Exploring Self with ‘The Black Penguin’

The Black PenguinThe Black Penguin by Andrew Evans

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vaguely annoyed. That’s how I felt after months of following Andrew Evans on Twitter. When was this guy’s paid vacation going to end? Did he really think he could infect me with his exuberance for world travel? Who was funding him? Annoying! The only reason I followed Andrew was Twitter told me to. That and it seemed a little fun, keeping tabs on a literal globe trotter. Plus, his tweets often displayed a celebratory quality about our world.

Okay, so my early annoyance turned out to be jealousy. Years later, @WheresAndrew remains a Twitter account I recommend following. Even so, buying a copy of his new book The Black Penguin was not an immediate priority, but for one fact that eluded me until last week. I’d never realized Andrew Evans was raised Mormon.

Andrew and I have two critical things in common. We both served LDS Church missions, and we both eventually walked away from the Church. Being both a Twitter fan and a fellow “returned missionary” makes it near impossible for me to write a fully objective review of The Black Penguin. I was rooting for Andrew before I finished reading the preface. Still, this is not a book solely, or even mostly, about his journey out of Mormonism.

The Black Penguin recounts Andrew’s bus trip from Washington D.C. to Antarctica (including a short plane ride and a necessary transfer to a boat near the end). The book exhibits a binary structure. While Andrew proceeds southward by bus in the narrative present, his book flashes back to school years spent in Ohio and Utah, and his time in the Ukraine as a Mormon missionary. Yet, even with this time hopping, The Black Penguin displays a unifying sense of rising action and purpose.

Andrew’s epic bus trip eventually became an article for National Geographic Traveler, supplemented by blog posts and tweets from the road. Along the way the book detours further into his past to reveal an origin story fraught with bullying, religious judgement, and family crisis. All these ordeals were reactions to Andrew’s same-sex orientation. For Andrew, the science of geography became the art of escape.

By running past and present storylines in tandem, The Black Penguin offers engrossing parallels. For instance, the chapter about Andrew being found out at Brigham Young University connects to chapters about dangerous travel through Mexico and Central America. Both episodes exhibit the same sense of peril, fueled by powerful, sometimes unseen, forces that may decide his fate at any moment.

Yet, like his tweets, Andrew’s book also provides humor, beauty, and excitement. The personable, empathic prose creates a sensation of being in the seat next to him, staring out the bus window while passing near cliffs, through jungles, and along coastlines. And while the book is ultimately about Andrew’s quest, it teams with lively stories about people he meets along the way—quite like an issue of National Geographic.

Page after page, I experienced a keen sense of us all being on a globe, feeling the pace of its spin, gaining greater awareness of our relationship to each other and Earth. I highly recommend The Black Penguin. It’s a trip we all should experience.

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Think you understand Alan Alda?

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and CommunicatingIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating by Alan Alda

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The greatest science communication failure of recent history occurred during breaking news coverage of the Higgs boson particle discovery. At least, that’s my opinion. This particle, claimed to be the active ingredient in objects having mass, is a huge deal. Yet, look at this gibberish news outlets threw at me as the leading quotation for the achievement.

“We have observed a new boson with a mass of 125.3 plus or minus 0.6 GeV at 4.9 standard deviations.”

No offense to Dr. Joe Incandela, who made the above technical statement to a room full of scientists. Following his words, the gathering bubbled over with applause, even tears in at least one case. But the jargon was lost on me. That day I refused to be impressed as a matter of principle. Science had failed to explain itself.

Such disconnects between scientists and the public comprise the impetus for Alan Alda’s latest book: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. Known to many for his acting career, Alda has dedicated much of his time to promoting better science communication. Far from being a mere on-camera spokesman, Alda works as a Visiting Professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Using personal examples, as well as research, Alda makes the case for empathy as essential to good communication. He couples this with insights regarding the Theory of Mind. Think of empathy as the emotional connection, and Theory of Mind as the rational component. Empathy, according to Alda, is a skill which can be developed and refined.

Not surprisingly, Alda advocates cultivating empathy through theatrical improv (a serious performance method, not merely a game-driven attempt to get laughs). Anyone who has taken an acting class with improv as a component, myself included, will find this to be self-evident. The same practiced skills which help actors connect onstage can help scientists connect with the public. As Alda relates, this extends to medical doctors, business leaders, hopeful lovers, and parents mentoring children.

If I Understood You… stays on task via short chapters and focused, conversational prose. It wraps up in a tidy 200 pages. There is also an audio version, read by Alda, which I’ll safely assume is highly enjoyable. The result is a book calculated to be accessible, informative and thought-provoking.

Odd then that this book sometimes struggled to hold my interest. If I Understood You… is full of nuggets: nuggets of wisdom, hindsight, and profound experience. Any chapter by itself can be a delight, and many were for me. Yet, perhaps because of the testimonial nature, perhaps because of the copious repetition of its premise, the book sometimes felt like an after-dinner conversation growing tiresome. In no way am I panning it. However, I do suggest readers avoid devouring the book quickly (which I did so I could post my review asap).

Given its levelheaded blend of entertainment with educational discourse, If I Understood You… disqualifies itself from being Alda’s most fun book yet. It may however prove his most important, given the toxic level of animosity in current public discussion. Therefore, I highly recommend reading it. Come for the theory, but stay for the moments of sublime understanding.

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