Book Review: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman 


Author: Rutger Bregman
Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Narrator: Thomas Judd
Publication Info: Little, Brown & Company (2020)
Summary/Review:

The thesis of Rutger Bregman’s book is that the vast majority of human beings the vast majority of the time have good intentions.  Not only that, but scientific research backs up this optimistic perception of human goodness.  Furthermore, trusting in the goodness of others is key to the health and success of individuals and societies.  It is the belief that humankind is inherently corrupt that is often manipulated to have people carry out evil. Accepting the “veneer theory” that human society is only a thin layer over the cruel and selfish human psyche is akin to the placebo effect, or in this case what Bregman calls the “nocebo” for its negative psychological effects.

Bregman breaks down what we “know” about human behavior by debunking a number of famed studies such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience tests and the Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as histories of the collapse of indigenous society on Easter Island and the popular story of neighbors indifference to the murder of Kitty Genovese.  After reading the truth behind these stories and how they were manipulated to make the worst possible reading, you might find yourself thinking humans are good but psychologists and journalists are evil.Bregman also contrasts the fictional Lord of the Flies with the real-life experience of Tongan boys who survived being stranded on a desert island for a year through cooperation.

After showing that many cases of humans descending to “savagery” actually had many instances of people wanting to help out, Bregman also explores experimental camps, schools and workplaces where children and adults are trusted to do the right thing with positive results.  Bregman builds on existing philosophy, often contrasting the views of humanity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes.  He also draws on evolutionary biology that shows that cooperation was necessary for human survival and the desire to help is hardwired into humanity.

This is just the kind of book I needed to read right now and it’s something I think everyone ought to read.

Favorite Passages:

Tine De Moor calls for”institutional diversity” – “while markets work best in some cases and state control is better in others, underpinning it all there has to be a strong communal foundation of citizens who decide to work together.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson


Author: Isabel Wilkerson
Title: Caste : The Origins of our Discontents
Narrator: Robin Wiles
Publication Info: Random House (Audio), 2020
Summary/Review:

The author of the remarkable work on the history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, returns with a book about systems of caste.  Wilkerson focuses on three of the most deeply entrenched caste systems in world history: India’s millennia-old system, the subjugation of Jews in Nazi Germany, and the continued inequality of Blacks in the United States that persists even after dismantling slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Through the lens of caste, which Wilkerson says trumps both class and race, we can understand how inequality persists and what can be done to dismantle it. Wilkerson works through eight pillars of caste and richly illustrates it with examples from history and current events.  Wilkerson also frequently draws upon examples from her own experience as a professional Black woman being treated as an inferior.  The book is eye-opening and sobering, and it is one that I believe should be on everyone’s must-read list.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Nanook of the North (1922) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “N” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “N” documentaries I’ve reviewed are New York: A Documentary FilmThe 1964 World’s FairThe Night James Brown Saved Boston, No-No: A Dockumentary, and NOVA: Iceman Reborn.

Title: Nanook of the North: A Story Of Life and Love In the Actual Arctic
Release Date: June 11, 1922
Director: Robert J. Flaherty
Production Company: Pathé Exchange
Summary/Review:

It’s hard to pinpoint the first documentary film ever made.  The term “documentary” didn’t come into use until 1926.  But many of the earliest motion pictures made were documentaries in the sense that they documented events and everyday life as they presented the wonders of film. All that being said, there’s a good case that Nanook of the North is the first feature-length documentary.

On the other hand, not everything in this movie is factual, as Flaherty chose to stage some elements for dramatic and practical reasons.   The central figure “Nanook” is actually named Allakariallak, and the woman said to be his wife was not actually his wife.  The Inuit had adopted Western-style clothing and weapons by this time, but for the film they wear traditional clothing made of animals skins and hunt with harpoons instead of firearms.  It was impossible to fit the camera inside an igloo and have appropriate light to film, so a special three-sided igloo was built for interior shots.

Despite the film being more docudrama than documentary, I still felt a sense of awe watching these real live people from nearly a century ago, at the time my grandparents were still children.  And the Inuit we see are in fact kayaking through ice floes, hunting walrus and seals, and building an igloo.  It’s also impressive that Flaherty could make such an ambitious film in Arctic Canada with the limited technology available at the time.  Finally, Allakariallak shines through as a genuinely warm and ingenious hero of the film.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Keeping in mind the caveats above about staged scenes, Nanook of the North still provides a glimpse into the traditional lifeways of the Inuit. The Inuit we see in the film are essentially reenacting the practices of their recent ancestors.  And as Roger Ebert notes “If you stage a walrus hunt, it still involves hunting a walrus, and the walrus hasn’t seen the script.”

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Listen to the music of Tanya Tagaq, and Inuk artist from Nunavut, Canada, who performs traditional throat singing and creates fusion with more contemporary styles of music.  Tagaq has even performed live musical accompaniment to screenings of Nanook of the North, which is something I’d really like to see!

Source: Kanopy


019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Movie Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “C” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “C” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Cane Toads: An Unnatural HistoryThe Case of the Grinning Cat, Ceasefire Massacre, The Clash: Westway to the World,  and Constantine’s Sword .

Title: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Release Date: 2010
Director: Werner Herzog
Production Company: Creative Differences
Summary/Review:

This documentary takes us to a place that most human beings will never have access to, Chauvet Cave in southern France.  The cave contains some of the oldest known human paintings, dating back 32,000 years ago.  Herzog’s narration tends toward the melodramatic, but the visuals are stunning, and as Herzog notes filmed under very trying conditions.  Herzog and crew are not shy about letting the camera linger on these amazing paintings and following them along the contours of the cave walls. At one point it’s noted that a painting of a horse that intersects with another horse may have been painted 5000 years apart, a stunning idea that art could be maintained and added to over so long a period of time.  In addition to film inside the cave, Herzog interviews numerous scientists and visits other prehistoric sites and natural locations in the environs that can help us understand what may have been happening in Chauvet.  But the scenes inside the cave are the stars of the film (and if you’re lucky, maybe you can see them in 3-D).

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary: This movie is probably the best chance you’ll get to see the earliest works of art by our human ancestors and take a moment to appreciate the core of humanity.
If You Like This You Might Also Want To …: Another window into early humans is the frozen remains of Ötzi the Iceman whom I visited on my honeymoon and learned more about from the documentary Iceman Reborn. The Humans Who Went Extinct explores the Neanderthals who lived alongside our early human ancestors.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Humans Who Went Extinct by Clive Finlayson


Author: Clive Finlayson
TitleThe humans who went extinct : why Neanderthals died out and we survived
Publication Info: Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2009.
Summary/Review:

Finlayson is a paleontologist from Gibraltar who writes in this book about Neanderthals as a species of human that evolved parallel to the ancestors of homo sapiens.  Finlayson challenges common beliefs such as the “Out of Africa” theory, noting that ancestral humans and proto-humans could move freely back and forth between Africa and the Eurasian landmass, especially when the ocean levels were much lower than they are now.  He also theorizes that the fossil record of a many early human communities that lived by the shore have been lost to ocean levels rising.  The role of climate plays a large part in Finlayson’s model of human evolution, and attributes homo sapiens adaptation to the climactic changes that made the Neanderthals go extinct more to luck than the superiority of our species.  Despite the title, Neanderthals are not the main focus of this book, which is disappointing. His defensiveness about how his view contrast with the common wisdom make me wonder if he’s a renegade that cannot be trusted.  While writing on a fascinating topic, Finlayson’s writing is a bit dry and repetitive so the book is less engaging than I would’ve hoped.

Rating: ***

Book Review: 1493 : Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann


Author: Charles C. Mann
Title1493 : Uncovering the new world Columbus created
Narrator: Robertson Dean
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011)
Previously Read by Same Author1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Summary/Review:

A sequel of sorts to 1491, this book investigates the wide-ranging impact of contact between Eurasia & Africa and the Americas and exchange of people, animals, plants, and micorganisms that followed in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ voyages.  This is called the Columbian Exchange and is the root of today’s globalism.  Mann investigates a wide variety of topics, places, and times right up to the present day that resulted from this exchange.  It’s a fascinating overview of social and economical forces at work through history.
Recommended books:

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook , and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
Rating: ****

Book Review: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie


Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Togo

Author: Tété-Michel Kpomassie
Title: An African in Greenland
Publication Info: New York : New York Review Books, [2001] (Originally published in 1981)
ISBN: 9780940322882

Summary/Review:

Kpomassie, who grew up in a traditional society in Togo, writes a charming, insightful and very human account about his year living among the traditional societies of Greenland.  The story begins when Kpomassie is a boy and is injured in a fall from a tree.   In his convalescence he comes across a book about the Eskimos and finds himself obsessed with the idea of visiting Greenland.  After 10 years working his way across Africa and Europe, earning money and travel visas, Kpomassie finally arrives by ship on the shores of Greenland.

Kpomassie seeks out the most remote and traditional Inuit villages he can reach and enjoys the hospitality of many villages, forms friendships, and by the end of the book expresses the desire to live out his days in Greenland.  There are some great scenes of hunting for seal, fishing, community gatherings, and a ride across the ice by dogsled (and the embarrassment of falling off).  There’s also a dark side to Greenland as Kpomassie observes the loss of traditional culture to Danish colonialism, widespread underemployment and the ensuing poverty and alcoholism.  The sunless winter in the most remote village Kpomassie visits is especially depressing.

I broke my rule of focusing on fiction for my Around The World For a Good Book project because I could not resist the cross-cultural premise of a man from an African traditional society visiting the traditional cultures of Greenland.  Part travelogue, part memoir, and part anthropology, this is one of my favorite books I’ve read thus far this year.

Recommended books: The Silent Traveler series by Chiang Yee shares a similar warm, humanist style of observation and interaction of people from different cultures.
Rating: ****1/2