Cool Reading 2011

A reading journal by Stephen Balbach

In 2011, I read and reviewed 95 books (24,798 pages). There are too many great books to make a short list of favorites, but I will try, in no order. Some of the books I paired up because they work well together. Those in bold left a very strong and lasting impression. The full list of 95 books follows in chronological reading order:
Favorites of 2011:
House to House
Michael Kohlhaas
Bambi
The Ancient Tea Horse Road
Fire Season
More Money Than God
Europe Between the Oceans
The Hobbit
Shadow Divers
The Hare with Amber Eyes
Ghost in the Wires + The Man in the Rockefeller Suit
King Leopold's Ghost + Heart of Darkness
Crusoe of Lonesome Lake + One Man's Wilderness
The Lure of the Labrador Wild + Great Heart
Batavia's Graveyard + Lost Colony
A Canticle for Leibowitz + Alas, Babylon
The Johnstown Flood
Rat Island
Into the Wild
Reading journals from other years:
2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013,
2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

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Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II


George MacDonald Fraser (1992)
Audio P8
December 2011
This World War II memoir, published long afterwards in 1992, is most interesting for the English accents and mannerisms from the north border region (Cumberland), in particular the back and forth banter among the working class front line soldiers, often very funny. And that's about it really, the war scenes in Burma are interesting but not particularly dramatic. It seems honest though, he tries hard to present the 1940s as they existed (for him). The audiobook version helped with the accents, though I often had trouble understanding what was being said.
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Into the Wild


Jon Krakauer (1996)
Audio P8
December 2011
Chris and I have a lot in common. We graduated high school the same year, grew up in a DC suburb, sons of affluent parents, with a Brady Bunch mixed family; we're both Aquarius, educated, intellectually stubborn for better and worse. We both took trips out west alone, in summer 1991 I was just out of college, tramping alone across country living out of my car with no clear plans, perhaps even passing Chris nearby. Now that I'm older and look back at myself through the lens of Chris, I see the risks in a new light. The cold reality of what happens when dreamers die and the family identify and pick up the body was difficult to read. This doesn't mean we should stop dreaming and exploring, but remember the ties and responsibilities to others and keep them in our dreams, too. These invisible links are a safety belt from going too far. Chris realized this in the end when he decided to return and live among society, but a few accidents in a row conspired against him.

It's easy to be critical of Chris, he was a young punk kid too cocksure for his own good, but he also was brave, strong and visionary. One might call Chris' death sacrificial. Using a war analogy, in which war is a sacrificial act, Chris was fighting against civilization and embracing nature in a classic Rousseauian tradition. This sacrifice will be controversial, some will see Chris as foolish or suicidal. Others will make him into a hero. Krakauer's book probably leans to the later sentiment, but retains a healthy dose of reality. And that's what makes it interesting, depending where your politics lay you can take from the story whatever you think is the right message.
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Down and Out in Paris and London


George Orwell (1933)
Audio P8
December 2011
Belongs among the "tramp literature" genre which started around the turn of the century with Bart Kennedy and others who pioneered the idea of tramping and writing about it. Popular tramp authors were Jack London, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W. H. Davies and of course Orwell. I personally found Orwell's account to be somewhat distant, in that he is rarely the central actor and just a presence reporting on others. It's also a bit politicized, though some consider it a classic. Probably the aspect I will remember most are the descriptions of the Parisian kitchens: the food garbage on the floor, cleaning plates with a sleeve, 110 degree temps, standing for 18 hours in steam and putrid food while a large French woman hurls insults.
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I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity


Izzeldin Abuelaish (2010)
Audio P8
December 2011
I'd never heard of Dr. Abuelaish, a Palestinian, he recently became well known in Israel after his daughters were killed by Israeli forces. He has a heroic temperament and life story, seemingly able to forgive and accept no matter what abuse comes his way, something the Middle East needs more of. It's outrageous to read of how Palestinians are treated by the Israelis, yet these things can go both ways. Abuelaish message is simple and classic, to just get along because we are all people, brothers, sisters and so on. The book gets a little caught up in politics and preaching a message of peace, but the story of his youth and rise out of the Gaza Strip ghetto is interesting.
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To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918


Adam Hochschild (2011)
Audio P8
December 2011
Very interesting history of WWI opposition. A broad canvas history of the war sets the stage for the moral battles over whether to fight or not. It feels like a mirror of our current era's culture wars, the details are different but the struggles between liberalism and conservationism remain. No heroes or villains, nuanced and well told, but diffuse and scattered style. I seemed more interested in the background details of the war itself than the intended focus on the dissenters. Because the biographical stories are told in such a mixed and braided fashion I don't have a clear memory that will stick with me, rather flashes of events here and there.

Audiobook: I love audiobooks, but not all books convert well, such as this one. The narrator is excellent but the book is meant to be read, reasons include: Paragraph breaks are significant to the style but invisible in the audio; large cast of names with constant moving back and forth between stories creates a sense of vertigo, perhaps an intentional aesthetic to mirror the era, but is magnified to the point of confusion by the machine-pace of the audiobook; certain thoughts and transition points demand pausing for reflection, but they are not clear until the moment is past and the narrator has marched on.
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Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World's Greatest Wildlife Rescue


William Stolzenburg (2011)
Ebook
November 2011
Many environmental books have an eat your vegetables feel as they portray humans destroying nature. And, if you read enough of them, it's rare to come across something original, a repetition of bad things leading to a loss of hope for the future. This book is different. It's about a few people who have saved entire species from extinction by removing invasive species from islands. It could be as simple as shooting all the pigs on an island in an afternoon, or a massive helicopter campaign to poison millions of rats over the course of months. It's very rewarding, both the removal of the pests and the aftermath as native species return from the brink of extinction. I also supplemented using Google Maps as a visual geography of some of the wildest islands on the globe. These islands, which I'd never heard of before, are now part of my mental map of the world in picture, name and events. I'd normally read this book in three days but was so enthralled it took only a day and a half. Great story, great writing, educational and cutting edge developments. If I was in college this book would inspire me to take up a new career, globe trotting to remote islands and saving species in one fell swoop. Of course the idea has caught on with others and is gaining momentum by the year. Go humans.
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The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter


Mark Seal (2011)
Audio P8
November 2011
I can remember the day Christian Gerhartsreiter was apprehended in Baltimore. I live close by and the news seemed incredible, a German man successfully impersonating a Rockefeller? For over a decade? It was the stuff of movies. Little was known at the time but Mark Seal, an accomplished writer of 30+ years and editor at Vanity Fair magazine, has interviewed over 200 people to tell an amazing story that really is made for film (a deal is in the works).

The experience of reading this was occasionally disturbing, on the one hand I found myself cheering Gerhartsreiter as he infiltrated America's upper-class social circles, fooling the smartest and richest has a certain comeuppance humor. Even more hilarious, Gerhartsreiter's persona was based on the character Thurston Howell III from the TV show Gilligan's Island! Yet, he is also a criminal psychopath and not someone to be admired. The book does a good job, tangentially, of showing the inside of the wealthiest communities in California, New York and Boston. Apparently, for example, if you want to join an exclusive club, it's not very difficult if you dress and act the part. It's a fascinating book, my second 'serial imposter' story of 2011, the first Ghost in the Wires has a similar non-stop run of imposter adventures, set in the world of cyberspace. The lesson is you can't fool all the people all the time. Well, the Gerhartsreiter story is far from over, he may fool us all yet again with new found fame from books and movies.
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Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure


James West Davidson (1988)
Hardcover
November 2011
Great Heart is well researched, it's neat someone found old diaries and retold the 1903 and 1905 Hubbard/Wallace/Elson expeditions in Labrador, mostly forgotten today but better known in the first half of the 20th century. I recommend this modern retelling but first read the original book that started it all, The Lure of the Labrador Wild (1905), which is the best introduction. In its day it was a best seller that went through 20-some printings, Teddy Roosevelt and Earnest Hemingway were fans. Great Heart has a reverent melancholy feel of history, Lure is more immediate and alive in the first person. The complex relationships between Mina Hubbard, her husband Leonidas, Dillon Wallace and George Elson the Indian half-breed is sort of like a Victorian episode of Survivor with shifting loyalties, betrayals, loves, enemies, friendships. It's an interesting story with human heart that goes beyond the typical exploration book.
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The Johnstown Flood


David McCullough (1968)
Audio P8
November 2011
David McCullough is a grand master of narrative nonfiction. The Johnstown Flood is his first book, written in 1968, though you'd might think it was written this year it feels so timeless. The audio performance by Edward Herrmann is equally great.

Why did the Johnstown Flood happen? In the end McCullough blames it on man's hubris. Specifically by denuding the hills of trees, thereby making flooding more likely, and bad dam design. Man attained great power over nature, but failed to fully understand the implications, accepting the benefits of technology but ignoring the risks ("that dam will never break"). It is a lesson still relevant today, society is causing industrial-scale disruptions to the atmosphere, earth and oceans. The environment may hold together for many generations, but like the dam breaking above Johnstown, all it takes is one big unexpected natural event to tip things over into a condition no one expected, magnified by mans own doings - nature and man work in concert because they are the same. The Johnstown disaster was not inevitable, it didn't have to happen, it was a man-made conflagration pushed over the edge by nature.
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New Atlantis


Francis Bacon (1624)
LibriVox
November 2011
Published in Latin in 1624, and English in 1627, New Atlantis was Francis Bacon's last (and unfinished) work. In it he describes a fictional utopian society that is governed by benevolent philosophers. They operate a university, Salomon's House, which is a scientific research establishment where teams of scientists work together in diverse fields. In the following sentence Bacon summarizes the purpose of Salomon's House, which has been widely quoted as the significance of Bacon's own life's project: "The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things, and the enlargement of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible." That is, society is dedicated to advancing human understanding and mastery of nature. Bacon in a nutshell.

Listened via LibriVox, narrated by Bill Boerst.
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Pilgrimage to the End of the World: The Road to Santiago de Compostela


Conrad Rudolph (2004)
Ebook P8
November 2011
The El Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) is probably the most famous pilgrimage in the world. I first learned of it years ago during my Medieval studies, and recently saw the movie The Way. For some reason the older I get, the more I am drawn to The Way. This short book is a wonderful introduction to the history of the trail, and what it's like to hike it today, including a very practical section on how to approach the 1000 mile 10-week journey. I'm not Catholic, or even religious, but the idea of hiking through such a sparsely populated area of Europe, surrounded by thousands of years of history at every step, would probably be a life changing experience. I'll probably never do it, because of physical limitations, but this book is a wonderful proxy. Rudolph is an art historian with a sense of the spiritual and personal, the book feels authentic and appropriate. Includes many photographs.
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Pulphead: Essays


John Jeremiah Sullivan (2011)
Paperback
November 2011
I'd never heard of Sullivan before, he's been compared to David Foster Wallace so I picked up his anthology of 14 magazine articles. It has a central-Appalachia border-state cultural flavor, in particular Indiana/Kentucky and by osmosis points east and west along that line, neither Yankee or Southern. He might be seen as a regional author, or an author with regional flavor. Sullivan is not the fierce intellectual like Wallace, more subdued, but in his writing has intense flashes with sentences here and there that cause one to stop and marvel at the creativity. He's also a likeable writer, which is a good thing since he's always in his stories. One reason we read is to meet interesting people, Sullivan is an author you don't mind spending time with and getting to know as he mixes his own background in with the story he's covering.

My favorite pieces are "Mister Lytle", about his apprenticeship with the 90 year old writer Andrew Nelson Lytle, who one morning was found nibbling Sullivan's ear, and more. "Upon This Rock", about a Christian Youth rock concert in PA and a group of feral West Virginia good ole boys he befriends; this is the funniest piece, sort of like DFW's essay on the state fair. "Michael" is a re-evaluation of the common belief that M. Jackson was a pedophile, I found it pretty convincing that Jackson may have been a pedo in thought, but not deed. "American Grotesque" is an investigation of the mysterious death of a Census worker found hanged in the woods with the words "Fed" inked on his chest. This was headline news for a few days in the red/blue culture wars, this essay investigates. "Unnamed Caves" is a fascinating piece on "pot diggers" in eastern Tennessee, people who dig up old Indian graves, I learned a lot on the subject. "Violence of the Lambs" is very creative, it reminded me of what Edgar Allen Poe used to do in the early 19th century ("The Balloon-Hoax"), it's something of a small masterpiece that may end up being among his most enduring essays, once the pop culture stuff fades. Not everyone liked it, the Washington Post said it had "gaseous prose" (perhaps an allusion to Poe's gas-light era?), and some readers were shocked/upset by the surprise ending, but I found it brilliant and brave.
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Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies


Mikey Walsh (2010)
Audio P8
November 2011
I almost gave up after the first 30 pages, it was evidently another misery lit book. I tried a second time with the audiobook version which made a big difference. Performed by the author, he injects a lot of emotion through the use of "pregnant pauses" that makes it hard to stop listening. It's interesting in parts, but mostly a depressing litany of illiterate people living in trailers, drinking and drugs, stealing and swearing, wife and child beating, incest. The Romany culture isn't romanticized in this account, and that may be the attraction, a Gypsy tell-all. Note: After a few months reflection the book has stayed with me more than I imagined it might, a sign that it had some impact.
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Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China's First Great Victory over the West


Tonio Andrade (2011)
Hardcover
November 2011
One of the best books I read in 2011, hugely entertaining, but also serious history. Lost Colony reads like a novel, full of colorful people and exotic places, clashes of East and West in battles at sea and on land over castles, with swords and gunpowder, metal armor and muskets, pirates and rebels, heroes and tyrants.

Since the book is about the first major conflict between China and Europe, it offers an opportunity to "test" why Europe came to dominate the world, and not China, one of the great historical questions. Was it because the West had superior military power? This theory has been standard for a long time, but new evidence suggests it's not so black and white. The events of the Sino-Dutch War show why. I was intrigued by Jared Diamond's blurb, and he is spot on, "you can read this as a novel that just happens to be true.. or a window into one of the biggest unsolved questions of world history." It's not often we get both these things in one book, I was sorry when it ended and tried to slow my reading.

The book is well illustrated including more maps than it needs (first time ever saw that). Generous footnotes and bibliography. Overall a great production.
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The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History


John M. Barry (2005)
Audio P8
November 2011
I gave up 75% of the way through. The writing is not very good and I became bored, my mind kept wandering away. Barry under-delivered on promises of drama, and assumed readers understood cellular biology. He could have emphasized and repeated key points, while paring back rambling fact-filled tangents that blunted his narrative underneath a mountain of research. If he had used a braided narrative the pandemic could have started at the beginning of the book instead of frustratingly 1/3 of the way in. The are many bad pandemic histories, for example no one has yet written a good book on the Black Death. It's a difficult topic to do well.
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Crusoe of Lonesome Lake


Leland Stowe (1957)
Hardcover
October 2011
In 1957, American journalist Leland Stowe published a biography of a North Carolina man named Ralph Edwards (1892-1977) who had settled in the Cascade mountains of British Columbia for over 50 years, from 1913 to 1965. Edwards homesteaded 40 miles from neighbors, living off the land, shooting grizzly, raising a family of three children. Stowe compares him to Robinson Crusoe but Swiss Family Robinson would be better. Stowe's book was popular and made Edwards famous enough to be a guest on the Christmas Day edition of This Is Your Life in 1957. The book and Edwards story has been a cult favorite ever since, best known in British Columbia but appealing to anyone tired of civilization and inspired by the idea of being self-sufficient in the wilderness.

Based on later interviews with his children, Edwards was a tough old bird, he ruled his house unconditionally, it was not a soft or forgiving environment to grow up in. Such is the way with brilliant people, paradoxes of good and bad. In his 70s, Edwards abandoned the farm, and his wife, so he could take up commercial ocean fishing. And in 2007 the entire place burned down in a forest fire, back to nature as if it had never existed. In light of this, the pioneer myth created by Stowe begins to weaken, and could be seen as a projection of our own dreams and desires. Edwards didn't do it for the sake of being self-sufficient or famous, he did it because there was no one else to do it for him. He was dirt poor and running from the chaotic world of his youth, parents who were interested in their careers who shuffled him off to schools and relatives. He found a sort of stability in the granite mountains where he could be whatever he wanted through books and the mind cleansing joy of physical labor, protected from winds of constant change yet free to follow his dreams.
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Selected Shorts: American Classics


Anthology by Symphony Space ()
Audio P8
October 2011
A wonderful collection of short-stories performed by professional actors in front of a live audience. From the NPR series Selected Shorts. My favorite stories in bold.

1. Amy Tan's "Rules of the Game" performed by Freda Foh Shen. A strict Chinese mother bedevils her chess prodigy daughter.

2. Donald Barthelme's "Game" performed by David Strathairn. Playing cosmic chicken in a nuclear bunker.

3. Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." performed by Stockard Channing. Story of an independent young woman striking out on her own.

4. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" performed by René Auberjonois. Poe's masterpiece told with new passion.

5. Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" performed by Christine Baranski. Creepy tale of a teenage girl's seduction by a dangerous drifter, like "A Good Man is Hard to Find".

6. John Sayles' "At the Anarchists. Convention" performed by Jerry Stiller. Comedy classic of a geriatric Jewish Anarchist convention.

7. Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" performed by Carmen de Lavallade. Siblings disagree about a precious piece of their family heritage.

8. John Cheever's "Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor" performed by Malachy McCourt. A high-rise elevator operator discovers holiday generosity.
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The Orphan Master's Son


Adam Johnson (2012)
Amazon Vine
October 2011
The Orphan Master's Son (2012) has echoes of James Bond, Tom Clancy, Holocaust literature and the ending a replay of Casablanca. It sounds confusing but actually holds together well, Johnson says it's a "trauma narrative" (a subject he teaches about at University). It would be easy to criticize the book for using the trauma of others to tell entertaining fiction, but the meta-narrative of North Korea-as-fiction makes it work. The novel is set in North Korea where Johnson portrays the reclusive totalitarian state as a metaphor of fiction. Thus fiction and reality merge in a disturbing way, begging the question: is fiction reality? It's an interesting perspective that invites self-reflection about our own culture too. Johnson did a lot a research for the book including a rare visit to North Korea so the details ring true. Overall, a creative accomplishment and an accessible window into North Korea.
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Ethan Frome


Edith Wharton (1911)
LibriVox
October 2011
Edith Wharton's writing is remarkable, the descriptions of snow and cold are incredibly vivid, the last time I felt this cold was reading Tolstoy's "Master and Man" (one of my favorites). The story is unusual for the era because of the ending, the fate of the "other woman" would have normally been more final. It was probably a shocker at the time, though "meh" by today's standards - how far things have come. A great example of modern American Realism, the type which would dominate literary fiction for the rest of the century.

Listened to the quality reading by Bob Neufeld at LibriVox, thanks!
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The Lure of the Labrador Wild


Dillon Wallace (1905)
LibriVox
October 2011
In 1903 two unlikely outdoorsmen from New York City (and their mixed-blood Indian guide) canoed about 150 miles into a barren unexplored region of Labrador. Armed with optimism and romantic notions, they made every mistake in the book; only 2 made it back alive. Similar to Into the Wild these sorts of things occasionally happen and the story might be long forgotten, but Dillon Wallace wrote a book about it, and Bully, what a book. Teddy Roosevelt raved and it became an immediate best-seller. From the start Wallace sets a tone of impending doom and deepening dread. We watch with bemused tragedy as they make one mistake after another while the humble repressed "mixed breed" Elson rises up to become the strongest and smartest of the three. It's a romantic story told with great emotion and care, set in the bleak but unspoiled wilderness of Labrador.

The story became legend because of the book. Hubbard's widow, Mina, retraced the expedition in 1905 and wrote her own book. Wallace also retraced the journey in 1905, and wrote another book. The 1988 book Great Heart, a modern retelling of the expedition, is included on National Geographic's list of the 100 best outdoor books of all time. In 2008, a documentary was made called The Last Explorer. Lakes were named by Hubbard and Wallace that still retain those names to this day. In Labrador the book is famous, although granted it only has about 25,000 people.

I followed along using Google Maps. It wasn't easy, I initially thought it was a different river, ironically the same mistake they made in 1903! Fortunately it didn't cost my life. This is a great introduction to one of the last wild places on Earth, and also a great piece of outdoor literature. The book reads surprisingly contemporary, the writing has held up well.

Read via LibriVox, narrated by Tom Weiss. Tom's narration is excellent.
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Heart of Darkness


Joseph Conrad (1899)
Audio
October 2011
Audiobook read by David Kirkwood & Tom Franks (LoudLit 2007)

This is my fourth reading, the last was in 2008. Each time I've struggled through it, sensing greatness but unable to get it. What motivated me to read it again was King Leopold's Ghost, a book that is required to fully grasp what was happening in the Congo and Conrad's experiences there. Until you've read that you won't fully understand Heart of Darkness, it will be impenetrable. Another thing I tried this time was an audiobook version performed by David Kirkwood. It's remarkable how good acting can bring this book alive, I can't recommend it more highly (and it's free). Between these two things - King Leopold's Ghost and David Kirkwood's masterful performance - Heart of Darkness is no longer strange and difficult but revealed to be a masterpiece.
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King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa


Adam Hochschild (1998)
Audio P8
October 2011
A necessary and important book, popular history at its best. I didn't know nearly 10 million Congolese died as the result of Belgian colonization in the late 19th century. By comparison about 9 million European combatants died in World War I. This book fills a major gap. It's read by heads of state, been made into movies, on university syllabi etc.. a remarkable and important history. It's also required reading before taking on Heart of Darkness, which I've read three times, but now realize how little I understood, I look forward to re-reading it again.

I'm giving it 5-stars, which is rare for me. It transcends being 'merely' well written and compelling. It changed world views, particularly in Belgium and Africa. Although there is nothing in the book not found elsewhere, Hochschild has made it accessible. The very phrase "King Leopold's Ghost" is enough to illicit a nod of understanding, it's become a landmark on the cultural map that continues to be widely read 13 years later.
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Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo


William H. Sheppard (1917)
Internet Archive
October 2011
Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo is a little known but fantastic book by an American missionary who traversed unexplored areas of the Congo in the 1890's. He wasn't a typical 19th century African explorer, for one thing he was black. I first learned about William Sheppard while reading King Leopold's Ghost, Sheppard is one of the heroes of that story for his work in exposing the autocracies committed by the Belgians. He was a Presbyterian missionary from Virginia who had a passionate desire to go to Africa and help out, in a sense to return "home". His infectious joy of being in Africa, open to experience and desiring to help is in sharp contrast to other white travelers of the era, such as Henry Morton Stanley, who saw Africa as a dark place to be conquered, animals and people to be subdued in the name of civilization.

Sheppard was smart, daring and a natural leader. His adventures include traveling the Congo River and tributaries by canoe and paddle-wheel steam-ship, running rapids, fighting whirlpools and angry hippos, exploring unknown territory, pacifying hostile tribes and living amongst the Kuba, one of the great African civilizations. Placing his life at great risk, he was the first non-African to enter the Kuba capital city and meet the great Kuba king, a colorful character who sat on a throne of elephant tusks. Sheppard took the trail of death around Stanley Falls and saw human skeletons, he even crossed paths with author Joseph Conrad along the way, whose experiences would later lead him to write Heart of Darkness (1902). I followed Sheppard's route using Google Maps and could see the villages he visited, the trails he surely walked on, it's a region that has changed little (from the air). I recommend this short and easy book for anyone who has read King Leopold's Ghost or Heart of Darkness, it's an authentic (and entertaining) first-hand view of the Congo from a different perspective, by someone who saw African civilization in a more positive light.

Read via Internet Archive.
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Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest


Wade Davis (2011)
Paperback Vine
October 2011
This is a hard book to review because of the mix of good and bad. Davis spent ten years writing and a lifetime reading, the amount of research is epic, it's probably the definitive book on the first three Everest expeditions 1921-24, no small thing considering the many other books. Yet most of the book is background and logistics with not much time on the mountain by comparison. We learn about the history of the people involved (dozens), history of Tibet, history of WWI, trips to India, trips to Tibet, trips across Tibet, trips back from Tibet. It is highly researched and often boring by nature since so much happens that is banal. The famous 1924 expedition in which Mallory dies is well told but accounts for only about 50 of 576 pages, or less than 10% of the book. On the other hand there are parts that are really interesting, such as the WWI biographies, and Davis' central theme that the wars silent but ever present influence on the expedition ultimately decided its fate.

The annotated bibliography is equally epic, nearly 50 pages long of recommendations for further reading, it's an impressive Everest Geek-fest, probably the best bibliography of its type and worth owning for alone. I'm not sure who to recommend this book to, certainly anyone who has been to Everest, or with an interest in Himalayan climbing history. If your looking for an introduction to Mallory or a gripping mountain adventure book, it may be a long hard climb.
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Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World


Michael Lewis (2011)
Amazon Vine
October 2011
Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Blind Side) wrote a fantastic book about the 2008 financial crisis called The Big Short, in which he profiled a half dozen or so investors who foresaw the crash, profiting beyond imagination. Now there is an even bigger crisis of sovereign debt in Europe. Lewis visited Iceland, Ireland, Greece and Germany to find out what's happening. What he uncovers is jaw dropping. When the massive global credit bubble was created, each country responded in different ways to the free money windfall, like winning the lottery. The fishermen of Iceland decided they'd rather have comfy desk jobs and so became bankers even though they had no experience. The Greeks made their government into a pinata party where every citizen could whack at it to extract as much money as possible. The Germans became enablers, buying the drunks free drinks while going broke themselves. Now all that credit is debt due, and Europe is nearing calamity.

Lewis doesn't really blame anyone in the big picture but suggests it's part of a systemic biological process. As developed countries become more affluent we loose self control and discipline since everything is abundant and cheap. Our lower reptilian brain, honed for scarcity, is overloaded with abundance, which is masking the higher parts of the brain. We are becoming soft and spoiled, and so follow the short term pleasure route instead of the harder sacrifice for the future. (If you don't buy into this idea it's not central to the book).

The book is entertaining, accessible and timely. It's great for understanding the scale of the problem in Europe and the US as we face near certain default, sooner or later (some say Greece in the next 30-90 days). It has the potential to become a more serious political problem (wars) as conditions deteriorate, so I think it's important to understand how we got here, so we don't create scapegoats along the way and spiral into even bigger problems as inevitable scarcity arises.

Other than the short introduction, the book is freely available online in previously published magazine articles, which can be read stand-alone: California, Germany, Ireland, Greece, Iceland.
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The Wolf: How One German Raider Terrorized the Allies in the Most Epic Voyage of WWI


Richard Guilliatt, Peter Hohnen (2010)
Audio P8
October 2011
The WWI-era German ship "Wolf" was a black-painted merchant raider that cruised the world's oceans for over a year. Never coming home to port it fed off the carcases of its victims, stealing coal and food on the run like a high seas Bonnie and Clyde, leaving only minefields behind. Hundreds of civilians were taken from Allied ships and held in the Wolf's festering hold so they would not reveal the raiders mission. The motley assembly of crew and prisoners became a microcosm of the world circa 1917, a metaphor for understanding the times. We see nuanced relationships develop between the Germans and their prisoners, strict propriety was maintained between classes, sometimes leading to hilarious situations. German Navy sailors acted as waiters who served white table-cloth meals to upper-class British prisoners as if on a 5-star cruise, suffering their charges abuses about the quality of service, while keeping the lower class citizens below in the sweltering hold barely supplied. Not unlike the Titanic or Christmas truce, this story will stick with you for the depiction of civil behavior under brutal circumstances, sometimes to bizarre extremes.
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Young Men and Fire


Norman Maclean (1992)
Ebook P8
September 2011
Young Men and Fire is the story of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana. It killed 13 young smoke jumpers making it a pivotal event in US firefighting history. Much was gained from their sacrifice, the methods and practices of firefighting were forever changed. Maclean atomized the roughly 60-minute event in detail, going over every detail and possible lesson that could be gleaned. His writing is fantastic and it holds up well until about the last 50 pages or so when it becomes too geeky (the mathematics of fire etc). The human drama is unforgettable, when I think of firefighters from now on, this incident from the early heroic days will stand out.

I looked up Mann Gulch on Google Maps and incredibly there is a wildfire occurring when the picture was taken from space. I don't know if Google did this on purpose, or sheer "luck", but it adds to the books atmosphere to see the valley in the middle of an actual fire.
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Tarzan of the Apes


Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
Audio Audible
September 2011
The story of Tarzan is a twist on the noble savage theme, except with a white man as the "other" (ironically among other whites). The book is full of embarrassing artifacts ca. 1912 such as racial stereotypes, social Darwinism, superiority of white culture. A few scenes involving the affair with Jane and Tarzan are well done. Given its influence on popular culture it's still a worthwhile read, only just.

I have a theory about Tarzan. When superheroes arose in the late 19th and early 20th century in pulp fiction and dime store novels, it was in response to a changing world for white males. Colonialism was being questioned, female suffrage was at its height, the western frontier was closed - the white male was suffering a crisis of identity. The superhero offered a new found outlet to express a sense of superiority. By identifying with superheroes, he could live out his traditional mandate of conquest and patriarchy, which the real world was increasingly making impossible. Thus we don't find many black superheroes, even to this day. This historical insight makes me a little wary of the whole superhero enterprise and perhaps helps explain what made Tarzan so popular on a certain level.
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The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss


Edmund de Waal (2010)
Hardcover
September 2011
The crafting of this family history is unique and subtle. It took me a while to understand what Edmund was up to, obviously at first following an object and the people who owned it through time, but more nuanced poetic impressions bringing those people to life, each miniature biography a literary netsuke, the book itself a vitrine holding the family of netsuke's together in "vibrating silence". It's really a beautiful and exquisitely crafted work of literature. The book assumes a strong background in art, but if your willing to skip unfamiliar terms and people (or look them up) the story still holds, you may even feel as if you have briefly entered the rarefied world of fin de siècle Vienna or Paris in the 1870-80s.
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Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II


Robert Kurson (2004)
Audio P8
September 2011
Wow I enjoyed this book, it's unusually good. The movie is coming out in 2013. A mystery drives the book forward, a mystery so difficult to crack but compelling it kills a few people who try to solve it. Along the way we learn tons of interesting things about wreck diving, diving culture, WWII submarines, Vietnam, historiography (the creation of history), modern U-boat culture, and much else. I was sorry when it ended but enjoyed the trip. One of my fav books of the year.
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One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey


Sam Keith, Richard Proenneke (1973)
Ebook P8
September 2011
Like many people I hugely admire Dick Proenneke's self-sufficiency, crafting bare trees into a functioning household with just a few simple hand tools. Beyond that is his deeper lesson about the pleasures of physical labor, few material possessions and a respect for nature. Proenneke's lifestyle is a powerful reminder that there are other ways of being that don't rely on technology, maximizing the things that make us most human. The book was written in 1973 but has become increasingly relevant in our virtual worlds of video, internet and phones. Lest my thoughts here give the wrong impression it is not a philosophical tract like Walden, it's really a very simple diary of being self sufficient in the Alaskan back-country. Born in 1916 and a WWII vet he comes across as such a likeable person, and his woodworking crafts so admirable, we can't help but become pulled into his world. In time he became famous, John Denver came to visit, the National Park System has since made his cabin an historic building and there is a well known PBS documentary about him. For many Americans Proenneke is like Alaska itself, a vision of the possible unspoiled by civilization.
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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America


Erik Larson (2004)
Audio P8
September 2011
The Devil in the White City uses a number of writing techniques including something known as a "braided narrative", two parallel stories told in alternating chapters; and the horror genre to frame the story of the Chicago fair. I recognize the great skill and research in writing this book, it must have taken Mr Larson many years. However the serial killings literally made me feel nauseous, he wrote it to be like a horror novel but these were real people. Sort of like how some of the first riders of the Ferris wheel panicked and tried to jump off, I too wanted to get off but couldn't turn away with the horrible sights swirling around. Yes, I recognize the power of the art in Larson's book but it's not a ticket I'd want to repeat.
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Bones of the Tiger: Protecting the Man-Eaters of Nepal


Hemanta Mishra (2010)
Amazon Vine
September 2011
A fairly quick but good read by a native of Nepal who has been protecting wildlife there for decades. It's interesting to hear the perspective from someone who is actually from a third world country instead of an American or European conservationist. Mishra shows protecting tigers from extinction is very complex and difficult. The book is a mixture of personal stories, history, biology and the current state of tigers. 2010 was the Year of the Tiger and this was an excellent contribution, I applaud Mishra for his dedication and work. He also lead me to an obscure book Tiger for Breakfast which I hope to read soon.
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Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker


Kevin Mitnick (2011)
Audio P8
September 2011
I grew up in the 80s hacker scene so read this memoir by the periods most infamous hacker with glee. Mitnick's book captures the adrenaline rush of what it's like to be a hacker by describing a string of exciting stories and chases. His exploits were like winning the Superbowl of hackerdom, Mitnick took geek-cred to unheard of heights, and depths. In one case he wire tapped the FBI(!) and had a box of donuts waiting for when they executed a "surprise" raid on his house, the book is full of hutzpah like that. What makes Mitnick so heroic is he never did it for money, rather intellectual challenge. He was a modern day explorer in a world of artificial barriers. He was also a psychopath who cared little for consequences indeed reveling in others "stupidity" and bruising the egos of his enemies. Fortunately he wasn't evil and seems to have since grown up. I was one of those who rallied around the "Free Kevin" movement during one of his incarcerations, and this book explains how unfairly he was treated by the press and law. Yet one has to question, has the master of social engineering written this book as a clever attack on his enemies; we may never know, but I like to believe the stories are true. Kevin remains an enigma, which speaks to the truth of his humanity better than white/black hat.
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Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II


Mitchell Zuckoff (2011)
Audio P8
August 2011
I give Mitchell Zuckoff credit for turning this brief historical event in the final days of WWII into a book-length creative non-fiction thriller. I kept waiting for an amazing story of survival and rescue, per the title, which is not really the case, but it didn't matter because the telling is fun enough. Other than the initial plane crash and search, I never had the impression anyone was in too much danger, the natives were friendly and supplies rained down from parachutes like Christmas. Yet, Zuckoff keeps it interesting throughout, in large part because the exotic contrast of a lost "stone age" civilization and WWII-era Americans coming into first contact is straight out of Weird Tales.

Zuckoff did more than archival research, he tracked down and interviewed the last survivors, American and native, thus ensuring the story was not only retold but recorded in detail for the first time, making it an important work of original research. I found it a bit too fawning in places, for the period and generation, in other words sentimental and romanticized, but it's effective and has an art to it that is appropriate given some of the participants are still living. If you liked Unbroken, this is a good chaser.
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The Best American Essays 2010


Christopher Hitchens (2010)
Paperback
August 2011
The Best American Essays 2010 is a collection of articles first published in magazines during 2009. This is my 5th in the series and I found it average with a couple pieces worth marking for later re-reading, and the discovery of one author I'd like to read more of.

The four pieces I enjoyed most were "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy" by Elif Batuman (Harper's) mainly for the hillarious writing in which he shows up for a conference in Russia with missing luggage and walks around for a week in the same grungy track suit. The bus stop bathroom break is classic. I suspect this piece is an excerpt from his book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. "Me, Myself, and I" by Jane Kramer (New Yorker) is a biographical piece on Michel de Montaigne who is of course the inventor of the "essay" genre. Lots of good quotes from his work. The best piece by far is Matt Labash's "A Rake's Progress" (Weekley Standard) about D.C. Mayor Marion Barry - very well written, funny and interesting, Labash attached himself to Barry for a few weeks and followed him around in his post-politics life in Washington. Barry is endlessly fascinating for his contrasting brilliance and total self-destruction without remorse. Labash is the perfect iconoclastic author for Barry, and my new favorite. Finally, Ron Rindo's "Gyromany" (Gettysburg Review) is a first-person account of what it's like to have severe vertigo, a condition comparable to severe chronic pain. There is a new theory that vertigo was the condition that drove van Gogh mad, and which explains the twirly nature of his paintings like in "The Starry Night". Ah hah!
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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created


Charles C. Mann (2011)
Audio / Amazon Vine
August 2011
1493 is a fascinating look at the Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange was (and continues to be) a sort of global Rube Goldberg event that unleashed a long series of unintended consequences that have shaped and continue to impact the world today. Mann has only scratched the surface.

One thing about Mann is he writes popular history with a scholarly veneer. Mann will favor the dramatic conclusion, and those things supporting his main thesis, but leaves unsaid counter factual evidence and competing ideas. He will attribute the Columbian Exchange as the primary (only) reason for some momentous event when in fact the Columbian Exchange is only one of many reasons historians consider for why that event happened. So this is both a great book, and a dangerous one, as it can lead to singular perspectives that are maybe not so straightforward. History is very multifaceted, we should be suspicious of grand overarching theories that explain too much. Still, as a work of popular history and introduction to the Columbian Exchange, 1493 is an excellent and rewarding work.
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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable


Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)
Ebook P8
August 2011
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is one of those Old World gentleman genius philosophers that used to be common but are rare these days. It would be easy to imagine him with a white beard in a library of red leather smelly books, smoking a cigar and drinking sherry while pontificating with friends who happen to be Nobel winners or equivalent in smarts. With the Black Swan he has created a "big idea" from a lifetime of thinking about the problem of risk. Not only is the big idea important, his book is literary and classical in style, like reading Michel de Montaigne's essays, it has no peer in terms of style, it's as unique as the author.

Taleb's big idea, Black Swan, is a source of freedom from the multitude of hucksters who portend to prophesize about the future (and profit) - by looking at their methodology, if there are bell curves or straight line projections based on past performance, you know it's false, in particular the longer out it goes. It makes life much easier to sift through the garbage for the gems. There are other tricks in the book, like knowing the difference between scalable things (height of humans) vs exponential things (net worth of individuals) - scalable things are less prone to a Black Swan while exponential things have more danger. The essence of a Black Swan is we can't predict what it will be, or when, by definition, but we can predict they will happen, and thus be prepared.

A brilliant book by a brilliant author. He is over my head in places and I'll need to revisit sometime in the future as a reminder but this is a book for the ages.
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The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes


Scott Wallace (2011)
Amazon Vine
August 2011
The Unconquered (2011) is by Scott Wallace a National Geographic reporter who accompanied Brazilian Indian-rights leader Sydney Possuelo and his team on a grueling 76-day Amazonian expedition in 2002. The purpose of the expedition was not to make contact with the uncontacted Indians, as you might expect. Rather the thinking these days is to leave uncontacted tribes alone, the goal is to prevent loggers, illegal settlers, poachers, smugglers and narco-traffickers from doing them harm. About 4,000 Indians live in an area nearly the size of Florida making it very difficult to protect them, so officials will walk the boundaries looking for activity of intrusions. Wallace's trip in which he walked one section of the border region was originally covered in a 2003 National Geographic article, this is his extended book about it.

The expedition might be called routine considering how little went wrong, but given the natural hazards of traveling overland through the Amazon jungle and through hostile Indian territory it is adventure enough - snakes, bugs, caiman, disease, leopards, etc are a constant companion. Wallace makes the best of small moments and details so that one feels as if being in the jungle. Though I've read more exciting Amazon books, this one is authentic and alive in the moment as if I traveled there myself. Yet how does one write a book about Indians that remain uncontacted, that are never seen? Like in the film 'Jaws' we are most afraid of, and fascinated by, what we can't see. Throughout the book the presence of the Indians is all around but invisible. In one scene Wallace wakes in the night and sits alone on a dock along the river. He begins to hear kerplunks in the water, someone is throwing seeds closer and closer to him, playing with him, but Wallace understands he is also within arrow range and quickly breaks away. It is both haunting and poetic, beautiful and deadly.

Wallace shows that the idea of an "uncontacted" tribe is something of a myth in the 21st century. These tribes know that guns are dangerous and they have steel tools traded through networks, but they choose to remain isolated. Many are remnants of tribes decimated during the 19th century rubber boom who fled into hiding in remote areas. These areas are now under threat, it is hoped that by protecting the top predator - man - it will help ensure portions of the Amazon will avoid the worse of the wholesale destruction currently underway, ironically by man himself. It's also nice to know that humans still live wild and free somewhere on the planet.
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Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor


Russell S. Bonds (2006)
Audio P8
August 2011
I never heard of the famous "Great Locomotive Chase", so had the pleasure of fresh discovery in the company of a well researched and entertaining book. But I have to admit, being new the subject, a lot of the background involved wading through minutia of trivia that didn't seem important and which I'll never remember. Still it's a great story for Civil War and/or train buffs, so I don't fault the book. There are certainly more pithy accounts available for those wanting a briefer version.

I've read a number of Civil War history books but this is the first one that is so focused on just a few individuals. Since the incident is so well documented with primary sources, we have direct quotes from normal people who otherwise are invisible to history which adds a lot of character and sense of place and time. It was easy to step back and time and re-enact the period, and I think that is the most valuable aspect, an accessible and fun way to time travel. It's also rare to read a Civil War book in which hardly a shot is fired - there was some violence and death after the "race", but nothing compared to the typical brutality of the war.

After reading I watched Buster Keaton's 1926 film The General, based on the story of the chase, which has great sets and further adds to the period feel. Apparently this film is considered an American classic and was among the first to be added to the National Film Registry; critic Roger Ebert listed it on his top 10 greatest films. It's well worth seeing the film along with the book.
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The Hobbit or, There and Back Again


J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
Audio P8
July 2011
Like many others I first read The Hobbit years ago as a young person. Now older and wiser, I return to the story of my youth and wonder if Middle Earth still holds the same magic. The myths Tolkien created have so saturated our culture it's difficult to see the forest for the trees, to see The Hobbit as a simply a 1930's children's story, and not one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Still, it's possible to suspend belief and let the story carry along down the road from one little adventure to next, marveling at how innocently Bilbo finds the Ring that would create such consequence, in fantasy and reality.

Why is Tolkien so popular? It's easy to find: Biblo and the hobbits represent the middle-class with all its values and fears and hopes. The middle-class, by definintion, face two forces: the proletariat or working class from below as represented by the various dark creatures such as the trolls and goblins; and the ceiling above, the rich elite such as the wood elves (landed gentry) and the dragon who hordes wealth obtained illictly (robber baron). It is the middle class dream, sandwiched between these opposing forces, to obtain safety and security and comfort (Bilbo so loves his comfort in his hobbit hole) by keeping down the grubbing lower class and taking a share from the immoral upper class. In the end this is exactly what happens when the goblins/dragon are defeated and the treasure is fairly distributed.

That Bilbo is portrayed as a thief is curious, but it fits the model. He didn't steal the ring from Gollum but won it by out smarting him - the bourgeois value of education rewards in the end. Bilbo's thieving is always done in the name of good, like Robin Hood, not out of greed or malice. So The Hobbit is no more than a fairy tale for children, it is a bourgeois guidebook. It's the perfect story for facing the fears, uncertainties and joys on the journey of becoming (and remaining) self-sufficient members of a democratic society. In a democracy everyone is ideally seen as equal, at least in opportunity to get ahead, and thus a small inconsequential hobbit Bilbo can obtain great success, which re-enforces the bourgeois notion that with a little pluck and work anything is possible. This lesson seems odd in a world of monarchy, where birth determines status and fortune, but that is part of the fantasy: bumbling kings and heroic nobodies.

Others have tried to copy Tolkien such as Brooks, Jordan and Martin but Tolkien remains the most beloved. I think Tolkien was still close enough to the 19th century that his style of Naturalism and Romanticism were least corrupted by Modernism and post-modernism. This corruption later manifested in darker and more cynical works, which are appealing in their way, but miss something of the magical child-like wonderment and optimism of Tolkien's Hobbit.
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Seabiscuit: An American Legend


Hillenbrand Laura (2001)
Audio P8
July 2011
2011 is the 10th anniversary of this non-fiction classic and I was curious if reading it for the first time would elicit the same kind of love that critics and fans had for it a decade ago. Overall I would say it has held up well and still captures the compelling life of Seabiscuit and her owner, trainer and jockey, told with expert skill. I'm not really a horse fan but could follow along and understand why Seabiscuit was special. Hillenbrand also does a good job of capturing the spirit of the times, during breaks between reading I often felt as though I was still in the 1930s (the current economic cycle is a compounding factor!). Since I've never followed a horse, it's hard to compare Seabiscuit with anything, but the story stands on its own. I was also amazed at the dangers and rigors of being a jockey and how much difference a trainer makes.
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Aucassin and Nicolette


Andrew Lang, trans. (1220)
Internet Archive
July 2011
Aucassin and Nicolette is an anonymous French work from around ca. 1220 (give or take 50 years). It combines multiple Old French genres in a subtle parody of the literature of its age. It's sophisticated entertainment for readers who were already familiar with, and perhaps bored by, classics of the previous century. Everything is turned on its head: women who act like men, men who act like women, Christians with Muslim names, Muslims with Christian names, wars fought with food (not over food), warriors who do not kill, heroes who would rather go to hell than heaven, and so on. Yet it's so skillfully framed in a tender hearted love story one would be forgiven for missing the satire entirely, as many early critics did after the work was rediscovered in the 18th century. I'm impressed by its subtle sophistication considering its antiquity, the humor still works to reveal the different literary tropes popular during the 12th century. In a sense it reminds me of Candide or Gulliver's Travels, I had no idea anything like it existed so early in Medieval literature.
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Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny


Mike Dash (2002)
Ebook P8
July 2011
Wow what an amazing story, I couldn't put it down. A true-crime classic from the Age of Sail - if you like mutiny, debauchery and lunacy - sort of like The Raft of the Medusa + Treasure Island. Appropriately for the time, Dash focuses on the grotesque, 1629 was a brutal time in European history, the same period as the Thirty Years War the worst war in European history (prior to the 20th century). The book is useful for imagining the types of ordinary people who lived through it - mercenary, wavering loyalties to God, king, state or company; torn by religion, desperate souls on the margins of life and death with no safety nets. We read about the period with a sense of horror, glad to not to have lived through it, but it was through these violent fractures and mistakes that the modern world was born. The story of the Bactavia is fascinatingly dark, but also a gateway for understanding a vital time in history.
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Stbalbach's Choice: Novella's and Shorts, Vol. 1


Anthology (2011)
Ebook
July 2011
Novellas and Shorts, Vol.1

A collection of novella's and shorts I have been reading that add up to over 300 pages. For background to the series see the above link.

*"The Golden Pot", from The Golden Pot and Other Tales (Oxford World's Classics), E.T.A. Hoffmann (read: March 2011, 83 pgs)

"The Golden Pot" is a strange mystical story. Most remarkable is its ambiance of magic and fantasy held together with utterly unique prose and vision. I'm not sure what to make of it, like trying to grasp water, it slips away even after two readings.

*"The Forty Seven Ronin", from Tales of Old Japan, A.B. Mitford (read: April 2011, 35 pgs)

"The Forty Seven Ronin" is apparently as popular in Japan as something like 'A Christmas Carol' in the West, endlessly adapted and retold in plays, movies, radio etc.. an entire genre unto itself. It's based on a true story from the 18th century, about 47 Samurai who died in a honorable way, their graves can still be visited to this day. The story became somewhat popular in the west in the 19th century, with the retelling here by A.B. Mitford, which was once thought to be accurate, but now seen as embellished in the details. Still, a memorable story and a great introduction to Japanese literature and character. If I was 17 I would think it the best story I ever read.

* "Wild Child", from Wild Child and Other Stories by T. C. Boyle (read: May 2011, 75 pgs)

"Wild Child" is the title story from Boyle's short story collection, supposedly the best of the bunch, so I just read this one, the longest, more of a novella. Based on a true story of an abandoned French boy who went feral and was raised by dogs and then taken in by society which tries with varying success to civilize him. Philosophically it's dealing with the Rousseaunian idea of man in his perfect primal condition versus the corruption of civilization; and Rousseau's theories on educations - and since it's set in France at around the time Rousseau was alive gives added literary connection. The writing style reminds me of the technique used in Heinrich von Kleist's ''Michael Kohlhaas'' (1811) - a document of the time it was written. A story of substance and interest.

* "The League of Youth", from A Doll's House and Other Plays (Penguin Classics) by Henrik Ibsen (read: July 2011, 140 pgs)

"The League of Youth" was Ibsen's first play written in a realistic style and in prose - up to that point he wrote plays in verse set in mythical settings. While not very popular outside of Scandinavia, it is one of his most popular at home in Norway. It's a comedy with witty dialogue and fast changing action. It's the first Ibsen I've read, and I enjoyed it, apparently lighter than some of his more symbol-laden later plays.
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Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future


Jeff Goodell (2006)
Audio P8
July 2011
Big Coal (2006) is an engaging overview of the many problems with coal. It's heavy on the outrage button, but deservedly so, coal is the single biggest culprit in global warming among other public health issues. You learn a lot about how certain corporations maintain the ability to profit by polluting at the public's expense, how cynical and crass coal businessmen are in delaying and denying. It's an old story, similar to the tobacco fight, but more entractable. In the end this is a depressing book, but consider it the first in a two volume series because while it ends in 2005, the story picks up again in 2007 in Climate Hope which details the successful campaigns of activists to stop any new coal plants from being built in the USA. The battle rages on, it's historic and planet-saving stuff happening now. Big Coal is a good foundation to start.
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The Fearful Void


Geoffrey Moorhouse (1974)
Hardcover
July 2011
If you've never read about a desert camel expedition, this is a fine book and somewhat innovative for its time, though maybe not for everyone. Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar) recommended it, and the first two-thirds remind me of Theroux's style with a curmudgeon narrator complaining about the missing comforts of home. Moorhouse later said he intentionally did this in response to older travel books where authors such as Wilfred Thesiger (Arabain Sands) come across as supermen not revealing how they felt physically and mentally under hardship. I think Moorhouse (and Theroux) took it too far though, appearing spoiled and self-centered.

Moorhouse intended to cross the Sahara desert from the Atlantic to Egypt. He wanted to do it alone, to face the "fearful void" metaphorically and find himself, but the reality was this was impossible and he grudgingly accepted aid from nomad guides, going through about 6 of them along the way. Most of the book is focused not on the desert, or Moorhouse's internal voyage of discovery, but the constant bickering between him and his guides! It's as if he went into the desert to get away from people and was surrounded by some of the most grubbing people of his life, a version of hell. So while the expedition was a failure (he didn't make it all the way), the central idea of the book appears to be a failure as well. The appeal of this book then is 'failure', an anti-explorer narrative in contrast to the 19th century form in which the plucky explorer sets out and achieves his goal against all odds. This was a necessary break with the past, and in the 1970's Moorhouse and Theroux were innovators, but compared to modern travel books it's a little awkward. Still, it's a neat account of traveling through the Sahara, he went over 2000 miles which is remarkable.
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Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD 1000


Barry Cunliffe (2008)
Hardcover
June 2011
I'm not an expert on prehistory but for the layman this is probably the definitive book on European history from 10,000 BC to about 2,000 BC. It's a period I knew almost nothing about, and even thought there wasn't much to know. The Germanic "barbarians" before the Romans were a mystery that was forever lost. But the amount of detail we know through archaeological evidence is amazing, it's not at all a dark period, it's a huge stretch of history that is beginning to open up and become more clear.

Cunlife looks at big common themes reoccurring through the millennium driven by geography, themes as common today as they were in 6000 BC, and will be in the future. The different zones of culture, the axis of communication and movement of goods (north-south and east-west), the axis of movements of people. Rivers and mountains, oceans and peninsula's carve and divide Europe, along and around which flow people and goods, creating cognitive geographies that further shape culture.

As I was nearing the end of the book, events felt strangely repetitive. By the time written history begins, the patterns of the modern world had already solidified. This perspective is very different from the traditional view of early history as the "new" and beginning, not towards the end of something larger that came before. The book opens new perspectives on the development of civilization in Europe. A wonderful book that has greatly peaked my interest in the "prehistory" of Europe, but also changed my perspective on Europe as a whole.
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Solaris: The Definitive Edition


Stanislaw Lem (1961)
Audio P8
June 2011
This is a review of Solaris: The Definitive Edition (2011), translated by Bill Johnston for the first time directly from the Polish into English, instead of the Polish->French->English of the other translation. It's only available as an audiobook from Audible.com due to copyright issues. The narrator does a pretty good job with voice acting various characters and the translation appears seamless. As for the novel, I knew nothing about it. It's heavy on philosophy and dream-states without much action. In style it reminded me of Knut Hamsun's Hunger with its internal monologue and bizarre logic. Essentially the novel is exploring the divide between science and religion. It proposes that there is a limit to scientific investigation, and a place where God begins. Mankind's Faustian bargain ("deal with the devil") will come to pass when he reaches the limits of understanding the external natural world. As Nietzsche said, "And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
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Russia: The Wild East (Series 1: 879-1917)


Martin Sixsmith (2011)
Audio P8
June 2011
A fantastic BBC full-cast radio "book". I call it a book rather than radio show because it has the length and detail of a book, but it's also extremely entertaining with bits of classical music, voice actors, primary sources, and sound effects. BBC is clearly the best at radio productions.

Sixsmith's central question is, why did Western Europe develop modern Democracies while Russia has had successions of authoritarian governments, why isn't Russia today like America or France? He says by looking at Russian history we should not be surprised, he shows time and again over the centuries why Russia has reverted to its "default" mode - authoritarianism, with the state being more important than the individual. Sixsmith shows how early on the Russians were subjugated by Mongols for centuries while the West was experiencing a Renaissance, they fought internally among themselves, and it took strong authoritarian control to unite and defeat its enemies. The fear of invasion is strong and repeats in Russia history and so the state must remain strong for Russia to survive, is the "default" Russian thinking.
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The Plan of St. Gall In Brief


Lorna Price (1982)
Paperback
June 2011
The Plan of Saint Gall (ca. 820 AD) is one of my favorite things in the world. Ever since I wrote the linked Wikipedia article years ago, I've wanted to see the 3-volume treaties written by Horn and Born (1979), a highlight of modern book making, but alas it is rare and costs thousands of dollars. Luckily in 1982 they also published a "brief" that gives a taste of the main book at a reasonable price. Even the brief is a huge book, 14" tall with detailed pen and ink drawings and blueprints, it sort of feels like a medieval manuscript. Well worth it for anyone with a passing interest in medieval monasteries, it also probably influenced Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose.
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I Am Legend


Richard Matheson (1954)
Audio P8
June 2011
In I Am Legend, Matheson inverts the traditional vampire story on two levels. First, humans are the minority and vampires are the majority. Second, humans are the "other", the creature of 'legend' instead of the vampire. This was a creative leap and would be highly influential. Why was it so successful? Because the inversion alienates the hero of the story, and alienated heroes became popular around this time in history. After WWII American middle class youth began to romantically associate with outsiders, the other, like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, beats and hippies. Through the inversion of the vampire story, I Am Legend reinforces the alienated outsider world view, at least in fantasy. No wonder it's been such a perennial cultural favorite. Like a virus the story carries on with each new generation creating its own adaptation in comics, film and so on. "I Am Legend" indeed.
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Lions of Kandahar: The Story of a Fight Against All Odds


Rusty Bradley (2011)
Amazon Vine
June 2011
Lions of Kandahar is a first-person account of an 8-day battle in southern Afghanistan during 2006. It's notable because the battle centered on a small team of about 30 Green Berets (including the author) who ended up playing a decisive role in defeating an enemy nearly 50 times in number. This battle was part of a sea change in strategic thinking about the role of Special Forces, they are now one of the primary forces in Afghanistan. Through this book you get a first hand view of how they operate, which is an important perspective as the military changes from the monolithic Soviet threat to small and fast teams with lots of skills and firepower.
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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York


Deborah Blum (2010)
Audio P8
June 2011
The Poisoner's Handbook (2010) is a retelling of poison cases in New York City during the 20s and 30s, which were investigated by Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, two pioneers of forensic toxicology. We learn of a dozen or so different poisons and ways to use them, and 30 or 40 true crime tales that could have been perfect murders, had it not been for the sleuthing skills of Gettler and Norris. It's fairly well written, though occasionally bogs in the details of chemistry. I'll forget most of these stories eventually, but one is memorable, that of "Mike the Durable", an Irish homeless drunk who could not be killed in a black comedy of errors. I was amazed at how little was known about poison, and how certain deaths became textbook lessons that we still benifit from today, in particular radioactive material. This is a deep and narrow book - forensic toxicology in 1920s and 30s New York surrounding 2 investigators- but ultimately very human and interesting.
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A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee


David Crockett (1834)
Internet Archive
June 2011
Davy Crockett was famous for hunting bears, killing Indians, drinking whiskey, riding rapids and was 'King of the Wild Frontier' in a buckskin jersey and coonskin cap. I only vaguely knew about him from the Disney film, and so after reading this excellent review by Pulitzer winning critic Henry Allen about a recent biography (David Crockett: The Lion of the West (2011)), I decided to go straight to the primary source, his autobiography, to hear Crockett in his own voice. As Allen says, Crockett "spoke the American language, funny and sly in the frontier style that would later make Mark Twain famous." He writes with a sort of genius for telling tales in the vernacular, and was supposedly irresistible in person. "He invented a kind of American manhood, too, one that depends on believing it can always survive walking alone down whatever mean streets.can pack up and head West as a last resort, like Huck Finn lighting out "for the Territory" or Jack Kerouac fleeing nothing and everything by heading west in "On the Road."

Read via Internet Archive, first edition, 1834.
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No Picnic on Mount Kenya


Felice Benuzzi ()
Hardcover
May 2011
Charming little WWII prison escape story about an Italian in a British POW camp in Kenya. The author escapes for 17 days in order to climb Mt Kenya which he can see from his barracks window tempting him. Like Robinson Crusoe he builds mountaineering gear, ice-axes and crampons, from scraps found around the prison, then escapes with two mates and heads for the hills. The writing is funny with a literary bent, while the story is effective since the idea of escaping from "prison" to climb a mountain would strike a chord with many later readers seeking the freedom of the outdoors.
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Ice Age Neanderthals


Rebecca Stefoff (2009)
Ebook P8
May 2011
Good 100-page illustrated introduction to Neanderthals, readable in a day, easy for beginners but not just for children. Part of a 4-book series on human evolution. Appreciated information on specific archaeological sites, the history of finds made, and placing sites into historical context. Info-graphics and pictures well done. Novelistic re-constructions of certain discoveries very helpful.
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The Best American Essays 2009


Mary Oliver (2009)
Paperback
May 2011
This is a thin issue at only 187 pages. Most of the selections are well written, but they demand concentration and may not be of general interest. There were a few that had some energy and broad appeal which I enjoyed best, including Michael Lewis "The Mansion: A Subprime Parable" where he describes renting the largest house in New Orleans, it's very funny and reads breezily. I guess finding this piece made the book worth it. Kathyrn Miles "Dog Is Our Co-pilot" is an interesting history of Charles Darwin's pet dogs and how dog breeds have been created. Finally Gregory Orr's "Return to Hayneville" about his experiences as a white civil rights marcher in the south in 1965 is very good (also found in The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. 3).
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Uncommon Carriers


John McPhee (2006)
Audio P8
May 2011
This is a great book for geeks who like to know all the useless details of how the world operates, in this case American trucking, coal trains, river barges and UPS/FedEx. It's like having a Rube Goldberg machine described by a witty and folksy uncle. I'm not sure McPhee entirely succeeds in describing complex machinery, sometimes it works and sometimes not, there are one or two sentences and on to the next thing, many times I could not visualize what he was talking about. Overall though a delightful book, the first chapter about trucking is best, probably followed by the coal train in the last.
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The Shrinking Man


Richard Matheson (1956)
Ebook P8
May 2011
I thought this was a good story, better than the movie, it has a literary dimension that rewards in the end. The way Matheson slowly reveals the story through flashbacks is also stylistically very effective.

There are a number of ways to approach The Shrinking Man. Foremost are its literary antecedents in Robinson Crusoe and Metamorphosis, but it is more than a 'Kafkaesque Robinsonade'. Matheson created a 'shrinking' man (in process of shrinking), and not a 'shrunken' (already shrunk) man, and also not a woman. As he shrinks, changes occur both internally and externally. Those changes largely have to do with his notions of masculinity in the ridged world of middle-class 1950s America. He is confronted with his ideas of what it means to be a man: providing for his family, sexual performance, domination over women and children, being the initiator of desire, and not the object of desire (media attention). In the end he accepts a new normality and overcomes his demons such as spiders (women), and being trapped in the basement (traditional masculine roles). We never know what actually happens to him, but it doesn't matter, rather he has escaped alive, symbolically accepting a new normality. In the world of 1950s post-war America, escape from the confines of ones roles and responsibilities was a fantasy many could get behind (also the theme of Catcher in the Rye, The Graduate and other outsider literature of the period).
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Alas, Babylon


Pat Frank (1959)
Audio P8
April 2011
Alas, Babylon (1959) is one of the half dozen must-read nuclear holocaust novels. It's engrossing and realistic, but not without problems. As Orville Prescott remarks in his 1959 review for the New York Times, Frank demonstrates "minimum competence in characterization and no ability whatever to convey the emotional atmosphere of a time of supreme crisis." As an example, all the women in the novel are cast as stereotypes, such as the gossip, the homemaker, the maid, the seductress, the good wife, the cook, and the grieving mother. Prescott does admit that "Frank commands a crisp, readable style and has an inventive imagination for practical details and small incidents."

Frank was an expert in nuclear warfare due to his professional background and thus the details of what might happen in a war are where the novel shines. David Dempsey, writing in 1959 for the New York Times Book Review refers to the novel as a "manual for survival," which he says "might just be worth keeping around." Dempsey's criticism is that even though Frank's book is "provocative," it "never comes to grips with the more important question of just what kind of guilt his modern Babylonians are paying for." Babylon was destroyed by God for its sins, and the novel never says what those sins are or how the new society will be any different or redeemed, a theme better explored in A Canticle for Liebowitz.

Overall I was absorbed by the realistic portrayal of the breakdown of technology and how things we normally take for granted: running water, coffee, razors, etc. become very important. It gave me ideas on what to horde for the coming apocalypse :-) On the other hand the characters in the novel are cliche and stiff which gives it a nightmarish zombie aspect Frank probably didn't intend.
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Measuring the World


Daniel Kehlman (2005)
Ebook P8
April 2011
Young German author Daniel Kehlman (b.1975) redefined modern German literature with this witty, funny and fascinating retelling of the lives of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (b. 1769) and German mathematician Carl Gauss (b. 1777). The truth is, I knew almost nothing about them other than their names, but Kehlman's reconstruction of their lives left me with a desire to learn more. I now have a greater appreciation for German intellectual history during the Enlightenment. A smart and funny read, the best-selling German novel in 20 some years. See also this 20-page essay about Humboldt, by David McCullough.
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Life in the Iron Mills


Rebecca Harding Davis (1861)
LibriVox
April 2011
The 1861 novella Life in the Iron Mills was the first American story to depict realistically the factory mill worker. It's about a Welsh pig iron worker in Wheeling, West Virgina who has little chance of escaping the fate of the working class - a short, brutal life. By showing the factory workers with sympathy and respect, Rebecca Harding Davis set out to reform social problems and popular misconceptions. She counters the notion, common at the time (and not uncommon today) that poverty is a genetic or even a personal failing, rather than a social one. She was one of the first in a long line of American authors who used realism (Theodore Dreiser), naturalism (Frank Norris) and later modernism (John Steinbeck) to describe the plight of the working class for the purpose of informing the reading public, the bourgeois, about the problems of the proletariat; indeed by the 1930s there was a whole genre of literature that sometimes goes by the name "proletariat literature". This is where it began.

Read via LibriVox, narrated by Elizabeth Klett, whose Welsh accent during dialogue is remarkable.
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Rock Crystal


Adalbert Stifter (1853)
LibriVox
April 2011
Rock Crystal (1845) has some serious fans - Thomas Mann and A H Auden - plus a translation re-issued by the New York Review of Books in 2008, giving it a sort of literary pass of worthiness. Unfortunately, I was totally unmoved. Maybe my old translation is at fault, or the slow and uneventful plot, or simply a lack of cultural context. I need to read the most recent 1945 translation by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore and not the 1914 Lee M. Hollander translation. Pushkin Press also published the Mayer/Moore translation in 2001, it's probably now in the public domain, since two major publishers have it in print at the same time.

Read via LibriVox, expertly narrated by Greg W.
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Living in Ancient Mesopotamia


Norman Bancroft Hunt (2008)
Ebook P8
April 2011
The history of Mesopotamia has always been confusing with its multitude of city-states, empires, races and kings: Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Sumerians and plenty of others. The scale of time between about 7000BC and 634AD (Islamic invasions) is unfathomable. So ironically enough this 97 page illustrated page book for young adults seemed like one way to approach problem of conceptualizing Mesopotamia.

The pictures and diagrams are gorgeous, the cutaways of buildings and cityscapes are informed by the latest archaeology, comparable with the kind of work done by David MacAulay or seen in a NatGeo magazine. The accompanying text is interesting but encyclopedic thus requiring some self-motivation through the dry parts. Each 2-page spread is self-contained so if you don't like the topic (food, religion, art, etc) it soon moves on. Overall it's a good balance of political and cultural, presented in a multi-media format that provides a modern introduction accessible to anyone.

Some interesting new things I learned: baklava, the honey/nut/pastry treat, was an Assyrian invention going back at least 3000 years (later borrowed by the Greeks); the wheel may have been invented based on potters wheels (ca. 3500); the Persians (modern Iran) and the Greeks descend from the same people (Aryans) who came out of central Asia between 1900-1500 BC.
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The Great Houses of England and Wales


Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd (1994)
Ebook P8
April 2011
Great Houses of England & Wales (1994) is a coffee-table picture book written by one Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd (say it twice fast), better known as the "father of the modern British obituary", the kind that are irreverent and funny. In addition to obituaries he also wrote bourgeois guides to the British upper-crust with titles like The London Ritz and Heritage of Royal Britain that do exactly what they say on the tin - and so it is with this volume that looks at 25 residences (castles, halls, houses) built between the 13th and 18th centuries.

The pictures are fantastic, by photographer Christopher Simon Sykes. The accompanying text is uneven, sometimes inspired superlatives ("one of the great rooms of the world"), other times boring aristocratic genealogy that numbingly goes on for pages. My favorites include the library in Alnwick Castle (p.18), if I ever win the lottery, this will be the room I re-create, it's my favorite room in the book. Haddon Hall is my favorite home overall, including the incredible Banqueting Hall ca. 1370 (p.22), it has the Romantic look of the Middle Ages. The Baron's Hall (p.40) at Penshurst Place is atmospheric, the kind of place long haired kings carve roasted meat off a spit with a sword. The most curious picture is p.145 showing the Duke of Devonshire asleep on his couch surrounded by a mess of daily papers - no doubt after reading the obituary section.
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Hunger


Knut Hamsun (1890)
LibriVox
April 2011
Hunger (1890) by Knut Hamsun "might very well be seen as the first European Modernist novel" (Robin Young, 2002). It's considered by critics to be his most enduring and important work. There is no plot to speak of, the main character doesn't have a name, the narrative is discontinuous, it's stream of conscious, highly subjective internal point of view from someone who is physically degenerating from hunger while trying to make a living as a writer. One could say he mentally degenerates as well, but it's clear from the opening chapter he is already mentally unstable for reasons never understood or explained, though more clear once the novel is seen as autobiographical (Hamsun was nuts). All of these things divorce it from the traditional 19th century novel, and it's remarkable how cutting edge it still reads given its antique age. I'm not sure I "enjoyed" it, but I was curious about its reputation and style. Parts are good, parts are bad, but it's innovative and unique for its time, a snapshot into the gradual change to modernism.

I listened to the LibriVox recording by Greg W. which is very good, based on the trans. by "George Egerton" (1899, pseudonym of Mary Chavelita Dunne) which is acceptable though very old, according to Wikipedia the 1996 trans. by Sverre Lyngstad is currently considered the definitive.
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The Best American Essays 2008


Adam Gopnick (2009)
Ebook P8
April 2011
As always in a collection of magazine articles, some will be mysteriously uninteresting ("why did they pick that?"), some will be workman-good but forgettable, some will be memorable and worth marking for later re-reading, and if lucky one or two will be classic. While there were no classics in this issue, there were a couple that made the issue worthwhile.

The first essay is one of the toughest things I've read in a while, by Patricia Brieschke called "Cracking Open", it recounts the multiple surgeries her baby went through, all without anesthesia - until recently doctors believed babies feel no pain and operated with no pain killers of any kind. Her detailed descriptions of the babies clenched fists and whaling cries reminded me of watching a Holocaust documentary, not for the faint of heart, yet so very common. Barbaric, Jim.

"Becoming Adolf" by Rich Cohen is hilarious, fascinating and educational. It's the history of the "toothbrush" moustache that Hitler and Charlie Chaplin wore, how it came about, and why they wore it. Turns out it was an American style the Germans co-opted. It was a modern, uniform (industrial), dashing dandy compared to the long, wild moustaches of the 19th century. The writing is superb, I plan to seek out more by Cohen.

"Candid Camera" by Anthony Lane is a tribute to the Leica camera, made in Germany. I'd heard of this legendary camera, but didn't know why it was so revered - now I know. I want one so bad it hurts. This article may end up costing me a lot of money.
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A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906


Simon Winchester (2005)
Audio P8
March 2011
After the recent earthquake/tsunami/nuclear-meltdown in Japan I wanted to read a disaster book, and Simon Winchester offers light entertaining non-fiction about an old scar that has since healed, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (and fire). Most of the book is about earthquakes in general, and the potential for another big one in the near future. It's not Winchester's best book, it's mediocre really, and there are probably better earthquake books, but being an Anglophile I enjoy listening to his accent and tweedy style in audiobook format.

Some of the things I learned: the San Andreas fault is currently 17' behind, meaning the next earthquake will shift at least that far in one big jolt. The other big fault in the USA, centered in Memphis TN, is caused by upwelling underneath the middle of the North American plate, like a pimple, and not plates rubbing together, like San Andreas. Thus when a quake hits Memphis, it's like a hammer hitting marble, the waves spread far across a solid plate, unlike San Andreas where the ground is fractured on the edge of the plates and waves dissipate quickly over distance. I also learned there is a town in CA where the San Andreas is constantly moving 24x7, at about the speed of fingernails growing.
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You Think That's Bad


Jim Shepard (2011)
Hardcover
March 2011
This is Jim Shepard's third collection of factual-based short stories, a form in which he seems to have found and developed a niche. Shepard teaches writing. Instructors say you should write about what you know, as Sheparad has discovered, you can also write about what you have read - perhaps they are one and the same. His ability to insert memorable images or phrases to build atmosphere of place and time is amazing - whereas some writers might have just a few key descriptions here and there, the fabric of his stories are thick with them one sentence after the next.

There are 11 stories in the book, and each is based on true events or people from all periods of history (including the future in two of the stories). Shepard has a remarkable range, able to portray everything from 21st century CIA spooks, a Victorian-era woman explorer, a 15th century serial killer, to a hypothetical 2011 mountain climbing expedition (the Nanga Parbat peak in fact has never been climbed in winter). Adding to this external world panorama of diversity is an internal introspection among the characters showing common human bonds - it doesn't matter who, where or when, Sheparad shows or reminds us we are all the same in universal ways. This makes the stories that much more believable and stick in your memory, it's the internal struggle of the characters that bind the stories together.

My favorite stories are "The Track of the Assassins" about Freya Stark; "The Netherlands Lives with Water" about the vaunted Dutch system of dikes and the problems they (will) face caused by Global Warming; "Your Fate Hurtles Down At You" about avalances in the Alps; "Gojira, King of the Monsters" about the artist who created Godzilla (this is my favorite story); and "Poland is Watching" about climbing in winter Nanga Parbat the 9th tallest mountain in the world.
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Lapham's Quarterly: Lines of Work (V.4, N.2)


Lewis Lapham, ed. (2011)
Journal
March 2011
I enjoyed Lines of Work. The editors pick of excerpts and quotes contrast the universal themes of the need for work and labor, versus the desire for leisure and idleness. The pictures were very good too, Jean-Francois Millet's The Sower is my favorite.

Favorite excerpts include: Norman MacLean's experiences as a lumberjack before the era of chainsaws, he was on the other end of a 2-person saw with a sadistic jack whose "pace was set to kill me off." An excerpt of Homer's seven year tryst with Calypso in The Odyssey, "they lost themselves with love," but Homer leaves to return home to his wife. Nebmare-nakht in 1160 BC Egypt gives advice for young men, "Love writing, shun dancing." Roberta Victor in a piece from Studs Terkel's Working (1974) tells her experiences as a high-price call girl in Manhattan, "You leave and go back.. to what? To an emptiness. You got all this money in your pocket and nobody to care about."

Susan Orlean writes about the King of the African Ashanti tribe who lives in a small Bronx apartment with a throne, "Everyone always has a problem for the King." Edwin Lefevre's Reminiscences of a Stock Operator (1923) is "a font of investing wisdom" according to Alan Greenspan and considered a classic about stock trading. Paula Speck's essay "Six Seconds" is about families who sue for damages when their loved ones experience foreknowledge before dieing, such as in a plane accident or falling off a building; court precedent values each second of "I'm about to die" horror at about $3,000/sec, on average. "Where a medieval man might have been grateful for a chance to pray, we sue." Leslie Chang's excerpt from Factory Girls (2008) is about a Chinese factory that makes most of the worlds running shoes is a fascinating glimpse of mass industry and the social life within its walls. Woodie Guthrie's lyrics "Lulow Massacre" is a moving tribute to a real event in 1914, the deadliest strike in the history of the United States.
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Man in the Holocene


Max Frisch (1979)
Hardcover
March 2011
Man in the Holocene (German: Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän, 1979) first appeared in the New Yorker in 1980 and garnered lofty praise from the New York Times: "masterpiece" and one of the "Best Books of 1980". It's very short, about the time it takes to watch an episode of James Burke's Connections, and has lots of pictures and blocks of text pasted in from old Encyclopedia's (original fonts and all) giving it a heightened sense of realism, a realism which matches the beautifully evocative descriptions of mountains in a rainstorm. It concerns an old man, alone in a cottage, in a remote Swiss valley, whose grasp on himself and time begins to erode, for reasons that don't become clear until the end. It's a philosophical novel about time, age, permanence of type versus the temporary individual. For example he considers the extinction of dinosaurs while watching a salamander crawl across the floor (salamanders probably descended from dinosaurs). At the end of his life, he is watching his body and mind erode and near extinction, yet he is also "aware", in a way that is physically expressed by pasting encyclopedia articles on the wall, that life continues onward through the epochs even while the individuals die off. Writing, then, becomes for Max Frisch -- who was also near lifes end and in a remote Swiss valley when he wrote the story -- a vehicle for expressing immortality, not because the individual text will last forever (it doesn't), but text is a symbolic way of expressing the idea of immortality which ensures it continuance. It's a beautiful book, although I can't figure out why he roasted the cat.
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More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite


Sebastian Mallaby (2010)
Ebook P8
March 2011
More Money Than God is one of the best books I've read so far this year. Who knew financial history could be so compelling and entertaining. I have almost no background in finance but this book taught me a lot, and kindled a desire to become a more serious student of finance. I didn't even know what a hedge fund was before picking up this book, but by its end I was able to guess how the markets might respond to the most recent global disaster (Japan Earthquake/Flood of 2011), and intelligently follow along with CNBC commentators. The information in the book is great, and so are the human stories. George Sorros is the most famous, and there are many others whose careers are truly the stuff of legend. Apparently there's something satisfying watching someone make tons of money and then lose it. So are the stories of underdogs armed with nothing but a good idea working outside the system beating it at its own game. The other financial book I read recently, The Big Short, is similar for the drama, but this book is better for the information and broader context, though a little more difficult, I would recommend it highly to anyone as you can read it just for the plot, or in more detail about how finance operates through successes and mistakes.
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The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice


Michael Krondl (2007)
Audio P8
March 2011
The Taste of Conquest is a history of spice as told through the stories of three European cities: Vienna, Lisbon and Amsterdam. It's wide ranging, occasionally glittering and sometimes frustrating. I listened to the audio version which is not recommended, many passages need more time to reflect on then a fast moving audio book. The narrative or "plot" can be choppy to non-existent so it rewards the reader whose interested in tangents, anecdotes and information, and unfortunately audio books are not the best format. So while I found it generally interesting while going along, I'm hard pressed to remember much afterward, it didn't sink in. Part of the problem is similar to other books in the genre I've read - Salt, Beef, Banana - the unifying theme is weak for a book-length treatment, and the narrative somewhat uncompelling.
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A Canticle for Leibowitz


Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)
Ebook P8
March 2011
Walter M. Miller was a devout Catholic convert. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller's depictions of Catholic monasticism, though set in the future, is really a retelling of the Church's achievements over the past 2000 years. It borders on "Catholic propaganda for secular readers", showing the role of the Church in preserving learning through the Middle Ages as a quiet incubator that led to the Renaissance and modernity. On the other hand, one could turn it around and blame the Church for allowing civilization to achieve its own (potential) self-destruction. Therein is the paradox of the novel, the Church is the seed of civilization's creation and self-destruction. I think this is what Miller was struggling with as a devout Catholic himself at the height of the Cold War when destruction seemed imminent.

Although Miller is writing about the future, it's really a retelling of the past in allegorical form (note Miller's reference to Dante "All Ye Who Enter..", the greatest allegory of the Middle Ages). Without some background in Catholic, European and Christian history, in particular from the Middle Ages, much of the novel is going to seem obtuse, not unlike the squiggles and lines of pre-Deluge papers the monks find in the ruins. At best the novel encourages readers to turn their gaze backwards in time, to investigate prior centuries with the same passion as reading about supposed futures. The past informs the future, by knowing the past, one knows a little better the future. Thus, it's an anti-science-fiction novel, making it one of the best science-fiction novels ever written.
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Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout


Philip Connors (2011)
Paperback
March 2011
I really enjoyed Fire Season for a number of reasons. First it's well written. Connors is likable, a gritty Everyman from Montanan sensitive to the environment who drinks whiskey while waxing philosophical about mans place in the world, holding court with the ghosts of Jack Kerouac, Edward Abbey and Norman Maclean. Secondly I am a big fan of books about social recluses who go into the wilderness, intentionally or on the run, living alone in nature; this book is clearly in the tradition of Walden. Finally I learned about what it's like manning a fire watch tower, managing a large national forest, and forest fires in general. How the history of no burn at any cost has created a huge store of tinder that causes giant forest fires that will take a century or more to undo the damage. This is a great book for a lot of reasons and I highly recommend it for the nature writing, western lifestyle, history, information about forest fires, and hanging out with a new voice in American nature writing.
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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption


Laura Hillenbrand (2011)
Audio P8
March 2011
It's remarkable how much is packed into this book, like an open buffet you can gorge yourself: an Olympic runner story, not just any runner but one of the best runners in the world; an epic life-raft survival story probably in the top 10 longest ever; a WWII POW story at the heart of the book that is unforgettable for how many times the hero should have died; a decades long hunt for a Japanese war criminal; a novelistic redemption and spiritual change in the hero. All written with Hillenbrand's talent for the adjective and sympathy for the reader that keep the pages turning quickly with a compelling narrative. It has patriotism, righteousness, no post-modernism, unbearable conditions, evil enemies and "unbreakable" men. It's the perfect book for those who want novelistic non-fiction that is engrossing and satisfying. The main weakness is the genre is overdone, stories of WWII's Greatest Generation are legion, even the story of Louis Zamperini has been done before: by Zamperini himself only seven years ago.
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Fax From Sarajevo


Joe Kubert (1996)
Ebook
February 2011
Reading this graphic novel from 1996, about the 1992-93 Siege of Sarajevo, brought back a lot of memories. The Bosnian conflict was terrible, but it's over now and we've seen worse since: Rwanda, War on Terror, Iraq War. The outrage inherit in the novel feels distant, and the black and white politics slightly suspicious; the graphic art is GI Joe and the dialogue equally simple. The best part though are the faxes, which are real, the actual written words of someone who was experiencing the events day to day, communicating via fax what was happening. The artwork is a supplement to help bring it alive. This use of multimedia is effective and the true story a reminder of how terrible it was.
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Confessions of an English Opium-Eater


Thomas De Quincey (1821)
Internet Archive
February 2011
The original 1821 version of Confessions can and probably should be read in a single sitting. It is the literary equivalent of taking opium: the rationale, the purchase, the ingestion, the high, the down and the withdraw. De Quincey's impassioned literary style is equal to the dreamy clarity of opiates. Heroin and morphine have long been the muse of many a great rock star for good reason, it opens the minds creative channels yet unlike alcohol doesn't cloud the abilities and indeed enhances them. De Quincey along with others of his time found in opium the key to artistic expansion of the mind, for better and worse. The book directly influenced a number of 19th century authors, and today is a keystone in a long line of drug tell-all confessions.
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The Ancient Tea Horse Road: Travels With the Last of the Himalayan Muleteers


Jeff Fuchs (2008)
Hardcover
February 2011
I'd never heard of the ancient Tea-Horse Road before, but after stumbling across the incredible documentary Delamu (2004) I had to learn more. Luckily a Canadian by the name of Jeff Fuchs had just recently been the first Westerner to trek the entire route of 6,000 kilometers and then written a book about it. The combination of the images from the film and the detail in the book is a wonderful immersion into one of the most ancient, exotic and least-known places.

Fuchs is a self-described tea addict who has devoted years to understanding the tea-growing regions of western China and eastern Tibet. He's not an explorer who helicopters in for a 6 week writing stunt with the latest North Face gear and National Geographic contract. Rather he travels alone with local guides, speaks the local languages, uses local food and gear, and has a sincere long-term interest and respect for the region and its people. Fuchs is documenting a way of life that is disappearing. He trekked the "entire Tea Horse Road" but that's not what the book is about, it's not a death-defying hoo-hah adrenalin trip, although naturally there are caffeine fueled white-knuckle scenes. Rather one should read it to learn about the region and people and also to be entertained along the way.

The book is also an introduction to Pu'er tea, which I had never heard of before, which is like saying among wine drinkers I had never heard of Burgundy. I subsequently ordered a few grams direct from China and look forward to trying this ancient form of tea, like wine it improves with fermentation and age.
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Bambi


Felix Salten (1928/23)
Ebook
February 2011
There are a number of ways of approaching Bambi, but one way it should not be seen is as a children's book; it was originally published in Austria in 1923 for adults - it was only later that the Disney film associated Bambi with children's fare. Bambi is considered by some critics to be the first "environmental novel" which is probably the most significant aspect. The descriptions of woodland life are some of the most sublimely beautiful I've ever read. It's also been called a political allegory on the treatment of Jews in Europe, and was banned in Nazi Germany (Salten was Jewish), which makes the novel even more powerful as you read along considering how history would unfold and who the author was. It would probably lessen the novel to call it a political allegory though it easily stands alongside Animal Farm; and it's more than just a beast fantasy even though it has echoes of Watership Down. It is all these things and also just a beautifully told story.
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Winnie-the-Pooh


A. A. Milne (1926)
Hardcover
February 2011
Winnie-the-Pooh is a deceptively simple story where the central theme of exploration is tied to imagination and literature. We get our first clue with the name "Christopher Robin", a combination of "Christopher Columbus" and "Robinson Crusoe". When Pooh finds tracks and follows them he replays the famous scene on the beach when Crusoe finds a footprint in the sand; Pooh's ability to make a boat out of a found item (an umbrella) mirrors Crusoe. Pooh's exploration of the world is tied to the exploration of words which are constantly in flux with strange misspellings and double meanings. In the end Pooh's great present is the pencil, in which to write down his own words, to go on his own adventures of the imagination. Winnie-the-Pooh encourages a life of reading and imagination, joining our child-like natural inquisitiveness and exploration of the world with the limitless possibilities of the written word.
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Once and Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth's Largest Animals


Sharon Levy (2011)
Paperback
February 2011
13,000 years ago there was a die-off of large animals in North America - lions, camels, horses, sloths. No one knows for sure why but there are at least four theories, including human-caused, since the extinctions coincided with the first arrival of people on the continent. Similar extinctions of megafauna happened elsewhere: Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, also coinciding with the arrival of people. It is now becoming clear the loss of large animals, in particular top predators, has changed ecosystems making them less diverse. In places like the Arctic large herds of mammoths and other creatures once turned it into a lush grassland, but with their absence it is today a boggy mossy marsh with consequences for global warming. Some believe that by restoring the big creatures of the Pleistocene, including top predators or their modern equivalents, is one path to restoring balance to the environment.

Sharon Levy's fascinating book examines theories about what caused the extinctions of the late Pleistocene, ideas about re-wilding, and current projects around the world to re-wild megafauna. Much of this material was already known to me in outline and is not new, but Levy presents detailed case examples from past and present as well as more nuanced understanding of the theories. For example early humans probably didn't "blitzkrieg" animals into immediate extinction, rather because the big animals are so long-lived and re-create slowly, and because of already heavy predatory pressure, it only took a small number of additional human predators to tip the balance towards declining populations and eventual extinction. It happened quickly in geologic time but slowly for those who experienced it (except in New Zealand which saw the extinction of the Moa in about 20 years).

One of the key points of the book is that top predators are vital to a healthy ecosystem. This is a controversial area, there are ongoing battles over wolves in the American West and in Europe, typically with political conservatives against the wolf and in favor or farmers. As well Levy suggests, by way of ancient examples, that humans play an important role, nature should not be "left alone" in isolated parks, but actively managed with controlled burns and other methods. By looking to the past we have much to learn about the present and future in how to best care for the land, planet and ultimately the people who live on it.
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The Women Of Cairo, Volume One


Gerard de Nerval (1846)
Internet Archive
February 2011
The Women of Cario, Scenes of Life in the Orient is a travel book by French Romanticist Gerard de Nerval, first published in 1846. It describes a 1-year trip to Cairo, Egypt and other places in the Ottoman Empire. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Islamic Orient was a great mystery to Europeans giving rise to myths fueled by tales in the Arabian Nights. There were myths about the Harem, the oriental despot, the mysteries of Egypt ("Look Upon My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair"), the stories of the Crusades, oriental virgins and slaves, etc. Romantic-era authors such as Lord Byron, Shelley, Walter Scott, Coleridge, Thomas Quincey (opium eater) and so on lived out the myth of the Orient in works and person. Nerval was central in that tradition and his journey is revealing for its myth-making and myth-busting.

The first volume of this unabridged translation centers mostly on Cairo. Before leaving Europe, Nerval had been dumped by his love interest, an actress. Arriving in Egypt, Nerval begins searching for a new female companion, which legally could only be achieved through marriage. He ends up buying a slave woman who is from India, but not before going on one adventure after the next trying to find (or buy) his new mate in the warrens of Cairo. It's a fascinating look at old customs, largely hidden from public view, some of which are funny (Nerval has been compared with Charlie Chaplin) and other scenes are disturbing (the sale of pre-pubescent girls to amuse the buyers "darkest desires"). Nerval describes scenes in flowery romanticized imagery, but also dispels some myths about harems and slaves. As it turns out women have much more control over their lives, even the slave girl pushes Nerval around and balks at the idea she might be set free (a terrible fate in her mind since she would then have to actually work for a living). Other memorable scenes are climbing the Great Pyramids with the help of four Bedouins, two on top who pulled your arms and two on bottom who push upward, block after block, until you reach the top. There were no other tourists around. The Sphinx still laid mostly buried in the sand. A book filled with fascinating details of Egypt and the Orient before the modern era written by one of the great French romanticists.
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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea


Barbara Demick (2009)
Audio P8
February 2011
The phrase "Nothing to Envy" is North Korean propaganda, it means they do not envy other countries since they are so superior. Of course from the outside looking in the saying is ironic, meaning exactly the opposite we have nothing to envy of them. This book is a braided retelling of about half a dozen North Koreans who defected and told their life story. It's pedestrian and personal, day to day life, loves, work, there's not much high-level overview or history. I was disappointed Demick didn't weave more general information about North Korea (other than the opening and last chapters), but the individual lives tell a different kind of story that is helpful in understanding what it's like to live in a '1984'. I came away understanding that NK after the death of "Dear Leader #1" in the early 90s has essentially failed as a state, but due to cultural reasons the people will never revolt. They can only raise about 60% of the food needed, due to geography constraints, so the population is literally dieing and atrophying, each generation smaller and weaker. An elite few at the top fatten off the majority like in a Medieval kingdom, it's unsurprising since Korea once had the worlds longest lived dynasty at over 1000 years. It's already lasted longer than anyone expected, and sadly most likely will continue for years more to come. The only ones to blame are the Koreans themselves, who put the needs of the state above the needs of the individual, for whom we have nothing to envy.
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Michael Kohlhaas


Heinrich von Kleist (1811)
Internet Archive
February 2011
Heinrich von Kleist was one of the most important German Romanticists, he wrote stories, plays and poetry. His most famous story is the novella "Michael Kohlhaas" about a 15th century horse-dealer who takes the law into his own hands to revenge a wrong after local officials refuse to help him. It was one of Kafka's favorite stories and E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel Ragtime is a "deliberate homage". It's remarkable for how modern it reads for a story written in 1811 (despite the 1844 translation I found freely online).

The story is essentially about law and order, specifically what happens when a culture of law no longer functions as it should (corruption and nepotism) and merchants take matters into their own hands to achieve justice. It's similar to a Romanian story I reviewed earlier The Lucky Mill (1881), which is also about a merchant who is abused by local strongmen, oppressed by a corrupt government and seeks justice through violence. The 19th century was a Democratic Age (Harold Bloom) and these stories encapsulate the ideals and dreams of the middle-class for freedom from Aristocratic absolutism.

Update: Found a more recent public domain translation that is easier reading.
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The Ladies' Paradise


Emile Zola (1883)
Paperback
January 2011
The Ladies' Paradise is one of the best novels in the Les Rougon-Macquart series. The social issues are still universally relevant, the story and characters are fascinating and upbeat, and it's a revealing portrait of French (and world) cultural history. The story concerns the bourgeous line of the Rougon-Macquart family, and takes place almost entirely within a large Parisian department store called "Ladies' Paradise", sort of like a Nordstrom's or Lord & Taylor, but modeled on the real-life Le Bon March, which was the world's first modern department store.

In the novel Zola unveils the female fetish for clothing, and how a department store trades on female desires. The department store is a fantasy world where anything seems possible, women are pampered and treated like royalty, for a price. This was at a time when department stores were first being invented: mass advertising, item returns/refunds, fanciful window displays, loss-leading sales, departments, catalogs, home delivery, etc. prior to this most stores were boutique, sold one type of thing only (no departments), and prices were usually high due to price-fixing, inefficiencies and low volumes. It's a fascinating cultural perspective of when things changed, who won and lost, what was created and destroyed.

Socially, the novel looks at the impact of large corporations on small businesses, like current-day debates about Wal-Mart that force local mom and pops out of business. France in the 19th c. underwent wrenching changes as artisan and family businesses handed down over generations were put out of business by new mass industrial methods, seemingly inhuman and cold (it would lead in part to the rise of Socialism), the novel does an excellent job of dramatizing this early historical trend that is still playing out today.

This is probably the most optimistic Zola novel. The bad guy (owner of Ladies Paradise) is modeled on the real-life owner of La Bon March, and the courtship of his wife. It's a Cinderella story with a happy ending. The victims of the novel are simply victims of progress, an old decaying way of life making room for the new, for better or worse.
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The Tin Drum


Gunter Grass (1959)
Hardcover
January 2011
The Tin Drum is a picaresque magical-realist social-satire fairy-tale (whew!). It influenced Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight's Children, comparable works of length and complexity. It is a Pied Pipper leading Germany through and out of of WWII with a trickster drumming at the head. I can't say I enjoyed it that much as I never really liked magical realism or historically satirical novels. There is a lot obliquely happening that requires knowledge of European history to fully appreciate. I suppose one could enjoy it on the surface for the dark fairy-tale qualities, but that misses the novels bigger point: rationalism taken to an extreme becomes irrational, the novel is a satire of rationalism and ultimately an atonement for German politics and culture that lead to WWII.
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The Long Holiday


Francis Ambriere (1946)
Hardcover first edition
January 2011
The Long Holiday won the Prix Goncourt in 1946. French author Francis Ambriere was taken captive in 1940, along with 1.7 million of his fellow countrymen, and held in Germany until 1945, one of the largest and longest military internments of the war. They were a veritable country within a country.

It's written for a French audience right after the war with a fair amount of nationalistic furor, but that doesn't take away from the freshness of the events having just occurred. Ambriere actually wrote much of it while still in prison and smuggled his papers out, it has an immediacy that goes beyond the kind of heroic romanticism that typify many accounts like this. It doesn't flinch from the brutality of the Germans, but doesn't dwell on it. It's episodic and not particularly dramatic, but reads well and is entertaining.

I was unable to find any sort of critical writings about the book, it seems to be almost entirely forgotten. That's too bad as it's not badly written and is an interesting account about an alternative way many people spent WWII. These were military camps for soldiers protected by the Geneva Convention, not civilians camps like the Holocaust, very different. The many ways in which the French fooled the Germans with small acts of disobedience is probably the best part of the book, movie material like in "The Great Escape", but without the hoohah bravado, more stylistic French. Like when housewives hung up laundry to dry, they had red/blue/white clothing, the colors of the French flag. Or when a prisoner escaped by seducing a German widow, he then donned her dead husbands Nazi identity (uniform and papers) and lived the high life in Berlin for the rest of the war!
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Lapham's Quarterly: Celebrity (V.4, N.1)


Lewis Lapham, ed. (2011)
Journal
January 2011
The subject of "Celebrity" is of universal timeless appeal. We all desire immortality and fame is the modern way to go about it. The wisdom about doing so in these pages is as inconsistent and varied as the human mind, yet like vanity, it's a mirror of others looking back onto ourselves. Montague was the first to write down his inner thoughts, he coined the term "essay", coincidentally around the same time as the Reformation when the old Christian ideas of immortality were being destroyed and replaced by the secular idea of celebrity. Today with the Internet - Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, blogs - we are all famous, it's the modern religion.

As usual this issue contains many thought provoking excerpts from great authors, beautiful images, witty quotes, insightful info-graphics and pithy biographies - not to mention 5 or 6 original essays by scholars and authors, it's a generous and fun magazine worth saving next to the classic books. Some of my favorite excerpts include David Samules "Shooting Britany" (2008) about the evolving paparazzi scene in Hollywood during the 2000's, when armies of low-skilled low-paid foreigners spend weeks waiting in various spots for a possible picture of a passing star. Bob Dylan in Chronicles Vol.1 (2004) describes how he led a normal happy family life while appearing eccentric and artsy to the press and fans. Joan Didion from The White Album (1979) recounts a scene when she was with The Doors in a recording studio and offering an insight into the bands music as "love was sex and sex was death therein lay salvation". Truman Capote from "Beautiful Child" recounts a morning with Marilyn Monroe in 1955, as he accompanied her to a funeral at a chapel. Monroe's deep insecurity and vulnerability clash with her redneck background and ruthless self importance.

Frederick Treves from The Elephant Man (1923) recounts how tragically the eponymous man was abused, unable to talk or even leave his room for fear of attack in the streets of London, yet had the fame many seek. Andy Warhol from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol says the people who have the best fame are those with names on stores, like Marshal Field. Tom Rachman from The Imperfectionists (2010) says continuity and memory are illusions, our worst fear isn't the end of life but the end of memories, which don't exist anyway because our past selves no longer exist, only our present selves, which are always dissolving away with each moment. Emily Nussbaum in "Say Everything" (2008) says every person is a celebrity today, careful managing their online image and persona like movie stars of old, but with Facebook, MySpace, blogs and, uh, book reviews. Percy Shelley's poem "Ozymandius" (1818) is fantastic romanticism.

Of the original essays, my two favorites are biographies, "Vanishing Act" by Paul Collins about the child-genius writer Barbara Follett; and an essay about the always fascinating Orson Welles called "Against Appearances" by Bruce Bawer. He counters the oft-repeated trope that Welles was a young prodigy who didn't live up to his promise, in fact he produced a large body of quality work including directed many films not commonly known about even today.
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Creative Nonfiction 40 (Winter 2011)


Lee Gutkind, ed. (2011)
Journal
January 2011
The theme of this issue is "Animals" with 8 featured essays. Standouts are Jennifer Lunden's "The Butterfly Effect", she mixes various genres about the Monarch butterfly in 1 or 2 paragraph sections that jump around physically and mentally, like a butterfly dance, an interesting effect. Jeff Oaks in "Dog at Midlife" is my favorite, he explores his relationship with a pet dog, why people get dogs (so we can walk through parks alone and not be mistaken as a creepy molester!). Kateri Kosek's "Killing Starlings" is set on Maryland's Eastern Shore where she cleans out wood duck nesting boxes of rouge starlings (the rats of the sky), throwing baby chicks into the water to drown, the horror, the horror.
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House to House:An Epic Memoir of War


David Bellavia (2008)
Hardcover
January 2011
Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Ricks (Fiasco) said House to House is one of the top 5 best memoirs of the Iraq War. It is non-stop violence and gore, an adrenaline ride of the first order set in the Second Battle of Fallujah (2004), which had some of the heaviest urban fighting since Vietnam. City fighting is the most deadly and Bellavia, the youngest of four brothers, seemingly has a world of hurt to bring down to prove his manhood, his honor, his self-worth. This is a man on a mission and it's personal. To accomplish it, he is armed with some of the most destructive anti-personal weaponry ever made. The book is a tour-de-force of weapons, endless ammunition and diarrhea. Bodies blow up countless ways which feral dogs feast on (they follow the tanks and lick the tracks). Bellavia would receive a Silver Star as well as nominated for a Medal of Honor. There are many battle scenes but the 2-story house in which Bellavia single-handed killed 5 or 6 insurgents, one by one, is the most memorable.

This book is not about politics or deep introspection. Bellavia is a young man just starting out in life, like many young men he seeks to prove himself and make his mark in the world. He chose the path of the military, front line infantry, and it is a deadly dirty messy job that he turns out to be very good at: killing and not getting killed in return. If your looking for a book about anything more than that, this isn't it, but it does have some fantastic insights into present-day infantry warfare that is helpful in understanding the bigger picture.
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Climate Hope:On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal


Ted Nace (2009)
Paperback
January 2011
This is probably the most hopeful book on global warming I've yet to read. It details actions of a disparate anti-coal grassroots movement, from 2007 to about mid-2009. During that time they were able to block almost all new proposed coal power plants from being built, about 150, through demonstrations, protests, legal action and on-line coordination.

Coal is the single biggest source of global warming, if we continued burning oil at current rates but got rid of coal, it would basically solve 80% of the problem and prevent the worse of the effects of global warming. In other words, we could keep burning oil and not worry about it (for now) if we got rid of coal. Compared to oil, coal is fairly easy to stop burning, in the US there are only about 600 coal burning electric plants, a much easier target than millions of cars. Coal is often seen as the cheapest/easiest source of electricity, but that is only true if the side effects are ignored - mountaintop removal, particulate matter causing early deaths from respiratory disease, mercury and other heavy metal poisoning, acid rain destroying forests, among other things. Compared to wind power, coal is much more costly and damaging. As well, coal supplies are not infinite and how long they will be cheaply available is an unknown. All these factors and more have basically stopped new coal power plants from being built since 2007.

The book ends with a 40 page appendix listing chronologically all the protest actions taken against coal, the people involved should be recognized for heroism. Going up against existing industries to force change is a messy, dangerous and thankless job. It is like the civil rights movement or labor movement in the early 20th century. It left me with a huge sense of pride and relief to be living through and seeing real change in my lifetime that future generations will look back on with gratitude.
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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Rebecca Skloot (2010)
Audio P8
January 2011
I'm uncomfortable with how far Skloot went in exposing the skeletons in the closet of the Lacks family- the incest and child abuse - at some point it overshadows the other braids of the story. It was like an Oprah show, compelling in the moment but perhaps ultimately ephemeral and forgettable, just another family disaster memoir for the sake of dollars. It clashes with the central theme of the book, the family's search for respect. Yet it is also understandably a fine balance on what to include and what to leave out. Overall I think she did a good job at showing the Lacks' to be human, and not simply a name on a test-tube, or in the case of some of her children, a body in an Asylum to be experimented on, or a prisoner in a cell. The Lacks family had it tough from the start, they are an abandoned people, without the support the rest of us take for granted. As important as the HeLa cell line is, this book is equally important in breaking through race and class barriers by showing with sympathy and respect how people become who they are. What an immortal legacy Henrietta left behind.


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