“One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right. We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies are made of stardust.” (Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing)

1. Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove with Howard Chua-Eoan (March 2015, nonfiction)

“Yet even with an amazing specimen like Kotar, many things were amiss. For one, his dorsal fin was collapsed. It was a physical characteristic he shared with all of the adult male orcas at SeaWorld. I would soon learn that the cause is confinement: floating motionless at the surface of the pool without support for the height and weight of the dorsal fin leads to collapse…”

A few months pregnant with Eric, I remember cuddling with Katie in our big bed the morning I heard about the tragic death of 40-year-old SeaWorld (Florida) trainer Dawn Brancheau. Katie, at age two, had reached a place in her development at which Bill and I had just begun to take her to places like Disneyland, the Wild Animal Park, and more. I’d been eager to take her to SeaWorld, a favorite place of mine in childhood, since she was born.

I’m not one to jump onto bandwagons—quite the opposite, actually. I have an extremely wary and disbelieving mind: it takes fact—and verifiable at that—to get me to entertain a point of view. There is also the credibility of those who present the facts to consider. What rhetoric do they use? Do they embrace or reject science? Do they understand statistical variation? Even then, I hold everything I think at a remove, always aware that on any issue (death penalty, abortion, etc) I could be wrong. No matter the evidence one has, we have to leave open the possibility for further evidence. Just as I am not religious, I am also not religiously political. I walk around everyday thinking, I could be wrong. I could be wrong. I could be wrong. In cynicism there is an inherent humility. It’s a healthy self-doubt, knowing enough neuroscience, behaviorism, psychology, and statistics to understand that we all—all of us—are prone to fooling ourselves all of the time. We make cause and narrative when there really are none; we are affected by things like base rates, how we were raised, and myriad other variables. How many people do you know who walk around with a constant check on themselves, especially with respect to their dearest and most self-definitional beliefs? I could be wrong. I do not at all doubt my ability to think and search and to interpret, but I know that part of a healthy—and integrity-driven—mind is to be able to stand outside of itself and check itself, as objectively as it can. If there is an idea which we find in ourselves that is so dear that we would never, under any circumstances or evidence, be willing to let it go, then that should be a major red flag that the mind’s integrity has been compromised, in my view.

That said, when the documentary Blackfish came out, I held it away from me like the stink of propaganda I assumed it would be. So many jumped on that bandwagon so fast that I wanted nothing to do with it in the wake. I do not like issues that gather sudden furor: I don’t trust them, usually. In the meantime, though, I postponed taking Katie and eventually Eric to SeaWorld. I did not like some of the facts that had emerged, and while I still considered myself researching the issue, I wanted to hold off taking them there just in case.

Eventually I watched Blackfish. It occurred to me even then that I could be getting spun, but I made a decision that the evidence pointed toward continued avoidance of SeaWorld as the neutral position until I could probe the ethics more carefully.

Katie is seven and Eric four. Neither child has ever been to SeaWorld, and after reading this book this month, I can say with near certainty that they never will go while under my parenting. We’ve even had opportunities to go that would have reduced the ticket prices for us immensely—Katie for a penny!! A single cent, yes, as part of a student deal, and Eric and I at very reduced prices.—but I haven’t done it and won’t do it. Ethical decisions should not have a thing to do with affordability.

Author Hargrove worked as a SeaWorld trainer for fourteen years, at both the California and Texas locations. Becoming a SeaWorld trainer had been his life goal since childhood, and the degree of love with which he writes about his favorite whales, whom he shall never seen again, is heartbreaking. He resigned in August of 2012, coming to a place of understanding that, ethically, he could not continue to support SeaWorld or its inhumane practices…

…Of which he details many. The bottom line: orcas should not live in abject captivity. The science backs this up. We have a duty as humanity, I think, to honor these creatures and to protect the vulnerable among us. There is no reason at all to torture animals—majestic or humble—for our entertainment. There are other ways to learn about sea life. If any of what I have said here rubs you the wrong way, then I would argue that is all the more reason to put your biases aside and read this book yourself…from one skeptic to another.

Maybe take a good whale watching trip instead?
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2. Tangled Webs: How False Statements are Undermining America from Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff by James B. Stewart (2011, nonfiction, social science)

“This surge of perjury cases at the highest levels of business, politics, media, and culture poses some fundamental questions: Why would people with so much to lose puts much at risk by lying under oath? Whatever they may have done, why would they compound their problems by committing an independent felony, punishable by prison? What were the consequences? And what price are all of us paying for their behavior?”

Stewart, former Page One editor at the Wall Street Journal and Pulitzer Prize winner, handily narrates the downfalls (or lack thereof) of Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Barry Bonds, and Bernie Madoff. Originally part of a TED generated list of books about the nature, science, and psychology of lying and self-deception, Stewart’s social science expose was a bit of a different genre for me. I debated between this one and Dan Ariely’s more science-based treatment of lying, and this one with its opening chapters on Martha Stewart just grabbed me. (I plan on the Ariely perhaps this coming month, though). Stewart (James, that is)  brings to life a cast of characters that I had heard about in my late teens and early 20s, the sort of characters that come to one’s half-attention when one is finishing up college and beginning a time-demanding career. I read the news back in those days, but I didn’t pay much attention to the narrative life of it all.

Stewart brings the stories of these acts of perjury to life. I had many moments during this read of, “OH! So that’s what happened.”

If you like current social history, this well-written and extremely lengthy book is probably for you. I cannot say it was a memorable favorite of my books this year, but it held my interest.

3. A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss (2012, nonfiction science/physics, math)

“Nevertheless, the declaration of a First Cause still leaves open the question, ‘Who created the creator?’ After all, what is the difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one?”

“The universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not. The existence of a creator is independent of our desires. A world without God or purpose may seem harsh or pointless, but that alone does not require God to actually exist.” 

“However, a negative charge moving backward in time is mathematically equivalent to a positive charge moving forward in time! …In this case one can reinterpret Feynman’s second drawing as follows: a single electron is moving along, and then at another point in space a positron-electron pair is created out of nothing, and the positron meets the first electron and the two annihilate…”

Krauss is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist educated at MIT and known for his studies of dark matter/dark energy.

This is one of my favorites reads of the year. Krauss is known for his accessible and yet still demanding treatment of science. If questions of physics fascinate you, pick this up. If you wonder whether or not it is turtles all the way down, pick this up. If you like thinking about how small human beings are in the continuum, pick this up. If you like a little real physics and math (diagrams, too!) in your reading, pick this up. If you favor science as a discipline of integrity through which we can come to understand more about the nature of existence, pick this up. If you do not favor a scientific view of how we came into existence, pick this up.

4. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (March 2015, nonfiction, history, military history)

“The most important effect of all this was to leave the determination as to which ships were to be spared, which to be sunk, to the discretion of individual U-boat commanders. Thus a long submarine captain, typically a young man in his twenties or thirties, ambitious, driven to accumulate as much sunk tonnage as possible, far from his base and unable to make wireless contact with superiors, his vision limited to the small and distant view afforded by a periscope, now held the power to make a mistake that could change the outcome of the entire war.”

If, like me, you can still picture a single highlighted line at the top and to the lefthand of your AP US History notes about the Lusitania and its connection (definitely not a prime cause, we find out) to the United States’ entry into WWI but that’s where your knowledge ends, then this book is a MUST read.

In fact, despite my personal connection to the book that follows this one in my list this month, I would say that Dead Wake is probably THE book that should make its way into most people’s stacks and book clubs immediately. 

Larson brings to life many of the passengers on the great ship while his revelations about British war intelligence will leave your spine tingling. Who knew what, and when? How did President Wilson’s personal life potentially affect his assessment of the war? What is a great passenger ship really like? What would life have been like on a submarine? How do small decisions lead to huge and fatal outcomes?

I could not put this one down.

5. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945, fiction)

“And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country. Because he loved true things, he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot. And people didn’t like him for telling the truth. They scowled, or shook and tapped their heads, they laughed as though they knew it was a lie and they appreciated a liar. And some, afraid for their daughters or pigs, told him to move on, to get going, just not to stop near their place if he knew what was good for him. And so he stopped telling the truth. He said he was doing it on a bet – that he stood to win a hundred dollars. Everyone liked him then and believed him.”

Ah. I found one. I found a book that has become a favorite of mine now for all time. Those books are the treasures. We can read dozens—hundreds—of books before we locate one of these. Cannery Row is part of my essence now. A favorite. The book you mention when someone asks you. The book you re-read every few years, perhaps.

In all of my reading, why had I never read Cannery Row? I’ve read my share of Steinbeck, adore Grapes of Wrath. The best I can say is that books wait for you. There is, perhaps, the right moment for every book, especially the novel. We make memories of reading them, too. We don’t just remember the book, but the act of reading. It’s intimate, that act. We remember what we wore, the scents of the day, where we sat, or stood, or walked. The act of taking a novel into oneself can be as significant as the content of the book; in many ways content and context are inseparable and become fused. The act of reading is a sensual one; there is particular magic when how we read and what we read coincide in a meaningful way. So, for me, the experience of Cannery Row.

I read Cannery Row last Sunday on a big yellow school bus along the 1, against the ragged backdrop of Big Sur as I waited at Garrapata Beach for my brother David’s hand-off in the marathon relay. I read it wrapped in a red and blue plaid blanket, in my running clothes and warm-ups, tucked away by a plein air art colony, as I watched the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean. I read it the day after walking all around Monterey (where we stayed) and seeing Cannery Row itself for the first time. I read it as a Californian, picturing the shores of La Jolla as doc attempts to collect his specimens on his road trip. I read it as someone deeply convinced that this book had waited for me all these years for just this moment.

Readers of this blog know from my last post about the relay that this experience of reading was a highlight of my whole life. When I am asked on my deathbed for memories that were some of my favorite, for moments when I felt really and truly alive, for  experiences that defined me, well, this is going to be one of them. Book nerd, literature lover, passionate runner… they were everything, these hours on the bus.

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A shark walking to work, Cannery Row, last Saturday afternoon…behind its fin, you can see the wooden biological lab.

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Katie and Amie explore Cannery Row

6. Homer Price by Robert McCloskey (fiction, 1943)

“When Homer isn’t going to school, or doing odd jobs, or playing with other boys, he works on his hobby which is building radios. He has a workshop in one corner of his room where he works in the evenings.”

Lentil, Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings, One Morning in Maine—we love McCloskey in this house and re-read our favorite children’s books constantly. In fact, we just read Blueberries for Sal again in honor of the first blueberry pick of the season. McCloskey is, in fact, one of my favorite children’s book authors, so rich. Lentil is one of our personal favorites.

Homer Price is a chapter book collection of six vignettes, all taking place in small town Centerburg and utterly charming. Although it may seem like a children’s book, Homer Price is really a gentle and genial laugh at American culture without cynicism or too much satire. It’s a lovely afternoon in the sun that you wish could last forever, with abundant humor for both children and adults. Warm and inviting, this book.

I read this aloud to Bill, Katie, and Eric as we road tripped last weekend up and down the California coast.

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The Kindle is wonderful for road trips because I can load a bunch of books on there for all of us, thereby reducing packing considerably. I am a book-lover-nutso and over-take books wherever I go, always. You should have seen the boxes of books my dad helped me move into my frosh dorm at Stanford. I cannot live without my books nearby, it feels. When we drove across the country to Shil’s wedding a couple of years ago, or during last summer’s road trip to Oregon, or on even smaller weekend jaunts to San Francisco, I always pack satchels full of our children’s books and books for me. They probably take up more car space percentage-wise than any other single category of item. Kind of ridiculous, but how could we not have our nightly reading and our car reading? How could we exist for days without our books? But now that Bill let me borrow/have his Kindle, I can store much more on there. I still packed some tangible copies of our favorite books for this trip, but not nearly as many!

I put some surprises on the Kindle for this trip that the kiddos had never seen. The Day the Crayons Quit is now one of Eric’s absolute favorites and will forever remind me of this past weekend. We also found a children’s book about Paul Erdos, my favorite mathematician (The Boy Who Loved Math), and Katie liked her first experience with the Nate the Great series.

So what’s in the stack?

Well, I am in the middle of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, essentially about the science of judgment and decision-making and how we can take a more statistical view of the world and our own mental processes. I slowed down a bit on it, but would like to finish. Katie and I are also ALMOST done with Ender’s Game. TED just posted a list of book recs again on Facebook this morning, so that might influence me as well.

I have read 69 books since beginning the goal of reinvigorating the life of my reader’s mind last July 2nd. Five books a month for a year would be a total of 60 books, so I have fortunately exceeded my own goals already…with both May and June still to come. It may be a far cry from what I used to be able to read in a month, but I feel so much more whole. Motherhood (especially new motherhood, and homeschooling) and unprioritized time caused quite a dry spell in my reading, although never completely barren. I hope never to enter such a phase again! I truly don’t watch TV (except for Once Upon a Time with the kids), but we have to make trades to get done what we want, right? If it comes down to TV/Internet use/movies at night or exercise/substantial reading, as it did for me, then I know what I am happier picking in the long term. I still struggle with frittering away time now and then—surfing around for information is so addictive, I am an information-collection junkie—but I know who I want to be, and that makes it much easier to control my impulses. I find, too, that I have more to talk about with my children, husband, and friends. Those conversations about ideas/philosophy/science/literature are lifeblood. Not to mention how much more I have to think about in that meditative zone of running and swimming… It’s good, and I will probably continue to challenge myself with a similar goal this coming year.

Happy Reading to All!

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