Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World: A Non-Fiction Review

Digital Minimalism by Cal NewportHow much time do you think you spend on your phone every day? How much of that time is spent talking to an actual person on a phone call? How much is texting? How much is scrolling different apps?

In one study one in three participants guessed they spent significantly less time on their smart phone than they actually do per day. While the average in this study was around five hours, some participants reported spending as many as twelve hours on their phone.

It’s no wonder, when the attention economy and social media are designed to keep people on their devices, using apps as much as possible.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (2019) by Cal Newport offers some ways to cut through all the things demanding our attention and decide what really matters.

Find it on Bookshop.

Digital Minimalism is divided into two parts “Foundations” and “Practices.” The first half of the book establishes the problem and details some of the causes while the second half offers actionable strategies for change.

Newport calls his approach “digital minimalism”–a way to gauge exactly how much is enough without ever over-using. While this phrase might conjure an image of Luddites eschewing all technology, the book is quick to point out that rather digital minimalists adopt new technology and apps with caution. If a device or site doesn’t add value to a digital minimalist’s life, they do not use it.

The main tenet of digital minimalism is starting with a clean slate after a 30 day digital break in which you are not using your phone as anything but a phone and avoiding all of its apps and other features. After this detox period, digital minimalists are advised to evaluate what digital apps and devices they reintroduce with the following questions: Does this technology directly support something that I deeply value? Is this technology the best way to support this value? How am I going to use this technology going forward to maximize its value and minimize its harms?

Although Newport’s approach has been widely praised, he fails to acknowledge the intrinsic value in written communication/social media as tools for human connection. In other words, for Newport, friendships and connections are seen as having limited value if they cannot take place in person or at least over a phone call. I found this view dated and, given the number of long distance friendships I have, unrealistic. It is also one facet of digital minimalism that falls apart under the strain of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While Digital Minimalism doesn’t tread new ground (and fails to cite books by women who cover similar topics), Newport does present the information clearly and succinctly–particularly in the first half covering the ill effects of this digital age and how ill-equipped we all are for these massive changes. Practical tips including deleting apps in favor of web versions and turning off notifications may feel commonsense but fit in well with the overall approach.

Readers interested in a more practical step-by-step approach to using their phone less will be better served by How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price. Readers who want to think more about living with intention and joy should also check out Marie Kondo’s books The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Joy at Work (with Scott Sonenshein) and Burnout by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski.

All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Non-Fiction Review

All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. JohnsonAll Boys Aren’t Blue (2020) by George M. Johnson (find it on Bookshop) collects essays by Johnson about his life growing up as a Black queer boy (and young man) in New Jersey and in his college years in Virginia.

The essays cover a range of topics from Johnson’s first identity crisis when he found out his name was George despite his family always calling him Matt (his middle name) to when his teeth were knocked out at five years old by neighbor kids. Stories of pushing against gender binaries, navigating high school while publicly closeted, and working up to coming up and living his true life in college all illustrate the challenges of triumphs of growing up to become your best self even if that is often in the absence of any support in terms of seeing yourself in media like TV shows or books like this one.

Each essay works well on its own presenting a contained story or anecdote from Johnson’s life although transitions between each chapter/essay fail to create a cohesive whole. Johnson addresses topics of drug use, sexual abuse with care guiding readers through these challenging topics while also giving them space to step away from the book if needed.

All Boys Aren’t Blue celebrates Black Joy, family, and individuality in a book that begins to fill a gap in written experiences for teen readers. If you decide to pick this one up and are able to read audiobooks, I highly recommend this one which is read by the author.

Talking to Strangers: A Non-Fiction Review

How did Fidel Castro and his spies fool the CIA for years? Why did Prime Minister Chamberlain think Hitler was trustworthy? How did no one realize what Bernie Madoff was doing with all of his investments? What transpired to make it possible for Larry Nassar to abuse countless patients at his gymnastics-centered medical practice–often with parents of his victims in the same room?

Author Malcolm Gladwell explores these questions and more in his latest book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know (2019).

Find it on Bookshop.

Before we discuss anything else, you need to know this is not an easy book–especially not during the ongoing pandemic which adds its own kind of stress to everything. Additionally, the audiobook is narrated by Gladwell and features recordings of the people being quoted whenever possible. This choice has the double-edged result of making an excellent production while also making the events discussed that much more immediate and visceral for readers/listeners.

Talking to Strangers covers a few things most of which boil down to chapters about people in the worst situations or chapters about the worst people.

Gladwell uses what happened to Sandra Bland as entry point and framing device into his topic. Some of this is reductive as it sets aside the systemic racism at the root of police brutality and the unfair targeting of BIPOC citizens by police. Similarly Gladwell’s theory that sexual assault can ever come down to misunderstandings due to overdrinking and their resulting blackouts is hard to hear and very much the statement only a man could or would ever make.

Other chapters explore Castro’s spy network within the US, Hitler’s ability to mislead Chamberlain in advance of WWII, as well as other familiar news items. Most of which is hard to hear. The book ends with discussions of so-called “advance interrogation techniques” (torture) and the circumstances that may have helped lead to Sylvia Plath’s suicide.

Despite the difficult content, Talking to Strangers includes some useful insights people can bring to their interactions with others including the need for awareness of situational context, peoples’ tendency to believe the best in people, and the reality that people may broadcast one emotion with body language and mannerisms while presenting very different ones with their speech.

Talking to Strangers is informative if challenging to read with a solid introduction to a few key aspects of interpersonal communication as well as a deep exploration of current events that readers may or may not recognize from previous news viewing. I hesitate to say I’d recommend this book because I had such a hard time with it myself, but if the premise sounds interesting then you should definitely check it out.

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle: A Non-Fiction Review

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking The Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia NagoskiBurnout has become increasingly common in modern society–especially in the United States. Especially among millennials. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, especially among women.

Why is that? What can we do about it?

Emily Nagoski and her identical twin sister Amelia Nagoski tackle these questions in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (2019).

Find it on BookShop.

If you make a habit of reading up on self-care and anxiety, some of the information the Nagoskis share will be familiar. The book is also very gendered with a focus on what burnout and stress look like for women (cis and otherwise) although I would argue that the information on dealing with stress applies to anyone who reads it. (In this vein, the book has a very specific view on the way the patriarchy impacts stress.)

What works really well here is how the information is presented (and how it’s read if you choose to pick up the audio book which is read by the authors). The book is broken into three parts (What You Take With You, The Real Enemy, and Wax On, Wax Off) which examine what the stress cycle looks like, external stressors and how they often disproportionately impact women, and how to put the advice shared in the book into practice.

Each chapter has a TL;DR section breaking down key ideas. The book also pulls in pop culture references like The Hunger Games and Star Trek to unpack some of the science and practices covered. Although founded in research and experiences from actual women, the book also creates two composite women “Julie” and “Sophie” to demonstrate the experiences and practices being suggested as they move through their own stress cycles.

The great thing about Burnout is that is founded in positivity and the idea that we are all doing the best we can. If you are stressed and suffering from burnout, it isn’t a flaw or something to fix. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem–perhaps job dissatisfaction or difficulty asking for help.

A lot of the tone here is a little twee and precious–particularly on audio, but it doesn’t make the advice less sound. I can see why this wouldn’t work for everyone but it worked very well for me. A lot of the advice here is common sense but also framed in ways that helped me absorb and internalize things that I may have previously known to be true but not quite believe for my own life and experience.

Burnout: The Secret To Unlocking The Stress Cycle is an excellent resource for anyone looking to bring more balance (and obviously less stress) to their lives. The chapter on rest, in particular, should be required reading for everyone. Definitely worth a look if you’ve found yourself overwhelmed of late and, honestly, who hasn’t?

If you want to unpack more about why women are particularly likely to suffer from burnout and explore how science often fails to research and address concerns specific to women also be sure to check out Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez.

Possible Pairings: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Perez, Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life by Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein, Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less – and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined by Scott Sonenshein

Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West: A Non-Fiction Review

Presenting Buffalo Bill by Candace FlemingNowadays Buffalo Bill is a legend, part of the story of the westward expansion of the United States and the “Wild West” as it has been romanticized for white audiences in popular culture.

In fact, Buffalo Bill was part of that romanticizing with the creation of his traveling Wild West show.

But before William Cody became the showman better known as Buffalo Bill, he was a boy raised on the frontier–the son of a man who would become a prominent abolitionist, he may have ridden with the Pony Express (or not), among other exploits.

One fact remains: Buffalo Bill is an enduring part of American history–both good and bad–and helped define an era as much with his very real show as his tall tales. You can learn more about both (and separate one from the other) in Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West (2016) by Candace Fleming.

Find it on BookShop.

Fleming brings her usual thorough research and care to this biography filled with illustrations and primary sources including Cody’s own memoirs and those of his sister Julia. Fleming balances facts with Bill’s penchant for mythologizing his own life with tall tales and other embellishments in sidebars called “Panning for the Truth” where she works to parse the sometimes limited facts from first person accounts.

Each chapter also opens with a dramatic and, given the textual format, surprisingly cinematic account of various key acts in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West which truly transport readers to the show. Fleming also brings a modern lens to this moment in history highlighting the US government’s systemic campaign against Native Americans and also Cody’s own role therein.

Although a little melancholy, as many stories of the famous figures of the old west are, Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West is as fascinating as Buffalo Bill himself. This book does a lot to demonstrate how, often much to his own dismay, Cody was really first and foremost a showman with innovative ideas about showmanship, presentation, and (later on) employing both women and Native performers.

Possible Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown; An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States For Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza; My Calamity Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Booklist: Activism Starts With You: Nonfiction Books to Inspire and Instruct

This piece originally appeared at the YALSA Hub Blog in 2017.

You can also find the list at Bookshop.

It’s been a wild and sometimes scary ride lately with the political climate changing in the wake of the 2016 United States Presidential election, the current health crisis and, unfortunately, racism and hatred spreading wildly. It’s hard to know where to start when you can’t vote and may not be old enough to work. The best first step: Getting information. These books can help teens do just that as you get informed and inspired.

  • Strike! The Farm Workers’ Fight for Their Rights by Larry Dane Brimner: A carefully researched account of the 1965 strike and the ones that followed as migrant Filipino American workers fought to negotiate a better way and set off one of the longest and most successful strikes in American history.
  • Yes You Can! Your Guide to Becoming An Activist by Jane Drake and Ann Love: This book includes accounts of the founding of organizations like Amnesty International and Greenpeace along with practical steps for social change including how to run meetings, write petitions, and lobby the government.
  • It’s Getting Hot in Here: The Past, Present, and Future of Climate Change by Bridget Heos: With so many people denying its impacts, it’s more important now than ever to know the full story about climate change. This book features real talk about global warming and ways we can all help by taking action.
  • The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club by Phillip M. Hoose: The true story of the teenage boys whose acts of sabotage (and eventual arrests) helped spark the Danish resistance during WWII.
  • Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen: An essay and art-filled guide to what it means to be a feminist from forty-four unique voices.
  • We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson: In May 1963 4,000 African American children and teenagers marched in Birmingham, Alabama where they were willingly arrested to help fill the city’s jails. These young marchers were crucial to the desegregation of Birmingham–one of the most racially violent cities in America at the time.
  • The March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell: These graphic novels share Lewis’ firsthand account of his lifelong involvement in the fight for human rights including his key role in the Civil Rights movement from his early years in a segregated classroom through the 1963 March on Washington.
  • Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks: The true story of three of the most important scientists of the twentieth century–women who risked their lives pursuing their research and protecting the primates they studied.
  • Queer There and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World by Sarah Prager: Queer author and activist Prager delves into the world’s queer history and heritage through the lens of these twenty-three trailblazers.
  • This Land Is Our Land: The History of American Immigration by Linda Barrett Osborne: This book follows the changing reception immigrants to the United States have faced from both the government and the public from 1800 through the present.
  • You Got This! Unleash your Awesomeness, Find your Path, and Change your World by Maya Penn: Everything you need to know to find your passions, reach your potential, and speak up from teen entrepreneur, animator, eco-designer, and girls rights activist Maya Penn.
  • Rad Women Worldwide: Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks, and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History by Kate Schatz: This book highlights forty women from around the world and from all walks of life along with their varied accomplishments and contributions to world history.
  • The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin: In 1944 hundreds of African American servicemen in the Navy refused to work in unsafe conditions after Port Chicago explosion. Fifty of those men were charged with mutiny. This is their story.
  • Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something That Matters by Laurie Ann Thompson: A step-by-step guide to identifying social issues, getting informed, and taking action.
  • How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of A War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana: In her memoir Uwiringiyimana discusses her survival of the Gatumba massacre and her move to America where she began to recover through healing and activism.
  • I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai, Christina Lamb: Malala Yousafzai is the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Her story started when the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley and she fought for her right to an education but that’s only the beginning.

This list is by no means comprehensive. If I’ve missed any key titles, please share them in the c

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men: A Nonfiction Review

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-PerezWhat if you lived in a world where your phone was too big for your hand? Where doctors prescribed drugs that are wrong for your body–assuming they even believe you have the symptoms you claim? What if you hands are too small for a standard piano? What if you are 47% more likely to die in a car crash? What if hours upon hours of work you do is never recognized?

If the above sound familiar, chances are you are a woman living with the consequences of a gender data gap that fails to examine how women engage with the world.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed For Men (2019) by Caroline Criado-Perez (find it on Bookshop) explores this gap and examines the numerous ways in which designed a world for the “average person” is usually shorthand to design for the average man–someone who rarely if ever faces the same challenges and situations an average woman might expect in comparable circumstances.

Criado-Perez breaks the book into parts Daily Life, The Workplace, Design, Going to the Doctor, Public Life, and When It Goes Wrong to unpack in various chapters examples of the gender data gap and the harm is causes to women both in everyday pay differences and discomforts (cold offices, too large phones) to more deadly consequences including cars not tested to evaluate women’s safety, personal protective equipment (PPE) fitted to male bodies, and more.

Criado-Perez reads the audio herself which I highly recommend if you are able to listen to books.

For a broad strokes overview of a lot of what is covered in this volume you can also check out this article at The Guardian which succinctly covers a lot of the points Criado-Perez makes in the book.

I especially like the time Invisible Women takes to examine and unpack what unpaid labor looks like for women. This book is the first time I have seen everything I do to manage my mom’s care contextualized as actual work. Which it absolutely is. This book is also the first time I feel like that kind of care has been framed as an unpaid job and not as an obligation or a burden.

Many of Criado-Perez’s points will be familiar rallying cries for feminists already familiar with some aspects of gender inequality and data bias. Regardless of your familiarity, the clear and straightforward presentation of information and data (or lack thereof) in Invisible Women will be eye opening for all readers. Highly Recommended.

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations: A Nonfiction Review

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira JacobThe trouble starts when Z is six. He has a lot of questions about everything from who taught Michael Jackson to dance, if moonwalking has anything to do with how to actually walk on the moon, to if it’s bad to be brown.

Artist and author, Mira Jacob tries to answer all of his questions–but it isn’t always easy to explain to a half-Jewish, half-Indian boy that not everyone is going to understand him or want to make space for him.

Using Z’s questions as a spring board, this graphic novel memoir explores the tensions leading up to the 2016 US election, the author’s own history growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in small town American, and more to get at what we really talk about when we talk about race, sexuality, belonging, and love in Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations (2019) by Mira Jacob.

Good Talk was both heavier and lighter than I expected. Jacob combines photographic backgrounds with realistic black and white drawings of characters to create high contrasts pages. Although the pages are often static with speech bubbles doing most of the work to move the book along, the story remains dynamic and engrossing.

Good Talk is an excellent introduction to graphic novels for readers looking to try that format for the first time. Jacob’s frank exploration of identity and racism in her own life and in the larger context of the 2016 US election also makes Good Talk a great entry point for difficult conversations about race, politics, and what it means to be an ally.

In addition to providing a thoughtful window into a very painful moment in US politics and the hard conversations we all need to have in the wake of that moment, Good Talk is a laugh out loud funny memoir about growing up and speaking up. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib; The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish; How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones ; March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell; So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo; We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend: A Non-Fiction Review

You’ve read the story of Jesse James
of how he lived and died.
If you’re still in need;
of something to read,
here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

cover art for Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of Legend by Karen BlumenthalYou might think you know the story of Bonnie and Clyde–the love struck couple who went on a crime spree throughout Texas in the 1930s. Over the years they have been immortalized in stories, songs, and on film.

Thanks to the advent of photography, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were documented in newspapers which printed Bonnie’s poetry left behind after a fortuitous flight from a safe house. The media and the public were quick to latch onto these ill-fated young people ready to cast them as a modern answer to Robin Hood.

Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend (2018) by Karen Blumenthal unpacks this sensationalized story to look at the facts.

By examining the poverty of their neighborhood and the other barriers they faced growing up in Texas Blumenthal tries to offer some explanation of how two poorly educated teens became two of the most notorious criminals of our time.

Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend is a quick and informative read with numerous photos and first-person accounts from witness statements. Recommended for true crime enthusiasts and mystery readers of all ages.

Possible Pairings: Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow, Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson, The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century by Sarah Miller

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt: A (Non-Fiction) Review

cover art for When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara CooneyAncient history confirms one thing again and again: It was a man’s world. Throughout the world ancient civilizations created patriarchal societies often with ruthless transitions between dynasties.

There was one exception: Egypt. Throughout the country’s long reign from Dynasty 1 through to the Ptolemaic years that ended Egypt’s independence until the twentieth century, Egypt was unique in its acceptance of female rulers.

There were not many but occurring as often as they did over thousands of years, suggests the practice was longstanding and accepted throughout Egypt. Separated by years, and sometimes even millennia, these queens came to the throne under difference circumstances, with different strategies. The thing that binds them all together, even now, is that their rules all inevitably ended to restore patriarchal balance. When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt (2018) by Kara Cooney examines the reigns of six queens to explore Egypt’s complex attitudes toward female rule and what lessons might be gleaned for modern society.

This book is divided into six chapters that work chronologically through ancient Egypt’s history beginning in Dynasty 1 with Merneith–one of the first Egyptian women to rule as a regent for a relative too young to rule in his own stead. Next Cooney introduces readers to Nefrusobek who ruled as the last of her dynasty when Egypt’s penchant for using incest to consolidate power resulted in a sterile male heir.

Cooney’s previous book, The Woman Who Would Become King, is a more in-depth study of Hatshepsut–the first Egyptian queen to surpass her role as regent and declare herself king in her own right–so it’s no surprise that this chapter is one of the most thoroughly researched and well-informed.

Nefertiti, the queen who watched her husband Akhenaten usher in the monotheistic Amarna period (and bring Egypt out of it after his death) is an interesting figure. Cooney explores how Nefertiti’s position ruling beside Akhenaten allowed her to grasp for more authority. However, its should also be noted that to support her theory of Egypt supporting queens routinely throughout its long history, Cooney supports a very specific school of thought with very little historical evidence suggesting that Nefertiti eventually reinvented herself as Smenkhkare, a little-known ruler who followed.

After Smekhnare (or Nefertiti’s) reign Tawosret again saw the end of her dynasty as Egypt became globalized for the first time–a change that would have lasting consequences even a thousand years later when Cleopatra became the last Egyptian to rule Egypt.

Cooney situates each queen well in Egypt’s history and in relation to each other. Even when Cooney delves into what might be conspiracy theories (and theories with little support from new DNA evidence) she also points out the flaws or leaps in logic with a frankness that I appreciate.

Throughout When Women Ruled the World Cooney balances her own conjectures and often working with almost nothing in terms of a historical record to create a nuanced and sometimes even restrained picture. The book is at its weakest when she is trying to use these queens to create a compelling argument for why women should not be sidelined as potential leaders but that is also the thing that ties the entire book together. Includes a map, timeline, and extensive footnotes. Recommended for nonfiction readers and ancient Egypt enthusiasts.