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Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation

Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation - Aisha Tyler Not truly a memoir, nor really an essay collection, Self-Inflicted Wounds defies any kind of classification. Ms. Tyler first explains the concept of the self-inflicted wound, essentially an event of supreme pain, humiliation, shame, failure, etc. for which you have no one to blame but yourself. She then goes on to recount a series of said wounds experienced in her own life, from childhood up to now. The stories are humorous, well-told, and surprisingly (well maybe not too surprisingly because after all my girl did go to Dartmouth) ripe with wisdom and intelligence. They run the gamut from literal wounds, broken bones, and physical scars to emotional and psychological injuries. Unlike most of us, Aisha owns these shameful incidents with pride, never afraid to make fun of herself, point out her flaws, and pass on a good lesson learned. She fuses the funny with the sage, always coming up with some insight from each tale, no matter how silly and impractical or universal and true. This book even brings in the motivational/self-help genre, as Aisha pushes her readers and fans (as she loving refers to them, her army) to pursue their dreams and be okay with failing in an effort to achieve success (like she did). Really this book couldn't challenge the boundaries of any single literary category more and that made me like it all the more.

Aisha's playful idioms kept me smiling and her prodigious footnotes kept me in stitches - and I rarely, if ever, laugh aloud while reading. Since she's a comedian for a living, I expected the book to be humorous but it takes a lot of smart to be this funny. And Aisha won't let you forget her wit and wisdom, for as soon as she talks about doing something as stupid as lighting her own kitchen on fire or breaking her arm and then snowboarding down a mountain three more times before seeking medical attention, she turns around and composes a heartfelt, well considered essay about the homeless community of San Francisco or references a quote from a brilliant philosopher to remind you that there is some substance behind the wackiness. Tangents and asides are ripe in this one, but whenever Aisha gets off track, she comes back around to draw connections between the various topics knotted up in one little essay that are at once logical and hilarious. Highly pedantic, Aisha resorts to the type of vocabulary and references that prove her intellectual prowess more than a few times, although she never alienates readers with her smarts because it's all in the service of humor. The girl can write and she does so with great care and personality and pizzazz.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers - Loung Ung Like Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, Loung Ung’s memoir First They Killed My Father is the kind of book that leaves an indelible mark on each and every one of its readers, a book which contains a story too horrific to believe but too terrible to be a product of mere imagination. I first learned of Loung Ung when Mary Pipher made note of Ung’s other book, Lucky Child, which my library did not have in stock. I’m so glad that I decided to give Ung’s other work a try, for as difficult as First They Killed My Father was to read, it is a story that, as the San Francisco Chronicle says, “those who have suffered cannot afford to forget and those who have been spared cannot afford to ignore.”

Ung’s story is of Pol Pot’s takeover of Cambodia which initiated a brutal genocide from 1975 through the end of the decade. When Pot’s Khmer Rouge army invaded Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and the Ung family’s city of of residence, Luoung, her six siblings, and her parents were forced to flee to the country’s rural villages. The Ung family was initially lucky; though Luong’s Pa was a high ranking official of the Lon Nol government, he saved his life by successfully lying about his prior position with the government that the Khmer Rouge had overthrown. Their luck didn’t last for long, however, as the family was soon sent to work fourteen hour days at a labor camp, living in near-starvation and laboring under hostile conditions and brutal heat. Things only grew worse from there as the various members of the Ung family were separated, sent to other camps, and some were never seen again.

The Ung family struggle is not atypical of that suffered by the vast majority of Cambodians during the mid to late 1970s. What is incredibly remarkable about Luong’s story in particular, however, is that she was a mere six years old when the Khmer Rouge forced her family to flee the city. All of the suffering, the horrific scenes she witnessed, and the brutality she experienced are expressed in her book with impressive clarity and extraordinary detail through the eyes of a young girl. Luong’s decision to share her story from the perspective of her younger self makes this story truly riveting. As Luong details the violence and murders to which she bore witness, it is impossible to forget just how young she was – a mere child – when all of these experiences took place. Though the horrors of the Khmer Rouge are affecting no matter what age their victims, these events became exponentially more harrowing when seen through a child’s eyes.

Luong’s story is one that needs to be shared and, fortunately, is incredibly captivating from the first page. As she introduces you to her beloved Pa, her graceful Ma, and the wide array of personalities belonging to each of her six siblings, it is easy to imagine the privileged childhood she would have otherwise led. Luong came from a rowdy but loving home, one whose memories she cherishes all the more for how brief her time in its warmth and joy. Luong’s fondness for her Phnom Penh childhood is easily impressed upon readers, as is the devastation she felt when she realized she would never seen her old home in her native city again.

Ung’s book is also a rarity in that she outlines the political conflicts underlying the Khmer Rouge takeover with great clarity and simplicity. Luong offers enough background to provide readers with an understanding of how the Khmer Rouge came to power without causing undue confusion or offering excessive detail. After all, her story isn’t about the politics behind this episode of Cambodian brutality but the way in which it was experienced by the people, the deep mark it left on the families, communities, and individuals of a country torn by unbelievable violence, devastation, and genocide.

And though I don’t believe Luong attempts to do so, she paints herself as quite a remarkable and uniquely heroic child. Her demonstrations of bravery and courage, traits that are barely formative in most six-year-old children, force readers to play out their own hypothetical reactions to the multiple situations in which Luong finds herself. From stealing away to visit her family after she is relocated to a new camp to independently traveling to a jail with the express purpose of watching a Khmer Rouge soldier’s murder after the army’s downfall, it is hard to imagine most children of her age making the kinds of decisions which Luong chooses again and again. Her narrative is equally marked by a constant childlike hopefulness, for Luong places deep faith in the strength of her family’s love to carry each of them through this genocide so they can be together when it’s all over. The unique character of the story’s narrator is one of the book’s most compelling assets and, I’m convinced, one of the reasons why Luong was able to endure.

First They Killed My Father is easily one of the most important books I ever have and ever will read. Ung shares a tragedy that far too few people know about, a story of Cambodian genocide that eradicated 20% of an entire nation’s population. Over 2 million individuals, out of a population of 7 million, lost their lives at the hands of the Khmer Rouge army. Luong sheds light on the forces that created such a horrific episode in Cambodia’s history as well as the daily reality of a Cambodian living during this time. Her story is hard to tear yourself away from, impossible to ignore, and undeniably difficult to endure. While I don’t know that I have ever cried as much while reading a single book, no amount of sadness is worth skipping Ung’s First They Killed My Father. Luong’s book tells a remarkably hopeful story in the face of absolutely harrowing circumstances, a story that desperately needs to be shared and never to be ignored.

The Man Who Quit Money

The Man Who Quit Money - Mark Sundeen The title of Mark Sundeen’s account of the revolutionary lifestyle and philosophy of Daniel Suelo was what first caught my eye. The Man Who Quit Money. At once, a concept that is entirely unfathomable but deeply alluring. A glance at the cover photograph of the man himself, Mr. Suelo, further captivated my attention. With an easy smile on his face, Buddy Holly-style glasses, and shaggy salt and pepper hair emerging from a friendly bolera hat, Daniel Suelo looks the part of the gracefully aging, Pacific Northwestern hipster. Though he is certainly not someone I would categorize as trendy after having learned about him, Daniel certainly embodies certain of the more intriguing aspects of self-righteous hipster culture but on an entirely different level.

Sundeen’s book is, as its title suggests, the story of a man who renounced currency, both the give and take of money in all its forms, including charity and government benefits predicated upon taxpayer dollars. How he manages to do it still boggles my mind (more on the logistics later). But Daniel Suelo’s commitment to a moneyless existence was not an experiment in poverty, an attempt to see how the other half lives, nor a concerted effort to reduce his carbon footprint, though he certainly did so in the process.

Raised a fundamentalist Christian, Daniel Suelo was a follower of Jesus from a young age and believed in the Bible in its most literal sense. Though he doesn’t look the part of it today, Suelo actually continues to lead a life fairly aligned with the religious values upon which he was raised. One of my favorite Suelo-isms from the book relates to the contradictory nature of religion in the United States. “This is a nation that professes to be a Christian nation… and yet it’s basically illegal to live according to the teachings of Jesus.” Suelo questions the concept of free will, believing in a purposeful God that provides for the needs of humans and all living creatures such that we don’t need to rely upon consuming in the traditional big box store, supermarket fashion to survive. He comes back again and again to the Biblical passage, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat of drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” It is this unyielding faith that led Suelo to leave his last $30.00 in a phone booth and give up money for good thirteen years ago.

Suelo’s life seems to have reached a content stasis once he gave up money. But the principled, rugged picture of Daniel Suelo that Sundeen draws for readers at the beginning of his book is the product of religious questioning, travels the world over, family struggles, and a battle against deep depression. The journey that brought Suelo to his current philosophy is a beautiful one, well-told under Sundeen’s hand. What I find most fascinating, however, are the tenets of that philosophy and how brilliantly they highlight the struggles inherent in any attempt to lead a good and moral life in the US.

“The more people have, the less they give. Similarly, generous cultures produce less waste because excess is shared, whereas stingy nations fill their landfills with leftovers.” Suelo’s experiences lead him to such a conclusion and I don’t know if truer words could ever be spoken. For some time Suelo struggled to live within the confines of capitalism, recognizing the way in which it was nearly illegal to avoid the use of money. As Sundeen aptly points out, the monetary system by itself creates loads of anxiety for people, from taxes to mortgages to the regular outflow of cash required to clothe, feed, bathe, and care for ourselves. For people who try to lead simple and moral lives within this anxiety-ridden capitalist culture, people who make those small changes like buying local, driving less, purchasing high-efficiency appliances, reusing and recycling, the anxiety is twofold. Not only do they struggle under the expenses of everyday life that we all face, they are also cognizant of the environmental and moral repercussions of each and every decision they make. Sure, reusing a plastic baggie keeps one more item out of the landfill, but we’re still using a disposable item made of plastic that will ultimately never completely disintegrate (a major moral struggle that Sundeen devotes quite some time to recounting in this book).

The beauty of Suelo’s lifestyle is that he escapes both of these struggles unscathed by eliminating money’s presence from his life. One of my favorite moments in the book comes when Suelo gives up those last $30.00. He thought his life couldn’t get much worse at that point, then realized that the money did not make a bit of difference. He was already at his lowest point with money, how much worse could it get without that measly sum wearing him down? The onrush of freedom he experienced by setting down those bills, by letting go of the confines of a monied mentality, was euphoric just to read.

And now Daniel is a practiced dumpster-diver, a go-to house-sitter among his friends, a cave dweller, an expert forager, and a faithful servant of God – all without a cent to his name. Dwelling in the caves of Moab, Utah, Suelo avoids the worries and fears that go with owning land and a house and all the possessions inside. By scavenging the area’s dumpsters, he reduces the size of our landfills, prevents perfectly good consumables from going to waste, and challenges notions of socially acceptable eating practices. His life offers a perfect exemplar of presence, the kind pursued by practitioners of meditation and followers of many Eastern religions alike, since he has nothing to worry about beyond the present moment. He enjoys free meals with friends, finds beauty in the natural world, and has absolutely no notion of private property.

But what may be most empowering of all is the sense of community Suelo has found, despite leading a lifestyle that at first glance appears reclusive. Quitting money proves, ultimately, to be a persuasive argument against the pull yourself up by your own bootstraps mentality in America. Suelo is convinced that no person is entirely self-sufficient; he understands the world as a series of interdependent beings, from his dependence on the waste of others as a source of nutrition to his provision of joy and free labor and knowledge and friendship to others. Not only is this a beautiful way to view the world, it is a productive and practical one too.

Some, probably many, would call Daniel Suelo naive, an idealist, a dreamer, a quack. The roll call of derogatory names for someone like Suelo is seemingly endless. And that is one of the most frustrating but also hopeful things about a story like Suelo’s. He defies categorization in ways that confuse people. His ideology is difficult to grasp because it so deeply challenges that of our society. He is misunderstood beyond compare. But he also is one of the most principled, righteous, admirable, inspiring people I have ever learned of. I love individuals that push the boundaries of possibility, that challenge us to rethink what is accepted and expected. I find hope in the fact that someone like Daniel Suelo exists and that he has found success in his life. And I pray that people will read this book and find something of themselves in Daniel, whether it be similar religious upbringing, a passion for the outdoors, past travels to the same locales, a history of debilitating depression, mastery of the meditative arts, or any other commonality. In so doing, maybe we can all learn from, if not begin to embody, Daniel Suelo’s mind bogglingly wonderful means of existence. In reading Sundeen’s book, Suelo becomes much more familiar and his lifestyle, far less frightening.

Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town

Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town - Warren St. John I absolutely loved Warren St. John’s Outcasts United. I’m not a soccer fan but that didn’t effect my interest in this story of a soccer team composed of refugees relocated to Clarkston, Georgia in the least. St. John’s narrative follows the real life story of a Jordanian woman, Luma Mufleh, who resettles in America permanently after receiving her undergraduate education at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Luma finds herself down South just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, in a town called Clarkston where the International Rescue Committee, World Relief, and other resettlement organizations have directed an influx of refugees from the world’s most devastated and war-ravaged nations. The vast majority of these refugees belong to families that have been torn apart by the tragedies taking place in their home countries and are working tirelessly to make ends meet in a nation whose culture fails to understand, and often fails to even attempt to understand, their own. For the youth among the refugee community, however, soccer provides an outlet that most refugee parents are not so lucky to have found. It’s more common in refugee communities to see games of street soccer being played than not, and this is how Luma comes to connect with young men from the whole world over.

With bottomless determination and a headstrong attitude, Luma develops a youth soccer league for the refugees. Struggling to find players who will adhere to her strict team rules, safe spaces in which to practice, and proper equipment to outfit her teams are just the first of many obstacles that attempt to thwart Luma’s goal of establishing an organized, empowering, and successful soccer league for the refugee community. But Luma’s endless perseverance meets with numerous rewards and successes, both large and small, that most others in her position would likely never see.

St. John’s story isn’t just that of a driven soccer coach, however. Luma’s league is composed of three well-stocked teams, and the players’ stories are just as remarkable as their coach’s. Though her tough-love attitude at first serves to intimidate some players, over time the bond created goes beyond that typical of coaches and players. Luma considers her players and their kin to be her surrogate family, and her kindness and generosity toward them are in keeping with typical family behavior. From helping translate important bills to sorting out financial scams, from filling up empty pantries to coordinating discipline with mothers who can’t be present to keep an eye on their children themselves, Luma runs herself ragged caring for the refugees who become more than simply players on her soccer team.

Outcasts United is a story about soccer, relocation, the struggles that refugees face, the extraordinary determination of a single woman, and the unbelievable good that athletics can do. It’s composed of an array of intertwined stories with individual origins centuries old and thousands of miles apart. St. John’s book is at times heart-wrenching, but ultimately inspiring.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar - Cheryl Strayed I’m beginning to think that Cheryl Strayed is one of the most remarkable humans I could ever know (in the figurative rather than literally knowing her personally sense). With wit and humor and wisdom and personality and so much heart you can’t stand it, Strayed, under the auspices of “Sugar,” maintained an anonymous advice column for The Rumpus website which has now been compiled into a brilliant single volume entitled Tiny Beautiful Things. Not usually one for advice columns (I can’t stand the idea that people actually compose a frivolous letter to ask such trivial questions as what to buy as a hostess gift or how to handle a dispute about which European country to travel to for a family vacation when the answer is painfully and obviously to just have a conversation about it!), I kept this one on the shelf for a while before I felt compelled to crack its spine. I adored Strayed’s memoir Wild but couldn’t jive with the advice column format, much as I knew her readers would have more profound and heavy questions than your standard ladies’ magazine fare.

Shoving my biases and fears aside, I plunged right in on my lunch break one day, ready to toss the book if I wasn’t smitten after the first 40 minutes of reading. I was won over in just 5.

At first, the thing I found most remarkable about Dear Sugar’s column was the vast array of life experience she has to draw from. Nearly every response to her readers includes an anecdote from her own life; her horrendous loss of innocence at age three, the heartbreaking tragedy of losing her mother, sweet moments with her husband who she adorably refers to as Mr. Sugar, vast suffering, trials and tribulations from parenting, countless friends who’ve cried upon her shoulder for reasons she recounts in order to help readers find their way. The fragmented pieces of her life are revealed in each response as isolated events, but we can still string together from them, and the general timbre of her writing, an idea of who Cheryl is, how she faces life, embracing the messy, awful, fullness of existence with a go-get-‘em attitude. The Dear Sugar column wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if she only had those negative stories to share, rendering her obvious appetite for life all the more vital and worthy of imitation. So while it’s true that Cheryl has had to endure far more tragic experiences in her lifetime than anyone ever should, she doesn’t shy away from life in the least; she has determined her own fullness of existence, accepting, pursuing, embracing the range of glorious and breathtaking along with the awful and ugly.

Anyone can identify a time in their life when they felt heartbroken, despairing, confused, at a crossroads, or any of the other ways we feel when life throws us a curve ball that requires some coaching to hit. But it is a rare gift to take those uniquely personal emotional experiences and relate them to a reader enduring such specifically different struggles. Cheryl thoughtfully identifies the universality in each letter she receives, and ultimately it is that ability, rather than an exceptional depth of experience, which allows her to meaningfully connect with each and every reader in her responses. By thinking critically about her reader’s concerns and treating them with all the respect, concern, and dignity deserving of a dear friend, Dear Sugar is able to transcend the advice column format to a whole new level of connection, guidance, and healing. The result is an inspiring, invigorating, capable-of-restoring-your-faith-in-humanity thing to behold.

Sugar’s readers provide her with questions as varied as relationship uncertainties to which we all can relate, brutal personal roadblocks in life that need to be overcome, family shackles, crossroads decision-making, parenting advice. Letters came from jilted lovers, happy halves of strong relationships, recovering-addicts, young and naive twentysomethings, world-weary middle-aged readers, mournful souls, writers with strength of character bleeding through their words. No matter what the situation or who the writer, Cheryl’s responses are full of wisdom and spunk, not only educational for the letter writer but enjoyable for a reader of any kind.

I was completely moved by how totally Cheryl gave herself over to readers, allowing herself to lose sleep over their letters, putting her whole heart into providing (brutally) honest answers that we would normally expect only from the closest, if not harshest, of friends. But every response was fueled by love, as Cheryl softened the necessary firmness of her responses with validation of each reader’s feelings and a gentle understanding of the struggles that compel someone to write a stranger for an answer, complete with endearments like honey bun and sweet pea. I was amazed, not just by the strength and wisdom of the content of Cheryl’s answers, but in her absolute mastery of the advice column craft, how perfectly balanced her responses were in tone and form, how deeply attuned to people given the brevity of their inquiries.

You may not be experiencing any major crises, crossroads, or turning points in your life. Uncertainty may be a vague memory from the past, pain only a dull ache that your heart has not had to endure for years. But still Dear Sugar holds something for you. This book is not just for the troubled, confused, or heartbroken; it is a meditation on the human condition, the sufferings large and small that make up our lives and how in the world we’re supposed to rise up and meet them. Her refrain is continually that the answers lie within; we write to Sugar because we fail to trust our instincts, because we need someone to validate what we know we need to do, because we require reassurance to take control of our own lives, because we seek permission to allow ourselves pleasure and generosity and kindness. Downright essential in a crisis, the affirmations that Cheryl provides under the auspices of Dear Sugar are nourishment for anyone intending to lead a fuller life with confidence and grace and the very best of human instinct.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot Reading Skloot’s account of Henrietta Lacks’ life and legacy is a deeply rewarding experience, and the true story recounted within this book speaks volumes on racial and social inequality, medicine, family, and ethics.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in the early 1950s but made untold posthumous contributions to medical science. She came from humble beginnings in Clover, Virginia, a member of a large tobacco-farming family. Lacks later moved with her husband to the Baltimore area, taking advantage of industrial job opportunities in the hopes that Henrietta and her husband could provide a better life for their children than what they had known. As a twentysomething mother of four with a fifth child on the way, Lacks felt a hard lump in her cervix which she believed to be cancerous. Seeking treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Henrietta suffered through radiation therapy and the painful spread of cancer to innumerable other organs. At the age of 31, Henrietta succumbed to the disease that spread throughout her body, leaving behind a husband, five children, and a multitude of close relations.

But while at Hopkins, a sample of Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells were taken and submersed in culture medium, as was routinely done with cells from a whole host of Hopkins patients. Unlike the cells provided by other Hopkins patients, which often died within a few days, Henrietta’s grew at an unbelievable rate. George Gey was the head of tissue culture research at the hospital at the time, and he was quite generous with his stock of Henrietta’s seemingly immortal cells. Gey shared a few batches with other researchers who, in turn, were happy to share some of Henrietta’s cells with still more researchers since their initial batches multiplied so quickly. These cells, known within the medical community as HeLa cells, have been credited with assisting in some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the past sixty years, from the polio vaccine to cancer research, gene mapping, and cloning. But Henrietta’s permission was never secured before taking these cells and her husband only consented to a partial autopsy after much resistance. Further, the Lacks family did not realize until many years later that Henrietta’s cells were still living or that they had contributed to so many medical discoveries and research profits.

Skloot’s book covers not only the medical miracle of Henrietta’s cells, but also the racial, class, and ethical questions raised by the very existence of HeLa cells. In relentless pursuit of the Lacks family, Skloot travels to Baltimore and Clover, endlessly calling the Lacks family members to gather information for her book. Henrietta’s children were all reasonably distrustful of white people – the only time anyone with white skin tried to contact them, it was about Henrietta’s cells and it always left them feeling taken advantage of and unfairly treated. The refraining argument made by the Lacks family and Skloot is how their mother’s cells could provide so much to medicine, yet leave them unable to afford health insurance. Many members of the Lacks family had little education and thus a limited ability to grasp the complexity and details of how HeLa cells have been used. Though many of Henrietta’s children express great happiness to know that their mother’s cells have helped so many people in untold ways, it is a complicated and uneasy happiness, wrought with misunderstanding and the wrenching sadness of loss.

Much as Skloot attempts to uncover Henrietta’s story for readers, she also does so for the sake of Henrietta’s family since her children were so young at the time of her death. Skloot’s persistence as well as her sensitivity to the Lacks’ situation and her desire to share the story of the woman whose cells are so famous eventually help her break through to Henrietta’s children, in particular her daughter Deborah. Deborah has no memories of her mother and wants to learn more about Henrietta, to see her and understand how her cells can still be alive although she is not. Though Deborah is the family member to whom Skloot grows most close, even she was never fully trusting of her mother’s biographer. Deborah would only agree to go on long trips with Rebecca if they took separate cars and she frequently making frantic late-night calls to Skloot, questioning her intentions. Much of Skloot’s book rests upon not Henrietta’s story so much as that of her children, who are dealing with the repercussions of being HeLa’s kin and grappling with all that they never knew.

Ethical dilemmas are considered as well – in fact, Skloot devotes much of her afterword to the tissue rights debate, a realm of activism I never knew existed but have had a difficult time fleshing out. Henrietta Lacks is not the only person whose cells have made huge profits for scientists and the medical field, but her story has been by far the most unjustly obscured. Skloot does much justice to the myriad arguments for and against tissue rights at the end of her book, appropriately building upon her thorough exploration of the Lacks family’s experience.

Skloot gives voice to Henrietta and her family who, for far too long, were severed from the legacy of HeLa cells. By providing a name, a history, a family, and a voice for the woman who sacrificed these cells, Skloot forces readers to recognize the innumerable questions embedded in medical research ethics and their undeniable connections to issues of social and racial inequality.

Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered - E.F. Schumacher “A Study of Economics as if People Mattered” is the tagline for Small is Beautiful but don’t think this is a boring book on supply and demand. Schumacher doesn’t focus on economics as we traditionally think of the subject, but rather, on how we think about economics, business, and what is right. He challenges the assumption that bigger is always better on a multitude of levels and has made such logical and persuasive arguments as to propel this work to the status of a classic.

So what exactly does Schumacher have to say about our economic, social, and political systems? First of all, he believes that size is everything because, the larger the size of any private enterprise, the greater impersonality, insensitivity to human needs, and reach for even greater power. As an alternative, small systems allow for freedom, creativity, sustainability, and even morality. The modern world measures progress by a simplistic and unrealistic one-dimensional meter. Profit is the only factor used to gauge success, without any attention paid to human and environmental costs, morality, truth, social factors, and more. His main belief is that “[man] is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful. To go for giantism is to go for self-destruction.” This pattern of self-destruction on the road to what appears bigger and better repeats itself over and over in Schumacher’s discussion of everything from business to the environment to international aid.

Schumacher directs plenty of attention to our consumption of non-renewable resources. We fail to wisely categorize capital into two sets of camps: natural vs. man-made and renewable vs. non-renewable. In failing to do so, we mistakenly assign profit value to natural resources instead of capital value. We treat these resources, particularly fossil fuels, as though they were a limitless creation at the hands of man. Schumacher argues that, were we to conceptualize these as the natural capital items they are, we would do everything in our power to conserve them, irreplaceable as they are. Instead, we rely on them more and more with each coming year and have set ourselves on a collision course for disaster, as there will inevitably come the day when we have sucked all of our non-renewables completely dry and we’re unable to maintain our methods of feeding ourselves, housing ourselves, and simply living our lives. Schumacher argues that we need to recognize the dangers of this future now but, more importantly, we have to stop talking and start acting now. We can’t afford to start employing sustainable lifestyles once our fossil fuels are eliminated – we need to change our lifestyles today.

Small is Beautiful also looks at our conceptions of peace, its origins and its attainability. Greed and envy drive men today in such a way as to make peace virtually impossible. Vice blinds us to the most essential of human problems, while driving up those one-dimensional measures of success, like Gross National Product (GNP). We think that simply increasing government involvement, doing more research, and employing more complicated technologies will all, eventually, cure social ills. Schumacher argues that greed, envy, an the expansion of needs are all destructive to the very foundations of peace, namely happiness, intelligence, and serenity. Universal prosperity will not yield peace as so many of us like to believe. Peace will only be discovered when man decides to search for wisdom, to seek goodness and virtue. And this is where Schumacher’s argument against one-dimensional economics really shines. Without an eye to wisdom, spirituality, and truth, economics, science, and technology will fail to create fruitful, appropriate, and lasting solutions to the reality of our world’s very human problems. “Systems are never more or less than incarnations of man’s most basic attitudes.” Without changing our attitudes, ending our idolization of material goods, avoiding greed and envy, and valuing peace, charity, and kindness, we cannot hope to create a peaceful and fair system, economic or otherwise.

I could draft dozens of posts on Schumacher’s work and still not cover all the wise, innovative, and inspiring arguments that he brings to the table in favor of downsizing. Instead, I’ll offer a brief listing of all the topics touched upon in this dense 3128-page volume.

The benefits of small-scale enterprise
Buddhist economics
The irreconcilability of infinite material progress within a finite world
The limitations of science as a producer of ideas by which to live
The essential differences between agriculture and industry that make the two incompatible
The need to move away from mass production in lieu of production by the (currently unemployed) masses
The need to direct aid toward education, knowledge, experience, and other sustainable, intellectual goods
How to combat the disintegration of rural life and mass migration to poverty-stricken metropolitan districts

Even though Schumacher recognizes that final solutions do not exist to curing the ills of our economic system. We need to find balance in our day to day life between our need for material goods and the immobility of life completely absent consumption. A compromise involving our desire for progress and our narrow profit-driven definitions of it must be reached. The problems which face our society, in terms of our economic structure, are vast and varied. But they are also rooted in a few sole principles and values that need be challenged. Schumacher lays out the framework that allows us to envision a new economy, one that values truth and wisdom, that takes account of the human factor, that believes small is beautiful.

Eating Animals

Eating Animals - Jonathan Safran Foer Most of you probably know Jonathan Safran Foer as the author behind Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He’s also husband to fellow writer Nicole Krauss, who herself is author of The History of Love and Man Walks Into a Room, also a great piece of thought-provoking and meaningful fiction. This is an undeniably talented literary couple.

I was intrigued when I first heard of Foer’s latest literary effort entitled Eating Animals. I was curious as to the sort of style or approach Foer would take on such a topic as vegetarianism, food culture, and factory farming. Though the book was bound to be good, would it just be a repeat of the information we’re fed by the Michael Pollans of the world (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of those types) or would Foer bring to light a whole new arena? Though I wouldn’t say he completely unveiled a world previously unvisited in food non-fiction, Eating Animals has definitely forged a new place amongst the increasingly-popular sect of food culture literature.

Foer sets out to learn more about the meat we eat as he prepares for the birth of his first son. This book is a meditation on what food, and meat in particular, has meant to him at various points throughout his life, but also a more logical and oftentimes disturbingly realistic look at where this food comes from – and how we need to reshape some of those meanings as individuals and as an eating culture.

As my friend Sarah, who also highly recommends this book, pointed out, Foer’s account of the way in which farmers raise the animals we eat is highly readable and a bit more narrative in form than the accounts of some of his counterparts. While the content itself is quite disparaging if not downright disturbing, Foer offers us a look at some of the factory farming practices that are both cruel and detrimental to our health. He creates compelling arguments as to why we should abstain from eating meat, at least the meat which is produced by the most widespread and common practices, that play on everything from empathy for animals to logic regarding our future, the environment, and our health.

This book isn’t necessarily a plea to turn to vegetarianism. Though Foer is a vegetarian and poses plenty of reasonable arguments for choosing to do so, his main purpose is to further understand the implications of eating animals and how to lessen, if not eliminate, those which are detrimental to people, humans, and the world at large. Though he may not encourage you to completely rule out all meat products, Foer will at least give you cause for pause in purchasing and consuming your proteins.

Just a few of the alarming bits of information and poignant truths revealed in reading Eating Animals:

Industrial agriculture has transformed conceptions of farm animals as machines rather than living beings. And in so doing, we’ve kept meat, eggs, and dairy costs relatively low, while other significant costs of living, such as housing and transportation, are escalating at rates far beyond those of food. I understand the necessity of low cost meals, but I also think we need to give consideration to why animal proteins are currently cheaper than ever before (taking inflation into account) – because the methods used to produce these food items are driven by profit margins, with no regard for consumer health, the environment, or the most basic fundamentals of humane behavior.
“Americans choose to eat less than .25% of the known edible food on the planet.” Though this statistic is not directly related to our meat consumption, as a food-lover it makes me quite sad. Think of all the deliciously exotic and delightfully unknown food possibilities out there that we eschew in favor of mass-produced, antibiotic-injected proteins.
“Deciding what to eat (and what to toss overboard) is the founding act of production and consumption that shapes all others. Choosing leaf or flesh, factory farm or family farm, does in itself change the world, but teaching ourselves, our children, our local communities, and our nation to choose conscience over ease can. One of the greatest opportunities to live our values – or betray them – lies in the food we put on our plates. And we will live or betray our values not only as individuals, but as nations.”
“Not making a decision – eating ‘like everyone else’ – is to make the easiest decision, a decision that is increasingly problematic.”
“Responding to the factory farm calls for a capacity to care that dwells beyond information, and beyond the opposites of desire and reason, fact and myth, and even human and animal.”
“Our response to the factory farm is ultimately a test of how we respond to the powerless, to the most distant, to the voiceless – it is a test of how we act when no one is forcing us to act one way or another. Consistency is not required, but engagement with the problem is.” This point really stuck with me. I’m often overwhelmed by the sheer number of things that I want to fix with the world (hunger, labor issues, poverty, homelessness, the environment, the food system, etc. etc.) and have difficulty deciding which battles to fight first. Foer gives me reason to believe that I don’t need to decide, that they’re all intertwined and that every action we take, whether publicly picketing or privately eating, can take on the ramifications of positive activism. In constantly making thoughtful and careful choices aligned with our beliefs, we can affect change in a wide range of seemingly disparate areas.

I could go on and on about this stuff and how I think consumerism is at the bottom of so much of what is wrong with this world. But I’ll leave it at this: if you care about animal rights, worker’s rights, healthy eating, organics, the environment, global warming, hunger, poverty, consumerism, capitalism, infectious disease, vegetarianism, veganism, the health and well-being of future generations, the health and well-being of yourself and your loved ones – pick up this book. You don’t need to be radical or even a devoted activist to make an impact, it can begin by simply educating yourself, making informed choices, and passing on those seemingly small decisions and meanings to others. And then, hopefully, along the way a certain frame of consciousness will take hold, both collectively and among individuals, to make a call for obvious, necessary, and humane change.

Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream

Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream - William Powers The idea of living in a 12 foot by 12 foot cabin is likely more appealing and trendy today than it’s ever been before. I see articles about tiny houses flood my feed on facebook, posts that represent more of a fascination rather than a sense of disgust with how people are able to so remarkably downsize their lives. But William Powers took on the experiment of living small in 2007, before it was trendy to do so. And the extremely modest home he occupied belonged to Jackie Benton long before Powers’ stay there began. For these two, living 12 by 12 is more about a new way of life, commonly referred to among its proponents as “wildcrafting,” than just mere downsizing.

Fueled by admiration for Jackie, Powers recounts his stay in her home for a few months during the year 2007 while Jackie was away on travel. Without running water or electricity, Jackie was able to subsist largely off the land through the gardens surrounding her home and the alternative solutions she utilized for energy, bathing, and the like. Living in such a small space was partially a political move for her – structures which dimensions less than 12 feet by 12 feet are not considered to be houses in North Carolina, thus requiring no property tax payments. Jackie chose these dimensions for just such a purpose, similar to how she downsized her income as a doctor to about $11,000 a year in order to avoid income tax requirements. Dr. Benton was not a tax evader, but rather a citizen practicing nonviolent protest against tax money being devoted to war.

These types of thoughtful decisions infused nearly every aspect of Jackie’s life, so it was nearly impossible for Powers to not model some of his decisions after Jackie’s while staying at her place. What seems at first to be an account of an environmentally-minded lifestyle experiment comes to encompass a whole host of questions about the status quo and how we lead our lives. There are also profiles of the neighbors, other figures trying their hand at similar lifestyle experiments, accounts of Powers’ conversations with visitors who just don’t understand and then other exchanges with people who truly do get it. He compares his domestic simple living experience with his international travels, finding startling similarities between many of those people he purported to help in “underdeveloped” nations and Jackie, her neighbors, and even himself. And he details the simple days of traveling through the woods around his temporary home, observing nature without distraction or obtrusion.

Powers writes with a sharp self-criticism, casting Jackie’s chosen path against his own efforts to save the world through international aid. The two both lead intentional and meaningful lives, however our narrator questions his previous jet-fueled travels as efforts at assimilating those who tread lightly in third world nations to the environmentally-cumbersome lifestyle of Westerners. It is patently obvious in the best way that he spent much time and consideration on these issues before setting pen to paper, that he poured over every angle and challenged his own perspective before putting any of his views in print. A philosophic personality to start, Powers’ time spent leading a leisurely, self-subsisting life alongside other equally minded people obviously provided ample opportunity for him to dwell on a variety of ethical and philosophic issues, and the results are endlessly intriguing. I found myself repeatedly earmarking pages for further consideration and seeking anyone with whom I could discuss the ideas introduced to me by this remarkable narrator. There is so much thought packed into this 260-page volume, that I felt the need, almost immediately after finishing, to start from page 1 again in order to fully process all the information my mind was only beginning to process.

While writing about his occupation of the 12 x 12, Powers seems to anticipate all the questions I want to ask, raising them to himself as soon as they arise. Will he be able to maintain such a sustainable, wildcrafted lifestyle once Jackie comes back to her home? How do you reconcile the newfound philosophies of a 12 x 12 lifestyle with the environmental sins of your past? It was refreshing to see Powers ask those questions that were on the tip of my tongue, and to see him shamelessly admit to sometimes not knowing the answer. He even changed his answers, as more truths revealed themselves to him and changed his perspective on previously addressed topics.

I was not expecting this to be a story of inequality and racial progress, but since Jackie worked tirelessly as a civil rights activist, strains of thought related to racial division in the South infused Powers’ stay in the cabin. The result: an entirely thorough and intelligent analysis of all facets necessary to truly lead a sustainable lifestyle. Signs of the South’s history of slavery abounded and further evidence of enduring inequality surrounded Powers, from the old sharecroppers’ houses he encountered on long walks to the nearby chicken factory staffed largely by Latinos, to his neighbors’ attitude toward the Hispanic families living nearby. Powers’ concerns about inequality were so intertwined with his efforts to lead a sustainable existence while living at Jackie’s that the resulting narrative covers a range of ethical and moral questions – inequality, Third- and First-world notions of development, workaholism, addiction, consumption, ecocide – with the grace and wisdom that I’ve come to see as characteristic of Powers’ writing.

But despite the volume and depth of Powers’ ideas, this piece is far from inaccessible or alienatingly-intellectual. Powers’ thoughts are lofty but introduced through the everyday experiences that introduced them, drawing an easy to follow chain along which readers can connect the 12 by 12 concept to other principles of living, moral dilemmas, and social questions. Twelve By Twelve unquestionably proves how inextricably intertwined all the facets of leading an ethical lifestyle can be. As soon as he decided to live in a more environmentally sustainable way, Powers questioned his commitment to Western ideals of development, American workaholism, how we relate to others with different backgrounds than our own, our addiction to technology, and so much more. We cannot choose to align our lives to our values in piecemeal ways; rather, we must question the whole of it. If not, all the non-choices that have shaped our lives for so long without question will soon enough be thrown in the fray after the first small change is initiated.

Powers recognizes the way in which he takes 12 by 12 to an extreme; in fact, he is forced to re-evaluate his understanding of the wildcrafted lifestyle while still occupying Jackie’s cabin. His unfaltering commitment to the idyllic conception of 12 by 12 begins to render the entire challenge useless as he finds himself judging others and experiencing discontent. Ultimately he uncovers a more balanced understanding of his and Jackie’s reconceptualized American dream, but his long-term transformation post-12 by 12 is ground in mindfulness practice. What Powers gained the most from his rather isolated, meditative time as a wildcrafter was the ability to think calmly, carefully, and thoroughly in each and every present moment.

Meditating and captivating, Twelve by Twelve challenges the contours of the American dream by profiling an exemplar of how we can achieve through other means the ultimate purpose of said dream: happiness. And his book impacted me in the best way, both encouraging me to question my current lifestyle choices and inspiring me to change. At times surprising, restlessly thought-provoking, and a great discussion piece, Twelve by Twelve left me itching for more and completely invigorated with a more holistic, mindful, and optimistic take on life.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage - Ann Patchett One of the longest and earliest essays featured in this collection recounts Patchett’s method of composition, how she creates an entire story in her head before ever putting pen to paper. She argues that developing a story is one of the easiest parts of fiction writing; all you need is a character or two and then you simply ask questions about those characters, put them in situations of all sorts, delve into their past experiences to understand why they are however you imagine them to be. You will find that you begin to write what you know, argues Patchett, but it won’t be long before something of interest develops too. In Patchett’s able voice, the construction of a novel sounds like a lovely pastime, a sort of daydreaming on a higher level. While I envy her ability to so effortlessly create interesting and engaging fiction, I have no desire to become a novelist. Nonetheless, it sure was interesting to read about and I almost wanted to try my hand at a short story or two. That’s the power of Ann Patchett.

Although entitled This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett’s essay collection is not solely about marriage and relationships, nor confined to her love of writing as the beginning of this review may suggest. Prior to picking this volume up, I knew little of Patchett and that is probably a large part of why I found this collection so intriguing. Essays are one of my favorite forms – I love how one writer’s nonfiction, read in close succession, can provide such a strongly nuanced feeling of a person. Every essay collection I’ve had the pleasure to read has been brimming with wisdom and left me feeling delightfully inspired and positive about life. Although there are certainly staple essay topics found in most volume across writers, each collection retains a highly specific and undefinable feeling in my mind, wrought by the particular author’s sensibility, writing style, and choice of topic.

Patchett and I don’t share nearly as much in common as I do with some other beloved essayists on my list, like Barbara Kingsolver and Jonathan Franzen. A child of divorce, a divorcee herself, a Southerner, a lover of Los Angeles, childless, and a product of a Catholic school education, Patchett’s upbringing and life experiences could not be further from my own. Voyeurism of sorts played a role in my fascination with this book. Her first marriage, doomed before it even began, is at once entirely foreign and alarmingly familiar, the type of relationship that someone could so easily fall into and, unlike Patchett, never emerge from. She explains her marriage as being ground in divorce in an essay that she wisely placed at the end as it trumped all the other relationship woes and advice previously disseminated. The close friendship Ann develops in later life with the nun who taught her to read and write in primary school is touchingly funny and still unfathomable to me, the child of vaguely Catholic parents who only shared horror stories about nuns during their Catholic school days. I find myself thankful for her account of training for the Los Angeles Police Academy, one of those experiences I’d much rather read about than try my own hand at. And of course, I was complete won over (and nearly brought to tears) with meditations on Patchett’s beloved dog Rose and her deeply adored maternal grandmother, a woman Ann cared for in the later years of her life.

Her friendship with Lucy Grealy is the subject of a controversial but touching convocation address at Clemson, leading into Patchett’s arguments for the right to read. Though she later goes on to admonish herself for the naivete of her speech, Patchett’s words rung so true to me: “A college education is about expansion. It’s about seeing many different viewpoints, hearing many different voices. You will find that the more you learn, the more complicated many things get, because you will have the intelligence to recognize many aspects of a single idea.” Maybe I was particularly drawn to this bit of wisdom because it sums up my hunger for essays, especially the type that Patchett composed and compiled in this book. I find myself eager to read anything of this form as a means to learn from people similar to and different from myself. The essay has a fairly express purpose of making a point, not veiling themes in metaphor and symbolism as a more artful novel would, but explicitly structuring anecdotes and arguments in thoughtful ways to evoke an idea.

I’m not sure what I can say to adequately prepare readers for this collection without denying them the pleasure of discovering and evaluating Patchett’s wisdom on their own. As Ann suggests, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes my world delightfully more complicated. Her engaging essay collection marks one more contribution to the multitude of ideas, big and small, planted in my head by a wide range of thinkers and writers. This book is a brilliant example of why I love to read.

Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming

Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming - Bjørn Lomborg From Al Gore to Kyoto, from sea level rise to fatal disease, Bjorn Lomborg tackles it all in his book Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. Having seen a preview for Lomborg’s movie which spreads the message of his book, I was intrigued and decided to see what it was all about. I’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth, I’m completed my share of reading on environmental issues and strategies for doing my small part, and I consider myself to be a citizen who cares about the world in which she lives. Though I’m still skeptical of some of the research that Lomborg himself is advancing, his 164 page book offered a concise and clearly thought-out argument for tackling other more feasible issues before the environment in order to take the time to more efficiently and intelligently handle the global warming crisis.

Lomborg doesn’t really buy into the crisis of global warming. The language of terror and fear in which environmental issues are coated rings grossly over-exagerrated to him. Throughout the course of Cool It, he provides evidence to the contrary of what you may have learned from Al Gore or what you think you know about the Kyoto agreement. Ultimately, though we should still do what we can to reduce CO2 emissions, doing so will not make a big enough dent to halt environmental change. We are focusing on fruitless and inefficient potential solutions to a misconstrued problem and Lomborg urges us to think in terms of improving the quality of life and the environment, rather than allowing ourselves to get caught up in focusing upon on aspect of the environmental damage we are causing. He advocates utilizing a cost-benefits analysis when looking at the environment because so many of our expensive efforts do much less than their worth.

With a decidedly optimistic view of climate change, Lomborg does not believe that the future will be as bleak as everyone claims these days and definitely not as quickly as popular research believes. Backed largely by research from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the argument is that the global temperature will warm less than 5 degrees by the end of this century. And though temperature rise may not seem desirable, it actually will lead to a decrease in cold deaths, which already outweigh heat deaths worldwide. At the same time, the change in temperature, so says Lomborg, will not be substantial enough as to increase heat deaths because humans are far more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for. Plus, we’ve got AC. Overall, the average global temperature statistics are hard to go by because different hemispheres and climes of the world will change in different ways over the years. Essentially what is most important to take away from the IPCC’s research is that every heat wave is not an indicator of global warming, that our temperatures are not going to sky rocket as we thought, that subtle temperature increases may be better for humanity, and, most importantly, that there are ways we can deal with warmer climes because we’ve dealt with it before (when we had even fewer technologies and resources at our disposal) in the last century.

Among the various analyses Lomborg provides, let me give you an example. In cities, temperatures are likely to rise more quickly because there is less vegetation and more heat-absorbing building materials, such as brick, asphalt, and tarmac, creating what are known as urban heat islands. Rather than making costly efforts to reduce CO2 emissions only, Lomborg suggests other more affordable, simple, and accessible solutions. Paint black tarmac and buildings white to attract less heat and plant more vegetation to increase moisture and cool the air. These efforts could reduce temperatures in cities by more than the 5 degrees that they are expected to rise in the coming century – giving us a net lower temperature. And in his signature cost-benefit analysis, Lomborg shows us that taking these efforts in Los Angeles, though initially costing $1 billion, would annually save $170 million in air conditioning and $360 million in smog-reduction. It wouldn’t take too long for the annual benefits to outweigh the one initial cost.

But Lomborg doesn’t just look at the environment in this book. He’ll fight your fears about rising sea levels, global temperature increases, potential mass flooding, an impending Ice Age, catastrophic changes in the Gulf Stream, and global warming contributing to an increase in major natural disasters with solid factual evidence and a realistic look at the changes in our modern world. A lot of the fear-mongering that occurs among the major player in the environmental dialogue compare modern day damages, both real and hypothetical, with those of the past. But doing so in like comparing apples to oranges. For instance, Hurricane Katrina, which was a category 3 hurricane, wrecked unparalleled havoc on New Orleans. But in looking back at hurricanes that have occurred in the area since 1900, Katrina was by far not the largest or most dangerous as a natural disaster. The real tragedy and the reason Katrina has become a poster child of sorts for evil natural disasters is because so many people were affected by it. In years prior, fewer people were living at the coast, they had fewer possessions and less wealth, and thus any disaster would have affected a smaller contingent of people with less to lose. Katrina caused so many irreparable damages by virtue of the fact that she struck a highly populated area in the 21 century when people have more things that are in danger of being destroyed. We can’t just say Katrina was a hurricane like no other that can only be explained by the global warming crisis – to do so would be largely inaccurate and would miss the point entirely. And to do so would really be an injustice as we can learn some valuable lessons from Katrina. There is nothing humans could have done to have stopped the category 3 hurricane that hit, however, there is much more we can do to educate and prepare people in the future. Better support systems for buildings, citizens informed of evacuation routes and escape protocols, and increased knowledge about the dangers of living in such coastal areas could all help us better prepare for and recover from any such future disasters. Reducing CO2 emissions or demonizing our fellow humans for wreaking havoc on the environment will do little to positively impact any potential future Hurricane Katrinas.

Again and again we see that we’re focusing on the wrong issues and framing them in the least effective ways. And improperly framing a problem will no doubt lead to an ineffective solution. Lomborg takes the time to focus on other major issues the world over that we can do something about – HIV/AIDS, malaria, hunger. These are issues that are more pressing than global warming, he argues, but also have much more achievable solutions. And throughout the course of Cool It, like an annoying voice inside your head, Lomborg repeats again and again that if we can ensure the health, safety, and survival of more people all over the world, then there will be more people with the potential of developing the technologies and ideas to further reduce whatever threats global warming may pose. In first securing the needs of a population, we can then move on to less fundamental but still important issues – and we’ll have more people who will be willing and able to contribute to the discussion. Once again, we need to look at things through the cost-benefit lens. Is it more beneficial to prioritize less costly issues that will equip us with more people to tackle slightly lower priorities? I think yes. In talking about global warming and its impending threats, we are called on to thing about our future and the future of our children. Sure, we want them to live in a healthy and stable environment, but don’t we also want them to live, to eat, to be healthy and free of disease too? We can’t tackle all the social ills in one lifetime, or even one century, but we can prioritize intelligently to tackle the most pressing problems with viable solutions first.

The only issue I really have with Cool It comes to food production. I don’t know all sides of the story, but I do think that for the health and viability of our sustenance, in terms of maximal nutritional content and sufficient dietary diversity, it is important to have better and more authentic methods of production. Lomborg talks about food availability and how it has increased dramatically since the 1960s and 70s. However, we aren’t distributing the food adequately, which Lomborg points out. But we also need to keep in mind that more food isn’t necessarily good. Sure we want enough to feed ourselves without worry but when we are producing more than our daily caloric needs, where does the excess food go? Well normally we eat it, then we gain weight and increase our risk of disease and unhealthy patterns. Or the food goes to waste and usually isn’t put back into the soil to improve next year’s lot, but rather tossed in the garbage. We need to focus less on how much we produce and more on what we produce. Lomborg references agriculture models that predict large increases in food availability – “more than a doubling of cereal production over the coming century.” I love cereal and that’s all well and good for breakfast, but what about the fresh fruits and vegetables that contain our most essential vitamins and minerals? What about all the fields of corn crops that are producing nutritionally inadequate corn syrup to make those cereals? These fields are not only using up valuable land on which we could be producing more viable sources of sustenance, they are also going to cereals and other sugary and processed foods on which we can’t hope to maintain a healthy existence.

But I digress. Lomborg’s arguments are not flawless, but they are fairly tough, well thought-out, and accessibly described. He ultimately wants us to know that, though decreasing CO2 emissions is a noble goal, it isn’t one that is affordable or realistic, or even all that necessary when so many other potential solutions would provide a bigger bang for our government’s buck. Lomborg is optimistic about the future, about the environmental changes that could actually improve some of our living conditions. I remain skeptical, however, of the ability of social policy to change. So many Americans have been bombarded with messages of imminent environmental ruin and have been scared into advocating change. We need to educated everyone about the reality of the issue and our potential to more effectively handle other important issues that are just as pressing if not more. Education and knowledge are ultimately what we need to focus on – if we want to improve our lives and those of future generations, we need to ensure that people know the best solutions for and methods of doing so. Otherwise policy will never change and the social issues that Lomborg, the IPCC, and many other compassionate souls the world over care about and recognize as needing attention, will never get the spotlight they deserve. And though I am wary when it comes to population issues, I also agree with Lomborg that a more healthy and vital future population, though larger than the numbers we are currently struggling with, will likely be more wealthy with the potential to thrive and to conduct more research and development to avert whatever global warming crisis is imminent. By taking the time to more thoroughly understand the environmental issues and what is at stake, we can better adjust our efforts to curb the damage. But first, maybe we should turn our eyes to humanitarian issues about which we can currently do more.

Ultimately, Lomborg’s Cool It provides a new method of understanding the environmental debate and proposes new solutions to it. He calls out the fear-mongerers and assuages our worries with less frightening evidence of potentially positive changes. He takes an optimistic view of the future and sets it forth in an easy to understand, accessible, and relatively short book that makes a whole lot of sense. The cost-benefit analysis when applied to so many aspects of the global warming crisis calls for a new method of conceptualizing the environment, however this reconceptualization needs to take place at a level larger than us individuals. There is little we can do on our own beyond urging policymakers to change and it is this that leaves me still skeptical. I can envision Lomborg’s changes for improving our lives and environment, but the most important question is, can we make them a reality?

Moranthology

Moranthology - Caitlin Moran Caitlin Moran has quite quickly taken up residence as one of my new favorite writers. Though she is a renowned columnist across the pond, it all started for me with her New York Times bestselling book How to Be A Woman, a memoir of Caitlin’s girl- and womanhood. Spanning all matter of subjects relating to the fairer sex, Moran tackled pubic hair, abortion, undergarments, high heels, and motherhood in one seamless, hilarious, intelligent, and winning volume.

After that one, I couldn’t get enough Moran and so sought out her next book, Moranthology. Similar in structure to How to Be a Woman, Moranthology is a series of essays on an array of topics that Moran handles with her trademark wit, sass, and wisdom. The content of the second book is a bit more varied than the first, including topics such as the Royal Wedding, her interview with Keith Richards, arguments for the preservation of chivalry, and the importance of libraries, but her reflections on each one were a bit brief for my tastes. The majority of the essays in the book are actually columns and articles that Moran had published previously, reprinted here for easy reading in all their concise glory. With each essay occupying little more than three pages on average, I felt as though I got to know Moran more widely than before, but not nearly as deeply.

Moranthology is highly entertaining, as has come to be expected of anything written by Ms. Moran, and a quick yet satisfying read. I aspire to be like Moran one day – making a living by writing about whatever quirky curiosity or everyday mundanity happens to light a fire under my essayist ass on a particular day. Despite her at times light-hearted approach to an array of subject matters, Moran demonstrates a thoughtfulness about the modern world that few pop culture commentators or members of the media possess. But it is this wisdom and depth that I wish Moranthology had provided more of – I found myself yearning for just a bit more out of each essay, hoping to prolong my move on to the next piece and the end of the book.

Gabriel García Márquez: a Life

Gabriel García Márquez: a Life - Gerald Martin Recently I embarked on a daunting and arduous task: completing Gerald Martin’s biography of Colombian writer Gabriel “Gabo” Garcia Marquez. For Martin this was the work of a lifetime, quite literally; the biographer devoted 17 years to this passion project, conducting research and intensive interviews with over 300 individuals all in Spanish (though the book was first published in English).

While I never thought I could complete such an exhaustive study of one single, though undeniably worthy, individual, the biography reads much more like a narrative rather than an intensive listing of the events, places, names, and dates that make up a life as many biographies can quickly become. In fact, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life is highly reminiscent of the famed subject’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, though this may be because so much of his fiction is based on his own life (or maybe because of Martin’s serious emulation for, and unintentional imitation of, Garcia Marquez). And for anyone who has struggled with keeping the Buendia family tree straight, don’t worry: Martin offers a much more easy-to-follow genealogical record of his subject.

A praiseworthy biography, not only for the nearly two decades that Martin devoted to it, but also because it provides a careful, honest, and engaging profile of Colombia’s beloved Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide - Nicholas D. Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn This amazing book addresses a multitude of international women’s issues while placing them in the larger scheme of humanitarian crises, profiling successful strategies for change, and offering methods for readers to help.

Kristof and WuDunn are a married couple who worked as New York Times journalists. While covering international pieces throughout their journalistic careers, however, the two noticed widespread gender inequality and cruel injustices towards women worldwide that were getting little to no news coverage whatsoever. They were appalled by the way that gender discrimination manifests itself in other nations, particularly those of the third world. Though the exact numbers are hard to flesh out, every year more than 2 million girls disappear as a result of discrimination based on sex while the number of missing women falls somewhere between 60 and 101 million. This could be a result of parents refusing to access treatment for their sick daughters in favor of primary treatment for their sons, infanticide of female babies, sex trafficking, honor killings, and so much more. All of these cruelties are outgrowths of gender inequality.

Half the Sky highlights not only the horrible gender-based injustices occurring around the globe, including sex slavery, rape, honor killings, maternal mortality, and misogyny among others, but also solutions for improvement. To truly engage readers, the authors rely primarily upon the narratives of women who have suffered through horrible events. We meet a multitude of strong, courageous, and remarkable women that have prevailed despite the odds. While these success stories are encouraging, they are far from the norm. But they do provide a sense of hope that something can be done to improve conditions and to fight what Kristof and WuDunn think will be this century’s major moral battle: gender inequality. And what the authors and plenty other scholars believe to be a key solution to winning this one is education for women.

Gender inequality hurts not only the women subject to discrimination, but also the men who help to compose the society at large. By keeping women uneducated, they are thus unable to contribute to any sort of progress or development efforts. Multiple humanitarian organizations have cited educating women as a central tenet of their mission because doing so will undoubtedly enrich societies. Programs as varied as The Hunger Project, Doctors without Borders, The Center for Global Development, and even the Nike Foundation all focus a large portion of their efforts on women because of the untapped potential for good of doing so.

All throughout the book, readers are provided with the outlines of potential solutions in which they can take part. Kristof and WuDunn showcase remarkable individuals who have done great things to help women around the globe, such as Frank Grijalva, a teacher at a private school in Redmond, Washington. Grijalva encouraged his students to raise $13,000 to build a school in a border town in Cambodia. The teacher started the project in an effort to open his upper-middle-class students’ eyes to the reality of the lives of others around the globe. But beyond simply funding the construction of this school, many of Grijalva’s students have actually traveled with him to Cambodia to witness first-hand the conditions that define the Cambodian students’ lives. Though building the Cambodian school was an extremely powerful project for the Redmond students, the visit solidified a commitment to service for so many of the Americans, while also fostering positive international friendships among individual students. What the authors continually come back to is the importance of gaining a true understanding of how the other half lives in order to create better solutions. The Redmond students were very much changed by their time in Cambodia and much more essentially affected by the trip than by their fundraising efforts to build the school. This example speaks to the power those of us in the first world have and the ways in which we need to critically think about our potential for making an impact instead of just throwing money at problems without viable solutions.

Kristof and WuDunn consider the West to hold some responsibility in altering the reality of gross gender inequality, poverty, and lack of education. Kristoff speaks with an Indian officer patrolling the Indian-Nepalese border and is shocked to find that the intelligence officer only concerns himself with pirated and smuggled goods, not people. Their exchange is almost laughable in that this officer continually completely fails to understand Kristoff’s concern about women involved in sex trafficking. As the authors see it, this is an instance when perceived Western values influence decisions around the globe. As they explain it “India had delegated an intelligence officer to look for pirated goods because it knew that the United States cares about intellectual property. When India feels that the West cares as much about slavery as it does about pirated DVDs, it will dispatch people to the borders to stop traffickers.” The blame is not entirely on our shoulders as Westerners, however we are the ones with the greatest power, politically, ideologically, and otherwise, to do something about it. The authors take a very fair and honest look at what is being done and what could be done to help.

Usually when I post reviews about non-fiction, I am satisfied to know that I shared with my readers a bit of the content of the book, even if they aren’t likely to go out and pick the book up for themselves. With Half the Sky, I truly hope that readers give serious consideration to finding a copy and diving right in. There are far too many things wrong in the world today and, for plenty of concerned individuals, the odds of making an impact are just too small. Kristoff and WuDunn will definitely further educate you on the woes of the world, the gross inequities and the horrible losses that we are doing nothing to stop. But they will also offer a picture of hope. The whole premise of this book is that these instances of oppression can be turned into opportunities for women. And the authors of Half the Sky devote a large portion of their work to those opportunities, both examples of and methods of creating them.

The last few sections of the book set out a larger plan for addressing the instances of oppression that are covered in prior chapters. The vision that Kristof and WuDunn set forth is inspired and inspiring, but also attainable. They draw comparisons to the British anti-slavery movement in the late 18th century that put the fight for women’s rights internationally into a whole new perspective. But they also highlight those small things that individuals can do to make an impact on any level.

Half the Sky has the unique ability to enrage and activate readers, to educate and direct them, to ignite and inspire change. Individuals in the Western world have the greatest ability to lead a movement to educate women, improve international health, and guarantee greater happiness and full protection of human rights for people of both sexes the whole world over.

Small Wonder

Small Wonder - Barbara Kingsolver I believe that there are a few authors who really speak to each of us in an extremely personal and almost eery way. Maybe they’re not always on the mark, maybe every piece of work they churn out isn’t our favorite, but in some small way, their writing has made a profound and unparalleled impact on us that will forever burn their names in our hearts and minds.

This is how I feel about Barbara Kingsolver. I haven’t been able to fully immerse myself in all of her novels, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really moved me in a way that few pieces of nonfiction have ever been able to and so did her collection of short essays entitled Small Wonder.

Inspired by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Kingsolver meditates on a wide range of issues, most of them pertaining to what it means to be an American and what it means to be a parent. Bolstered by Third World parables, stories of foreign travel, anecdotes from her own family life, and a revolutionary sensibility inspired by the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Emma Goldman, and Martin Luther King Jr., Kingsolver has woven a stunning fabric of truth and authenticity that makes the personal political.

The thing I find most inspiring about Kingsolver is her optimism, her belief in the goodness of human nature and the potential for change. Nearly all of her ideas ultimately come back to love, peace, and respect. Though she may write on international conflicts, humanitarian crises, the domestic homeless population, or the war on terror, her views are remarkably accessible to all because they are grounded upon the small wonders of everyday life. The love a mother feels for her chid, the comfort of having a family to come home to, the right to live a healthy life – these are the things upon which she frames her larger critiques and interpretations of modern American society.

Armed these so-called revolutionary standpoints, Kingsolver’s point is not to inspire guilt about the wasteful and selfish ways of America, but rather to inspire a sense of responsibility to make a change. Despite the many national decisions made with which she entirely disagrees, Kingsolver does not allow these discrepancies between her country’s ideals and her own to diminish her sense of national pride. Instead, she draws upon the same ideas that inspired the founders of our nation as she holds out hope that change is possible. The United States holds the resources and the power to be a role model, to make changes that will improve the whole world, not just our small corner of it. Kingsolver implores us to take that potential and do something productive with it, to create a movement to spend our money more wisely and generously while restoring our sense of contentment grounded in something other than our latest purchase at the mall.

Kingsolver dreams of an America that cares just as much about its homeless citizens as those that are safely housed with their families every night. She envisions a country where the local independents can thrive, where unnecessary desires and obsession with consumption takes a backseat to the simple joy of working to put food on the table and fulfillment from relationships and family. As a storyteller, Kingsolver’s imagination is obviously in great form but this ideal US is not some unattainable dreamland in her head. Reading the pieces contained within Small Wonder will make you realize how possible and necessary these changes can be, from the impact of harvesting vegetables in your own garden, to caring about your fellow citizen enough to sacrifice a few dollars of luxury spending.

Small Wonder will make you reconsider what you thought you knew, and it will raise questions you may have never thought to ask before. But Kingsolver will also undoubtedly instill in you a sense of hope and the revolutionary spirit to alter your life for the betterment of yourself, future generations, and those in need all around. And she’ll perform this great feat of inspiration by pulling on the most fundamental and universal of human heartstrings: love and family.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life - Barbara Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp, Camille Kingsolver, Richard A. Houser One year without supermarkets. One year of planting, watering, weeding, harvesting. One year without sugary cereals, Chinese food, delivery pizza. No processed foods. Everything local, hand-picked. It sounds like quite a daunting challenge: to give up mass-produced edibles and adopt a new food culture eating only what is in season and harvested by your own two hands, or by those of your neighbor. This is exactly what challenge Barbara Kingsolver and her family of four put themselves up to for an entire year, with all the struggles, joys, and recipes recounted in the entertaining and engaging Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Reading Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really encourages you to look at the food you eat, where it comes from, how it is made, and how you can change these factors to enjoy a diet more healthy for you but especially for the environment. The benefits, both personal and environmental, of growing your own food and eating locally are endless – savoring foods when they’re at their peak, reveling in the flavor of produce grown at your own hands, reducing the incidence of cruelty to animals in food production, lowering the number of miles each item of food must travel to reach your plate, supporting local business- and farm-owners, enjoying a more healthy, whole-food lifestyle. And the detriments of the alternative are shocking – to get to your dinner table, the items in a typical American meal have traveled an average of 1,500 miles, through transportation, packaging, warehousing, refrigeration, and other forms of processing. Isn’t is so much more satisfying, healthy, environmentally-concious, inexpensive, and delicious to eat a tomato plucked from your own backyard than one from a pile in the grocery store?