This week, our choices are:
The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life by Lisa Miller, Random House
Interning in different mental health wards earlier in her career, Lisa Miller noticed how a patient’s demeanor would change once religion or spirituality came into the picture. Instead of focusing on a past trauma that had the individual reliving their darkest moments repeatedly, they would seem suddenly transformed. This sent her on a path to her life’s work at the intersection of psychology and spirituality and a passion for finding the science of the awakened brain and its role in living an inspired life.
Miller is today a Professor of Psychology and Education, and the Founder of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University. In her new book, The Awakened Brain, Miller shares the results of the scientific research she has conducted finding that individuals with a spiritual or religious belief or practice have happier and healthier lives, as well as healthier brains. (EPP)
Eloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea by Bill François, St. Martin’s Press
In Eloquence of the Sardine, following author Bill François's lead, we plunge into both fiction and nonfiction stories of the ocean, sinking into the reverie that is the undersea world. It is a collection of fifteen personal essays about François's various ocean-centric discoveries. What makes his perspective unique is that, professionally, he doesn't study the marine creatures themselves; Rather, he is a physicist. It's nice to see ways one can connect with a subject beyond their career and also despite initial fear of it.
For François–who was afraid of the fish and deeper waters beyond the tide pools he explored as a child–the fascination overtook the fear when he encountered a shiny sardine on a beach, a rare find. And from there François dives into the alternative ways of communication underwater, the intricacies of fish's skin and friendships, the story of the world's largest pearl, the horrors of trawling, and more. He introduces us to creatures as if they were close friends: the lobster, noble pen shell, codfish, anchovies, European Eels, Bluefin Tuna... demonstrating how even those of us who have grown up near lakes, rivers, oceans, and seas may not know half of the lives the waters contain, or our relationship to and effect on them. (GMC)
I Left My Homework in the Hamptons: What I Learned Teaching the Children of the One Percent by Blythe Grossberg, Hanover Square Press
Blythe Grossberg has spent many hours inside the homes of some of New York City’s wealthiest families, as a learning specialist tutoring their children. The glimpse she provides into the casual excess of life on Fifth Avenue is imbued with a sense of humor and bemusement, and a care and respect for the children she works with, that makes the book entertaining and enlightening rather than infuriating—which it easily could be in other hands. For all the advantages and privilege it conveys, it may not be as rosy a picture as it appears from the outside, especially when it comes to how their schooled. It’s a high-pressure and overscheduled environment that is a known risk factor for adolescent mental health. These overserved communities and the high-achieving schools they attend sometimes have rates of substance abuse and psychological disorders that are even greater than those found in underserved communities. Which is why Grossberg believes that:
In addition to tackling the poverty, discrimination, and trauma that affect many of our kids, we can also start dialing back the pressures on the young. […] Teachers, coaches, and administrators can also play a role in emphasizing decency and integrity over achievement.
The pressures associated with poverty and discrimination are more widespread, and more urgent, but that doesn’t mean that the pressures placed on more privileged children aren’t a problem or that they don’t have societal consequences. She tells us how most of the students she tutored returned to New York after college to work in financial technology (or fintech) firms on Wall Street, writing that:
In my less charitable moments, I wish that the students who became beautiful writers weren’t all on Wall Street. I dream of going to a former student’s book-launch party, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Even if they’re not writing great novels and influencing the culture in that way, even (maybe even especially) if they end up working in fintech, surely her idea that “emphasizing decency and integrity over achievement” in their education would be beneficial to society. If we are ever going to change the culture on Wall Street, where so many of her students have ended up, and where success is measured almost exclusively in material wealth and the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, perhaps changing the culture of the schools so many attend before landing there is the perfect place to start. (DJJS)
Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire by Lizzie Johnson, Crown
Paradise, California was exactly its name implied, an idyllic location to raise your children and to foster roots, except for the fact that it happened to be in wildfire territory. Journalist Lizzie Johnson experienced the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, the Camp Fire, that through and devastated this small town three hours north of San Francisco. Johnson shares this story in a new book with a journalistic approach that interweaves her beautifully descriptive writing with the stories of several residents and their lives before tragedy strikes. The scope of the tragedy is hard to fathom, the fire almost having a mind of its own.
How easily this parched land burned, incinerating with a soft crackle that deepened to a howl. […] The smoke heaved, churning with ash as it punched through the lower levels of the atmosphere, now visible to two satellites that floated twenty-two thousand miles above the earth.
Johnson shows the destruction, trauma, and the stress these fires put on the land, and on the families who live in areas that come within the fire’s path. (EPP)