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The best books to give to your friends and family this holiday season

Books for everyone: science, fiction, science fiction, culture, middle-age readers.*

Let’s start with two Native American related titles:

The Sea-Ringed World: sacred stories of the Americas by María García Esperón, Amanda Mijangos, David Bowles.

Fifteen thousand years before Europeans stepped foot in the Americas, people had already spread from tip to tip and coast to coast. Like all humans, these Native Americans sought to understand their place in the universe, the nature of their relationship with the divine, and the origin of the world into which their ancestors had emerged.

The answers lay in their sacred stories.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants, and Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults.

Every single person seems to be reading this book right now. Are you? No? Well, that is easily fixed: Lessons in Chemistry b Bonnie Garmus.

Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel–prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with—of all things—her mind. True chemistry results.

But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (“combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.

Speaking of novels, and this is especially for all you Minnesotans since it is set in the famous town of Lillydale (doesn’t really exist): Bloodline by Jess Lourey.

In a tale inspired by real events, pregnant journalist Joan Harken is cautiously excited to follow her fiancé back to his Minnesota hometown. After spending a childhood on the move and chasing the screams and swirls of news-rich city life, she’s eager to settle down. Lilydale’s motto, “Come Home Forever,” couldn’t be more inviting.

And yet, something is off in the picture-perfect village.

The friendliness borders on intrusive. Joan can’t shake the feeling that every move she makes is being tracked. An archaic organization still seems to hold the town in thrall. So does the sinister secret of a little boy who vanished decades ago. And unless Joan is imagining things, a frighteningly familiar figure from her past is on watch in the shadows.

Her fiancé tells her she’s being paranoid. He might be right. Then again, she might have moved to the deadliest small town on earth.

Best science fiction of the year (except it was published a few years ago), from an author who mostly does not write science fiction: Saturn Run by John Sandford.

For fans of THE MARTIAN, an extraordinary new thriller of the future from #1 New York Times–bestselling and Pulitzer Prize–winning author John Sandford and internationally known photo-artist and science fiction aficionado Ctein.

Over the course of thirty-seven books, John Sandford has proven time and again his unmatchable talents for electrifying plots, rich characters, sly wit, and razor-sharp dialogue. Now, in collaboration with Ctein, he proves it all once more, in a stunning new thriller, a story as audacious as it is deeply satisfying.

The year is 2066. A Caltech intern inadvertently notices an anomaly from a space telescope—something is approaching Saturn, and decelerating. Space objects don’t decelerate. Spaceships do.

A flurry of top-level government meetings produces the inescapable conclusion: Whatever built that ship is at least one hundred years ahead in hard and soft technology, and whoever can get their hands on it exclusively and bring it back will have an advantage so large, no other nation can compete. A conclusion the Chinese definitely agree with when they find out.

The race is on, and an remarkable adventure begins—an epic tale of courage, treachery, resourcefulness, secrets, surprises, and astonishing human and technological discovery, as the members of a hastily thrown-together crew find their strength and wits tested against adversaries both of this earth and beyond. What happens is nothing like you expect—and everything you could want from one of the world’s greatest masters of suspense.

The Bitter End: the 2020 presidential campaign and the challenge to American Democracy is the best analsyis of the American Electorate, using amazing techniques and an unbelievable sample size:

John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck demonstrate that Trump’s presidency intensified the partisan politics of the previous decades and the identity politics of the 2016 election. Presidential elections have become calcified, with less chance of big swings in either party’s favor. Republicans remained loyal to Trump and kept the election close, despite Trump’s many scandals, a recession, and the pandemic. But in a narrowly divided electorate even small changes can have big consequences. The pandemic was a case in point: when Trump pushed to reopen the country even as infections mounted, support for Biden increased. The authors explain that, paradoxically, even as Biden’s win came at a time of heightened party loyalty, there remained room for shifts that shaped the election’s outcome. Ultimately, the events of 2020 showed that instead of the country coming together to face national challenges?the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, and the Capitol riot?these challenges only reinforced divisions.
Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, and as a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings—asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass—offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return.

The Unpersuadables : Adventures ith the enemies of Science by Will Stoor:

Why, that is, did the obviously intelligent man beside him sincerely believe in Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden and a six-thousand-year-old Earth, in spite of the evidence against them? It was the start of a journey that would lead Storr all over the world—from Texas to Warsaw to the Outer Hebrides—meeting an extraordinary cast of modern heretics whom he tries his best to understand. Storr tours Holocaust sites with famed denier David Irving and a band of neo-Nazis, experiences his own murder during “past life regression” hypnosis, discusses the looming One World Government with an iconic climate skeptic, and investigates the tragic life and death of a woman who believed her parents were high priests in a baby-eating cult.

Using a unique mix of highly personal memoir, investigative journalism, and the latest research from neuroscience and experimental psychology, Storr reveals how the stories we tell ourselves about the world invisibly shape our beliefs, and how the neurological “hero maker” inside us all can so easily lead to self-deception, toxic partisanship and science denial.

Tangerine by Edward Bloor is often assigned to middle school kids. If you have a kid heading for middle school, get them to read this NOW so they can enjoy it, you read it so you can talk to them about it. Many messages, some subtle, very important commentary on modern American culture.

Three titles on evolution all three of which you should read. The history of life on earth is wonderfully summarized by my old buddy Henry Gee’s A very short history of life on earth. Best book of its kind ever, no kidding. Then, read my old buddy Don Prothero’s Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters (2nd edition). Then, a new title from a new author, my frien Steven Therough’s A most improbable story. So you get the whole history of life, then a more narrowed down view that focuses more on verts, then the human story. A great sequence. I have designs to get one or more author on our podcast, Ikonokast. I’ll let you know if that happens!

Also check out Reality Check: How science deniers threaten our future, by Don Prothero.

What are this year’s best science toys for young kids?

Part I: Liquids, edibles, slimy things. (The next part will tend towards the electronic and robotish.)

Focusing on elementary school, mainly around 2nd or 3rd grade, this is what I see on the market this year. A lot more water, day to day pragmatic science, and specialized kits that generally produce stuff you eat, throw out, or otherwise dispose of, which saves a lot of closet space in your home! Continue reading What are this year’s best science toys for young kids?

Science Books and Toys for Kids: Your Holiday Shopping Guide

I’ve reviewed, researched, and generally looked around for a selection of gifts that could work for kids ranging from very small to High School (and beyond!?!?) that are science oriented.


The best kids coding books these days are probably those that use scratch. Before suggesting a couple, though, consider, especailly for older kids (middle and high school) this fairly recent Python language book that focuses on Minecraft: Learn to Program with Minecraft: Transform Your World with the Power of Python HERE is my review.

Continue reading Science Books and Toys for Kids: Your Holiday Shopping Guide

Your Science Based Holiday Gift Guide! (For adults)

These are my suggestions, mostly books, for holiday gifts that have some sort of science relevance. See this guide for gift ideas for kids. (There is a pretty good chance that there is an idea or two in the Kids Guide for the adult in your life, depending on the adult.)

For your Uncle Bob

Get ready for your favorite science-denying uncle, whom we all know of as “Uncle Bob” (though he goes by many different names) with these two important books related to climate change.

If your Uncle Bob is an Evangelical Christian.

Or, really, any kind of Christian.

My friend Paul Douglas has co-authored a book on climate change written specifically for Evangelicals: Caring for Creation: The Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment.

The book’s structure swaps back and forth between science (the parts written by Paul Douglas) and scripture (the parts written by co-author Mitch Hescox). I don’t know Mitch, but from the blurb I learn: “Mitch Hescox leads the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), the largest evangelical group dedicated to creation care (www.creationcare.org). He has testified before Congress, spoken at the White House, and is quoted frequently in national press. Prior to EEN, he pastored a church for 18 years and worked in the coal industry. Mitch and his wife live in Pennsylvania.”

Paul Douglas (www.pauldouglasweather.com) is a respected meteorologist with 35 years of TV and radio experience. A successful entrepreneur, he speaks to community groups and corporations about severe weather and climate trends, and appears regularly on national media outlets. Paul and his wife live in Minnesota.
Paul Douglas (www.pauldouglasweather.com) is a respected meteorologist with 35 years of TV and radio experience. A successful entrepreneur, he speaks to community groups and corporations about severe weather and climate trends, and appears regularly on national media outlets. Paul and his wife live in Minnesota.
Now, you might think that the chances of an Evangelical Christian reading my blog is about zero. This is not true. Many Christians, ranging from Evangelical to less-than-angelical read this blog, they just don’t say much in the comments section. Except those who do, mainly those denying the science of climate change. Well, this book is for all of you, especially the Evangelical deniers, because here, the case is made on your terms and in your language, in a very convincing way, and, including the science. It turns out that, according to the Bible, you are wrong on the Internet.

Let’s say that you are a fairly active atheist who likes to annoy your Christian relatives at holidays. If that is the case, then this book is for you!! This is the book to give to your Uncle Bob.

I can’t attest to the scriptural parts of this book. This is not because I’m unfamiliar with Scripture or have nothing to say about it. Both assumptions would be highly erroneous. But, in fact, I did not explore those parts of this book in much detail, just a little. But I am very familiar with the science in this book, I’ve delved deeply into it, and I can tell you that Paul has it right, and it is very current.

If Your Uncle Bob is Investment Savvy

Romm_Climate_Change_Book9780190250171Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® by Joe Romm is the ideal climate change book for the person who is always checking their stock portfolio or watching the real estate market, or, simply, planning on moving or retiring soon. It is is also a very up to date examination of climate change science, the effects of climate change on humans, policy related problems, and energy-related solutions. Everyone should read this book, and if you teach earth system sciences you should consider using this book as a guide in your teaching, or in some cases, assigning it in class. The book is written to be read by general audiences, so it would work well in a high school or college setting.

As Romm points out, climate change will have more of an impact on humans, including you, than even the Internet. It is an existential issue. Romm acknowledges that some of these impacts are already happening, but that future impacts are likely to be very significant. Over the last 10 years or so, we have seen remarkable superstorms, significant drought, notable wildfires, and killer heat waves. These events have made people sit up and take notice. For this reason, more people want to know more about climate change, and indeed, everyone should know something about this problem. Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know® is an effort to provide that information to the average person.

MadhouseEffect_Book_On_Climate_ChangeWhile we are on the subject of Climate Change, here are must have, must read titles that are not necessarily new, but always worth mentioning. I’m giving you links to my reviews so you can find out more.

<li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2016/08/24/mad-about-science-denial-this-book-is-for-you-and-your-uncle-bob/">The Madhouse Effect</a>, by Michael Mann and Tom Toles, is an excellent holiday gift. Not only is it a festive red in color, but it is full of cartoons. It is current, forceful, an excellent choice given the current political circumstances.  </li>

<li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2015/04/30/dire-predictions-understanding-climate-change-must-read-book/">Dire Predictions: Understanding Climate Change</a>, by Michael Mann.  This is the IPCCC "Scientific Basis" report converted into a very readable and illustration rich format. This is the book I give to science teachers.  </li>

<li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2015/03/11/climatology-versus-pseudoscience-exposing-the-failed-predictions-of-global-warming-skeptics/">Climatology Versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics</a>, by Dana Nuccitelli.  This book proves that climate skeptics are FOS. </li>

Science skepticism and denial

The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, by Shawn Otto is one of the most important science books to come out in several years.

WarOnScience_Comp_11_PGW_150dpiThis is not Yet Another Popular Book on how people don’t get science. This is a very well written, accessible, thoughtful analysis of the history of science vs. anti-science from the beginning of modern science itself, but focusing on the recent and current anti-science effort. Why is this happening? Who is doing it? What can be done about it?

This and much more is all covered. Also, since the book has been out for a few months now, the price has dropped so get a copy cheap!

I’ve written a detailed review with extensive commentary HERE.

A second book I’ll mention in this category is “Truth or Turthiness” by Howard Wainer. I wrote a review of that book here. Give this to your favorite skeptic so they can hone their skills.

Fossils, Paleontology

k10850The Princeton Field Guide to Prehistoric Mammals is a brand new title by Don Prothero. My review of this excellent book is here.

The giant sloths may be extinct, but Don Prothero himself is a giant of our age among fossil experts. His primary area of expertise includes the fossil mammals (especially but not at all limited to rhinos). I believe it is true that he has personally handled more fossil mammalian material, in terms of taxonomic breath and time depth, across more institutional collections, than anyone.

A typical entry focuses on an order, and the orders are arranged in a taxonomically logical manner. A living or classic fossil representative is depicted, along with some boney material, in the form of drawings. Artist’s reconstructions, photographs, maps, and other material, with phylogenetic charting where appropriate, fills out the overview of that order.

The text is expert and informative, and very interesting. the quality of the presentation is to notch. The format of the book is large enough to let the artistry of the production emerge, but it is not a big too heavy floppy monster like some coffee table books are. This is a very comfortable book to sit and read, or browse.

I should also mention Don Prothero’s other book, just out at the end of last year so maybe you already have this, “The Story of Life in 25 Fossils.” I reviewed it here.

“The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth is an excellent geological overview of that amazing place. But it is also, explicitly, extensively and intensively, an exploration of the creationist view of the Grand Canyon, and the Canyon’s role in proving that evolution is not real.

It turns out that Evolution is real, the canyon is amazing, and this book is another excellent choice of a volume to pass on to a teacher in your local middle school or high school. I review it here.

General Science

Here is a list of general science books that I regard as excellent. Where I’ve written a review, I’ll link you through to that review, where I’ve not yet posted a review, I’ll link you through to the book itself on Amazon.

<li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2016/07/15/venomous-how-the-earths-deadliest-creatures-mastered-biochemistry/">Venomous: How the Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry</a>, by Christie Wilcox is just plain fun. And, disturbing at many levels. A great read. You won't be able to put it down, but if you do put it down, check for scorpions first!</li>

<li><a href="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2016/02/11/the-serengeti-rules-the-quest-to-discover-how-life-works-and-why-it-matters-book-review/">The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters</a> by Sean (The <strong>B</strong>iologist) Carroll uses the key principle of homeostasis to explore complex biological systems. Very readable, fascinating.  </li>

<li><a target="_blank" href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062368591/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0062368591&linkCode=as2&tag=grlasbl0a-20&linkId=ae6dda6c59963fb2a33896f24ee7adcb">I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life</a><img src="//ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=grlasbl0a-20&l=am2&o=1&a=0062368591" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> by Ed Yong is about the gazillion cells that live in and on you, and how they are really, well, you.  This book is about what is regarded by many as another revolution in thinking about how life works.  Great read. </li>

<li>Do not. I repeat do not. Do not bring this book on your next airplane flight.  You will learn things from <a target="_blank" href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0143127322/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0143127322&linkCode=as2&tag=grlasbl0a-20&linkId=f36c25867554f9981edfaa2f5ade91bc">The Crash Detectives: Investigating the World's Most Mysterious Air Disasters</a><img src="//ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=grlasbl0a-20&l=am2&o=1&a=0143127322" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> that will amaze you and, frankly, freak you out. </li>

<li><a target="_blank" href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1623493870/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1623493870&linkCode=as2&tag=grlasbl0a-20&linkId=7a055e283bdd1e4337ab8502a03ff7c9">Alligators of Texas (Gulf Coast Books, sponsored by Texas A&amp;M University-Corpus Christi)</a><img src="//ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=grlasbl0a-20&l=am2&o=1&a=1623493870" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> by Louise Hayes (Photos by Philippe Henry) may be of local interest, but I include it here because it is an excellent monograph on this particular animal. If you live anywhere near the Gulf Coast, but especially Texas, this book needs to be near your back door.  </li>

Bird Books

I have a handful of super excellent bird books that are new and should be of interest to anyone with a science bent, not just bird people.

bird_brain_evolution_of_intelligence_nathan_emeryBird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence was written by Nathan Emery, who is a Senior Lecturer (that’s like a Professor of some sort, in America) at Queen Mary University, London. He researches the evolution of intelligence in animals, including primates and various birds, and yes, including the crows!

He and his team “…have found striking similarities in the behaviour, ecology, neurobiology and cognitive mechanisms of corvids (crows, rooks, jackdaws and jays) and apes. [Suggesting that] these similarities are adaptations for solving similar social and ecological problems, such as finding, protecting and extracting food and living in a complex social world.”

The book is really great, the best book out there right now on animal intelligence, possibly the best book so far this year on birds. This is the kind of book you want laying around the house or classroom to learn stuff from. If you are writing or teaching about anything in evolution or behavior, this is a great way to key into the current work on bird intelligence.

HERE is my full review of this book, including musings about the subject matter.

Another bird book, that I’ve also labeled as the best bird book of the year, is What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young. This is an exploration of nature based on this premise: the robin knows everything about its environment, and this information is regularly conveyed via the bird’s call, or its behavior. By observing that behavior or understanding the robin’s vocalizations, you can poach that information and also know a lot about the immediate environment, which may be your own back yard, the area near your camping site, the wooded gully the enemy may approach you by, or a nearby park. (My full review is HERE.)

screen-shot-2016-09-18-at-11-36-00-amAnd, of course, it isn’t just the robin, it is all the animals including birds, insects, and everything else. But Young is talking about birds, and it is certainly true that in most or possibly all habitats, it is the birds that, owing to their diurnal and highly visible and sound oriented nature, are telling you all this information about your mutual surroundings as well as about the bird itself.

To me, birding (and nature watching in general) is not so much about lengthening one’s list (though that is always fun) but, rather, about observing and understanding behavior. Young explores this, teaches a great deal about it, and places this mode of observation in the context of countless stories, or potential stories, about the world you are sharing with the birds you are watching.

This is a four or five dimensional look at a multidimensional world. Lucky for us humans, as primates, we share visual and audio modalities, and mostly ignore odor, and we have overlapping ranges in those modalities (to varying degrees). But birds fly (most of them, anyway) and are small and fast and there are many of them. In many places we live, we are the only diurnal visually-oriented non-bird. Indeed, while I’m sure my cat communes with the rabbits at a level I can’t possibly understand, I’m pretty sure I get the birds in ways she could not possibly get her paws around. (Which is why we don’t let her out of the house. She would prefer to eat them, rather than appreciate them!)

This title is more for those specifically interested in birds. It is one of those books that looks at an entire category of birds over a large area. The title of Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide, by Sébastien Reeber could be rewritten to say “Temperate and Subtropical Waterfowl of the Northern Hemisphere,” though that would be a bit misleading because a large percentage of these birds migrate long distances, so really, it is more like “Waterfowl of the world except the ones that stay in the tropics or otherwise don’t migrate north of the tropics,” but that would be a silly title.

k10714Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide is large format. The up and down and back and forth dimensions are not as large as Crossley’s bird guides, but it is way bigger than a field guide, and thick … 656 pages. The plates start on page 32 and the detailed text and photograph rich species accounts run from pages 177 to 616, to give you an idea of the balance and expansiveness found in this volume.

This book is organized in a unique way. There are two main parts. First, 72 plates show peterson-style drawings of all of the birds that are covered, with the drawings arranged on the right side, with basic ID information, range maps, and references to other parts of the book on the left side. This allows the user to find a particular bird fairly quickly. Importantly, the pictures cover both sex and age variations.

The second part of the book significantly expands on the plates, and is cross referenced by plate number, with extensive text and multiple photographs to add very rich detail.

So, when it comes to your preference for drawings vs. photographs, you can have your cake and eat it too. Also, when it comes to your need for a basic field guide vs. a more in depth discussion, you can have your cake and eat it too there as well.

This is really an idea gift book for a bird lover. Chances are they don’t have it, chances are, they’ll love it. Write a nice inscription in it.