Book Review: Jen Hancock’s Humanist Approach to Happiness

(x-posted from SheThought)

Jennifer Hancock, from her website

Jen Hancock was kind enough to reach out to the SheThought writers and offered me a chance to read and review her book, The Humanist Approach to Happiness: Practical Wisdom. The book is aimed at teens and young adults as a way to teach ethics, critical thinking skills and decision-making to young people. If you’re more interested in the book than anything I have to say, just scroll to the end and there’s more information on the special deal she’s offering SheThought readers.

This is perfect for me because, as someone who automatically hates everything and thinks grown-ups are stupid, I am exactly the right audience for a book aimed at teenagers.

So I suppose that’s a good place to start. I didn’t totally hate it, but I didn’t love it either. Some parts of it were really good, and some parts really rankled. It is written in an easy to understand way with plenty of examples and metaphors that are appropriate to a younger readership. The writer clearly has a very keen memory of her teenage days and isn’t afraid to mine them for engaging examples.

One of my bigger problems with the book came from formatting choices. There seemed to be some errors with the margins, which is fairly minor, but the author also made the decision to pepper the book with quotations from famous speakers. Now, I’m not against quotations, but giant quotations in between connected paragraphs makes me feel a little bit off kilter. When the quotes intrude, I feel the need either to read the quote and then re-figure out what I was reading or to skip the quote entirely.

Sort of like how you’re engaging with this picture right now

There’s a lot of great stuff, however, on what makes people “good” people, and what makes people not so good. Her three required traits are compassion, ethics, and responsibility, and these seem pretty accurate to me. She’s also happy to list bad people as well, people who generally don’t follow those three guidelines. She’s neither pro or anti-religion, at least not explicitly, and simply says that people can be good or bad regardless of faith and the only real caveat she gives in the book is that if you or someone you know is grieving, don’t assume your faith is the way they want to deal with grief. And be skeptical about supernatural claims, because that stuff is ridiculous and can get you killed!

My favorite part is where she insists that everyone is a dork. Because we all are dorks, and the sooner we embrace it, the sooner we can move beyond lame attempts at being cool. She also thinks we should be more eager to engage in lifelong learning and learning from our elders. Amen to that. We are all dorks who should hang out with old dorks.

And then she starts wandering a bit away from things I agree with into territory I feel a little confused about. She insists that people should aim for simplicity generally, including in their diet. Now, I’m all for simple tastes and simple lifestyles, but I am always skeptical about diet claims of any kind. Insisting on food simplicity strikes me as faddish and there are no references that make it seem like she’s making scientific claims, just personal ones. Why is a drink with chemicals worse than a drink with no chemicals? Am I really to believe that natural means healthy? I mean, arsenic is natural.

And she goes on to really discourage people from indulging in “sinful” pleasures (her quotes). Now, I appreciate that a book aimed at a young audience isn’t going to say go try drugs and sex and rock and roll because they’re interesting and part of the human experience… except that’s exactly what I think it should say. This is clearly just a difference of opinion between the author and myself, but I feel a little confused as to how her view is the only one justified by humanism, though perhaps it isn’t trying to claim to be the only point-of-view.

And then there’s sex. The author and I are clearly coming from totally different worlds on this one. Her advice to play the field while dating and wait for sex are things that I don’t personally find compelling, but I don’t think it’s necessarily bad advice. But when she says things like women who hate their dads transfer that hate to all men; and people who dated can’t really be friends and shouldn’t contact one another for at least a year; and, no matter what they say, women who say they’re OK with a solely sexual relationship are really just looking for an emotional relationship, whether they know it or not; and people who watch porn lose sense of reality and it’s a catalyst for bizarre violent activity and it’s addictive… when she says things like that, it is all I can do not to punch the screen. Where are the citations? Why on earth does she think this stuff?

The book ends, however, on a high note, in a sense, about grieving. This is the best part of the book and speaks from personal experience and love. I’ve never seen much literature on the humanist perspective on grief, and this handles it gracefully.

So, there are good and bad bits and, if you rip out the section on relationships and sex, I think the book is a great read for young adults. I think few adult readers would find it challenging, but there are still some enlightening moments to it.

More information from the author:
Even though the book is explicitly Humanist, I’m finding that moms of different stripes and interestingly enough, religious folk who work with teens, are interested in the book.  My book is currently in the curricula for the Royal Military College of Canada to teach cadets critical thinking and decision-making skills. It’s also going to be in the new curricula for the UUA for youth education in the areas of critical thinking and character development.  Oh, and it’s enjoying its third month atop the Kindle best seller lists for Parenting/Morals&Responsibility and Parenting/Teens.

For a copy of the book go to: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/22621  20% off both the ebook and the paperback formats, Coupon code: UT36F – Price will be $4.80 instead of $6.00 – this coupon expires Oct 1st 2012.

For the paperback go to: https://www.createspace.com/3463716 and use the discount code: 2SV7A43M  20% off the list of $12.98 – so the price will be $10.38

The book is also available at whatever online book retailer you might prefer to use.

PS – I’ve also got a new little e-book out – Jen Hancock’s Handy Humanism Handbook – I’m giving that away free to people who sign up for my email list and the Humanist of Florida Association are giving it away free to anyone who donates to them or becomes a member.

1-5 75 Book Challenge – Cressida Cowell

These aren’t strictly the first five books I read this year but I thought it made more sense to group them all together.  These are the first five books in the How to Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell (who is, interestingly enough, married to a Simon Cowell, but not THE Simon Cowell).  I decided to read these because I saw the movie – I think that about 97% of my new book reading is based on either seeing the movie or seeing the author on TV.

The Books are very different from the movie, but they’re both good in different ways.  The book does things in ways that aren’t cinematic enough because it is focused on language and reading – hard to portray entertainingly in films, especially for the kiddies.  Here’s the rundown of the first five – there are several more that I haven’t gotten copies of.  I read these all on my new Kindle.  It was awesome.

1. How to Train Your Dragon – Cressida Cowell 

Hiccup is a Viking but sucks at it because he’s skinny, nerdy and kind-hearted.  That’d be difficult enough but he’s also the heir to the Chief.  Being loud and violent doesn’t really suit him or his best friend, the aptly named Fishlegs.  In their universe, the coming-of-age ritual is stealing a sleeping dragon to raise as your hunting partner.  Thanks to some mishaps, Hiccup ends up with a boring, tiny, common dragon who doesn’t have any teeth.  Toothless is also a smart ass.  Hiccup is the only Viking that speaks Dragonese, which makes him an outcast but ends up ultimately saving the day from some giant sea dragons, with Toothless’ help.  Basically the lesson of these books is that intelligence and kindness beat brute force and ignorance every time.  A

2. How to be a Pirate – Cressida Cowell

This book introduces the arch-nemesis Alvin the Treacherous, who I don’t really find interesting.  Hiccup’s grandpa was a crazy awesome Viking with a hidden treasure that only his heir could find.  So Alvin kidnaps Hiccup, finds the treasure and nearly kills Hiccup.  Hiccup discovers that he’s secretly been left-handed his whole life and is a sword-fighting prodigy, in a scene reminiscent of The Princess Bride, and defeats Alvin, leading to his apparent but not actual demise.  B-

3. How to Speak Dragonese – Cressida Cowell

This book introduces Camicazi, the heir of rival Viking tribe of Big Boobied Bertha (I know, right?).  She’s a tiny, tenacious escape artist.  The Romans, under the command of Alvin, who survived the previous demise but lost all of his hair, kidnaps Camicazi, Fishlegs and Hiccup who have to escape and keep their tribes from killing each other.  B

4. How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse – Cressida Cowell

This is my favorite of the series.  Hiccup thinks Fishlegs has been poisoned by a dragon, and the cure is the potato, a mysterious vegetable thought to be only a myth.  A nearby, particularly violent Viking tribe is rumored to have one of these under close guard and so Hiccup, Camicazi and Toothless cleverly steal the frozen vegetable.  It has an arrow stuck in it and it is rumored that whoever removes the arrow will save the tribe from the big sea dragon that stays in their bay.  Well, when it thaws in Hiccups hands, he easily pulls the arrow out, only to have the giant dragon steal the potato, leaving him without a cure for his friend, but a hero to the tribe.  When he returns to his village, it turns out that Fishlegs is fine, it is in fact Hiccup who is dying.  Fortunately, the arrow has enough potato to save him.  In the epilogue, it turns out the Sea Dragon had been dying from the same poison and he becomes Hiccups guardian angel.  A

5. How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale – Cressida Cowell

I thought this was intended to be the last of the series and it has that sort of finality to it’s ending, but it turns out I was wrong and there are at least three more so far.  So, I’ll have to seek them out.  This book is about a super epic stopping of a volcano from erupting, with histories and dastardly past lives revealed.  It seems bigger in scope than the earlier ones, but is just as fun.  I didn’t find it quite as engaging as the one immediately previous. B