Review of Audiobook narrated by Peter Guinness. The last time I saw Alien was 1982, it has taken that long to again face this claustrophobic infection. While the movie is about two hours long, the audiobook is eight - ample time to break overnight and dream, to slow down and appreciate the psychological horror as the tension builds. Occasional music sets the mood.
The best thing about Alien is the creature is rarely seen. Similar to Jaws, it is the monster of our imagination that is most frightening. The length of the novel plays into it extremely well, the alien doesn't appear until more than half way through. The action scenes are mercifully not too long or overwrought. It was a pleasure not to be bludgeoned with gory visual effects and thumping music, emerging bleary eyes 90-minutss later with PTSD. Overall I believe I enjoyed the slower pace as much if not more than the movie. It's length and literary details, the ability to go inside what characters are thinking. All the things which give the written word an advantage over film. This isn't to say that movie is bad either, the two are complimentary.
The first in a 3-volume series that is probably the most widely read biography of Roosevelt. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. It's rarely lags as Roosevelt's life didn't stand still. One can't help but admire his accomplishments against New York corruption, prodigious memory and learning and physical constitution. He was a product of his time, today he would be an anachronism, a man energized by black and white cliches of heroes and villains, not unlike the USA at the time. Even though having finished a 700+ page book I still don't understand how he became who he was. For that question David McCullough set out to answer and it will likely be my next book about Roosevelt.
A German Deserter's War Experience (1917) is ostentatiously by an anonymous German soldier who fought during the first 14 months of WWI. He then escaped to New York where he published a memoir serially in a local German-language newspaper. It was then translated into English by Julius Koettgen, who later sources incorrectly identified as the soldier himself. Julius Koettgen, the translator, was the head of an organization called "Friends of the German Democracy", a surrogate of the US government propaganda arm Committee on Public Information, whose aim was to influence public opinion about the war.
The memoir itself is very graphic with non-stop violence. It's not literary but is easy to read, if you can stomach the horrible conditions of trench warfare. It starts and end with the simple notions that war is bad, and escape was the best option.
The question remains, is this is an authentic memoir or propaganda? The details are so precise and specific it feels real, and for the most part there is no overt anti-German bias. I can find almost no critical study or commentary anywhere. Who was this soldier? Why didn't he come forward after the war? Given the translator's role in propaganda, and the book's narrative arch of laying down one's arms and escaping Germany, what should we think? It's an interesting literary mystery. Regardless a decent read for the details of trench warfare.
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta
Richard Grant (2015)
This is really fantastic. Richard Grant's best travel/journalism book to date. This part of the country is tied up in a lot of negatives for good reason - poverty, racism, corruption, violence. But it's also strong community, tradition and, well, good times. What makes this more than a good book about the Delta is Grant's outsider status as a British expat which allows him to see objectively American culture and racism in a way that is even handed. People opened up to him, spoke their mind and he presented their POVs with respect. There's a lot of strange stuff that happens in this part of the country - usually of a "weird crime" nature - but there is also a lot of positive that can be said. I'll never see Mississippi and the Delta the same again. Highly recommended.
The Conquering Tide: War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944
Ian W. Toll (2015)
Ian Toll's first book Pacific Crucible details 4 major battles in the first 6 months of the Pacific War. The Conquering Tide covers the rest of 1942 through most of 1944 thus is considerably more expansive. After each battle, there are many, I found myself reading the equivalent Wikipedia article to learn more. Which isn't to say Toll's telling is flawed, rather he provides everything Wikipedia lacks - quality writing, drama, story, context and the glue to tie it together. But Wikipedia greatly compliments, the two are a good mix because by design Toll's book is not a super detailed study. Most of the major Pacific War articles on Wikipedia are Featured meaning they represent the best on the site.
The first quarter of the book is about Guadalcanal and is IMO the best part because of the mix of naval, ground and air combat in a single location over an extended time with back and forth. It was where the US stopped Japanese momentum. It could be a book in its own right. This then leads to the island hopping blue sea beach invasions of legendary Tarawa, and finally Saipan. By mid 1944 the US has overwhelming troop and material strength and the war becomes lop-sided. How will Japan respond?
I have to say it has been a real pleasure to read these two books almost back to back. The Pacific War has always been somewhat opaque to me, but Toll has proven an excellent guide to understanding. He gives a feeling of being there in person, experiencing the war as a soldier, or Admiral, or pilot. I can't wait for the concluding volume.
438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea
Jonathan Franklin (2015)
438 Days retells the story of the longest duration castaway in known history. Many castaways die within a week or two, rarely some will make it few months. To go for over a year is incredible. It happened in 2013-2014 when a Mexican fisherman drifted across most of the Pacific ocean. There were some doubts raised initially but everything checked out as accurate. Franklin's retelling is quite excellent, though nothing beats a first person account, this is an official version based on exclusive interviews. I've read a few castaway stories from different periods of history, Alvarenga's is different for one big reason: trash. He continually found trash floating on the surface that helped him survive, amazing.
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
Sy Montgomery (2015)
The Soul of an Octopus explores consciousness and achieves that anecdotally by observing how octopuses behave with intelligence. The sub-text is about loss and death, a theme Montgomery has covered before in other books. Montgomery's writing is a Young Adult version of nature writing, a sort of middle-brow suitable for the budding high school scientist. It's a mix of personal experiences, facts about the octopus and various character studies of people who work at the Boston Aquarium.
Other than the film, I'm illiterate when it comes to T. E. Lawrence so I was hoping this would fill me in. It succeeds with a reliable retelling of his entire life. But I didn't enjoy it very much. The writing feels removed. Kora understands Lawrence in an academic sense but lacks a feeling of intimacy. It's all very ho-hum when contrasted with his life of action, leaving an impressive of cynicism. "Hero?" (in quotes) might be an alternative title. Still, the book is topical to current events in Syria and Iraq and helped fill in the history. I think a good way to approach Lawrence is to first read the book that made him famous, Lowell Thomas's With Lawrence in Arabia (1923). Thomas, an American journalist, shot dramatic footage of Lawrence in Arabia in 1918 and, after the war, toured the world with his film With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia making Lawrence—and himself—household names. He followed the film up with his 1923 book -- the first about Lawrence and a best-seller.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World
Andrea Wulf (2015)
The best review of The Invention of Nature can be found in The New York Review of Books. It pithily provides most of what the book has to offer. This is the second or third book about Humboldt I have read and is the best explaining his former popularity, subsequent obscurity in the English world, and importance to our own time. I have been a Humboldtian my whole life and never realized it. He is like the air, all around us. He was the first to articulate the notion of what we call today ecology, that all things in nature are connected and interrelated. He also wrote what might be called the first modern environmental book - a narrative look at nature that combines art and science, travel and philosophy. He predicted man would despoil nature to such an extent it could threaten survival. He was the hero of Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir -- all of whom were the foundation of the modern environmental awakening.
Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942
Ian W. Toll (2011)
Pacific Crucible is about the Pacific War from Pearl Harbor to Midway. It's a long book for only 6 months but it's also the lead up to war, starting with the Japanese defeat of the Russian Navy at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. Despite its length it's not a difficult read, Toll is a populist and the narrative flow holds interest from start to end. The detail never feels encyclopedic, rather often enlightening, new and relevant. What it has in spades is balance. There is so much information about WWII the job of a general history is choosing what to exclude and what to emphasize and Toll does an excellent job at both. He can speak at one moment about high level Japanese imperial ambitions, and also the personal experiences of a fighter pilot waving at the enemy as he flies over a ship. The small details bring it alive and make the big picture more dramatic. Toll spends a little more time on some aspects that are not as well known, mainly the battle of Marshall Islands; the influence of Alfred Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power Upon History; and the code breaking operations in the lead up the Battle of Midway. None of these are new territory but Toll weaves them into the narrative in a way that leaves a memorable impression of their importance.
A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons
Robert M. Sapolsky (2001)
A Primate's Memoir (2001) follows that well worn path of the bumbling westerner in the third world who finds sardonic humor in every situation. In this case with a twist, he is a Jewish kid from New York who is studying baboons in Kenya. Sapolsky tries too hard to be funny at every turn - it felt like a script from Jerry Seinfeld. Nothing wrong with that, he actually is funny sometimes. He becomes more authentic and interesting in the last few chapters when his armor of humor is taken off and real feelings and an original voice emerge.
There are over 28 volumes in this series and this is my first one. Each volume is about 3-4 hours long and contains 6 episodes from the original Twilight Zone series. These are recent adaptations with updated script and voice actors. It's a professional quality production with sounds effects and full cast. They appear to have been produced for satellite radio and then sold in secondary markets CD and Audible. I basically have three qualms. The voice acting is average to bad. The scripts don't always adapt well to radio format. The plots, at least in this set, are not so great. Except for the first one, "Time Enough at Last", which is very good. Overall a nice diversion but lacked the punch that I remember watching the series as re-runs in the 1970s, but that is probably a function of my age.
Black Flags charts the rise of ISIS. It's a riveting cinematic account with the first two thirds of the book mostly focused on the man on the cover, the terrorist/Jihadist Zarqawi. He began life as a petty crook, found religion and wanted to become more famous than Osama bin Laden. His role in the Iraqi insurgency during the 2003-2008 period is central. The book weakens in the last third after Zarqawi's death. I wonder if the author was writing a biography of Zarqawi and he (or the publisher) changed the focus to ISIS. In any case there is a lot of good stuff here that puts things in perspective. It's not the last word on this complex topic.
William Finnegan (2015)
I knew next to nothing about surfing before reading Barbarian Days, but ended feeling like I had surfed around the world. That's a dangerous assumption. But it's being hailed the best surfing memoir ever written, as close as art can come to the experience. More so a great biography following a boomer born in 1952 to the present as he passes through the decades. More than about Finnegan there is a large cast of fascinating people and places. At heart though, this is about surfing, something I will never do but now have a deeper appreciation, understanding and respect thanks to Finnegan's generous memoir.
Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution (Pivotal Moments in American History)
David L. Preston (2015)
David L. Preston is a professor at The Citadel in Virginia. He is originally from western PA. This is a very in-depth and detailed treatment of The Battle of the Monongahela (1755) involving the British and colonials on one side, and French and Indians on the other. The French held a fort at what is today Pittsburgh and threatened British colonists in PA, MD and VA. So the British sent one of the largest and technologically advanced armies to the colonies to that date. Everyone assumed they would win. As the title reveals, they were defeated, mainly because the French and Indians fought from the cover of trees, while the British lined up in formation and were mowed down. It was a massacre. Hard lessons were learned.
The first part of the book was hard going, lots of names and places without much context. It helps if you already know about this period and the geography of the land. The overland journey is a little more interesting. The battle was the best part but is only about 15% of the book. This is a combo popular history + academic history and tends to waver back and forth - it's perfect for a student of the period given the rich detail and quoting of sources. It was an important battle that kicked off the French and Indian War and informed the Revolutionary War.
David McCullough is one of the best living non-fiction authors. There is not a wasted sentence or word, it flows with richness and vividness never failing to hold your attention and interest. There are probably more in-depth books, that show a darker side or less savory moments. But for an introduction and baseline understanding this can't be beat.
Sadly. I suspect it may be McCullough's last book, due to his age and because he drops a mention to every book he has written - the Johnstown Flood, the Brooklyn Bridge, Revolutionary War, Panama Canal. A career summary as he flies away into the sky on the wings of his boyhood heroes.
I'm OK with this but it is not for me. It's reminiscent of some 19th century German works, now obscure, filled with symbolism involving a boy and girl separated from their parents and thrown into difficult situations. Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter and Immensee by Theodor Storm. The last was once criticized for being crudely symbolic and overly sentimental.
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice
Bill Browder (2015)
I loved Red Notice. I hung on every word from start to end. Browder knows how to tell a story, and he has an amazing story to tell. I gained a deeper understanding of Russia's criminal operations that go straight to Putin. Also how investment bankers operate. Some of the best parts are in the early chapters when Browder discovers investing in Russia. There is a great lesson here, if you don't know something go knock on doors and ask, people will often freely talk. This book has changed my perspective on Russia and global investing. It's powerful, entertaining and ultimately humanitarian.
Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide
Eric Bogosian (2015)
Eric Bogosian is better known as a tv and film actor, stage actor, novelist and playwright. He also narrated one of my favorite books, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber. So it was bizarre to see he had written a serious work of history on the Armenian Genocide (and narrated the audio production). It turns out his grandfather is Armenian and from the old country. Eric originally wanted to write a screenplay about the dramatic events but went all in with a history book. Now, this is the first book on the Armenian Genocide I have read, most it was new to me. As such I liked the book, but in parts it left me perplexed. Turkey has a complex history, the names are difficult. Nevertheless the main story is comprehensible. Likewise the story at times is a thriller as assassins stalk their prey. It kept drawing me back to find out what happens next and learn more. As an introduction to the genocide, this is an excellent way to go. As a history of Operation Nemesis I suspect it's state of the art.
The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal
David E. Hoffman (2015)
David E. Hoffman wrote a Pulitzer Prize winner a few years ago, The Dead Hand, which I thought was fantastic, and so was eager to read his latest. Unlike the former sweeping survey of Russian weapons of mass destruction during the Cold War, this is a very narrow and deep story about a single spy. As such it has a strong narrative flow and is a true life thriller. Yet Hoffman is not a popularizer, he is a serious historian who has done original research. The spy in question really was one of the most important of the Cold War. And Hoffman goes deep into the craft of the trade just as it was beginning to shift from analog to digital methods. Well written, engaging, learned a lot.
Guantánamo Diary, as a work of prison literature, is particularly disturbing because the regime is the United States, my own country. If we take Slahi at his word, and there are good reasons to do so, he is an innocent man. If he was a known terrorist it would be easier, but the knowledge that he is probably innocent is crushing. If he was an angry and base personality we might understand given his circumstances, but he is man of honor, grace, wit and intelligence. The weight bears down. The story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi is not over, he has written his own J'accuse. Slahi is a scapegoat to save face of the military and politicians and slake the bloodlust of a public intent on revenge at any cost.
The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction
Pat Shipman (2015)
The Invaders is written by a scientist and he presents his theory how Neanderthals, and many other species, went extinct. The subtitle and beautiful cover art give it away but there is much more to the book. The theory is only described in about the last 15%, most of the book is background information on what and how we know about Neanderthals and humans in Europe in the period in question, from about 50,000bp to 20,000bp. The writing can be technical, but not impossible and is made up for by the writers enthusiasm and deep thinking. I really did feel transported back in time and part of a real scientific debate on the cutting edge.
The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones
Thomas Asbridge (2014)
The greatest Medieval knight of the High Middle Ages (1000-1300), what is not to love. Asbridge does a yeoman's job filling in the story of Marshal, and the broader context of the period in France and England. Marshal lived through the death of 5 kings so there is a lot of famous history of the second half of the 12th century and first few decades of the 13th. Barons Wars and rebellions, Magna Carta, Second and Third Crusades, Richard the Lionheart, King Henry II and III. King Stephen and John. Rise and fall of the Angevin Empire. Tournaments. This was the high of the High, a golden age that later generations would try to recapture and emulate, even to this day. I usually find Medieval political history to be a series of dry contingencies, but when told through the eyes of a single individual main character, and with proper context and writing skill, it's possible to appreciate in a way that is understandable and immediate. Recommended even for the non-Medievalist.
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel is an essential update on the latest research and trends in animal intelligence with a focus on the usual suspects: elephants, primates, crows and parrots, dogs and wolves, whales and porpoise. Carl Safina is more than a reporter he adds a level of sublime to his books that carries the reader to new enlightenment. I came away changed, seeing animals as having rich lives full of emotion, families, fears and happiness. They have the same chemical hormones as us, the same organs and neural configurations, respond to life in much the same ways. They are not exactly the same, but not that different either. Most of our perceptions of animals are outdated and wrong - tool use, communication, memory, emotion, art, culture, personality, imagination - all exist in the animal kingdom. This is a wonderful book and will be among my year end favorites.
France at War (1915) is six pieces of journalism by Rudyard Kipling at the request of The Daily Telegraph. Kipling was given access to the front line to report on what it was like. It was the first in a number of "war pamphlets" by Kiping including The Army in Training and Sea Warfare. As a recent Nobel winner Kipling was probably the most well known English writer at the time. He doesn't say so in the book but he was often mobbed by troops to get a look at the famous man. Kipling was a supporter of the war, even a notorious Hun-hater which comes across in some of the stories as he describes captured Germans as all rapists and murders. For Kipling the "Frontier of Civilization" means Germany itself. As such this pamphlet is often grouped with other war propaganda.
For the most part I didn't find the book very interesting. Probably two things stand out. First is biographical, Kipling says cheerily that everyone should fight the Germans even if it means loosing your son. This was around August 1915, but at the end of September Kipling's own son John was killed and his body never found, despite Kipling spending consider time and effort to find him. It was devastating to Kipling and he never fully recovered from the loss. Also the descriptions of the trenches in one of the last pieces which I found to be vivid and gave a sense of how vast the structures were.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Bryan Stevenson he is an excellent narrator it adds a new level. The contrast between Harvard educated Stevenson, his poor and disadvantaged clients and the racist white southern establishment makes for compelling reading. Holy cow man, some of these cases are so terrible and outrageous this was not an easy read. Despite all the sadness there is hope because changes are occurring, if only slowly, due in no small part to Bryan Stevenson and his organization.
Fracture is the 5th book by Blom I have read, he is one of my favorite historians. Blom shows the interwar period was characterized by social and technological revolution that started in 1900 and continued well into the 1950s. Called modernity (or modernism) it was destructive to centuries old traditions and beliefs. The interwar period was not peaceful there were conflicts on many levels, the fighting didn't stop in 1918. Blom covers all aspects of these conflicts from the arts, philosophy, science, economics. The first and last chapters tie together the book's core which is a year by year retelling of events from 1918 to 1938.
The period is useful for understanding our own time. The 1900-1950 conflicts were catalyzed by the second industrial revolution, which started around 1870 but didn't reach critical mass until the turn of the century. It resulted in the Second Thirty Years War (1914-1945). Today we are at the cusp of a third (4th?) revolution brought on by new high technology in computing, biology, materials science etc.. It started a few decades ago but only recently reached critical mass. Autonomous cars and machines etc.. disruptive changes are looming and people are unsure about the future. The old ways are being upended, markets are constantly crashing (or enriching the few), global warming threatens the planet and GDP growth, consumerism has become a hollow pursuit. As Blom says "Our future has become a threat. All we want is to live in a present that never ends." It's like the mood of the 1930s has returned. History doesn't repeat but it does rhyme. The ideologues today are not Communism and Fascism, rather the strongest ideologies are in Silicon Valley - the technocratic Libertarians and the Singularity. It's there where we have both the greatest hope and the most concern.
Curious to note the book's other titles: in Dutch Alleen de wolken ("Just the Clouds"); Die zerrissenen Jahre ("The Torn Years") and it's working English title "The Wars Within" which I think is the best because the interwar period was really a continuous "inner" war - riots, culture wars, ideological disputes, labor disputes, etc..
A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and Its Fight to Save Our Planet
John H. Adams (2010)
John H. Adams co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) at almost the same time the EPA came into existence in 1970. They were a group of young lawyers whose mission was to sue the government to ensure the new environment laws were being enforced. Over the next 45 years NRDC became one of the most effective and instrumental environmental groups.
This is a history of the many NRDC battles and accomplishments - clean water, clean air, global warming, mercury pollution, "bio gems" -- but also American environmental history of the past 40 years. Adams is writing for a mixed audience: the general reader, the NRDC supporter and NRDC employees past or present. As such there is name dropping and shout outs that seem unnecessary. Nevertheless Adams is an eternal optimist, a good writer and the stories almost all have happy endings -- and if not, he puts a positive spin on it to fight another day. NRDC has been criticized for making deals with the enemy, but after reading this it becomes clear that bargaining and deal making is effective. Even if you don't get everything you want today it moves the process forward. It was also clear how bad the Republicans have been on the environment, stunning really. After finishing this I became convinced that the courts are the most effective way to protect the environment.
The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World
Justin Pollard (2006)
The Rise and Fall of Alexandria is a collection of stories about Alexandria over its approximate 1000 year history, from the founding by Alexander the Great. Pollard describes it as the intellectual capital of the ancient world, at least until about the 5th century. He discusses the famous library, political stories such as Anthony and Cleopatra. It's a cross-grain book, meaning it's a full history but not a lot of depth, however the grain he cuts through is very interesting and useful to understanding not only the ancient world but the modern. Many great discoveries were made at Alexandria, it was remarkable. A map of the known world, the size of the earth, large mechanical machines and robots, an early computer, sophisticated surgery. For 100s of years it was a place of exciting wonder and possibility, the leading light like its famous lighthouse so symbolic. Pollard is able to weave a compelling story that rarely falters, his experience with television no doubt helping with the narrative. I felt by the end like it was a grand epic. A few times I had stop and think hard, was Christianity a negative force? It replaced reason with faith and new discoveries came to an end. Gibbon came down against Christianity in The Rise and the Fall and its easy to see why, the old ways were discarded and ignored for about a thousand years. From the perspective of Alexandria, Christianity was a disaster, but then there is more to it than knowledge and learning, the weak and downtrodden would now have a chance at inheriting the earth.
Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship
Robert Kurson (2015)
Shadow Divers was a true classic. Pirate Hunters is very good. It delivers a thrilling story, a driving mystery, interesting characters, history that is new to most of us, and a literary style that draws parallels between the pirates of old and new. When you can collapse time and make 300 year old people and events fresh and relevant, and they happen to be pirates, well fun times. I wouldn't take everything too seriously though he seems to stretch here and there, for example multiple pirate ships were found at Port Royal they are not as rare as suggested, though still pretty rare.
The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures
William DeBuys (2015)
When I first saw this title I didn't give it much attention as it sounded like a gimmick, "The Last Unicorn" is cliche, like a kids fantasy book. However I looked into it further and found many good reviews so gave it a shot. Turns out to be a solid work of travel literature and conservation. The central character is one of the world's rarest big mammals which lives along the Vietnam/Laos border. It was only recently discovered, I remember the news from the early 90s because it seemed odd that a large mammal was discovered in Vietnam where so much fighting had occurred - this is the "rest of the story".
DeBuys is an American in his 60s, late career with numerous books and awards behind him, and writes with a literary flair that is characteristic of nature writing classics, with metaphors and big picture thinking, personal lives intermingled. He travels with another American scientist and a group of Laotian porters into one of the remotest areas of Indochina in search of the elusive "saola". We learn of the geography of the region, its flora and fauna, history and people, modernization's good and evils. This is a book about Laos and the saola but also the destruction of the world as it once existed, now poorer for the sake of a short term drunken binge. It is human nature to consume but when combined with the power of technology and 7 billion people it has lasting consequences.
By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey
Erskine Clarke (2013)
By the Rivers of Water concerns 2 of the most famous African missionaries of the 19th century, a husband and wife team from South Carolina and Georgia. They grew up on remote sea-island plantations in the low country with the Gullah people as their slaves. Disillusioned by slavery they set up the first mission in Liberia, which was a project started by citizens in Maryland to "whiten" the state through reverse-colonization of freed African-Americans back to Africa.
Clarke is a professor and this is a serious history book. It also uses some techniques of narrative (creative) non-fiction. The writing style is curious - the language is at times overwrought like an early 19th century source, but is still understandable. Clarke lapses into cliche about "broad waters" and "Atlantic world" to the point it looses meaning. I looked at the index and counted at least 300 named people, it would have been a better book with fewer people and incidents and more in-depth of the more interesting ones. There is a good sense of change in attitudes about slavery between the 1820s and 1860s. The (largely failed) colonizing of Africa can be seen as part of the working out of the slavery question. How the native African's responded to African-American colonials is a fascinating part of colonial history we don't hear of often. I give great credit to the missionaries for recognizing the mistake early on - colonization is the same evil no matter where or how it happens.
In Captains Courageous the detail of fishing life are authentic, indeed anthropological. Kipling spent time in Gloucester and even went out on a ship for a while (though he spent most of the time sea-sick). He had an associate and the two collaborated, with Kipling writing the story and the associate writing the finer details and terminology. Unfortunately Harvey switches from being an irritating brat to a changed working man in a single scene at the beginning of the story, what? This was the heart of the book and it would have been better to do what the 1937 film did and play it out. Also at the end Harvey gets everything he wants and he looks like a spoiled rich kid again undermining the lessons of the book. Nevertheless this is a boys fairy-tale and is sort of like 12-year old crack, but still retains appeal to adults.
Mars Rover Curiosity: An Inside Account from Curiosity's Chief Engineer
Rob Manning (2014)
I've read half a dozen memoirs by NASA engineers who have worked on spaceships and I can't say the genre is full of gold. Nevertheless this one is probably the best of the bunch so far. Manning knows how to communicate the ups and downs of engineering a 10-year long project and keeps it interesting. It's not too technical but captures the amount of work indeed the near impossibility of the task. There are time pressures, money pressures, engineering difficulties, politics, bureaucracy. Making a single rover is so difficult I wonder how we will ever colonize Mars much less the Moon. Something has to change, maybe Elon Musk is on to something with private ventures working fast and cheap with off the shelf and reusable parts. It's a model that threatens NASA's entire existence and mandate. I admire Manning and the engineers who made Curiosity but I can't admire the system they work under. But then maybe I am being naive, time will tell.
The novel reads like a rough draft of TV episodes. The writing is not great, but good plot and characters is all screenwriters need. The rule of thumb is that the better the screen adaption the worse the book, and vice versa (with exceptions). The humor is frat boy and the theme is irreverence (of authority, religion, military, sports, etc), the bigger they are the harder they fall, but it's also big hearted.
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Ashlee Vance (2015)
This is Elon Musk's first official biography. Musk rejected other authors who wanted to tell his story - how Vance came to be chosen is described in the opening chapter (in short: persistence). Given the gossip and legends over the years it's hard to know what is true. Nevertheless Vance does an excellent job of presenting a fair and balanced perspective while debunking and clarifying. If Vance's account suffers it's only because it's a first biography and most of the events in the book are at most 15 years old. Vance struggles to place Musk in historical context, suggesting he is a more significant business leader then Steve Jobs or Gates. Musk is still mid-career and his companies need another 10+ years to fully execute on their goals of changing the world. A lot remains to be seen but reading this you come away with a sense if anyone can do it, Musk can. I was sorry when it ended as I enjoyed being around Musk, his outlook and passion, the highs and lows of his risk taking, the technology. This book will be influential with entrepreneurs, investors and consumers of his products and vision. People who bought into Apple were buying into a consumer-goods level change - it was world-changing at a certain level. Musk is seeking nothing less than being the savior of the human race, to colonize Mars and thus protect it from an existential event. There is no one else operating at that level in the business world, the audacity of his starry-eyed vision has created many detractors but this book is a detailed accounting of the reality of his execution which is evidently undeniable.
Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It
Marc Goodman (2015)
Future Crimes is a very smart book, Goodman has looked at computer crime from every possible angle. It is also oddly entertaining as computer crime is so clever by its nature. Computer crime is a vast subject and the stories are endlessly fascinating. The first third covers what has already happened, he then looks at the "future of crime" by extrapolating where technology is headed. Moore's Law means that technology is giving individuals unparalleled amounts of power for good or evil. Meanwhile the institutions who are meant to protect us are unable to keep up with the rapidity of changes. Indeed technology may make some of these institutions irrelevant. Society is woefully unprepared for what is happening today, much less in 10 or 20 years. It's easy for an individual to say "I don't own a smart phone and rarely use email" but it doesn't matter as it will affect everyone because it impacts our institutions, government, everything we depend on as a society. Like saying the newfangled motor vehicle won't impact me because I will keep riding my horse.. that works for only so long. The leading edge users of technology are criminals operating in spaces not yet well regulated or understood and this book is an excellent introduction to what's happening and the possibilities to come.
The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission
Jim Bell (2015)
This is an ok book. It's a decent overview of the Voyager missions which started in the 1970s and are still ongoing. Mr. Bell coincidentally started his space career in the 70s and we follow his voyages through life in parallel with those of the satellites. It has a romantic touch. But there is something forced about his continual excitement, I never got too excited anyway. But it was interesting to learn how this mission came about, including the guy who figured it was possible due to the planets lining up perfectly and then wasn't given credit for the discovery - d'oh. The debate over if/when they have left the solar system is curious and ongoing. I thought giving the job to Carl Sagan to create a message for aliens was political and should have been given to someone in the humanities - history etc - who are trained and experienced in separating short term trends (pop culture) from immutable traits.
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932
William Manchester (1983)
An exceptionally long biography of Churchill's "early" life, until about age 57. The salient point is that Churchill's primary strength was his mastery of the English language. He wielded language as a sharp sword. It helped that he was born gifted, a rare intellect with almost perfect memory recall. This recall allowed him to become an oratory genius who could memorize long speeches ahead of time word for word. I hope to get to the next volume but need a break, this volume peters out towards the end as the 1920s were drifting compared to his earlier years. By 1932 he was already becoming old-fashioned, out of style and replaced by more modernist forces. But the reactionary Hitler and Stalin would make him relevant again.
This is a great story which is somewhere between children's fantasy and adult realistic novel. Some of the events are hard to believe from an adult perspective but for a 14 year old Travis Coates anything is possible. The dramatic ending sticks with you, and for good reason, the whole book builds up to it. There is death, near death and foreshadowing of death from the start. It is a fable about mortality, but also renewal and focusing on the good things, not the bad. From a literary perspective it has a fair amount of authentic vocabulary from 19th century frontier farm life, I learned some new words.
The Oldest Enigma of Humanity: The Key to the Mystery of the Paleolithic Cave Paintings
Bertrand David (2010)
I'm stepping out on a limb here and saying this is that rare thing: a popular book written by a non-specialist that results in a paradigm shift in an academic field. Bertrand David has probably solved a mystery that has alluded experts since cave paintings were first discovered in 1870: how did hunter gatherers 30,000 years ago create the artwork?
Paleolithic cave painting is mysterious because there are so many unanswered questions. They were created during a 20,000+ year period but saw little improvement in form. The oldest ones are as good (if not better) then the newest. A fully formed art tradition appeared from thin air and then lasted unchanged for 20,000 years(!). In recorded history, art traditions rise and fall even over 50 or 100 year periods much less 1 thousand. The cave art is consistent across geographic areas. It has certain unusual characteristics, such as profile views of animals and rarely is the interior body detailed. David gives another dozen or more questions that I won't go into here but they are enough to leave one in despair. Suffice to say, David has hit upon what is almost surely the right answer, one so simple it's astounding no one has thought of it before 2010. The book is a joy to read and very accessible to the average reader, indeed it would make a good young adult book. I think a lot of the literature on cave art has been destroyed by this 150 page essay written so genteelly by an unassuming artist in France. And it will surely open new avenues for exploration and discovery of what cave art has to say.
Wow this was a surprise. A major 6 hour full-cast NPR radio production from 1981 of one of the greatest science fiction novels ever written. The sound effects, music, voice actors, adaptation, all hooked me from the start. Others have said the same, after 10 minutes you can't stop listening. And it pretty much holds the spell through to the end. The adaptation by John Reeves is more linear and clear than the novel which was mysterious in places. Still the highlight of both novel and radio is the first section, during the dark ages.
What makes it so effective is Miller understands history doesn't repeat, exactly, but does rhyme. Writers of science fiction foretelling the future would do well to study the past, live in the past. Because that is the future. Not exactly, but Miller found a rhyme that rings true. He recognizes some things never change: people. This is a highly recommended performance. Freely available.
The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers
Tom Standage (1998)
The Victorian Internet was published in 1998 at the height of the Internet's new popularity. At the time I thought an analogy with telegraphy seemed like a cheap gimmick and so I didn't read it - anyway I was too busy working at an Internet company. Now many editions later, including an introduction by the father of the Internet Vince Cerf, I discovered it's real strength is not to dwell on telegraphy versus the Internet, rather to use the context of the Internet as a gateway for understanding telegraphy. It allows for understanding an aspect of the Industrial Revolution from about 1840 to 1870 in a personal way because it was so similar to the Internet revolution of our own time. Standage doesn't tell us they are similar, he doesn't need to. Although the technologies are different, the cultural impacts are nearly identical, people don't change. Indeed the telegraph probably had a more profound change on culture in the 19th century then the Internet in the 21st (although the Internet story is not over).
This is fun, well written and interesting narrative history. It is also a lesson how disruptive technology can be, yet also how fleeting and soon forgotten. Telegraphy was a central part of everyone's life but with the telephone it was gone (though not overnight). How long will the Internet last? The telegraph was dominate for about 40 years. The Internet has been a part of mass culture since about 1992 (invention of the web browser and deregulation of the backbone for commercial use) or only about 20 years.
A Man Most Driven: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America
Peter Firstbrook (2014)
Prior to reading A Man Most Driven I was only vaguely aware of Captain John Smith. Having grown up in the Chesapeake Bay area I knew he was the first to explore the coast and rivers and that he played a part in the founding of Jamestown, where most famously the story of Pocahontas occurred. He is legendary in all senses of the word. Therein is the problem since most of his biography is based on his own memoirs published in the early 17th century, thus it's difficult to verify. There were no fact checking editors, books were self-published at the authors own expense. And the autobiography was a new form of writing without established conventions. Nevertheless many historians have looked at it quite closely and so Firstbrook is able to draw on a lot of scholarship. He makes frequent interludes to explain why an event may have or not happened. In the end his story is mostly believable in the broad sense with some details embellished.
Smith's life was a great adventure. He started the son of an English farmer but was rebellious, physically powerful, intelligent and a great self-promoter. In the turmoil of the age he decided to lead a life of adventure. He fought in battles against the Turks in Hungary and Transylvania, led armies, fought in duels, killed many people, was enslaved in the Middle East, escaped through Russia. He was a founding member of the first successful English colony in the New World, fought pirates, was kidnapped, shipwrecked, fought Indians, explored and named vast parts of America. And he did it all in about 20 years. Without Smith, Jamestown would have probably failed like the other previous colonial attempts. Smith's rebellious spirit and background from a low-born family from which he rose on the merits of his actions, not a family crest or connections, is a mirror of American values. He might be seen as the first archetypal American character. A Man Most Driven is an easy way to learn about this interesting Elizabethan explorer and also a good introduction to the first crucial decade of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America.
Panzer Commander: The Memoirs of Colonel Hans von Luck
Hans Von Luck (1991)
One might expect a memoir titled Panzer Commander to be guts and glory but it's not that kind of book. Von Luck didn't actually fight in tanks rather was in the field directing where to send the tanks. Von Luck was a field commander who served with Rommel under whose star his fortunes rose. Although Von Luck took part in some of the most important campaigns of the war - Poland, France, Russia, North Africa, Western front - his memoir, written in the 1980s, recalls less the gory details and instead the relationships and people. He doesn't dwell on hardships. He is too polite, noble. Indeed he has an air of an aristocrat. His persona and bearing is the best part of the book. His story is also incredible: he was captured by the Russians and didn't return home until 1950, he lived a very long war and saw more than most. Von Luck was not a Nazi and makes clear throughout that many in the German military were not happy about the leadership (Hitler and Nazis) who were seen as incompetent.
The Captain and "the Cannibal": An Epic Story of Exploration, Kidnapping, and the Broadway Stage (New Directions in Narrative History)
James Fairhead (2015)
It's hard to review The Captain and "the Cannibal" without giving too many surprises away because the story continually takes unexpected turns. It's technically an academic history published by Yale ie. potentially unappealing to a broader audience, but it's part of the series "New Directions in Narrative History" .. narrative history is code for a strong storyline and interesting characters, you might even say it's "fiction that happens to be true". Fairhead has done a prodigious amount of research and has written the definitive account of Benjamin Morrell, a captain with many faces. I felt like I was transported back in time exploring the Pacific in the 1830s, but also discovering with Fairhead answers to long forgotten mysteries buried in family archives. This was simply a whole lot of fun and I'm delighted to have discovered it.
This is a review of the audiobook version. This is a good book - I think. I don't know because it is abridged. It's a travesty that they would chop the book up so severely. I gained a better sense of the major players and events, but there is so much missing. For example almost nothing about the air war and bombing campaign of the north. Very little about Kim Il-sung, who was largely responsible for starting the war. The political aspect was confused in too much detail while lacking in a broader analysis of why the war happened. Yet they included endless disputes among the American leadership in hyper detail. Skip the audiobook. At best it contains some cinematic first-person battle stories (but no maps, the book has 25) and drama with MacArthur.
The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Wh o Stole His Way to Freedom
Blaine Harden (2015)
The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot is a character-driven "nonfiction thriller" about the origin of Kim Il-sung and the state of North Korea. It is also a good summary of the Korea War. Considering so few know about this "forgotten war" (including myself) it's an easy and entertaining way to learn more. "Entertaining" because the book is also the story of No Kum-sok, a North Korean fighter pilot who famously defected. His defection story adds a "thriller" element and is balancing force to Kim Il-sung's awful character, although the two historically had little to do with one another. Harden highlights an aspect of the war that is almost completely unknown among the American public - during the strategic bombing of the north upwards of 1.5 million civilians were killed/injured or about 20% of the entire population, men, women and children - largely with napalm. It's on the scale of the Holocaust, mathematically speaking. The Kim dynasty has not forgotten and it's one of the core planks in their propaganda campaign to retain power. Another example of American foreign policy blowback creating the thing it sought to prevent.
Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union
Conor O'Clery (2011)
Moscow, December 25, 1991 is a history of the USSR from 1985 to 1992 as seen through the fortunes of the two most important leaders, Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Prior to reading this book I knew little about Russian political history during this period, other than the standard Western view that Gorbachev was responsible for the end of the Soviet Union. But it turns out this is only partly correct. Gorbachev was a reformer of the Soviet system who never intended for it to fail (although his reforms unwittingly made it inevitable) - it was Boris Yeltsin who was the destroyer of the USSR, who held a secret meeting in a forest cabin with break away states to dissolve the USSR, unknown to Gorbachev. Yeltsin was the true wildman radical (including infamous drunken episodes). And so the book is mainly about how these two nemesis battled one another, personally and professionally, for the fate of the Union. In the end Yeltsin won, but today there are still conservative elements (including Gorbachev) who thought it was a mistake and we are seeing them claw back the old empire piece by piece (Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine..). In a way nothing has changed in Russia except the name on the money.
The book is structured as the last day of the USSR with an hour by hour account leading up to Gorbachev's televised announcement that he was stepping down as leader and Yeltsin (who won in election) would be the new leader of Russia. There's lot of interesting detail, including how American news companies (CNN and ABC) were given exclusive access to the Kremlin to televise the event. There's information about the President's families and day to day life and the nuclear suitcase etc.. There's really too much detail in political machinations for my taste as so many Russian names are dropped who I never heard of, but there is enough here to be of interest to anyone interested in one of the great events of the later 20th century.
Dead Wake uses the tried and true braided narrative technique with a large cast of characters set during a disaster. And therein is the problem, there are so many people it was a chore to keep track and not particularly rewarding. It jumps from one story to the next so often it looses narrative power. I kept thinking this is trivia. Nevertheless in the postscript Larson says there are "amateur historians" obsessed with the "Lucy" (Lucyites?) similar to Titanic fans who know every last detail of passenger and crew. So I guess there is an audience for this sort of thing and it puts a human face on the tragedy. And I suppose that due to Larson's writing ability it's a painless way to learn about this significant event of WWI, the cinematic description of the sinking is the highlight of the book, but I wished there was less filler in the first half and more emphasis on UBoats in WWI, the English attempts to bring the US into the war, the German raiders and other things that are central to why Lusitania is historically important. For example Larson devotes time to the failure of the lifeboats and lifejackets but doesn't follow up if anyone noticed in the inquiry. Larson does cover some historical aspects but 80% of the book is fragmented personal stories, most of which are really not that interesting.
Quest for Fire (1911) is one a cycle of prehistoric novels by French author J. H. Rosny-Aine and is his best known work and considered a classic of prehistoric fiction. It is about the struggle for possessing fire, while other titles dealt in a similar way with possessing women and land. It's been described as poetic. This is probably more so in the French, nevertheless the English translation is entertaining. The scenes with the Red and Blue men are dream-like, almost drug induced, but most of it has an atmospheric naturalism with many descriptions of plants, animals and geography. The novel is bursting with wildlife. Philosophically it is Social Darwinism with a survival of the fittest explanation of events (Darwin never advocated survival of the fittest rather it was a theory of Herbert Spencer). Throughout the story the toughest and smartest prevail. However we see compassion and morality emerge like a small flame in a sea of darkness. Although the Hairy Brothers are tough and smart, no one in the tribe wants them to prevail because they lack morality, something the hero Naoh has. There is legitimate Darwinism here and that makes it successful.
Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail
Ben Montgomery (2014)
Finally a biography of Grandma Gatewood. I've been crossing her path since the early 1990s, first in Ray Jardine's ultralight bible. Nearly every book about the Appalachian Trail has an obligatory reference to the 67 year old great-grandma who hiked the trail in 1955 making her the first woman to do so. Who was she, why did she do it? The story turns out to be pretty good. Given the difficulties of her early life, there are some parallels with the more recent book Wild. The trail provides freedom from an unhappy life, but also a clear direction and asks nothing in return but one step forward. Gatewood's story turns out to be more than just an old lady who did good, she found redemption and happiness after years of abuse.
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power
Paul Fischer (2015)
A Kim Jong-Il Production is remarkable on a number of levels, both in the information it imparts and as an artistic work of nonfiction. I've read a lot of books about North Korea but this is probably one of the best. It will easily make my year end best list.
Although about a kidnapping, Fischer devotes time to North Korea history, a biography of Kim Jong-il and how he came to create a kingdom based on fiction. Rather than a cardboard Hitler-like embodiment of pure evil, Kim Jong-il emerges as a real person. A distasteful one, but multifaceted. This is the book's real strength, to reveal Kim Jong-il (and North Korea) through passion for film, an approach that is both accurate and sharp.
Often the 'thrilling story' a book promises in the title is just a thin cover for a regular history. But in this case the title story is the majority of the narrative and really is, well "extraordinary". I had to keep reminding myself this was nonfiction. One might even think "well maybe it is", but Fischer provides convincing evidence at the end. Hopefully the book receives recognition - at the heart is a great love story and adventure.
In Somme Battle Stories (1916), A. J. Dawson (Finn the Wolfhound etc) was stationed in England where he waited for hospital ships to arrive from France with their gruesome cargo. He interviewed injured soldiers returning from the front and retold their stories. The purpose was to inform the English public about the true nature of the war, something people were naturally curious about.
The book is actually propaganda, one of four such books Dawson wrote while working for Military Intelligence during the war. He would later establish the propaganda department of the RAF in 1918. Everyone interviewed is cheerio, doesn't complain, can't wait to get back into "the push" and laugh away the "typewriters" (sound of machine gun fire). Good humor and an easy willingness to sacrifice life and limb are attitudes even among even the common soldiers. On the other hand it's realistic with depictions of soldiers dieing, killing, being sick, mud, rats, lice, etc.. the book exhibits a cognitive dissonance between the slaughter-filled stories coming home from Belgium, and the soldiers good humor and carelessness. Dawson himself fought in the trenches in 1914-15 and knew the reality. It was designed as propaganda, but it's also unintentionally subversive depending in your view.
What we see here is the relentless reality of a new modern war shipping home a message of industrial scale death, making a mockery of the old fashioned perceptions of short but decisive engagements. The type of romantic attitude required to make a cavalry charge and prevail in a moment of triumph is exactly the opposite of what is needed to endure modern war which continues 24x7 and the enemy is rarely seen face to face. Although the book ends with the belief that a breakthrough had been made at the Somme and the dirty business of trench warfare was at last behind, this was fiction as nothing would change until the war ended in 1918.
Beyond The Call: The True Story of One World War II Pilot's Covert Mission to Rescue POWs on the Eastern Front
Lee Trimble (2015)
Beyond The Call concerns an aspect of WWII that is not well known. In the final months of the war, an American airbase was established in Ukraine(!) from which technicians would travel to Poland and Ukraine to salvage downed American airplanes and rescue pilots who had ditched while on bombing runs from bases in England. Reasonable enough, but some of these salvage crews were acting as covert operatives under the auspices of the OSS, their mission to rescue thousands of American POWs freed from German prison camps who had been left by the Soviets to wonder around Eastern Europe without food or shelter. Now, it doesn't make sense the Soviets would mistreat their allies former POWs, but they did for reasons explained in the book. And it doesn't make sense that American covert operatives were traveling around Russia during the war rescuing other Americans on the run from KGB, but there it was. It foreshadowed the Cold War and growing hostility between the USSR and the west. This is a first hand account that reads like a thriller with one foot in WWII and the other in the Cold War.
Babylon's Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo
Lawrence Anthony (2007)
Having read Anthony's other two books I knew this would be very good. The combination of Anthony, Spence and Simon Vance (narrator) is uniquely good. My regret is knowing there will be no more books, as Anthony died a few years ago. Too soon.This is probably one of the better books about the Iraq War ca. 2003 as it deals not only with saving the zoo animals but the mood and atmosphere of Baghdad in the days immediately after invasion from a non-American, non-Iraqi, non-participant. Anthony became a minor celebrity among Americans and Iraqi's alike due his noble mission and spirit, and that brought focus to rebuilding the zoo as one of the early reconstruction efforts. Thanks to American tax pay dollars for destroying and rebuilding. My only regret is the book doesn't have an update on what happened to the zoo in the years after 2003. The Wikipedia article about the zoo mentions not many big animals are left mostly birds. What happened to the lion cubs and the dogs? The old bear? The Arabian horses? And what happened to the zoo director? Many unanswered questions. Regardless a wonderful book and something rarely covered well, animals in war (besides dogs).
Alfred John Evans (1922)
The Escaping Club (1922) is one of many POW escape memoirs that appeared in the years immediately following the Great War. It is among a handful that are (or were) considered "classic" in the genre, or at least very popular at the time. Today most of these books are forgotten, hardly competing with the thrilling stories of WWII (The Great Escape, No Picnic on Mt Kenya). However, WWII soldiers were aware of the older generation, having grown up with the stories of escape, so these early books were influential in setting the stage and establishing tropes and expectations that are still familiar today. The bumbling German guard impotently wags a reproachful finger at the precocious prisoners; the stern camp commander who is over his head and looses his temper; the trickster prisoners escape and are re-caught with little repercussion as they receive food in the mail from home complete with maps baked into cakes and compasses in pickled prunes. Many of the core elements would be familiar to anyone who watches Hogan's Heroes, except a different war.
My favorite part is the 10 days in which Evans and friend clandestinely made their way south across Germany to the border with Switzerland. This is his best writing as he describes the beautiful but dangerous German countryside. Sleeping during the day in forests and traveling by night they skirt villages and avoid encounters with people while supplies of food dwindle.
Unfortunately Evans ruined his chance at immortality by espousing some racist views towards the end of the book while being held prisoner by the Turks in Syria. Perhaps someone will eventually rescue it for the modern reader by retelling it from a new perspective, there's a good story here though uneven.
I was hoping for an original and thoughtful examination of what might happen if grass died - but it's given a light treatment and instead the book focuses on morale issues as the characters face difficult choices in a decaying world. Thus we should read this book not so much as science fiction but the mood of England in 1955 or so as its empire is crumbling, the resources it depended slowing and as it faces an uncertain future in a nuclear age. For the veterans of WWII who saw and perhaps committed immoral things, for the survival of their families and children, I'll give it a pass on that account, but otherwise it reads as fairly reactionary, espousing some perspectives on gender and justice that are cliche medievalism, the same sort of nonsense that led to WWI. One might argue that is the point of the novel, Feudalism and Chivalry would come back into fashion during the apocalypse, maybe, but those things took 1000 years to fully develop and were not the result of increased chaos rather increasing order. The book plays not on original ideas of what might happen, but old ideas of what happened before ie. a reactionary fable.
It's worth mentioning prior to the last ice age about 15,000 years ago there was not much grass in the world, rather it was mostly "weeds" - which is not grass. Weeds are loaded with nutrition, most vegetables are weeds. Flowers are weeds. Clover is weed (in the pea family), the favorite of cows. If grass died then the weeds would naturally and quickly take over and it would be different, but hell, the Mammoths survived not eating grass but weeds, so could many other animals. I don't think Chistopher researched his idea or explored the possibilities.
In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China
Michael Meyer (2015)
In Manchuria is part memoir, travelogue and history. It's interesting to see how rural China is changing and day to day life. Meyer writes in a bemused tone with an eye for the small ironies of life. There isn't much in the way of inner life and change, or reflection on the significance of what he sees. The history lectures, scattered, are random stories of war and deprivation of famous people and events. There's no larger story - it is up to you to piece it together. Nevertheless I knew next to nothing about Manchuria and so now have a basic understanding of the history, geography and people.
The Jaguar's Children is an admirable book. The US-Mexican border has the greatest disparity of wealth of any border in the world - there are many terrible consequences. Vaillant shows a couple: Human trafficking, GMO corn, corruption. And wraps them in the voice of Mexican culture and history, while humanizing the illegal immigrant. It's a very old story with modern chrome details, as the clever frame story reveals. It has been compared to Life of Pi, though I don't think it's as good because of it's didactic bent towards teaching us (non-Mexcians) about Mexican culture and current issues. Nevertheless I thought the frame story and its many analogies is well suited to fiction and says something about illegal immigration that would be hard to convey in non-fiction.
George Friedman (2015)
This is my first book by George Friedman and I'm very impressed. Friedman rightly doesn't believe there will be a general war in Europe any time soon. However he sees "flashpoints" in ancient "borderlands" of which Friedman gives a catalog. Most borderlands are unlikely to flare up into open conflict, but in some it has such as in the "bloodlands" separating Russia from the European peninsula; or the Caucuses; or the borders of Turkey with the Middle East. Friedman sees 2008 as a pivotal event as it fractured the European Union by putting countries into separate orbits as they try to address their own internal needs, often in conflict with the needs of the whole. There is too much to summarize here but it provides perspective on the countries and regions and how they see the world. The first few chapters are also very good at explaining why the "30 years war" happened (1914-1945).
Ghettoside is very good and I enjoyed it. It's like an American version of Behind the Beautiful Forevers in which a female reporter spends years immersed with an underclass showing how they are systematically oppressed through real individuals; and a true crime mystery narrative to keep it going. Along the way she offers an explanation as to why there is so much crime in the black community, based mainly on academic sociology recast for a popular audience - largely through the concept of "cultures of honor" (see Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South for the classic account). The book though can be misleading as there is no agreement on what causes violence much less the drop in violence since the 1990s, or there being a single cause. A recent study identified at least 14 different causes. My intuition and experience with big social problems tells me there is no smoking gun cause but a large mixture of problems. Ghettoside addresses one of those problems very well, namely the need for increased justice for victims of black on black crime. To treat the life of a black man equally with that of a white victim, to mobilize all of the resources the state to bring justice no matter who he is. It seems perfectly reasonable to say it, but in reality that is usually not what happens.
Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration
David Roberts (2013)
Prior to the publication of Mawson's Will in the mid 1970s, the story of Douglas Mawson was only well known among specialists. Thereafter he's had a renaissance and became probably the 4th most famous explorer of the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration" (1893-1922) after Scott, Shackleton and Roald Amundsen. It was in Mawson's Will that his amazing survival story was first given proper treatment. Mawson did write about it in The Home of the Blizzard, a very long 2-volume work published in 1914, but the survival story is only a fairly short chapter (Chapter 13) that was largely overlooked at the time and then forgotten in the wake of the war. The problem with Mawson's Will, though it popularized Mawson, is it simplified events. Thus there has been a need for a more comprehensive retelling of the Mawson's expedition and that is what Alone on the Ice sets out to do.
Unlike most other expeditions which had a clear goal (eg. reach the south pole), this one contained no less then 7 different simultaneous expeditions with no set goal other than to explore blank spaces on the map along the coast. It thus presents a narrative challenge. Nevertheless I think it covers many different aspects and is highly readable. In fact I found the drama of the second overwinter involving Jeffrys to be gripping in a way I'd never read before in a polar account. I have not read Mawson's Will but plan on doing so since it was so influential. I did read chapter 13 in The Home of the Blizzard and it concurs with Alone on the Ice's retelling.
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World
Matthew Goodman (2013)
Eighty Days is a duel/dual -biographical account of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's race around the world. I was only vaguely aware of this popular culture event ca. 1890 but it takes a book to bring historical context into color. Though I wish it was 1/3 as long. There are trite descriptions more in style with fiction presumably making it approachable history. I wouldn't normally mind as history is storytelling, but in this case too much. Still I knew little about Nellie Bly except the name (and she was a reporter) so this is a good introduction, and Elizabeth Bisland who I had never heard of.
I'm giving You Can't Win 4.5 stars placing it on the "cult classic" category because almost 100 years after publication it's still in print, there is even a movie version coming out this year (2015). It was also an influential favorite with Beat writers including William S. Burroughs who emulated book's style and stories in his 1953 Junkie.
Jack Black was born in 1871, and the period the book mostly describes is from about 1887 to 1900, when Jack was in his teens and twenties at the height of his adventures. The country was in a funk, crime was rampant, just about everything was legal including opium, industrialization was changing things but social welfare had not yet arrived. There were still hints of the Old West - Civil War vets bumming around, old Indians. Cars were not yet widely used and so everything revolved around trains. This is that world seen from the view of a hobo, tramp, yegg, thief. We learn the cant of the outcast, criminals and drifters circulating around the Western USA and Canada, and most of all the stories and adventures of Jack Black in and out of prison. A great piece of first person history and adventure. It's tough to stomach his complete disregard for his actions but does offer some insight into the mind of the criminal who can juggle the contradiction of sympathizing with his mark in order to make the score, and yet not caring about the misery caused.
He apparently wrote the book in collaboration with Rose Wilder Lane of Little House on the Prairie fame. She also ghost wrote Jack's articles for Fremont Older, editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, advocating for better prison conditions. And Lane was a friend of Ayn Rand and may have coined the term "libertarian" (in the modern sense). Lane wrote other biographies under her real name. I read her book on Henry Ford, one of the first bios on Ford ever written. It was criticized at the time for stretching the truth though it was a ripping good story she clearly had an ideological bent towards people who are self-reliant, mythologizing them like her friend Ayn Rand later would.
Louise Mack was an Australian journalist who traveled to France and Belgium to report on the war in the early days when the lines were still fluid and the great dig-in had not hardened along trenches. She was caught a number of times in German territory though she somehow seemed to scrape by in all the confusion. Her Australian (ie. English) nationality could have gotten her shot as a spy, but she spoke French well enough to appear as a local. It's not a gripping adventure story but more subdued and introspective.
The book is very obscure. I read it only on the recommendation of Expatriot over at LibriVox who took the time to narrate a version. As he says in his review, it has problems. Her writing style is "Sentimental" which was a popular style at the time, in particular in Australia (see Songs of a Sentimental Bloke), but for modern ears it is intolerably kitsch. She also displays attitudes common at the time: extreme racism (towards Germans) and extreme nationalism. A toxic mix. Yet Mack can also be observant and occasionally her introspection provides insights into the mindset. In Chapter X she describes the cheeriness of people fighting:
Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon
Kim Zetter (2014)
The US military has recognized a 5th realm of combat after land, sea, air and space: digital. Stuxnet is the world's first "kinetic" digital weapon created by a nation state to attack another. It is the opening salvo of a wild world of warfare in which countries everywhere are currently arming up acquiring digital weapons and exploits. This excellent book is the right balance of technical and general. It helps to have some background in computers because the topic is by nature complex and it's a long book. It's not sensationalize but also is very clear that we have entered a new era of warfare the likes of which has never before been seen. Most are unaware of what is happening, rather focused on personal privacy issues with the NSA. Nation states have huge budgets to build digital weapons that far surpass lone hackers. There are teams of experienced experts creating NASA-scale projects to destroy enemy targets - anything controlled by a computer: dams, airplanes, electric grids, hospitals, etc.. everything that matters in industrialized countries. It remains unknown how real this type of war becomes, but Stuxnet has already happened and is a historic moment in warfare.
Stories from a Corfu Childhood: A Selection of His Own Stories Written and Read by Gerald Durrell
Gerald Durrell (1956)
I'd never heard of Gerald Durrell but it doesn't matter this collection of fictional stories based on his youth is very entertaining. He reads the stories himself and is an excellent narrator, a voice from another time and place, like the Corfu he writes about. There's humor, wacky situations and colorful people set in the Greek islands during the 1930s. I suppose this is a gateway to reading more by Durrell who appears to have been a prolific writer.
Gogol is a master of the short story and "The Overcoat" is widely seen to be one his masterpieces. There is a merger of humor and humanity. It's pre-Modernist so the moralistic ending with the bad guys getting their due, but Gogol makes an unsympathetic weakling character into someone of importance because of his humanity - radical in an age of serfs and princes. Some things are lost in translation, it helped me to read the "Interpretation" section first at Wikipedia which explained the significance of the name Akaky Akakievich. It would be hard to image a better narration then the performance by Bob Neufeld at Librivox.
A Texas Cowboy: or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony
Charles A. Siringo (1885)
It has been said that A Texas Cowboy was the original western. Will Rogers said it was "the Cowboy's Bible" when he was growing up. An historian said it was the first authentic memoir by a real cowboy. It contains a gold mine of names, cowboy lingo, places and events such as "Whiskey Pete", Billy the Kid's secret hideout, and "grub". I felt a constant déjà vu since so many later books and movies drew from things described here (though not only here). It's not a romanticized account, it reads like non-fiction and is unflinching - children beat up and generally very harsh times in particular during the 1860s when Siringo left home a young teenager. It seemed Siringo initially became a cowboy because he could at least obtain meat on the prairie since there were so many cattle around for the taking, he was otherwise a starving homeless kid. The story of Billy the Kid is the most famous and attracted much attention, then and now, but there is a lot of incident of the regular cowboy life that I found interesting. (Via the excellent David Wales narration at LibriVox).
Wilderness, a Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska
Rockwell Kent (1920)
In the closing months of the Great War during the autumn of 1918, an artist and his 9 year-old son turned their backs on "civilization" and spent about 6 months on a remote island in Alaska. The father painted and read Homer while the son chased foxes and ran around in the snow exploring the island. It's a beautiful little book that captures the mood of the time and place. It reminded me of going with my father to a fishing camp in Canada years ago (the camp we went to was built in the 1920s). By this time the recent improvements of the small marine outboard motor, and the airplane, made it possible for more people to travel the waterways of the northern wilderness without mounting a long expedition and so began a new tourist industry of which Kent was among the first wave.
The book is illustrated by Kent including a Robert Louis Stevenson-like map of the island and surrounding areas with hand written notes, it's evocative of adventure. It's a real place that is easily found just outside Seward on Google Maps. I listened to the book read by David Wales of LibriVox and it's also freely available on Internet Archive.
This is my 10th Dickens novel, read in rough chronological order of publication. I've read worse, and better. Mercifully a single deck and not the normal triple. There are a few genuinely touching scenes of reconciliation and the theme of the need for love over facts is somewhat modern in this age of information and answers. I don't think this novel will stick in my memory for very long, there is a lot of cliche Dickens, although the quality of the writing - choice of words and sentence structure - as always elevates it above genre fiction.
I was bemused by the association of "Roman" with the evil characters (easily searched in an electronic edition). Mr. Bounderby has a "Roman nose", Mrs. Sparsit also has a Roman nose and eyebrows Coriolanian. She is a "Roman matron going outside the city walls to treat with an invading general." Mr. Slackbridge is compared with a "Roman Brutus", and Mr. Bounderby plays a "Roman part". There were many stereotypes wrapped up in the word "Roman" for a Victorian reader. Dickens seems to blame the upper-class Aristocratic association with Enlightenment ideals who allied with bankers (big-nosed Mediterraneans ie. Jews, foreigners) that then exploited the good people of England, literally sending them down the "hell pit" to die. It's simplistic and ultimately racist in a 19th century way, but overlooked since the message is humanitarian to improve the condition of the working poor.
The Paris Commune uprising of 1871 was a tectonic event in modern European history. It was the end of one era - the revolutions of the 19th century - and the beginning of another - the mass slaughter of civilians as was seen during the bloodier 20th century. In this account Yale History professor gives a blow by blow account of that slaughter based entirely on historical documents and quotes. Merriman is a professional historian and the material is impeccable but he also ties it together into a narrative of sorts. It's not as strong story wise as his last book, The Dynamite Club which focused on a single person, rather this is a chaotic event with a large cast who seem to die almost as fast as they appear. Merriman has always been an unapologetic fan of the Communards and the book has to be read from that perspective, although that is the standard view in France today. For the first time in history, the working class revolted and set up their own government. A government which was far ahead of its time in terms of social welfare. The seeds of those ideas didn't die and eventually became unions and then political parties who ultimately prevailed.
Night of the Grizzlies was originally published in 1969 as a 3-part series in Sports Illustrated by journalist Jack Olsen concerning the deaths of two young women in separate bear attacks on the same night in Glacier National Park in the summer of 1967. It's not unusual today when hikers are killed by grizzlies but it was abnormal in 67'. In the parks 57-year history up to that point there had never been a fatal bear attack - and yet two separate fatal attacks on the same evening. What caused the bears to rampage? Olsen does a careful step by step recreation of events in the week or so before the killings to find out. The story-telling is masterful.