Saturday, January 21, 2012

Situations Matter

A few months ago I had picked up an advance reader's copy of Situations Matter by Sam Sommers, meant to write a blog post about it and then got entirely too busy. Now that it's been published and is in the store, I've remembered how long I've been meaning to write about it and made some time to finally get it done.

The author, Sam Sommers, is a psychology professor at Tufts who specializes in examining how situations change us and our decision making. He argues that many of our assumptions about human nature are wrong, and can be explained by a closer look at the situations around various actions. Whether we're aware of it or not, all sorts of things can change how we act, from standing in a crowd to being the only person of your ethnic background in the room.

The chapter examining our assumptions about innate gender differences is fascinating, especially when he takes on the controversial statements made by former Harvard president Larry Summers on math and science ability in women. The way researchers have been able to erase or exacerbate the "gender gap" in math just by changing the circumstances of the test made sure I will never look at claims of innate ability in any subject the same way again.

I think this book does a great job of explaining the power of context, which goes a long way to assist us in our understanding of ourselves and others. While not a self-help book, there are many things in this book that can help you use knowledge of situations for your own benefit. For example, I'm in a band that plays at various places throughout Western and Central Massachusetts, and some crowds just aren't into the music as much as they are their beverages. After reading about the man who makes a living pretending to be a normal fan cheering like crazy at sporting events, I make sure to have a few friends in the audience that will dance, sing along, and help get the party going. The tip jar definitely shows the difference!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dreaming of a Better World

I thought that on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day it was appropriate for me to blog about one of the most exciting books I've read recently, Dream of a Nation: Inspiring Ideas for a Better America. This book is a collection of writings by a whole lot of people who have done some amazing things, and have great ideas on how to improve the world we all live in. (Full disclosure time: I also work at National Priorities Project. NPP was founded by Greg Speeter, who wrote one of the chapters, so I am 1/62nd biased. I won't review his chapter but I will say I think it's great!)

I think it's pretty safe to say that most people have concerns about the way we are living. If you've ever found yourself wondering if living in a democracy should be about more than voting and shopping, or what can be done to make sure all children get equal educational opportunities, read this book. The chapters cover such a wide range of topics that everyone is sure to find something they are passionate within these pages. The best feature of this book is that almost all of the chapters not only inform about widespread problems, but offer suggestions of things all of us can do about them.

Some of these tips can have staggering benefits. For example, switching just the five most used lightbulbs in your home with compact fluorescent bulbs can save you about $90 a year, and 662 pounds of coal worth of energy. Changing to independent news sources may not have that same quantifiable dollar figure, but will certainly help you get a different perspective on the world. I thought that "Key Steps for a Healthy Nation" was one of the most memorable segments of the book, with the statistic that 40% of premature deaths in the United States are due to personal behavior patterns. However, on the very next page it details the four healthy habits that can cut risk of diabetes by 93%, heart attack by 81%, and stroke by 50%.

While you could sit down and read it in one go, I think it's set up perfectly to keep handy for reading in small increments over a long period of time. Keep this book on hand for all those nights where you've got 15 minutes before dinner comes out of the oven. Instead of checking your email or Facebook again, flip to a new chapter and get ready to be inspired! 

When I saw this book for the first time, it reminded me of one of favorite textbooks from college, which was a collection of essays about environmental issues. However, the interior could not be more different. Instead of a bunch of essays with the occasional black and white chart of rising temperatures, this book is colorful, appealing, and beautifully designed from cover to cover. I've had a great time reading this book, and I hope you enjoy it too! -Sheila

Monday, January 2, 2012

2012 Resolution... To be and stay informed!

If your new year's resolution is to be more informed in 2012 then you are in luck because at the Odyssey we can help you out with that! 
I've become lax in my keeping up with current events since my college extemporaneous speaking days. And while I do read several online newspapers in an attempt to stay abreast of what is going on in the world, books are always better at giving one an in depth understanding of news trends.

Currently we have several books (on display on the first floor counter) covering the Occupy and protest outlash phenomena that dominated news coverage and will, arguably, continue to do so. 

Here are a couple of books on my reading list and some publisher excerpts explaining why you might want to put them on yours too: 

From the publisher's descprition: 
In the spring of 2011, Wisconsinites took to the streets in what became the largest and liveliest labor demonstrations in modern American history. Protesters in the Middle East sent greetings and pizzas to the thousands occupying the Capitol building in Madison, and 150,000 demonstrators converged on the city. In a year that has seen a revival of protest in America, here is a riveting account of the first great wave of grassroots resistance to the corporate restructuring of the Great Recession. 

 From the publisher's descprition: 
We Are the 99%. The Occupy Wall Street movement named the core issue of our time: the overwhelming power of Wall Street and large corporations-- something the political establishment and most media have long ignored. But the movement goes far beyond this critique. "This Changes Everything" shows how the movement is shifting the way people view themselves and the world, the kind of society they believe is possible, and their own involvement in creating a society that works for the 99% rather than just the 1%.

From the publisher's descprition: 
The world is facing a wave of uprisings, protests and revolutions: Arab dictators swept away, public spaces occupied, slum-dwellers in revolt, cyberspace buzzing with utopian dreams. Events we were told were consigned to history democratic revolt and social revolution are being lived by millions of people. In this compelling new book, Paul Mason explores the causes and consequences of this great unrest. From Cairo to Athens, Wall Street and Westminster to Manila, Mason goes in search of the changes in society, technology and human behavior that have propelled a generation onto the streets in search of social justice. 

From the publisher's descprition: 
In the fall of 2011, a small protest camp in downtown Manhattan exploded into a global uprising, sparked in part by the violent overreactions of the police. An unofficial record of this movement, Occupy! combines adrenalin-fueled first-hand accounts of the early days and weeks of Occupy Wall Street with contentious debates and thoughtful reflections, featuring the editors and writers of the celebrated n+1, as well as some of the world s leading radical thinkers, such as Slavoj i ek, Angela Davis, and Rebecca Solnit. The book conveys the intense excitement of those present at the birth of a counterculture, while providing the movement with a serious platform for debating goals, demands, and tactics. 

What do you think?