfectly proper attire dragging women out of brothels, and the same women raising funds and running households with dozens of rescued women and children, or going to court to get guardianships of under-age prostitutes. We also see the racist policies that gave rise to the trafficking and dismal treatment of all Chinese-Americans. It’s a wonderful, if sobering book.

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*** Rocket Men by Robert Kurson

This summer, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing, it would be good to remember what came before. Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon does just that, describing the rushed preparation and voyage of Apollo 8, which took its three astronauts around the moon, made it possible to land on the moon six months later, and gave us the famous Earthrise picture that still stirs us today. The story alternates between the technical details of the mission, the inner thoughts of the astronauts, and the lives of their families. I found the family stories particularly interesting, as NASA tightly choreographed what they could or could not do, even for the wife who was convinced that her husband would die. It must have been tough for her to be paraded in front of cameras!

And of course there is the background of a though year of national dis-unity, and the everyday sexism evoked in details: there was no women’s bathroom at Mission Control, because there were no women there.

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*** The Man They Wanted Me To Be by Jared Yates Sexton

 

The author of The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making was raised in a small town in Indiana, in a family and setting that promoted a stereotypical view of men as aggressive, tough, strong, and consequently veering into sexism, racism, homophobia, and social isolation.  Fortunately his grandfather provided another model, of someone who was sensitive, caring, and psychologically open. Also fortunately, Sexton is able to describe the manly-men in his life mostly in a sympathetic light, as living up to the ideal they had been given, rather than as mere bullies or losers.

If you’ve ever cringed when hearing Boys will be boys, this is the book for you.

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*** Sea People by Christina Thompson

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia does not just tell the story of how Polynesia was peopled; it explains how European explorers to start, and scientists and natives to this day, have investigated the past. The mystery is thrilling, since remote islands were colonized by people with only wooden canoes navigating to unseen islands, using incredibly sophisticated navigation techniques, only some of them are still known and learnable.

The author does a great job of evoking the region, making the book a kind of voyage itself, and very far from a dry historical record of the missteps and prejudice-laden theories that accompanied the inquiry into the voyages across the Pacific Ocean.

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*** Mama’s Last Hug by Frans De Waal

Following Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, De Waal tackles emotions in Mama’s Last Hug: Animal and Human Emotions. We see a capuchin monkey losing it when his friend gets a delicious grape instead of the cucumber he receives for the same task, smiling primates (including humans) trying to make amends, chimps who recognize other chimps’ behinds (but only for chimps they know), bully alpha male apes who get killed by their fed-up troops, and orphan bonobos who can’t quite self-soothe. The author’s deft and empathic observations make it very clear that, of course, animals have emotions, and not too different from ours.

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