Gnaughty or Gneiss Cards Are On Sale Today! For Cheap!

Zazzle’s having a maclargehuge Black Friday sale thingy today. If you were thinking of grabbing some of these beauties:

Image shows a cartoon Santa head, looking pensive. Santa's hat has a rock hammer on the white brim. Thought bubble says, "Gonna find out who's..."

Geologist Santa card cover.

 

Image is a photo of a lump of coal and a piece of gneiss. They've been filtered as a watercolor. Caption says, "Gnaughty or gneiss."

Card Interior.

Now’s the time – they’re only $1.47 per card right now. Gneiss! If you have any geologists, rock hounds, or people with really odd nerdy senses of humor on your list, you should totally pick one up for them. Especially if you plan on getting them a gift card to some place. A gift card inside a funny greeting card is always a hit.

This is a Black Friday only sale they’ve got going on, but if you miss this one, I’ll be keeping you informed of any others. I get about seventy thousand emails a day from Zazzle telling me what’s on sale, and I’m sure they’ll have another discount on cards, just probably not quite this deep.

If you have any ideas for designs you want me to whip up, ask away! I should either have my old machine up and running soon, or have a brand new one, so I’ll have that gorgeous graphic design capability back, and can create you a little something in time for the holidays. Also, keep an eye on this space: I should have some extra-special gifties on sale by Monday, as long as no other electronics decide to die round here. I’ll give you dibs, my darlings, and special pricing, too!

For those of you trying to avoid all mention of Black Friday, I’m so sorry. Please return to solidly ignoring the whole sordid affair, with my sympathies.

It’s a Moider! Moider, I Tells Ya!

Actually, it’s a double-feature! We’ve also got Blue Heron Noir. Stay tuned after the film!

B brought turkey over for Thanksgiving. He arrived just at dusk (which is 4 bloody 30 in the pee-em at this time of year), which is when the local crows begin gathering before they head off to roost. The roads, trees, and ball fields begin looking like an Alfred Hitchcock film. B’s never seen quite so many at once, so he came bouncing in wanting to go walk with corvids. I was totally down with that.

So we headed down to the creek, where clouds of corvids flew overhead, and turned the trees black.

Image shows a few crows clinging to the tops of poplar trees.

They even flock to poplar trees, although the branches are super-skinny and it’s really hard to get a grip.

They also fill the ball fields. Alas, it was so close to dark, it was hard to get a good shot, but we tried.

Image shows a baseball field with a murder of crows upon it.

I don’t think they’re playing ball…

We gotcha enough footage for a wee video. It’ll give you some small idea of what it’s like to be walking down a path between trees full of hundreds of cackling crows. The sound is just overwhelming, and the motion as they wheel overhead is exhilarating. It can either scare the shit out of you, or it can make you feel like you’re a little kid again, and leave you nearly screaming in delight.

We might’ve gotten you more clouds of crows if we’d been brave enough to actually agitate them, but we’re not planning on moving away any time soon, and corvids tend to remember people who annoy them. We like to stay on their good side.

After filming our moiderous film, we finished a fairly brisk walk along the creek, and found ourselves coming back in the dark. The ducks had gone to bed. But we heard a rather large-sounding rustle on the riverbank, and a bit of a splash. There wasn’t quite enough light to make out what it was, but B suspected a blue heron. Since blue herons and ducks aren’t reputed to hold grudges against people who piss them off, I decided to risk a wee bit o’ flash photography. I pointed the flash away from the UFD, so as not to interrupt it too badly, and took a chance.

Image shows a vaguely-illuminated heron standing in the creek.

Heron Noir

Blue herons are badass. This one didn’t even twitch. It gave precisely zero shits. I had no idea their eyes reflect like that, but I suppose if they’re out fishing at night, it makes sense they’ve got something to make their night vision better. Is it a tapetum lucidum? My google-fu was inadequate to the task of determining for certain. Perhaps one of you know – ya’ll are better at birds than I am.

I’m arse-deep in books to review, B and I will be working on some fun little geologically-themed gifties for the holidays, and I may brave the crowd at Staples later and see if they have any nifty desktops at a price I can afford. I’ll probably return. Probably.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Carnivorous Plants of Oregon

It’s that time in America where many of us stuff ourselves full of deceased birds and other foodstuffs. Not everyone is carnivorous, but these plants are.

A nice clump of darlingtonia at the Darlingtonia Wayside, Oregon.

A nice clump of darlingtonia at the Darlingtonia Wayside, Oregon.

That, my darlings, is our old friend Darlingtonia californica, the lovely cobra lily. You can also call it the California pitcher plant if you’re feeling boring. Totally understandable if you are. You’re probably completely lethargic. It’s not the tryptophan, mind – it’s the carbs.

Betcha cobra lilies don’t get drowsy after a big meal.

I love those little beards they've got. Well, it also looks like a cobra tongue, right?

I love those little beards they’ve got. Well, it also looks like a cobra tongue, right?

I love the Darlingtonia Wayside. Did you know these are the only carnivorous plants with their own state park in Oregon? Pretty neato.

They love ultramafic soils. Good thing Oregon has so much GDB*, right? Although I think the Wayside is a sphagnum fen. One of these days, I’d do some actual research on that.

A nice Darlingtonia profile, there. I love that sunlight turning the beard such a lovely ruby red.

A nice Darlingtonia profile, there. I love that sunlight turning the beard such a lovely ruby red.

All right, I’ve also got something for the vegetarians in the audience. Prepare to squee at this little chipmunk!

A darling wee chipmunk inna pine tree on the coast. All that's visible through the branches is its face, which has the distinctive stripes that tell us it's not a ground squirrel.

A darling wee chipmunk inna pine tree on the coast.

I have no idea if it’s the Yellow-pine or the Least chipmunk, but it’s adorable either way. It was hanging about in a tree at Cape Perpetua, and of course, I knew I had to grab a photo for you. Because I love you, of course!

No matter where you are, whether you’re celebrating a holiday or having just another day, I hope it’s happy and full of good things and singularly lacking in unpleasant family interactions. If you’re stuck with that horrible relation who insists on forwarding awful right-wing conspiracy theory emails, just imagine them being turned into a bug by their own angry god, and plopped in the middle of a Darlingtonia patch. You swoop in to rescue them just as they’re discovering there’s no escape from a pitcher plant that has got treacherous hairs and false exits galore. They are so grateful to you that they immediately discard all their irrational thinking, and devote themselves to a life of freethought and social justice work. Next family gathering, the only thing you argue about is whether that horrible dessert invented by the relative who had to make do with war rations should continue to be served out of a respect for tradition, or reverently retired, which is exactly the sort of debate that keeps things interesting without raising blood pressure, considering no one eats the stuff anyway. It’s the best family meal in living memory.

Have a happy, my darlings!

 

*God Damned Basalt. This is the technical term, derived from your sentiments after seeing yet more basalt everywhere you look.

Baked Geology: Shelli’s Rainbow Fault Cake

I’m back with more yummy geology. Literally yummy. This is geology you can really sink your teeth in to (as long as you brush them after).

We’re not talking that ginger licking of a rock and perhaps nibble on a corner that geologists sometimes do to determine what they’re dealing with. Trust me when I say it’s gritty, tastes like lithified dirt, and leaves you briefly wishing your job entailed something more delicious, like wine tasting. Well, most geologists would prefer beer tasting, but the point still stands.

Sometimes, however, geology can be quite tasty. I’ve shown you before how you can have your geology and eat it, too. Recently, my supervisor Shelli provided another mouth-watering example of geofood. Behold the Rainbow Fault Cake!

Rainbow Cake and expertly-executed fault by Shelli.

Rainbow Cake and expertly-executed fault by Shelli.

This is one of the billion reasons I love my supervisor – she cooks the most delicious treats. Each layer of this cake was a different flavor, corresponding to the color, courtesy of flavored gelatin. So moist and rich! I couldn’t even finish my piece. So much yum!

The cake started out as a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (pro tip: don’t listen to your loved ones when they say your cake isn’t crooked, but your expert eye is telling you something’s off. Unless, of course, you want something quirky and awesome, which this was). Then, after many slices, a spectacular diagram of a dip-slip fault shone at me in all its rainbow glory. I stared at it in delighted, speechless fascination for a moment before I remembered that I’d actually brought the camera, and could commit it to pixels as well as memory. Huzzah!

I’ve drawn you a nice little diagram showing you what this cake is so ably illustrating.

Diagram showing what Shelli's Rainbow Fault Cake is portraying.

Diagram showing what Shelli’s Rainbow Fault Cake is portraying.

We can be reasonably sure this fault is dip-slip because it’s very nearly vertical. This one’s an extensional fault – it’s caused by the crust extending. We can tell because it’s a normal fault. The hanging wall’s slip-sliding down relative to the footwall. This indicates the crust is being pulled apart – if it was getting squeezed, a reverse fault would have resulted, wherein the hanging wall would be sliding up. Here’s a quick and easy diagram showing what’s what:

Normal and Reverse Faults. Image courtesy Cferrero and Heron via Wikimedia Commons.

Normal and Reverse Faults. Image courtesy Cferrero and Heron via Wikimedia Commons.

Pretty easy to tell which is the hanging wall – it’s the one left hanging.

So you may have noticed that some of the cake layers are straight, while others are curved. This illustrates drag folding – part of the rock bending under the strain without quite breaking as the two sides of the fault move. Here’s a very nice example of it that looks remarkably like our cake, albeit less rainbowy and certainly less edible:

The "faille des Causses", a geological fault in the Grands Causses, as seen from Bédarieux (Hérault, France).

The “faille des Causses”, a geological fault in the Grands Causses, as seen from Bédarieux (Hérault, France). Image and caption courtesy Xhienne via Wikimedia Commons.

That’s almost eerie, it’s so similar. Cuisine imitates nature – or is it the other way round?

You never know when your food is going to provide a Geological Teaching Moment, so keep your camera close and your utensils closer. When employing edible examples, endeavor to photograph before eating. And ixnay on the uiltgay. You can work off the calories in the field.

Rainbow Fault Cake Recipe

  • 3 boxes yellow cake mix, prepared according to box instructions
  • One small box each of Grape, Berry Blue, Lime, Lemon, Orange and Cherry Jello
  • Frosting of choice

Divide cake batter into 6 equal portions. For each portion, mix in about 1/2 of a small box of Jello. Pour each portion into 8″ round cake pans and bake according to the box instructions. When cakes are baked and cooled, trim the crust off of each. Stack them using frosting to cement each layer, and cover the whole with the remaining frosting. Then slice until you’ve got a nifty fault!

I dedicate this delicious cake to all of the hard-working geology teachers, no matter where or how they teach, and invite them to make free use of the above cake photos. Also dedicated in all its rainbow glory to those couples who got handed a double-victory by the Supreme Court this past week. Happy weddings!

Muchos gracias to Shelli, who made this geocake possible.

 

Originally published at Rosetta Stones.

Crowdsourcing Science Books for Kids and Teens

What kind of science books do you get for kids these days? I had a brief gallop through the Kindle store, but I can only guess what books kids really love. I haven’t got kids, I’ve got a cat. She doesn’t care about what’s inside books, she just wants to sleep on them. And it’s been over 30 years since I’ve had direct experience with being a child. This isn’t very helpful when one is trying to come up with a handy list of books for people to buy for kids.

Have you got kids? Have you got nieces, nephews, cousins, honorary versions of same? Are you a teacher or caregiver or otherwise plugged into the part of the universe that includes small people? Awesome! They must have at least one science book they love. Gimme the title!

And what about teenagers? Are there any books out there specifically written for them that’re taking their minds by storm, or are they skipping straight to books marketed toward adults? Are there any science books in particular the teenagers in your experience love?

Hey, are you a teenager? Great! Tell me which books you love best. This will help me gently steer adults away from giving you things that insult your intelligence. Give me some hard data I can wave in the faces of those convinced teenagers don’t do complex, so I can prevent them from stuffing your stocking with stuff that’s more suitable for grade school kids.

Image shows a cat lying under an Xmas tree with a book tented over it. Caption says, "Next year, I want more books for my book fort."

Dana’s Super-Gargantuan Guide to Science Books Suitable for Gift-Giving

It’s the gifting time o’ year! You’ve got science readers on your list, but you’re not sure what books to get them, right? For those of you who can’t just say heck with it and buy a gift card instead, I’ve got some ideas for ye. Our main focus will be the earth sciences, but I’ve got a variety of other disciplines on tap as well. Settle in with a nice mug or glass o’ something, click your desired category, and see what leaps out at you. If you still can’t decide, go with a gift card and a link to this post.

And feel free to bookmark this page for future reference when the time comes to spend your own gift card. Also feel free to recommend your own favorites for future incarnations of this list.

Image shows a cat resting its chin and paw on a printed page. Caption says, "Multum legendum non multa."

 

Table of Contents

Earth Sciences

Biology, Paleontology and Evolution

Neurology, Physiology and Medicine

Astronomy, Physics, and Chemistry

Earth Sciences

In Search of Ancient Oregon: A Geological and Natural History by Ellen Morris Bishop.

I’m not going to quote from this book, because all of it is quotable. Dr. Ellen Morris Bishop, author and photographer, is a wonderful writer who brings Oregon’s geology to brilliant life. It’s rare to find a PhD scientist who’s also a talented writer who’s also a brilliant photographer, but Dr. Bishop is all three. You hear words like “expertly written” and “lavishly illustrated” tossed about for books that don’t strictly deserve it. This one most decidedly does.

If you’ve ever been even the slightest bit interested in geology, you owe it to yourself to get this book. If you like landscape photography but don’t give two shits about how the pretty rocks came to be there, you owe it to yourself to get this book. If you’re interested in the flora and fauna of long-vanished worlds, you owe it to yourself to get this book. If you want to know some awesome places to visit in Oregon, you owe it to yourself to get this book.

My review here.

For the Rock Record edited by Jill S. Schneiderman and Warren D. Allmon.

I’m so excited about this book. Within, geologists take on – and take down – creationism and Intelligent Design. Biologists are already in the ring and have been for some time: with this collection of essays, geologists get in the cage and crack their knuckles before delivering a victory by knockout. Written by geologists and earth sciences educators, this book faces the fact that geology is just as much under attack by creationists as biology – after all, the rocks hold a lot of the evidence for evolution and an old, uncreated Earth. It covers geologic and paleontological claims made by creationists; their encroachment into earth sciences education, politics, and philosophy; and in a final section, covers the clash of geology and religion. It reflects on evolution with a focus on the earth sciences, and doesn’t forget that Darwin was, first and foremost, a geologist. Got a geologist/atheist on your list? This is their book. You just have to get it for them.

The Last Days of St. Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster That Claimed Thirty Thousand Lives by Ernest Zebrowski Jr.

There aren’t many books that have me lowering the temperature of my bathwater for fear of triggering flashbacks to severe burns I’ve never actually suffered. Actually, there’s only been one: this one.

For the most part, Dr. Zebrowski takes us through the geology from the point of view of the folks dealing with an alarming, nasty, and new example of it. After giving us the gist of what we know now, he goes back and shows us what no one knew then. We experience this terrifying eruptive sequence from the perspective of those trying to figure it out. We’re told – well, mostly shown, Dr. Zebrowski’s quite good at that – what they knew. Not much. They had no real idea what a volcano like Peleé can do.

My review here.

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee

This is the one that always comes up in any conversation where geologists are discussing good geology books. It’s four books in one, and takes you from coast to coast through America with John and geologists, exploring geological history and wonders. This was a time when the plate tectonics revolution was brand-new, so you get a sense of the excitement (“We can finally make sense of this stuff!”) and the caution (“Slow down, hoss, you ain’t gathered all your evidence yet.”). So you get to watch a theory being born.

Being a book by John McPhee, this is beautifully written, and will stay with you for a lifetime. This is an excellent place for anyone to start.

Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth by Marcia Bjornerud

Do this: read the introduction to this book. Just that. By the end, you will have learned something of geology, gotten broadsided by a puckish sense of humor, and likely been hooked enough to buy the thing. This is the intro-to-geology book for those who want – oh, how did I put it when I first read her book? – “a fun, easy and accurate primer on geology…” I also said, “She’s not only an informative writer whose prose flows like water over Franklin Falls, she’s snarky. I am a sucker for snark.” I still am. I still love this book. And I still foist it upon people who are looking for a short, sharp intro to geology.

Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

This is one of the first books I read when I was renewing my interest in earth science, lo these many years ago. I strongly believe it needs to be read by more people. I’ll see your John McPhee and raise you Richard Fortey – his prose is astoundingly beautiful. Also, he is British, and you know I’m an anglophile. Oh, language! Oh, earth! This is one of those books that immerses you, and by the time you emerge from it, you’ll understand so much more of this planet. You’ll absorb much more geology than you might believe you have done. This doesn’t seem like a science book as much as a love letter about the Earth – but it’s science, through and through. Hard science, strong science.

Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet by Ted Nield

There are very few books that I immediately want to read again even before I’ve finished them. This is one.

What to say? That Ted Nield writes with the kind of clarity and style that, should he turn it into a narrative, would make even the phone book fascinating reading? That’s one thing. Add that to the fact that he’s writing about something inherently fascinating, and you have the recipe for a truly outstanding book.

Nield tells two histories: the history of supercontinents forming and rifting, and the history of our discovery and understanding of them. Many times, when an author tells two tales, one takes second place to the other. Nield manages to unfold them both in tandem, so that neither is slighted.

My review here.

The Mountains of Saint Francis by Walter Alvarez

This is the best book on geology I’ve ever read. Ever. Oh, others have been wonderful, informative, and well-written, but there’s something about this one that just filled me to the brim. Maybe it’s the shock – I thought of Walter Alvarez in connection with dinosaurs and killer meteorites, not the mountains of Italy. Maybe it’s the fact he brings a totality of place and time to the subject, allowing you to experience more than just the rocks of Italy. Maybe it’s the fact he introduced me to some fascinating fathers of geology, people I’d never known: Nicolaus Steno, who began his career in the 1600s by dissecting bodies and ended it by discovering Earth’s anatomy; Ambrogio Soldani, an abbot who pioneered micropaleontology all the way back in the 1700s. Maybe it’s the rocks, who become characters in their own right, and with whom one can become very close friends indeed.

I don’t know. There’s just something about this book – it’s bloody poetic is what it is, gorgeously written, easy to understand while not being dumbed-down, full of passion and wonder and delight.

My review here.

The Seven Hills of Rome: A Geological Tour of the Eternal City by Grant Heiken, Renato Funicello, and Donatella de Rita

If you haven’t got enough of Italian geology, here’s an excellent source. And it’s got walking tours! This book is perfect for both armchair and actual tourists who want to know how Rome was really built, and would like to discover some earth history among the ruins. This book is a must-have if you’re a geology buff bound for Rome – there’s a little something for everyone in your tour group, so you can keep the non-geology buffs distracted with wonderful old buildings and such like while you get on with enjoying the rocks. Art, architecture, history and science, all rolled into one easy-to-read volume!

Devil in the Mountain: A Search for the Origin of the Andes by Simon Lamb

Simply astounding. That’s what this book is. The Andes are fascinating mountains and Simon Lamb absolutely does them justice. You’ll find out how puzzling features like the Altiplano came to be, for instance. And it provides a fascinating look into field research: the difficulties of getting it done in politically unstable areas of the world, the extremes in weather, the hazards of altitude sickness, camping in the freezing cold, dealing with horribly limited resources…. Simon puts you there. This book is a must for anyone who wants to live the geologist’s life, or wants to know more about it, as well as learn how the Andes came to be.

Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology by David B. Williams

I have one quibble with this book: it should have included color photographs. That’s all it’s really missing, though. David B. Williams, who ended up interested in urban geology because he got stuck in Boston after living in the wild, wonderful geologic paradise of Utah. Buildings clad in stone became his friends, a link to the natural world. This book eventually resulted, and you’ll probably never look at a city the same way after reading it.

Each chapter is about a different stone: brownstone, limestone, gneiss, marble, travertine and more. Architecture connects to geology connects to oddball tidbits of history and human endeavor (and sometimes silliness) in one seamless whole.

My review here.

Mountain Geomorphology by Phil Owens and Olav Slaymaker, eds.

This is not the type of book you buy for a casual perusal. It’s written by experts for experts. It doesn’t make concessions for laypeople. That said, if you’ve done some extensive reading of the popular literature and cut your teeth on science blogs, you’ll understand at least 40% of this book.

It’s got everything: from defining what a mountain is to how they evolve, functional and applied mountain geomorphology, and global environmental change. I learned things from this book that changed many of my perspectives on mountains, and the information in it comes trickling back at odd times to inform something else I’m reading. I’ll be reading this book again in a year or so, when I’ll understand more, and referring to it more than once in the future. If you want to know how mountains work, and aren’t afraid of actual science, this is an excellent resource.

Living Ice: Understanding Glaciers and Glaciation by Robert P. Sharp

This one was a good one to begin with. It’s a small book, but packed with delicious information and lots of educational photos. Biggest problem being, this is a reprint, and some genius at the publisher decided they didn’t need no stinkin’ color plates this time round. Grr. Even without those, this is an excellent guide to how glaciers do their thing, eminently readable.

It might leave you feeling a little cold however. A-ha-ha.

Frozen Earth: The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages by Doug Macdougall

I’ve been meaning to read this one for years. Anyone with even a passing interest in ice ages should pick this up. It tells the story of the past, present and future of ice ages, from how we figured out there had been some to what they were like, possible causes, effects, and what we’ve got to look forward to. You’ll find out how works of fine art can double as climate detectives, run in to our old friend Louis Agassiz, beat about the brush with Bretz, and engage in all sorts of other antics.

This book did a good job showing the investigative nature of science, and showing the sheer power of ice sheets.

Glacial Lake Missoula and Its Humongous Floods by David Alt

How can you not love a book with this title? David Alt’s also one of the driving forces behind the Roadside Geology series, so you know he knows how to show you where to find the good stuff. And this is good stuff – an astounding tale of catastrophic floods that repeatedly scoured Washington State. David follows those floods as they break the ice dam in Montana and cascade through my state, changing its features forever. He also gives us an introduction to J Harlen Bretz, who was the geologist who took a look at the scablands and said, “Sure looks like a humongous flood went through here.” Okay, not in so many words, but still.

This is an excellent introduction to some rather complicated geology, exploring the landforms that helped geologists piece together the story of repeated floods so huge they beggar the imagination. Clear pictures and easy-to-understand diagrams complete your education. And the tongue-in-cheek humor makes the whole thing go down smooth.

The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth’s Antiquity by Jack Repcheck

Poor James Hutton’s rather sadly neglected. He’s the one who wrote The Theory of the Earth, which everyone tends to deride as too obtuse to be a good read. In this book, we discover that the writing wasn’t as crisp and clear as it might have been because Dr. Hutton was dying in great pain at the time. And yet he still managed to write a foundational tome which, due to the efforts of his good friend John Playfair, remained influential enough for Charles Lyell to pick up the theory and run with it, and geology was well and truly born.

This biography does the great man justice, tracing his discovery of deep time in loving detail. But it’s not just about a man and his rocks, but a man and his time. You’ll be immersed in Hutton’s Scotland, which was an intellectually invigorating place to be. You’ll also take a side trip down Biblical Chronology Lane, which was quite a lot like poking about in a sideshow, complete with freaks. This is definitely one I’ll read again, just for the atmosphere.

The Seashell on the Mountaintop by Alan Cutler

Nicolaus Steno is one of those folks who did geology before geology was a thing. His life is given a thorough treatment. We learn that he’s not just the father of stratigraphy, but was one of the premier anatomists of his time, figuring out bits of the body that nobody had ever figured before. He lived in a fascinating time, too, when the patronage of the Medicis fed the arts and sciences, and Leonardo da Vinci very nearly figured fossils out before he got busy doing other things. You’ll meet an interesting cast of characters, some of whom will be familiar and some who damned well should’ve been. But have tissue handy – it’s a bittersweet ending.

Geology of the Sierra Nevada by Mary Hill

I’ve always been interested in how the Sierra Nevada formed, why Yosemite is the way it is, and all that. This book covers that, including very clear explanations about how granite weathers and how glaciers manage to carve all that hard rock.

It’s also got great guides to rocks of the area, discussions of mining techniques, and a lot of other fascinating stuff.

Beyond the Moon: A Conversational, Common Sense Guide to Understanding the Tides by James Greig McCully

This is an informative little book written by a (former) amateur for amateurs – James McCully isn’t a scientist, but he practically became one in writing this book. And he gets definite kudos for this paragraph:

When people say, “Ignorance is bliss,” they mean the ignorance that is oblivious to the problem. There is another kind of ignorance. Once you become aware that you are ignorant, it is anything but blissful.

True, dat!

This is a good introduction to how tides work, and you’ll be much smarter than Bill O’Reilly after having read it, which is a different kind of bliss.

Longitude by Dava Sobel

A fun, intriguing, and very brief book that makes one realize how fortunate we are to live in an age of clocks. We don’t often think of clocks in connection to map coordinates, do we? And we don’t think how bloody difficult it is to calculate a thing like longitude, which is nothing like latitude when you get right down to it. Dava describes the problems confronting sailors before the discovery of an efficient means to determine longitude in vivid detail. She weaves tales of suffering sailors, confounded captains, broke backers, and myriad others who would have been much better off knowing where exactly they were. And then she puts us in the middle of the wars between astronomers and clockmakers as they fought for a very rich prize, paints the travails of Britain’s stratified society, and brings to life some of the most remarkable time pieces ever made.

Back to Contents


Biology, Paleontology and Evolution

Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth by Andrew H. Knoll

Lockwood recommended this one, and I’m glad he did. I love reading books that give me physical pain when I realize I’m getting close to the end. I hated finishing this book: it’s so beautifully written, so fascinating, and so informative that I could have happily spent the rest of my life reading it.

From mere chemical traces to exquisitely preserved microfossils, from the first ambiguous hints of life to stromatolites, from extremophiles to extraterrestrials, from ancient atmospheres to oxygen revolutions, this book is a journey through life itself. Andrew Knoll’s sense of wonder is only matched by his scientific chops. There are few people who can write using the big technical words and yet never for an instant seem dry. He’s one of those rare talents. He also explains things well without stopping the narrative cold; tough concepts hold no terrors for the layperson in this slender book. At least, not if said layperson has read a few books on evolution and biology first – I’m not sure how a total neophyte would fare, but I suspect the sheer power of the prose would smooth over any difficulties.

My review here.

Written in Stone by Brian Switek

This book constantly surprised me – not because it was good (it’s Brian Switek, so obviously it’s good!), but because of the number of times it made me say, “I didn’t know that!” It’s populated with bajillions of scientists I’ve read a lot about, people like Charles Darwin and Nicolaus Steno and Richard Owen, some of whom have been so extensively babbled about in the pop sci books that it seemed nothing new and interesting remained to reveal – but Brian almost always managed to find a little something awesome that hasn’t made it into the 42,000 other books about them. And lest you think this is merely a history of paleontology, keep in mind that Brian fleshes out that history with the newest of the new discoveries.

My review here.

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin

Something about our bodies is rather fishy. Neil Shubin does a wonderful job showing how our anatomy’s jerry-rigged from much different bodies. If you’ve ever had trouble understanding the incremental steps evolution took from microbe to mankind, this delightful little book will give you the crash course. You’ll start seeing just how similar we are to even wildly dissimilar organisms. And it’s set out in such a way that even someone who has as much trouble with visualization as I do can see it clearly.

This book is the perfect answer to those who try to claim that evolution’s a nice theory, but has no practical application. Now, most of us know that’s ridiculous – we have antibiotic-resistant bacteria to prove that knowing how evolution works is important in medicine – but Neil goes many steps further, showing how evolution explains everything from hiccups to hemorroids to hernias, and many other defects not beginning with the letter H.

Full review here.

The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution by Sean B. Carroll

I adore this book, not to put too fine a point on it. It’s one of the best books on evolution I’ve ever read: clear, concise and beautifully written. I know that other books make a strong case for evolution, but I found this one of the strongest. And it’s full of things I never knew about, like “the bloodless fish of Bouvet Island.”

That’s just the beginning. Sean B. Carroll goes on to explain “the everyday math of evolution,” which explained said math in such a way that even a complete math ignoramus such as myself could grasp it. He made it easy to understand how even the tiniest advantage can, over evolutionary time (which is sometimes remarkably short), add up to big changes. And he doesn’t stop there, of course – he shows us the immortal genes, which have been passengers in a great many species; how new genes can be created from the old; explores convergent evolution; sifts through fossil genes, and quite a bit more.

At the Water’s Edge by Carl Zimmer

Believe me when I say that macroevolution has never been so beautifully described. This whole book is a journey, there and back again.

You’ll learn the reason why we’re so poorly laid out as Carl takes you on our evolutionary journey from sea to land and back again. Along the way, you’ll learn a lot more about evolution than you thought possible from such a slim volume dedicated mostly to whales. And if, like me, you despised Moby Dick, you might discover a reason to at least read the chapters on cetaceans…

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner

Hands-down, this is one of the best books on evolution I’ve ever read. It’s not just about Darwin’s finches. It’s about evolution in action. It follows Peter and Rosemary Grant as they study the Galapagos finches season after season, watching them evolve in real time. Throw in quite a lot of cutting-edge evolutionary research and some Charles Darwin history, and we’ve got a book that feels like it’s about 5,000 pages and isn’t long enough by half. Oh, and Jonathan Weiner’s a wonderful writer. Reading his prose is like drinking claret.

And because no science book is complete without hysterically funny anecdotes about the hazards of field work, I just want to refer you to page 48, where you’ll learn why researcher Ian Abbott “hated a barnacle as no man ever had before,” and is a cautionary tale about always wearing your undies.

Trees: Their Natural History by Peter Thomas

I’ve loved this book since the first sentence: “Everyone knows what a tree is: a large woody thing that provides shade.” The rest of the book didn’t disappoint. It’s a clear, concise, and comprehensive introduction to trees, from how they evolved to how they work in this modern world of climate change and pollution.

Peter Thomas wrote this book because he became frustrated with the fact that there wasn’t a single source for all our knowledge about trees. A lot of myths get dispelled, and most importantly, I learned things I never knew before – like how roots seek easy paths in order to grow, and how far they actually go. The strategies various trees have – deciduous vs. evergreen, conical vs. sprawling, tall vs. short – begin making sense once you know why natural selection molded them in certain ways. And there were things I’d never considered before, like how something so tall manages to stay upright for decades, hundreds or even thousands of years against the simplest antagonist of all: the wind.

Once I got done with this book, I felt I’d gotten into the mind of a tree.

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Neurology, Physiology and Medicine

Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine by Dr. Paul Offit.

Those of you who’ve been in the trenches of the vaccine wars probably know Paul as one of the despised enemies of anti-vaxxers. This book is an excellent example of why they hate him: it’s clear, concise, and full of citations to studies that make it very, very difficult to counter him. Also, he’s fair almost to a fault. Alt-med? He’s tried it himself. He’s given things like glucosamine a spin. He’s had less-than-satisfactory experiences with conventional medicine, so he gets why you might like something different. Sure. But then he says, let’s look at the studies – and there we have bad news. No better than placebo. Oh, dear. Better stick with the stodgy stuff, then, unless your condition is amenable to treatment by placebo, in which case, alt-med yourself out (on the safe stuff, anyway).

That’s the book in a nutshell.

My review here.

Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain – and How it Changed the World by Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer wrote the most informative, delightful, and just plain enthralling book on how neuroscience came to be that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. He describes the birth of neuroscience in detail so vivid you can practically feel yourself sawing open a skull.

It’s amazing how far we’ve come since Thomas Willis and the other members of the Oxford Circle pried open a nobleman’s head and began looking at the brain as more than just several pounds of ugly fat. This book takes you on a journey that lasted thousands of years. If you like traveling the history of science, it’s definitely a trip you’ve got to take.

Emblems of Mind by Edward Rothstein

This is a delightful little book about music and mathematics, and the connections between the two, and I have to say that for a book filled with equations and rather technical discussion of music, it was very nearly painless to read. I say nearly. This book needs a second life as an enhanced ebook, where one can tap on an equation to watch it come to life, or on a musical phrase to hear it. If that happens, this book will be complete.

Edward Rothstein has a melodious writing style that isn’t ostentatious, and an obvious love of music, math and science that infuses every page. If you want to get a little music theory and history combined with science and math, topped off with some mind-challenging ideas, this is a good choice.

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee

If you’re an Oliver Sacks fan, or if you’re just fascinated by brains, you really must pick up Phantoms in the Brain. Dr. Ramachandran doesn’t just tell interesting neurological stories, he takes you on a journey of discovery through your brain. And he’ll make you think of consciousness in ways you never considered before. The whole thing’s an adventure on the order of the Odyssey.

My review here.

A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers by V.S. Ramachandran

Dr. Ramachandran gives us a good look at some fascinating facts of the way the mind works, and all of it is wonderful. My absolute favorite chapter, however, is “The Artful Brain,” which gave me an entirely new appreciation of art and left me wanting far, far more. Alas, the promised book mentioned in that chapter is not available, so I shall have to content myself with this only – for now. In this chapter, we learn why the Victorians freaked out when first exposed to Indian art, the principles that make art art to our brains, and ways in which the artless may become artistic – if they don’t mind somebody paralyzing bits of their brains, that is.

This is one of the few books I’ve read every one of the extensive Notes to. The Notes are practically another book, a gloss and a commentary that’s every bit as good as the rest, which is rare. Dr. Ramachandran is one of those rare folks who are not only great scientists, but truly gifted writers. He makes it all look easy.

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Astronomy, Physics, and Chemistry

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene

This is one of the few books that’s ever made me feel good about math. Not that it’s full of equations, but Brian Greene talks a lot about how these weird things mathematicians came up with, things that seemed purely abstract and intellectual, ended up being very useful for physicists. That’s the main thing this book gave me: a new appreciation for people who sit around playing with numbers just because they think they’re beautiful.

I’m still not all that sure about string theory, and I surely don’t understand it well, but this is a great book for those who want to know more about it. Brian shows us how well it could reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics if it pans out. It also helped me understand those well-established branches of physics much better. This is cutting-edge stuff. We’ve a long way to go before it’s as fundamental as the older two physics theories, and it may not be what we’re looking for, but at the very least, it’s fascinating. And if you, like me, have a hard time understanding dimensions outside of the usual four, then you need Brian Greene: he illustrates tough-to-visualize concepts in a way that allows you to grasp them without having to learn all sorts of complicated mathematics. That’s always a plus.

Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I am thrilled to report that Neil deGrasse Tyson is just as snarky in print as he is in person. And I loves me some science with snark! I dog-eared a lot of pages, and it’s hard to choose just one quote from this delightful book of essays, but I’ll go with this one:

What are the lessons to be learned from this journey of the mind? That humans are emotionally fragile, perennially gullible, hopelessly ignorant masters of an insignificantly small speck in the cosmos.

Death From the Skies! The Science Behind the End of the World by Phil Plait

This is one of the most entertaining, if sometimes terrifying, books I’ve ever read. Unlike most scientists who use the end of the world as a hook for science, Phil treats the subject with the proper mix of respect and hilarity, with heaping doses of “it’ll probably never happen, but it’s too fun not to speculate.” This book probably taught me more about physics and astronomy in one compact, enjoyable read than all the previous serious, heavy tomes I’ve read. And I’ll be referring back to it often to explain network outages and problems with cell phone service. Maybe it was a solar flare, or gamma ray bursts, or a black hole passing through.

Stardust: Supernovae and Life: The Cosmic Connection by John R. Gribbin and Mary Gribbin

This is a delightful introduction to the fact that we are, as Carl Sagan said, made of star stuff. It ties astronomy, chemistry, physics and biology together beautifully. You come away from it with a little bit of a strut, and quite a lot of awe. We are made of awesome stuff, people. This universe is an amazing place. And this is about the perfect book to give to someone who doesn’t realize how tied to the stars we all are, or who thinks astrology whenever our connection to the stars is mentioned. It’s so much more interesting than pseudoscience. The real stuff is much more dramatic. Nice to have an easy-to-read book that gets that across.

The Joy of Chemistry by Cathy Cobb

Want fun, need fun, need joy. I have a book with joy in the title. And hey, I could use some chemistry in my life. So I turn to this one.

Wow.

I mean, seriously, wow. You have to understand, the last time chemistry and I had more than a brief flirtation was back in high school. I’m so not-versed in chemistry it’s pathetic. This book took me from abject ignorance to near-competence in just a few hours. And it’s a hell of a fun read. The authors intended to get across the joy of chemistry, and they did.

It’s even got experiments.

My review here.

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Dana’s Super-Gargantuan Guide to Atheist Books Suitable for Gift-Giving (Part I)

It’s about that time when we begin contemplating the necessity of buying gifts for the readers in our lives. That is, if you’re one of those who plans ahead. Even if you’re not, you can just bookmark this page and return when the ZOMG-it’s-nearly-Xmas-Eve! panic sets in. Gotta love buying for readers. Books are easy, Amazon and other online retailers are quick, the local bookstore may even be stocked, and you can get someone in your life a gift that will give them more than a moment’s pleasure, all in time for the solstice, even if you leave it for the last possible instant.

You may be a reader whose family gets them a certificate to a bookstore online or off. Huzzah! Your shelves, virtual or real, will soon be groaning under brand-new bookage!

Only problem is, there are lotsa books. Sooo many books!

I’m here to help you pick just the right one. Or ones. Many of these, I’ve read. Some, I’ve only read bits of, but heard much about from other sources and thus feel comfortable recommending. I’ve split things into categories, so you can more quickly make a match between the book recipient’s interests and the right book.

If I’ve reviewed the book, I provide a link to said review. If I haven’t, I’ve provided a brief synopsis to assist you. As always, feel free to add any favorites of your own in the comments – the more, the merrier!

Let’s begin!

Table of Contents:

Religion

Leaving Religion

Atheism

Photo of a cat lying atop books on a shelf, biting one. Caption says, "I am looking for a book I can REALLY sink my teeth into."

Religion

In this section, you’ll find books on religion, wherein religion decidedly does not come out on top.

An American Fraud by Kay Burningham.

Anyone interested in Mormonism, and wanting to know if there’s a legal case for it being a big fat fraud, will love this book. You’ll also love giving it to Mormons. It’s sublime.

Mah review here.

Not the Impossible Faith by Richard Carrier.

I read the online version, and it was fascinating. In this book, Richard takes on and crushes the “common apologetic argument for the truth of [Christianity] that its origins were too improbable to be false.” This is a thing amongst some fundies. One of them is J.P. Holding, who pretty much recited All the Tropes having to do with this argument, thus painting Richard a maclargehuge target. By the end of this book, everyone will know why Christianity could succeed despite being utter bullshit. If fundie Christians could feel this particular type o’ shame, they’d be ashamed to try these arguments ever again. And the book not only crushes their pathetic apologetics with relentless precision, it also introduces the reader to amazing bits of ancient history, religion, society, and culture, which is an added bonus and great for history addicts.

Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther

This book is gripping from the very first sentences: “I am ready to die for Jesus. I am nine years old.” Elizabeth Esther was raised in a spiritually-abusive fundamentalist Christian environment. Her memoir gives plenty of insight into the lives of people trapped deep within apocalyptic cults. She was even a child street-preacher. (One thing you’ll learn from this book: you should totally be the little old lady yelling “Don’t be afraid to think for yourself!” at the kid shrieking Bible verses from a milk crate, even if said kid has no idea what you’re talking about at the time.) She survived her upbringing with her sense of humor intact: if you’re reading on an electronic device, please do be careful with liquids and laughter.

Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett.

If you need to give someone a book that gives religion no quarter, and yet doesn’t seem like one of those merciless New Atheist books, this is an excellent start, especially if the recipient likes philosophy.

Mah review here.

The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion: the Mormons by David Fitzgerald.

An excellent introductory guide to Mormonism for those who don’t actually know that much about it.

Mah review here.

50 Simple Questions for Every Christian by Guy P. Harrison.

Ha ha ha, simple. Also a good book to innocently slip your religious relations. Tell them you thought it would help them argue with atheists. Heh.

Mah review here.

The Skeptics Annotated Bible by Steve Wells.

The only Bible that has ever made me want to go to church as an atheist, this is a fantastic gift for atheists and believers alike. Give one to your fundie friends and relations! They can’t complain – you are, after all, giving them a nice King James edition. With, um, some extra footnotes…

Mah review here.

God and the Folly of Faith by Victor Stenger.

With this book, Victor has mounted up as one of the horsepeople of the atheist apocalypse. Seriously. No quarter is given, and if you want a book that will make religion ashamed to play at science, this is the one.

Mah review here.

Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions by Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, eds.

This book is full of slices of fundamentalist life from a broad range of faiths. The editors, Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, wanted to explore the commonalities between women who found themselves sucked (or born) in to extremely restrictive religions. They weren’t intending “to refute or belittle religion.”

They didn’t have to. The religions do that quite well all by themselves.

Mah review here.

Jesus Land: A Memoir by Julia Scheeres

This is a harrowing story of religion, racism, abuse, and brainwashing that takes us from rural Indiana to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. You’re going to have all the feels, so make sure you have plenty of emergency kittens and tissues handy. This story rather makes Jesus Camp look sane – but this is happening in fundie households every day. Julia shows you what it’s like to be kids doing what they must to survive the madness, as the bond between her and her adopted African-American brother carries the narrative.

Homeschool Sex Machine: Babes, Bible Quiz, and the Clinton Years by Matthew Pierce

I downloaded Matthew Pierce’s Homeschool Sex Machine: Babes, Bible Quiz, and the Clinton Years because I needed a bit of easy-but-related-to-current-project reading at bedtime. But mostly, I did it because of the title. I mean, we’re talking about someone raised in the purity culture, folks. You cannot even imagine how jarring the idea of someone raised to be pure and virginal, not even supposed to date or kiss until marriage, being a sex machine is. Also, I’d been seeing alumni reviews here and there, which were all positive, and the thing was $2.99, and so it seemed a safe bet.

Don’t make that bet if you’re still recovering from abdominal surgery, because you’ll bust your stitches.

Now, you may have heard this of this book being blacklisted by some Christian sites. This is because they can’t stand the idea of sex, and also, there are bosoms.

Mah review here.

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Leaving Religion

Here we have books that are mostly about getting the fuck out of faith.

Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why by Greta Christina

You want the best-ever book on how to come out as an atheist, right? This is it, my darlings. The exact guide you need. Greta Christina is brilliant, as usual. Excellent advice solicited from all over the atheosphere is interspersed with coming out stories that will give you plenty of support and encouragement. This book takes into account coming out to more than just family and friends: you’ll also find tips for coming out to coworkers, conservative communities, and the even the entire internet, if you’re so inclined. There’s also plenty of help for those of us who wish to give our fellow atheists a hand (but definitely not a push!) out of the closet. And as if you needed any more encouragement: 10% of the income from Coming Out Atheist is donated to atheist charities, organizations, and projects.

Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light by Valerie Tarico

Valerie Tarico is a former Evangelical Christian who ended up trusting doubt. She makes the case for approaching religion as a spiritual quest rather than holding rigidly to tradition. She shows that Christianity has been a series of quests, far different from how fundamentalists treat it. The book is about the duty of the faithful to inquire rather than just follow the rules.

Valerie tells the story of how her exposure to people who practiced different sorts of Christianity allowed her to explore questions rather than quash them. Her questions got bigger. She shows us what she learned: her book explores the Bible’s history, internal contradictions, and treatment of women and minorities. She shows the conflicts between science and religion; the changing concepts of the nature of God, sin, salvation, and morals; exposes hypocrisy; and investigates the psychology of religion. Get this one into the hands of those having doubts, and those who should.

Godless by Dan Barker.

Fascinating tome by a man who used to be a born-again evangelist who was really on fire for the Lord, and is now an atheist champion.

Mah review here.

Why I Believed by Kenneth W. Daniels.

So this is a book by a former missionary that is extraordinary in its ability to really get to the nuts-and-bolts of believing, and then losing that belief. Suitable for gifting to friends and family members who just can’t understand your atheism in the least.

Mah review here.

Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control by Luna Lindsey

This is an amazing resource for those who are leaving or thinking of leaving Mormonism. It’s also great for ex-Mormons and folks with Mormon family or friends. Luna Lindsey relentlessly, yet somehow kindly, shows how the Mormon church displays all the hallmarks of a cult. In the process, she’s created a book that’s a handy guide to how cults in general work. She points to the way out, and provides a list of resources that will help those who want to escape.

 

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Atheism

Here’s the meaty atheist goodness! Not that the above wasn’t, this stuff has just got more atheism in it.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers.

This book is snarky as hell, and I fell in love with it instantly. That was while I read the table of contents. It’s an excellent resource for atheists at Christmas, and safe for leaving near religious grandmothers. It includes all you need to know, really: the history, philosophy, science, and how-to of Christmas. Royalties from its sales go to charity, and our own Jen McCreight is in it, so if any atheists out there need some help with the holiday, give ‘em this.

The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers.

Despite the awful title which he didn’t choose, this is an excellent collection of PZ’s finest atheist thought, including much biology. Chapters are short (basically blog posts) and include many of his most famous essays, including The Courtier’s Reply. The majority of the book isn’t about science, but builds to the science section, and those chapters are inspiring and meaty. This book is perfect for people who need unapologetic atheism and beautiful science in bite-sized morsels.

Mah review here.

Daylight Atheism by Adam Lee

Looking for a book that makes the case for atheism? Would you like “an unapologetic – an argument for the truth of no faith”? Here’s the book you need. Adam Lee is an excellent writer and clear thinker who pulls no punches. You’ll love watching him shoot down American Christians’ claims of persecution right outta the gate. There’s plenty of food for the non-faitheist crowd. It also makes the case for getting the hell out of the closet. This would be an excellent companion volume to our own Greta Christina’s Coming Out Atheist.

The Portable Atheist edited by Christopher Hitchens.

This is a smorgasbord of freethought readings that includes many you’d never have considered freethought. I mean, The Rubáiyát? But yes, a lot of atheism and freethinking existed even during times that were deeply religious. This book covers ancient to modern times, includes a lot of different folks, and is a great place for a new (whether New, Gnu or not) atheist to begin.

Mah review here.

Why I Am Not a Muslim by ibn Warraq.

This is rather like what Bertrand Russell did to Christianity, only aimed squarely at Islam. It’s also harsher and more thorough. It absolutely destroys the myth of the divine origins of the Koran, explores the horrifying political implications of fundie Islam, and rather murders that “Islam loved People of the Book!” trope. There are informative and infuriating sections on Women in Islam, taboos, heretics, Islamic skeptics, and more. For those leaving Islam, those of us wanting to critique Islam without sounding like raving right-wing assholes, and those of us who are terminally curious about being apostates from a religion other than Christianity, this is a fantastic book.

The Atheist’s Bible edited by Joan Konner.

A book full o’ freethinking quotes, arranged somewhat like a bible (beginning with Genesis, even), and eminently suitable for leaving lying innocently about where a non-atheist may encounter it, such as on a coffee table or in a bathroom. Perhaps they will pick it up out of idle curiosity, horrified fascination, or sheer desperation for reading material. Two things, if the moment is just right, may happen as a result:

1. They will learn that someone they admire and respect was, quite possibly, an atheist.

2. They will be prompted to think thoughts they haven’t before thunk.

And these are outcomes greatly to be desired.

Nothing: Something to Believe In by Nica Lalli.

I love how, in the intro, Nica says that she chooses “nothing” because it cuts out the god root (theos). She’s right: nothing can stand on its own. This is a journey of discovery about what it means to be nothing in a world swimming in religion. She spent most of her life “frightened or upset by religion,” and realized that not having a religious identity meant having no ammo when the religious freaks came gunning for her soul. She eventually learned to defend her beliefs, and also learned that being despised by the majority of the country is not equal to being despised by your own family, as she discovered when faced with an uber-religious sister-in-law. But there’s comfort to be found in “nothing,” and possibly some decent coexistence, too.

Generation Atheist by Dan Reilly

This is a wonderful book that shares young atheists’ stories about their atheism and its effect on their lives. It’ll be helpful for those who need to know they’re not alone in their unbelief. It may also be a great resource for non-atheists who want to know how we get to atheism and what we’re like. The diverse range of people included will be a good introduction for ‘em. There’s an awesomesauce table of contents that include a guide to the stories by religious upbringing, which includes the major Christian denominations, as well as the Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Jewish, None, and Wiccan faiths.

Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God by Greta Christina

Nobody likes to think of this stuff around the holidays, but it’s not just life that happens. This compassionate mini-book is for atheists coping with death and mortality: it’ll help you navigate some pretty fraught territory. Greta says, “I think there are ways to look at death, ways to experience the death of other people and to contemplate our own, that allow us to feel the value of life without denying the finality of death.” Exactly right.

Comforting Thoughts About Death includes essays like “Atheism and the Argument from Comfort” and “Humanism in a Shitstorm.” There’s also a resource guide – yes, there are resources for the godless grieving. And it’s written by one of the most compassionate, realistic, and empathetic people I know.

Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell.

This is one of the original New Atheist tomes, really. It’s a classic by a no-holds-barred philosopher, and while it’s a tiny little book, it contains pretty much everything you need to get started on a career of unapologetic atheism. Make sure all the new (and possibly New) atheists you know have got a copy. It wouldn’t hurt to slip one in the stockings of believers, either, should you feel the need to counter their typical religious gift schlock.

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Here endeth Part I. Part II coming soon.

The Bonny Swans: Compleat with Images, Music, Literary Analysis, and Funny Stories

Juanita Bay is the winter home for a lot of awesome birds. I think my favorite are the swans. I’m not sure when they arrive, but B and I got to see them a few days ago when we went walkies. They were lovely!

Image shows a line of swans floating in the water. There's a bit of sunset-orange making the water near them blush.

Bonny swans!

This is so much better than a few years ago in February, when Cujo and I saw a bunch of them, but they were all being boring. The most exciting moment was when one tipped over a bit.

Image shows a line of swans in the water, most with their heads tucked into their wings for a good nap. The one on the far left has tipped over with its head underwater.

Sleep-eating, mebbe?

But still: swans! I’m always excited to see swans. Swans were things that happened to other people, back when I lived in Arizona. I thought they were elegant and awesome. I’d grown up on stories like The Ugly Duckling, and then there was Swan Lake, and really, they just sounded incredible. The ballerinas of the animal world. Much too elegant to exist among the plebeian ducks and so forth.

They were even majestic in fairy tales.

I always knew things weren’t right in that family, but it didn’t strike me until today just how effed up the relationship between the lady who became a swan and then a harp and her sister Anne was. I mean, really, check this out:

A farmer there lived in the north country
a hey ho bonny o
And he had daughters one, two, three
The swans swim so bonny o
These daughters they walked by the river’s brim
a hey ho bonny o
The eldest pushed the youngest in
The swans swim so bonny o

K, so we have three daughters. The oldest one gives the youngest the old heave-ho, which I’m given to understand by my friends with siblings isn’t all that unusual. Cruel pranks? Yep, that’s siblings. So far, not that odd. But here’s where it gets really bloody strange:

Oh sister, oh sister, pray lend me your hand
with a hey ho a bonny o
And I will give you house and land
The swans swim so bonny o

All right. I get having to possibly bribe your sibling to pull your soaking wet butt outta the water, but what does it say about your relationship when you have to offer them real estate? Seriously? Something’s really very wrong in that family.

And even that’s not enough for the eldest:

I’ll give you neither hand nor glove
Unless you give me your own true love
The swans swim so bonny o

Criminy. They’re trading men, now. And the eldest just lets her youngest sister drown cuz she can’t have the dude. And the middle sister doesn’t do a thing about it. She was there – the song said so. But not a peep. Not a single attempt to rescue her baby sis. That family has issues, people.

Now, of course, this being a fairy tale, the youngest gets her own back. She gets made into a harp, and is able to play herself, and the harper takes her to her father’s court so she can tell her story. She proves she recognizes all the family, finishing with a sick burn:

And there does sit my false sister, Anne
with a hey ho and a bonny o
Who drowned me for the sake of a man
The swans swim so bonny o

I’m sure there was some consternation, there. One likes to believe that the harp went on to have a nice life, perhaps traveling the world with her handsome harper, while Anne got thrown in the dungeon.

So, a bit grim, or perhaps Grimms, but still, swans. Awesome.

Crop of previous image, showing more detail of the swans. Two have their heads together.

The two facing each other look like lovers, don’t they just?

It wasn’t until Connie Willis introduced me to Jerome K. Jerome that my faith in swans being the absolute most elegant and awesome creatures ever to glide serenely across a lake began to be shaken. This anecdote from Three Men in a Boat* didn’t reflect reality as I understood it.

Harris had a sad expression on him, so we noticed, when we got into the boat. He gave you the idea of a man who had been through trouble. We asked him if anything had happened, and he said-

“Swans!”

It seemed we had moored close to a swan’s nest, and, soon after George and I had gone, the female swan came back, and kicked up a row about it. Harris had chivied her off, and she had gone away, and fetched up her old man. Harris said he had had quite a fight with these two swans; but courage and skill had prevailed in the end, and he had defeated them.

Half-an-hour afterwards they returned with eighteen other swans! It must have been a fearful battle, so far as we could understand Harris’s account of it. The swans had tried to drag him and Montmorency out of the boat and drown them; and he had defended himself like a hero for four hours, and had killed the lot, and they had all paddled away to die.

“How many swans did you say there were?” asked George.

“Thirty-two,” replied Harris, sleepily.

“You said eighteen just now,” said George.

“No, I didn’t,” grunted Harris; “I said twelve. Think I can’t count?”

What were the real facts about these swans we never found out. We questioned Harris on the subject in the morning, and he said, “What swans?” and seemed to think that George and I had been dreaming.

Could they really be such arseholes? My beautiful, elegant swans? Apparently, English authors think so, for P.G. Wodehouse came along** to shatter my final illusions. Bertie Wooster’s encounter with an enraged swan that trees him on a roof kind of put paid to my mindless worship of the creatures. Now I watch them warily. But they’re still lovely. And I always love seeing them on our lake.

Image shows the portion of the bay with the swans, sunset on the water, and a couple of people on the dock sort of thing beyond watching them.

They’re bonny at a distance.

Just. Y’know. Don’t get too close.

 

*To Say Nothing of the Dog is the only book I’ve ever read where the author pulled an actual clever trick with first-person narration. It’s also hilarious. And an excellent love story. And an adventure tale. And a fantastic time travel novel. It’s like everything you ever wanted in a book but didn’t think you could ask for in one. Go read it right this instant.

**This is absolutely a book I recommend for those looking for outstanding British humor. It’s like Monty Python in Victorian England going for a boat ride.

**The Most of P.G. Wodehouse. That’s the book to buy if you want a thorough sampling. He’s one of the best comedic authors I’ve ever read, and this has got a little of everything that makes you happy to curl up on a rainy day and escape to a time when butlers were brilliant, tall tales were taller, and the misunderstandings merrier.

Computer-Savvy? Great! I Need Your Advice

My computer needs you, my tech-savvy darlings. It won’t boot. The fan runs, and the capslock light slowly blinks, but that’s it. I’ve tried resetting as the HP website advises by removing all power, holding down the power key for 15 seconds, and then plugging back in. No result. It’s not beeping or anything. I suspect a CPU problem from what the HP website says, but I’m not positive.

Of course the last backup failed, so I have a lot of files I somehow need to rescue.

Does anyone know a solution, or the best place to take it in order to get the data recovered? Thanks in advance for your help!

 

 

Talk Comics To Me

I’ve never been a hardcore comics fan, but I’ve admired the medium since my friend Justin very sensibly got me addicted to Sandman. (If you have any literary-snob type friends who sneer at comics but like a well-crafted SF novel, give them Sandman next time they start an anti-comics rant. That’ll shut ‘em up.)

Cover of Sandman: The Dream Hunters

Cover of Sandman: The Dream Hunters

Alas, he became a husband and father and religious man, and I moved away, and thus my entertainment executive was lost. With no one feeding me comics on the regular, I’ve lost touch. That’s true of all fiction, mind – since I became a geoblogger, I haven’t often had time for recreational reading. The things I’ve missed! And I was a DC/Vertigo girl, so I know very little of Marvel.

This, I realized whilst watching The Avengers recently, was a terrible oversight. Fucking Natasha, people. I am in love with her. I mean, down-on-one-knee-and-pop-the-question in love. I don’t want to have her babies, but if she has any, I will babysit them. I need to know her. Please tell me she is as epically badass or better in the comics. Tell me what to read.

Cover of Jenny Sparks

Cover of Jenny Sparks

Also, I hear Thor is becoming a woman. (I had a great time explaining to B how the gender-swap is completely believable because Loki became a woman – well, mare – and even gave birth in the Norse myths.) Captain America is going to be black. Apparently, these two facts have greatly upset some of the least desirable denizens of the manosphere. The wretched tears of shattered menz taste like victory. I’ll be reading those stories once they’re in graphic novel form.

What else is out there? What are some of the best story arcs I’ve missed? Which graphic novels do you think every person on earth should read?

Talk comics to me, people!

Cover of Transmetropolitan: The New Scum

Cover of Transmetropolitan: The New Scum