Cool Reading 2013

A reading journal by Stephen Balbach

In 2013, I read 80 books (24,609 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 80 books follows in reverse chronological reading order:
Favorites of 2013:
The Fall of the King
The Trial
Conquest of the Useless
The Wild Trees
Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry
Masters of Doom
The Dead Hand
Bitter Brew
Dark Pools
The Elephant Whisperer
Return of a King
The Skies Belong to Us
The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary
Twelve Years a Slave
The Spirit of St. Louis
Now the Hell Will Start
Devil in the Grove
Between Man and Beast
The Tecate Journals
Flight by Elephant
Reading journals from other years:
2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013,
2014, 2015, 2016, 2017

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Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi

Neal Bascomb (2009) Audio P8
December 2013
Hunting Eichmann is a gripping thriller, a detailed, accurate and well paced account, the best of creative nonfiction. Initially I was hesitant to give over 10 hours of my life to a common criminal ("banality of evil") however I'm glad I did as this is more than a Nazi hunt story. Prior to the capture of Eichmann in Argentina, and subsequent trial in Israel, the Holocaust was not a big part of popular culture, interest in Eichmann sparked a global interest in the Holocaust leading to waves of survivor memoirs, studies, films and so on. And so it was that Eichmann unintentionally helped to write the history he sought to hide (from). This is an important story worthwhile not only for a good thriller but a key moment in time.
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Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration

Buzz Aldrin (2013) Audio P8
December 2013
Buzz lays out his ideas for why we should go to Mars, a time frame and some ideas how to do it. Since it was Buzz who pushed for the modular lunar lander idea (versus von Braun's idea for a single monolithic there and back ship), he has some real-world experience with dreaming up ideas on how to explore space that have actually worked. I like his thinking in particular of the importance of the moons Phobus and Deimos since they have such weak gravity wells. The book is short and worth reading but it's no great work of art, it often repeats and felt disorganized but the ideas are understandable and that is what matters. And Buzz's excitement is infectious. Another important idea he discusses is that any plan for Mars should be permanent, not a "moon shot" one-off flag planting, rather a commitment to a lasting settlement. Regardless, things will keep progressing forward one way or another as technology and knowledge improve.
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Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis

Timothy Egan (2012) Audio P8
December 2013
I'm not a huge fan of Egan's writing style, not sure what it is, I had the same reaction on finishing Worst Hard Time, it was painless reading but didn't leave a lasting impression. This should have been a very exciting story of discovery about Indians. Instead it's a comprehensive biography of events year after year, interesting with the boring, a lot of scrambling for money and not as much on the Indians or craft of photography. Nevertheless I now have an appreciation for Curtis who I knew nothing about, Egan has done a great service to memorialize this nearly forgotten American artist.
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Flight By Elephant: The Untold Story of World War Two's Most Daring Jungle Rescue

Andrew Martin (2013) Ebook P8
December 2013
This is a wonderfully fun book that often reads like an adventure novel but is also the first full-length history about yet another obscure but fascinating story from WWII. The British/Allies exodus from Burma during 1942 due to the surprise Japanese invasion was chaotic and involved thousands of people walking for hundreds of miles over Himalayan mountain-jungles devoid of food. A few hundred took a "death trap" route though a certain high pass that required rescue by elephant from the India side, the only means of transport through the jungle since elephants were capable of crossing monsoon swollen rivers running off the mountains. The lead of this rescue was a local English tea planter named Gyles Mackrell and this is mainly his story.

The neat thing about this book is its possible to follow the route using Google Earth 3D to see up-close the mountains and rivers the trekkers had to contend with, and what better way to learn the geography of remote Assam and Burma. Also, Mackrell had a video camera so there is an archive of B&W videos online for free that are not re-enactments but the exact people and events discussed in the book. This is highly unusual for something from WWII. These added visuals, plus the authors own cinematic writing style bring this part of the world alive. Martin is particularly strong in his descriptions of the jungle and geography. I also learned about the Burmese exodus which I knew little about. This book was clearly written for a British audience, with some excessive genealogical detail in places (easily skipped), and may not find many American readers but hopefully it will for those who like a good adventure.
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The Heyday of Natural History, 1820-1870

Lynn Barber (1980) Hardback
December 2013
Something of a lost classic, although written over 30 years ago its reads as fresh and new as yesterday. Opened my eyes to an aspect of Victorian popular culture that is a constant in the background and here well explained. The first few chapters are a great overview of how the craze for natural history came about in the 1820s and how it manifested (collecting shells, ferns, aquariums, etc). This is followed by mini-biographies of some of the more significant naturalists and their works (most of whom are curiously eccentric), and finally ending with the Darwin debates which changed the field from a gentleman's hobby to a specialized science. An important book for understanding an aspect of 19th century popular culture, as well as needed context for anything about Darwin or science in the 19th century. Beautifully produced with color plates and illustrations on almost every page.
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City of Thieves

David Benioff (2009) Audio P8
December 2013
Although the plot and characters are about as realistic as Hogan's Heroes it did entertain even if it was disturbing the main character's only real obsession was sex while the atrocities and deaths seemed to go by without much comment. In the end the character says he is too numb to reflect on all he had seen. I'm too numb to say more.
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Railway Man: A POW's Searing Account of War, Brutality and Forgiveness

Eric Lomax (2008) Audio P8
December 2013
For better or worse the power of this war memoir is in describing the horrible tortures and deprivations that a young Scottish man undergoes after being taken prison by the Japanese at the start of the war.To be fair he also finds redemption and undergoes change giving it a novelistic quality. We get to see how the war changed his life into the 21st century, which is unusual. It's hard to fault someone without walking in their shoes but I thought he blamed too much on the war and seemed stuck in the negative events of the past, he let it define him, which is the same criticism some of his buddies had. It reminded me more of a Vietnam war memoir than the typical WWII because of the Burma theater which was inconsequential, there is no sense of heroics or fighting the good fight, just pointless brutality and when it was over, everyone walked away and went home as if nothing had happened leaving a lifetime of scars to sort out.
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The Tecate Journals: Seventy Days on the Rio Grande

Keith Bowden (2007) Audio Audible
November 2013
The Tecate Journals: Seventy Days on the Rio Grande is, as the title says, about a solo 70-day canoe trip down the river that separates Mexico from Texas, the Rio Grande (aka Rio Bravo). It's well known that the river is the focus of a great deal of international tension due to violence and illegal immigration, and so very few use it for recreational purposes (except in isolated spots like Big Bend). No one canoes its entire length or camps out along its banks, as Bowden did, for dangers real and imagined the river has a bad reputation. So Bowden was a genuine novelty to those he encountered but also a perfect ambassador of the river as he is fluent in the language and culture of both sides. As I read (or listened via Jonathan Davis' perfect narration) I followed along using Google Map satellite view. Bowden was very specific and so it's possible to see the rapids he went through, towns, portages, etc.. in one case I even saw the boulder, snag and eddy that he was caught in. Places I won't soon forget (visually due to Google Maps) include Indian Springs, the abandoned mine, the lower canyons. This multimedia experience greatly enhanced the book, I felt as though I was long for the trip. Not only a good story but a guided tour of the TexMex border geography and culture.
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Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, the Evolution Debates, and the African Adventure that Took the Victorian World by Storm

Monte Reel (2013) Audio Audible
November 2013
Excellent book. The explorer Paul Du Chaillu usually isn't given much attention today but for a time he was the ultimate great white explorer and hunter. There were other African explorers besides Stanley, Livingston and Burton. Reel doesn't merely recount Du Chaillu's memoirs, but shows how his "discovery" of the gorilla had a wide (and weird) impact on culture and science of the time. A well constructed book that brings the period alive with a deep and multidisciplinary view of the mid-19th century.
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The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age

Nathan Wolfe (2011) Audio P8
November 2013
This book is probably better than the ratings on LibraryThing suggest. Having read enough of these types of books it was refreshing to read one by a top expert in the field who brings a multidisciplinary approach yet keeps it accessible to the average reader. This is not a journalist version made for movies. The ultimate purpose is to raise awareness for the need to predict outbreaks before they happen, something which Wolfe himself is attempting to build. It's a noble (Nobel) aim indeed so I can't fault the motivation, or even criticize the scheme. Probably the best analogy is this is a book long TED Talk.
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One Summer: America, 1927

Bill Bryson (2013) Audio P8
November 2013
A cast of characters small and large, famous in their day but mostly forgotten now, Bryson helps us to remember what it was like to be our (great) grandparents. Bryson mined newspaper headlines and carries the reader along as if living out the weeks of the summer, experiencing the change in moods and excitement as it happened. It's not exactly a new approach, Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (1931) did much the same, though without the hindsight of 80 years (Bryson mentions this book). 80 years is a perfect time to revisit an era, not too old to be academic, yet not too uncomfortably close, everyone who lived the era is gone four generations on. Though I knew it intellectually I gained a much deeper understanding of the impact Lindbergh had on the global psyche - airplanes were no longer curiosities or science fiction possibilities, people realized that in their lifetime they would travel vast distances in the blink of an eye, and they were right. It would be like if someone proved affordable space travel to Mars, space would suddenly be open to possibility in the lives of ordinary people. Another aspect I found fascinating was train travel in the era, with thousands of private railroads and labyrinthine trail schedules and connections. Well the details go on and on, the book is loaded with trivia for better and worse, but with Bryson telling it, who cares. Well worth the read or listen (Bryson is a talented narrator too).
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Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip

Dayton Duncan (2003) Audio Audible
October 2013
Short, passionate and patriotic retelling of the first car trip across America. The most interesting aspect were the details of early car technology, and the state of roads in America. It's probably difficult to underestimate the impact of motorized vehicles and this book gives a small glimpse into the world just on the brink of vertiginous change.
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Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age

Matthew Brzezinski (2007) Audio P8
October 2013
After being hugely impressed by Matthew Brzezinski's Isaac's Army I thought I'd try his earlier book about the history of the development of the early missiles - from the V2 in WWII up to the first US satellite in 1958. The book weaves back and forth between the US and USSR as technology and politics progress. The information about the Soviets is new territory since much has been secret until recently. It covers a lot of interesting events and people such as Sputnik, U2, Sergei Korolev, Wernher von Braun, the first ICBM the R2, the failed Vanguard program, etc..

Interesting perspectives include the strategic mistake the USA made to presume that the USSR's centralized government couldn't succeed at large science projects. How the USA put rocket and space development on hold after WWII as mere "Buck Rogers" science fiction, then were rudely awakened by Sputnik, with Eisenhower seeming out of touch and old school. How Sputnik had no purpose other than testing, it took the newspapers of NY and London for the Soviet leadership to realize they had done something historically important. It goes on like this, many great perspectives and information for those of us who didn't live through it. Sputnik was a watershed moment culturally and politically, this book puts it into perspective.
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Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World WarII

Brendan I. Koerner (2008) Hardback
October 2013
Koerner is one my favorite American non-fiction writers (of my generation). This is his first book which concerns a black soldier, Herman Perry, sent to the backwater Burma theater of WWII. While there he gets into trouble, runs off into the jungle and is hunted. Koerner in an interview compares Perry to Kurtz from Heart of Darkness since he goes native beyond the pale. In fact the book has some of that aspect, but it's not as romantic as it sounds, this is really a book about Jim Crow America - in the Burmese jungle. Jim Crow America is Kurtz gone feral, Perry is civilization's naturally insane reaction. Seeing old racist patterns in an exotic location opens our eyes to injustice. It's no accident that when blacks returned after the war they were more willing to stick up for their rights (see Devil the Grove for the explosive results). Koerner has his finger on the pulse of America - race issues, a big wild territory tamed with brute engineering, a love interest, and how the little guy takes on the man and, for a while anyway, wins. All in a package of solid historical research told with cinematic effect. Spike Lee might film it, we can hope.

This book has been added to my WWII recluse literature collection. During WWII there were a number of individuals who for various reasons, intentionally or by necessity, turned their backs on Civilization and went alone into the Wilderness. While the rest of the world destroyed itself in conflict, they found solitude in nature and reflected on what it means to be truly "civilized". They lived off the land with native peoples, or alone, and on the run.
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The Sea-Wolf Dramatised (BBC Radio 4)

Jack London (2009) Audio P8
October 2013
The BBC produces amazing radio play adaptions of classic books. They can capture not only the plot but general themes and emotions of the original literary works, and in a reasonable amount of time (this adaption was 4 hours). It is accomplished through the quality of the written adaptation, acting and sound effects, bringing new life and dimension, not unlike a good film of a book. My prior reading of Jack London, The Call of the Wild, left me underwhelmed, so I tried this modern adaptation of another book and it was fantastic. The character of the ruthless captain was fully believable and realized, and the plot took unexpected interesting turns. It's not the same as the original and I may read it someday, but like Disney, King Arthur, Robin Hood and many other examples, it's fun finding new versions of old classics.
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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Eric Schlosser (2013)
October 2013
The thesis is that nuclear weapons are inherently unsafe because evidently there have been 100s of accidents already - Schlosser provides excruciating details. Schlosser used FOI (Freedom of Information) to obtain and report for the first time many of the accidents. He does so while retelling the history of the Cold War and development of nuclear weapons over about 490 pages. The center-piece drama is a detailed account of the 1980 Titan II Damascus accident in Arkansas.

As for the book I found it very long. I already knew the general outline of the Cold War and this is a superficial version. Nor does it leave you feeling good in the end, by design entirely focused on the negative. But it does the job of shattering any notion that nuclear weapons are safe (in storage), which ultimately may help the political process by focusing renewed attention on this most loathsome device. He ends with one proposal that seems smart: if we are to keep nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes, they should be isolated on submarines where any accidental detonation would (hopefully) be far away from land.
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Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

Gilbert King (2013) Audio Audible
October 2013
This is an incredible story. I knew nothing about it and was glad to have experienced the dramatic events as if living through them, unaware of what going to happen next. The less you know of the Groveland Case the better this book will be. The characters are made for Hollywood.

It's been said that behind every evil is a lie. The lie of slavery is that some humans are sub-human, are less equal. The lie did not end with the Civil War, it was told to younger generations in the form of Jim Crow racism, and is at the heart of the evil in this book as it finds expression in a multitude of ways. The Constitution is the ultimate hero of this story.
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Fatal Dive: Solving the World War II Mystery of the USS Grunion

Peter F. Stevens (2012) Audio P8
September 2013
N.A.
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Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell

Phil Lapsley (2013) Audio P8
September 2013
I grew up in the computer hacker community of the 1980s and was surrounded by the legacy of phone phreaking, the terminology and culture was everywhere. However it was foreign country by then since new digital switching technology made phone phreaking largely obsolete and computers were better for hackers anyway. So this book was a great reveal on what the "Old Breed" hackers were about, the origin, the technology and some of the important phreakers (infamously "Captain Crunch" the first hacker to go to jail). The parallels between phone and computer hacking are so close they are nearly the same thing, one following the other. It all started here.

Basically during late 1950s and 60s, phreaking was practiced by a small number of very geeky people with strange phone obsessions; then in 1971 it crossed over into mainstream culture when Abby Hoffman co-opted it as part of a larger movement to fight the man. Then by the early 80s it was mostly gone. So it had about a 20 year run with the 70s as heyday. The connection between counter-culture and technology are very apparent. Much of the modern computer revolution is thanks to hackers.

The book is dense with random incident and character, I listened to the audio version and found 12hrs a bit draining though not impossible to follow. There is no great central narrative or mystery as it moves forward in time, each chapter almost a standalone essay on a certain period. I think it's better read then listened to, or listened to with no distraction. There are some challenging technical aspects and many dates and names that mean slowing down and re-reading is important at times. There is narrative on smaller scales that makes it pretty easy to follow. This is probably the definitive history of phone phreaking, Phil Lapsley has done a great service to interview the people before they disappear.
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Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission

Hampton Sides (2001) Audio Cassette
September 2013
A great introduction to the Bataan Death March and subsequent prison break at wars end. This is not definitive historians history, rather more of a Band of Brothers telling true stories within a coherent literary framework. It's meant as much to entertain as to inform. I'm a fan of Hampton Sides for his skilful use of the braided narrative technique and this is another example. Other authors try it by not all succeed. The book was the basis of the film The Great Raid (2005).
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Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet

Steve Squyres (2006) Audio Cassette
September 2013
Steve Squyres was the Principal Investigator for the Spirit and Opportunity missions and this is his memoir of how the idea came into being, how they were designed and built, launched and mission on Mars for the first 150 days. It's fairly lively as his excitement bleeds over but lets face it, the byzantine bureaucracy of NASA can be boring no matter how well written. But you learn what goes on and shows how close the mission came to being canceled many times. The engineering challenges were sometimes interesting. The science aspect was boring for me since the discovery of water (or evidence of) is now well known and no great surprise. Overall this is a detailed but interesting look into the people, processes, engineering, technology and science behind probably the most famous NASA mission of the 2000's, as told from the perspective of the lead investigator whose idea it was from the start.
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Company Aytch: Or, a Side Show of the Big Show

Sam R. Watkins (1882) Audio LibriVox
September 2013
I'd never heard of Company Aytch before stumbling upon it at LibriVox performed by one of my favorite narrators, Winston Tharp. I'm glad I listened to it since it translates well to audio, Tharp has a natural gift that brings back alive this old southern raconteur's conversational memoir. At times it seemed like a modernist or post-modernist work but really it was just Sam rebelling convention. The most interesting of course is the private's view of the war and I was amazed at how brutal Confederate soldiers were treated by top commanders and other petty acts on down the line. Sam saw a lot of death and details graphically brains slopping out into food plates, etc.. terrible but he remains lighthearted. Great memoir from any war this is a classic that has been widely quoted.
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Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival

Dean King (2004) Audio Cassette
August 2013
Entertaining introduction to a classic true adventure story. Although this is a modern retelling King often lapses into an early 19th bombastic style that makes it obvious he is paraphrasing from source material, it can feel stilted as a result. Further the remove of a journalist telling us what happened 200 years, versus the first-person memoir by Riley soon after the events - which is still fairly readable - makes me want to read the original. Although the inhuman "sufferings" of the crew are what most remark on, I was most drawn by the lifestyle of the desert natives since it seemed unchanged for 5000 years or more, and provides a glimpse into the age-old fight of settled vs nomadic peoples. Given how harsh nomadic life is I wondered why anyone practice it, and the answer became clear: "civilization" could be even more deadly, the desert was a refuge from cruel and capricious rulers and endless tribal feuds that could wipe out entire settlements.
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The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery

Andrew Westoll (2011) Ebook P8
August 2013
As the United States begins to wind down its chimpanzee medical studies program of the past 60+ years - in which chimps are taken from their mothers at birth, thrown into a solitary metal cage for life never to see the sun, infected with AIDS, TB and whatever else, surgeries without pain killer and so on - these older chimps who somehow survived, psychologically damaged, need a place to live out the remainder of their life. Thus a network of "sanctuaries" around North America are appearing to take in the 2000 or so chimps, the largest population of chimps outside the wild. This book is about one such sanctuary in Canada that houses about 20. Westoll worked there, each day preparing food and cleaning cages. He is a talented writer and through him we get to experience a relationship with our closest animal relative. These chimps are different from wild chimps, they are depressed, socially dysfunctional, suffering from severe PTSD. Yet they remain individuals with personalities and entirely understandable, naturally.

I became interested after seeing this affecting video of chimpanzees going outside for the first time. I immediately wanted to learn more and this book turned out to be the perfect portal into this strange world. You get to know chimpanzees as individuals, the people who run the sanctuaries, and information about the lab chimp program and efforts underway to end it. As they are slowly released into sanctuaries, out of the shadows, they are becoming a part of the public consciousness. Hard to imagine a better introduction to lab chimps.
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Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp

Pat O'Brien (1918) Audibo LibriVox
August 2013
The Amazon customer review by Bobbi's Books motivated me to try this old WWI escape memoir. It's about an American flying ace shot down over German lines who is taken prisoner and escapes on foot across hundreds of miles. It starts off slow and builds to the end with many close calls. The episode in a Belgian town with "Heidegger" is memorable as he hides in plain sight from German soldiers. Although with a propagandist slant (you can tell by the title) it's a true account and fun to step back in time, I enjoyed it. It was one of the best-selling war books in 1918, earning 6th spot on Publisher Weekly's best-seller list, but largely forgotten today. All the more fun for discovering. The LibriVox recording by David Wales is professional quality, or the original book at Internet Archive.
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The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut's Mummy

Jo Marchant (2013) Ebook P8
August 2013
Technically this a book of historiography, looking not so much at the life of Tut in his lifetime but the 90 year history of Tut since his discovery in 1925. The opening chapters retelling his discovery are riveting and great fun. Then a somewhat interesting series of chapters on the theories how how Tut died, the changing technologies used to examine mummies (X-Ray, CT, DNA sequencing) and through it all a wild cast of characters and, well, stories. Without reliable historical records Tut has become a blank slate to build stories around, with many profiting including National Geographic, Discovery, Egyptian government, Egyptologists and so on. Whatever you know about Tut is probably either wrong or not well accepted, he remains a great enigma. This is a lighthearted and often humorous book but one of serious scholarship, recommended for anyone interested in ancient history, modern popular culture, and a good story.
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Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

Nicholas Wade (2006) Audio P8
August 2013
Before the Dawn has been described as "meaty" because it is so full of thought provoking ideas, one could read it multiple times to absorb the many lines of evidence from 7 or 8 different academic disciplines, hardly a page goes by without an "ah hah" moment. Since the book was published in 2006, and presumably based on studies published even earlier, and given how much current research is being done with DNA and new techniques and technology -- it is already somewhat dated but still worthwhile. A mind blowing look at the deep history of humanity.
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Albatross: The True Story of a Woman's Survival at Sea

Deborah Scaling Kiley (1994) Hardback
August 2013
This is a great read. The first third is 'before the storm' and I actually liked it as much as the main event since it gave a personal insight into what it's like crewing yachts on the east coast Main to Florida run. I am familiar with places in the book (Portland, Annapolis) even the bar in Annapolis, and have friends who have crewed. Once the wreck happens it turns into a modern day wreck of the Méduse, in which some of the crew quickly loose their minds. It's a story about personal resilience, alcoholism, and being prepared. The book is in the genre of American adrenaline literature that became popular in the late 80s and 90s, unique in that it was written by women. A gripping page turner. Her story became famous with two TV movies, countless mentions and retellings in books, magazines and TV, motivational speaker and so on. She died age 54 in 2012 (cause unknown) and appears to have lived a difficult but full life.
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Pied Piper

Nevil Shute (1942) Audio Audible
August 2013
In the early years of WWII, Britain shipped many children to the USA, Canada and elsewhere, to ensure they would not be hurt during the blitz or possible invasion. No doubt this book was a salve for the anxieties of separation. Removed from the historical context by 80 years, it's a nice story of a pleasant man that leaves one with a good feeling of the kindness of strangers. Today, recommended as a salve after reading some horrific non-fiction about war, to restore belief in humanity.
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The Dwarf

Par Lagerkvist (1944) Ebook P8
August 2013
The Dwarf is a dark and complex novella concerning the contrasts of the human condition on themes of good and evil, faith and reason, love and hate - just as in most of Lagervist's work. I like to imagine that Lagerkvist took cliche plots from Renaissance literature and redid in the style of modernism; and then like the negative of a photo, view the story from the opposite, light becomes dark and darkness light: a love story becomes a hate-story. A story of heroics and loyalty become one of poisoning and treachery - thus revealing truths of humanity buried. Some see it as an allegory of WWII Europe but Lagerkvist was writing on universal and timeless themes, probably inspired by current events of the war.
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How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III

Ron Rosenbaum (2011) Ebook P8
August 2013
Any book dealing with events that haven't happen is inherently difficult, but Rosenbaum has been reporting on nukes since the early 70s and has access to many of the most important players inside the weird and wonky world of nuclear weapons and policy. This is a wide ranging but deeply considered and well informed series of essays on nuclear weapons in the present world, and a warning to not be complacent in the "end of history" holiday following the Cold War. The first chapter looks at all the reasons we should be afraid including many harrowing close calls, as recently as 2007. Later chapters examine three hot spots: Israel/Iran mostly, USA/Russia, and Pakistan/India. Rosenbaum asks many deeply considered good questions that have no good answers and brings to light many uncomfortable facts. For example the taboo against nuclear weapons is well entrenched in popular culture, but this taboo doesn't exist in the military. So he asks awkward questions of nuclear ethics to members of the military establishment since using nukes could result in "100 Hitler Holocausts" and the answers are as funny as disturbing. Overall a lot of interesting insights and perspectives into a largely hidden topic that remains an important part of our cultural backdrop.
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Twelve Years a Slave

Solomon Northup (1853) Audio P8
August 2013
Twelve Years a Slave is one of the better known book-length slave narratives from the 19th century, of which there were about 100 published prior to the Civil War. Northup was an educated free man from New York who was kidnapped and transported to the the infamous Mississippi Delta, sort of the 'eastern front' of slavery in America, where the most brutal of conditions existed. He experienced families broken apart, a diet of corn meal and wild-caught bush meat, no medical care, no furniture or cooking utensils, constant whippings by capricious and sadistic white men (and women), the occasion kindness, runaways and dogs and swamps - all background elements to an amazing story of finding home again.

It helped to follow the story on a map, here is the location of Ebbs plantation, no longer in existence but one can use Street View to travel around the fields. With the film soon to be released there will be a lot of deserved interest in the book. I listened to it as Audiobook, the professional voice acting brings it to life, the accented idioms and singing and so on. There are two excellent versions, both narrated by African American actors, one by Louis Gossett, Jr. and the other by Richard Allen. I listened to the Allen version, which I think is now unfairly overshadowed by Gossett, of Roots fame, but both are good in their way.
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The Spirit of St. Louis

Charles A. Lindbergh (1953) Ebook P8
August 2013
The story behind the autobiographical The Spirit of St. Louis, published 60-years ago this fall, is interesting because Lindbergh spent 14 years working on it, putting in more effort than actually flying across the Atlantic, and perhaps even his entire 5-year flying career to that point. He wrote and re-wrote the 600 pages at least 6 times, laboring over semi-colons and words to an exacting degree. The book has a structure that reflects the experience of being alone while struggling mentally through uncertainty and final achievement. It's one of the greatest works of American 'outdoor literature', and memoirs, of the 20th century and will be read (and readable) for a long time. As novelist John P. Marquand observed, "It has a timeless quality and an authentic strength and beauty that should cause it to be read by this generation and by many following — as long, in fact, as anyone is left who cares for fine writing and high courage."
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The Red Battle Flyer

Manfred Freiher von Richthofen (1918) Audio LibriVox
July 2013
The Red Battle Flyer is supposedly a piece of wartime propaganda, edited by the German war department and published in 1917 based on interviews only about 7 months after his first kill - but it reads surprisingly well, giving a sense of men in their early 20s as they create out of thin air a new form of fighting with "flying machines"; and an outline of the Red Baron's meteoric career from nobody to international renown in a few short months. In 1918, Richthofen supposedly said he thought the piece "arrogant" and he was no longer "that kind of person", but one has to take in account the general attitude changes towards the war by its end, people were sick of killing and preparing for peacetime. Well worth the listen and not too long. Listened via Tom Weiss' excellent narration on LibriVox.
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Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan

Frank L. Holt (2005) Ebook P8
July 2013
Into the Land of Bones is a short book, about 160 pages, with a polished writing style that is delightful to read. It's primary mission is to reconstruct Alexander the Great's three years of trying to subdue unruly, fractious and tough tribes in the region then known as Bactria, now approximating the borders of Afghanistan. The sequence of events is a bit convoluted (I had trouble following this part when reading Peter Green's Alexander) but Holt pithily brings order to the chaos. Bactria was supposed to be the eastern edge of the Greek empire but instead became a graveyard of bones. Along the way we discover many parallels with future attempts by foreign powers to conquer Afghanistan offering a lesson from history. Frank Holt is an expert on ancient Bacteria, he has written about 5 books, all on this subject. This one is a sort of introduction for the non-specialist not only on Alexander but Bactria studies in general. In later chapters, Holt goes into the archaeological evidence (mostly coins) and the great question of what happened to the Greek kings and people left behind by Alexander. After reading this I am now fascinated by this subject and want to learn more, such as his most recent Lost World of the Golden King: In Search of Ancient Afghanistan (2012).
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The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild

Lawrence Anthony (2009) Audio Audible
July 2013
My initial expectations for The Elephant Whisperer didn't reach beyond a sentimental animal-lover-book (eg. "Marley and Me") super-sized to elephant scale, but it turned out to be much more. Anthony, a native-born (white) African, owns and runs a game reserve and lodge in South Africa. In the book he describes daily scenes and incidents filled with danger and excitement from poachers, restless local tribes, snakes, crocks, storms - and at the center his attempt to bond with a small herd of troubled wild elephants he took in who otherwise would have been shot because of their rogue nature. The "whispering" isn't mystical, Anthony describes how animals communicate through eyes and tone and other methods so it is possible to establish a rapport. His descriptions of Africa to the point I felt transported and became lost in the book, it left a strong impression. I loved the book and was saddened to learn Anthony died in 2012, but look forward to the films (of this book and others) that may be forthcoming. Lawrence Anthony is as rare as the animals he seeks to preserve, the world lost a brave conservationist.
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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42

William Dalrymple (2013) Hardback
July 2013
William Dalrymple is in a unique position to write a definitive account of the First Afghan War (finally). Other English-language accounts have relied mostly on British sources and are thus one-sided. Dalrymple is famous in this part of the world, has deep lifelong (indeed ancestral) interest in the events, and was able to obtain access to obscure Pashtun sources other historians have not. From there he was able to tell the story from both the Afghan and British side with a depth, perception and skill that is peerless.

Dalrymple recently wrote an article for Brookings called "A Deadly Triangle" which is a sort of postscript bringing events up to the current and future, excellent piece.
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The Martian: A Novel

Andy Weir (2013) Audio P8
July 2013
This is Weir's first novel and he has put a lot of time into it. Based on his Audible reviews he seems to have garnered a strong following from an Internet fan base (his background is in fan fic) even adopting Internet meme speak yay sigh etc along with heavy doses of easy profanity presumably appealing to a younger hipper crowd than me. I don't like to give 3 stars easily so will need to justify. The novel tries to be as realistic as possible using today's technology, imagining what a manned mission to Mars would be like (following what looks like Zubrin's model). The plot is a classic Robinsonade desert island story in which a single man is left with a pile of stuff with which to survive. And that's it. 14 hours (audio) of the same thing over and over again. Something breaks, he fixes it. To keep it from getting too boring occasionally he doesn't fix it, but gets it the right the second time. The novel never gets off the ground, which is a shame since at about 2.5 hours I was loving it and totally hooked - then it got repetitive. The scenes from earth are re-enactments of the 1960s Apollo 13 but with different ethnicity and gender to make it seem modern, but otherwise largely cliche. As pro-space propaganda it's great. As what-if fiction, fine. But as literature, the novel doesn't raise any deeper questions, it seems as sterile as Mars. Wish the author luck.
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The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

Brendan I. Koerner (2013) Audio Audible
July 2013
I listened to the Audiobook it was fantastic, the narrative kept me riveted all the while imparting a lot of information about the history of 'skyjacking' that I never knew existed but now seems important in this era of airport security, this is where it all began. I felt as if transported in time and gained a better understanding of one small but important aspect of the mass insanity that gripped the world in the late 1960s and early 70s. It ends with a satisfying mystery "where in the world is Catherine Marie Kerkow." Loved the book, will be looking forward to more from Brendan I. Koerner.
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The Redeemed Captive, Returning to Zion: or, The Captivity and Deliverance of Rev. John Williams of Deerfield

John Williams (1707) Ebook Internet Archive
July 2013
John Williams, well known gentleman, was a New England Puritan minister of the same generation as Cotton Mather (Salem Witch Trials). In 1704, in the frontier town of Deerfield, Williams and family (and 60+ others) were taken captive by Mohawk Indians and pressed into a forced march through the wilderness ultimately to Quebec. Stragglers were killed on the spot, usually with a quick chop to the head. His account is as brutal as it is proper in that 18th century way. The book was very popular in its day going through many editions and later was an inspiration for Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. The edition I read is from 1908, available on Internet Archive. It contains a fascinating Appendix giving a detailed chronology of all the deaths that occurred in and around Deerfield over the years, each one a miniature story of conflict small and large in an alien yet familiar world.
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The Great Race: The Race Between the English and the French to Complete the Map of Australia

David Hill (2012)
July 2013
The Great Race is a survey of ship explorations of Australia from the 16th to early 19th centuries. The title is misleading as only the last 40% of the book is about the "race" between the English and French, and it really wasn't much of a race. Overall I wasn't too impressed because the book lacked strong narrative and central character, it is more a catalog or encyclopedia of expeditions. Well written to be sure, with many well told short stories, but even then with broad strokes before quickly moving on. For someone with a deep interest in Australia and its geography who can use it as a springboard for learning more it's fantastic.
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Gentleman Overboard

Herbert Clyde Lewis (1937) Ebook Hathi Trust
July 2013
Gentleman Overboard was reviewed by The Neglected Books Page (video) where I learned about it. I left the following comment there:

The novel has fallen into the Public Domain – failed to register after 28 years – freely available at Hathi Trust: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.b301132

I read it “cover” to cover in under 2 hours, it’s really more of a novella or long short story. It seems to be about confronting ones own mortality and death ie. “mid life crisis”, however it’s equally about confronting disease and terminal illness. When one is diagnosed with, say, cancer, it’s much like being abandoned and alone, all energy into keeping head above water from moment to moment, every trapping of life stripped away and left with the only desire to simply live. Great little book.
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Beau Geste

Percival Christopher Wren (1924) Ebook Internet Archive
July 2013
I'd never heard of Beau Geste until stumbling upon it on LibraryThing and then finding a free copy at Internet Archive and so began reading and was hooked. It's genre historical adventure set in the Sahara with the French Foreign Legion, involving three English brothers with a main theme of loyalty. You would not know the Great War ever happened it reads as if written in 1890, including gratuitous racial slurs against Jews and severe colonialist attitude, its popularity says something about the mood at the time of those wishing to escape modernism to a more assured time. It was one of the top best-sellers in America in 1924, unusual for a British book. I liked the use of French language and detailed descriptions of the Foreign Legion it has verisimilitude and exoticism.
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The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

David McCullough (1978) Audio P8
July 2013
I read this after recently hearing that Nicaragua is planning to build a new canal, with Chinese engineers, and wanted some historical context, why did the original canal end up in Panama? Given the option I went with the 8hr abridged version - the unabridged version is 35 hours. Even the shortened version seemed to drag in places so I'm content to have a lot of extraneous detail of the longer version set aside for another time. The abridgement is mostly seamless and at 8hrs as as long as many other full-length books. However I think reading the book (non-audio) in full, with time to absorb the text, would be rewarding given the depth of detail, but for the casual introduction this audio abridgement gets the main story and is not a disappointment as many abridgements can be.

The actual digging of the canal is the last third of the book, which is the most interesting due to the triumph of engineering. The rest of the book is face-palming hubris, boondoggle and misadventure - ugh. Utter incompetence and failure. It's also a history of the founding of Panama which is a story of American Imperialism in Latin America. This is my second McCullough book, Johnstown Flood remaining my favorite.
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Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II

Mitchell Zuckoff (2013) Audio P8
July 2013
Well written and taught narrative, Zuckoff uses a braided narrative technique for both a modern and historical story in alternating chapters, culminating when the trails finally meet. Although writing about survival in the Arctic has been done so many times, he keeps it fresh. I'd normally give it 3.5 stars because there was a lot of trivial filler by way of extensive biographical details for every single person mentioned, but the book is different things to different people, it's meant to be more than just infotainment, it's a monument to the soldiers and their families and the Coast Guard. Further, Zuckoff is more than an archivist retelling a story from history, he is an active participant and thus elevates the book (somewhat) to a legitimate first-person account. He did the same with Lost in Shangri-La, rescuing history before it dies and also becoming part of the history.
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Dark Pools: High-Speed Traders, A.I. Bandits, and the Threat to the Global Financial System

Scott Patterson (2012) Audio P8
June 2013
This is a remarkable story and one of my favorite books of the year. It details how computers came to replace people in financial trading, giving rise to entirely new forms based on algorithms, high-speed trading and artificial intelligence. It's one of the most important stories of the modern era. The book reads like Michael Lewis' The Big Short, hard to put down but dense with industry information and personal stories.

The protagonist is a reclusive slacker programmer named Josh Levine (josh.com) who almost single-handed forced the industry to change with his software (Island ECN) to allow computers to trade between one another without human middle-men taking a cut. This would seem logical but the entrenched exchanges (NYSE, NASDAQ) had little interest or incentive since their flesh and blood market-maker middle-men were making so much money the old fashioned way. Levine and company eventually became so successful the big boards had no choice but to follow or die, eventually buying them out and adopting Levine's system. Incredibly he wrote most of it in C on MS-DOS using commodity PC hardware.

There's much more to the story, it will appeal to anyone who trades stocks or knows something about computer networks ("the plumbing"). The book leaves open the specter of another "flash crash" like what happened in 2010 when the algos (computer trading algorithms) went haywire. The book is strongest as a history of how computers replaced humans, it's a wild and fascinating trip that is still ongoing. Artificial Intelligence is now getting good at long term trading (the next frontier after micro-second HST) - just hand the money to the computer and it does the rest, an artificial Warren Buffet to replace money managers.
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The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin

Vladimir Voinovich (1969) Paperback
June 2013
One doesn't need much background in Russia history or literature to enjoy this novel about broken bureaucracy. Ivan Chonkin is a likeable Everyman who engages in bumbling but satisfying comeuppances as the elite and self-important get their due, and the little guy just reward. Glad to read a lighthearted and funny novel about (and from) Soviet Russia.
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The Girl With No Name: The Incredible True Story of a Child Raised by Monkeys

Marina Chapman (2013) Audio Audible
June 2013
Was Marinia Chapman "raised" by monkeys? Not exactly, but at about the age of 5 she was kidnapped and abandoned in the jungles of Colombia where she found a troop of monkeys. She hung around with them for about 5 years, mimicking behaviors on what to eat, how to stay safe and socializing. Feral children are nothing new and once you see her video interviews it's obvious this is no fake. The monkey business was the first half of the book the second on how she became a street child and escaped from hell, it reads like Dickens and was actually more poignant than the monkeys, since it highlights one of millions of modern slaves in the world today. Come for the monkeys, stay for the slavery. Some additional resources are linked below (see the video interviews because her personality is infectiously happy), and National Geographic will be doing a documentary about her.

Was Marina Chapman really brought up by monkeys? (The Guardian), Kidnapped, dumped in the jungle and raised by monkeys (Daily Mail), The Girl with No Name: Author claims she was raised by monkeys (The Star), Strange life of the housewife who grew up with monkeys (Telegraph), Marina Chapman tells her incredible story of survival (Today), Girl who lived with monkeys spins incredible tale (CBC).
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The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath (1963) Ebook P8
June 2013
Band of Brothers was about an entire company, jumping from one individual's story to another. The film version was criticized for lacking main characters. The memoir by Dick Winters takes a different approach, retelling Winter's story from a singular perspective. It's the better book, more authentic. The last few chapters are introspective about leadership and being a good person.
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Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters

Dick Winters (2008) Audio P8
June 2013
Band of Brothers was about an entire company, jumping from one individual's story to another. The film version was criticized for lacking main characters. The memoir by Dick Winters takes a different approach, retelling Winter's story from a singular perspective. It's the better book, more authentic. The last few chapters are introspective about leadership and being a good person.
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Lapham's Quarterly: Intoxication (Vol. 6, No. 1)

Lewis Lapham (2012) Paperback
June 2013
In an accidental way the disjointed arrangement of LQ fits well the topic of this issue, dream-like as it is reading across time and space about people high on various substances. My favorite pieces include an excerpt from Andy Wharhol's POPism describing his NY crash pad where famous artists hung out and partied stoned at all hours. I have yet to read the famous The Bell Jar but the excerpt here of two girls picked up in a soda shop was a discovery of fine writing. A disturbing excerpt from Methland about a dealer who burns his house down while cooking meth than burns his skin off in sheets while trying to save his drugs, unable to feel the pain (till later). Anne Roiphe in Art and Madness writes about the night she talked Doc Humes (founder of The Paris Review) down from a bad trip. Art Pepper in Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper gives an account of what it's really like detoxing from opiates while isolated in a jail cell, unable to sleep or eat for weeks.
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Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

Annalee Newitz (2013) Audio P8
June 2013
Lightweight, Internet blog-style writing padded to book length, informed by pulp science fiction and technological utopianism. The concept of the title is good, but needs a historian who understands the multiple disciplines required to give a coherent Big History on this topic.
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Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer

William Knoedelseder (2012) Audio P8
June 2013
Prior to Bitter Brew I knew nothing about the Busch family, didn't even realize there was a connection to Busch Gardens, thus my cultural ignorance. So this was a great education on the history of the company and family behind Budweiser. I'm of the same Generation X as Bush IV, who began taking up microbrews and imports and considered American to be piss water, epitomized by Budweiser and it's uncertain variants (light, ice etc). So this Schadenfreude of a book went down smooth. In all fairness this is not a legitimate history, it's really a "greatest hits" of the Busch family craziness and mistakes (the successes a given). It was entertaining, thought provoking and in the case of Busch IV, very sad, his days on this earth appear numbered unless he is able to get off drugs. Knoedelseder doesn't explore the obvious irony of a family whose success was built on encouraging increased alcohol consumption, but whose favored son is brought down by drug addiction, part of a bigger story about addiction problems in the modern world.
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Les Miserables (BBC Radio Collection)

Victor Hugo (2002) Audio P8
May 2013
I'm not the world's biggest fan of Les Miserables but culturally it's unavoidable, I've seen plays, movies, and even made it 1/3 way through the book years ago before giving up on the tangents and florid language. This BBC 4 Radio full-cast production from 2002 is a good adaptation if you're looking for concise story without singing and dancing, and retains the feel of the original. The novel is condensed into about 5 1/2 hours of glorious BBC production with professional actors, sound effects and so on. The plot is clear and easy to follow, but also emotionally effective - if nothing else I came away understanding the characters and plot. Still not my favorite but this adaptation finally warmed me to Les Mis.
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Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest

Stephen E. Ambrose (1992) Audio P8
May 2013
I missed the TV series years ago so finally go around to reading the book (first) then the show. The book was excellent during the Captain Sobel era, the combat section less effective as Ambrose's descriptions were difficult to visualize and keep the names straight. However this was more than made up for in the TV series which had fantastic scenery and acting no doubt informed by living veterans.

As enjoyable as book and series are - I really did like it - there is a bit of a fairy-tale element. As Dick Winters says in his memoirs, war is an intensely intimate experience and no book or movie can capture it. It wasn't until the early 1980s that we first began seeing books and movies portraying WWII vets in this way, at about the same time the Greatest Generation began retiring from careers and securing legacy. Ambrose was one of the great popularizers of the Greatest Generation and this probably his most popular book. That's fine, but what I think is happening is in the wake of the defeat in Vietnam there began a revisionism: the emergence of a new American male archetypal hero. Not unlike the cowboy, the WWII combat vet has become an American male archetype and books like this a guide to the authentic thing. I'm generally suspicious of popular culture and archetypes, they are too easily manipulated in the service of ideology, but one can still enjoy it for what it is - a book about friendship and sacrifice.
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The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire

Linda Himelstein (2009) Audio P8
May 2013
Russian history isn't usually about industrial moguls but 19th C Russia had its Morgans and Carnegies. The rags to riches story of Pyotr Smirnov and his "new money" children is a fascinating way to look at the big changes that happened in Russia during the 120 years from the start of the 19th century to about 1920, brought on by the twin social and economic revolutions that swept the world (democratic freedoms and industrial revolution). The first two-thirds of the book is mostly focused on the rise of Pyotr Smirnov during the later 30 years or so of the 19th century, the last third on the legacy of his sons and daughters and the brand in the 20th century. Pyotr Smirnov is the central character but considerable space is given to other members of his family so it's really the story of the Smirnov family, and of course the vodka brand. We learn about changing Russian attitudes towards alcohol consumption, changing Russia attitudes towards capitalism and the merchant class; and the consumption, production and sale of vodka and other "wines" as they were called. This is a very readable and intimate book and well worth the time for anyone interested in Russia history, for which vodka is central.
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The Story of A life

Konstantin Paustovsky (1964) Hardback
May 2013
Konstantin Paustovsky, a Soviet author, was a contender for the Nobel the year it went to Boris Pasternak. It is his epic multi-volume memoir -- the first 3 volumes under review here published as an omnibus in 1964 [Trans. Joseph Barnes] -- for which he is most famous. Konstantin grew up in old Russia under Tsar Nicholas and came of age in the turbulent WWI and Civil War period during which Russia blew apart. The focus of this part of the memoir is from about 1900 to 1920. His story is brimming with incident and adventure, each page a new amazing story, and lovely description, Konstantin was in the middle of history. The scary old man on the cover doesn't do the book justice. Konstantin writes with poetic grace, like those beautiful old color pictures of Russia, he is both familiar and foreign with one foot in the old world and one in the new. He bridges the divide and is conscious of it, which makes his memoir so fascinating. One can understand it intellectually, but through Konstantin you experience the fragile autumn of Russia and descent into winter. A remarkable and wonderful story, sadly forgotten.
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The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy

David Hoffman (2010) Audio Audible
May 2013
Fascinating look at Soviet WMD programs, people and institutions, as well as Cold War events, espionage and politics in the 1980s. Coming of age in the 1980s, I'd heard of many of these things in the news, but herein we have retrospection and new information. Who needs unreliable and speculative news if you can wait a few years for the book to tell what really happened. At times it felt like science fiction because it's so difficult to comprehend a Holocaust that could kill billions of people, but that is what we are asked to imagine as the purpose of these weapons, which are quite real.

Hoffman does a particularly good job with the Soviet chemical and biological weapons programs, how they came about, developed and later uncovered. The pathogens created were diabolical enough to kill every human in the world with no anecdote. The Soviet chemical weapons are now loose in Syria, thanks to one rouge individual. As one pundit said, the Soviet weapons problem will be with us for many generations. I was also impressed by the depiction of Reagan who is usually seen as a warmonger but seemingly was just the opposite, he wanted to eliminate all nuclear weapons; however it also revealed the myth that Reagan "won" the Cold War, the Soviets would have failed anyway. 1985 seems to be the beginning of the end when the Old Breed WWII vets lost control and a new generation headed by Gorbachev took over. The book ends on a chilling note that the Cold War had a balance of power, neither side wanted to die, thus WMD's were kept in check. However the present era of terrorism, in which the belligerents want to die, and asynchronous warfare, in which a single person can cause untold damage, changes everything.

There are many great stories in this book, if it drags in a few place that is OK because all told its well worth it. This review is based on the audiobook, it translates well to narrative form.
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The Child

Pascale Kramer (2013) Paperback
April 2013
It is true, Kramer does confront uncomfortable parts of life. The theme seems to be one of responsibility or lack thereof, and its consequences. Smoking causes cancer. Infidelity causes unwanted children. Eating sugar causes health problems, and so on. Mired in consequence of irresponsibility, it's depressing and painful, like a hangover. A brave book that probably won't have many lovers but also strangely refreshing and clearing some air, and mercifully short.
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Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon

Craig Nelson (2009) Audio P8
April 2013
Journalist account of Apollo 11 moon landing published in 2009 on the 40th anniversary. At least half the book is a history of NASA from WWII to 1969 which was very interesting since it's mostly new to me. It needed more editorial and re-writes but was probably pushed through for the anniversary. Still I learned a lot and don't regret reading it, there is a lot condensed here, as another reviewer put it "NASA's greatest hits."
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Hyperion

Dan Simmons (1990) Audio P8
April 2013
A postmodern Canterbury Tales frame story that critiques capitalism, religion and imperialism. Not my favorite but can see why some might think it's great. I might have liked it more in my teens or early 20s. See also Time and the Astrolabe in the Canterbury Tales which "demonstrates that Chaucer structured the Canterbury Tales after the astrolabe, an Arabic Islamic time-keeping device. Chaucer’s fascination with this device also accounts for the sense of time and astronomy in the Tales." The same themes in Hyperion.
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The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America's Race in Space

Eugene Cernan (2000) Audio P8
April 2013
A couple scenes stand out: landing on the moon surrounded by mountains; crashing a helicopter in the water next to boaters; pulled over by a policeman the night before launch. Overall there isn't much here in the way of introspection and lots of cliches, but it is a rare thing: a memoir by someone who walked on the moon.
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America the Vulnerable: Inside the New Threat Matrix of Digital Espionage, Crime, and Warfare

Joel Brenner (2011) Audio P8
March 2013
Joel Brenner is a former senior counsel at the National Security Agency, where he saw first-hand the wide taxonomy of computer issues related to crime, warfare and espionage. It's easy to get caught up in the romance of the social misfit hacker but the reality has moved beyond. Today it is nation states like China employing 30,000+ professionally trained computer scientists to steal state and corporate secrets from the United States to gain a competitive edge. The real danger is not an evil genius who holds the Internet hostage to a worm (though that may happen), but a steady transfer of wealth silently taking place each and every day on a massive scale and hardly anyone seems to notice or care. Brenner has thought deeply on these issues and gives many examples, it's fascinating but quickly becomes so difficult and scary as to be insolvable. He ends with policy recommendations. Hopefully people in positions of responsibility find this book and realize how serious and big the problem is, and how quickly it is exploding. Ever since 9/11 the world has been focused on "kinetic" terrorism - bombs mostly - but I suspect history will look back and see the 2000s more in light of computer security, the dark side of the computer revolution and Information Age is only beginning to come home to roost.
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Worm: The First Digital World War

Mark Bowden (2011) Audio P8
March 2013
Worm: The First Digital World War is a narrative anatomy of the Conficker worm ca. 2009. Mark Bowden has written some great books including Black Hawk Down but in this case he seems to be over his head with the technology (or explaining it coherently). I say this as someone who understands a lot, but often found his explanations unfathomable and felt sorry for any lay reader trying to comprehend. I was also put off by the negative stereotypes of computer experts, as if it were still 1999. Beyond that though there is a good story here and it's worthwhile knowing about. The world was one command away from Internet Armageddon, with all the deaths and chaos that would unleash. Conficker is still out there laying dormant, perhaps its master in jail or assassinated by the KGB - but it shows how this type of thing can happen and hopefully this story will act as a warning to prepare. We live in interesting times and Internet security is one of the most fascinating of subjects.
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The Andromeda Strain

Michael Crichton (1969) Audio P8
March 2013
I did not like the book very much. The premise is not believable: a space virus could not have evolved to successfully penetrate the human immune system, because there are no humans in space for it to evolve with. The less contact a virus has with a species the less likely it will be able to infect it thus most harmful viruses come from livestock like chickens (influenza) or cows (smallpox) which live in close proximity to humans. The setting is claustrophobic, the action fiddly, and the ending B movie schlock. It's understandable why it was exciting in 1969, the year man landed on the Moon, but like a virus the story seems to live on. Compared with Clarke's 2001, there is none. Typical of Crichton, he is anti-government, anti-science, anti-humanist.
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The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story

Richard Preston (1994) Audio P8
March 2013
The classic account that introduced the Ebola virus to modern imagination. Since I live nearby the laboratory where this takes place it was great fun and I still remember the Washington Post reports when it was happening (though they were much less concerned at the time then in retrospect). Preston has been accused of overplaying the disease and danger but that doesn't take away from the essence of it. A little fictive makes is easier to sleep. A classic of narrative nonfiction.
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With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

E. B. Sledge (1981) Audio P8
February 2013
With the Old Breed (1981) is one of the most popular American WWII memoirs, in particular of the US Marines. It contains many of the same themes found in WWII fiction: the path from innocence through experiences never imagined, from boy to man, survival where others perish, an involvement in some bigger event which couldn't be fully fathomed at the time, the horror and alienation of modern war, paying homage to the previous generation (the "Old Breed"). Essentially an allegory of America's emergence from provincial innocence (boyhood) to world power (manhood) through a hardening violence. Thus, it's a "classic" as an archetype of a genre, appropriately for a US Marine named "Sledgehammer". Sledge didn't publish it until 1981 which provided plenty of time for the tropes of the genre to solidify and thus for his diary to adopt the expected form. Then Hollywood did its thing and it became a pop-culture phenomenon. Not to say it's false or bad faith, but neither is it challenging or breaking with (old) conventions, mainly interesting for incidental scenes and anecdote (and thus well suited for the screen). Is there anything in the memoir I didn't already didn't know from 1940s and 1950s WWII movies? As Walt Whitman said "I was the man, I suffered, I was there." War is hell, as the Red Badge of Courage taught us, there are no heroes and glory, just the obscenity of the banal made grotesque.
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Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550

Yuval Noah Harari (2007) Ebook P8
February 2013
On first glance, the title Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry sounds like Navy Seals in chain mail, but it turns out the Middle Ages really did have a lot of what could be called "special operations" - assassinations, behind enemy lines action by small special forces, kidnappings, secret negotiations to open a gate during a siege, and so on. This is the first book dedicated to the subject. There are 6 chapters, each reconstructing an historical special operations incident. Harari, a young professor in Israel, makes the period understandable for non-specialists by providing the necessary context and background about the events and people - although scholarly this is not dry reading. I have read many books about the Middle Ages, Special Operations is notably accessible and fun for the D&D playing 12 year old in me, a reminder of the reason I originally became interested in the Middle Ages years ago - adventure, quest and daring do. My favorite is the epic quest in Chapter 3 about Baldwin II of Jerusalem, the events are almost unbelievable. This sort of high drama was not lost on the knights of the era who understood and cultivated a cult of Chivalry, essentially the Hollywood of its day as told through deeds and exploits of famous stars. Chapter 6 is a mini-history of Burgundy vs. France in the 15th century and a revelation of how utterly paranoid and aggressive one had to be as a King or Duke to survive prior to the formation of strong states. Chapter 7 details a long distance raid behind the lines on enemy infrastructure involving a small troop of elite forces reminiscent of a WWII commando operation. Overall I was engrossed and learned a lot about military, political and social history of the Middle Ages. Can't wait to read more by Harari who is little known outside Israel, he is a gifted and fun historian. (Although this review is lax with pop-culture references, the book is not, Harari is a professional historian, it is academic history with footnotes and sources, most of them primary sources in Latin, French. Seriously entertaining scholarship).
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The Walking Dead: Compendium One

Robert Kirkman (2009) Ebook P8
February 2013
The Walking Dead is the first comic series I've read in probably 25 years. I learned about it after playing the excellent video game by Telltale Games. I enjoyed the video game which won a number of 'game of the year' awards. It's revolutionary that a video game emphasizes story and character over gaming, and succeeds, it was like reading a novel. The comic it's based on, of which I read the first 48 issues, is hard realism with lots of graphic violence and sex - pure escapism disturbingly addictive to find out what happens next, though the hook tricks start to wear thin, not sure it will be enough to sustain reading through another 1000 pages, without turning into a zombie. There are many theories about what zombies signify, but it's easy to over-think it, sometimes a zombie is just a zombie.
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Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

David Kushner (2003) Audio P8
February 2013
Masters of Doom (2003) is a history of the invention of the First Person Shooter (FPS) as told through the story of "two Johns", Carmack and Romero, of iD Software, who created Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. If you were born ca. 1962-1982 these games are probably part of your cultural lexicon when growing up but with the passage of time it might be easy to forgot how revolutionary they were when they first came out. Despite the book being 10 years old it has aged well as a history of the invention of modern PC gaming in the 1990s. The story is human and quite epic, there's more to it than just games, it's about people and how success can change a person and choices made, fame and failure. These are the "heroes" of our generation (X). This book is a tribute to the invention of a whole new culture, a story not widely known, and a better one than that of Facebook.

The audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton released in 2012 is excellent and adds a new dimension. There are rumors of a movie, we can hope.
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The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring

Richard Preston (2007) Audio P8
February 2013
Another great book by Richard Preston. It tells the story of the first people to climb into the canopies of the redwoods. Amazingly no one had tried it prior to the mid-1980s, and only then by amateur rock climbers on a lark. They discovered a rich and vibrant ecosystem and created a whole new field of study. The book intimately retells their careers and lives and discoveries.
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The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews - A Site History

M.A. Orthofer (2010) Paperback
February 2013
N.A.
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One for the Books

Joe Queenan (2012) Hardback
February 2013
Joe Queenan is from a working class Philadelphia background son of an Irish immigrant. He is extraordinary well read, making it his life's passion to read anything. He has a fearless approach by keeping 30 or 40 books going at once across all genres and time periods and authors. Queenan is a muscular opinionated reader. He'll read chic lit, classics, or random books off shelves for an entire year. Plus a dozen other approaches. He's not a speed reader like Harold Bloom who can engulf 5 books in an evening, but he does put in the time 2 to 4 hours a day, on the bus, train, funerals etc. His reading habits are incredibly varied seemingly enough to write an entire book about it with enough irreverence to be astonishing. He likes books that astonish. He likes to write in books. He only likes to read new books purchased at books stores - no used books, no electronic. His relationships with people are often formed or broken over tastes in books. And so on.

Overall I found myself amused at one persons reading habits as it made me think of my own and how varied (and personal) it can be. For that it is worthwhile to breeze through Queenan's world. I doubt I'll change my habits to follow Queenan - though we already have some similar approaches. Queenan doesn't say this, but looking at his reading life, it's clear how central the book as physical object is to the reading experience, and thus suggests how much e-books could change not just reading but how and what authors write. The medium is the message. Just as MTV est. 1981 - driven by cable TV - changed the nature and type of pop music produced starting around 1982/1983 - the e-reader may be modifying how and what we read, and thus what writers will write.
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Trustee From the Toolroom

Nevil Shute (1960) Audio P8
January 2013
Trustee From the Toolroom (1960) is a fairy-tale along the lines of C.S. Forester's The African Queen. As the story progresses the initially compliant and simple characters overcome adversity and become more noble, as reflected in the noble name of the boat, "Mary", a tribute to Forester's "Queen". This is old fashioned easy reading with pleasant characters and it leaves you feeling good at the end, if only because the world is set right and nothing has changed including the main character. It is our perception of him that changes - a neat trick.
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Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo

Werner Herzog (2004) Paperback
January 2013
Conquest of the Useless is pure prose poetry and probably the best book about the jungle I've ever read. Before reading it I was already familiar with the film and the documentary Burden of Dreams, about the making of the film, which is required background before reading this book.

Conquest of the Useless reads like a fever dream. Although about the film, the main character is the jungle. It's written in diary format with some days taking up only a single line. There's no narrative but rather flashes of incident. What makes it so amazing are Herzog's trademark non sequitur's which weigh with unspoken significance. Scenes appear without context as part of the fabric of the jungle and it's dreamy obscenity of life and death. The book has many rewards and is hugely generous but will require patience. It took months for me to complete, I could only read small amounts at a time, when the mood was right, leaving scores of pages underlined. A great work of art in its own right.
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The Looming Tower

Lawrence Wright (2006) Audio P8
January 2013
The Looming Tower (2006) has won so many awards it appears to be the defacto account of the events that lead to 9/11. The sequence of events is complex and I probably won't remember much of it over time, but I did learn a little about the Islamist movement and how they see the world, a rejection of modernity, extreme reactionaries. Wright places a ton of blame with the CIA however I understand there have been more recent books that tell a different story, so who to blame (if anyone) is still being worked out. Like most people, I was moved by the story of John O’Neill, the foil of bin Laden and the martyr for America's sin of too much bureaucracy. I also have a better understanding of Ayman al-Zawari, the tortured doctor from Cairo who is still alive and operating; and Sayyid Qutb, whose manifesto, Milestones, is what motivated so many to take up arms against the west.
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I Served the King of England

Bohumil Hrabal (1990) Audio P8
January 2013
There is an amazing essay about this book by James Wood in the London Review of Books, most everything you need to know; however I first learned about it after reading an excerpt in Lapham's Quarterly (Food) concerning the banquet for the Emperor of Ethiopia. There are a lot of set pieces like this scene with the fish inside the turkey inside the gazelle inside the camel, as Wood says "anecdote without end," which can be great fun or greatly irritating, depending your mood. Fortunately if a story doesn't grab you, a new one comes along soon enough. I just watched the movie after the book and it's beautiful, it makes the story more coherent and adds new dimension as a work of art on its own.
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The Trial

Franz Kafka (1914) Audio P8
January 2013
The Trial (tr. David Whiting). It's probably unwise to compete with the mountain of critical commentary known as "fortress Kafka" but I will give a first impression: dream-like, disjointed, modernist, hardly a plot. The writing is precise and realistic, like a court record - but events unfold in a terrifying nightmare that never ends. Throughout I was reminded of experiences at Wikipedia - anonymous people, unknown motives, unknowable systems, no escape, inability to control events and procedures and so on. I think the reason this story is so influential is because it is a mirror - the more one looks into it the more it looks back at you, offering endless possibility for interpretation. What an awful view on modernity. Mostly I found it an uncomfortable book (by design). I might try the Orson Welles adaptation as another approach, Welles thought it his best film. Update: The Orson Welles film is excellent, the sets are amazing, but like the book it is uncomfortable.
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Everything That Rises Must Converge

Flannery O'Connor (1965) Audio P8
January 2013
When I read A Good Man Is Hard To Find a few years ago it was a revelation on the power of writing and fiction. I gave it 5 solid stars. Some of the stories have stayed in my memory since, it is one of the best works of fiction I ever read. Then I read Wise Blood and it was a letdown so I gave up on O'Connor for a while. Now I return to her second collection of short stories. Sadly, it doesn't hold the magic of the first collection. They feel like second-tier derivatives that didn't make the first round pick, youthful echoes of mature siblings. The game is how soon you can guess which character will die in the last sentence. Still, the writing is good and it was worthwhile just not what I was hoping given the strength of book one.
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The Fall of the King

Johannes V. Jensen (1901) Paperback
January 2013
The Fall of the King (1901) is a Danish novel by Nobel-laureate Johannes V. Jensen (1944). Jensen is not well known or read in English but this is his most popular work in translation. In Denmark the novel was recently voted as one of the most important Danish works of the 20th century. It's technically historical fiction, set in the early 16th century during the violent upheavals of the wars of religion, centered around the 1520 Stockholm Bloodbath which was a very important event for the next 300 years of Danish history. But really the novel is a mix of hard realism, and beautiful lyrical prose poetry - the two mix in a way that creates something greater than the parts. For Jensen the history is a setting and the small details of the 16th century are illuminating. Even though it's only about 260 pages it felt like a 3-volume epic. This is because Jensen believed that plot was less important than getting to the heart of the matter and giving the impression of a thing through key details and scenes. Thus a lot can happen in a short space. I found it quite effective. The main theme is indecision and futility of life, which Jensen saw as a negative trait of the Danish character. It's evident throughout but is most memorable when King Christian sails back and forth between Sweden and Denmark unable to decide what to do. Even though I am not Danish or know much of its history I was really moved by the story.


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