Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for May, 2013

Little Bee

Posted by nliakos on May 15, 2013

by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster 2008)

Little Bee is the name taken by a Nigerian teenager who has fled to England after her village is destroyed and her family murdered by people who want to drill for oil in that place. After escaping from the burning village with her older sister, Bee had a chance encounter with a British couple on a Nigerian beach.  The wife sacrifices a part of herself to save Bee; the husband cannot bring himself to do the same for the sister. Upon their return home, they can neither discuss nor forget the horrific incident on the beach. When Little Bee is accidentally released from the (fictional) Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre, where she has been incarcerated for two years since arriving in the U.K. as a stowaway, she finds her way to Sarah and Andrew’s home outside of London and changes their lives forever.

In some countries, I have heard, people do not rescue strangers because this puts the rescued one in their debt forever.  That is what happens to Little Bee and Sarah: they rescue one another, and they are in each other’s debt. The story is narrated by both of them in alternating chapters. The reader is inexorably drawn into the story of the refugee girl, the professional woman, her husband, her lover, and her little boy, who was based on the author’s own son.

It’s a quick read (hard to put down) but a depressing one because it reminds us of how many places there are where people do really terrible things to others, and how the developed countries where we live turn away and refuse sanctuary to the refugees. Little Bee is a wonderful character: smart, brave, innocent but not naive, generous and practical. You really want to know her, and by the end of the book, you can only wish her well.

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The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home

Posted by nliakos on May 9, 2013

by Dan Ariely (Harper 2010)

The sequel to Predictably Irrational is similar to its predecessor but focuses more on the positive aspects of irrational behavior, as the title says. Part 1, “The Unexpected Ways We Defy Logic at Work,” covers why the larger the bonus, the worse we perform (especially at mental tasks); how we work not only for pay but also for meaning, and if our work is meaningless or unappreciated, our desire to do it dissipates; the IKEA Effect, or how we love what we create ourselves; the Not-Invented-Here Bias, which is basically the IKEA Effect of ideas and inventions; and revenge, which may be one of our more basic needs (when we get it, the pleasure/reward center of the brain becomes active). As with the first book, this is about the same things I am learning about in Professor Ariely’s MOOC, A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, so it all seems very familiar when I read it. I am not totally sure why these things constitute the upside!

Part 2, “The Unexpected Ways We Defy Logic at Home,” focuses on the ways we adapt to both positive and negative things in our lives; whether the same people are attractive to everybody, and if so, how the “aesthetically challenged” among us (who, me??) deal with having to settle for someone possible less attractive than they would have liked; how online matchmaking works (and fails to work); why we are more likely to donate to a person than to a generic cause (a starving child vs. an organization that tries to help millions of starving (but faceless, nameless) people; and finally, how a decision made under the influence of positive or negative emotions can have a very long-lasting impact on our lives. In the closing chapter, Ariely reminds his readers that we are not the objective, rational, logical beings we like to think we are, and since our intuitions often fail us, we should “test everything”–not, perhaps, a very realistic piece of advice, but at least we should try to remember not to trust our gut feelings.

I’ve already begun the third book in the bundle, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Look for a post about that one soon.

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Ethics for the New Millenium

Posted by nliakos on May 6, 2013

by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (Riverhead Books, 1999)

The fifteen chapters of this book are neatly divided into three sections of five chapters each, followed by “An Appeal.”  The first section, “The Foundation of Ethics,” is about the universal quest for happiness/flight from suffering. The author claims that he has “No Magic, No Mystery,” no special ability to solve the world’s problems; but he calls for a spiritual (not a religious) revolution. He leads the reader through an explanation of what he means by spirituality: love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of harmony. All these things can bring happiness, both to oneself and to others. It is the placing of others’ welfare and happiness above our own that will paradoxically bring us happiness.

The second section, “Ethics and the Individual,” discusses the ethics of restraint, virtue, compassion, and suffering, and explains the need for discernment, or “adjusting the ideal of non-harming to the context.” Ethical precepts can guide us to form good habits, so that when we need to make a decision quickly, we will be more likely to make the right (most compassionate) choice.

The third and final section, “Ethics and Society,” discusses “Universal Responsibility,” “Levels of Commitment,” “Ethics in Society,” “Peace and Disarmament,” and “The Role of Religion in Modern Society.” By universal responsibility, he means that everyone should be concerned about everyone (and everything) else, so that when we see an opportunity to benefit others, we will use it; for their interest is also our interest. He chides those who become rich on the backs of the poor and gently observes, “the lifestyles of the rich are often absurdly complicated. . . .  I do not see how living like this adds anything to anyone’s comfort. As human beings we have only one stomach. There is a limit to the amount we can eat. . . .” One after another, he tackles the great issues of the day: the environment, education, the media, economics, politics, war, nuclear weapons, religious strife–and quietly, modestly suggests that we can all do better if we only respect one another and have compassion for one another.

The final few pages appeal to us to use our time well, because there is no second chance. We should live responsibly and compassionately–and this is what will make us happiest anyway. “This, then, is my true religion, my simple faith” he writes. “There is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine, or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter who or what they are: ultimately these are all we need. So long as we practice these in our daily lives, then no matter if we are learned or unlearned, whether we believe in Buddha or God, or follow some other religions or none at all, as long as we have compassion for others and conduct ourselves with restraint out of a sense of responsibility, there is no doubt we will be happy.”

Good advice.

Tomorrow, I have the good fortune to have a ticket to hear His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama deliver the Sadat Lecture for Peace at the University of Maryland. I plan to go a few hours early to try to get a good seat. If you don’t have a ticket, you can go to and click on the link to listen to the event streamed live over the Internet.

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