Cool Reading 2005

A reading journal by Stephen Balbach

Reading journals from other years:
2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013,
2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

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A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens 1843
Norton Annotated Edition Michael Hearn 2004 + Audiobook
December 2005

The classic Christmas story first written in 1843 when Dickens was still early in his career it was an instant success that allowed him to break out of debt. A richly detailed short story that requires annotations to fully appreciate the mid-19th century terms and venacular. It can be read over multiple times without tireing in its densely woven and richly described atmosphere. I plan to read it again next Christmas. The Norton Annotated is so well done it is hard to imagine anything better, a great piece of artwork in its own right.

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Dracula

Bram Stoker 1897
Norton Critical Edition + Audiobook
December 2005

"I want to suck your.." actually he doesnt say that, just one of the many "authentic" Dracula things uncovered by reading the original. Overall the first 50 pages, Harkers adventures in Transylvania, are first-rate; the rest is melodramatic and somewhat predictable and boring, although occasionally pierced with strong parts. In the audio version the actors voice rendition of Van Helsing is unforgetable.

Dracula is just one of many pot-boiler tales of strange creatures invading England in the late 19th century, it was not particularly famous in its time, but became so once it was adapted to film (after Stokers death) during the 20th century. Its themes of sexuality, gender roles, "alien invasions", and the dramatic personality and moldable character of the count himself have made it a 20th classic.

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The Magnificent Ambersons

Booth Tarkington 1918
Hardback 1926
December 2005

A Magnificent Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the changing fortunes of social class in America in the period following the end of the Civil War to the early part of the 20th century, a time of rapid change in America. It examines three generations of an aristocratic mid-western family the Ambersons as they cling to the old ways and are "run over" (literally) by the rise of a new money industrialist class ("riffraff"). Written in 1918 by Tarkington who was born in 1868, just at the end of the Civil War, he lived and saw in person the changing fashions and changing way of life brought on by the industrial revolution: from small towns with horses to modern industrial cities with cars and factories. The Amberson family is a metaphor for a class of people who get their "come-uppance", as the path to success changes from heredity to meritocracy during the industrial revolution and its socially democratising effects in America.

The title is most well known for Orsen Welles 1942 movie adaption, which is thought to be his masterpiece (better than Citizen Kane), but it was sadly badly cut-up by the studios and the segments forever lost. The book today remains better than the movie and is a wonderful page-turner.

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Black Beauty

Anna Sewell 1877
Hardback 1927 (gift from my grandmother 2/14/1976)
December 2005

Black Beauty is written from the perspective of a horse, a first person autobiographical narrative; from Beauty as a foal on an English farm, to a hard life at work in London, to retirement in the country. Each short chapter tells a story of an event that contains a lesson about how to treat horses. Allegorically, the lessons are easily applied to treating other people as well, the book has been a popular teaching aid in schools to this day.

This is truely a gift for the impressionable reader, perhaps 7-14 age range. As an adult it was a heart-warming reminder, food for the soul, told with beautiful finess and a soft touch. The author Anna Sewell, a Quaker, holds a special place in my heart, her life story is as touching as the fictional horse she wrote about. She was an invalid as a young girl and could not walk, living with her mother (a famous author in her own right). Anna never married or had children. She only wrote this one book, writing on scraps of paper passed to her mother while she lay on the living room couch as her health declined, living just long enough to see its initial success.

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The Battle of Dorking

George Tomkyns Chesney 1871
Paperback LuLu "print on demand" reprint of scanned original (new cover)
December 2005

The Battle of Dorking is a short story that first appeared in a political magazine in 1871 that describes a hypothetical invasion of England by Germany/Prussia from the viewpoint of a common citizen, not unlike Red Dawn (1984). It is notable because it was the spark that set off the fuse of the "Invasion literature" genre (see Wikipedia), from which eventually came the likes of War of the Worlds and James Bond. Invasion literature was also highly influential in the years leading up to the First World War in helping set popular mood and national policies. The genre continues to this day, post-911, with an "invasion" of "alien invasion" themed movies, books etc..

The story is well written, enjoyable, believable. It is suprising given how influential it has been historically that it's not more well known, or even in print (other than print-on-demand).

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Foe

J.M. Coetzee 1986
Hardback first edition
December 2005

Coetzee is a South African writer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 (not for this book); the first author to win two Booker prizes, and is known for his novels that look at race issues. This novel is a retelling of Robinson Crusoe (see below) as an "achetypal postmodern" novel. It operates on many levels and there have been 100s (1000s?) of academic journal musings written about it's many allegorical, literary and philosophical permutations about race, colonialism, feminism, creativity. I found it to be in such rareified air that it was a blockage to an enjoyable story. For a didactic novel it is gold. For more in depth analysis see the Wikipedia entry which I contributed to.

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Le Pere Goriot

Honore De Balzac 1835
Paperback Norton Critical Edition translated by Burton Raffel 1998
November 2005

Balzac, a French author, was the father of the literary genre "realism". As he says in the opening pages "..this drama is not fictional, it's not a novel: All is true--so true you will be able to recognize everything that goes into it in your own life". Of course, it is fiction, Pere Goriot is one of over 90 novels Balzec wrote in a frantic 20-year writing career that detail aspects of social and private life in France in the 1820s and 1830s, part of an integrated work called The Human Comedy. Pere Goriot is considered representative of Balzac at the height of his abilities and is one of his most widely read novels.

Having never (consciously) read a "realist" novel, I knew what to expect after the first 20 pages were devoted to describing every last detail of a Parisian bording house. Far from boring, it was like a history or anthropology book come alive in full color, sound and taste. Balzacs powers of observation are so penetrating, not just of objects but of the human heart and mind, that it is no wonder historians have used his work as a basis for understanding France during that time period. Oscar Wilde said of Balzac "The Nineteenth-Century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac's".

There are a number of translations available, I started with the free Gutenburg from the 19th century and gave up one-quarter through as too many passages were undecipherable. The Raffel translation, critcially acclaimed, is pure magic; re-reading the same sections brought forth an entirely new book, it was amazing to see the difference translators have on the novel.

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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain 1884
Hardback The Annotated Huckleberry Finn by Norton Publishing (2001) and Audiobook read by Patrick Fraley
November 2005

Wow, I'm sure glad I chose these two versions of Huck Finn -- first I listened to the audio which is like listening to a complete stage play because each characters voice is different and very well done in the native southern accents -- it adds a whole new dimension to the native dialects (Twain often gave live readings), Jim's voice in particular is heart stirring (and much easier than reading). It is one of the best audiobooks Ive ever heard. Then I re-read the entire book with annotations from the award-winning Norton edition which contains 100s of drawings and thousands of notes. The story is deceptively simple, there are a ton of interesting asides and insights into southern 19th century culture, and literary history. Plus there is a lengthy introduction with background and history about the novel. In all, this was a fantastic Huck Finn and Mark Twain multi-media journey that I cant recommend more highly.

One of the most interesting things was how much influence the Romantic authors, in particular Sir Walter Scott, had on southern culture and outlooks. "Southern chivalry" was a consequence, and Mark Twain satarizes it throughout the novel. It's very much a subversive novel in its time, and our own. It was also fascinating to learn about life along the Mississippi which is where some of my family originates--having spent time there it is easy to visualize how it used to be, the traditions that remain, and things I never knew about. Not at all a kids book (unlike Tom Sawyer), this is considered Twains greatest masterpiece.

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Native Son

Richard Wright 1940
Hardback first edition grey bookclub edition, former owner "Mariom Frank" penciled in.
November 2005

Civil Rights era African American literature. The story of Bigger. One of the great novels from the era, set the tone for many to follow, Wright was the father of African American civil rights literature. "There's a little Bigger in all of us"..

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Northwest Passage

Kenneth Roberts 1937
Hardback first edition green cloth
November 2005

Historic fictional account of "Rogers Rangers" raid on an Indian village during the French-Indian wars of the 18th century. Adapted to a 1950s movie of the same name starring Spencer Tracy. Very well written, unforgettable scenes, highly visual and nearly non-stop action. The novel is composed of two books of about 350 pages each, I did not read the second book as it has less stellar reviews and is essentially a long postscript to the first book. Book 1 is Roberts most well known work and a classic of American historical fiction. It also covers similar territory as Last of the Mohicans (which was an American knock-off of Ivanho) and generally considered Americas first historical novel.

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Adventures of Pinocchio

Carlo Lorenzini 1883
Hardback 1946 illus by Fritz Kredel
October 2005

Pinocchio! (said with an Italian accent and lots of hand waiving). Who knew it was a 200 page Italian novel from the 1880's? This was my mothers childhood copy beautifully illustrated in full-color watercolor and in like-new condition. The basic story is a dream-like fairy-tale not unlike Alice in Wonderland or Grimms story. The plot details many faults a child (large and small) can have and the consequences. The most famous is the liars long nose (original to the book).

It is considered a "novel of education", a fun childrens story with values communicated through allegory. The values are very "middle class" as Italy became a nation-state in the 19th century: do not follow schemes of the fox and cat to get rich (ie. thieving upper class) but instead work honestly for your money; get an education so you are not treated like an ass (mule working class). Like the Decameron (below), it follows the Florentine, Italy tradition of folk novella's -- like a cross between the Decameron, Alice in Wonderland and Mother Goose.

The original ending was dark, Pinocchio dies for his sins. A later version became the childrens tale where Pinocchio becomes a real boy. Childrens literature was new in Carlo's time and this is one of the first. Disney made a film in 1940 that is considered a masterpiece of animation and is part of the National Film Registery, although only loosely based on the novel, the image of "Jiminy Cricket" and "Blue Fairy" became immortal.

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Two Years Before the Mast

Richard Henry Dana 1841
Hardback 1929 green cloth
October 2005

This is an American classic. In its day was one of the most widely read, and important, books ever published. It recounts a young Harvard mans decision to take time off school and "cut his teeth" aboard a merchant sailing vessel on a 2-year tour to California between 1834-1836. He lived "before the mast", meaning his quarters were up forward with the lowly grunts, where he had no special privileges, the captains and mates quaters behind the mast. Dana set out to live just like a line sailor, but also secretly document the poor conditions sailors lived under - he would go on to become a famous Boston lawyer who fought for sailors rights.

The story is a chronological narrative of the journey around Cape Horn, arriving in California, years spent collecting and processing cow hides, journey home again around Cape Horn. Life aboard a sailing vessel was often extraordinary as a matter of course and so the day to day events are fascinating. The dangers of the sea and sailing, the relations of the crew and officers, the unusual ships and people met along the way, the technical jargon of sailing. It is very well written, vivid and accurate, a better and more believable description of a seamans life I've never read.

What makes the book so important is that Danas book is the first to describe California, very few Americans had ever been to California. He went from port to port and details a lot about specific places like San Diego, San Francisco, Monteray, etc.. in the 1830s these "ports", at the largest, were settlements of a few hundred Mexicans and Indians and utter wilderness around. San Francisco had one American, and one building. When gold was found the 49ers went west and Danas book was the bible for describing what California was like. When Dana returned to San Francisco in 1856, it was a city of over 100,000 and he was famous, just about everyone in the city had read it. The descriptions of places just before the mass migrations began, while it was still wilderness, are fascinating. The last chapter fast forwards 24 years later as a postscript when Dana returns to California and describes his own astonishment at the modern changes, and recounts what happened to all the people he knew along the way.

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The Land that Time Forgot

Edgar Rice Burroughs 1918
Audiobook
October 2005

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was an America author who lived just outside of LA who wrote over 60 fantasy novels. His most famous works are Tarzan and the John Carter of Mars series. He was heavily influenced by Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and The Land that Time Forgot was a direct heir in the "Lost World" genre. The Land That Time Forgot was also very influential in the invention of the screenplay King Kong, as was Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1912).

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Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson 1886
Hardback 1941 collected stories
October 2005

The story is well-worn, but having never read it, it reads like an entirely new story because the original is so much different from the many film adaptions. It's told almost entirely from the perspective of an outside person, Jekyll's lawyer Utterson.

At the time of writing the book, Stevenson was being treated with the fungus ergot at a local hospital. Ergot contains substances similar to LSD, in unpredictable quantities. It is from derivatives of these that LSD was synthesised, in an effort to produce pure forms of the active ingredients of ergot (source: Wikipedia)

It has been noted as "one of the best guidebooks of the Victorian times because of its piercing description of the fundamental dichotomy of the 19th century outward respectability and inward lust" as it had a tendency for social hypocrisy. Victorian yes, but most people I know lead some kind of double secret life, some worse than others, the theme is a timeless observation of social morality.

I'm amazed at Stevensons range of writings, no two works are alike, but they are all first rate in their class. He is one of my favorite authors can't wait to read more.

Update: December 2005. Re-read with the Norton Critical Edition

Update: March 2006. Created an on-line annotated edition hosted at WikiMedia (Wikipedia). See The Annotated Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde

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Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte 1847
Hardback 1920s? dark old leather
October 2005

Whew! High emotion. Starts out like a Dickens David Copperfield, then goes into a Werewolf theme, then a love story, then with 20 pages left you still have no idea where the story is headed and it all wraps up happily in the last 5 pages. Charlotte is a master story weaver, but more, she has an incredible understanding of the human condition. She is of course a romantic (in all senses), and this is an adult fairy-tale (repleat with monstors, fairys and happily ever-afters), but along the way, as in all fairy-tales, we learn some difficult and scary truths about the realities of life. Should be required reading!

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Decameron

Buccaccio 1352
Hardback 1930 trans. by Richard Aldington (1892-1962, Death of a Hero), color plates by Jean De Bosschere (art deco abstract erotica)
October 2005

Writen by Boccaccio in 1352 right after the Black Death, it recounts 10 days of storytelling by 10 people in their 20s (7 women and 3 men) who escape to the Italian countryside to avoid the plauge. The 100 short stories (10 each day) are all fictional, but many derived from actual people and events. The stories are not original to Boccaccio but are versions of popular tales from Italian, French, Spanish, etc... sources. The stories provide an entertaining window on Medieval life, the Black Death, and many aspects of Medieval culture.

This has been a very popular work throughout history as its is very bawdy. The main theme is love in all its variations, from erotica, to dispair, to tragedy, to high erotica. It is also very funny, and deals with other themes such as wit, practical jokes and traveling.

The translation is perfect. It's by a "Lost Generation" ex-WWI sodlier published at the end of the roaring 20s, and includes numerous bawdy french art-deco color prints. A more appros version I could not imagine (except one by a Gen X'er of course!).

I read every story except 6 (94 of them), one day per day (I read it over 10 days) and it was gruelling at times, not all are great (none are bad), but some are fantastic. A list of my favorites: Intro, II.4, II.5, II.7, II.8, II.9, II.10, III.1, III.3, III.4, III.6, III.10, IV.intro, IV.1, IV.5, IV.7, V.7, V.10, VI.7, VII.2, VII.5, VII.7, VII.9, VIII.intro, IX.1, IX.2, IX.3, IX.6, IX.10, conclusion.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Mark Haddon 2003
Audiobook
October 2005

A first-person story by a (fictional) autistic 15-yearold English working class boy who finds a neighbors dog killed and discovers the mystery behind it, along the way revealing how an autistic mind thinks.

This is the only book I could listen to while reading another book at the same time. The narration was brilliant (same narrator as Life of Pi) but the book was boring. I never was sold on the idea this was really how autistic people think, the veil of the premise was in the way. Once Haddon started on an idea he would stick with it for so long it was easy enough to tune out and do somthing else (like read another book), for example the part in the train station took forever to get the idea across of information overload. Lots of tangents throughout that were irrelevant to the plot.

It's not a bad book and can understand why its popular. In the end its a feel good, with some allegorical messages, and reveals the private inner life of the mentally handicap which is an interesting literary genre. It reminds me of Jane Eyre (1847) which Im reading now, which revealed the private inner life and thoughts of a poor servant girl, a new idea for the time which otherwise only looked a the rich and famous, outward deeds versus inward thoughts. Perhaps Curious will herald a new genre for the handicap, but I look forward to the literary masterpiece written by an actual autistic.

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Flight to Arras

Antoine de Saint-Exupery 1942
Hardback 1991 photo-reporduction of first-edition
October 2005

Saint Ex's account of flying recon in the opening days of the German invasion of France. He recounts highlites of the time by condensing it into a single account of a flight over the enemy town of Arras. I found it to be a good account of what its like to be on the edge of death, depressing and morose, as the subject requires, yet beautiful and humane.

As usual Saint Ex fills the pages with poetic and original descriptions and many metaphors. This is about "travel literature":
There is a cheap literature that speaks to us of the need to escape. It is true that when we travel we are in search of distance. But distance is not to be found. It melts away. And escape has never led anyone anywhere. The moment a man finds he must play the races, go to the Arctic, or make war in order to feel himself alive, that man has begun to spin the strands that bind him to other men and to the world. But what wretched strands! A civilization that is really strong fills man to the brim, though he never stir. What are we worth when motionless, is the question. -pg. 113
about fear and death:
Man does not die. Man imagines that it is death that he fears; but what he fears is the unforseen, the explosion. What man fears is himself, not death. There is no death when you meet death. When the body sinks into death, the essence of man is revealed. Man is a knot, a web, a mesh into which relationships are tied. Only those relationships matter. The body is an old crock that nobody will miss. I have never known a man to think of himself when dying. Never. -pg.183
on the sense of leisure:
And point by point I recognized the extraordinary sensation that now and then accompanies the imminence of death-a feeling of unexpected leisure..The plane was burning, the fighters were after it and spattering it with bullets..but he had felt no desire of any kind. He had felt nothing. He had time on his hands. He was floating in a sort of infinite leisure. -pg.68
Saint Ex wrote Flight to Arras (along with Little Prince) while in the USA for 2 years, right after the events of the book, he then returned to fly more missions in the later days of the war. Prophetically to the tone of the book, he died while on a recon mission off the coast of France, returning home from his last mission.

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Kidnapped

Robert Louis Stevenson 1886
Audiobook + ..
October 2005

Stevensons historical fiction adventure story about 18th century Scottish history. He came up with the idea after reading Twains The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I didnt know this while reading it, but was struck by the "dueling bagpipes" scene as somthing out of Deliverence, but now the real source is better explained!

I listened to this one on Audio without a hardback available and missed out on the map which is really key, its a very visual book, following the progression of the journey by map adds a lot of depth. Also wish I had better 18th century British history background.

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Anchoress

Chris Newby 1995
Movie

Newby's film is based on the true story of Christine Carpenter, who in the 14th century was renounced as dead to the living world by the church, and enclosed as an anchoress for the rest of her life in the wall of a village church in Shere in Surray. The inspiration for the film, according to screenwriter Judith Stanely-Smith, was a letter concerning Christine written by the Bishop of Winchester in 1324.

In the film Christine, a 14-year old illiterate peasant girl, finds herself drawn to a statue of the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile the village priest and "reeve" (Sheriff) are increasingly drawn to the beautiful Christine. The reeve proposed marriage to the girl, but Christine refuses the offer to the dismay of her mother, Pauline. Instead at the urging of a priest Christine becomes an anchoress so she can live next to the statue she so adores (and escape the possibility of marriage to the reeve). Her mother Pauline does not like her decision and plots against the priest. When Pauline, the village doctor and midwife, delivers the illegitimate stillborn child of the priests lover, the priest begins to plot against her. He accuses her of witchcraft and Pauline is killed by a mob. Meanwhile Christine has escaped from her cell through a tunnel and flees with her lover to Winchester to seek release from her vows from the Bishop there. The Bishop refuses and she "escapes" to run away with her love (although the ending scene is ambiguous if she really found freedom or a new kind of prison).

Historically, the film is very accurate and instructive to understanding on an emotional and personal level the idea of Christian sexual renunciation and asceticism in the Middle Ages. The film also portrays well the interactions between secular and ecclesiastical powers over the lives of peasants. The reeves French-like accent is very accurate as a Norman lord (although the bald head is questionable). The Bishops Mediteranian accent and Latin language is also accurate. This film will appeal to anyone with an interest in the Middle Ages and history.

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Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe 1719
Norton Critical Edition 1994 paperback
September 2005

Robinson Crusoe is usually considered to be the first English novel. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, it is the worlds most read book, second only to the Bible, having been translated into over 700 languages. Add myself to the list!

There are a lot of ways to approach it: Mythologically, Historically, Religious, Allegorically. Defoe himself saw it as an allegory for his own life, but he was also a Puritan moralist and the book follows the classic Christian narrative of sin->fall->redemption->rebirth. But beyond any moralizing (or "Protestent guide book") it is a good story and fictional travel adventure.

What struck me most was its image of the 17th century (English) European colonist in relation to the world. In particular after reading Guns, Germs and Steel, Crusoe was able to single-handily "conquer" his environment and men around him through these advantages (which Defoe predictablly attributes to divine providence than random fate). It is a lesson that Europeans through the age of Discovery and Colonization would return to again and again and Crusoe was a Mythological hero in that global conquest. The books impact on the history of colonization probably can not be over estimated. James Joyce (who called it one of his favorite books and the English Ulysses) said of Crusoe: "He is the true prototype of the British colonist. The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity."

Its also just a great story, and while it is most well known for the island castaway episode, there is also a beginning section off the coast of Africa and closeing section in the mountains of Spain that I had never heard before. The spelling and grammer are early 18th century but not at all unreadable and actually enhance the period feel, this book ages well. I recommend, as always, the excellent Norton editions of any classic text for additional criticism and annotations.

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Roughing It

Mark Twain 1872
2-volume early 1900's hardback
September 2005

Roughing It is semi-non-fiction travel literature about Mark Twains six-years "out west" from 1861-1867 in his late 20s and early 30s prospecting for gold and finding his way in life to become a writer. It was influential in the mythical creation of the Old West.

It is a mixed bag of stories and anecdotes, but most importantly it is one of the most influential books of early American travel literature genre and captured the imagination of the "Old West". Much of it seems cliche now, but it was in part Twain who helped invent and popularize it. It is an authentic primary source that captures the feel and flavour of its time, including a few tall tales. Having traveled out west myself on a number of explorative mis-adventures I could really visualize and understand Twains sense of awe and wonderment, in fact its part of the American psyche, a part of me, and this book was a key in that mythical creation.

Gutenberg has a HTML version online which includes scans of the lithograph pictures from the original which is recommended since many books omit the pictures, which are otherwise numerous and good. It was originally released on a subscription-basis. Twain had difficulties completeing it with deaths in the family and writers block (it was his 3rd book and by far his longest at 600 pages). It didnt sell well at first, his earlier book Innocents Abroad did much better, which takes place after the Roughing period, but was written before, and is also a travel narrative, about a trip to Europe and Asia Minor.

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David Copperfield

Charles Dickens 1850
Norton Critical Edition paperback 1990
September 2005

This is a first-person life-story of David Copperfield ("DC") that draws large on Dickens ("CD") own life. It was his "favourite child" and hailed as his best work by Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf. It includes a cast of over 50 characters. For its time it was one of the greatest works, and still is.

To enjoy Dickens you have to let go, sit back, and enjoy the ride and not worry about the destination. Because although you can see the destination early on, like a mountain far off in the distance, the road to get there is entirely unpredictable and the distances traveled are deceiving to the minds eye. The trick is to enjoy the here and now, wherever the story happens to be, because Dickens will never follow the predictable path, and can leave one exhasburated waiting for a plot closure. Consider a Dickens journey never-ending and you can just relax and enjoy the ride.

The primary theme of the novel is how Copperfield learns to have a disciplined heart and morals. In other words, he grows up and becomes a man. This is seen throughout all the relationships in the book: love, business, friendship -- the mistakes of an "undisciplined heart". He learns self control to do the right thing even if his initial impulse is something else (Dora versus Agnus). He learns confidence in his dealings with the world (his innocent days of being ripped off all the time such as by waiters and cab drivers "my first fall"). He learns respect through the mistakes of others such as Steerforth. Self control, Confidence and Respect are all hallmarks of a grown man and we see Copperfield develop a sense of these, and the misfortunes that happen otherwise, to himself and those around him.

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Tschiffely's Ride

A.F. Tschiffely 1933
First edition hardback
September 2005

A Swiss-Argentinian by the name of Tschiffely travels by horseback across South and Central and North America 3 years from Buenos Aires to Washington DC. He was very famous in his time, meeting with President Coolidge, articles and speeches in National Geographic, newspapers, etc.. every country along his path gave him golden receptions. I'm sure most peoples grandparents remember him (although he is probably mostly forgotten today!). Parts of this book were printed in National Geographic Magazine (in the 1930s).

Written in a straight forward but very readable and enjoyable style, it is one adventure after the next, each page is literally a new encounter. It can be an exhausting read at times. One admires Tschiffely's strength and character. As well as his affection, bond and care for his horses and all living creatures (this is also a horse lovers tale).

Latin America in the 1930s was a time when cars, electricity, TV's and radio, phones, etc.. existed only in isolated pockets, when Spanish conquistador history still lay heavy over the land. Brilliant first person encounters and observations of the individuals and cultures that history books would not as well convey, and that are now lost to modernity. It is also interesting how nearly impossible it was to travel north/south in Latin America even just 70 years ago due to geography (by comparison travel by horse east-west across America would be a less interesting story being done so often).

Overall a very good book. At times things seems to repeat (another town, another fiesta) and the authors ability to keep things new escapes him toward the end (perhaps due to his malaria) so it starts to feel like a journal, but that is a minor quibble for a classic travel adventure book.

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The Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius 524AD
P.G.Walsh trans, Oxford World Classics
September 2005

Written in the 6th century by a condemned man about to die for a crime he did not commit, this treatise is one of the most influential works in western literature. I could fill a page on all the famous people it has influenced, how up until the 19th century any learned man was familar with it, how the word "Boethian" is part of our language. But more than that, this is just simply a good book. It is essentially a philosophical piece (or even perhaps a self help book) on what it means to live a good life, what happiness is and how to achieve it. The lessons are as deep and meaningful today as they were 1,500 years ago.

I highly recommend the Oxford edition trans. by Walsh as it contains extensive notes and helpful information that otherwise would make this a difficult work to understand. In particular Book 1-3 are the best. If ever you are in a difficult period in life: lost your fortune, wife left you and took the kids, your parents die, health problem, etc.. this is truely a "Consolation" you will find comfort in. It has had such influence on western culture much of what he says may seem obvious or well worn, but it was through Boethius that these ideas first arose, and they are fresh and new. My copy is now well underlined and dog eared and I plan to return to it throughout the rest of my life.

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Wind, Sand and Stars

Antoine De Saint Exupery 1939
Hardback first edition
September 2005

Exupery, a French author, who also wrote The Little Prince, died in 1943 when his plane was shot down during the war on his last mission. This book recounts his adventures and experiences flying between the periods 1926 and 1933. It has been called the greatest literature about flying ever written. Outdoor Magazine ranks it #1 in its top 25 all-time Outdoor Literature list, a similar list by National Geographic ranks it #3 (out of 100).

His writing is on par with Hemingway or any other great of the time. His use of metaphors and contrasts are brilliantly poetic. His insights into the condition of man are deep and sensitive. Most good books have a few profound insights, this book has them on a per-page basis.

My favorite scene was when he landed deep in the Sahara on a flat table-top where no man had ever been and walked around at night picking up meteorite stones under the stars like "rain drops reflected on a mirror". There are also a number of harrowing edge-of-the-seat stories about near-death escapes that rank up there with any great adventure literature (any one of which could be a book in its self). Some great insights on the Islamic/Arab mindset and views on Europeans, as well as life in the desert. The overall message is live life to the fullest potential, death is always near but not to be feared, strive to be the best you can be.

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Godric

Frederick Buechner 1981
Paperback
September 2005

Godric is historical fiction novel about a real-life 12th century English saint who lived half his life a rouge, and the second half a hermit. He was famous in his day and Buechner uses fiction as a vehicle to flesh out the details of his fascinating life, which crossed paths with much Medieval history.

What makes it curious is Buechner writes the novel as if it were the thoughts of Godric recanting his life as he nears death. The sentence structure, choice of words, the very thought process, is both alien but reconizable. Buechner does a good job of imagining the inner life and perspective of a medieval mind. It's as if listening to an actor at a Renaissance Festival tell a story in Old English (although its not Old English its easy to read).

Nominated for a Pulitzer in 1981.

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Sahara Unveiled

William Langewiesch 1998
Paperback
September 2005

Langewiesch is an American author who writes for the Atlantic Monthly magazine. This is travel literature about a solo trip through Algeria, Niger and and Mali in the 1990s by way of public transportation, crossing the Sahara. As with all great travel/adventure books it is more than just exciting stories, it offers insights into life, how we live it, the choices we make. This is the first modern/recent travel/adventure book Ive read, most being from the Golden Age pre-1970s, look forward to finding more moderns of this quality, even if the world is not as Romantic and wild.

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Sailing Alone Around the World

Captain Joshua Slocum 1900
Audiobook + 1937 hardback w/maps and drawings
August 2005

Slocum was the first person to sail around the world alone. It took him 3 years, around 1897, in a 37 foot sloop. There was a time not long ago the notion seemed impossible, when such an expedition would require dozens of crew and the monetary backing of kings and states. When it was thought a man would go mad with loneliness, or sail off the edge of the world (a common belief even in the 19th century). Slocum set the trend of the 20th century explorer, but did it in a very 19th century manner.

This is one of the all-time travel/adventure classics. It has probably inspired more travelers, and would-be travelers, than any other book of its type, since it was the first. Slocums old sea salt romanticism makes this truely a joy to read. It remains to this day a best seller and is as fully enjoyable today as when it was written.
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Arabian Sands

Wilfred Thesiger 1959, ex-library first edition hardback w/ pull-out map and bw pictures
August 2005

Thesiger was one of the last British "gentleman explorers" and spent a lifetime traveling the globe, but found no other place as beautiful as Arabia. He traveled through the desert within a desert, the Empty Quarter of southern Saudia Arabia, living with, and as, the Beduin nomads for 5 years and 10s of thousands of miles by camel. He was the first European to see and map many parts of the desert. Incredible insights into Arabian culture and mindset. I suspect this book was the inspiration for Frank Herberts "Dune", it is very other-worldy, yet real and gripping. A short book at 300 pages covering 5 years of high adventure it can be an exhausting read. It is considered an all-time classic of the travel literature genre.

As Thesiger says the most interesting part of his journey was not the trip, but the circumstances. Since "infidals" are not allowed in many parts of "The Sands" he was constantly under-cover, on the run, fighting raiders, jailed, sailing on ships maned by African slaves, dealing with quicksands, starvation, wolves, cold, thirst, etc.. he understates much of it, but the number of close calls and near-death encounters and sheer luck are amazing. As well the Arab culture, mindset and way of life is revealed here in a way I have never read or seen before.

A common theme throughout is how modern industrial culture is destroying the nomadic way of life, how Thesiger saw in those 5 years the first oil exploration companies changing the way of life for people who have not changed in 7000 years or more. Thesiger documented a culture and society at the cusp of its destruction, that no longer exists. Although the book was written in 1959, much of the current world events involving radical Islam can be better understood by understanding where the Arabian, and Muslim, culture used to be not so long ago.

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Around the World in 80 Days

Jules Verne 1872, Audiobook
August 2005

Phileas Fogg makes a bet he can travel around the world in 80 days and does so by steamer, rail, elephant and sled. Well crafted, well written and entertaining. Worth reading if for no other reason to know the original story and characters given how many derevitive works it has spawned. Wikipedia has a good summary.

A hot air ballon figures on many covers, but no where in the book does the journey make use of a hot air ballon. Jules Verne's first book was called Five Weeks in a Balloon, thus perhaps the association.

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King Solomon's Mines

H. Rider Haggard 1885, Readers Digest 1994 hardback w/ illustrations by Walter Paget.
August 2005

This was the first book to fictionalize the exploration of Africa and had tremendous influence on the Victorian popular perception of the Dark Continent which in 1885 was largey unexplored. The idea of a fabled city filled with diamonds was entirely believable given other recent discoveries around the world at the time. It is amazingly non-racist and even supportive of black heroes and cross-racial love interests, which for the time and long after was very progressive. Allan Quatermine, the fictional hero of the book, would continue on in a series of by Haggard and was the achetype model of Speilberg's Indiana Jones. It was also the first "Lost World" scifi/fantasy novel, later traditions included books by Edgar Rice Burrough's "Land that Time Forgot", Arthur Doyle's "The Lost World", Edgar Wallace's "King Kong" and Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King".

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We Die Alone

David Howarth 1955, stained and worn first edition hardback
August 2005

The true story of an incredible WWII survival story in the Norwegien Arctic. On-par with The Long Walk and Shakelton. Well designed book, lots of pictures and maps a multi-media experience and good writing makes this book impossible to put down, non-stop action.

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The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway 1926
August 2005

Hemingway's first novel, inspired by The Great Gatsby, follows the lives of young Americans living in Paris who travel to Spain to see the running of the bulls (of which this book first made aware to Americans). Lot's of drinking. Lots of sexual tension. But more than anything, lots of drinking and getting "tight" (drunk). Hemingway titled it "!Fiesta!" and his publishers changed to the unfortanate "Sun" which is a passage from the Bible (!). Fiesta makes a lot more sense, this is a party book about the joys and dangers of excess, not unlike the GenX mantra Less Than Zero.

The writing and descriptions are superb. Hemingway says so much in so few words. It's a simple story about nothing, entirely believable and based on actual people and experiences, it gives a glimpse into the lifestyle of 20-somthings of that era that became known as the "Lost Generation". Bar hopping, girlfriend swapping.. kinda reminds me of college life, but with a lot more class (and money) and a lot more drinking (if that's possible). How much we have gained, and what we have lost. Short easy read.

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Oliver Twist

Charles Dickens 1839
Norton Critical Edition paperback (Fred Kaplan, ed., 1993) + Movied 1948 DVD.
August 2005

This is a story everyone has heard of, or seen the play or the movie, or know some famous lines, but few have taken the time to read. So I dove into my first Dickens novel. It is one of his earliest novels, written around 1830 when he was in his 20s.

The opening chapters are excellent, which includes the famous "Please sir, may I have some more". Essentially the book was intended as a social criticism of the "Poor Law" of 1835 which forced the working or non-working poor who needed public assistance into "workhouses".

He started it as a series of short stories in a weekly paper, thus it has cliff hangers like a TV show, and mid-way he endevoured to make it a novel. Plot wise, the story is at times overly complicated, but it is an easy page turner. The plot is unbelievable, it relies heavily on extra-ordinary circumstances and conincidences, not unlike a TV show. The characters and descriptions of London are the strong points.

Dickens believed that everyone was born either good or evil and could not change their nature--because Oliver is born good, he is uncorruptable--the plot revolves around Olivers attempted corruption by a bevy of dastardly characters. Thus, Oliver is essentially a flat uninteresting character, while all the interesting fully fleshed out characters are the evil ones who have free reign to do whatever they wished. Who can forget the Artful Dodger? Fagin the Jew?

England during this time was undergoing the early phases of the Industrial Revolution as well as the effects of the Enclosure Acts which meant London was being flooded with poor peasants from the countryside ("greens") who had no way to earn a living from the land anymore which had been "closed off" to them. This excess rural population was essentially exterminated through the severe laws, such as the Poor Law, and living conditions of London (many die in the book of "sickness"), and the novel portrays the history at a grassroots personal level. Many of these folks naturally turned to crime and Dickens shows how it was sometimes (not always) a result of circumbstances and not innate moral defect.

Most of the book takes place in the black holes of Londons seedy side of thieves, prostitutes and murderers. The dialouge and cockney accents are priceless. The descriptions of places are so good clearly Dickens went there himself which makes the book historical fiction and worthy of study on the account of time travel and feel for a place and time.

I read the book with a Norton Critical Edition by sheer luck, it contains excellent footnotes on English terminology that would have otherwise been lost and made it a much richer experience.

Movie Wow. Made in 1948 it follows the book exactly including dialouge. It is abridged of course, but thats a good thing since Dickens added so much fluff the screenplay makes it a more gripping story by keeping to the essentials. The costumes and set props really bring to life London. Best of all is Robert Newton who plays Billy Sykes.. Newton is of course beady eyed Long John Silver from Disneys movie adaption, and the International Talk Like A Pirate Day mascot. He is one of my favorite actors (and should be yours too). Get it, rent it, buy it.. but read the book first so you'll appreciate it even more.

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Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

David Christian 2003 harback
August 2005

A new discreet field of history called "Big History" that examines history from that start of time through to the present, looking for common themes, using a multi-disciplinary approach, not limited to just the written record. Mammoth tomb, well illustrated, worth the price for the bibliography alone.

The best thing this book does is provide is a sense of scale and time. It shows where the major fauilt lines are in human development and history. Normally its hard to understand the difference between 60,000 years versus 200,000 years -- this will give a sense of categorizing time into periods going all the way back to the big bang. It gives defineing characteristics of each period, and what made them different from the periods before and after. These are broad brushstrokes, but very very helpful to comprehending the complexity of so much time and space.

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Treasure Island

Robert Louis Stevenson 1883, Audiobook + 1925 hardback edition illustrated by Frank Godwin
July 2005

Treasure Island is enhanced as an audiobook. The sound of the various pirate voices would be difficult in my own imagination. As well, the color paintings by Frank Godwin displayed an old 1925 edition of the book (with pirate map!) I've had since childhood made it all the more authentic.

It is part of a tradition of "boys stories" that started with Oliver Twist (I think). They follow the same theme: boy becomes separated from wholesome family, boy falls in with hard crowd, boy redeems self through much adventure and comes around to the mainstream again, but is left haunted by his memories.

It had elements that reminded me of Lord of the Rings. I suspect LOTR is part of the same literary tradition, at least on some level, since JRR would have grown up and been influenced by these stories.

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The Night in Lisbon

Erich Remarque 1964, nicely mangled first edition printed in China that smells of perfume
July 2005

The Night in Lisbon is a short book, and I think Remarque's last novel. It is the story of German refugees fleeing from the invading Nazis in the opening months of WWII. It's a twist on the refugee story since they are Germans, but Remarque was one himself (a German refugee) during the war (although this book is purely fictional). I decided to read it after reading Front. The book is a story within a story. A refugee over coffee at a cafe begins to tell another refugee his story how he ended up there. The story involves romance and adventure, violence and terror, as Europe continues to slid into the nightmare of WWII. It is a very realistic account of refugee life on a personal level.

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All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Remarque 1928, Audiobook + beautifully stained and edge-worn first edition hardcover
July 2005

The ultimate Lost Generation foundation novel.
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Guns, Germs and Steel

Jared Diamond 1997 paperback + PBS Documentary 2005 DVD
July 2005

Asks the question "Why did Europeans conquer the world? Why didn't the Aztecs conquer Europe?" Ultimate answer is geography allowed a head start in certain areas of the world for the development of Guns, Germs and Steel that would allow some cultures to dominate others. Implies that humans are equal and there is no innate difference between an Englishman and a jungleman. Won a Pulitzer. Book is best, PBS show is nice summary and images

Update: June 2006. Purchased the 2003 hardback edition with about 45 new pages about Japan and new findings since the initial release. It's only been a year since i read it but seems a lot longer, already want to re-read.

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Kabloona

Gontran De Poncins 1939, Audiobook + nicely aged first edition hardback with pictures.
June 2005

A classic of travel and anthropological literature. French aristocratic Count retires from the cocktail circuit and becomes a man of worldly travel and goes to live with the Inuit for 15 months in the Canadian Artic, some who have never seen a "Kabloona" (white man) before.

Poncins explores Inuit culture and the Inuit world view, leaving the reader with a deeper understanding of such things as wife-swapping, living in an igloo at 40 degrees below zero, why and how Inuit have feasts lasting 20 hours at a stretch, their concepts of time and family life, their perspectives on Europeans and European food and gear, the Inuit diet, hunting techniques, wildlife, nomadic life, dogs, weather, clothing, communal sharing of goods and notions of private property.

Poncins was not a scientist and did not study the Inuit from a scientific perspective. Rather, he provides his own stylized personal points of view and descriptions of Inuit life. In the book, he is initially disparaging of the Inuit way of life, seeing it as primitive and often using the description "cave man". Indeed, a clear theme of racial superiority, described in terms of innate intelligence and physical appearances, and cultural superiority in terms of morals and ethics pervades the first part of his work. As the book progresses and his hardships in the harsh Arctic environment take their toll (at one point Poncins runs 1400 miles behind a dogsled), he begins to find a new appreciation for the Inuit way of life, for their intelligence and resourcefulness, and experiences to a spiritual awakening; ultimately reaching a point where he discovers that he himself has become so well adapted to the Inuit way of life that he is no longer a "Kabloona" and has become one of them.

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The Map That Changed The World

Simon Winchester 2001, Audiobook + hardback first edition
June 2005

Story of William Smith, the early 19th English geographer who created the first geological map (which was of England). He basically created the science of modern geography.

I read this only because I like Winchester. It turns out the book was pretty dull, unless you like geography or know the English countryside, William Smith as a person is a fairly boring subject, although Wichester does an admirable job of trying to spice it up, it never clicked.

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The Meaning of Everything

Simon Winchester 2003 first edition hardback + Audiobook
June 2005

"The story of the Oxford English Dictionary" is the subtitle. Not unlike Wikipedia, the OED was assembled by mostly unpaid volunteers over the course of many generations during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is perhaps the most impressive reference work ever made. I was enthralled and captivated. Amazing story. Easy read, Winchesters second best book. Lots of lessons here for collaborative group projects.

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The Professor and the Madman

Simon Winchester 1998 first edition hardback + Audiobook
May 2005

Amazingly entertaining true story of an American Civil War vet who is imprisoned in an English sanitorium for killing someone. He then goes on to help with the OED project becoming one of its key contributors by postal mail without anyone realizing he is actually insane. The story of madness and genius. Simon Winchesters best book IMO, well balanced, entertaining and the story is unforgettable (should be a movie, may be yet, it's a best seller). If you like this, go on to read the fuller account of the OED in The Meaning of Everything

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Minority Report and other stories

Phillip K. Dick, Audiobook
May 2005

Stories were OK. Movie adaptions are much better.

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Frankenstein

Mary Shelley 1816, Audiobook + The Essential Frankenstein by Leonard Wolf 2004 + Hallmark movie on DVD 2004
May 2005

Much different from screen adaptions. It was written by an 19 year-old girl and spawned a whole new genre. If you have not read the book, you don't know Frankenstein. The 2004 Hallmark made-for-TV adaption is the most faithful screen adaption to Shelleys story. The Leonard Wolf printed edition is probably best as he uses an older shorter version that doesnt have fluff Mary added later.

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The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini 2003, Audiobook + paperback edition
May 2005

Emotionally powerful novel by an Afghan author living in SF. Story of a boy who lives through the wars in Afghanistan. Deeply revealing of Afghan culture and thinking and history. Almost brought me to tears a few times, this is a very powerful novel on many levels. #1 NYT Bestseller. Audiobook is read by the author and enhances the experience.

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A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again

David Foster Wallace 1997, paperback
May 2005

Collection of seven short non-fiction essays by humour author Wallace who also write for Esquire and others. Deadpan cynical combined with witty observations - a brilliant mix of highbrow and lowbrow. Commentary on the cruise ship industry is the title piece and best of the bunch. Have you ever made jokes of feeling like a cow going to feed? That's the general jist here, but with a lot more originality, depth and wit. Wallace has a strong following.

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The Life of Pi

Yann Martel 2001, Audiobook+first edition hardback
April 2005

This is the first modern novel I've read in a long time. It's won many awards and is a best-seller. Very well written, but the audiobook version enhances it greatly. Highly recommended.

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The Sicilian Vespers

Steven Runciman 1958, paperback 1994
April 2005

"A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later 13th Century". Runciman is a historian of the old school. Straight chronological narrative, no post-modern analysis. Very refreshing and entertaining. After reading I had a better sense of the scale of time and distance and travel and communications in the lives of Medieval people. Also how quickly fortunes changed and how life was both eternal and fleeting at the same time.

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Salt: A World History

Mark Kurlansky 2002, Audiobook + first edition harback
March 2005

This by the author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World which won awards and is a classic. Salt attempts to do the same for the history of Salt, looking at world history along thematic lines. The problem is, the book is a long series of facts with no encompassing theme. With Cod the theme was mans huberious over nature and the consequences. With Salt, the theme is mundane: man charges money for somthing that is otherwise so abundant, it can be had for free. I learned a lot about salt and its importance in history, but the book is too long and banal. There is no story to tie it together.

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The Inferno of Dante

Robert Pinsky, trans. 1994, paperback
March 2005

Dante's Inferno. An encyclopedia of 14th century knowledge. One could spend a lifetime exploring Divine Comedy, in fact there is a 12+ volme encyclopedia dedicated to it. My first reading was to enjoy the story, many nuances were missed along the way. Powerful images and mythos remain highly influential in western culture.

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