Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"There is precise evolutionary logic behind the image of ideal female beauty."

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, Alan. S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa

I will start this post with prefacing that I have had an interest in evolutionary psychology perspectives since 2004 when I signed up for an undergraduate psychology course taught by a professor who would ultimately become one of my most memorable and inspiring teachers of all time.  The course was entitled "Psychology of Motivation" and it was led by Dr. Dev Singh at the University of Texas at Austin.  Essentially, the course viewed human behavior (whether it be in regard to food, mating, family rearing, etc.) as a result of innate nature that had evolved over millions of years for species survival.  I found the material intriguing to say the least, however since I completed that course almost 7 years ago I have had little contact with the topic of evolutionary psychology. So, as I was browsing the local bookstore the other day and spotted this book on the shelf, I knew I had to have it!

First of all, doesn't the title of the book just make you want to read it?!  Well, I won't give away the spoiler to the author's response to that question but I promise it is included in this quick read.  Instead, I'll pick out a few of my favorite theories presented....

Why are 36-24-36 continually cited as the ideal female measurements?  A small waist-to-hip ratio (.7 to be exact) was found to be the most desired female measurement by males.  This makes sense because women with a smaller waist-to-hip ratio tend to be overall healthier, more fertile, and younger.  Remember, from an evolutionary perspective, humans are attracted to potential mates based primarily on their chances of reproductive success (often subconsciously).

Why are almost all violent criminals men?  In general, males tend to be more competitive than female counterparts.  The authors contend that there is a reason behind this inequality that can be explained by the previous need for males to compete (physically at times) for mates.  Even though physical competition for mates is no longer needed, the psychological mechanism still remains.

Why do we prefer sweets and fats? Way back when, malnutrition and starvation were quite common.  Over time, humans developed a preference for high-caloric foods in order to increase chances for survival.  Of course, this once adaptive mechanism proves to be a problem in a modern society where we now have an over-abundance of fatty foods. Hence, the rise of obesity.

The authors propose that since our society has dramatically changed so rapidly over the past 10,000 years, human evolution has not been able to keep up causing once adaptive mechanisms to actually become maladaptive (ie: preference for sweets).  This theory is known as the Savanna Principle ("Why Our Brains Are Stuck in the Stone Age").

I'll conclude this post with the acknowledgment that some of the theories presented in this book are controversial in nature.  Not all of them outlined make sense to me either, and I do not want to discount the role of the individual experience which I believe also largely impacts human behavior.  Since the book is speaking about the entire human race, the authors tend to stereotype or use broad generalizations however they also make note that there are always individual exceptions, as well.  If you are curious or open-minded of a new take on the nature vs. nurture debate, this one is for you!

"This country was not unique. This country was fallible. Mistakes were being made."

Zeitoun, Dave Eggers 

Another highly recommended read for everyone out there.... Zeitoun is a riveting true-life account of a Syrian family man living in New Orleans at the time of the devastating Hurrican Katrina.  The story is unique from others which center on this infamous natural disaster by revealing another form of racism that is not nearly as spoken about in connection to New Orleans but certainly just as relevant.  It details the 'profiling' treatment that Abdulrahman Zeitoun, an owner of a construction company, husband to a Caucasian American woman, a father of three children, and yes, also a practicing Muslim, endured in the aftermath of Katrina.

Confused? Intrigued? Incredulous? Yup, so was I when I first read the synopsis.  I was interested to see how two seemingly separate politically charged issues (war on terror and Hurricane Katrina) could be intertwined.  But, by the end of the book it becomes clear.

Just as disturbing as the political and social issues explored in this novel is the incredible ability of the author to allow an true insider perspective for the reader.  While reading about the massive devastation caused by the hurricane, I felt nearly transported to the surreal underwater world that New Orleans had become in 2005.   We've all seen the pictures and footage from that era, but to be able to read about the minute to minute struggles of a man who was one of the few people who consciously chose to stay in the city is something entirely different. As Zeitoun travels around his neighborhood by canoe, the reader is right along beside him.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho 

This book has been on my "must read" list for quite a long time now after several friends have recommended it to me over the years.  I'm happy to say that I have finally been able to cross it off the list!

The Alchemist, is a simple story with a profound, timeless message.  Its brevity allows for a quick read but with the potential for a much larger impact on its audience.  The novel centers on the protagonist, Santiago, who is an Andalusian shepherd whose life changes after an encounter with the king of Salem.  The mysterious king urges the boy to follow his destiny to find a hidden treasure by the Pyramids of Egypt.  The boy must decide whether to give up a stable living as a shepherd in order to take a chance toward a potentially greater payoff.  As the king explains, "And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it..."

In the end, the story shows the utter importance of listening to your heart and believing in yourself to achieve your destiny. Further, if you chose to follow "what is written" * for you, you will be able to actualize greatest happiness.

* Maktub is an arabic concept that translates to "It is written."  This word is used in reference to one's destiny, and plays an integral part in this story-line.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"I could barely remember to stop at the drugstore to buy toothpaste- it didn't seem realistic to think that I could incorporate these high aims into my everyday routine."

The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin

Utterly inspirational.  I have to say, I absolutely enjoyed reading this one from start to finish.  This novel centers on the author's year-long challenge of putting her happiness to the forefront by implementing strategies, backed by research and anecdotal evidence, into place.  Gretchen seamlessly incorporates a self-help guide for her audience while simultaneously documenting her own progress (both the missteps and the advances) with her personal "happiness" journey.

Each chapter represents not only a new month, but also a different aspect of life that she chooses to focus her "happiness" efforts on.

January: Boost Energy; Vitality
February: Remember Love; Marriage
March: Aim Higher; Work
April: Lighten Up; Parenthood
May: Be Serious About Play; Leisure
June: Make Time for Friends; Friendship
July: Buy Some Happiness; Money
August: Contemplate the Heavens; Eternity
September: Pursue a Passion; Books
October: Pay Attention; Mindfulness
November: Keep a Contented Heart; Attitude
December: Boot Camp Perfect; Happiness

It seems appropriate to highlight a few of my favorite tips/suggestions from the book in order to give you a better understanding of this infectious read!  Sure, some of them seem obvious, superficial, or even  downright ridiculous..... but in the end, sometimes that may be just what one needs.

*Be yourself- As the author puts it, "Be Gretchen." Ok, so "Be Jessica."
*De-clutter- "the evening tidy up": take ten minutes before bed to put away the miscellaneous
*Launch a blog- Check.
*Enjoy the now- stop banking on the future
*Be a Treasure House of Happy Memories- keep the good times vivid and remembered
*Go Off the Path- experience new thoughts, encounters, and places, to increase creativity
*Don't Gossip- whoops.
*Keep a Gratitude Journal- "grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives..."
*Write a book- one day, one day....
*Laugh Out Loud- "it can boost immunity and lower blood pressure and cortisol levels..."
*Stimulate the Mind in New Ways- getting out of your comfort zone heightens growth
*Tackle a Nagging Task- "unfinished tasks were draining my energy and making me feel guilty..."
*Act the way I want to feel- be authentic.

This one will be making its new home front and center on the coveted bookshelf (not too many slots left available!).  I could certainly see myself making reference of this novel several times in the future...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"She happens to like their infantile humor- it's her taste, too. But they never include her."

The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

Totally late on this post.  I blame my tardiness on the fact that this was an excruciating difficult book for me to complete. Sure, it's a New York Times bestseller but, unfortunately, not one of my favorites.

Unbeknownst to me when I first made my purchase, this book consists of eleven short stories (one for each chapter) focusing on the personal lives of various characters that are all in some way connected to an international newspaper company set in Rome, Italy.  Each chapter is a story in and of itself, however simultaneously overlapping with the others to make a complete picture by the end of the novel.

I found it challenging to relate or root for the characters detailed in this novel.  Every chapter or story ended in some tragic way.  Whether it was being taken advantage of by a colleague, or discovering your partner is having an affair, or being purposely humiliated..... the list goes on and on.  Honestly, it was an arduous task to even finish a chapter knowing the character you started to empathize with was about to have some misfortune bestowed upon him or her.  No, thanks.

By all means, it was not a book for me.  However, if anyone would like to borrow it, let me know, because I have no hesitations lending this one out!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

“The story of the rapper and the story of the hustler are like rap itself, two kinds of rhythm working together, having a conversation with each other, doing more together than they could do apart"

Decoded, Jay-Z

That's right. I read a novel about rap, hustling (slang for drug dealing), and the rise from poverty from the perspective of an African American male.  Maybe I don't look like the typical audience for this type of novel, but let me explain....

To me, Oprah is the end- all, be-all. I am a HUGE Oprah fan to say the least. So, when I watched her annual "Favorite Things" episode and she endorsed Jay-Z's new novel, Decoded, I was a bit surprised.  I have watched countless other shows where she denounced the genre of rap for its use of misogynistic, violent, and racist lyrics, and here she was (the queen of the anti "n word") telling the world to go out and read the book of one of the most notorious rappers of our time.  It certainly piqued my interest.

Coming from a visual person, this novel was one of the most eye-pleasing books I've seen in a long time. The glossy pages, pertinent photographs, and dramatic cover definitely made me want to at least flip through the book.... , and then before I knew it, I was in line at the bookstore to purchase my very own copy!

Overall, the novel is authentic and raw with a level of candor that one cannot help but appreciate.  Jay-Z has a way with words in his music that easily makes the transition over to print format.  He parallels the world of rap to the world of hustling, making the point that there are more similarities between the two than what one might initially think. ("the two overlap as much as they diverge...")  He states, "The story of the hustler was the story hip-hop was born to tell- not its only story, but the story that found voice in the form and, in return, helped grow the form into an art."

He makes a strong argument that rap is truly poetry, an art, and a metaphor for the underprivileged to tell their struggles.  Yeah, sometimes the stories hip-hop songs voice to the public are not the ones people want to hear, but it's honest. Jay-Z is very clear that he might embellish songs for entertainment purposes, but it is always grounded in the "truth of that experience."  He flawlessly executes the deconstruction (or "decoding")  of the lyrics to several of his famous songs which gives the reader insight into the intent behind the words.  On first glance, many of the lyrics seem superficial but with his explanation one can truly appreciate the intellect that goes into some of his music.

My strongest criticism is that, at times, his prose seemed a bit contradictory (re: no apologies for his lyrics to those who take offense but criticizing others for their opinions....)  However, I enjoyed reading the novel, and recommend it to those who are open-minded about gaining a new perspective and appreciation for the skill that goes into creating the music that has made Shawn Carter into Jay-Z.

Monday, April 4, 2011

"I felt swollen with potential tears, like a water balloon filled to burst. Begging for a pin prick."

Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn

Ok, love, love, love, this one! A creepy mystery with themes of psychological suspense and a protagonist who is, at times, just as rotten as the other characters. This is the author’s debut novel, and I’m already eagerly awaiting her next deliciously indulgent read! 

The novel focuses on the character of Camille Preaker, a journalist out of Chicago, whose latest assignment requires her to return to her family’s hometown of Wind Gap to report on the possible serial murders of two young girls.  By coming back to her hometown, Camille is forced to finally confront the memories and questionable reputation that she left behind so many years ago.  She has been able to avoid this homecoming for nearly a decade, and for good reason, too! ("Wind Gap was unhealthy for me. This home was unhealthy for me.") Let’s just say Camille and her elitist mother, Adora, never had the most ideal relationship.  One that was initially shaky and then completely damaged after the death of Camille’s younger sister Marian, mother's favorite

“And now you come back and all I can think of is ‘why Marian and not her?’” Ouch.

Camille escapes her painful past and her mother's scathing remarks by indulging in both excessive alcohol use and self-injury. But, even these tried and true avoiding tactics won't hold up during this homecoming.  Camille will ultimately be forced to get to the root of her issues once and for all.

Highly recommended read for anyone out there who appreciates a solid thriller, albeit quite sinister at times....