Cool Reading 2012

A reading journal by Stephen Balbach

In 2012, I read 62 books (20,550 pages). There are too many great books to make a short list of favorites, but I will try, in no order. The complete list of 62 books follows in reverse chronological reading order:
Favorites of 2012:
Invisible Man
Tun-huang
The Brilliant Disaster
Isaac's Army
The Secret Race
Lords of the Sea
Ballad of the Whiskey Robber
Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
The Fish That Ate the Whale
Empires of the Sea
Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom
We Are Anonymous
Hellhound On His Trail
Escape from Camp 14
The Rider on the White Horse
American Nations
Missing Soluch
Explorers of the Nile
Delivered from Evil
Reading journals from other years: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

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Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison (1952)
Audio Audible (converted from P8)
December 2012
One of the greatest American novels ever written. So rich and full of life and ideas. Although this is about the black experience in America, it's also about everyone, as the last sentence reveals. Allow the story to wash over and into your soul and it may reveal something about who you are, or believe to be. We are all invisible men. I also highly recommend the audiobook reading by Joe Morton (2010), he deserves a Tony or something, it was like a one-man Broadway play, the novel greatly benefits in a spoken word performance by a professional actor.
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Tun-huang

Yasushi Inoue (1959)
Book Paperback
December 2012
The cache of ancient Dunhuang manuscripts discovered in 1907 buried in a cave in China includes the world's oldest printed text the Diamond Sutra. How did the manuscripts end up there 900 years ago? No one really knows. Japanese author Yasushi Inoue (1907-1991), once seen as a contender for the Nobel, decided to write a fictional version of events. Although it's historical fiction, he spent many years researching the 11th century and so most of it can be read as an accurate history. It's beautifully crafted and an enchanting story that smoothly transports one back to a different time and age. The characters are both bigger than life heroic, and have the weaknesses and vulnerabilities that make us human. This is literature of the best sort: almost as accurate as non-fiction, literary themes, educational, adventurous and compelling.

Throughout is a Buddhist theme of the desire for earthly acquisition that is never fully obtained because of the power of impermanence, represented by dreams. This can be seen when the main character, Hsing-te, seeks to become a Chinese civil servant, but is denied entry after he falls asleep and misses the exam, having spent his time in a dream. Or when the captured barbarian princess, who finds security as a concubine, takes her life for the sake of her dream of being loved by the spirit of her long-dead groom. The strong and heroic character Wang-li seems invincible in battle, but his life is undercut when he falls in love with a woman he can never obtain nor forget. The arrogant Kuang is destroyed by his avarice for certain gems which hold a mysterious power over him and he can never obtain. Finally it is the physical manuscripts themselves, gateways to another world, that continue to fascinate. They are a material connection to the impermanent nature of life.
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Ender's Game

Orson Scott Card (1985)
Audio P8
December 2012
This is an extremely popular book so I decided to give it a shot even though I'm not a big science fiction reader I try to read the classics. Unfortunately I had a lot of problems with the story. Primarily the book is reactionary - although of course this is true with a lot of science fiction. It's an apology of the 1980's Reagan motto "Peace through Strength," and the morally reprehensible ideology of the ends justifying the means. While the book has a rosy ending, when these ideologies have been applied in the real world they lead to things such as the failed occupation of Iraq and other stuff I won't go into here. This is not a humanist book, or even a "novel of ideas", it is the world view of an authoritarian conservative crypto-fascist. As for the writing itself, it was competent though not stylistic. The character of Ender is complex enough to hold some interest, but the plot is a b-movie script, which will probably adapt it well to film in 2013.
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Lapham's Quarterly v. 4 n. 3: Food

Lewis H. Lapham (2011)
Book Paperback
December 2012
Essays of note in this edition include: Bohumil Hrabal from I Served the King of England describes a fish wrapped in a turkey wrapped in an antelope wrapped in a camel, a meal for 300 at the Hotel Paris. In a selection from Petronius' Satyricon the cook is reprimanded for not gutting a pig before cooking it, but all is not as it appears.. many other excellent pieces stuffed into this edition.
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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Candice Millard (2011)
Audio Audible (converted from Audio P8)
December 2012
This is a very well written account of the last days of President James Garfield who was assassinated within 6 months of being elected. It's structured using the same braided narrative technique as Hampton Sides' Hellhound On His Trail, moving back and forth between the protagonist and his stalker until they converge with the assassination exactly half-way through the book. Along the way we learn a lot about various biographies and historical things related to the era and incident, such as medicine and new technology of the day. Ultimately the writing and research is top-notch, but the story itself is fairly bland. The death of Garfield had little importance in American history. The killer is a banal character whose motivations were apolitical, the work of a deranged personality. I found myself more interested in the side story of Alexander Bell than about Garfield. The book is most interesting for the historical curiosities - the medical treatments and how openly accessible presidents were to the public (as seen in the movie Lincoln). Good book, worth reading, probably the best on the assassination of Garfield, but not a great book because the events are not very thrilling. Candice Millard has now successfully written about two little-known "curiosity" episodes from history, fine, but imagine what she could accomplish with her talents on something more central to history and meaningful to the present.
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Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life

Martin Meredith (2012)
Audio P8
December 2012
This is a pretty decent short introduction to the homo species from about 6 million years ago (split from chimps) to the emergence of h. sapiens. It uses the approach of telling the story via the recent history of the people who made fossil discoveries. This makes it a little more memorable but is very incomplete and still someone confusing. I have trouble keeping the dates of species and names straight, which is not helped by the the science constantly changing and different POVs. For example it was just announced this month that the human/chimp split may not have happened 4-6 million years ago as this book and common belief supposed, but as much as 13 million years ago. Which if accepted would completely rewrite human history and this book would be out of date in many fundamental ways, like the human exodus from Africa would not be 60,000 years ago but 130,000 years ago. In any case I will keep reading on this topic until this sinks in (someday) but found this book be painless, short and interesting.
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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008

Tim Folger, ed. (2008)
Book Hardcover
December 2012
This is my 10th in the series. 2008 was an average year, though it will depend on your familiarity with the subjects. I tend to get most excited when learning new ideas or perspectives but most of the articles in this collection cover material I was previously familiar with. However some are well written they are sort of mini-classics. Four in particular stood out:

1. "The Interpreter" about linguist Dan Everett who is an interesting subject, the Amazon tribe is fascinating, the linguistic science curious, and the take-down of Chomsky delightful. A generous piece and probably the best of the bunch.

2. "Swingers" is about the Bonobo apes, I was disillusioned to learn they are not the peace loving hippie ape of yore, but actually tightly wound and capable of serious violence. Required reading for anyone who thinks Bonobo's are happy free sex swingers.

3. "Deadly Contact", this is the piece that led to the book Spillover (2012). Interesting but now I think reading the extended book version might be optional.

4. "How to Trick an Online Scammer", this is about the people who trick the tricksters, the Nigerian 419 scammers, nothing new there. But what raises this piece above the typical are the last few pages which discuss the larger meaning of trolling. There are a couple choice quotes that get to the heart of the dark side of online discourse, specifically how "dishinibation" can result in heroes becoming villains. It reminds me of a quote: "Who's the more fool. The fool or the fool who follows the fool."
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Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Maki

Michael B. Oren (2003)
Audio P8
November 2012
The first 60% covers the chaotic political machinations leading up to the war. It is far too detailed and esoteric for the casual reader without some background in recent Middle East history. The war itself is pretty interesting but high level and not too personal. Battles go by quickly. In the end the author keeps impressing how important the war was for subsequent Middle East history, but doesn't really explain why or how except for about a dozen individuals who get a "where are they now" treatment - once again, it helps to be knowledgeable before arriving. This book was written by someone who was involved in the war and an important Israeli politician and public figure, he set out to write a definitive history of the war and it probably is. Does not adapt very well to audio, though doable for the attentive listener, 18 hours is a long slog and the mind wanders. Recommend an abridged version if you can find it, probably best read so you can absorb the material.
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White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India

William Dalrymple (2002)
Ebook P8
November 2012
After reading The Last Mughal a few years ago, I wanted to read the prequel of sorts, White Mughals. Eighteenth-century India is an exotic subject (for me) which Dalrymple brings vividly to life across the barrier of time and culture. In this deeply researched history he has read thousands of private letters by British aristocrats who were in the opening stages of establishing English prominence in India (around the same time Napoleon's fleet was defeated in Egypt by Lord Nelson). He shows in detail there was significant cross cultural exchange in India between Christian and Muslim/Hindu, European and Indian. While in the 19th century the British famously kept aloof, in this earlier period it was not uncommon for British to "go native", and for their mixed-blood offspring to return to England and successfully merge into society. In this backdrop, the book focuses on a love affair between a teenage Muslim Indian girl and a British aristocrat.

Ultimately I found this an uneven read. In parts I was totally engrossed and it has informed my image of late 18th India (which was a blank slate). For that alone the lush detail makes the book worthwhile. However I bogged down in the excessive detail of private lives in the second half of the book which takes on a kind of soap opera. It just didn't seem that important or worthwhile to learn the chain of events Dalrymple uncovered in these private letters. I can understand why it's worth writing about, but I lost interest. Still I recommend it as unique along with The Last Mughal. I'm looking forward to his upcoming book on the British Afghanistan wars.
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Way Station

Clifford D. Simak (1963)
Audio P8
November 2012
It's curious this book is so popular and yet so bad. It's the same old reactionary authoritarian world view endemic to most classic science fiction. Set aside the core message and there isn't much left, it's a confused gumbo. At best comfort food from the Cold War.
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Desert Solitaire

Edward Abbey (1968)
Audio Audible (converted from Audio P8)
November 2012
I've known about this book for a long time and finally got around to reading it after seeing this short video by Edward Abbey and realizing he was an unusual edgy character. The book is like hanging out with Abbey at an evening campfire and whatever crosses his mind comes up for conversation, usually about the surrounding natural world of the south west, philosophy, stories. It's well worth reading and has a solid reputation. Desert Solitaire should be read in conjunction with The Man Who Walked Through Time, also published in 1968, to get a sense of a new awakening about nature beginning around the early to mid 1960s. The role of these books was to encourage outdoor experience for the sake of being in and part of nature, not just as an alien tourist.
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The Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America's Doomed Invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs

Jim Rasenberger (2011)
Audio Audible (converted from Audio P8)
November 2012
I never knew much about the Bay of Pigs other than it was a brief embarrassing attempt by the CIA to overthrow Castro. So I picked up this book based on the high reviews. The writing is fantastic, often humorous and novelistic, it goes by quickly. Along the way you learn a lot about Castro and how the US sort of created its own problem in Cuba. It's very much a series of bumbling mistakes and contingencies, the invasion should have never happened but there were so many miscommunications it's a great example of a bureaucracy out of control. I was surprised to learn how serious the repercussions were afterwards, it was like the Ur moment that started the Vietnam War; due to the failure in Cuba, Vietnam was seen as a way of saving face politically. It's good the Bay of Pigs never "succeeded", as the title Brilliant Disaster suggests, because instead of being bogged down in a protracted guerrilla war in Vietnam for decades it very well could have been Cuba instead (or in addition to).
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Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland

Matthew Brzezinski (2012)
Book Paperback ARC
November 2012
Kirkus said Isaac's Army is "as moving and powerful as any novel." It's about the Jewish element of the Polish resistance over the course of the entire war (most books focus on the few months of the Ghetto Uprising). It includes the events of the 1939 invasion, Holocaust, Ghetto Uprising, Warsaw Uprising, and story behind the mass Exodus to Israel after the war. Seeing it from this perspective - normal citizens at the start and end - makes it more real. The focus is around a small group of rebellious teenagers who decided to fight back, 95% of whom never survived the war. This is the story of the few who somehow survived nearly 6 long years in Nazi occupied Poland.

The narrative follows an arc of continuously mounting brutality, when things can't get any worse, it gets worse, reaching a crescendo of violence even the Nazi's were sickened by. Warsaw in the end saw destruction more complete than Hiroshima or Nagasaki, no other major city in WWII was more completely destroyed. This is my third book about Warsaw (The Pianist, Jacob the Liar) and the more I read about the resistance movements, Jewish and Gentile, the more I want to learn. It's one of the most interesting stories of WWII since it involved the largest underground resistance movement for the longest period of time, from 1939-1945, the entire war, with people from all over the political and racial spectrum creating a variety of conflict and alliance. The Jewish element was quite small and militarily inconsequential, but had huge consequence politically due to the Ghetto Uprising, in the establishment of Israel and the story of the Holocaust and Jewish prestige. Really just an amazing book, it starts off slow but picks up to high speed by page 200 with the establishment of the Ghetto walls not letting go through to the end. It's a humane account, the last sentence is devastatingly beautiful.
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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

Tom Reiss (2012)
Audio Audible
October 2012
I was really looking forward to what seemed like a fun book, but it turned out to be heavy on the theme of Franco-Black race-relations in late 18th century France (a narrow but important subject to be sure) and light on personal action/adventure. The problem appears to be few sources for his life and many of those sources are suspect as the imaginations of his son the novelist. So Reiss goes off on many tangents. Still, it was a remarkable life, somewhat created by circumstance and with a banal anti-climatic ending. It's tempting to view father and son as a single life because then you have a young daring adventurer and the older man of letters and intellect and it feels complete. In any case the world now has the most complete biography of General Alexandre Dumas who deserves the monument.
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The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs

Tyler Hamilton (2012)
Audio Audible
October 2012
Tyler Hamilton and Lance Armstrong were both born just a few months apart in 1971, they were teammates before they became famous and saw one another rise (and fall) through their professional careers. And it turns out they were both heavily into doping. Hamilton has come clean in this detailed memoir of what happened. The type of dope, how they took it, how they hid it, how it helped them (and Lance in particular) become the world's top racers. Hamilton and Armstrong have a deep division today because Armstrong still maintains his innocence but Hamilton comes across the better and stronger man for admitting his guilt and putting it all out in the open. This is a really well written and compelling book, hard to put down. It's larger than two people, it's about the sport as a whole - and it's an ancient story of redemption and the power of truth. I got a lot out of this book. One day sooner than later Armstrong will write his own book but it's hard to imagine it topping the power of this book.
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The Greco-Persian Wars

Peter Green (1969)
Book Hardcover
October 2012
This is a detailed authoritative though very readable history of the first and second invasion of Greece during the Greco-Persian Wars (499-479 BC). It was first published in 1970 but still worth reading 40+ years on, Peter Green has a great sense of historical detail and accuracy balanced by readability and narrative flow. Conflicts covered include:

First invasion of Greece (492-490)
**Battle of Marathon (490)
Second invasion of Greece (480-479)
**Battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium (480)
**Battle of Salamis (480)
**Battles of Plataea and Mycale (479)

There are other conflicts from the Persian Wars not covered in the book, but these two invasions are the most well known and central. Herodotus is the main source and quoted a lot (along with Thucydides), but balanced with modern theories, investigations and evidence (as of 1970). Because all the surviving sources are Greek the story is usually told from a Greek perspective, so it naturally feels one sided in perspective. Green is an unabashed cheerleader of the Greeks who established Democratic freedom over authoritative tyranny.

Probably the only way to improve on Green's book would be to write one from the Persian perspective, which lacking source is hard to do, although Tom Holland in Persian Fire was able to piece together something (I have not read it). Wikipedia also has good series of articles that are worth checking out.
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Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy

John R. Hale (2009)
Audio Audible (converted from P8)
September 2012
My readings in Ancient history are extremely limited but I had no trouble following this and staying absorbed. It's all new to me so I actually sort of loved the book, the author brought the period to life. Many famous people, battles and events a placed into a continuity of time that is easy to follow. Hale writes in a way that is accessible, he employes narrative techniques to great effect without sacrificing history, it helps the events are so dramatic. The Athenian navy at first seemed a bit gimmicky to hang a book from but it turns out to be appropriate, it really was the central feature of Athens rise to power, and Democracy. I look forward to reading more about the period, probably starting with Kagan's book on the Peloponnesian War.
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Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

Tony Horwitz (1998)
Audio P8
September 2012
A fun trip through various wacky American sub-cultures related to the American Civil War, like Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends. I give Horwitz credit for seeking out some of the more unsavory elements to interview including the crazy biker bar. The interview with Shelby Foote was enlightening, I actually gained appreciation for a certain pro-south view (even if I disagree with it). The book has probably lost something with time, since the people interviewed are fading and times are changing, it's a snapshot of the zeitgeist of the 1990s in relation to the Civil War. This was a fun read since I did some re-enactments at Antietam in the mid-1990s, about the time this book was written. In 1982, I also re-enacted Lee's 100 mile march from Petersburg to Appomattox, by foot, before there was a tourist route, sleeping in people's back yards.
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Stbalbach's Choice Novella's and Shorts Volume 2 (September 2012)

Stephen Balbach, ed. (2012)
Ebook (various)
September 2012
These are short pieces of fiction and nonfiction which I've read collected together under "volumes" when they accumulate to book length. This volume is the equivalent of 422+ pages with a mix of text and audio pieces.

Review of Stbalbach's Choice Novella's and Shorts, Volume 2.
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Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell (2004)
Ebook P8
September 2012
I saw pops, fizzes and flashes up through chapter 6, but the last half not as much. Neat thing, all 6 stories use the same narrative which is essentially the Biblical garden of Eden story: a stranger entering a new place, seeking out forbidden knowledge, obtaining it and then cast into a dangerous world and having to escape and finding way home. Once you get it, the stories start to take on a television or genre feel because they are all the same repeating trope. However, Mitchell's imagination and skill in the telling make it worthwhile. In the end the novel has a good morale message. Noted the repeating use of "six", it must be repeated hundreds of times in various ways, six is the sign of the devil who also makes repeated appearances, the devil being the dark side of human nature - racism, theft, murder, corruption. The re-incarnation plot is a literary device to emphasize human nature never dies.
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Hiroshima

John Hersey (1985)
Audio P8
August 2012
Just as immediate today as it was nearly 70 years ago. The writing is timeless. The technique flawless. A true classic of narrative non-fiction and journalism. The chapter added in 1985 is not as strong and drags somewhat but helps with closure.
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Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts

Julian Rubinstein (2004)
Audio Audible (converted from P8)
August 2012
Great book but -wow- the audiobook version is completely unique, I have never heard anything like it. This NY Times article gives some background, it's a bit experimental largely done by volunteer narrators. It gives a sense of the possible of the medium, I wish more books took this approach with music, sound effects and many narrators. Beyond that, it's just a great true story about a "gentleman robber" who never hurts anyone and becomes a folk hero in Hungary. Something of a cult classic audiobook, if that category exists. Attila was released from jail in 2012, we'll see what happens next.
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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Katherine Boo (2012)
Ebook P8
August 2012
Over 1 billion people live on less than a dollar a day. Here we have an intimate portrait of a dozen or so mostly children and mothers in a Mumbai slum living on about 33 cents. Of course we've seen it before, in other books and movies, but the verisimilitude and depth of the reporting takes it to a new level. The combination of factual reporting and novelistic technique is as if being there in person. It's one of the more difficult and challenging books I have read. It will stay with me for a long time and has changed my perspective on India and the world's poor in the context of globalization.
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The Best American Travel Writing 2000

Bill Bryson, ed. (2000)
Audio P8
August 2012
This is a review of the audiobook version released by Houghton in 2000, it is abridged with 10 of the original 25 essays. Each piece has a different narrator, including Bill Bryson for a number of them (he is great to listen to even when he is reading a different author). A couple stood out including "From The Wonderful People Who Brought You The Killing Fields" (Outside) about a trip to a Khmer Rouge village with the guy who wrote the chapter in the travel guidebook World's Most Dangerous Places - the article is classic dark tourism complete with allusions to Heart of Darkness. The essay "Lions and Tigers and Bears" is an entertaining piece about spending the night in central park, where the author discovers most people are more afraid of him, except the random homeless person who offers him free food. This was a twist on the dark tourism theme made humorous. "Lard is Good For You" is a cute piece by a young American woman working in a rural Guatemalan village where they grow coffee, her favorite thing, but the household she is staying in refuses to brew any for health reasons, but eat lard in every dish. "Hitchhikers Cuba" by Dave Eggers is very well done, about driving around Cuba and picking up hitchhikers, one of the primary means of transportation in the country. "Exiled Beyond Kilometer 101" is about the zone outside major Russian cities, at 101 km or about 60 miles, which was established in Soviet times and defines the border between rural and urban Russia and respective cultures.
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Charles Dickens

Jane Smiley (2002)
Ebook P8
August 2012
There are some ridiculously exhaustive biographies of Dickens that mirror his novels, door-stoppers filled with every detail of his life. This is not one of them. Rather it is an overview of the life of Dickens. It's beautifully written and says all there is probably to say that is important and interesting. Some day I might read one of those longer biographies, but I'd rather put my time into the novels. This biography satisfies my curiosity about who Dickens was, the context of his time and the meaning of his novels.
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Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Jack Weatherford (2005)
Audio Audible (converted from Audio P8)
August 2012
A retelling of the Mongol Empire from its founding until the present day. Relies mainly on the primary source The Secret History of the Mongols using recent reinterpretations and new translations. More sympathetic to the Mongols as a positive force, rather than the negative barbarian destroyers of yore. Much more detailed and interesting than I thought it would be for a history of 13th century tribes. Probably the best general popular history of the Mongols available. It may deserve 4.5 or 5 stars as the first major reinterpretation of the Mongols, but I am not familiar enough with the historiography to judge.
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Fearsome Island

Albert Kinross (1896)
Audio LibriVox
July 2012
The Fearsome Island is an obscure fantasy work by an obscure English author, Albert Kinross (1870-1929), published in 1896 when he was about 25 years old, his second published work. It probably would remain unknown today except it was recently brought to light by LibriVox narrator Ruth Golding, who is always enjoyable to listen to. The book is novella length and frames itself as a true story about a shipwrecked mariner from the 16th century who discovers an island inhabited by fantastical things. There are overtones of Robinson Crusoe, The Odyssey, Arabian Nights - but really it felt closer to a Dungeons & Dragons adventure from the fertile mind of a teenager with traps, treasure, monsters, etc.. standard genre fantasy escapism. There's really not much to say other than it's imaginative for what it is. I did some deep searching of databases and was unable to find any professional reviews or commentary, then or now. I can only recommend to read the classics it derives from, but if you want obscure late 19th century genre fantasy that is still readable, this will give you a taste beyond Bram Stoker or Jules Verne.
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The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet

Jim Robbins (2012)
Ebook Kindle
July 2012
No review.
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The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King

Rich Cohen (2012)
Ebook P8
July 2012
Great book! Samuel Zemurray is bigger than life, he was a quiet Jewish John Wayne from the Russian steppes who orchestrated coups, toppling nations and corporations. He was the last of a generation that "Never complain, Never explain." I'll never forget the scene of Zemurray taking over United Fruit, slapping down on the boardroom table his proxy votes giving him control of the company and telling the Boston old line gentry what to do with their bananas. He was the fish that swallowed the whale. His life would make an epic movie on the scale of Citizen Kane or Howard Hughes, but even more adventuresome since it involved armed revolutions and private jungle fiefdoms. It's remarkable how little known Zemurray is, yet he had an outsize impact on the history of Central America, New Orleans and Israel. Cohen is a great writer a real pleasure to read.
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Sole Survivor: A Story of Record Endurance at Sea

Ruthanne Lum McCunn (1999)
Audio Audible
July 2012
During WWII, Poon Lim (Chinese) was cast adrift for 133 days alone on a raft in the Atlantic ocean. He survived on raw fish and rainwater and was even able to catch a few sea birds with his bare hands (snuck up on them as night when they were resting). His tools were a fish-hook, knife and a tarp. He also had some sugar, critical carbohydrate energy which balanced the pure protein diet and kept him from starving. This account is a simple retelling, suitable for younger readers who also like Robinson Crusoe, but nonetheless vivid and probably the most authoritative modern account of this famous incident. For many years Lim held the record for the longest time spent at sea on a raft, the US Navy used his experience to inform their survival programs.

It's an unusual ocean survival story since it deals with a Chinese peasant farmer who knew nothing about the sea. Lim initially comes across as a childish Oriental coolie who couldn't open a can without being told what to do. He transforms and grows through the challenges of the journey, from the cabin boy to self-sufficient survivor. Lim is a bit of a bumbling Mr. Magoo, dropping critical things in the ocean and being ignored by passing ships as not worth picking up, but otherwise he has uncanny luck and resourcefulness.
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Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World

Tracy Kidder (2009)
Book Paperback
July 2012
Inspirational story, nice to be introduced to someone so talented and selflessly committed to helping others, shameful to think he does so much compared to the rest of us. The narrative bogs down in too much detail after the first 100 pages, lots of information and slightly PR'ish, a natural result of a biography written in the middle of a life/career. The definitive biography has yet to be written, after Mr Farmer retires or dies, much has already happened since the book was published.
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Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

Roger Crowley (2008)
Ebook P8
July 2012
Very entertaining. The best parts are the descriptions of the battles of Siege of Rhodes (1522), the Siege of Malta (1565) and Battle of Lepanto (1571). Gives context for the 16th century contest for control of the Med between the Ottoman Empire, Corsairs and European powers. Shows how the Med was the center of the world - as it had been for thousands of years - but by the end of the century was secondary to globalization, a momentous historical shift. The great powers turned their back on each other - Ottomans faced east and Spain and Italy to the west (Atlantic).
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Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection

A. J. Jacobs (2012)
Audio P8
June 2012
One of the tenets of creative non-fiction is to make your vegetables taste good, that is, to impart factual information in an entertaining way. Jacobs has a unique approach to this by involving himself personally in the story as an experimental subject. For my taste, while this book is easy to swallow, every time things got interesting he would move on, so it seemed that style triumphed over substance. Broad but decent infotainment.
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Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

Stephen R. Platt (2012)
Ebook P8
June 2012
The 'Taiping Rebellion' (1850-64) was the largest Civil War in human history and the deadliest conflict of the 19th century. Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom focuses on events through the eyes of individual characters in an attempt at narrative history of this massive conflict. The first third is fantastic, I was totally hooked and drawn into an exotic world. Later parts become a long Gibbon-style series of contingent battles and people with hard to remember names that blend together and bog the narrative. But it gives a good sense of the course of the war, it was complicated and brutal, political machinations and atrocities happen frequently, there were many epic events. Platt makes the case that British intervention backed the wrong side - thus messing up the natural order of Chinese rebellion that frequently replaced aging dynasties - resulting in even worse bloodshed in the 20th century. I think this is a great introduction to the Taiping Rebellion with a global perspective showing it was more than just an internal civil war but part of a global series of events. It received an unfair negative review in the NYT, the complaints are somewhat true but overblown, and the reviewer totally missed the main thesis of western power intervention, it is the first book to integrate this view.
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Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin

Hampton Sides (2010)
Audio Audible
June 2012
Everyone knows how Martin Luther King died but this book grabs and holds our interest with a mystery that remains unsolved: who was James Earl Ray and why did he do it? Hampton Sides reveals Ray to be a contradictory multifaceted figure. A little crazy, possibly conspiratorial, and a sad American archetype. Overall this was a fantastic book, cleverly structured and told with novelistic detail and pacing, Sides is a master craftsman, it's a nearly perfect book. Recommend it highly, it's more than just a true crime story, it shows MLK in an intimate light as a normal human being, flaws and all, which makes his death that much more immediate and real, and not a remote historical event.
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Before the Wind: The Memoir of an American Sea Captain, 1808-1833

Charles Tyng (1833)
Audio P8
June 2012
Interesting memoir by a merchant ship captain out of Boston. The writing is pithy and to the point, all business, but surprisingly modern sounding. It strips out the romanticism so typical of accounts about this era. The audiobook narration by Stefan Rudniki is extremely well done, complete with Boston accent, it adds a new dimension. Tyng's personality left me a bit cold, but it's authentic tough Yankee Quaker seaman (thinking of captain Ahab). See the New York Times review which is good.
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We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency

Parmy Olson (2012)
Ebook P8
June 2012
No review but a really good book!
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Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad

Peter L. Bergen (2012)
Audio P8
June 2012
Fast moving, politically neutral and reliable account of the hunt and death of Bin Laden. It's a great story and one everyone should know about, in particular the details of Obama's involvement. His role can not be over-stated. Although the CIA did the leg work and the Seals did the job, it was not at all clear Bin Laden was there, in fact many senior advisers were against the raid, there was a lot of uncertainty. An older more risk adverse President probably would not have tried, waiting for more assurances. In the end it was a ballsy call. The President's political opponents try to downplay it, shifting the praise to the Seals or CIA, who rightfully deserve it, but as this book shows, Obama made it happen by exercising the power of his office at the right time in the right way and taking responsibility for the end results, good or bad, in a hugely risky operation. The book is politically neutral, but it does leave a positive impression of all parties involved in this great success that everyone should get behind and support.
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Hitler

A. N. Wilson (2012)
Audio P8
June 2012
No review. Not a good book.
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Bleak House

Charles Dickens (1853)
Audio LibriVox
June 2012
Bleak House is a shrouded complex massive thing. A vast dimly-lit warren of streets into which one becomes easily lost. Like the Chancery Courts with mysterious procedures and lack of clarity, Dickens uses many techniques to symbolically create an atmosphere of fog. Three plot-lines are happening at once intertwined: 1) A legal case regarding the settlement of a will that has dragged on for more years than anyone can remember and shows no sign of being settled. 2) An unfolding mystery and detective story surrounding the aristocratic Lady Dedlock and an anonymous copier of law documents. 3) The story of Esther Summerson, told by Esther in the first person as she lives at Bleak House in the care of her guardian.

These plots contain complex interactions of dozens of characters, whose knowledge of one another is continually changing. To further complicate, there are two narrators: an all encompassing narrator (whose tone changes from satirical to benevolent and otherwise), and the main character "Esther's narrative", but who is often saying one thing about herself but meaning another. The narrators move back and forth between chapters. If that's not enough, Dickens rarely states anything directly so one is inferring and deducing from long passages how the plot has moved forward in a particular scene.

This is a complex novel, yet it seems to come together in the end, it just gets better as it goes. I couldn't absorb too much at once so it took me nearly 30 days to listen to the LibriVox narration by Mil Nicholson, but I admit to falling back on the amazing 8-hour BBC Drama (2005) to fill in some plot elements and characterizations that I didn't fully understand from the book, so it's been a multimedia immersion. The novel contains murders and a detective story (it's been called one of the first novels to feature a detective story), and a story aimed at the interests of young women (marriage and family), but it transcends genre with its social commentaries about lawyers, the changing relationships of rich vs poor, the rise of the middle-class, and the evil of selfishness.
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Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

Blaine Harden (2012)
Audio Audible (converted from P8)
May 2012
I read a lot of books about people who have had extraordinary lives, but this one is extreme and unlike anything I have come across before. Shin Dong-hyuk is a North Korean who was "bred" like an animal by guards in a Gulag-style prison camp so that he would work his entire life as free labor and die there. Shin knew almost nothing of the world outside the Gulag. He was the ultimate blank slate: essentially parent-less, stateless, completely without bond to anyone but sadistic homicidal camp guards. It's difficult to imagine but it raises so many questions about what it means to be human. Unfortunately, Blaine Harden is a newspaper journalist so his account is very precise and factual, but not very literary so it doesn't explore these questions. Perhaps it is best left to fiction. In any case, Harden's account of Shin's life is a gripping story in its own right, and I learned a lot about why these camps exist, and why the situation in North Korea exists. This is a major book in North Korean studies and very accessible to anyone interested in learning more about human rights in Korea. As a middle class American it's an eye opener about how different life can be.

After finishing the book I supplemented with resources on the Internet that made it even more real. First I explored Camp 14 on Google Maps [it is north of the river. Camp 18 is south of the river]. Then I watched a video of Shin Dong-hyuk where he uses Google Maps to take a tour of the camp, pointing out where the fence line is and various building functions. Finally I watched a C-SPAN interview with Blaine that contains additional and useful information not found in the book.
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The Day of the Triffids

David Wyndham (1951)
Audio P8
May 2012
The Day of the Triffids (1951) is solidly rooted in the history of its era despite the science fiction theme. It concerns the paranoia, stress and sense of menace in the every day that permeated the opening years of the Cold War. At any moment the world could come crashing down in a rain of atomic fire. Society was a blind passenger except the few sighted ones in power and at the controls who, we hope, will act civilly. What does it mean to be civil? The novel explores by looking at various modes of ordering society: aristocracy, feudalism, hunting and gathering, and communism. The successful model is described by Coker in a rousing speech:

"[First] we'll have to plow; still later we'll have to learn how to make plowshares; later than that we'll have to learn how to smelt the iron to make the shares. What we are on now is a road that will take us back and back and back until we can - if we can - make good all that we wear out. Not until then shall we be able to stop ourselves on the trail that's leading down to savagery. But once we can do that, then maybe we'll begin to crawl slowly up again."

Coker is describing materialism, growth and progress ie. capitalism. Wyndham was correct for 1951. Today in 2012, we face new threats that may not be so easily solved with unlimited growth. So I'll end by suggesting on the surface this is an innovative post-apocolyptic genre story but at its heart the ideas, while not irrelevant, the debate has moved on.
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The Rider on the White Horse

Theodor Storm (1888)
Ebook Internet Archive
April 2012
The Rider on the White Horse (1888) is Theodor Storm's best known work. Michael Dirda says it is arguably the best 19th century German novella. Michael Mann gave it high praise. It concerns the coastal region of North Friesland, Germany where dykes against the sea have been built since the earliest times and storms occasionally break through to flood entire towns. The descriptions of the geography and people are memorable, the next best thing to going in person, in fact a recent National Geographic travel guide recommends the book before going. I won't try to summarize the story but it's often described as being "uncanny" because it's both realistic and ghostly, and you are never sure which side prevails. It's the "uncanny valley" in terms of rationalism vs mysticism. This essay by "praymont" goes into more detail. I found the ambiguity unsettling, but symbolic of the way a dyke is man-made while the ocean, the sub-conscious, threatens to undermine it. Psychologically we build dykes in our minds that define who we are, but when faced with an existential crisis all can be wiped away if we are not attune to the forces that work beneath the surface.

Today we know that global warming is causing measurable sea level rise. The lowlands of northern Europe are among the world's most sensitive places, due to being developed, highly populated and below sea level. When the novel was written, in 1888, global warming and sea level rise was an unknown science. Yet the story is uncannily prescient on this subject showing how human progress can actually cause, or magnify, natural disaster. It would be interesting to examine - through the lens of this novel - the argument of science vs mysticism (faith vs reason) that often characterizes the "debate" over global warming. The novel is innocent of any present day politics and thus offers a universal message for understanding a looming natural disaster caused, in part, by man himself.

I read it from the 1917 translation in the Harvard Classics series which is not too bad though there are at least two modern translations available (1964 and 1997).
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Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan

Sean Parnell w/ John Bruning (2012)
Audio Audible
April 2012
Another John Bruning high-adrenalin war book, nearly as good as House to House, but this time in Afghanistan. Bruning's style is the same, an emphasis on slow motion combat with gory details; values of honor and loyalty; overwhelming American firepower mowing down countless "pajamas". Some of the scenes are extraordinarily grotesque, the worst is the 'Village of the Damned' with the 6 year old boy. While House to House was about a single large battle in Iraq, this one covers endless patrolling engagements over the course of a tour of duty. For what it is, probably the best of its type this close to the events, but still waiting for something that isn't as stereotypical and visceral, a book with more ideas and fewer bullets. Indeed, Afghanistan will be "won" with ideas, not bullets. The writing style and pacing translate well to audio.
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Immensee

Theodor Storm (1849)
Ebook Internet Archive
April 2012
This short and wistful German novella from 1849 was Theodor Storm's most popular work during his lifetime, it made him world famous. On the surface it's a love story but heavy with symbolism allowing for a multitude of interpretations. Critics often interpret the tone of resignation and missed opportunity as part of the Zeitgeist in the aftermath of the failed Revolutions of 1848.

Some of the symbolism is difficult for a non-specialist. For example in the 19th century, water lilies had a reputation as symbolizing female sexual power. Thus when Reinhardt swims in the lake at night and becomes entangled in the vines of a water lily, we know what was likely happening. Likewise when Reinhardt tosses a gold coin into the lap of a dark Gypsy girl, this symbolizes more than an act of charity. The mother carries keys representing power and control; the titular bees of the lake? I'm not sure. Overall I'd say this is worth reading for the story alone, and if you enjoy teasing out symbolism in 19th century German novellas. It can be read in a single sitting with a beautifully illustrated edition freely available online.
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Me and Kaminski

Daniel Kehlmann (2003)
Ebook P8
April 2012
Me and Kaminski (2003) is a sophisticated satire by Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. It's about a young biographer, Sebastian, who interviews a "famous" but old and near-death painter, Kaminski, so that Sebastian can publish an authoritative biography and - he hopes - become famous and wealthy. We quickly discover Sebastian is a hollow narcissist who cares only for himself ("Me" is first in the title) and gradually come to realize that Kaminski is even worse! Both use charm and guile to get their ways so the two together make for comedy. The trickster, Sebastian, becomes the tricked, by Kaminski, who gets Sebastian to drive him around, pay for things etc. The humor here is that among writers, biographers have a reputation as ambulance chasers and grave diggers, it's what hack writers do who can't do anything else, so we laugh at the comeuppance and turning of tables. Yet is Kaminski also a hack painter? His "fame" rests mainly on a few letters of recommendation and not his paintings which never sold well. Even the people in his village aren't sure who he is. It raises questions of authenticity, what is really important in life, the pretensions of the art world, image versus substance.

Overall I enjoyed the novel but it's probably not for everyone, it will take some thinking and appreciation. It's carefully written, not much is by accident, for example the hitchhiker, Karl Ludwig, infers that a painting is the work of the devil, and likewise it's hard to escape the Faustian nature of the story, is Kaminski really the devil who had made a bargain with Sebastian? There is more of this type of symbolism for those who wish to find depth beyond the surface story, it rewards contemplation which is the mark of good piece of art. Of course, that is the same thing the novel is about: like Kaminski's painting of mirrors facing mirrors, the novel is evaluating art while we the reader are evaluating the novel as art! In this 110 page book the word "mirror" is used 31 times, it's a reflection of a reflection. The American/UK book covers don't reflect it but the original German cover shows a mirror on the cover, it's unfortunate the American/UK publishers missed this central theme.
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The Cossacks

Leo Tolstoy (1862)
Audio P8
April 2012
The Cossacks is considered Tolstoy's best novel from his early years. Begun in 1853 and completed in 1862, after nearly 10 years of fits and starts, he was compelled to finish it after loosing badly at cards to pay the debt. The novel describes life among the martial Cossacks as seen through the eyes of a young Russian soldier stationed in a native village on the frontier. Descriptions of Caucuses geography and wildlife are the strongest part of the novel in my opinion, the story itself is slow and uneventful. The Cossack's are a clannish community and the outsider Olenin who tries to penetrate it with modest success discovers himself in the process. It's like Dances with Wolves where a soldier who is sent to subjugate and civilize on the frontier instead discovers indigenous wisdom and attempts to go native but finds in the end he can never fully cross over and returns a changed man.
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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Dava Sobel (1995)
Audio P8
April 2012
No review.
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Missing Soluch

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (1979)
Ebook Kindle
April 2012
Missing Soluch is an Iranian novel written while the author was imprisoned without pen or paper - he composed the 500 pages in his head. After his release he copied it down in 70 days. The feat is incredible enough but perhaps not surprising since he also wrote the longest novel in Iranian history, Kalidar, at 3000 pages. Mahmoud Dowlatabadi has often been considered a contender for the Nobel, I hope he lives long enough to see it.

Missing Slouch is a bleak but hopeful novel set in rural Iran in the 1960s, on the cusp of the transformation from an agrarian to urban society, similar to what Steinbeck described in Grapes of Wrath. One of the key plot elements in both novels is the disruption caused by the introduction of the tractor. And like Steinbeck, Dowlatabadi writes in a simple spare language about poor people in brutal conditions who somehow find ways to survive no matter how many insults to body and soul. Scenes of violence and brutality will stick with me: Ali Genav nearly beating his wife to death after his mother is crushed by her collapsing house, Hajer's disturbing first sexual encounter with her husband, Abrau attacking his mother with a tractor, an insane camel that attacks Abbas. Beatings, rapes, incest, theft, insanity, physical deformity, ignorance - one would think this is an insufferably bleak novel, and it can be, but through it all there is love and hope that feels more real and honest than any book I have read in a long time.

The accolades this book received are great, yet it never had many reviews, professional or otherwise. The reason is simple, not many people know or even care about pre-revolutionary Iranian village life (much less modern Iranian literature). Yet it is precisely for this reason the novel is so affecting, it's like being dropped into a totally unknown world with no context, one is transported to a new world. The novel is a very accessible introduction to Iranian literature, and a hidden gem.
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American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

Colin Woodard (2011)
Audio Audible
April 2012
America, like Europe, China, India and elsewhere is a complex patchwork of cultures. Homogenizing elements like McDonalds, television and nationalistic patriotism can make it seem like a "melting pot", but that is a naive and idealistic view. Traditionally the North/South divide was the standard view of America's differences, but in the 20th century the Red State / Blue State narrative has arisen. But America is more than two teams. Colin Woodard proposes there are 11 archetypal "nations" in North America, as seen in this map. Ever since the founding of the United States, these 11 cultures fought over the ultimate prize: control of the institutions of the Federal government, namely the Congress, Military, Supreme Court and Presidency. Some of the cultures are well known: Yankees of New England, the Deep South and the French of New Orleans and Quebec. Others are more novel, such as my own home state of Maryland which is in the "Midlands"; and the "Borderlands" at the heart of America but named after the border regions of Scotland, Ireland and Wales were its people and culture originated.

This is a very revealing book. It will provide a useful lens to view politics in America, Canada and Mexico. Now that I understand the 11 distinct nations, some things start to make more sense. For example in the news today, aging rocker Ted Nugent told an National Rifle Association assembly that they should fight back against a totalitarian Government and act more like Braveheart. I didn't get mad at his seeming stupidity, like I normally would, rather I understood he is a Borderlander speaking romantically to his "nation" with images they understand - a nation very distinct from others. In the end, America could fall apart if the differences between nations become too pronounced (there is evidence this trend is worsening), but what will hold it together is a common bond of self interest and a strong federal government that is not dominated by any one nation or coalition of nations.
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Murder on the Orient Express (BBC 4 Dramatization)

Agatha Christie (1934)
Audio P8
April 2012
My first Agatha Christie story (in any media) listened to via the BBC 4 Dramatization starring John Moffatt as Hercule Poirot and full cast (2007). First, the production is first class all the way, sound effects, music, each person a separate voice etc.. it is like a movie. The script adaption is good enough I was able to follow the story. The clues were impossible to decipher, perhaps by design, but it became clear towards the end who the guilty party was (and there was one giant clue at the start that should have been enough to figure it out). The acting by John Moffatt was remarkable, I would listen to more of these just to hear him speak. Light fare but entertaining.
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The Atrocities of the Pirates

Aaron Smith (1824)
Audio LibriVox
April 2012
This is a curiously good book for a fan of Treasure Island. On the surface it's the real memoir of an Englishman who was captured by pirates off Cuba in the 1820s, forced to work as a pirate while suffering wretched ignobilities, then captured by English authorities and put on trial for piracy. The book is the authors attempt to restore his reputation, to show he was a loyal subject held captive, and not a pirate. It's impossible to know how much of the book is embellished as it is self-serving. Even contemporary reviewers said the same, they found it an exciting narrative, but unsure what to believe. There is no way to know. Whatever the case, it's a great story with insights into pirate sub-culture. The pirate captain is the best character, he is an unpredictable paranoid sadist who kills for the slightest reason yet is easily manipulated, the proverbial loose canon in all senses. There is little of the romanticism made famous in the morally ambiguous Long John Silver of Treasure Island. Rather it reminded me of accounts by people held captive in modern day Afghanistan or Colombia, the terror each day brings not knowing what would happen next. My overall sense is most of the story is true because there were witnesses still alive when it was published who could have refuted the facts. The 1999 edition contains a foreword and afterward with additional information by the relatives of Smith. Also, a great job by James K. White for LibriVox, these older texts are difficult to narrate smoothly he never falters.
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Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

Max Hastings (2011)
Audio P8
March 2012
The history of single-volume histories of WWII is interesting in its own right. There are about half a dozen of them now, Inferno the most recent.

Basically Inferno is a Ken Burns treatment with lots of dramatic anecdotes from sources that are off the beaten track. Hastings had a team of silent helpers scour sources to find obscure but interesting quotes. It's a popular history, but well grounded in the scholarship of its sources. It does a great job with balance: the USSR did most of the heavy lifting; the US and UK had their own share of atrocities; 1914-1945 represented the end of colonialism as a global power structure. The simplistic view of the war as a fight of good versus evil, we learn, is much more nuanced. The Nazis and the Japanese were incompetent and weak in ways that counters their fearsome reputation, they never really had a chance of winning strategically. I was surprised to learn Hitler knew the war was militarily lost as early as December 1941, just 6 months after the invasion of Russia when they stalled outside Moscow, and the rest of the war was an attempt to reach better bargaining grounds for peace terms with the West that never came. Hitler thought western capitalism wouldn't join forces so readily with totalitarian Communism, but he was mistaken, at least until the start of the Cold War, by which time it was too late. Overall this is a decent enough book and feels opinionated but accurate, it's my second single-volume history and my second favorite. Robert Leckie's Delivered From Evil is deeply flawed compared to Inferno, but it did a better job teaching me about the events of the war and people involved in a way that sticks in memory. I don't regret reading Inferno, there was hardly a page I was not captivated, and look forward to trying out some more single volume WWII books.
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Log Book

Frank Laskier (1943)
Book Hardcover first edition
March 2012
Frank Laskier was a British WWII Merchant Marine who lost his foot when his ship was sunk by a German raider. On returning to England, he was interviewed on BBC radio where he struck a popular chord with his honest "Everyman" persona and story telling skills. There followed autobiographical books, newsreels and speaking tours as the public desired to learn more about "Seaman Frank". The Merchant Marines used him as an icon for recruitment propaganda efforts. His first book, My Name is Frank, is mostly just transcripts of his BBC interviews. His second book, Log Book, is an autobiographical novel about his life. Called fiction, it contains a fair amount of truth about life as sailor in the 1930s on tramp steamers.

Laskier's writing is sublime, horrid in truth, but beautiful in execution. It's a short book, almost an extended essay with no chapters, but captures the spirit of a rough life. Whoring, fighting, killing, thieving - Frank did it all; but he never seems a bad guy, just doing what every other ordinary sailor would do. A reminder of how brutal the times were, even before the war. I first learned about Frank in an entry in the Neglected Books Page, and this Wikipedia article, and picked up a first edition hardcover for $5. Well worth an evenings diversion. Frank lost his right foot in combat, in 1941, and died in an auto accident in New York City, in 1949; who was driving or at fault unknown.
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A Princess of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1917)
Audio P8
March 2012
Gary Gygax wrote in the forward of the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons (1974) that John Carter was one of the foundations on which the game was built. Gygax even published a minatures game the same year called Warriors of Mars. It's difficult to overstate the influence of this series on science fiction and fantasy, from Conan to Planet of the Apes and of course D&D.

As a book it is pure pulp, more akin to radio drama or comics than literature. Yet even pulp can leave a powerful impression on the imagination. Episodic action and a half naked muscle bound hero who immediately solves all problems with the force of his sword stands in direct contrast to the confines of modern complex society where morality is gray and violence held in check. It's an appealing story, this mashup of the Western and the Jules Verne, the Romantic and the Adventure, with a likeable hero, a believable setting and a planet where no one wears clothes.
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Last Chance to See

Douglas Adams (1990)
Audio P8
February 2012
Feels dated but still good as a travel memoir. Listened to the audiobook narrated by Adams himself, but two chapters cut. Included in the audio are the following, unsure if they are unabridged:

The Aye-aye in Madagascar;
The Komodo dragon on the island of Komodo in Indonesia;
The Kakapo in New Zealand;
The Mountain Gorilla in Zaire;
The Northern White Rhinoceros in Zaire;
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A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens (1859)
Audio P8
February 2012
The best thing about the novel is the catchy title and opening sentence. After that you have to be a masochist to follow the plot which is convoluted, plodding and worst of all for Dickens, humorless. Somehow I got through it, mercifully one of his shorter novels. It's worth pointing out it was among the least popular novels during Dickens' lifetime, only two others sold less. It sold perhaps 5% what Bleak House did. In the 20th century the popularity of A Tale of Two Cities increased mainly because it was assigned to students due to the combination of short length and the history lesson of the French Revolution, presumably making it a good teaching novel. Oprah included it in her book club because it was short and had a familiar title. It's time the novel returned to its former place at the bottom of the list alongside Barnaby Rudge and clear room for the neglected masterpieces like Dombey and Son and Nicholas Nickleby.
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A Night to Remember

Walter Lord (1955)
Audio P8
February 2012
Walter Lord's minute-by-minute account of the final night of the Titanic based on survivor testimony was hailed an immediate classic and "initiated a small industry of Titanic studies". This book, along with the 1953 film Titanic, popularized the story of the Titanic as we know it today. It was also written in a style that would be copied in later disaster books. After reading it in the 1950s, David McCullough considered it the best book he had ever read, and said it was the model for his first book The Johnstown Flood. McCullough is the grand master of narrative non-fiction, this is high praise indeed. A more recent book similar to it is 102 Minutes, about 9/11. A Night to Remember is still very readable and historically accurate. It remains the classic introduction to the Titanic disaster, and classic narrative non-fiction.
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Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure

Tim Jeal (2011)
Ebook P8
February 2012
Very interesting history of the European discovery of central Africa during the search for the source of the Nile, mainly in the 1860s and 70s. The primary actors were Richard Francis Burton, John Hanning Speke, James Grant, Henry Morton Stanley, David Livingstone and Samuel Baker, although there are more in this generous book. Jeal recounts their journeys with an emphasis on setting the record straight behind the legends built up over the years. He reveals Burton to be a duplicitous jerk hardly worthy of the title "explorer", while John Hanning Speke, historically vilified, is the surprise hero of the story. The relationship of Livingstone and Stanley is revealing in how the later was able to leverage the formers good reputation into his own by deifying his mentor. The wealthy gentleman explorer Samuel Baker and his slave/wife was a story I had never heard of but fascinating for their accomplishments and experiences. Their story would make great fiction or film. Baker also seems to have written the most readable contemporary account, The Albert N'yanza; great basin of the Nile, and explorations of the Nile sources, though Speke's book Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile looks good too. Tim Jeal is probably the most authoritative writer on this subject and this book moves the scholarship forward with his discovery of Spekes previously unpublished papers. Jeal has previously published detailed biographies of Livingstone and of Stanley, so he doesn't go into lengthy bios in this book, but does give pretty detailed accounts of the expeditions in search of the Nile and places them in context with African history that makes it more than just an adventure story.
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The Real Heroes of Telemark

Ray Mears (2004)
Audio P8
January 2012
The Real Heroes of Telemark sets out to correct the mythology created in the 1965 war film The Heroes of Telemark, which was about an actual Norwegian sabotage mission during World War II, considered to be one of the most audacious, and successful, special operations raids of the war. The book is a companion to a 2.5 hour BBC documentary from 2003 of the same name. The book and documentary are very different so it's best to watch the show first then read the book. The book is a more traditional narrative history while the video is a present-day re-enactment of the raid. I actually was able to follow the basic events easier in the documentary, while the book has a lot more detail. The neat thing about the documentary is it includes footage of the actual people involved, now in their 80s and 90s, as well as the locations which have not changed at all.

This is an exciting story, but also a very important one since it stopped the Nazi ambitions to build an atomic bomb. Given current events in Iran with assassinations of nuclear scientists, it's also very topical, though the geography between Iran and Norway couldn't be more different (nor are Iran = Nazis). I did learn a lot about the Hardangervidda, a geographic region in southern Norway characterized by alpine tundra, and how to best live in Arctic conditions, so there is a lot these works have to offer, a fun trip to a place and events I never knew about.
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A High Wind in Jamaica

Richard Hughes (1929)
Audio P8
January 2012
The most interesting thing is the language, it's a short book but the sentences are carefully crafted and have a great classic feel to them. The next thing to consider is the theme, which explores the amorality of children (basically it's Lord of the Flies written by J. M. Barrie). The idea of amorality in children's literature originated 40 years prior, in Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), as seen in the character of Long John Silver. Treasure Island was one of the first books written for children that had an amoral character and Hughes paid tribute to Stevenson by writing an anti-Treasure Island, reversing the roles by making the pirates good and the children the amoral ones. Stepping back further, he was really making a statement about the crumbling righteous morality of the Victorian/Edwardian era. In further historical context, this kind of reversal and flipping of the known world into uncharted waters was characteristic of the inter-war period which saw society undergoing the radical changes of modernity, including modernism in literature, enough to make one seasick.

Although it's easy to see why the book is widely praised I wasn't too enamored with it, an evil clown seemed to have written it, I much prefer Treasure Island and Lord of the Flies. I respect it though because it was attempting to break molds, move literature forward, and the language in places is beautifully done.
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Delivered from Evil: The Saga of World War II: The First Complete One-Volume History

Robert Leckie (1987)
Book Paperback
January 2012
Having lived with this book almost daily for a month it has been a long dramatic reading experience. The book is both fascinating and flawed. The writing is energetic, never boring and full of interesting anecdote. It presents the unapologetically biased view of an American patriot. Leckie was a US Marine who fought in the war and thus it has the feel of the times by someone who lived it. Leckie makes no pretense about being politically correct or trying to show the belligerents as anything but "evil", incompetent, black and white.

In a work of this type the author has only 1000 pages and thus what he chooses to fill the pages with says a lot. The book is strongest in the American Pacific campaign, not surprisingly this is where Leckie had direct experience. The Eastern Front gets poor coverage given its size. The North African campaign is complicated but he spends enough time on it to give a sense of the back and forth. The 1939 and 1940 battles go by too quickly, the Battle of Britain gets 5 pages compared to Guadalcanal which gets 50 pages. Strategic bombing of Germany is barely detailed. The Italian campaign is not well covered after Cassino. The U-boat war gets 2 pages. Certain things get no mention such as the sinking of the great Bismark, but we get detail about minor Japanese ships.

Thus the complaints are too much coverage here in exchange for not enough there - subjective to be sure. Yet there was never a page I didn't enjoy and learn something new. I first learned about it in a recent survey of single-volume WWII histories


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