Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction (page 2 of 8)

Strangers Drowning – Larissa MacFarquhar

The subtitle of Strangers Drowning is “Grappling with impossible idealism, drastic choices, and the overpowering urge to help”. You might be picturing firefighters rescuing kids from wells or kittens from trees, but that’s not what Larissa MacFarquhar is talking about in this philosophy book. Rather, she’s looking at a less sexy type of altruism, people who dedicate their whole entire lives to bettering the lives of others, even at great personal cost.

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So, what does a life of extreme ethical commitment look like? These aren’t one-off heroes doing something spectacular, like raising a floppity-gillion dollars for a cause with a rock’n’roll concert. These are people whose commitment to the cause overtakes their entire lives, often very quietly and with little public acknowledgement. They’re the ones who make us think “huh, maybe I should be giving more to charity”.

I started writing this book because I was troubled by something I didn’t understand: why don’t most of us give more than we do?

Strangers Drowning (Page xiii)

These “do gooders” (MacFarquhar’s moniker, not mine) offer up kidneys for complete strangers, live on scraps so they can donate all of their income, adopt dozens of children. They’re the kind of people who, on paper, do completely incredible things but, in real life, they kind of freak us out.

That’s the other aspect of Strangers Drowning. MacFarquhar doesn’t just present case studies, “look at how great these people are” – she also interrogates our society’s deep-seated suspicion of do-gooders and why exactly they make us feel so uncomfortable.

It’s a series of confronting questions that we don’t often have cause to think about consciously. How much should we give? How do we decide who deserves it? If we give away all of our money, or risk life and limb to help others on a daily basis, does that mean we value the lives of strangers more than our own? Or the well-being of our families? Is it right to value strangers more (or, at least, as much) as our flesh and blood?

This is the trolley problem played out in real life. A primer for those of us who haven’t seen The Good Place: the trolley problem is an ethical dilemma used in intro-to-philosophy courses to make us think about whether it’s ‘good’ to sacrifice one to save the many. Do the ends justify the means, etc. Everyone that MacFarquhar writes about in Strangers Drowning has decided, definitively, that it is.

Strangers Drowning is not, however, a glowing recommendation of lives of boundless optimism. MacFarquhar highlights the downsides and disappointments of these extremely ethical lives. There’s ostracism from community, estrangement from family, destitution, desolation – not to mention frequent personal endangerment. And there’s the kind-of obvious point that she skirts around, that ultimately these people might not make much of a difference (in fact, some of them might inadvertently do more harm than good).

Interestingly, MacFarquhar doesn’t really present an opinion of her own, at least not in explicit terms. She’s an entirely objective observer in Strangers Drowning, describing the good and the bad without proffering any judgement. She never reveals whether she donates to a charity or how much, or whether she’s ever been the recipient of charity of the kind she describes.

It’s a confronting and challenging read, especially if you’re prone to philosophical debates in your own mind. It’s important to allow time to read Strangers Drowning gradually, and take breaks to think over what you’ve read before continuing.

Ultimately, the question(s) MacFarquhar keeps coming back around to is this: how much can we help, and how much should we help? Of course, there is no satisfactory answer (so, if that’s what you’re after, move along), but the various examples of people doing more than most give a lot of food for thought. Fans of The Good Place, and anyone ever crippled by indecision when faced with a ‘please donate now’ email or door-knock, should definitely give this one a read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Strangers Drowning:

  • “As a Gen-Xer, this really came across to me more like a millennial hipster diatribe against Older People and their Outdated Ethics. The author tries to maintain a neutral tone, but every one of her conclusions seem to say that altruism is at best pointless, and at worst, intentionally offensive. The book ends with her saying that do-gooders are a strange, incomprehensible lot, and that we should leave them alone and let them be crazy. And of course, that people should just do what feels good to them to do.” – Emily Mac
  • “This is just a fascinating guilt trip where you can compare your worries about buying a new sofa to saving babies from malaria.” – Jupiter Reader

Hidden Figures – Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is one of those (true!) stories that you immediately want to know more about. As per the blurb, it’s “the phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space,”. Margot Lee Shetterly spent years learning about the ‘human computers’ who worked with paper and pencil to put man on the moon, and shared all she had learned about them in her 2016 non-fiction best-seller.

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Of course, by examining the roles these women played at NASA, Shetterly incidentally traces American history through WWII, the Cold War, and the space race. Hidden Figures highlights the particular barriers for black women in the sciences as well as society at large, from the late 1930s through to the 1960s. She offers a kind note at the beginning of the book about being faithful to that period, with regard to the use of epithets and pejoratives – it was nice to have a heads up, but honestly, that note made it sound worse than the actual text bore out.

The first surprise of Hidden Figures was just how many black women worked as mathematicians and scientists at NASA. There weren’t just a handful of them – there were dozens and dozens.

Many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America.

Hidden Figures (Page 248)

What’s more, Shetterly herself knew many of these women. Her father worked with them so she grew up around them, and she took for granted their roles at NASA, the way children do. “Growing up in Hampton [Virginia], the face of science was brown like mine,” she says (page xiii). This is ‘see it to be it’ in action.

As Shetterly describes it, when these women took jobs as ‘computers’ during WWII labour shortages, workplaces in Virginia were still segregated and the women – especially the black women – were kept at arm’s length. Still, most of them were grateful to have meaningful work (with the dark days of the Depression not so far behind them, and many of them supporting themselves and their children), and NASA paid handsomely for the time.

Gradually, the utility of the women began to outweigh the entrenched (at times, government-mandated) racism and sexism, and by the time Apollo 11 was preparing for launch, they were working in essential roles at the highest levels.

This is all fascinating, of course. Unfortunately, Hidden Figures itself is hard to penetrate. The story is told largely in the historical abstract, with a lot of unnecessary “context” (i.e., extraneous detail). The voice is very detached from the women supposedly at the heart of the story. The rare glimpses Shetterly offers into their personalities and private lives are the most engaging and interesting parts of Hidden Figures. On the whole, though, it’s a disappointingly dry read.

Don’t get me wrong: it should be a good story! It’s just not told in a compelling or engaging way in this particular book. Perhaps more dialogue – interviews with the women themselves, conversations with their co-workers or children – might have made the story more moving, or at least tangible. As it stands, I feel like I just read a Wikipedia entry about them. I think Shetterly was more committed to stating facts for the record than telling a story. That works fine in some formats (see above, Wikipedia entry), but not in Hidden Figures.

I’ve not yet seen the film adaptation, but I’d imagine it would be a much better format for telling this story. Allowing us to engage with the women – even just a few of them – on a human level, ‘put faces to names’, will make the story of Hidden Figures sparkle the way that it should.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Hidden Figures:

  • “Thank God the producers of the movie eliminated over two thirds of the book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “This book was like reading a dry tortuous math textbook. Too many unnecessary characters, too many unnecessary details, and the book jumps all over the place. When I get a book like this I just go the the epilogue, even that was torturous!” – N. Ross
  • “This is the kind of novel a science or history teacher would require you to read.” – Trisha K
  • “This book reminds me of when I was lilttle and my mother would mention some Obit from the village we lived in and then my Dad would follow with his brother’s name and then my Mom would recall their Mother amd then my Father would recall how he worked with his Dad and then my mother would recall them going to school together and then my Dad would talk about the car they drove blah, blah, blah I was ready to take the gaspipe.
    All I can say is the screenwriter who took this pile of crap and made a great movie out of it deserves an Academy Award.” – Amazon Customer

Any Ordinary Day – Leigh Sales

I’ve admired Leigh Sales for a long time, and not just for her Walkley Award-winning journalism. Her arts podcast, Chat 10 Looks 3, with Annabel Crabb, is where I get a lot of my book recommendations. So, inevitably, I had to check out Sales’s own book, Any Ordinary Day (tagline: “Blindsides, resilience, and what happens after the worst day of your life”).

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In Any Ordinary Day, Sales examines our vulnerability to life-changing events, and how we process the grief and fear that come with them. She was prompted to think about this subject after two widely covered, deeply traumatic events that occurred in rapid succession in 2014 (the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes, and the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney).

In her work as a journalist, she has realised that the worst days, where the unthinkable happens, “start with the day’s deceptive ordinariness” – which is how she landed on the book’s title. Ask someone about a devastating experience, and they’ll almost always start with ‘it was any ordinary day…’.

Sales talks to people who’ve faced unimaginable traumas, from acts of terrorism to natural disasters. Her interviewees have lost children and spouses, and/or come horrifyingly close to death themselves. In between chats, she describes what the science says about how our brains respond to shock, and grief. In case it’s not already clear, Any Ordinary Day isn’t a self-help book or a survivor’s guide – it’s more like a wider consideration of how and why we respond to tragedy.

Sales shares enough of her feelings and experiences to be transparent with the reader (e.g., she acknowledges her bias as an atheist when speaking to a Jesuit priest), but not so much that she overshadows the experiences of her interviewees. It’s a very delicate balance, and Sales has clearly had a lot of experience walking that particular tightrope.

What surprised me (though it probably shouldn’t have, given Sales’s line of work) was her brilliant interrogation of the role of journalism and the public interest in freak tragedies. Sales gives quite a lot of time to the role that the news plays in not only our awareness of these events, but also the reaction and recovery of their victims. The public is undeniably curious when terrible things happen, but what right do we have to the inside story of the worst day of someone’s life? It’s the journalist’s difficult job to play the gatekeeper, usually under enormous pressure to get clicks and views.

Another thing I didn’t expect: Any Ordinary Day is a good book to read if you’re awkward around grief and tragedy. If you find yourself shying away from people in awful circumstances, because you’re unsure of what to say or scared of “making things worse”, Sales offers answers about the “right” thing to do and you’ll feel much more equipped.

It’s worth noting that Any Ordinary Day is a (mostly) straight, white book. I think we can give Sales some leeway, given the universality of grief and shock in the wake of tragedy, but we should be aware of it all the same. Any Ordinary Day isn’t going to tell you anything about how these experiences are compounded by institutional bias and systemic oppression – though, of course, that’s a whole other book’s worth of information.

I did wonder whether, in the wake of The Terrible No Good Very Bad Year 2020, an updated edition might be in order. Where most of the tragedies Sales examines in Any Ordinary Day mostly affect a handful of people (in the case of natural disasters, thousands at most), COVID-19 caused near-universal upheaval and distress. I’d be curious to hear her take, specifically, on what the pandemic has done to us and our fear of tragedy, given what she learned putting this book together before it happened.

In sum, Any Ordinary Day is an interesting and reflective book, very well paced and highly readable. Next time you see a news story about a terrible event and find yourself thinking “I could never survive something like that”, you’ll want to be able to turn to this book for proof that ordinary people survive the unthinkable every day, and most of us have buried reserves of resilience.

We Keep The Dead Close – Becky Cooper

In 1969, Harvard was merging with its sister school Radcliffe, and the administration was trying desperately to curb student activism and the growing influence of counterculture. That same year, 23-year-old graduate student Jane Britton was killed in her apartment. Decades later, student Becky Cooper heard a garbled version of the story that had passed into Harvard folklore. She spent ten years chasing the truth of the story, and We Keep The Dead Close is the result.

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First off, I love the format of We Keep The Dead Close. There are no schlocky high-gloss photographs; it’s laid out like a literary fiction novel. There are transcripts of interviews, extracts from journals and letters, facsimiles of newspaper coverage, and extensive notes. It smacks of a classy, well-researched piece of journalism.

Vignette-like chapters alternate between the initial discovery and investigation of Jane’s murder, and Cooper’s own discovery and investigation of the crime. The story Cooper heard was sensationalised, as all rumour-mill murder stories tend to be: apparently, an archaeology student was murdered in the library with an ancient stone tool, by the married professor with whom she had an affair. Her body was sprinkled with red ochre, an ancient burial rite, and adorned with jewellery for her journey into the afterlife, a macabre ritual that pointed to the killer – but he got away with it, because the Harvard administration covered it up. Of course, the truth of Jane Britton’s murder was less sensational, but no less fascinating.

(And, okay, fine, some of the facts of the case are stranger than fiction. The red ochre bit was real. And a man who might have been able to provide crucial evidence was struck dead by lightning. True story.)

The New York Times, reviewing We Keep The Dead Close, gave it the headline: “New Book Returns To An Irresistible Theme: The Harvard Murder”. Indeed, the institution of Harvard plays a major role in the narrative, and Britton’s murder is – in effect – the harsh reality of the ‘dark academia’ aesthetic. Cooper lifts the veil on the cryptic world of elite tertiary education, the pot-holed track to tenure for professors and the politics of progression for students. But it’s not as simple as “there was a murder on campus and Harvard covered it up”.

You’ve heard of “leaving no stone unturned”? Cooper turns the stones, the pebbles, and digs up the dirt underneath them for good measure. In We Keep The Dead Close, she follows every lead and goes down every rabbit hole. It’s particularly admirable work in a genre that so often demands cohesive narratives be made out of the messy strands of a life. Cooper has no compunction about presenting inconclusive evidence. But that does mean, at times, the reader could easily get bogged down in the details. Cooper’s passion for her subject – and her tireless investigation and presentation of it – is enough to light the way, if the reader is willing to persist.

It takes until Part Four (about half-way through the text) for the story – and Cooper’s driving force – to really come together. But when it does… hoo boy! You won’t be able to put it down. I worry for the readers who might abandon it before they get to that point (see above: rabbit holes, boggy details). It’s not ideal structurally, but We Keep The Dead Close is one of those rare books that you really can’t form an opinion on until you’ve read it all the way through. It’s the Schitt’s Creek of contemporary true crime.

I am particularly impressed with the emphasis that Cooper places on the impact of the crime on those left behind, Jane Britton’s friends and family and co-workers. Clearly, much care and consideration went into her decisions about how to best portray the decades-long effects of violent crime, without betraying her subjects. I really hope that We Keep The Dead Close is representative of a new direction for true crime as a genre, in that regard.

By Part Seven (near the end), We Keep The Dead Close is about so much more than the crime, the investigation, or the victim. It’s about our collective histories, the stories we fit around the facts of our lives and the lives of others, how and why we construct these narratives (and whom they serve).

Vox highlighted this aspect in their review, saying that: “We Keep The Dead Close joins Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone In The Dark… within a growing true crime movement. This movement aims to underscore just how deeply the act of reporting on a true crime story – especially one in the past – can alter and warp the story in ways that serve to destroy the truth, whatever that may be.”

As one of the interviewees says, it’s a Poirot mystery with a post-modern ending.

All told, We Keep The Dead Close isn’t a straightforward read, but it’s a worthy one. If you’re looking for a fast-paced linear whodunnit with a foreseeable conclusion, you’ll need to pick up a fictional detective mystery instead. But if you’re interested in how a real cold case gets solved, in the role institutions play in our lives, in the way our stories shape who we are and what we know about the world – you absolutely must put We Keep The Dead Close on the top of your to-be-read pile.

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Keep The Dead Close:

  • “I pity this poor author. She poured her life into investigating a crime. She cast shade on a dozen different men, almost to the point of libel. And then, oops! it turns out the killer was just some random criminal. An honorable writer would have admitted that things did not work out for her and moved on. But, Cooper apparently decided to just write the book anyway.” – William Theodore Clemmons
  • “This is a grad students thesis gone wrong.” – Lisa Ray
  • “I like fictional mysteries and suspense novels, but I think I’m not going to be one of those white women millennials obsessed with true crime.” – Rachel Reads Ravenously
  • “Others have said it better than me, but my two cents is that this book is mostly pointless unless viewed as a memoir of a (wasted) decade of a young woman’s life. Even as such, it’s pretty thin. It’s kind of incredible that she could say all those unflattering things about all those people and not get sued—it’s not like any of that gossip ever led anywhere. So awkward.” – Esskay
  • “I suspect that if the author had been a mature woman–someone of the victim’s generation, say–rather than a photogenic young woman with a Harvard degree and a stint at The New Yorker, We Keep The Dead Close would never have found its way out of the slush pile.” – Priscilla S. Rhoades

The Year Of Living Biblically – AJ Jacobs

The Year Of Living Biblically (subtitle: “one man’s humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible”) was a particularly timely read for me, in the wake of threats to Roe v Wade making world headlines and the ousting of an evangelical Prime Minister here at home. This memoir of an “immersion journalism” experiment chronicles AJ Jacobs’s attempt to live literally by each and every rule in the Bible for one full year. If we’re going to use parts of the Bible to justify real-life laws and policies, it makes sense we should look at everything else it says, too.

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Jacobs was “raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world” – basically, he wanted to see whether there was anything he was missing out on by not living by the Bible’s commandments. He jokes that this project is an “extreme religious makeover”. I’m a born-and-raised atheist myself (not even in the technically-Jewish way that Jacobs is, but the only-went-in-to-a-church-that-one-time-for-a-wedding way). So, The Year Of Living Biblically was a crash-course in the contents of the Bible for me. It turns out there’s HEAPS in there that we never hear about.

Depending on which poll you look at, somewhere between 30 and 55% of Americans say that they take the Bible literally. In reality, the vast majority of them pick and choose which bits to apply (which is why you don’t see many religious folks arrested for stoning adulterers). Jacobs vowed against this kind of “cafeteria Christianity”, and to follow every rule he could find as best he could.

Before his year of Biblical living begins, he prepares by reading the Bible cover-to-cover for the very first time. Between the testaments Old and New, he finds over seven hundred rules and guidelines that he commits to follow.

Jacobs is genuine in his approach to The Year Of Living Biblically, which I really appreciated. In the hands of a determined cynic, it would have been a very different book. He actively sets aside his cynicism in favour of curiosity and commitment to the project. He’s not here to make fun of the Bible or those who adhere to his teachings, nor does he accept everything in it blindly. He takes a rigorous approach, in frequent consultation with spiritual advisors of all kinds.

He describes his experience over the course of the whole year, not quite day-by-day but almost—a close chronological account. His beard, which he mentions frequently throughout, is “the most noticeable physical manifestation” of his transformation. It grew so big and bushy that his wife wouldn’t kiss him throughout the final two months of his project. It also led others to make assumptions about him (e.g., the nurse who assumed he was an Orthodox Jew), which was interesting in and of itself.

Now, you’re probably wondering what about the, y’know, more whacky rules. The ones that break the law, or seem downright weird in a modern context. Did Jacobs really stone adulterers? Yes (in a sense). Did he offer animal sacrifices? Yes (again, probably not exactly in the way you’d imagine, but still). Did he stop wearing clothes of mixed fibers? He hired a bloke to show him how to do it right! There’s no bait-and-switch in The Year Of Living Biblically, he does exactly what it says on the tin.

And I must say: pour some out for Julie, Jacobs’s long-suffering wife, who lived with him (and bore him two sons, twin boys, conceived by IVF) throughout his year of Biblical living. She seems to have been fairly accepting in Jacobs’s account, even when he (conveniently) couldn’t take out the rubbish on the Sabbath, though she did (understandably) take issue with the “purity” rules, that required Jacobs not touch her for at least seven days after she menstruated.

By the end of The Year Of Living Biblically, Jacobs declares himself a “reverent agnostic”. Living by the Bible’s rules for twelve months didn’t make him believe in God, but it did radically change his perspective on spirituality and broke down the stereotypes he held about those who live devout lives. (And, I must say, in sharing his experiences in this book, he’s up-ended a lot of my own assumptions and misconceptions, too.)

Jacobs referenced (quite a few times) another book he’d written about another project he’d undertaken, The Know-It-All (in which he readss an entire encyclopaedia, all 32 volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica). I’ll be keeping an eye out for it, because it sounds like it would be just as interesting as this one. The Year Of Living Biblically would be a particularly good companion read alongside Religion For Atheists, too, as they have much the same message in the end (that there is room for sacred in the secular).

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Year Of Living Biblically:

  • “This book is awesome. I read this book the year i was pregnant. Hands down, better than ‘what to expect when you’re expecting.’” – StarSpangledGirlWithAPlan
  • “I bought this book thinking it would be interesting. It was. I have to admit that the author was annoying though–or at least some of the things he did. I have to give a big thumbs up to his wife for not killing or divorcing him, because I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it!” – Salix Alba
  • “The whole premise was ridiculous. Paul said the biggest thing Christians had to worry about was abstaining from fornication and they didn’t have to be circumcised or follow the rituals in the O.T. and the person reading for the audio book has an annoying sounding voice” – jamie lewis
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