‘All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown’ edited by Catherine Burns

the-moth-imageThe Moth is an ongoing, live performance where people, often famous or well established people, get on stage and tell a true story that is relevant to a given theme. Launched in 1997, the Moth is also now a podcast, and they just released their second book All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing The Unknown which is a collection of stories from varying live performances.

All These Wonders takes Moth episodes from different shows and organizes them based on categories that cut across those themes. Some of these categories include: Things I’ve Seen, Grace Rushed In, and To Face The Fear. The one common thread in all the stories though is the message of hope, resiliency, and inspiration. While nearly every story is about a challenging event in the author’s life, none of them end without some movement toward courage and change.

Some of the most outstanding stories in the book were almost unbelievable. One such story was Fog of Disbelief told by Carl Pillitteri, a field engineer at Fukushima when the tsunami hit Japan. Pillitteri’s description of the day is not only terrifyingly real, but his thoughts, his fears, and his observations as the tsunami hit are what bring a sense of humanness and powerlessness to the story. But as with each Moth presentation, Pillitteri finds a way to turn a grossly petrifying event into a story about the power of humanity, of giving, and of everyday experiences.

Another story, Forgiveness by Hector Black, tells the story of one father’s forgiveness of the man who murdered his daughter. A bleak and agonizing tale, Black shows the true capacity of human nature: both the bad and the good. While Black does not necessarily say “go forgive everyone for everything” nor does the story make the reader feel this way, it does encourage readers, especially those who’ve faced trauma at the hands of another person to at least consider the possibility of forgiveness. If someone can forgive their daughter’s murderer to the point of visiting him in prison, writing him letters, and bringing him gifts, why can’t the rest of us get there someday, somehow.

Other stories were not as heavy and included anecdotes about working for Saturday Night Live and the recent NASA mission to Pluto. The sense of self-discovery in the face of terror and confusion is what drives each story forward though: the hope that there’s more than just the moment of now.

A mosaic of beauty, pain, and joy, The Moth’s All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown  was published by Crown Archetype in March of 2017. You can purchase a copy of All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown edited by Catherine Burns at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions’

rigor-mortis-harrisRigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions is NPR correspondent Richard Harris’ attempt to bring awareness to the very poor science that he sees as dominating the biomedical field today.

While the title suggests a macabre narrative thread, Rigor Mortis is actually a pun on the lack of rigor that is going into the science experiments Harris discusses. Harris provides historical, social, and environmental contexts and stressors for the issues that he brings up, while also providing an overlay of solutions. Harris recognizes the difficulties in implementing his solutions given the various factors mentioned above. However, he nonetheless feels that scientific rigor must improve for science to keep moving forward.

In Rigor Mortis, Harris targets what he sees to be the major roadblocks in doing good science. Among these are the lack of incentive to do science well, the sheer challenge in reproducing studies that have already been conducted, the fact that most studies are done on animals and not humans and studies don’t always account for that, the lack of authentication of cell lines before use, a lack of guidelines for conducting certain types of experiments, and pressures surrounding publishing and funding. And these aren’t even all of the issues that Harris brings to the table.

The reproducibility problem is something that surfaces again and again in Rigor Mortis. As Harris points out from the outset, “there’s little funding and no glory involved in checking someone else’s work.” Not to mention the fact that people who try to do so often have a hard time actually reproducing the experiments. This difficulty can arise because of a lack of information from the original experimenters or social stigma that reproducing someone else’s work is in fact questioning that work instead of checking it.

From creating incentives for reproducing studies to simply sharing data and working collaboratively, Harris provides a host of suggestions for scientists, universities, labs, and journals to encourage the rigor of science and help the field to actually move forward, instead of spin in circles as he feels it so often does.

Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions by Richard Harris was published by Basic Books in April of 2017. You can purchase a copy at your local bookstore today.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Wonder Women’ by Sam Maggs

wonder-women-maggsHistory has always been predominantly about “his” story, not hers. Sam Maggs attempts to change all of that with her latest novel Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History. Wonder Women is just what it sounds like, a history book about women. Maggs, though, does not fill Wonder Women with dull facts, a myriad of dates, or a droning tone that could put any reader to sleep. Instead, she provides short snippets of each featured woman that are fun, conversational in tone, and accessible to any age group.

Maggs divides Wonder Women into five chapters, each relating to a different category of women. These chapters cover Women of Science, Women of Medicine, Women of Espionage, Women of Innovation, and Women of Adventure. In each chapter, a handful of women are explored in depth through a few page biography. Following these longer narratives, Maggs compiles a list of other notable women who influenced that particular field, and she provides one paragraph summaries of each of their lives and contributions. Finally, every chapter ends with an interview of a notable woman who is alive and working in the given field today.

From Mary Bowser, an escaped slave who more than dabbled in espionage, to Chevalier D’eon, potentially one of the first known transgender women, Maggs spans a wide range of influential women. Maggs doesn’t just cover the well-known women either; in fact, she focuses on the lesser known, throwing women like Amelia Earhart and Sacagawea into the longer list of notable women with shorter bios.

Though some of the stories seem rather radical, Maggs is always quick to point out when the facts aren’t all there. There are multiple times throughout Wonder Women, when Maggs admits that the records are confusing or missing, and so she simply provides what is there, noting that it might not be pure fact. The stories without as many holes tend to be more salient; however, those that can’t be fully pieced together further point to the hardship of women, especially women of the past. Many women featured in Wonder Women experienced betrayal at the hands of men colleagues or had to lie to avoid incarceration or death for their actions or beliefs, making it harder to pick fact from fiction.

Whatever the particulars of fact and fiction, Maggs provides a wide view of many forgotten women in the world, women who have contributed to the growth and development of our global society in previously untold ways. Though not all of the stories may be true in all regards, Maggs still provides readers with a larger takeaway, a more inspiring message: women have always been here, we’ve always been working in science and technology, in art and innovation, and though it’s always been hard, it’s also always been worth it. Maggs urges readers to continue to contribute to these fields and to help change the stigma around women and science, technology, and adventure.

Released October 18, 2016 by Quirk Books you can purchase Wonder Women at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

between-the-world-and-meBlack lives do matter because black lives are human lives. All humans are simply that: human. No matter the color of their skin, their sexual preference, or the amount of money they make in a year, we are all human. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates says just this and so much more in a 152-page letter to his fifteen-year-old son.

He starts out the book by acknowledging the commonly held belief that “race [is] a defined, indubitable, feature of the natural world,” but he quickly denounces this as myth and probes at a newer (perhaps for some more radical) idea. The idea that “race is the child of racism” and only out of racism and the defining of what physical features are desirable, what actions are ascribed as typical to a particular sub set of people, do we come out with the idea of race.

In the book, Coates points out that it was once easy to pick out a racist, and to some extent, overt racism is still around and easy to identify. The KKK has not disappeared and lynching still happens, yes. Coates, though, challenges that subtler racism is where the bigger, more widespread problem is. Ideas of what a person is capable of based on appearance, value judgments based on a person’s physical features, fear, aggression, and violence toward a person because of the color of their skin: that’s the racism of today that endangers the rights of so many human beings who don’t look like the majority.

Coates goes on to address the years of oppression, segregation, and racism that the black community has experienced since the rape of Africa happened. The idea that America, Egypt, and all “great” countries were founded on the backs of slaves, is not something that should be so easily cast aside, forgiven, and forgotten. Perhaps most importantly so because the racism built into the culture of the United States has not by any means been eradicated since slavery was abolished. Coates has no qualms in proclaiming the strides that have been made in regards to civil rights, but he also has no issue saying we have a lot further to go before we reach equality.

Between the World and Me is filled with a sense of hopelessness that is pervasive throughout its pages. Nowhere does Coates offer a solution, remedy, or even hopeful message as to what the future could hold. While it is easy to see the pain and despair that has seeded American culture in regards to issues of racism, Coates leaves readers wondering: what can I do? How do we make reparations for the damage done? Will things ever change? Perhaps Coates doesn’t know? Perhaps Coates doesn’t have the answer? Perhaps the answer is simply his book: an opening up of conversation. Perhaps right now, all that can be done is to talk about it, to make more people aware of the issues still present in the world that they don’t experience, that they don’t live with, but that are that much more important because of the clandestine and nonchalant air around them.

An emotionally charged and moving epistle, Between the World and Me gets at many of the issues ingrained in the deep set racism of American culture, and that the public has been privy to lately in the news. Though Between You and Me can often feel like a rant, why shouldn’t it? Why shouldn’t people whose lives are shown not to matter to the greater community speak out, be angry, make at least a verbal attempt to show that they do matter, that they too are human?

Between the World and Me was published by Spiegel & Grau in 2015 and has won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, ALA Alex Award, PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.

Between the World and Me is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

 

‘The Phone Rang’ by Mary Reid Gaudio


the-phone-rang-gaudio-1The Phone Rang
by Mary Reid Gaudio is the story of three sisters as they stand together to fight the battle against their sister Ann’s Leukemia. Autobiographical, historical and full of moral insight, The Phone Rang touches on multiple aspects of both the sisters’ lives and Leukemia as a destructive disease.

Gaudio shares the narrator’s seat with her sister Chee while also periodically slipping into Ann’s perspective. Ann often falls into telling the reader, or presumably Mary, about her journey through life up until the point of her diagnosis. Gaudio also intersperses her own backstory with the story of Ann and her disease. Chee on the other hand focuses specifically on Ann.

The structure of the novel can at times become distracting because of the large, unbroken paragraphs and the changes in font from italics to bold to standard. It seems that the same emotional impressions could be made with cleaner construction and more thorough copy editing. Though the novel’s structure fits Gaudio’s attempt at stream of consciousness narration, this mode of telling can also at times sidetrack the reader from the deeper emotional aspects. While character building and backstory are intensely important to establish in order for the reader to feel for Mary, Ann, and Chee, there are often points where the story falls into a mode of “telling,” and the reader can easily get lost in the vast amount of information being thrown at her.

All in all, Gaudio effectively taps into the emotional rollercoaster that ensues with such a life threatening diagnosis as leukemia, while also focusing on the humanity of her and her sisters. In the end, Ann reminds her sisters and the readers to live life fully, to act in the now, and to fight for survival.

The Phone Rang was published by Book Venture in 2015 and is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘In A Different Key’ by John Donvan and Caren Zucker

in-a-different-keyThe history of autism is a winding road of pain, love and inspiration that is told beautifully in John Donvan and Caren Zucker’s In A Different Key. Tracing the history of autism from the first diagnoses to the most recent form of advocacy, the neurodiversity movement, Donvan and Zucker capture perfectly the spectrum of autism as a biological factor in a person’s life as well as an historical arc.

Donvan and Zucker provide hard facts in an appealing and approachable manner, writing In A Different Key as if it were a novel. The doctors, parents and children profiled in the book take on the personas of characters as the reader sits on the edge of her seat eager to find out just how good or bad things will turn out. The authors take a tough topic with a dark history and turn it into a compelling work of informative and insightful literature.

The objectivity that In A Different Key puts forth is refreshing for a conversation that is usually weighted heavily toward one argument or another. Among the many controversies in the autism community that Donvan and Zucker bring up is the vaccine scare. Instead of attacking one side or the other, the authors present the case as hard facts and let the reader draw from the available evidence to make his own decision on the matter.

The book ends with a spin toward the positive by bringing attention to the most recent movement in the autism community. Neurodiversity is an idea headed by autistic individuals who claim that autism is a part of their biological makeup and they are happy to be autistic: they don’t want to be cured, they don’t want sympathy, they simply want acceptance. While Donvan and Zucker bring attention to the issues even within this movement in regards to more severely handicapped autistic people, In A Different Key still closes its pages with an inspiring and hopeful message.

Published by Crown Publishers in 2016 you can purchase In A Different Key at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

“NeuroTribes” by Steve Silberman

neurotribes-silbermanNeuroTribes by Steve Silberman is the pinnacle of understanding of autism as it’s developed from its initial coining, to autism in the current age. Silberman goes not only into historical depth concerning autism and its development over the course of its clinical existence, but he also incorporates anecdotal and first hand experiences of both parents of autistic children and autistic people themselves.

Silberman starts by tracing back the history of autism to its founders, namely child psychologist Leo Kanner and clinician Hans Asberger. From here Silberman discusses the man instantiations that autism took on a clinical level throughout the years, from those believing it was only a childhood “disease” to those who believed autism could be “cured” through punishment based therapies and even more horrifying methods.

Weaving in anecdotal stories of parents struggling to find services for their children, Silberman eventually turns the book almost completely on its head by putting the bulk of the focus on autistic people and their experiences, contributions and methods of dealing with “typical” society.

All along, Silberman advocates for the importance and necessity of having diverse thinkers in our culture: i.e. “neurodiversity.” Pointing to notable figures in the past who were likely to have been autistic (had the term been around at the time), such as Henry Cavendish, Silberman makes the argument that without these thinkers we would be far behind in the realm of science and philosophy.

Overall, NeuroTribes is both an inspirational and terrifying look into how views of autism have developed and evolved over time, and how autistic people have gained greater recognition as humans with a different way of thinking and nothing more.

Published by Avery in 2015, NeuroTribes is available at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.