Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.
How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?
InΒ Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?
Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power … and our future.

Nonfiction, 512 pages, published in 2011

100,000 years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth. Today there is just one. Us. Homo sapiens.
How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance? Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms? How did we come to believe in gods, nations and human rights; to trust money, books and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetables and consumerism? And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?
In Sapiens, Dr Yuval Noah Harari spans the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Have we become happier as history has unfolded? Can we ever free our behaviour from the heritage of our ancestors? And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?
Bold, wide-ranging and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power … and our future.
[Goodreads]

Review:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This book…was weird. I really liked a lot of the information presented, but the execution was kind of all over the place.

THE GOOD

There was a lot of very interesting information in the middle of the book. The author is very accepting and tries to present information in a very neutral way.

While I did think the author overused examples, I do think he used examples from a wide range of areas and cultures.

“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility. “
-pg. 146-147

THE BAD

The author is a historian, so the scientific portions of this book are less than ideal. The beginning about the book is all about evolution and some of the facts felt…wrong. At one point, he speculates about the reason for the mutation that allowed humans of complex thought. Mutations don’t have a reason, the only way that they can happen is randomly (disregarding mutations caused by chemical exposure, as I don’t think that was the case). It just felt like a very basic scientific fact for this book to have wrong.

The tone of the book went all over the place. Sometimes it was quite formal and scientific and other times it was very casual and a little condescending (to other animals).

The book ended with a prediction for the future, which I didn’t like because once again, the author delved into science.

I RECOMMEND THIS FOR…

I think this book presents a lot of interesting ideas! It is pretty accessible, there is nothing that really needs any prior knowledge to understand the concepts.

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Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Matthew Walker explores why sleep is necessary and the detrimental effects of not sleeping.

Nonfiction, 368 pages, published in 2017

Matthew Walker explores why sleep is necessary and the detrimental effects of not sleeping.

Review:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I read this book for my work book club, and I legitimately would not have finished if we weren’t going to meet (virtually) to talk about it.

The first half of this book is very clinical and scientific. He explains many different things in depth and presents studies that back up what he is describing. It was hard to pay attention to because it was quite dry.

I also felt like he didn’t do anything to keep the tone light. He goes on and on about how sleeping is great for you, and inversely, how not sleeping puts you more at risk for cancer, heart attacks, motor vehicle accidents, Alzheimer’s, etc. It made me feel like I need to be sleeping 24/7 or else I’m going to die. I felt so icky every time I read parts like that and it made it very hard for me to want to continue.

“Dreams” is in the subtitle, so I was quite excited for the section about it. However, the “section” was only about 35 pages long, only about 10% of the book. He breezes over dreams, pretty much only saying that they do have a point and that scientists can kind of know what your dreams are about. I wished the section was either longer, or not there at all.

The last section of the book was about how we could make changes in order to get more sleep. One pretty common example is making school start later for kids. Kids aren’t “lazy” for not performing well when schools start early, their sleep schedule is later than adults. Simply making school start later would improve kids performance in school and help them avoid chronic sleep deprivation. He also talked about flexible work schedules. I personally have to start work at 8, but I know I would probably be more productive if I started at 9 based on how I sleep. There are so many stigmas around sleeping, and how you’re seen as weak or needy if you try to get the proper amount of sleep. This was my favorite section because it wasn’t all doom and gloom, but listed out things that we could do personally and societally that can help everyone get more sleep.

I appreciate the information in this book, but the super clinical beginning, the doom and gloom, and the lack of information about dreams made this an absolute struggle to get through. If it was written in a more accessible, lighter way, perhaps I could have enjoyed it. It definitely had some interesting moments, but overall, I did not enjoy my time reading this book.

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How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

The opposite of racist isn’t not racist, it’s antiracist. Kendi explores what antiracism means in different parts of life.

Nonfiction, 305 pages, published in 2019

The opposite of racist isn’t not racist, it’s antiracist. Kendi explores what antiracism means in different parts of life.

Review:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Content Warnings: racism, cancer

This book was…interesting for me to read. I ended up really appreciating the factual elements of this book, but I didn’t vibe with the writing style.

Kendi defines antiracism as the opposite of racism, where no races are held above or below other races for any reason. Being “not racist” just means that you are complicit in racist ideas, whereas being antiracist means that you are actively not holding one race above another. I also found it interesting that he explained that you as a person are not racist or antiracist, it’s your actions (and words) that are. One moment you do something racist, the next moment you could do something antiracist.

One point that I found very interesting was that Kendi said that someone can be racist, no matter what race they are and no matter the race of the other person in the situation. For example, as a young adult, Kendi thought that white people were the devil based on a few experiences, and steered clear of them. He realized later that he was being racist because not only was he judging an entire group of people by the actions of a few, but he was also putting one race above another. This was very contrary to everything I have heard about “reverse racism”, so it definitely left me with some things to think about.

Kendi also digs into history. Through his research, he came to realize that the institution of racism was based on money. Back when the slave trade was starting, it was very profitable for the people in charge, so it was in their best interest to sow the seeds of fear and hatred. Because more people feared and hated Africans being sold into slavery, it helped their business. As their business grew, it caused more fear and hate, creating a feedback cycle.

My main issues with this book were certain elements of the writing. I found it very repetitive, both in words used and sentence format. Repetitive sentence format was used to make a point, but it was just hard to read (especially to listen to, as I listened to the audiobook). He also (understandably) uses the words racist and antiracist a lot. Through writing the beginning of this review, I can understand now how that’s kind of unavoidable.

There was also a few discussions of history that went right over my head. I don’t think I had the background knowledge to understand exactly what point Kendi was trying to make.

Kendi also frames all the information in this book through the lens of his own life in chronological order. He would tell a story, then talk about racism and antiracism that relates to the story, then he would get back to the story. I just felt like it took him far to long to get back to his own story, so much so that I would forget what part of his life he was even referencing.

Aside from the writing, I did find this book quite through-provoking. I liked that Kendi includes definitions at the beginning of each section, and how the sections cover so many different parts of society.

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Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

This book presents stories, data, research, and case studies showing how women are left out of the data that drives our world, resulting in products, policies, and environments suited to men.

Nonfiction, 411 pages, published in 2019

This book presents stories, data, research, and case studies showing how women are left out of the data that drives our world, resulting in products, policies, and environments suited to men.

Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Content Warnings: sexual assault, violence against women

When I read nonfiction, I normally read memoirs, so this is quite a different book for me, but an acquaintance of mine recommended it to me.

The book revolves around the fact that women are consistently left out of studies and research, whether it is intentional or not, that is used to represent all people. Each section highlights a different part of life, from transportation and work to health and wellness, where women are consistently left out of data meant to represent humans.

As I was reading, I was kind of fascinated at first, but then I just got angrier and sadder. Some examples, like how offices are set to the optimal temperature for men, so women are usually cold, are just mildly obnoxious, but others highlight situations where women are dying because the data we have represents men, not people. One situation that showed this was heart attacks. The major symptoms of heart attacks are chest pain, pain in the left arm, and shortness of breath. However, these are just the typical symptoms for men, so when a woman has a heart attack and receives medical care, it takes longer for doctors to identify it (if they even do), wasting time because the symptoms are “abnormal”. Even now, I was just Googling heart attack symptoms and this is what I found: “Women are more likely to have atypical symptoms than men”. Why should an entire half of the population have “atypical” symptoms?

There was also a lot of emphasis on how women should be a part of making decisions that effect them. One kind of funny, yet also really sad, example was of somewhere that had to rebuild due to a natural disaster (I can’t remember the specifics). There were many house rebuilt, yet none of them had kitchens, because in whatever culture this example was in, only women cooked, but no women were included on the team of people designing these houses.

Some other topics this book talked about that I thought were interesting were how women do much more of the unpaid work (childcare, housework, cooking, ect.) and health hazards to women (including safety gear that doesn’t fit properly and lack of studies on chemicals primarily women are exposed to).

The author makes a point to say that these gaps in the data are not caused by sexism. I had a hard time agreeing with this statement. I can’t see a reason why women being left out of data that affects everyone isn’t sexist. Maybe it isn’t intentional, though there are many cases where a bias is highlighted, then promptly ignored, but I don’t think that means it isn’t wrong.

One thing that bothered me about this book was that there wasn’t any sort of content warning. The last section of the book is about sexual assault and it was honestly very hard for me to get through. It’s not that hearing about fictional sexual assault is easy, but hearing specific events that really happened is so much harder. One specific example was about the Superdome sheltering people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Although there are no “confirmed” cases of sexual assault, the people who were there had a different story. I wished I had known about this going in because it took me by surprise and went into more detail than I felt like I could handle.

The author occasionally mentions how the gender bias intersects with race, but there wasn’t a huge focus on it. She did use examples from all over the globe though, so it wasn’t centered on one part of the world.

I am definitely grateful that I read this book. Being a woman, none of this was particularly surprising, I just needed someone to say it in order for me to realize that it’s been in the back of my mind all along. I went through a wide range of emotions reading this book and I think it is definitely broad enough that anyone could read it without prior knowledge.

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The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee

Hyeonseo Lee escaped from North Korea by herself when she was just 17 and was cut of from her family for many years as she was forced to survive in China, a country that could deport her back to North Korea at any time, where she would be killed for her escape.

Nonfiction, 305 pages, published in 2015

Hyeonseo Lee escaped from North Korea by herself when she was just 17 and was cut of from her family for many years as she was forced to survive in China, a country that could deport her back to North Korea at any time, where she would be killed for her escape.

Spoiler Free Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Content Warnings: generally dark topics, death/murder, mentions of cannibalism, starvation, deceptions of corpses, threat of sexual assault/human trafficking

This was not the first and probably not the last book that I’ve read about North Korea, so nothing in this memoir about North Korea itself really surprised me. I found this book particularly interesting because Hyeonseo’s defection was quite different from what I’ve read about before.

Hyeonseo led a somewhat privileged life in North Korea. She still felt the fear and repression from the government, but she didn’t really want for anything growing up. She recounts once, around when country-wide hunger was at it’s highest in the 90’s, that she asked her friend for a snack when she was visiting because she didn’t even realize that food was hard to come by.

In the other books by defectors I’ve read, hunger is one of the biggest factors in their decisions to escape, but for Hyeonseo, she was mostly just curious about China. Her plan was to just visit China for a few days, then come back before anyone had noticed that she was away, but she ended up not being able to return without risking the safety of herself and her family.

She ended up living in China many years before even thinking about going to South Korea, which was also very different. She ended up doing pretty well for herself after awhile in China, so her trip to South Korea wasn’t as hard to plan as others I’ve read about. I’m not saying that her journey was easy by any means, but it definitely doesn’t sound like it’s the norm.

She also recounts her struggle with trying to get her family out of North Korea and into South Korea, both by changing their minds about staying and physically getting them across the border safely. This section was particularly hard to read because they really couldn’t catch a break, even once they’d gotten to South Korea.

I think one important thing that popped up a few times, even among all of the terrible things happening, was that small acts of kindness really can make a difference. There were certain instances where absolute strangers did one small thing (though in some cases, a big thing) that completely changed the course of her life. When reading about such dark circumstances, I get pretty down, so mentions of people like this remind me that the world isn’t completely terrible.

If you don’t know anything about North Korea, I definitely recommend you read about it or even watch Hyeonseo’s TED Talk. I find the topic to be horrifying and a little fascinating, but definitely important to know about.

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All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson

George M. Johnson recounts his childhood and young adult life, focusing on his sexuality and race, as well as the intersection between those.

Memoir, 304 pages, published in 2020

George M. Johnson recounts his childhood and young adult life, focusing on his sexuality and race, as well as the intersection between those.

Spoiler Free Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Content Warnings: homophobia, racism, incest

Reviewing a memoir always feels weird because I’m not here to try and review someone’s life, so this review is going to be kind of a short one!

One thing that immediately struck me was that there was an author’s note at the beginning that included content warnings! He didn’t want to shy away from any part of his story, but he also wanted to give people the information they needed to make a decision about if they could handle what he was going to discuss. I appreciate this immensely.

I listened to the audiobook and George himself narrates it! I thought he brought so much life into his story, and there were definitely parts were he added things that were funny or poignant.

I think this book will be immensely helpful and comforting to young queer Black men, but also just great for anyone to read. I always think that reading about people similar to yourself can be helpful, but reading about people different from yourself can be equally meaningful.

I highly recommend the book in general, as well as the audiobook! The memoir definitely goes through some heavy topics, but it is also about accepting and being yourself.

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The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

Synopsis: Melinda Gates tells the story of how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation evolved and different ways in which empowering and helping women changes the world for the better.

Nonfiction, 273 pages, published in 2019

Synopsis: Melinda Gates tells the story of how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation evolved and different ways in which empowering and helping women changes the world for the better.

Review:

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My goal this year was to read more nonfiction, so when I saw this book on sale, I figured why not. I did not expect to learn so much!

I have to say, I was pretty skeptical at first. How much could a rich white woman have to say about empowering women, especially those of color or in poverty? I wasn’t expecting her to be so open-minded or ready to listen and learn.

Most of this book is stories of other women that Melinda heard or experienced parts of. She spends a lot of time talking about regions of Africa and Asia, but she never really generalizes. I know in America, it is kind of ingrained in society to think that one part of Africa is the same as any other part, but Melinda does an excellent job of not generalizing. She also usually calls anyone telling her their story her teacher, because we all have a lot of to learn from people with experiences different than our own. I particularly loved this because it shows how much she really is willing to listen and learn.

I like that a lot of the aid she gives is based on what other women have told her and asked her for. She doesn’t just throw money at them, she listens and works with them to help them in the way that they need.

This book is divided into chapters on different ways women are held back, including contraception, school, child marriage, and equality in the workplace. I learned a lot of facts from this book, especially about contraception, but I also began to understand how much of an effect things like contraception have on keeping women below men.

I just really enjoyed this book! It definitely doesn’t do a super deep dive into any of the topics it discusses, but for someone who knew almost nothing like me, it is a good place to start. I appreciate that Melinda wrote this book and is donating all the money it makes to charity.

Book Review: Becoming by Michelle Obama

One of my goals this year was to read more nonfiction, and oh man did I start with a big one! Since it’s publication last year, I had heard non-stop praise for it, and I’ve always admired Michelle, so I had to read it.

Genre: Nonfiction

Published: November 13th, 2018

Pages: 426

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Review:

One of my goals this year was to read more nonfiction, and oh man did I start with a big one! Since it’s publication last year, I had heard non-stop praise for it, and I’ve always admired Michelle, so I had to read it.

The book follows her life up until she left the White House. I honestly knew nothing about her childhood before I read this, but I think how she grew up really impacted who she became as a person. She came from a humble household and her parents taught her to be independent and responsible. Her experience with school was really interesting to me. She wanted to go to Princeton, as a black girl from a lower income family, so the odds were stacked against her, but she got accepted and proved everyone wrong.

Throughout her whole story, it is clear how motivated she is. By her mid-20’s, she was a successful lawyer in Chicago. In that career as well as every job after that, she put so much effort into helping other people. She helped get lower income people access to health care and helped young people work on social issues. Even when she was helping Barack during his campaigns, she threw her all into it.

I really enjoyed hearing about her and Barack’s relationship. They really only came into the spotlight after they had been married for over 15 years, so it was interesting to hear about their early married life. Michelle didn’t try to sugarcoat any of her experience. They went through a lot with his political career and she talks about how it affected her personally, as well as the family.

Her work as First Lady was as focused on helping people as her previous jobs were. She wanted kids from lower income families to have more access to fresh foods and for them to get out and play more. She set up young girls, especially young girls of color, with mentors so that they had someone to look up to and she advocated for better resources for veterans. While doing this, she had the public criticizing her for a face she made or a fashion choice.

I learned how strong Michelle is from this book. She constantly had people telling her she couldn’t do things, either because of her class, race, or gender, but that just motivated her to do it even more. She dealt with her father having multiple scoliosis and she dealt with miscarriages and fertility problems. She was the first African American to be First Lady, a role with an already ambiguous definition. She was spread thin between her family, her job, and helping campaign, but she managed to do it all. It wasn’t easy, but she did it.

She has definitely become one of my role models. She uses any power she has to advocate for people with less and she doesn’t let other people’s opinions stop her. I think this book is so powerful and I am so happy I read it! If you want to know more about her or you just want to read about a kickass lady, I highly recommend this book.