Charles Olivier (2014)
Christmas Eve, 1914 is an original full-cast + sound effects radio drama by Emmy winner Charles Oliver. It is set during the Christmas Truce of 1914, famously the subject of feel-good stories about the power of humanity. I assumed this would be sappy but it's actually quite good with interesting characters and an unpredictable but satisfying storyline that seems more realistic than most accounts. It's only about 75 minutes long and Audible has it freely available.
The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight
Winston Groom (2013)
The Aviators starts off awkwardly but once you get used to the round-robbin technique sit back and enjoy a fine 3-for-one biography of aviation pioneers from the heroic age of flight. There are many famous events skillfully retold by novelist Winston Groom. Most of it is new to me but even the parts I am familiar with give the impression of fresh perspective and new details. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Robertson Dean whose gravely voice is perfect for the heroic theme. Groom gives time to all aspects, for example not just Lindbergh's cross Atlantic flight but his actions during WWII and later environmentalism which I didn't know about; similar with Doolittle and Rickenbacker who led interesting lives. What they had in common Groom doesn't really say other than fame, airplanes and heroism. There's no thesis but it's a well done retelling. There are many other books by and about the three, which I hope to read more of, and I now have some perspective on their importance, it is an excellent easy to read introduction.
The movie Full Metal Jacket left a lasting impression, along with Apocalypse Now and Platoon it's a touchstone of Vietnam popculture in the decade or so after the war. All of these works have in common a sense of useless slaughter and hopelessness, a crazed suicidal tendency. Grotesque art, poetry of violence. In particular the dialogue in FMJ is outstanding, certain 1-line quotes have become cliche examples of war talk. I was surprised that most of the dialogue in the film is directly from the novel. Reading in novel form is different, better in some ways but also informed by images from the movie. Overall a great novel that has fallen out of print but freely available online.
Canoeing the Congo: The First Source-to-Sea Descent of the Congo River
Phil Harwood (2014)
Recommend for anyone with an interest in outdoor adventure in Africa, but not as an introduction. It could been a better book, given the material and journey. On the plus side I was able to follow the trip with Google Earth and could see the territory and rapids he went through which was very satisfying, even if Harwood doesn't describe them very much you can still view it yourself in detail. I now have a basic sense of the river I didn't have before. As well the people who live at subsistence levels. In a lawless land beset by war and poverty there is a desperation that creates a sort of common every day evil that wore Harwood down and I suspect hardened him from really being able to enjoy the trip. He even says at one point Congo would be a great place if not for the people (the bad ones). Nevertheless he says most were good people.
I've never read Haruki Murakami and this is recommended as Murakami in miniature. The story is a creepy nightmare told in a fairy-tale like structure, it's like clouds forming and disappearing you can see things but they don't stay for long. I can see the appeal, a sort of day dream, but it's not high on my list - right now - to read more.
Before the 1980 David Lynch film, there was Bernard Pomerance's 1977 play. The film and play have no connection, the play is an original work completely different from the movie. It won the 1979 Tony Best Play and is currently being revived on Broadway (2014-15). In 2010, the play was adapted as a radio drama, directed by David Hitchenson, which is the source for this review.
Thematically, the play revolves around displaying people as objects of desire, horror, fascination, gain. The elephant man is put on display in a freak-show where people pay to gawk at him. He is rescued by a doctor who, unwittingly, brings in higher-class clientele who pay (in the form of expensive gifts) to "meet" the elephant man in person. The doctor himself benefits professionally from people wishing to see his patient. At some point the elephant man wishes to see his female tutor naked, projecting his sexual desires onto her. This tutor is the key to the play as she alone seems to consciously understand the nature of his predicament, justifying revealing herself because she had seen him naked in pictures. Finally the doctor has a nightmare in which the tables are turned, he is put on display as a medical curiosity and he understands what he has done. In a moment of contrition he confesses, of sorts, to the priest seeking consolation. This is a timeless work and more relevant than ever in this age of the image. I'm not sure the BBC adaption is entirely successful, it's OK if you can piece it together, but would like to see the play performed with live actors which would make the theme of objectifying people for pleasure more powerful (and uncomfortable).
When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II
Molly Guptill Manning (2014)
I like books. I like books about WWII. And here is a book about books in WWII. What's not to like? It's a short book, but full of interesting things. It's mostly about the Armed Services Editions (ASE) which were small portable paperbacks distributed in the millions to American GIs. It was the first introduction of the mass market paperback, a market which mostly didn't exist before the war when publishers only sold heavy hardcovers. We tend to think of GIs on the front as gritty and tough guys, I suppose they were, but the book they were most commonly reading was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. WWII was in many ways literary in its scope and drama, and likewise the people fighting it were reading literature as they fought. It's hard to imagine this sort of golden age of literature in war happening again, there are too many competing distractions today, but for a time literature was the king of the battlefield.
The great thing about The Longest Day is its spirit. There's a feeling of embarking on an adventure. It's upbeat and at times very funny. This is not a gritty human tragedy, it still retains some of the can-do sacrifice for the greater good spirit of its time, being published just 15 years after the event. Cornelius Ryan (b. 1920) was of that generation. It's also a valuable work of original research built from 100s of interview with participants on both sides, including higher-level German officers. Yet, it remains entertaining and easy to read like the best creative nonfiction. All around a remarkable book that easily earns 5-stars for longevity as a classic.
Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II
Vicki Croke (2014)
This is the third book about Burma in WWII I read recently, the second about a British elephant handler (different people). Curiously neither book mentions the other, even though they were both known in their day and operating just 100 miles apart doing much the same thing. In any case, this book has its strengths and weaknesses. There are some good stories here and Williams led a romantic life in the view of Croke. However it's not a harrowing story of incredible odds overcome. Rather endurance, loyalty and love are the themes. Both man for beast, and Williams' affair with his wife. I believe the other books gave me a better sense of the difficulty of life in the jungle with elephants, and the events of the war. Croke's book though is more gentle and humane and will be remembered filling in the picture of this fascinating place and time.
Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free
Hector Tobar (2014)
Deep Down Dark is the official miner's account of the 2010 Copiapó mining accident. There have been a few other books but they are unauthorized and not written with the co-operation of the miners. The 33 miners agreed to tell their story as a group to a single author and chose LA journalist Héctor Tobar. There is also a movie coming out soon. This book was chosen as one of the NY Times 100 Notable Books of 2014.
It is cinematic, easy to read and well paced. If you don't read many books about survival it will be appealing but as an adventure story the material Tobar had to work with is average. Other than the initial cave-in very little went wrong and the ending is already well known. They were hot, hungry, grumpy "knuckleheads" impatient to get out. The unspoken heroes here are the engineers who designed the drills and equipment that made the rescue possible. As well the technology of broadcast media probably saved their lives, but fame is a double-edge sword.
An Officer and a Spy retells the Dreyfus Affair as a thriller told in the first person as inspector Colonel Picquart who uncovered the conspiracy and was instrumental in bringing it to light. The book's strength is to capture the drama and immediacy of unfolding events. Basically a movie version for a wider audience. I wish the novel had more insight into the larger social context. Dreyfus was one of a number of "affairs" that occurred in France in the years after the Franco-Prussian War and they held some common themes that are still relevant - Dreyfus was more than a story of antisemitism and corrupt officials.
I first read this in the early 80s when I was 15 or so and it made memorable impact. I was worried that reading it again would be a let down but it turned out to be as good indeed better than I remember. There is so much here for readers of all ages, indeed this is a book about the arc of an entire lifetime lived in a few months, so fast and very brightly. It is particularly powerful for anyone who has had a major medical procedure that saves your life, to experience existence not as something you control, but the direct result of another person's skill and knowledge, flawed though that knowledge may be. Not unlike the "creature" created by Dr. Frankenstein. Keyes really nailed it, the emotions of joy, rebellion, love, anger. More than a "science fiction" novel, it's timeless and relevant literature.
Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness
Neil Swidey (2014)
Trapped Under the Sea is by Boston journalist Neil Swidey who has been covering the story since it happened in 1999. Thus his in-depth knowledge of a complex story and its characters gives it an encompassing authority. Swidey's writing is also first-rate in the creative nonfiction genre. More than an exciting adrenaline disaster book, it's a investigative report about an industrial accident, complete with unsung blue-collar heroes and greedy incompetent white-collar villains. Yet I was left with a hollow feeling as if none of it mattered, no lessons were learned. A series of contingencies, a complex stew of problems were the root cause. Ultimately it's a story about risk, how risk is offloaded to parties least prepared to handle it. The same bigger story of the 2009 financial crisis, bailing out banks with tax payer money. Banks offload the risk onto the public since they are too big to fail but reap the private rewards of their risky ventures. We live in an age of private reward and public risk. Structurally I think the book could have been shorter, too much back story about minor characters, though the excellent writing keeps it lively. Despite the many characters only two stood out, DJ and Harold. And the story about the disaster was fairly brief though well done, I experienced the claustrophobia.
The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence
Paul Davies (2011)
Having recently read Contact for the first time, The Eerie Silence was a perfect 30 year follow-up to see where things stand in the search for intelligent life. The title says it all. Davies is an expert in the field and so I valued hearing his ideas, informed by scientific rigor (he is an astrophysicist). He balances the general arguments for and against alien life, and while the pro arguments are well known the con arguments are new to me, and somewhat persuasive as well. Davies also discusses the implications of finding alien life (or not), both for our current culture and the future of humanity. Overall there is a lot here to chew on. It needs a slow and considered reading which made the audiobook experience less than ideal, though I was generally able to keep up. I wish the writing was a little tighter and less essay-ish but the core ideas are still there.
Listened to the unabridged audiobook by Hugh Fraser, plus the 2010 BBC 90-min radio adaption. This is considered Christie's masterpiece. It's a puzzle with a definitive answer and clues. There is something nightmarishly creepy about the book.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Walter Isaacson (2014)
The Innovators is an excellent survey of the people and technology behind the invention of the computer and networking. I thought I knew a lot but there was a lot more here I didn't know. Each topic is by necessity brief but there is so much to include (and much not included) the book is long. I think Isaacson succeeded in giving a broad overview of the key people and technologies leading to the present, it's a valuable perspective and jumping off point.
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses
Kevin Birmingham (2014)
I have never read Joyce. He is difficult, there are countless academic tombs, and I wanted a layman's understanding as to why he is so important, some historical context. More than that, it's a wonderful and engrossing narrative story. This book could be made into a movie.
Contact is less a science-fiction novel then a discourse on controversial science topics in popular culture. Science and young people, science and women, science and religion, science and skepticism, science and politics, science and funding grants. Replace the aliens with .. global warming .. and it's the same story. In that sense it's a good novel for looking at these topics as reoccurring themes. The story itself ends in a way that isn't too corny leaving open the mystery and endless nature of space. Curiously in the 1970s and early 80s, when the book was being written, SETI was a new thing but now that 35 years have passed, with no signal, it seems increasingly remote, maybe, and the book has lost some its exciting potential, an artifact of another age.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a classic spy novel though it crosses outside the genre to literature. I hesitate to called it a "thriller" since there isn't much action. In fact it's claustrophobic, paranoid, cold. Yet it's a powerful story that accurately reflects (or reflected) the mood of the Cold War. The plot is air tight, believable and seemingly without holes. I didn't see it coming. It can be re-read as there is a lot of mundane detail that didn't seem relevant but was important in the end.
Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine
Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz (2014)
I'd never heard of the Mutter Museum nor Thomas Dent Mütter -- he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. While I got some things out of the book it has some problems. The author is overly infatuated with her subject, used low quality sources, filled in the record imaginatively, and the overall story arch wasn't that compelling. The writing was good I just don't think the topic was up to a book-length treatment. For me it was most valuable on the horror of surgery prior to anesthesia. I hope Aptowicz finds a topic with more compelling character and story because she is a good writer.
13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi
Mitchell Zuckoff (2014)
13 Hours claims to be a truthful account of what "really happened" in Benghazi. Zuckoff says upfront that he simply tells the course of events over 13 hours and will not discuss the later political controversies. It removes the focus from Clinton, Obama, Republic naysayers etc.. and puts the spotlight on the people who were there. It's based mainly on interviews with about 6 of the security team members who did most of the fighting, portraying them uncritically and as heroes, all former or active US military (Seals, Marines etc). So this isn't a history, rather a group-memoir by the security team who are listed as the co-authors. It reads as adrenaline literature, once the shooting starts early on Zuckoff doesn't let off the gas pedal. Although the main text of the book is over 300 pages the audio edition is under 8 hours so it's not very long, there must be large font, line spaces or margins padding it out.
On finishing my impression is this was an unfortunate incident that could have been much worse, the small security team did an excellent job ensuring that only 4 Americans died that night when it could have been 30+. There was a lot more military-style combat than I realized. Surely other books will come out with other perspectives, but this is unlikely to be surpassed in drama. Just don't expect much context or perspective beyond the handful of security operators. It still makes a good story on its own and is rightly something to celebrate and separate from the political controversies which overshadow Benghazi. Zuckoff's telling is so cinematographic I won't forget it anytime soon. I wouldn't be surprised if someone films it during the lead-up to the 2016 elections, or made into a video game.
The Day of the Jackal (1971) is a classic thriller/spy novel. Much of it is convincing, some is not, but I couldn't wait to find out what happens next. The Jackal's plan of driving from Italy north to Paris gives the novel structure but it was completely unnecessary, he could have flown into Paris weeks before, changed his identity, hold up somewhere and not exposed himself to moving around, but that would have ruined the story. My favorite parts are the descriptions of how the police worked in the days before computers and modern forensics.
Nicely written book with subtle psychological uses of imagery. Nonetheless I'm dubious of its accuracy. According to Slate, "No former child soldiers who served directly with Beah have come forward to back him. Several characters, including a caring nurse who helped Beah recuperate and find his voice as a storyteller, haven't been identified at all." Other issues such as allegations that he wrote it originally as fiction and then changed it to nonfiction. Problems with timelines.
It's notable the millions of copies sold, worldwide, making it one of the most successful books of the decade. It's also touched many lives - someone reportedly adopted a child from Sierra Leone because of the book - and it has made Beah a literary superstar in his home country. If all this ends up doing good maybe the truth is not so important, mere details.
China's Wings: War, Intrigue, Romance, and Adventure in the Middle Kingdom During the Golden Age of Flight
Gregory Crouch (2012)
China's Wings (2012) really does live up to its title "War, Intrigue, Romance, and Adventure in the Middle Kingdom During the Golden Age of Flight". Written with novelistic techniques I couldn't wait to find out what happens next. At the same time it is a serious history by a professionally trained historian who spent 8 (?) years working on it, complete with extensive footnotes (and reliable, I checked some). Finally it's a tribute to a small and little known but important part of the American involvement in China during the 1930s and 40s. I learned a lot about the Sino-Japanese War which I knew little about; about DC-2s and DC-3s and the early development of airline industry; a history of Pan American's Clipper line which was the first to cross the Pacific with commercial flights; the first commercial airliner in history to be shotdown; new perspectives on flying "The Hump" including a great story of survival. And so on, so many stories. Really this is much more than a history of China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) though it plays the center role (along with William Langhorne Bond) it's a grand sweeping drama.
I could rate this anywhere between 2 and 5 stars. Certainly daring for its day, but was it more daring than Stevenson's Hyde decades earlier or Frankenstein a century before? The idea of a mad scientist doing experiments on an island is now a standard trope but was this idea new in 1896? -- if so, that idea alone would make it a classic. The notion of merging biological creatures is still cutting edge when glowing rabbits are created from jelly fish cells. The plot does have problems, if the brutes are not made from humans why do they appear human-like? One suspects Wells might have written a different book and changed it later to suit censors who found it too creep.. or done on purpose to play with the reader's fears.
William S Gilbert (1879)
I've never seen The Pirates of Penzance performed so I tried reading the dialogue (listened via the LibriVox David Wales edition). What a strange experience arriving at it this way since the dialogue is often clever turns of phrase and dependent on the music and acting to achieve its effect. Without any context I followed the story but it meant little. Only after finishing did I watch some scenes performed on YouTube and realized there is much more to it. The music is classic and the performances make it come alive. On the other hand the dialogue is difficult to follow live, so I returned to the script to catch all the cleverness. Early on, with the mistake between "Pirate" and "Pilot", the play informs this is a story about language. However I noticed the modern performances on YouTube have changed the 1879 dialogue and developed their own simplified version, emphasizing story and character, which is helpful to understanding what is happening but the original script is different, weirder, perhaps better.
Sketches of people, places and events by a teenage London who rode the rails during the 1890s looking for adventure. He begged, stole and generally whatever he could do to get by without working (even if it was work). London provides lots of flavor in the slang used by hobos, and interesting details of riding the rails during the golden age. Remarkable how innocent and simple the times were, yet also brutal. I've read better tramping memoirs from this period, this one has good moments and some snoozers. Most significant for biographical details about London but still worthwhile for adventuresome stories.
Thérèse Raquin is one of Zola's early works published when he was 27 years old. The writing style is very energetic, in fact Zola tries too hard. But it's still a powerful story, despite extended overly-emotional passages that turn his characters into amateur drama students. Zola existed in that middle ground between Romanticism and Modernism - there is overwrought sentimental emotion of Romanticism combined with the realism and symbolism of Modernism. This is my 8th Zola novel. I don't know what it is about Zola and smell but once again I came away feeling like I had sniffed the dirty undergarments of unsavory Paris. And once again I thought the first third of the novel was the best as he paints character and scenery portraits - when it goes internal and Zola relies on outdated notions of human behavior it becomes wearisome.
Trapped! is a surprise. It's an academic press book from 1979 which doesn't bode well for readability but is actually a page turner. The 1925 incident, which I'd never heard of, was the third largest "media event" (circus) between the two World Wars (the other two being Lindbergh's solo flight, and also the baby kidnapping). The authors do an excellent job of conveying 1920s Kentucky, the "cave wars" which I'd never heard of, and an hour by hour account of poor Floyd Collins' ordeal and the events subsequent history. A media circus is a strange phenomenon, this one can be seen as a forerunner of the "person trapped underground" (well / pipe / mine) that mass media makes so captivating. The event impacted many lives, including a Pulitzer for one reporter, even helping to establish the Mammoth Cave National Park. Collins was a complete unknown backwoodsman propelled into national conscious for a few winter weeks in 1925 as he struggled to be reborn. Hard to imagine a better book on the topic, and as the event recedes in time I doubt there will be one.
I fondly remembered this film when I was younger and gave the original novel a try. I can picture MacLean laying out his 3x5 note cards, one for each major scene, going in sequence, then dreaming up tight spots and spectacular escapes to transition between each. Sort of like Star Trek where there's never any real danger of characters dieing except the sacrificial red-shirt (Stevens). Basic stuff but it had its high moments (climbing the cliff), and places where it dragged (stuck in a cave). The ending is surprisingly anti-climatic (single white light in the distance). A mega-explosion in loving detail should have been the boss ending reward for finishing the book. The movie got it right.
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade
Adam Minter (2013)
I assumed Junkyard Planet would be by a journalist who explores what happens to trash with an angle on the environment. Adam Minter is a journalist, but he works for a recycling industry trade magazine, and grew up in a family of junk dealers. He is an insider with a career reporting on recycling. He says up-front the facts and figures are not from environmentalists rather from trade groups. So this is as much a business book as an environmental story. That's a good thing because the recycling industry happens to be extremely interesting, we discover. There's a lot here to absorb, but when you consider everything that is ever made has the possibility of being recycled, the recycling industry is more than just another business, it is the largest of them all, in terms of volume of goods (next to the trash industry).
Minter travels the world, which in the recycling industry mainly means the US, China and India. He meets individual recyclers and compares how they do business. How much things cost, how the items are broken down and separated into component parts. The history of the industry. Minter mostly focuses on steel since that's his background. Cars are the largest-volume item recycled. I was surprised to learn that each junked car has $1.50 in loose change on average stuck under seats etc.. and recyclers have figured out how to automatically separate those coins earning around $20 million a year. The machine is a trade secret.
Minter spends a lot of time in China as he lived there for over 10 years and it's the global hub for recycling. Depressingly polluted as a result, but Minter does as good a job as anyone showing how they are working to move out of poverty and this is just a stage and it's a two-sided coin. Ultimately it's the wealthy consumers, us, who are the problem. Minter continually repeats the mantra "Reduce. Reused. Recycle." The "RRR" means the best solution is first to Reduce consumption. Failing that, Reuse existing items for as long as possible. Then Recycle as a last measure, however recycle is never 100% and as the book shows it produces many other problems. But it's better than making new things from raw materials. Overall good book, it dragged a little in the middle, maybe too many figures, but that also makes it more than a lightweight expose. It has the sort of information everyone in a consumer society should know about, for no other reason to learn how things work and make informed choices.
Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?
Alan Weisman (2013)
Countdown is a brave and important book. Overpopulation and population control is a minefield. It's personally emotional and controversial. Yet Weisman deals humanely with an issue that is the global elephant in the room. Nearly every problem facing humanity can be solved by reducing population. And the technology is low tech, cheap and available now: voluntary family planning (condoms, access to safe abortion, education, etc). Country by country Weisman travels the world looking at how different places have dealt with population, the consequences and the predictions. He looks at shrinking countries like Japan, and expanding places like Pakistan which is predicted to have more people than the entire USA, but in an area the size of Texas - with nuclear arms.
The book has made a real change in how I view things like global warming, species loss, wars, water scarcity and other large-scale existential threats to humanity. No matter what we do to fix the problem - another green revolution, solving global warming - it kicks the can down the road because without a reduction in population new constraints will appear. Population is the #1 problem and solution. Weisman is the master of asking good questions and he doesn't always have answers but he does make you think and consider and provide the information. This hour long presentation by Weisman gives a good overview of some key points.
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
Hampton Sides (2014)
In the Kingdom of Ice is a retelling of the USS Jeannette expedition of 1879 that sought to sail to the North Pole by way of the Bering Straight. It was sponsored by the same newspaper a few years earlier had sponsored Stanley to find Livingstone in Africa, they hoped for a similarly good story. It would deliver, the Jeannette was front-page news and famous for a time. It has all the right elements of fascinating characters and dramatic story, but for whatever reason has lapsed into obscurity so that today very few have heard of it.
Sides has done a remarkable job as to expected. He writes with cineograph quality like a documentary but also has the depths of literature, creative non-fiction at its best. The genre of polar exploring is well worn but Sides keeps things interesting with a sentimental love interest and back-story about James Gordon Bennett, Jr., publisher of the New York Herald, who I'd really like to read a biography about, should it ever be written. Some might complain too much time was spent in the lead up to the Arctic but I found that it helped with the immersion of time and place. This is the first book I've read about the Lena River Delta in Siberia, the largest of its type in the world, so it now holds a place in memory. As well as the Delong Islands which have retained some of the Pleistocene-era flora and fauna, among the last places on Earth with a foot in the Ice Age. I'll never go to these places but I sure felt like I've been, and lived to tell about it.
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China
Evan Osnos (2014)
Age of Ambition looks at different aspects of modern Chinese culture - religion, sex, art, etc - through the lens of a number of famous people and incidents in recent Chinese history and shows changes underway. The common theme is that China is becoming more individualistic through personal ambition. The author is American but has lived in China for a while as a writer for the New Yorker and others. The book is long and generous but of course he has his entire corpus to draw on and therein is a problem because it sometimes feels scatter-shot jumping around back and forth. I had trouble following at times. There is a lot of good info here, I was particularly struck by how corrupt China is. Since there is no democracy and no elections, corruption doesn't occur by buying off voters and elected officials, instead corruption happens when people buy jobs and position through bribes, which is widespread. This goes up the food chain with the bribes getting progressively bigger until the very top party members have become among the richest people in the country. It's a simple system, very different from our own, but one in which the plutocrats at the top have a strong interest in maintaining while most people will never have an opportunity to get ahead. Thus there is a deep contradiction in this "age of ambition" that seems unsustainable. Overall a good book glad I read it.
The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon
Kevin Fedarko (2013)
The Emerald Mile (2013) is the best outdoor adventure book I've read in a while, it's an immediate classic. The quality of the writing, depth of research, riveting attention grabbing story that transports into the Grand Canyon, fascinating characters and conflicts, interesting history about the canyon and river guiding culture, the history of the dam and its people. This is nearly a perfect book. Many of us go to the Canyon, a few hike down to the river, and a lucky few travel its length on dory boats. For those of us who can't go that far, this book is probably the next best way to experience running the canyon. I'll be looking forward to more by Kevin Fedarko (although this book took him 10 years to write).
Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon
Paul Rosolie (2014)
Mother of God is about a young man from the suburbs of New Jersey who follows his dream to be a naturalist and conservationist. Steve Irwin was his childhood hero. Most of the book takes place in the Western Amazon, in Peru, where he works at a eco-lodge as a guide. His dream is to work to preserve the forests from development and poachers and to communicate to the world the beauty of life in the Amazon. To this end he wrote this book, helps run an institute in the jungle, and is working on a film.
Rosolie has a lot of adventures and really at times I found him to be romantic in his descriptions, as well as reckless in the way Steve Irwin would jump on the backs of whatever mega-fauna he saw, including anaconda as big around as an oil barrel. But he does impart a sense of the jungle in a way that is accessible and vivid. Rosolie is no Irwin, he is still discovering his voice, but I feel as strongly as he does about preserving the wild places of the world. We will be hearing more from Rosolie in the future, if he lives, I will be following what he does.
The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution
Richard Dawkins (2004)
What an odd goose. At times it's written for beginners and other times for folks with a bachelors in biology. I listened to the audiobook version and it has two narrators, Dawkins and Lalla Ward, and they switch back and forth mid-paragraph, without reason, making it difficult to follow. In some cases the switch is mid-sentence, word for word. I've never heard an audio production like this. The frame-tale around Chaucer is a gimmick. The analogy has little depth other than a surface comparison of a journey, Dawkins could have equally chosen The Wizard of Oz and the Yellow Brick Road. Or The Hobbit ('There and back again.'). Yes Chaucer is a "classic" which makes it feel "important" but it's gimmicky when the analogy is 2D and yet so central to the books structure. No doubt there is good stuff but it comes and goes, and sometimes I zoned out among the invention of the wheel by bacteria. Probably the one thing that I will remember is the idea of a "ring species", very cool. Obviously I recommend avoid the audiobook edition (mercifully out of print).
Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee--A Look Inside North Korea
Jang Jin-sung ()
There are over 25,000 North Koreans who have escaped to South Korea and quite a few memoirs published. This one is rare because the author came from the upper elite of society. Jang Jin-sung (a pseudonym to protect his family) was a "court poet" who wrote a North Korean best-seller (propaganda) and had even personally met Dear Leader on his secret island. He also worked for the department that re-writes Korean history to be favorable to the Kim dynasty, and he had full access to South Korean media. Thus he came to discover the corruption and lies North Korea is founded on and he eventually had to flee the country after the secret police caught on to his anti-revolutionary thinking.
The memoir is well done on a number of levels. For one it reveals new information about North Korea, significantly that Kim Jong Il did not inherit power from his father Kim Il-sung (who died in 1994) rather he violently usurped it decades earlier. Kim Il-sung was a God-figure head that Kim Jong Il created to serve the purpose of ruling the state. The main power apparatus is not the military but the OGD which runs the personal guard of Dear Leader, the propaganda and prison camps. Once Kim Jong Il took power of the OGD he controlled the country, even while he elevated his living father to the cult of a God.
This is also a gripping true-life adventure story as Jin-sung escapes through China on the run from police. Although he was on the run for only 35 days it feels like a lifetime. It reminds me of American slave narratives that were prevalent in the 1840s and 50s, the most famous being Uncle Tom's Cabin. All in all this is required reading for any North Korean watcher as it's one of the best written memoirs and reveals new information and perspectives on North Korean society and history.
Victor Herman was one of a few thousand Americans who went to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s on ideological grounds to take part in what they believed was a better way of living. They lived in special American cities and worked together in Soviet factories for the motherland. All went well for a few years, but by 1934 the Stalin purges were under way, the country became paranoid and pretty soon most if not all of the Americans were either sent off to Siberia (where they all died) or a few made it out through other means. It's really a fascinating chapter in American history, told in more detail in The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia, but largely forgotten because most of them died. Victor Herman was that exception and this is his incredible story.
Herman was not typical, by his late teens he was already somewhat famous holding the World Record for the highest skydive, 24,000 feet, for which he was called the "Lindbergh of Russia" (a compliment at the time). And that is what got him into trouble, he refused to renounce his American identity for the World Record and they called him an enemy of the state and shipped him off to hard labor in Siberia for 18 years. That he survived it is a miracle only because of his physical and intellectual talents to overcome adversity. There are some parallels with Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken but I think this is the better story.
Two things about this memoir that should be noted. First it was ghostwritten by Gordon Lish which isn't made clear in the book. Second it was done so at the same time Herman was filing a $10 million wrongful suit against Ford Motor Company for hardships he suffered while in Russia. So there is a problem of checks and balances, everyone seemed to be financially motivated to make a good-terrible story - the author, the ghostwriter, the publisher. I'm not saying it's wrong, but there was no way to verify anything in the USSR at the time and everyone knew it. I suspect if there is embellishment it's just a matter of degrees, the main outline seems accurate. Regardless the memoir is an archetype of the things that really did happen to many people and is well worth it to understand those poor Americans who disappeared into Russia forever.
S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C.
Ruben Castaneda (2014)
This is a fantastic memoir by a Washington Post crime beat reporter mostly set during the late 80s and early 90s at the height of DC's crack wars. As a journalist for the Post Castaneda was also a crack addict himself, reporting on during the day the same people he secretly hung out with at night. I don't normally read books like this but this one seemed different and I'm glad to have gained a better understanding of the world usually depicted more romantically in works like The Wire. There are many memorable episodes as seen through the perspective of cops, drug deals, prostitutes and of course middle-class professionals like Castaneda who were driving the drug trade. The memoir was poignant for me since I grew up around DC during that time. The city he describes is still how I think of it, though things have improved considerably in the past 20 years, as he shows. A Google Street View ride though S Street speaks volumes how it is changing.
The issue surrounding Navy sonar and beached whales has always been a mystery to me so this book was a perfect way to learn more. The book is about how a few scientists and environmental groups have fought the US Navy in courts since 2000, focusing mainly on Joel Reynolds (environmental lawyer of the NRDC) and Ken Balcomb (whale researcher) and the events of a whale beaching in 2000 in the Bahamas. The drama and power of that event is slowly and effectively revealed. I will never forget the lasting image of the dead whale sinking into the depths to join its ancestors. This is a complex topic and the book is wide ranging but ultimately worth the trip. The issue of ocean noise is not resolved. The Navy, private and commercial sources are having a detrimental impact on marine life and it is getting worse. We are fortunate to have people like Balcomb and Reynolds, they are modern heroes, but will it be enough.
The Frontiersmen is incredibly immersive, often reading like a novel bringing to life the old frontier of Ohio and Kentucky from about 1774 to 1810, the bloody period when it was settled by Americans and the Indians were pushed west (or dead). Despite it's strong narrative it's also a history and reliable for the most part. Published in 1967, Allan W. Eckert used creative non-fiction techniques before the style was respectable and so he has taken some flak for accuracy, and indeed there are some significant goofs - for example Blue Jacket was probably not white. Even if a few tales may be frontier legend they are archetypal and thus still of value. If not Blue Jacket there were other whites who went 'native'.
As an avid outdoor adventure/history reader it's embarrassing how much I know about, say, Antarctica, yet so little about the history of the land I live in and around so this book is a reminder one doesn't need travel far to find great adventure.
Cry of the Kalahari: Seven Years in Africa's Last Great Wilderness
Mark and Delia Owens (1984)
I picked this up for $1 at a book sale and didn't expect much given its age but was really surprised how good it is, I felt transported to Africa and slowed down reading to make it last. There is something iconic about lions and the 1970s (Born Free) and this is one of those stories. But it's more than a period piece, it still reads fresh and exciting. I was most amazed at the do it yourself accomplishments of Mark and Delia Owens, they are able to do anything in the bush using the most rudimentary equipment. After they performed surgery on a wild lion it nearly jumped the shark into an uncanny valley of incredibility - but all true, the Deception Valley where they studied really is "incredible". The book has a lot to offer and should be a classic of its type. The book is not unknown (was a best-seller), but it hasn't been canonized, and like the animals risks slipping into obscurity which would be unfortunate.
If You Survive: From Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge to the End of World War II, One American Officer's Riveting True Story
George Wilson (1987)
This is one infantry officer's memoir, from June 1944 to May 1945, from Normandy to Germany. George Wilson is unique in that he survived, most of his comrades who landed in Normandy never made it as they were killed or wounded along the way. Wilson has a lot of good stories (I was reminded of scenes from the movie The Big Red One). He often focuses on personal and tactical mistakes and so it's a useful book for those seeking battle lessons and consequences. I think he survived because he was always defensively considering the enemies next move and didn't let his guard down, and he let his mind control his emotions (standing straight up during tree-bursts for example when others naturally lay prone and became more exposed). Overall this is the best memoir of this theater I have read, it is obviously comparable to Band of Brothers which lacks the single POV cohesion this book has.
Roadside Picnic is a Soviet-era ideological tract about the evils of Capitalism. Interesting idea for the zone but science fiction in the service of ideology is par for the course of this sordid genre.
Stranger in the Forest (1988) is Eric Hansen's remarkable 5 month trip across Borneo in 1982. The book is something of a minor classic among adventure literature, being both modern in style and reminiscent of a Victorian explorer charting blank spots on the map. Hansen set off into the jungle with almost nothing except good heath, trade goods and the optimism that locals would help him through. Along the way he becomes increasingly native going from one improbable adventure after the next. We learn about the geography, flora and fauna and most of all the fun-loving people, former head-hunting nomadic hunter-gatherers known as the Penan. In 2014, Borneo is a darker story about the destruction of the forest and the Penan people, but Hansen was there just before the palm plantations and dams. He was able to record and celebrate some of the last of the ancient ecosystems and culture of Borneo, the book is a gateway to the world's third largest island as it existed not long ago.
One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
Michael Dobbs (2008)
One Minute to Midnight is an hour by hour reconstruction of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Dobbs has done original archival research and brings to the page new facts never before published. His main thesis is that there was no "eyeball to eyeball and the Soviets blinked", that was propaganda by the Kennedy team. Rather he shows that both sides came closer to war than they realized, were in less control of events then they thought. It's a great lesson of history and instructive about the complexity of events. It leads to the pessimistic conclusion that an accidental nuclear detonation or war was (and still is) very possible.
Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West
Hampton Sides (2006)
Lots of adventure stories from the 1840s-1860s mostly in New Mexico. Kit Carson is the protagonist but there are many many others, if you can keep track. Gives due attention to Indian points of view, as well as Spanish and Mexican. There's a sense of rapid change, one period ending and another beginning. Ultimately a very sad story, and one that didn't have to be. Compare in Asia where the Soviets destroyed the nomadic horse people of Kazakhstan but in Mongolia they still exist without interruption. The book is wide ranging and a Western true-stories greatest hits tamed into a readable narrative with Kit Carson at the center.
Well once again I get to review a BASNW many years after publication. A number of the pieces went on to become books including 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?' which was one of the first to take up the idea that the Internet is changing our brains (for better or worse). Some others I enjoyed include 'High-Tech Trash' which is not a new issue but the article has some interesting details about where high tech trash goes that I didn't know before. 'The Itch' has fascinating information about the brain that has some relevancy to my own condition. 'Last of the Neanderthals' is a common theme among science writers but this essay fired my imagination and I learned some things I didn't know before. 'Wasteland' is my favorite essay in the book, it's funny, unpredictable, informative and really, who knew all this stuff about our human waste stream? 'Big Foot' describes one UK groceries attempt to quantify each product's CO2 equivalency and thus shows the complexity and difficulty in managing global warming.
A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa
Steve Kemper (2012)
Heinrich Barth is one of the great 19th C African explorers. He was "great" because he was scientific, humane, intelligent and honorable. Unlike most African explorers of the period who were racists, imperialists, self-aggrandizes and exploiters. Barth stands out as unusual, a century or more ahead of his time. Amazingly Kemper's book is the first modern account of Barth's 5 year journey into the Islamic Sahara region and what a great story. It's probably the only reasonable path to learn about Barth since his original narrative is an inaccessible 3000 pages of dry detail. Kemper has done us all a favor by reading Barth's books and other memoirs and interpreted the events into a readable story. Even if you don't care about Barth it's a great adventure. The dangers and hardships were so great I am happy to be an armchair traveler.
The War Below: The Story of Three Submarines That Battled Japan
James Scott (2014)
There are so many books on WWII submarines of which I've read almost none it's hard to judge where this one stands. It is basically a retelling of many combat stories involving 3 of the top subs of the war, from the US perspective, with a few interludes to update on war happenings and sub-captain biographies. Some of the stories were pretty good, including the first appendectomy performed on a submarine (kitchen knives), the sinking of the Tang, the Japanese prison camps. It's definitely gung-ho USA as it racks up tonnage and ships destroyed counts, mostly a popular history. I'm not a huge fan of books that are broad and shallow, most stories never lasted more than a few pages, but I guess you can see patterns and gain experience that way.
On the Beach is probably the most famous atomic war book of the 1950s and 60s, and Nevil Shute's best known book, along with A Town Like Alice. He has a unique vision of the apocalypse, more like catching smallpox or the flu as radiation the silent killer slowly spreads around the world exterminating all living things. Shute's characters are exceedingly sober and responsible, and those that cross the line or don't redeem themselves get their due. Yet in the end no amount of sobriety can save them and you are left wondering what is life for. Partying? Racing cars? Scientific exploration? Religious piety? Fishing? Making babies? These were questions facing a generation of WWII vets in the 40s and 50s who were home from the war with its adrenaline highs and who found civilian life boring and slow. Shute's characters act out of duty, even when it's obvious it no longer makes sense to do so. It was this same blind obedience to duty that caused the war. He is advocating, indirectly, the dereliction of duty - rebellion. Just on the cusp of the 1960s, On the Beach was a book of rebellion for the sake of life.
The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch
Lewis Dartnell (2014)
If this book was ever used as intended, as a post-apocalypse manual for restoring civilization from the start, it might be the most important book ever written. Dartnell posits that projects like this are not new, but prior attempts are too long and lost in the details. Rather he suggests a simpler approach that describes the most important human knowledge in a single book. It reminds me of antique cooking recipes for example "take some flour and chicken and mix and heat with oil". There are no exact measurements and steps are left for the reader to experiment. It assumes an intelligent reader able to arrive at a destination using the most fundamental knowledge. I would probably spend a lifetime trying to recreate even a fraction of the things Dartnell describes, the devil is in the details, but I learned a lot about our world along the way, it contains the core building blocks. As a work of creative literature this book surprised me, I figure it might be a dry encyclopedia - and there is some of that - but the lively writing style, interesting tangents, witty vocabulary, and the perspective that we the reader are already living in a post-apocalyptic world made it fun and hard to put down. It uses the tried and true Robinsonade technique of putting you on an "island" with a bag of items and then figure out how to survive, and thrive.
The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World
Edward Dolnick (2011)
Excellent popular history of how during the 1600s math became the new tool for explaining the natural world. In fact geometry had been around since the Greeks, but that is only for objects at rest, not in motion, thus had limited application. Isaac Newton invented Calculus which explained objects in motion (geometry on the move) and opened up many fields of scientific inquiry (indeed science itself). The central tenant of the book is that 17th century thinkers came to believe God made the world based on math. This is an unintuitive historical shift in our view of the cosmos, and goes a long way to explain why the West had such a head start over other parts of the world. Why did this happen? Math was an arcane and rarely studied field at the time, not even required in school. Well Dolnik doesn't really explain other than "special pleading": it was mathematicians who decided the world was based on math, and thus God's language, since they themselves were math experts. Not a satisfactory answer and a major fault in the book to not explore this in more detail. Where the book shines is to make math seem new and exciting. I'd never had an interest in Calculus but am now curious to learn more, since I now understand who invented it and for what. Overall an interesting book with lots to offer for a general introduction to some of the great minds and ideas of the 17th century.
The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters
Gregory Zuckerman (2013)
Good introduction to fracking through the personal stories of a few wildly successful upstart outsiders. By the 1980s, large oil and gas fields in the USA were by conventional wisdom long gone. Large multinationals like Exxon were drilling in foreign locations. In the 1990s, small operators begin experimenting with new technologies and invented fracking that targeted shale oil and gas, initially almost right under Exxon's headquarters in Texas. Soon other fields were found and suddenly the USA was becoming one of the world's biggest oil and gas producers. A few small companies that embraced the new technology became very rich as things ramped up in the 00s. The USA could become energy independent, even a net exporter, something that seemed impossible only a few years ago. The book focuses on the stories of a few of the "wildcat" CEOs who benefited. Zuckerman is a good story teller, and this is an important story of our times that is still playing out, the impacts are broad and significant.
Captain Robert Bartlett (1916)
It's a well-worn story. An explorer sets out to reach the North Pole by way of the Bering Straight, gets caught in the ice for an extended time, sinks and the crew struggles to make it over the ice to Siberia only to realize the hard part had just begun..
After Captain Bartlett returned to civilization from the disastrous journey to the Arctic in 1913-1914, he came under official scrutiny by his superior officers. The court of public opinion lauded him a hero and he went on to a successful career. This memoir of that journey, published in 1916, played a part in raising his public reputation and it's easy to see why. Co-written with a professional writer, Bartlett is level-headed, self-assured but not cocky, hard-working but delegating authority, competent but willing to recognize mistakes. In short, he is the perfect captain and hero. But there was more to the story the book leaves out: accusations of treachery, murder most likely, and more besides. For those darker currents one can find no better summary than the Wikipedia article (* featured). However the passage of discovery is the best taken chronologically with Barlett's story first: it is a solid and enjoyable book, and was the first major account from which later revisions make more sense.
I'd never heard of this commercial shipping accident before, but Irish author Frank Delaney assures us, for about three days anyway, it was the only thing the world talked about in late December 1951. I'm pretty sure my father knew about it as he was a young man at the time from New Jersey (home of the books hero) and was a boatman (though not commercially). With that said, coming to this completely unaware of the story, I found it sort of overblown. The press seemed to play it up, I guess you had to be there at the time to appreciate the zeitgeist of the moment. Not to say Captain Carlsen didn't act heroically but he was doing what a lot of captains would have done, he was competent at his job. Delaney takes an almost uncomfortable obsession with Carlsen due to what he perceives as his own issues with his father, which makes the book kind of weird in the end. Anyway, 9 hours was probably more than I wanted to spend but now I know lots about an event that fascinated the world for a time and lives on most vividly in the memory of a generation or two who remember it.
Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art
Carl Hoffman (2014)
Great book on a topic I knew nothing about. In the end I didn't care what really happened to Michael Rockefeller but was entranced by the tribes of New Guinea and Hoffman's trip there. The book takes on literary qualities about the power of myth over materialism. The natives may be "dirt poor" and uneducated, but through their ownership of story about Michael Rockefeller, they have reclaimed some of the power taken from them by the encroachment of modernity, the tables are turned. It also reminded me of a real-life Life of Pi, dealing as it does in a ship-wreck, cannibalism and two alternate stories left up to the reader to decide which to believe.
This is more than just another misery lit memoir about one persons tragedy. There are lots of them and like Angela's Ashes they occasionally rise above the genre. It's a work of literature that also happens to be true. It has structure: as she moves forward in time, post-wave, her memories pre-wave move backwards in time (I'll leave the details to the reader but it captures how the oldest memories are the strongest and stay the longest). There is also an unreliable narrator, at times early in the book I thought she was probably a loon, even before the wave, but she evolves and one sees it was a temporary "normal" reaction to a loony situation. It deals in universal truths: life is both cruel and kind, it gives and takes. The beautiful ocean could turn in an instant and become a killer. This contrast between pleasure and pain is at the core of the book and finds expression in various ways. A powerful book full of life and wisdom all the more amazing for being true, in fact, and universal.
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: The History and Discovery of the World's Richest Shipwreck
Gary Kinder (1998)
This is a 3.5 star review of the Abridged audiobook version (the only audio version available). The abridgement is 5 hours long, which is roughly 150 to 200 pages of text from a 500 page book, so it's severe. The story itself flows well enough and the sequence of events are clearly described, but it's over too soon and areas of deeper interest are skipped. The story reminds me of Moneyball with an outsider genius using math to beat the old timers and move the field to a new level of expertise. Good book, what of it I heard, maybe someday I'll find a hard copy and read in full.
Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats
Kristen Iversen (2013)
Full Body Burden is yet another in a long line of devastating books about the impacts of nuclear radiation. Rocky Flats, just a few miles northwest Denver, was the primary factory for making plutonium cores used in America's nuclear weapons arsenal. Over the years there were unethical safety measures, spilling many tons of plutonium into the local soil and water, where it has inevitably found its way into the lungs and brains of Colorado people, with devastating consequences. You couldn't pay me to live in Colorado, at least anywhere near this location. The world is loaded with spots like this, not only from radiation but chemical and biological. It makes for compelling who-done-it mysteries but is horrifying. This account is particularly good since it is by a victim who could relate the history of place from first-hand experience.
On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads
Tim Cope (2013)
On the Trail of Genghis Khan (2013) is a travel memoir by Australian Tim Cope about a 3.5 year journey on horseback from Mongolia, across the Eurasian Steppe to the Danube river, in Hungary. This vast ocean of grassland has long held fascination and fear among Europeans as the home of the great warrior steppe tribes. Cope seeks to recreate what it was like to travel this distance on horseback, to find remnants of the traditional nomadic steppe people, to provide some historical context of 19th and 20th century, and to document what is happening today in countries like Mongolia and Kazakhstan. There is also geography description, adventure, incident and people met along the way. I followed along with Google Earth and now have a mental map of large parts of central Asia I knew nothing about before. For Cope, it became more than a trip but a way of life as he struggled through every conceivable setback from weather, to bad people to sickness and border bureaucracy. This is a long book that never felt rushed, there is a sense of having completed something epic in the end. It's a unique journey that anyone interested in historical nomadic life, or central Asia, will find interesting. My sense of the nomadic steppe people, how they lived, has been greatly expanded and even though this isn't a science book it will likely have anthropological value. Curiously while one might think this is mainly a book about horses the real star character (other than the steppe itself) is Cope's dog, Tegon, who seems to have 10 lives, if you like books about dogs it is that too. And some love interests. Overall a generous and fascinating travel/history. I hope to read more by Cope and try to find a copy of the 3 hour documentary (only sold on Australia).
Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire
Peter Stark (2014)
This is really good. It starts off slow in Germany with background about John Jacob Astor and then moves to New York with the immigrants idea for starting a colonial expedition to Oregon. Then the journey begins. Moving westward there is both a sea journey and an overland journey, complete with a cantankerous evil captain, hostile indians, first contacts, French and Scottish voyagers, War of 1812, etc.. reaching a sort of explosive climax in an unforgettable incident. Unbelievably this story has been largely forgotten, it was once a standard schoolroom subject - I had never heard of it before. Probably overshadowed by Lewis and Clark, hopefully this readable book restores greater interest.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
Christopher McDougall (2009)
Great book with a lot of interesting lessons, which I'll soon forget thus recorded here. If these things are true or not is hard to say but this is what the book has to offer. 1. Nike and the sports shoe business has no scientific evidence that shoes are better, in fact there is evidence they are the cause of the epidemic of sports injuries. Bare feet - or simple cheap flat sole shoes/sandals/moccasins - are best. 2. Run (and live life) as a joy, not as work. It shouldn't be painful and difficult otherwise you're doing it wrong and will get injured. 3. Humans evolved as the greatest endurance runners on the planet, it allowed for running down game without the need for any tools or weapons other than tracking skills.4. People who run are happy without depression and disease etc.. This is McDougall's first book, he is in the same league as Michael Lewis: cast of wild outsiders, strong narrative, compelling information, life-changing.
Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History
Antonio Mendez (2012)
I saw the movie and really enjoyed it, but this is a rare case I think the film is better than the book, to choose one over the other. The problem may be that Mendez is writing from the distance of time and it lacks the immediate sense of danger that is better portrayed in the movie. It also didn't help that I already knew the ending having seen the movie. So the strength of the book would rest on its ability to impart tension (film is better) and impart new information, but much of that seemed trivial and forgettable. Maybe if I was a more serious fan of spycraft and the CIA.
Quick and easy history of the Ivory Bill with an emphasis on the early 20th century, in particular Jim Tanner who drove his Model A Coup around the swamps of the south during the 1930s searching for the elusive "peckerwood". Fond times it seemed, an experience that can never been recreated. The dark history of the destruction of the great virgin forests of the south are difficult to take, so much has been forever lost to short term thinkers.
The Ivory Bill is at an intersection of the early conservation movement and has become one of the great icons of extinction. Although this could have been a depressing book Hoose does a good job balancing historical context, he doesn't leap to judgements and ends with other more successful stories of conservation, and the hope that Lord God Bird still exists somewhere.
Tom's River is a masterpiece. I can't imagine a better book on the topic of environmentally caused residential cancer clusters and the science of epidemiology. That is a mouthful, but if you ever wondered if something in the water supply can cause cancer, Tom's River is a case history horror story. And it goes beyond Tom's River, as the NYT review notes, Fagin "chose to weave entire tapestries of gorgeous subplot, among them a short history of the European dye industry, a longer exploration of industrial waste management, a detailed review of the molecular basis of cancer, and a careful history of occupational health." All of it fascinating and made accessible through 100s of characters and novelistic techniques. Curiously the day I finished the book there was news about another town in New Jersey (Paulsboro) that discovered industrial chemicals in its water supply, it's the same Tom's River story - outraged residents, officials who knew for a long time but kept quiet, a company that acknowledges it but denies wrong doing. Like plastics, Tom's River is the future.
Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo
Jack Cheevers (2013)
A detailed and often engrossing retelling of the Pueblo incident of 1967-68. I'd never heard of the Pueblo before, but the situation sounded crazy enough to warrant learning more. North Korea is now showcasing the mothballed ship to every Western visitor to Pyongyang, they've turned it into a museum of greatest triumph against imperialist dogs. The book combines the best of creative non-fiction writing with a strong narrative and leading hero, but also serious history with original research and new facts, bringing events up to the current time. If it wasn't for everything else that happened in 1968, one of the most dramatic years in American history, the Pueblo might still be a household word like the Cuban Missile Crisis. It could have been WWIII, the real success was that rational leadership prevailed.
This is an impeccably researched and written history of the so-called "Great Escape" made famous by the 1960s film of the same name. Not being British I saw the movie once a long time ago but it holds a certain mythological reverence in England where it is patriotically broadcast on TV each Christmas season. Over time the facts of what happened have been distorted by the film and other books. Thus Walters sets out to carefully dissect the primary sources and bring an objective view of what actually occurred. His argument, convincing in my opinion, is that the escape was a reckless, needless waste of life and unjustified. He blames one man, the leader, whose personality played a big part in the disaster. I was surprised to learn that German Luftwaffe officer camps were controlled as much by the prisoners as the guards, since the prisoners had so much material wealth from the Red Cross packages compared to the poor and underfed German guards. It was also fascinating to watch the German SS bureaucracy in action as the orders moved down the ranks and officials had to choose what to do. This is an extremely detailed account so be prepared for some long stretches of repetitive material as Walters go through exactly what happened to each of the 70+ escapees, few of which end well. For what this book is - an historical revisionism of a mythological event - it does a great job, and I think portrays the people and times with a clear eye. I don't know if it's the best first book on the topic since it strips away the adventure, but in light of 50 some dead guys, less adventure and more sober reflection is the right thing, what can be learned from their mistake so it was not in vain.
Running for My Life: One Lost Boy's Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games
Lopez Lomong (2012)
Running for My Life is a Lost Boy memoir, the 4th such memoir I have read. All of these memoirs follow a similar though no less compelling arc. (I won't spoil it). Lomong's story is actually the least brutal of the 4, he seemed to be very lucky at key moments in his life. Of course luck is made (or in Lopez's belief granted by God), he has a positive and upbeat attitude tempered by the harsh reality of his background. This is a short and simple memoir, it would be suitable for younger readers, as well as Christian since Lopez is devoutly religious. He came in 10th place at the London 2012 Olympics. Ultimately if he helps his country stabilize that will be the real race to win.
The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World's Greatest Creatures
Lawrence Anthony (2013)
Having recently read The Elephant Whisperer I had high expectations for The Last Rhinos and was not disappointed. It's a different mood though, darker and somewhat terrifying as Anthony travels to the Congo to visit The Lords Resistance Army in a last ditch effort to save the Northern White Rhino. Some of the things Anthony does are incredible, surreal, but it's a great insight into the problems of conservation in Africa and why the Rhinos and other species are endangered. Unexpectedly I gained a new understanding of the LRA that runs counter to their reputation as terrorists. So this book is somewhat more wide ranging dealing with rhinos, the politics of conservation, the conflict in Uganda and the LRA, with interludes back in South Africa including some wonderful stories of a 7-year drought; and the introduction of a new bull elephant into the herd. The book was published in 2012 around the same time Lawrence unexpectedly died of a heart attack so the epilogue provides closure and forward looking thoughts. For any fan of Africa wildlife (and who isn't) this and the other books co-written with Spence are superb.
The Great Penguin Rescue: 40,000 Penguins, a Devastating Oil Spill, and the Inspiring Story of the World's Largest Animal Rescue
Dyan deNapoli (2011)
This is a somewhat quirky but enjoyable look at the largest penguin rescue to date. It turns out there are millions of sunken ships in the ocean, plus new ones, and over time they burp oil which rises to the surface where penguin's are among the most vulnerable since they can't fly. So "penguin oilings" are a common occurrence, particularly in South Africa where there are many birds and ships together. A few dedicated people in the world like Dyan deNapoli are on the front lines ensuring the survival of the species by de-oiling penguins when events occur.
As another reviewer mentioned the book has one honking problem which is the amount of repeated material, both conceptually and word for word grammatically. For example saying the same thing 2, 3 or even 4 times closely together. Or in different parts of the book, whole paragraphs are seemingly cut and pasted with re-arrangement. As if deNapoli struck on a good idea and revisits it again and again for lack of anything new to say. However, I just let it go as the ramblings of an overly passionate person. Somehow it works in the end as a document of a passionate animal lover, there were times I choked up, real emotion was conveyed. It was published by Free Press which is an imprint of Simon and Schuster "Books for Young Readers" so presumably the repeating is for the benefit of younger readers. More likely the book was poorly edited, or padded for length, or both, but still has its moments and I learned a lot about this area of conservation which is new to me. deNapoli is to be admired.
Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet
Katie Hafner (1998)
Awesome history of the invention of Internet up to about 1989. It probably will appeal more to the engineer as it requires some level of conceptual background about the technology, but wow what a great story. I knew some of it in bits and pieces through legends passed around but having it in a chronological narrative everything now fits in place. Although this book was first published in 1996, I read it for the first time in 2014 almost 20 years later and it hasn't lost much, this is a classic history.
In Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, journalist McKenzie Funk travels the world to personally visit the companies and people who are making a business from global warming, directly or indirectly. He avoids the obvious green energy windmills and solar panels and looks at others less obvious but no less important. For example Greenlanders who are discovering mineral deposits underneath melted glaciers; artificial snow makers (see the 2014 Olympics); genetically modified mosquitoes to ward off diseases spreading northward; sea-wall makers; deserts tree planting projects; and so on. In the end he lays out his vision of what will probably happen: the northern countries will have no choice but to implement Geo-engineering which will help the north but devastate the poorer countries since GE has regional differences and isn't a uniform solution. This is an extension of what has been happening for 200+ years as richer countries pour CO2 into the atmosphere for their own benefit and the loss of others, so it is a reasonable prediction, the patterns have long been in place, tragedy of the commons predates civilization.
I believe this book would be an excellent rejoinder to climate denialists. How do you deny the existence of real businesses operated by free market libertarians who have embraced the "opportunity" of global warming? It's impossible to be both a global warming denialist and a supporter of private businesses profiting from global warming. Is it ethical to profit from disaster? It doesn't matter because people have, and are, and will.
The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption
Laurence Leamer (2013)
A true-life legal thriller about two incredible trial lawyers and their cause to make the world a better place. I knew some of it from news over the years, but hearing the whole story in a single narrative is much better. (My next book is on developments in green energy, how it is replacing dirty energy like coal around the world.)
Marra's novel is a "Things Fall Apart" for Chechnya. It concerns a nameless small village that is torn apart by modern empires and forces. The theme of disembodiment runs throughout - in a literal sense body parts such as heads, fingers, scrotums, ears etc come undone, more figuratively families fall apart, villages disintegrate and scatter, and finally the country of Chechnya itself is pulled apart by forces of Russia/Islam/The West. Stylistically the novel's chronologically disjointed narrative is a broken mirror pieced together. It is the tragic fate of Chechnya like so many poor places stuck between the great empires which push and pull the country to the breaking point. The novel shows what it means on a personal level. Heartbreaking and sad. Although in the first half I was often lost and wondering if I should quit, it is an ambitious and largely successful work of art that leaves an impression.
A little longer and more detailed than I would have liked, but convincingly takes on one of the great historical questions - was the use of the bomb justified. It's terribly complex and still being vigorously argued, this is probably the best introduction. As an Australian Paul Ham seems to have a clear uninvolved eye. For many Americans even raising the question is enough to raise blood pressure, so this is not something for the patriot, but it is a sober and objective account that raises many questions. The myth of the 1 million Americans saved by the bomb is dismantled as after-the-fact justification by Truman, which says a lot about an attempt to rewrite history. Ultimately, I think the bomb was more about American projection of power during the final days of the war, and for that we should not be surprised except by the horror of how many paid the terrible price. I used to believe the bomb was what ended the war, now I don't believe so, it was a side-show of that war but laid the groundwork of the next.
A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II
Adam Makos (2012)
Another great story from WWII with lines reaching to the present. I appreciated the realistic portrayal of the Luftwaffe warts and all, and following the career of a single German pilot from start to end, up to the present. It has epic qualities that shows the rising and falling fortunes of the German military. The act of "Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies" makes up a small part of the book but gives it narrative structure and purpose. Fortunately the narrative is worth reading regardless of the chivalric incident, and it's written with cinematic/novelistic qualities that gets better to the tearful ending. I try to imagine if the tables were turned and it was an American fighter pilot and German bomber returning from England.. would we feel as warm and loving towards this story? Probably not since it would require a more pacifist mindset, one in which compassion comes before winning, which is a rarer and finer thing as seen in the character of Franz Stigler.
This is my second Inoue book and I was expecting an exciting story about bullfighting in an exotic location. But it turned out to be something different, yet rewarding in a quietly powerful way. In Japan, traditional bullfighting is not between man and beast rather two bulls against one another, it's slow and uneventful as the bulls spend a lot of time sizing one another up before charging - mostly it's about the betting. Despite that, shady and interesting characters, subterfuge and bombed-out post-war Japan make up the colorful backdrop to a story of fitful reconstruction. Probably the best overview is by Michael Orthofer at complete review.