1. Talking to Strangers by Malcom Gladwell
In a Nutshell
This is the sixth book from Malcolm Gladwell. His other five books have been international best sellers. Aside for being a writer and podcast host (Revisionist History), he’s been named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people and one of the Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers.
In Talking to Strangers, Gladwell tackles what happens when we meet strangers and why we’re so bad at reading them. Like in his other books he takes real stories and weaves them through the book to explain and illustrate ideas. The story of Sarah Bland, the young African American woman who was pulled over for a minor traffic violation in rural Texas, arrested, jailed and later committed suicide in her cell, is the story that starts and ends the book. It is also the story Gladwell uses throughout the book as a thread. Other stories he uses, both unknown and infamous, includes the Stanford Rape Case, the suicide of Sylvia Plath, the spy who spent years undetected at one of the highest levels of the pentagon, the conviction of Amanda Knox and more.
The book covers three ideas which explain why we misread people, can’t tell when someone is lying to our face and how encounters between complete strangers can go horribly wrong. These ideas are default to truth, transparency and coupling. But you’ll have to read the book to find out more about them.
Book Club Notes
As soon as I saw Malcom Gladwell tweet that he had a new book coming out I put it on my booklist. He’s an incredibly talented writer and has an ability to tell a story and string words together in a way that hooks you in and imprints on your mind. This book is no exception.
Before I read the book, I was somewhat aware of the murmurings online regarding Talking to Strangers, many of which weren’t positive reviews. I shut them out, wanting to read it without the noise of other people’s opinions and form my own. In the middle of reading it, I happened to listen to the SuperSoul podcast in which Oprah interviews Channel Miller. Miller is, for those unaware, the Jane Doe in the Stanford Rape Case. Oprah shared that the case had been shared in Talking to Strangers and was one of the most controversial topics covered in the book.
Gladwell used the story in his chapter about alcohol; and what excessive consumption ie. being steaming drunk does to a person. He looked at research which showed that in the overwhelming majority of campus sexual assaults, alcohol was a factor. And he questions, why most people when asked how to keep campus assaults down, never think to include limiting alcohol. Miller’s response to Oprah was that she was intoxicated and yet she didn’t sexually assault anybody. Intoxication is not an excuse for harming someone else. She also cautioned against victim blaming in which, when assault happens the first questions are – what was she wearing? Was she drinking? That type of behaviour doesn’t reduce assaults, it passes it on to someone else – don’t be the drunkest person, don’t let it be me. I had yet to read that chapter and read it later with that conversation in mind.
After finishing the book, I listened to the Malcom Gladwell interview on SuperSoul Sundays in which Oprah discusses the book with him. I’d recommend listening to it after, not before reading it as he explains his thoughts behind the book, stories shared and why he wrote it. She spoke about the chapter on alcohol and he said that it’s not an excuse, he wanted to look for an explanation – why people act in a way so contrary to normal behaviour when intoxicated, and how do we prevent more Jane Does. I didn’t get the notion, in the book or podcast, that he was using it as defence nor blaming her, but rather as an example to explain a point.
Talking to Strangers seeks to understand why we don’t know how to talk to strangers, why we make mistakes about them and how those mistakes lead to disastrous outcomes. And maybe if we understand that better, we’ll be better at talking to people we don’t yet know. It was a book I enjoyed reading and found interesting. Much like his other books, it’s easy to read while still making you think.
2. An Elephant in my Kitchen by Francoise Malby-Anthony with Katja Willemsen
In a Nutshell
Francois Malby-Anthony was born in France and fell in love with South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony. She followed him back to South Africa where they founded a game reserve, they would name Thula Thula.
An Elephant in My Kitchen follows her Life at Thula Thula after Lawrence died suddenly leaving to her run a game reserve alone. A daunting task made harder by the fact that many wanted to see Francois return to France, some of her employees refused to take instruction from her and shortly after Lawrence’s death, poachers attacked their rhinos. She shares how she managed to take control of Thula Thula, how she opened a wildlife rescue centre – a dream she shared with Lawrence, the heart-warming stories of the wild animals rescued and the heart-breaking reality of poaching in South Africa.
The name An Elephant in My Kitchen as I would discover isn’t a metaphor, but rather literal. At one point she literally had an elephant in her kitchen.
Book Club Notes
This is such a heart-warming and nice read. Reading about how she came from France, knowing nothing about wild animals and ending up not merely owning a game reserve, but opening a rehabilitation centre for wild animals which requires more financial, physical and emotional resources than one can imagine is incredible. The way she describes how the animals communicate with each other; their bonds with each other and the extent volunteers and workers go to rehabilitate wild animals is heart-warming. But make no mistake, it’s not an idealistic book that paints a picture-perfect adventure with a happy ending.
Malby-Anthony is candid about the struggles, the setbacks and the harsh and oftentimes hard to read realities of running a game reserve, especially one that includes a rehabilitation centre. She doesn’t skirt away from talking about mistakes she made, politics and the challenges of employing people who speak a different language and have a different culture to you.
I know about poaching, I’ve seen the pictures, read the articles but never have I understood what it means, and what it looks like than I have after reading the book. It’s not only about the animals who are hacked for ivory and left for dead, but often their babies who witness it and are left to fend for themselves while suffering for severe PSTD. She explains the delicate balance of providing orphaned animals with the love and care they need to recover while not getting too close to them – so they remain wild and never become too comfortable around humans, which could be a death sentence.
It’s an eye opening read that is both hopeful and devastating and I’ll never enter a game reserve with the same eyes – knowing what it takes to run them and the responsibility of owning land that is home to wild and endangered animals.
3. The Talking Cure by Professor Gillian Straker and Dr Jacqui Winship
In a Nutshell
Written by two psychotherapists the Talking Cure tackles nine different issues through fictional patients. The type of therapy they deal with is known as relational psychotherapy – a form of talking cure, hence the name of the book. It focuses on understanding the role of the past in determining the present, and in bringing unconscious processes into conscious awareness. In such therapy, the patient and therapist work collaboratively to understand more about the patient’s troubles and the origins. The hope is that the patient can change relationship patterns that are obstacles to leading a fulfilling life.
Each Chapter introduces you to another fictional character whose story tackles a different topic or issue. The issues discussed are difficult children, feeling like a fraud, allowing the needs and feelings of others to invade you, an inability to accept being in the wrong, needing to be liked, needing to appear perfect, attraction to controlling partners, shyness and self-harming. With such varied topics, it’s not necessarily a book you need to read fully, as not every chapter will relate to you.
Each Chapter introduces you to another fictional character whose story tackles one of the above issues. We learn about their background through the eyes of the therapist and the sessions follow the format of relational psychotherapy – the therapist will offer the patient hypotheses based on observation, experience and analysing their story.
Those hypotheses help the patient understand their conscious and unconscious thoughts, beliefs and fantasies about themselves and others, how they do relationships and how their actions affect themselves and others. You go through the whole journey in each chapter from start to inner reflection and change. At the end of each chapter they provide a tick box where they list markers of this dynamic, the effects, common childhood experiences and what you can do; making the book part educational, part self-help.
Book Club Notes
The book started out well and I find it interesting getting a peek into how therapists think during therapy. However, that didn’t last long. I found many of the stories unnecessarily convoluted, as if in trying to create the perfect fictional character, the authors went a little overboard. In some stories I struggled to see the connection between the story told and the issue covered – this was most noticeable in the chapter covering shyness. It was the chapter I thought I’d relate to – being a shy person. The story involved a man who struggled to be vulnerable with family and partners. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve always thought shyness to be associated with social anxiety and more common when meeting new people – not with people you are familiar with. To me, those seem to be two different issues, and so I struggled to see the connection between the example and the topic and consequently found the one chapter I thought I’d learn most from to be unhelpful.
As I went through each chapter, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed with the therapists and found a lot of what they were saying to be about them – not the person. How they felt during therapy, what movie or book their patients issue reminded them of. At the end of each chapter, there was a list of common childhood experiences – most of which had to do with parents and their seemingly childrearing mistakes. In the final chapter, the authors say it is not a book intended to be an exercise in parent blaming but rather showing that we are all prisoners of our own minds and histories. That we are influenced not only by our parents but by a combination of the nature and nurture we received and the society we grew up. But reading it, I wondered how anxiety inducing it would be to read as a parent, where according to the checklists you’re either overbearing or absent, constantly at risk of doing something wrong and causing your child to end up with issues.
4. The Outlaw Ocean: Crime and survival in the last untamed frontier by Ian Urbina
In a Nutshell
This book is best described on the back cover as “both a gripping adventure story and stunning expose… [that] brings fully into view for the first time the disturbing reality of a floating world that connects us all, a place where anyone can do anything because no one is watching.”
Written by Ian Urbina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, who tackles difficult subjects on the regular, this book is based on more than four years of reporting and thousands of interviews. Of those years, more than three were spent at sea, which is where he uncovered the stories that make up this book.
He says in the book that he wanted “to make the book more of a first-person travelogue”. He did this by reporting from ships (ranging from fishing ships, cargo vessels, cruise liners, medical boats, floating armories, research and advocacy ships, navy, port police and coast guard cutters) and uncovering stories of “Traffickers and smugglers, pirates and mercenaries, wreck-thieves and repo-men, vigilante conservationists and elusive poachers, seabound abortion-providers, clandestine oil dumpers, shackled slaves and cast -adrift stowaways.”
His adventures led to stories that he describes as “too sprawling to force into a single, straight-line narrative”, yet the way he organised the book into a collection of essays split by chapters, makes it easy to digest in manageable portions.
Book Club Notes
This is one of the most eye-opening books I have ever read. It tackles so many important topics that, to be honest, have never crossed my mind before. Ian Urbina is a brilliant writer, fearless adventurer and most importantly, a necessary educator.
The book is sprinkled with lessons, shocking facts and so many stories that make you question and make you grateful. I learned amongst many things that;
- One of every five fish on dinner plates is caught illegally.
- The global black market for seafood is worth more than $20 million.
- One Pacific Bluefin Tuna can sell for over $1 Million.
- By 2050 there will be more plastic waste in the sea than fish, measured in weight.
- The fishing industry has become brutally efficient at stripping the seas of virtually everything in them.”
There were so many places I stuck in a highlighter tab to come back to, that if I were to quote them all, I’d have a plagiarised mini book on my hands. Instead of recapping everything, one of areas that struck the deepest chord with me was learning about how the fish (I eat) arrived (at me) and the human impact that fish left in its wake.
Urbina writes that there is a fantasy that “it is possible to fish sustainably, legally, and using workers with contracts, making a liveable wage, and still deliver a five-ounce can of skipjack tuna for $2.50 that ends up on the grocery shelf only days after the fish was pulled from the water thousands of miles away. Prices that low come with hidden costs.” Urbina shows you that the cost is often human collateral who put up with either breaking “the law” or conditions too horrific to imagine, because “This is the best we can get” and “You do the work you can find”.
In Urbina’s chapter on sea slavery he says,
“In the outlaw ocean, the victims are many- above and below the waves-but the abuse of the men who help put food on our plates was a shock to me. As consumers, there is a growing sense that cell phones have become a kind of police force to counter such abuses in almost all aspects of life. If something bad is happening, it will likely be captured and posted on YouTube. But that rarely happens at sea, where indentured servitude remains a standard business practice.”
When you read a book like this you wonder how so many serious issues, crimes and tragedies can exist in today’s time. Without writers like Ian Urbina, who put themselves in harm’s way to thrust these stories into daylight, we wouldn’t know of these things and would never be able to propagate any change.
5. Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law by Haben Girma
In a Nutshell
This is a memoir written by Haben Girma, the first deafblind graduate of Harvard law school. At 31 years young, she is a disability rights lawyer, author and public speaker.
Haben takes the reader through the experiences that shaped her, from childhood to lawyer. Her tenacity, courage and will to advocate for herself and her dreams come through boldly in every story she shares.
Book Club Notes
Reading the book title, I was expecting to be wowed from page one, but I struggled to get into it. The book starts with Haben’s childhood and gradually works up to where she is today.
To me, the most interesting aspect of how she wrote this book was how at every age and stage of her life, you felt like she was speaking in present tense with the mindset of that age. I think that is why I struggled to enjoy it in the beginning. I went in expecting a Harvard law graduate and instead I got the seven-year-old girl who hadn’t yet become one.
The book is filled with so many astute human observations, that anyone can learn from. From dealing with fears, rejection, relationships and more, Haben’s delivery of to-the-point quotes should become mantras.
On fears she says; “I don’t want their fears to direct where I go in life, especially when I don’t allow my own fears to hold me back.”
On communication she says; “People should just say how they feel.”
On knowledge she says; “Sighted or blind, Deaf or hearing, each of us holds just the tiniest fraction of the world’s wisdom. Admitting we don’t know everything will aid us on the Trek for Knowledge.”
On rejection she says; “When you do everything right and society stomps on you, over and over, it creates a piercing, gut-twisting pain. It causes you to question the conventional wisdom that a person who works hard will always overcome obstacles.”
On love she says; “Love takes time. Love forms through the expression of genuine appreciation, the creation of clear boundaries, the practice of forgiveness, and mutual respect. Over time, these experiences weave together, forming a strong bond between two beings.”
The beauty in her writing style is that you really get to “witness” Haben’s growth. This became so apparent to me when I got to the epilogue. There were so many amazing life lessons I enjoyed along the way, but my favourite part of this book was her “Brief guide to Increasing Access for People with Disabilities” at the end. This, I believe, is written by the Haben of today and is Brilliant and eye opening. I wish there had been more chapters in this voice.
The biggest lessons I took from this book was how the words inspiring and disability affect disabled people. In her words:
“People with disabilities get called inspiring so often, usually for the most insignificant things, that the word now feels like a euphemism for pity.”
“Jumping through hoops to avoid saying “disability” related words. Linguistic gymnastic such as “special needs” and “differently abled” perpetuate stigma. We plainly state other human characteristics. We write, “She is a girl” rather than, “She has a special gender” the words we use to discuss disability should similarly be straightforward.”
Have you read these books? Meet us in the comments to share your book club notes and discuss further.
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