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books and reviews

I read 55 books in 2016, and these are my top 5 favorites

At long last, I crushed enough books this year to warrant making a list about it.

I’ve always been into reading, but I haven’t always made time for it as an adult. Sometimes it seems like too much effort in comparison to easy internet browsing (my generation’s version of flipping TV channels).

On Reddit, I can read about reading. Or I can read short, easy-to-digest articles that pass through my mind without leaving a trace. I can look at pictures on Pinterest or Foodgawker, and I can even think it’s useful. I’m planning recipes, see. Or my mind is tired and I just need a break, see.

But it’s all brain junk food. Maybe there are kernels of thought-provoking writing in the echoes of the internet, but it’s mostly noise that blocks me from hearing my own thoughts.

So if I’m going to absorb other thoughts in lieu of my own, it might as well be from literature. I might as well absorb style, and depth, and live an alternate reality, instead of just doing shallow dives of itty bitty articles and images.

Like treats and chocolate, I’ve been dieting from these websites. Some of the books I’ve read this year wouldn’t classify as true health foods – Tolstoy was my broccoli but King was my pasta – overall, though, I’d like to think that my brain has been better-fed.

Anyway, my tirade is complete. What follows is a list of the 55 books I read this year, and what my top 5 picks are – books that I truly think will improve your life in some way.

Books on diet and health

My reads:
The Healthiest Diet on the Planet: 4/5
The Blue Zones: 5/5
Food for Life: 4/5
Super Immunity: 4/5
The Beauty Detox Solution: 3/5
Whole: 4/5
How Not to Die: 5/5

Winner: How Not to Die by Michael Greger
Runners-up: The Blue Zones and Whole

I read a lot of specifically nutrition-related books, so they warrant their own category. This year, the clear winner was “How Not to Die”, which I’ve probably read three times this year and bought for people (read: forced on people). I recommend it all the time and reference the information within. It’s a great read for anyone looking to – you guessed it – not die (of the most common diseases).

The runner up would be a toss-up between The Blue Zones and Whole. I like that The Blue Zones was written like a story – it’s great for people who struggle with non-fiction, or find it too dry. I love reading about cultures with high rates of Centenarians (people who live past 100), and there’s some good insights on what contributes to longevity.

Whole is more dense and informational, but it’s extremely interesting and an important read. The premise is that whole foods are always greater than the sum of their parts (an orange is better than taking a vitamin C supplement). It goes into lots of depth and spends quite a bit of time discussing industry as well. There were parts of this book that blew my mind and made me stop in my tracks, and I know I’ll be rereading it in the near future.

Fiction

My reads:
The Drawing of the Three (The Dark Tower #2): 5/5
The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1): 4/5
The Alchemist: 4/5
The Stand: 5/5
The Time-Traveler’s Wife: 3/5
Harry Potter 1-7: 5/5
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: 3/5
The Rosie Project: 4/5
The Martian: 4/5
Neverwhere: 3/5
Hunger Games 1-3: 3/5
The Signature of All Things: 4/5

Winner: The Stand by Stephen King
Special mention: Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

This list looks shorter than it actually is, since I put all of the Harry Potters and Hunger Games in one column.

I’m not going to rank the Dark Tower series yet, simply because that’ll come in next year’s review once I finish all seven books. I’m also not going to include Harry Potter in my picks, simply because I’ve read them before and it feels like cheating. But if you’ve never read Harry Potter before, what are you waiting for?

If you take those two series out, my #1 choice this year is The Stand. The full unabridged version is epic – well over a thousand pages – and the audiobook, which I listened to 2/3rds of, is also epic at around 40 hours long. It was just such a great ride. It wasn’t without flaws, but I loved the adventure of it, I loved the characters, and I loved that I couldn’t predict it. If you’re into apocalyptic scenario novels, this is a great one.

Classics

My reads:
Pride and Prejudice: 4/5
Rebecca: 5/5
Murder on the Orient Express: 4/5
Anna Karenina: 5/5
Animal Farm: 5/5
The Death of Ivan Ilych: 5/5
Tao Te Ching: 5/5

Winners: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilych

My Classics list is a little small compared to the other categories, but I hope you’ll cut me some slack since these ones generally take longer to read.

This is probably the most challenging category to assess. Because really, it comes down to two books, and they’re both by Tolstoy.

One is a novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych, which was my gateway into other Classics and has haunted me ever since I read it. The other is a lengthy, full-blown novel – Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina is a relevant and human tale (well, the Russian politics and land discussions aren’t current, and those parts felt a little long), detailing with precision and insight the mental decline of the heroine.

Anna just felt so true, and so ordinary. It’s not a story with crazy plot twists and bizarre events – it’s daily life. It’s all the little ways in which a person can slowly unravel. Because usually it’s not just one big event that makes or breaks us; it’s a chain of seemingly insignificant events that are our undoing.

Ivan Ilych is about a middle-aged man who is confronted with disease. Having never contemplated death, the novella is his experience of going through denial, avoiding it, descending into poor health, and finally accepting his eventual demise.

I love the start, when Ivan is already dead, and his lawyer “friends” are at his funeral. The funeral makes them uncomfortable, since death is unpleasant to contemplate. Ivan wasn’t well-loved, and his death was untragic and ordinary. He wasn’t even an interesting character. But because of that, the story was fascinating. Tolstoy just gets people.

I thought that reflecting on these two stories would allow a clear winner to emerge, but I think we’re going to have to resort to a good ol’ tie.

Non-Fiction

My reads:
Better than Before: 4/5
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: 4/5
Master Your Workday Now: 5/5
Talking to Heaven: 3/5
After This: 4/5
The Artist’s Way: 4/5
Why Not Me? 4/5
Modern Romance: 4/5
Tiny Beautiful Things: 4/5
Committed: 3/5
On Writing: 5/5
The Art of Mindful Living: 5/5
Outliers: The Story of Success: 5/5
Yoga Sequencing: 5/5
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus: 4/5
Big Magic: 5/5
Daring Greatly: 3/5
Lean in: 4/5
Spark Joy: 4/5

Winner: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Runners-up: Master Your Workday Now and On Writing

Finally we’re left with non-fiction. I always read whatever seems interesting at the time with no regard for a “type” of book, so the topics here are all over the place. Some are historical, some spiritual, and others are about creativity and personal development. I read comedy books and autobiographies, weird books and standard business books.

Master Your Workday Now and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up are the two books that had the biggest impact on me this year. Master Your Workday is not a popular book, but it’s really useful and completely changed how I organize my work and to-do list. There are some solid ideas in there that I’ve been using for months.

The Life-Changing Magic is a book I felt was a little silly, since the author loves tidying so much she personifies her home and belongings. That being said, it’s a book I think about often, and it has really started to transform my perspective on belongings. The whole idea is that if you spend the time to tidy your house once, you never really have to do it again. All you have to do is put things where they belong, and clean surface dirt. It’s an oversimplification, but the book is really quite profound.

On Writing by Stephen King deserves a shout-out, because, if it weren’t for that book, I wouldn’t have read any of the other Stephen King books this year. It re-introduced me to his style, and reminded me that his novels aren’t strictly for teenagers.

But since I can only pick just one, it’s going to be The Life-Changing Magic. Interestingly, even though I gave this one a lower rating (4/5 instead of 5/5 like some others), it has stuck with me more than books I considered much more interesting at the time.

Conclusion

So my top 5 picks are as follows:

1. How Not to Die by Michael Greger (health/nutrition)
2. The Stand by Stephen King (fiction)
3. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (classics)
4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (classics)
5. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (non-fiction)

And five honorable mentions go to:

6. The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner (health/nutrition)
7. Whole by T. Colin Campbell (health/nutrition)
8. Master Your Workday Now by Michael Linenberger (non-fiction)
9. On Writing by Stephen King (non-fiction)
10. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (fiction)

It was with great pleasure that I was able to create this list. I’m very proud of my January 2016 self who decided to read more books, and I am eager to tackle new books in the New Year.

Come and join me on Goodreads if you haven’t already, and let’s read some books together!

Happy reading, friends!

books and reviews

How Not To Die: Thoughts on Diet and Health

During my 30-day trial with eating healthy for the sake of my skin, I thought it might be a good idea to pick up a book on diet and health. I’m not a big fan of pseudo-science, and wanted something I could really sink my teeth into – something with lots of scientific backing.

So I decided to download How Not To Die by Michael Greger on my Kindle over the spring break, and read it voraciously. And now that I’ve had time to read and digest it, I thought I’d share my thoughts of the book with you, and how it’s changed my perspective on health.

Check it out on Amazon here!

How Not To Die: A Review

First of all, it’s huge – over 500 pages. Second of all, it’s an extremely comprehensive review of the latest scientific studies on food and health. The footnotes section alone is gigantic.

The way the book is laid out is in two parts. The first part has a chapter for each of the 12 leading causes of death, and how diet plays a role for each (including suicide and depression, seriously). The second part includes a really useful and logical food guide that is simple to follow, with science to back it up.

I want to give this book to everyone I know – that’s the kind of impact it had on me. I’ve read tons of health-related books before, but I loved how thorough and readable How Not To Die is, without dumbing it down much. I appreciate that this book treated me like an intelligent human being, not someone that needed to be shielded from harsh truths and big words.

This book explained to me why it’s so important to add spices to food (antioxidants!) and why turmeric is the bomb. It explained the risk of animal product consumption and how much I should really be exercising (90 minutes of moderate or 45 minutes intense exercise daily). It talked about how broccoli is an amazing anti-cancer drug.

Really, just read it. It’s great.

How I’m changing my diet based on this book

I eat a relatively healthy diet, but this book has swayed me to change a few things. First of all, it convinced me to eat more fruit (4 servings a day, which includes 1 serving – 1/2 cup – of berries). I love fruit, so it really didn’t take much convincing. Fruit is, in general, the best source of vitamins and antioxidants.

As a personal side note, Michael sometimes needs a little push to eat fruit. He’d much rather eat a plate of veggies than fruit. But eating fruit seems to be one of the biggest things that keeps his immune system running properly – it seems once he falls off the smoothie bandwagon, he’s way more likely to get the sniffles. This isn’t a scientific fact or anything, just something we’ve both noticed.

How Not To Die also convinced me to use oil (even olive oil) sparingly, especially when it’s been heated. Oil basically just adds calories minus the nutrients – it’s much more valuable to eat a handful of nuts instead.

I’ve been working nuts and seeds into each meal as well, including some ground flax with my morning oatmeal. Again, I love nuts and seeds so I needed little convincing there.

I tend to be a big fan of grains, but I’m trying to even out my grain-to-bean ratio. So instead of having a cup of rice and a 1/2 cup beans, I might flip it around, or do 3/4 cup of each. Beans are so freaking nutritious. They aren’t really glamorous, but they’re tasty and about as cheap as cheap gets when you buy dry beans.

Conclusion

There were so many nuggets and takeaways in How Not To Die, but I don’t want to bog you down with a giant essay, so definitely take a look if you’re into health reads. 🙂

Thanks for hanging out!

xo,
Allysia

books and reviews

My Reading List for 2016

As soon as the New Year’s approaches, I get really pumped up. Christmas is obviously a good time; you get to see friends and family and eat great food. New Year’s parties are fun, too. But what I also look forward to is the clean slate of a new year. I like to plan and think about what I’m going to accomplish. These range from large, sweeping goals to things like this reading list for 2016.

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books and reviews

What I’ve been reading this month

A cup of coffee, a warm blanket. Maybe a cat for good measure. And, a book.

If I were to make a list of best things ever, this would make the top 10. And yet, hanging out with nothing but a book is this unicorn of a luxury, a rare jewel in a busy life.

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Why yes, my cat does have a bed in the bookshelf.

Oh, the virtues of audio books

This isn’t a post about how I make time for this luxury, because generally I don’t. I want to, but I don’t. What I actually do is download audiobooks on my phone via OverDrive (a service that many libraries have), and either listen on my headphones when I’m out running walking some errands, or doing household chores. Let me tell you, listening to a book makes the act of scrubbing a toilet far more enjoyable. I’ve even brought my phone to bed several times, listening until I start to fall asleep.

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books and reviews

Healthy at 100 by John Robbins: Book Review

Let me preface this review by saying that I’m a big fan of John Robbins.  I’ve previously written about another one of his books, The Food Revolution, and will one day share my thoughts on an early work of his, Diet for a New America, since it’s the book that really sealed the vegan deal for me.  Aside from providing well-researched, comprehensive information in his books, his voice is also one of compassion, like you’re reading the words of a close friend.  Having already been acquainted with his writing style by reading the aforementioned books by John, I had high expectations for Healthy at 100, and happily, I wasn’t disappointed.

Check out my first pair of vegan runners, scored in Portland!

I first picked up this book for my day-long travels from California to my home in Saskatchewan.  Leaving at 7am and not scheduled to get home until 10pm (with only a one hour time change!), I needed a good book to read, lest I become super bored and antsy.  Along with some coconut water I found at the airport and my last piece of raw biscotti from school, I was good to go (I also ate hordes of fairly decent airport food in addition to energy bars).  

So, the book.  The coolest thing about Healthy at 100 is that it goes beyond diet and exercise, the obvious factors in living a long and healthy life, and discusses how having a loving network of friends and family, a good relationship with your spouse, a positive outlook on life and a sense of purpose are found to be of equal significance for longevity.  All of these factors have been researched and documented by science, with the real goldmine of information coming from studies on the longest-living cultures in the world: the Okinawans, Abkhasians, Vilcabambans and the Hunzans.

Each one of these fascinating cultures gets a full chapter in this book, detailing everything from their diet, activity levels, attitudes toward aging and elders, and the way they live.  Parallels are drawn between these groups of people that are thought to contribute to their longevity, including:

  • The elders eat a plant-based diet with few animal products, and no processed or packaged foods.  They seldom consume things like sugar, getting their sweet fix from fresh and dried fruit.  The produce they eat is fresh, usually picked right before eating, and is locally grown.
  • Elders have ridiculously awesome fitness levels, even in their 90s and 100s.  Their daily lives includes plenty of walking, running and manual labor.
  • Old folks are revered and honored.  It’s considered a blessing to house an elder, and people tend to inflate their age, claiming they’re 130 or 150 since it brings them greater status.  Being old = being awesome.
  • Elders continue to be useful members of society well into old age – there’s no concept of retirement.  
  • A happiness and love of life can be found in these groups of people – they sing, celebrate, and appreciate each day.  When tragedy occurs, people band together and support each other.  There’s a strong sense of community.
  • Violence and crime is extremely rare.
  • Women are treated as equals.
  • An emphasis is placed on sharing and giving.  Accumulating and hoarding wealth is thought to be in bad taste and is looked down upon – if you have extra wealth, it’s to be shared with others who are less fortunate.  It’s an attitude of “everyone wins”, instead of “every man for himself”.
All of these factors are explored and elaborated upon in the book, drawing fascinating (and sad) comparisons between these long-living people and our own Western society, with our vast amounts of depression, stress, and our utter lack of respect for aging.  Here, aging is seen as something to fight at all costs, and youth is revered.  Old people are often discarded from their families like trash and left on the streets or lonely in nursing homes, a concept that the long-living cultures can hardly grasp.  We suffer from degenerative diseases and have become so accustomed to them as to think that they’re normal.  We celebrate those who are rich and famous, and look down on the poor.  We lock our doors.

This book doesn’t claim that if you follow all of the steps contained within, you’re guaranteed to become a centenarian.  John is very careful to point out that there’s no benefit in glamorizing a group of people or trying to be just like them.  However, by learning from the example of other long-lived cultures, we have a good shot at aging with dignity, health and sharp minds no matter how old we live to be.

My long journey home was highly enjoyable since I had this book to keep me company.  Aside from being a thoroughly engaging read, it also reminded me to stop and appreciate the little things, and treasure all of the love I have in my life.  This book doesn’t shy away from sad facts and harsh realities, but the overall message is one of hope and optimism, and just made me feel good to read.  So thank you, John, for offering the world another great book to help us become happier and healthier people.

books and reviews

24 Hours with Julie and Julia, and Thoughts on Omnivorous Books


Last weekend, Logan and I made the trek to his hometown, a city that’s considered big by Saskatchewan’s standards, just under 10,000 people.  We made the journey armed with a big grocery bag full of food, stuff like soy milk and broccoli, since the fridge at Logan’s parents house tends to be unpredictable, and we’re crazy vegan people who love to eat.

Driving Saskatchewan’s highways is always a profound and lovely experience, be it mid-winter or the peak of summer.  The panoramic view is a vast, open prairie with the occasional brush or smattering of trees, and you can see for miles and miles and miles (we go by kilometers here but that doesn’t have the same ring to it).  People come visit from Ontario or British Columbia and lament the lack of trees and hills, saying that it’s boring, but I revel in it.  It’s a never-ending canvas, with a hushed sort of beauty that whispers instead of shouts.  The wide open space feels like freedom.

But I digress.  Julie and Julia.  Before the drive to Logan’s hometown, I went all kid-in-a-candy-store at the library, filling my basket mostly with cookbooks, with some food memoirs thrown in for good measure.  Have you guys ever read food-centric books that read like a novel?  Maybe I’m 10 years behind on that bandwagon, but it’s my new favorite type of book.  Julie and Julia is one such book, which you’ve all probably read or seen – again, I’m slow to these things.  But no matter.

There I was, sitting on a sunken couch, the air a mixed bag of scents from various animals like fish, a turtle, several cats and dogs, mixed with a perfumey air freshener and a touch of auto shop (Logan’s dad is an auto mechanic).  I was pleasantly bored and waiting for the pizza dough to rise, so I decided to pull out a book from my library goodie bag and read until someone came home.  Logan was off digging through boxes of old childhood remnants, leaving me to my own devices, so thus I began my reading adventure.

And even when Logan’s mom was home for a brief moment before rushing out the door to do a tow-truck job some two hours out of town, and even as Logan took the responsibility of Pizza Creator, and later played Soul Calibur with his brother on a huge TV screen with the volume blared, and the next day while he fixed up his car and mine, I devoured the book.  In retrospect, it’s clear to me that Logan is awesome for letting me have my own little 24-hour life vacation.  And for changing my tires.  I just didn’t want to put the book down.

I liked Julie immediately, even in the times when her writing grew a tad self-absorbed – she’s a real person, complete with despair, doubt, and dedication.  No really, I wasn’t just going for the triple alliteration.  She’s the kind of gal who tells it to you straight, and if something sucks, she says so.  Sometimes she’s this crazy lady practicing crepe-flipping with beans on her front lawn, other times she’s the lady everyone wants to visit at suppertime, just about as often as she’s the lady people avoid at suppertime.

As she cooked her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, depicting gruesome tales of hacking bones to get out the marrow inside, killing lobsters, and the ultimate horror of aspic (think homemade gelatin), I mostly just felt really glad I’m vegan.  And I’m pretty sure that if I was a meat-eater, this book probably would have disturbed me into vegetarianism.

A few years ago, I might have struggled with reading anything very much the opposite of veganism, just like I used to shun blogs that featured meat.  I don’t know what changed, but I find that there can be plenty of inspiration in all kinds of omnivorous meals (sometimes – other times, they’re painfully boring and same-ish), and the recipes don’t freak me out like they used to.  There’s definitely an “ick” factor when I see a huge picture of a dead bird or piece of cow, or when I’m reading the graphic yet insightful words of Julie Powell, but sometimes I can find plenty of ideas on how to make the vegan food world a better place from reading omni books and cookbooks.

I’d really like to know your opinions on the matter – do you peruse omnivorous cookbooks just as readily as vegan ones?  Don’t get me wrong, I passionately love vegan cookbooks and have an ever-growing collection of them, and there are so many out there these days.  Still, I don’t rely only on them and I love grabbing a random assortment of cookbooks from the library, everything from entertaining to cakes to salads.  Where do you draw cooking inspiration from?  Does it weird you out to read meat-filled cookbooks?

books and reviews

The Food Revolution by John Robbins

John Robbins was the guy who got me into veganism. His previous book, Diet for a New America, convinced me that I had to ditch the animal products, with his graphic and shocking depictions of factory farm life, not only for the animals some of us call meat, but also for the animals we use for milk and eggs. That book moved me to tears, to anger, to despair, and after reading it I was changed forever.

So when I accidentally found The Food Revolution hanging out in the grocery store, I knew I had to have it. I didn’t pick it up with the expectation of it changing my life in the same way Diet For a New America did, but I was certainly excited, and had some fairly high expectations.
To say the very least, I was not disappointed. John Robbins is an engaging writer and you can feel his compassion through the pages. He has the ability to discuss sensitive topics with eloquence, and he tells the truth like it is without coming across as judgemental. Perhaps this is because, as he says himself in the book, his problem isn’t with individual people – his problem is with the big institutions, corporations that just care about the bottom line and trample on our health and our planet in the process. He writes about these difficult topics in a language that anyone can understand, which is always a bonus – yet it isn’t a simple book, and I learned a whole bunch from it, despite how fairly well-versed I consider myself on the subjects of animal rights and environmentalism.
The Food Revolution is very well-rounded, discussing not only ethics, which is one of the main focuses of Diet for a New America, but also health and disease, and a bunch of fascinating stuff on the environment and genetic engineering, threading animal product consumption into these crucial topics.
Despite this book being happily free of jargon, it’s very well-researched, with 50 pages of references in the back. When you’re discussing topics that tend to be controversial, it’s important to back yourself up with as much good science and study as you can, lest people pass you off as just another crazy person. Plus, I’m a footnote nerd and I love checking out references more in-depth.
One of the coolest things about this book were the “what we know” interjections, where he’d pace the body of text with a box of quick facts. Another box he frequently inserts, titled “is that so?” contains a claim from the industry, such as from the CEO of Monsanto, and another (typically opposite) claim from an institution dedicated to public health and knowledge, such as the Nobel Laureate in Medicine. Here’s an exerpt as an example:
“Those of us in industry can take comfort…After all, we’re the technical experts. We know we’re right. The ‘antis’ obviously don’t understand the science, and are just as obviously pushing a hidden agenda – probably to destroy capitalism.”
-Bob Shapiro, Monsanto’s CEO
“(Genetic Engineering) faces our society with problems unprecedented, not only in the history of science, but of life on the Earth. It places in human hands the capacity to redesign living organisms, the products of some three billion years of evolution…Up to now, living organisms have evolved very slowly, and new forms have had plenty of time to settle in. Now whole proteins will be transposed overnight into wholly new associations, with consequences no one can fortell…Going ahead in this direction may not only be unwise, but dangerous. Potentially, it could breed new animal and plant diseases, new sources of cancer, and novel epidemics.”
-Geoge Wald, M.D., Nobel Laureate in Medicine, Professor of Biology, Harvard University
So the final verdict: I loved The Food Revolution. It moved me, it fired me up, and it gave me a push to do what I can to help. It took me out of my own day-to-day bubble into a much larger context, where action and activism is ever-important if we don’t want to leave our kids with a gigantic mess. And this book is a constant reminder that it’s not just about us, either – it’s also about the creatures we share this planet with, going extinct faster than you can say “hamburger”, and about the planet itself – you know, that beautiful sphere in space who gives us nourishment and a place to stay, while asking little in return.

It’s easy to forget how fragile the web of life is, and how much we depend on microorganisms, clean water, good soil, trees, bees, ants, and oxygen. It’s easy to forget, since they’ve always been there for us. It’s easy to forget, but we can’t afford to forget.
Above all, this book reminds me to be grateful for everything I have, and for all of the beauty, everywhere, for free.
books and reviews

Thoughts on Animal Emotions – A book review of “When Elephants Weep” by Jeffrey Masson

Jeffrey Masson is an interesting fellow who has written a whole slew of books related to animals. “When Elephants Weep” was his first book on animals and their emotional lives, published in 1995, and also the first book I decided to read by him. I certainly wasn’t disappointed!

When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals It’s pretty impossible to “prove” that other beings experience feelings and emotions, but that’s just what this book sets out to do. For example, I can look at your face and notice you’re smiling, which is something I do when I’m happy, and then conclude that you’re likely happy – but I can’t prove it. Since it’s impossible to get inside the heads of others, human or otherwise, “proving” feelings is difficult indeed, but it’s also beside the point. Should I assume that you are happy when you smile, or is it best to assume you feel nothing since I can’t prove what you feel one way or another?
It’s a ridiculous idea when the context is human, but science has spent a very long time maintaining that perspective when it comes to other animals. Jeffrey Masson reasons it makes more sense that other animals are like us, instead of unlike us, given that we are, in fact, animals, and we share a great deal of DNA with other creatures on this planet.
He also maintains, and I agree, that most people understand that animals are thinking, feeling beings. Most people will not kick their dog to hear the “machine creak” a la Descartes – nowadays, acts of cruelty against (companion) animals can land someone in prison. Yet somehow this idea that animals don’t suffer (or rather, don’t experience joy, sorrow and other supposed “human” emotions) has persisted in science.
A dog wagging his tail and getting hyper when you say “outside”. A cat curled up in your lap, purring softly. A horse mother nuzzling her little foal. Could these demonstrations of what looks like happiness really just be mechanical, instinctual reactions? Do mothers and fathers just care about propagating their species when they protect their young?
I found myself reading passages from the book (more like stories) aloud to Logan, so entranced was I with animals demonstrating love, anger, jealousy, intelligence, creativity, and so many other feelings us humans have often enjoyed claiming as our own. This book “proves” that animals aren’t perfect, and they are often mysterious, but we still have so much in common with them despite all of our differences.
What I love about this book is that Jeffrey Masson sets out to prove the existence of the emotional lives of animals, and succeeds with a certain degree of conclusiveness that is difficult to dispute. At the same time, despite how well-researched this book is, it lacks jargon and scientific coldness, instead coming across as warm, friendly, and easy to read and understand.
Despite the authors’ natural warmth, this book isn’t remotely close to the territory of being “fluffy”. There’s genuine substance here (the oodles of references can attest to that), not just touchy-feely animal lover stuff. I would definitely lend this book to anyone who enjoys arguing that animals, since they’re incapable of complex language, are also incapable of complex feeling – or even any feeling at all.
Jeffrey does occasionally draw parallels to our behavior toward the animals we eat versus the animals we’re friends with. We understand that animals feel pain, suffering and unhappiness (even fish and chicken), yet we’re eager to turn a blind eye to this when we want to eat them. Most of us wouldn’t dream of hurting our cats and dogs (and as mentioned earlier, we could get arrested for it), but yet we subject cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and fish to all kinds of torture and torment. There is a disparity between how we intuitively feel about animals and our actions toward them.
Instead of morally condemning us for this inconsistent behavior, he simply raises these questions, musing on his own point of view, while allowing us, the readers, to come to our own conclusions.
All in all, When Elephants Weep is a fantastic and engaging read, and one that inspired me to seek out more books by the author, which I’ll inevitably discuss here soon. J