Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Trevor Noah (2016)
Where did this guy come from? He landed one of the most coveted spots in entertainment, host of The Daily Show. Regardless of this brief flash in American entertainment, he has written a really good memoir about growing up in South Africa. I loved his stories of being a teenager in trouble, and entrepreneur. Great personality and look forward to more by Noah.
In 1913, Hudson Stuck and team made the first ascent of the highest mountain in the US. To Stuck's credit, given his age and colonial British background, he was a supporter of native rights in so far as using the native name for the mountain instead of Mt McKinley. I was impressed they brought a live sourdough culture (!) thinking they could bake fresh bread daily on the face of the mountain. Sadly the microbes in the starter died from the cold and altitude, leaving them breadless and short on carbs. The party almost lost their newly invented Primus stove, which would have left them without means to melt snow for water; but he says that was no problem as they would eat the snow - which would have been a disaster because it takes too much caloric energy for the body to melt enough water. They didn't use sleeping bags but merely animals skins and layers of blankets. The party carried heroic amounts of weight, often in relays, such as it was in an age of wood and canvas. Unlike his peer Robert Falcon Scott, Stuck had no problem using dog-sled teams to help in the lower reaches.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds
Michael Lewis (2016)
Michael Lewis is best known for Moneyball, which was about how data and algorithms can be smarter than experts. The idea is gaining currency not only in sports but all aspects from economics (behavioral economics) to medicine (evidence based medicine). Where did this idea originate? Lewis contends it started in the mid 1970s with a paper published by two Israeli psychologists Khaneman and Tversky who discovered that human reasoning is riven with logical fallacies. The paper is now the second-most cited paper in economics because it undermines the once canonical belief that humans are perfect actors who make the best economic choices (rationale choice theory). In fact we are often not very good decision makers, but good at fooling ourselves about it.
Lewis does not explore the disturbing implications of a culture where data and algorithm have more authority than the individual. It undermines the whole concept of humanism, in which modern liberal society is based. For this broader discussion see Yuval Noah Harari's Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. As it is, The Undoing Project is a good coda to Harari's book as it presents a little more detailed history of how the man behind the curtain - our supposedly rationale mind - is being exposed for what it is.
The Phantom Major: The Story of David Stirling and His SAS Regiment Desert Command
Virginia Cowles (1958)
The Phantom Major (1958) is by Virginia Cowles one of the great female journalists of her era - she was a friend of Ernest Hemingway having spent time with him in Spain during the Civil War. This lively account of the SAS in Africa in 1942-43 was written about 15 years after the events it describes based on extensive first-person interviews with David Stirling and others. A more recent popular history of the SAS was published this year called Rogue Heroes, but I think this one is an excellent introduction and close to the people and spirit of the times. It sometimes felt a bit Hogan's Heroes with bumbling Germans and school-boy antic British commandos, but the cliche exists for a reason. They didn't treat death too seriously, life was cheap and easy. It's remarkable to watch a new form of warfare being made up on the fly, the birth of the modern Special Forces.
The Making of Donald Trump (2016) is an accounting of Trump's actions over the past 40 years as documented by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has a storage shed full of public documents. Johnson has given many interviews with Trump and knows him personally. This is not an unfair hit-piece rather how Trump got to where he is. The reading is frustrating and disgusting and necessary.
Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian who has become a public intellectual over the past 3 or 4 years. He is best known for Sapiens but he also wrote the wonderful Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550 about real-life medieval knightly adventures. Everything he writes about holds my interest.
His latest Homo Deus develops a macrohistory thesis that civilization is in the early stages of a new paradigm similar to what happened in the European Renaissance during the shift from a God-centrist to humanist-centrist world view. The thesis is best understood in outline beforehand because the book tends to take time reaching conclusions using examples and tangents .. as any good book should. The danger is loosing track of the core argument diluted by the length of the book. As such I recommend first watching a 2014 Google Talk where he lays out the core ideas that are then expanded upon in the book. It's not too much of a spoiler as the ideas benefit from being retold.
Harari isn't a technophile cheerleader or Silicon Valley guru. It's not a journalistic fluff piece about how X or Y new technology is going to change the world. This is a serious work of original research by a professional historian. It is accessible but also very smart. The perspective and vistas are stunning. It also made me question what I believe to be true, namely humanist ideas. If you let it the book can be life altering, or insulting or even fanciful, depending on how you think about technology and humanist ideas. Whatever you conclude he has clarified a core thread in the forward development of human civilization and thought.
Henry C. Barkley (1896)
Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching is a forgotten book, but in an unusual way. It has an entry at The Neglected Books, and it's available in the excellent narration by LibriVox volunteer Clive Catterall, so not totally forgotten. More so, it was the basis for Crispin H. Glover's 1999 reinterpretation Rat Catching which had modest success, though few seem to have gone back to read the original. There is much to untangle here, and for that I leave it to the reader to discover the joys of the hunt. This is a delightful ramble.
A popular and well-reviewed historical thriller but I looked forward to it ending. Had a similar reaction to another Harris book. His style is readable, but something about it is derivative, formulaic, flat.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a novel written in the name of the preservation of Medieval architecture in general and the Notre Dame cathedral specifically. It was written from 1829-1832 during the period of the Romanticism movement, which has been defined as the love for all things Medieval. The titular character Quasimodo is the Middle Ages personified, a force of man's nature surrounded by superstitions both Pagan and Christian. In the end he must die along with the age and the things that gave the cathedral a soul. Through his death the reader is moved to a sense of justice, and preservation.
I greatly enjoyed this important novel, it was one of the first to depict a range of characters from all classes including a begger as a main character. Although parts of the plot seem cliche like genre fiction, it's somewhat excusable given its age, and in a way adds to its fairy-tale quality. The novel doesn't take itself too seriously and indeed has flashes of humor and meta-fiction that lifts it up, unlike the heavier fire and brimstone Les Misérables. The novel reminded me of early Dickens with its large cast, pretensions to theater, humor and themes of social justice. In fact Dickens was influenced by the novel published years before Pickwick Papers. Finally Hugo's skills as a poet are central to the quality of the prose, his metaphors are delightful, unforced and appropriate (at least in this translation by Catherine Liu).
I "read" the novel in the audiobook narrated by George Guidall (1991) and he brings subtle but effective characterizations in a way my own inner voice would have missed. The novel is improved by the audio version.. which doesn't always happen but in this case it came together well.
Richard Fidler is an Australian radio broadcaster and all around Great Father because he took his 14-year-old son on vacation to Turkey to visit historical sites related to the Byzantine Empire, a subject which Fidler has had a life-long "amateur historians" passion. This book, only available in Audio and Kindle, weaves the present with the past, a lively "greatest moments" of Byzantium. Fidler has a way of distilling to the essence in an accessible way for a popular audience while keeping the narrative flow going. This is definitely popular history, but it shouldn't be discounted on those grounds because writing an engaging and entertaining history is a skill unto its own. It makes for a good introduction, providing a basic grounding to explore in more detail. It's suitable for younger readers but also anyone wanting to dip into this period. Even the parts I already knew it was worthwhile hearing it retold by Fidler whose radio dramatization skills serves well in the narration.
Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris
Eric Jager (2014)
Blood Royal is that most rare thing, a medieval history full of personality and color. It's not often we get to hear the quoted words of a medieval peasant from the early 1400s, or minute by minute action scenes playing out in detail. Unlike Name of the Rose the author didn't make it up, the events were written down by a criminal investigator at the time, and recreated in this wonderful book. And unlike Martin Guerre about 150 years later, this crime had much larger importance and helps to put the complex Hundred Years' War in a little more context. Not just politically, but the mood of the age, how people acted and reacted. Hope to read this again sometime as it makes for a great portal to the late Middle Ages.
Man in Profile is an excellent biography of Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker. Thomas Kunkel wrote a biography of another New Yorker writer, Harold Ross, as well as other books about journalism. The idea of creative non-fiction and "new journalism" has become almost standard these days, but Mitchell and some others were influential pioneers, and his work still remains some of the best.
One thing I noticed while reading Mitchell is most of the subjects are of a certain age, typically born prior to 1880. This generation, born between about 1860 and 1880, were hugely important in creating the modern world, they had one foot in the old world and another in the modern. But even by the 1930s, when he began profiling them, the generation was already beginning to fade, and by the 1960s mostly gone. Is it any wonder his writing also dried up? His muse was no more. It's perhaps no accident his father was also from this same period, and Mitchell, who had one foot in New York and the other in North Carolina, was like a man caught between two worlds.
Undoubtedly one of the finest books I have ever read. Joseph Mitchell is one of the greatest if not greatest American literary journalists of the 20th century, and probably all-time. On the surface it's written in the genre of human interest stories for the New Yorker. The subjects are old bars, wharfs, watermen and street people around New York mostly in the 1930s and 1940s. There is a mixture of anthropology and lyricism to it like Dickens and Zola. The test is in how well does it re-read - two stories I had read about a year ago and on re-reading them again it was a new experience. The detail is so dense and finely woven, it's impossible not to keep finding treasures in the same text. Despite the length I can't wait to read this again someday. My love for this book probably is not hurt by my grandfather who was a boatman in and around the New York harbour in the 1940s and 50s. Through Mitchell I got a taste of his time and world which is a great gift.
Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River Between Russia and China
Dominic Ziegler (2015)
Dominic Ziegler is a writer for the Economist who traveled 4000km from the source of the Amur River to the Pacific ocean (mostly by train), describing the present and the past of the region. I found it somewhat hard going because about 80% of the book is regional history regurgitated somewhat randomly about a place I knew very little about. Ziegler has done his history homework, the cast of characters is vast, and at times there are interesting stories. It just lacked something to hold it together. Part of the problem is Ziegler writes little about himself. Travel narratives are about discovery - not only of place and history but self. In the end it felt like an assignment completed, most of it cribbed from the archives to fill out a travel book lacking in incident. Which is too bad as the incidents he does write about are good.
Like many others I first read this as a teenager in the 70s and 80s (I think my reading was around 1983). I recall liking it, but not understanding many parts. Too much mysticism and unspoken plot. But it made up for in world building and the characters. As a middle-aged adult reading it with fresh eyes, there is little I didn't understand. In fact I can see through its weaknesses and that ruined the magic. Actually the novel was first rate up the point Paul is accepted into the Freeman. After that Herber starts doing time flash forwards and quickly brings the plot to a close. The scenes lack the power of the earlier part of the book, and Herbert tries too hard being mystical - he tells rather than shows. In the end the book felt like a terrible nightmare, though I readily admit it has an appeal to younger readers like my former younger self.
1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West
Roger Crowley (2006)
This is my third Crowley book and least favorite, even though it's his most popular (by LibraryThing ownership stats) and his first book. Still, it is informative and entertaining. Chronologically it falls somewhere between City of Fortune and Empires of the Sea, it would be good to read them in order as it gives broader historical context. This book is focused on a single event, the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, which is truly seismic as it kicked off centuries of conflict between Europe and the Ottoman Turks; and shifted European attention away from the east and outward into the Atlantic. Stories about Medieval sieges are like dramatic genre novels, if you read enough of them they often follow similar scripts and events. This is the mother of sieges in sheer scale - of the walls, numbers of combatants, the size of the weapons, the stakes (real and figurative). I'm glad to have read about it in more detail as it's one of those things you can't avoid, it is one of the core markers of the end of the Middle Ages and start of the Early Modern period.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill
Candice Millard (2016)
Churchill in the Boer War has been written about as many times as there are biographies of Churchill, which is to say quite a lot. What Millard does in this account is use the events to tell the bigger picture of how the war started, the history of southern Africa and other contexts often missing. She (and others) suggest it was the beginning of the end of the British Empire; and the beginning of a bloody 20th century (though that honor has other claimants). She also tells a great story in detail bringing the period and southern Africa alive, she's a talented writer and researcher. I recently read William Manchester's mammoth first volume The Last Lion and while it's not bad, Millard has the better telling. I don't think it's a good general history of the Boer War, but it never presented itself as such, rather a good introduction by way of Churchill's genuine heroic adventure.
The Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation
Adam Steltzner (2016)
I'm an admirer of Adam Steltzner. He's the "7-Minutes of Terror" guy from the Mars Curiosity landing that used the Sky Crane. The book is fairly short, containing a biography, and his engineering and management precepts such as "holding on to the doubt", which is to say, never assume you have it right always keep looking for errors and improvement. The biography was kind of streamlined and not very definitive, it neglected to say who his father was (son of an heir of the Schilling spice fortune) or that he spent time at the Berklee College of Music, or his escapades with sex and drugs during high school. It repeated the "holding on to the doubt" mantra too many times without concrete examples. Nevertheless it was interesting to go into his head for a while, for better and worse. Interesting if you already have an interest in Steltzner or JPL.
Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions
Charles Gallenkamp (2001)
The Gobi desert is one of the world's best spots to find dinosaur bones. It was the same environment 100 million years ago. Dinosaurs were often caught in sand storms, or sand avalanches, or quick-sand. They were fossilized and preserved in great numbers undisturbed by predators and thus intact and of high quality. They are easy to find weathering out of the surface.
In the early 1920s no one knew this. Roy Chapman Andrews, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, wasn't even looking for "dragon" bones rather early man. His critics said he would find nothing but sand. Chinese warlords and bandits made travel dangerous. The troupe traveled by motor-car made possible by a caravan of camels leaving stockpiles of gas ahead, an innovative strategy. In the Gobi Chapman found a clutch of fossilized dinosaur eggs and stunned the world, or at least high society in New York City. More expeditions followed over the next decade funded by wealthy donors such as Morgan.
This is a serviceable biography of an American explorer, adventurer and naturalist. He probably wasn't the inspiration of Indiana Jones but an archetype of that early 20th century golden age of gentleman adventurer explorers. Chapman was largely forgotten for some decades after his death, but this book, published in 2001, restored his legacy.
Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic
Sam Quinones (2015)
Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic is essential reading because we will all be in pain someday, and doctors will want to prescribe opiates, for example 120 pills when you might only need 10. Eighty-percent of the worlds opiates are prescribed in the USA. We live in a culture of no-pain and instant gratification and the end result is an epidemic. It started with Purdue Pharma which has been described as a legal drug cartel. They unleashed a wave of opiates on America starting in the 90s in Ohio and Kentucky (thus "Hillbilly Heroin"). They made ungodly amounts of money selling highly addictive Oxycontin under the false premise it was not addictive (for people in pain). When casual users became hooked, they turned to cheaper heroin - same molecule, different packaging. Enter the Mexican heroin ("black tar") dealers.
The book is full of fascinating stories and insights into how the heroin world works. Nearly every preconception I had was shattered. Heroin has gone mainstream, it's middle-class and gentrified. The dealers resemble pizza delivery franchises and work in nice neighborhoods favoring only whites. No guns, no violence, only good customer service and high quality product delivered to you within the hour. Safe, cheap, reliable, abundant. All sourced to the same town in Mexico. Indeed most of the dealers are from the same town. It goes on.
A Time to Die: The Untold Story of the Kursk Tragedy
Robert Moore (2003)
A Time to Die was published in 2003, not long after the Kursk accident in August 2000. I vaguely remembered it and wanted to reread the events with the perspective of time. Most disaster books follow a certain script, either with the disaster happening half-way through after pages of background, or in a braided narrative technique with alternating chapters of background and disaster to hold interest. A Time to Die surprises because the accident happens very early, in the second chapter, and unfolds chronologically from there. The tension becomes if they will save the trapped crew in time, meaning 90% of the book is thrilling. Excellent.
However it's more than a thriller, it's insight into the death of an empire. Russia at this point was in the depths of its decay after the fall of the USSR. The Kursk disaster and their need to ask for outside help from the West was emblematic of how far they had fallen. It was like national suicide made flesh and steel. Putin had been in office for only a few months and it was the first test of his Presidency, another emblematic moment.
Overall an excellent book. The moment in Russian history has past, but it still rewards.
Legend: A Harrowing Story from the Vietnam War of One Green Beret's Heroic Mission
Eric Blehm (2015)
Legend is the life story of Roy Benavidez, a Medal of Honor recipient who in 1968 was injured during a firefight in Cambodia. The first half was slow background that is unmemorable. Roy is of an older generation, born 1935. He was not the boomer hippie generation typically associated with Vietnam. He had old fashioned values and a simple life philosophies ("help people in need" and "duty, country, honor"). The battle itself, comprising only a few hours in real life ("Six Hours in Hell."), is spectacular. Blehm had no trouble turning this material into high drama. It has a natural plot, when things can't get worse, they get worse. It almost plays out in real time of reading vs action, if you can read slow enough which is hard given the exciting events. There's almost no information about the Vietnamese involved in the fight other than body counts.
After receiving the medal personally from Ronald Reagan in 1981, Roy became a favorite icon of the 1980s conservative Christian right, for example Ross Perot wrote the forward to his memoir and he was often sought as a speaker. Eric Blehm is better known for his book Fearless which is being turned into a Hollywood movie. It's also about an American war hero. He seems to have found his market. Nothing wrong with that but after reading Blehm's The Last Season which is excellent, I was disappointed this was not more nuanced.
The Devils of Cardona sounded like a possible Name of the Rose, it's written by an academic who knows the period. Unfortunately it often read like a comic book, jumping from one action scene to the next. Still it has a few redeeming features, such as showing how wars of religion are often about something else: money and power. Some period costume details. But it was so caught up in being a thriller it can only be classified as a light work of entertainment.
Eniac: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer
Scott McCartney (1999)
The computer emerges from the fog of history without an origin. Ask anyone who invented the computer and few could say, and for good reason because it's complicated. Yet there is no doubt that the ENIAC was the first true computer in the sense of what we think a computer is. This is what we learn in Scott McCartney's 1999 book, that John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert at the University of Pennsylvania invented the first computer. Unfortunately it is not true. There is almost no mention of the British computer at Bletchley Park called the Colossus which broke the German encryption machine, Enigma, the first run being in early 1944, more than a year before ENIAC started running..
How did McCartney get it so wrong? Well for one it makes for a good story about overlooked underdogs, and neatly solves the question "Who invented the computer?" with a name and a face. There is no doubt Mauchly and Eckert were pioneers and made major advancements and they deserve every credit given to them. Except inventors of the first computer. There are some other things in the book that seem suspect, like the word "computer" originated with ENIAC.
Scott McCartney is a good writer and tells a complex story but he overreaches in the end. I'm glad I read this as it provides a more intimate understanding of Mauchly and Eckert and what they achieved with ENIAC, but I'm still looking for a more comprehensive history.
In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon
Joan Druett (2003)
In the Wake of Madness is half-baked. The material available should have made for a rip-roaring sea-yarn but Druett somehow managed to miss the boat. The mystery of future events is what drives narrative non-fiction forward but she recounts the whole story in summary at the start - an unnecessary spoiler. Despite being a short book it is overloaded with minor characters and the main characters never quite come alive. The second half is an improvement but there is an over-abundance of incident in a short amount of space leaving one somewhat perplexed at the whirlwind of movement. She correctly emphasizes the string of bad luck the ship experienced, a curse almost, finally giving it some narrative mystery. The scene in which the black cook is flogged to death is very moving, as is the mutiny scene. Despite these complaints, this is a work of original research breaking new ground on an old mystery and regardless of any writing technique problems it is a solid work of micro-history.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
Frans de Waal (2016)
There have been two major books published recently on the current thinking about animal intelligence, this one and Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina. I've read both and the choice is very clear: Safina. Not to say this one is terrible but Safina's book is so well written and most of the information there is contained here. Frans de Waal is more in the weeds, more technical and scattered, though for a general audience. It's a good followup.
The Last Season is an excellent work of outdoor literature. The mystery of a missing person drives it forward using the braided narrative technique of current investigation layered with flashbacks to the past. But it's also a sympathetic biography of a respected forest ranger, and details about life as a ranger and the Sierra mountains. It's ultimately a somewhat dark story with no real happy ending for the Morgenson clan. But the example of Randy Morgenson perhaps offers some lessons, not too dissimilar from Christopher McCandless.
Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises
Lesley M. M. Blume (2016)
Everybody Behaves Badly is about Ernest Hemingway and the lead up to the publication of The Sun Also Rises, his first novel and the one that made him famous. I was concerned it would be stuffed with tangential detail as filler, but the story rarely lags (and Blume is a great storyteller). I think the true story about the novel as told here is more interesting than the story in the novel itself (which is based on the true story). Certainly the novel makes a great deal more sense now, and it's hard to see how it would be possible to fully appreciate the novel, or even Hemingway, without the background contained in this book. How and why it was written, it's context in the literature of the time, the publication dramas. Great stuff highly recommended you'll never see Hemingway the same again.
According to LibraryThing stats this is the second most read book on the Vietnam War, after The Things They Carried. Critics have called it one of the best books of the war. Micharl Herr passed away a few weeks ago so I thought I would honor his memory by reading his most famous book. Although Herr's prose style is disjointed and lacks narrative, chronological order or main character (other than Herr himself), it is brimming with the sights, sounds and smells of the war told through small stories, "dispatches". I feel as though I just took a trip back in time. It's so dense with incident it will reward re-reading on occasion. With all that said, with the distance of time Herr's narrative feels overdone at times. Speaking of nightmares that will never end, etc.. there has been healing in the past 50 years and as time passes those comments will seem increasingly remote, perhaps even cliche. However they do give a sense of how that generation reacted to the war - there is a sense of betrayal, abandonment. All wars suck in their own special way, but nothing like the toxic mix of problems that came together in Vietnam.
High Tide On Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis
John Englander (2012)
High Tide On Main Street is by John Englander the former CEO of the Cousteau Society. It includes a forward by Jacques son Jean-Michel. It reads fairly easily but has plenty of footnotes and is not lightweight. It makes the convincing case for sea level rise as a sure thing baked into recent and future CO2 emissions.
CO2 has a lag time to heat up the atmosphere, which in turn has a lag time to heat the ocean and melt ice -- a double lag. Sea level rise is thus the most lagging impact of global warming. However, CO2 emissions are currently happening 20,000 times faster then the fastest similar event in history 50 million years ago, when seas rose nearly 9 feet with a 100ppm CO increase over about 10,000 years. We have already exceeded 100ppm in about 30 years, so sea level rise has only just begun (remember the lag). One might feel comfortable with a 10,000 year lag, but the rate of CO2 emissions is 20,000 times higher and thus the rate of melting will also be much faster -- there is no historical parallel.
If all land ice melted, the oceans would rise over 200 feet. That won't happen anytime soon, if ever, but all that is needed is a foot or two to disrupt culture. This will almost surely happen sooner than later, due to the rapid pace of CO2 release and temperature increases. Miami's streets are already flooding on sunny days with normal tides. Lawns far inland are seeing water peculate upward with the tides, which didn't use to happen. Pacific islands are flooding. Chesapeake Bay islands are disappearing. The list goes on -- and this from a few inches.
What is the public to do? Englander focuses on the USA investor and home owner though offers little more than common sense advice. Coastal properties will not hold their value for multiple generations - prices will drop as awareness sets in long before actual flooding occurs. Entire communities will be hurt by loss of businesses and industry. There are few sure things in life, but dramatic sea rise is one of them. If there was a way to directly invest in sea level rise it might be the world's best investment, a sure thing with steady upward growth. Unfortunately it will cost trillions in lost infrastructure, entire municipalities and even whole counties.
Black Robe is a fantastic novel. Father Lafourge is a French Jesuit in early 17th Century Canada who goes "up river" into the dark forests of Quebec. What he finds there tests his faith. According to Moore, what interested him is "the moment in which one's illusions are shattered and one has to live without the faith .. which originally sustained them." It has elements of Heart of Darkness or Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It is both realistic and historically accurate, but also dreamlike and transcendent.
Caesar didn't live up to my expectations. I found it hard going. Goldsworthy refashions dramatic events into basic facts. A biography of Caesar should be lively and transport the reader to a world rich in detail that brings it alive. There are occasional glimmers.
The Dig operates on two layers, the surface story about the discovery of Sutton Hoo, and a subtle layer of deep time peeking through the surface. I am a lover of Medieval history and found the book to be engaging - even though little is said about 7th England, it still feels present like the dead in a graveyard. Small details such as when the silver bowl is uncovered and the sun glints from its edge - Preston doesn't say "for the first time 1500 years", but it suggests the same sun at the same place years ago, time collapsed into the present. The literary allusions are subtle but if you look for them, like carefully sweeping away the surface layer for treasure, the book rewards. This sense of shifting history is all the more pronounced as the dig took place in 1939 at the start of WWII, we are stepping back in time twice. Although not entirely accurate, Preston takes some leeway with inconsequential details, this is a wonderfully well done retelling of the real people and events surrounding one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.
IF YOU are looking for a story with many murders, incredible escapes, a mysterious girl, much intrigue and heroism, full of political meaning and describing the underground fight against nazi tyranny, Jan Karski's 'Story of a Secret State' fits the bill.
So reads a book review from 1944. Story of a Secret State remains a just as gripping today and one of the earliest testaments of the Holocaust, unusually a first-hand account while it was still on-going. This is a primary source that is compelling and authoritative, unburdened by cultural tropes (particularly the power of images from movies), or changes of perspective and memory over time.
The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics
Stephen Coss (2016)
The Fever of 1721 should be about the smallpox epidemic of 1721, and it is, but it also draws on other subjects such as freedom of the press when newspapers were just starting out, piracy, colonial politics with the crown, early biography of Ben Franklin and the printing press, Cotton Mather. It's not what I expected, but it's hard to complain when I kept learning new things. Coss brings it alive through the judicial use of period language. This is a Club Sandwich of a book, however if you already know many of the incidents it may not hold together as a whole.
The Lost Airman: A True Story of Escape from Nazi Occupied France
Seth Meyerowitz (2016)
The Lost Airman is by the grandson of an American airman who was downed over France during WWII. It is based on private memoirs and interviews. The story is unsurprisingly thrilling given the subject. It is not a classic but well told and very interesting. There may be some fictive elements, going into the heads of characters describing how they are feeling and so on. Harmless, at worst an authors interpretation, but it opens questions if actual events have been changed for a better story - for example I could not understand why a downed American airman is taken by the French resistance into a cafe frequented by the Gestapo. The book changed my perceptions of how downed airmen were smuggled out of the country, not always hidden in attics but moving about in plain sight with fake ID papers, working in day jobs, waiting months for the right opportunity.
The news is Zimbabwe kills white farmers and has ludicrous inflation rates. Mugabe is a basket case horror show of mismanagement. This memoir by Douglas Rogers, who was born and raised in Zimbabwe the son of white farmers provides a more nuanced, and occasionally humorous view. After school. Rogers left the country for the big cities of London and New York, anywhere but the rural farm of his upbringing. But his pioneering parents stayed, anything but give up the farm. This is their story as told by Rogers who came back to visit on occasion. His writing is like breath, hardly noticeable and inhaled in effortless speed, a model of clear and interesting prose. The story-arc is genuine, as the country falls apart his parents find increasingly sketchy ways to keep the farm out of the hands of the government/bandits. Curious people fill the pages, Zimbabwe is a land of weird going on not unlike the Mississippi Delta (see Richard Grant's magnificent Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta). This is a gem of book.
The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World's Greatest Empire
Anthony Everitt (2012)
This is exactly the sort of history I dislike. It distills highly dramatic and epic events to a bare essence like a Wikipedia summary. Then proceeds through centuries of events and persons, one after the next given cursory treatment. And doesn't provide much content or analysis. It's aimed at the beginner as an introduction, but you will likely forget most of it as there is little to hang memory on. Everitt can't be entirely faulted as it's hard to make something like this into a sum greater than the parts, and oh so many parts given the scattering of sources. But this is a fairly uninspired conservative attempt, though the writing to its credit can be lively at times.
The Network: The Battle for the Airwaves and the Birth of the Communications Age
Scott Woolley (2016)
The Network is the result of five years of research in primary sources by Scott Woolley, a journalist at Forbes. It tells the story of the rise of wireless telecommunications mostly in the first half of the 20th century. The main protagonists are Edwin Howard Armstrong, the inventor of FM radio, and David Sarnoff, the founder of NBC and CEO of RCA. It's like a coda to The Victorian Internet.
Rich Cohen is one of my favorite authors (of my generation we are nearly the same age). Like Cohen I grew up saturated with 1960s culture but feeling as though born too late and missed the party. Cohen was a lifelong Stones fanatic who in the early 1990s just out of college landed the dream job of working for Rolling Stone (the magazine) and given the assignment to embed with the band on tour and write a series of articles, which are the basis for the book. Turns out the band really liked Cohen and he has worked with them on other projects in years beyond. So he brings personal experience as well as his remarkable writing and insights. However most of the book is a history of the band in the 1960s during their heyday which is exactly what I wanted to know more about. A review in the SF Chronicle called it one the best books about the Stones (the others Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones and Robert Greenfield’s S.T.P.: A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones). I learned something interesting on nearly every page and often it transcended the Stones into a bigger tapestry of the 1960s, an era I once pined for and now better understand for better and worse.
Crowley opens with a vivid retelling of the Fourth Crusade (1203) that reads like a novel. Then for 300 years there are innumerable conflicts with the Genoese, Byzantines and Ottomans for control of the sea trade in the eastern Mediterranean. The Middle East was the gateway to India. Europeans with access to ships could build a sea empire moving goods from the Middle East to the European continent across the Mediterranean, where caravans from Germany would move goods further north. The Venetians perfected just on time delivery, regularity of delivery, abundance of choice. It was a kingdom found and ruled by entrepreneurs, where almighty profit sat above all else, except patron Saint Mark. The Venetians were a people of great solidarity who often died in horrific numbers, in Crowley's focus. Life on a ship was harsh. At some point the Venetians outsourced the hard work, a great divide emerged between and among the elites, and the ability to lead diminished. A lesson not lost in our own age.
Chronologically, this is the first Crowley book followed by 1453 and Empires of the Sea and finally the latest on Portugal. I read Empires first and was somewhat lost on background, which City fills in.
Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World
Joan Druett (2007)
This is the true-life story the inspired Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island which was based on French survivor François Édouard Raynal's account Wrecked on a Reef. Joan Druett oddly neglects to even mention this connection, but she has ably rescued this once-famous shipwreck story from the mid-19th century, on an island in the sub-Antarctic south of New Zealand. Druett's sources are previously published accounts by the castaways. She paints a vivid picture of the geography and wildlife, and gives some insight into the castaways psychological state. A well balanced and nicely written book with a little bit of everything, but in the main a survival story. She reconciled relatively small differences in the accounts to the most likely version, but overall there is no great controversy. There are a couple minor unsolved mysteries, such as where the dogs came from and the smoke signal. Great story and memorable particularly when read in conjunction with satellite maps.
Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya
William Carlsen (2016)
Jungle of Stone is a dual biography of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood who are famous for having discovered Maya ruins in the jungles of Guatemala and Mexico in the 1830s and 40s and published two very popular travel/exploration books that remain in print to this day. Stephens was the leader and author, Catherwood was the artist.
The book itself is a biography so it ranges to include Stephens and Catherwood's trips to the Middle East, Panama, Russia, South America etc.. the trips to Guatemala and Mexico form the core but its bracketed with other journeys. William Carlsen is a long-time reporter who lived for many years in Guatemala. He has done a great job restoring the memory of once famous explorers, reviving a sense of first discovery of a lost civilization.
This is the first book I have read about the Maya and it's a perfect introduction. It's just a whole lot of fun to follow Stephens and Catherwood using Google Maps, to see almost first hand where they went. Most of the places remain unchanged to this day, still surround by jungle and with the ruins clearly visible from satellite. That plus reading the book gives a heightened sense of being there in person.
Some of the best speculative fiction I have ever read. This is what it should be about. Philosophically grounded in real-world issues, doesn't take itself too seriously or try to be a boring sage of the future, alternative POVs in a fun and engaging manner. Ultimately this is a humanist book, such a relief from neo-fascist drek that makes up so much of this genre particularly from this period. Sheckley himself said that he was in effect writing "a commentary on science fiction", in other words anti-science fiction and that's what makes it so great, sets it above. Sheckley deals with issue of post-colonialism quite well, turning the tables on the colonizer and colonized. Also the condition of modernity, "Cost of Living" it's even more relevant today in this age of eternal debt. The last story, "Beside Still Waters", is beautiful.
Lots of action and well worn tropes, basically good quality pulp fiction set in the west. It's not of the same caliber as Allan W. Eckert's The Frontiersman, which is a high bar to set. Nevertheless, Punke's attention to period language is a good effort. The title "revenant" is really awesome. The word originated in the Middle Ages (Latin for "returning") when revenants were thought to exist as a matter of fact - the dead, it was supposed, would rise from the earth and badger those who had wronged them in life. The scene with the French voyagers was the best writing of the book, indeed its apex, but sadly went downhill with their demise.
Fascinating insight into a key mechanism of the cycle of poverty. I had no idea evictions were so common or so easily obtained or an entire industry built up around evicting people. It's clearly a social justice issue brought into sharp and painful focus. Other countries have already figured this problem out. I can't say I really enjoyed these stories but I'm glad I learned about this issue and will never look at renting and poverty the same.
The Right Stuff was published in 1979, or only about 20 years from the events it describes. We are now about 35 years from the book so it's beginning to age and it's possible to consider how time has treated it. My assessment is it's a classic of the first order that will be read for generations, and has influenced the whole space book genre. Wolfe captures not only the Mercury Project and test pilots, but American culture ca. 1955-1962. It's worth noting Wolfe has a PhD from Yale in "American Studies" (1951), he is a professionally trained observer of culture. Not that it's academic, Wolfe is smart and entertaining southern raconteur. It does seem a little dated because of a subtle Freudian perspective now out of style; however even that gives it a greater historical fidelity, and underscores how good a storyteller Freud was.
Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence
Christian Parenti (2011)
There is a good book here that's been subsumed by jargon-laden sentences that obscure rather than clarify. It's too bad as Parenti's thesis is a good one, the unfortunate reality of how climate change is manifesting: the mid-latitude poor countries break down while the northern rich become more authoritarian. Parenti describes a constellation of factors, local and global, current and historic - no single cause but force multipliers and repeated shocks to the system from multiple interrelated cause and effects. Recommended for the reader with a good thesaurus.
Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939
Adam Hochschild (2016)
Spain in Our Hearts declares up front it is not a history of the Spanish Civil War. Rather it is a series of vignettes about various Americans who went to fight with the International Brigades. The material is culled from period newspapers and private diaries. The people range from obscure teenagers to Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell (who is not American hmm). It is narrated in roughly chronological order so people are dropping in and out at various points as the material for their stories becomes available or gaps appear. There is no main character, no mystery driving it forward, just interesting short scenes that come and go. These "group biographies" are not my favorite form of non-fiction nevertheless it is a testament (indeed monument) to the variety of experiences during the war. I have very little knowledge of the war and this provided useful summary of events and the role played by foreign fighters.
War and Remembrance and Winds of War cover about 8 years from 1938 to 1945. They are almost equally split 4 years apiece with the second volume starting in early 1942. They are so long and full of incident one feels having lived through those 8 years. The second volume is when the war action picks up and the earlier character and world building pay off. The history is accurate, but at times distorted to fit needs of the novel. For example the Leyte Gulf scene plays heavily on Halsey's "decision" as strategically decisive, when in fact it really didn't matter due to American superiority of material strength - Japan was going to loose no matter how many tactical mistakes the US made, and this was a small mistake. His description of Midway was masterful though he missed an opportunity to show the code breaking which made it possible and was just as dramatic close-run thing. Of course the heart of the book is the Jewish perspective and that was well done, 1978 was only 30 some years from the event. 1978 was also the same year the TV mini-series The Holocaust came out which was the first time many Americans were exposed to a dramatization of the Holocaust, indeed really came to understand what happened in detail.
I read both these though the audio narration by Kevin Pariseau about 100 hours total - audio is a funny thing because the narrator can ruin a book, be a neutral influence, or enhance it. Pariseau's brilliant acting - an art form of its own for audiobooks - brings the characters alive in a way reading would not, he adds an extra dimension that improves on the original.
The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet
Justin Peters (2016)
Justin Peters is a freelance journalist, game show contestant who lost big in Who Wants to be a Millionaire and part-time stand-up comic. On yeah, he wrote a book about Aaron Swartz which happens to be smart, insightful and tragic. Swartz is the polymath who tried to download the entire JSTOR corpus (illegally?), got busted and committed suicide after being hounded by aggressive prosecutors. One would be excused in thinking this is just another hacker story, but Swartz was in a different class. He co-founded Reddit and became independently wealthy in his early 20s and was internationally famous for his online writings on freedom and free culture. He was also something of a neurotic flake with OCD "magnificent obsessions" of the day. By telling Swartz's story Peters also gives a capsule history of copyright in America, the overreach by vested interests to squash the public domain by extending copyright terms effectively forever, and short bios of other free culture warriors including Carl Malmud, Michael Hart (Project Gutenberg) and Brewster Khale (Internet Archive). He might have included the millions of editors and readers of Wikipedia and everyone else who uses free culture online. The New York Times review criticized Peters for veering away from Swartz's biography to discuss copyright history but I disagree, copyright is Swartz's legacy and area of interest and it places him in historical context. Swartz probably did something illegal, we don't know he never made it to court, it was certainly a misjudgement, but he stood for something bigger - freedom of thought and free culture. Well all owe him. This is a fantastic and recommended account of an important issue of our shared digital age.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
Jane Mayer (2016)
This is probably the most important book I will read this year. It has fundamentally changed my view on politics in America. It is well worth it to understand why politics has become dysfunctional, how it's possible for 50 to 100 unelected people to control the government legally under cover. It's not too late, they have not won the biggest prize (control of three branches + SC) but they likely will given enough time. The only defense is knowledge.
Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon
Steve Sheinkin (2012)
Bomb contains some of the "greatest hits" of Atomic Bomb history, including the Atomic spies Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and Theodore Hall. The Norwegian heavy water sabotages led by Knut Haukelid. The making of the bomb led by Oppenheimer. It's told using fictive techniques making it a real-life thriller. If you ever wondered how the Soviets picked the closely guarded secret of the bomb from the pocket of Roosevelt this is how.
Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled On by Hawking Became Loved
Marcia Bartusiak (2015)
Black Hole is a short but engrossing history of science about the discovery of black holes. Bartusiak writers with passion and a sense of narrative mystery, while retaining factual accuracy. I would read more by her. It's for a general audience on a subject as esoteric and complex as they come, but she manages to hold interest. Black holes seem almost normal today but they were once thought so exotic as to be impossible. She restores that past sense of impossibility and incredulity, before black holes became accepted.
Benjamin F. Hasson (1890)
Original title: Escape from the Confederacy— Overpowering the Guards— Midnight Leap from a Moving Train— Through Swamps and Forest— Bloodhounds— Thrilling Events
A short sketch (published 1890) by a Union officer who escape from a moving prisoner train in North Carolina. And subsequent overland journey to Union lines, as the title foretells. As usual with many escape stories he travels at night to avoid detection. What is most interesting is the kindness of slaves who fed and directed him in an impromptu underground railroad. The South is described by Hasson as a "police state", watched over by a home-guard who otherwise could not fight in the regular army for whatever reason. Strangers were suspect - escaped slaves, escaped prisoners or military deserters were commonplace about the country.
Hasson was of the 22nd Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry from Washington, PA.
Maurice Andrew Brackenreed Johnston (1919)
Four-Fifty Miles to Freedom is a memoir published in 1919 detailing a group of English officers who escaped a Turkish prison and traveled incognito through the countryside to freedom,. It's well written, the author has a literary background, and occasionally funny. They seemed to be blessedly lucky though there is enough danger and hardship to keep it real. One of the better WWI escape memoirs though obviously extremely obscure. Discovered by way of the excellent LibriVox narrator Kevin Green who is Mr. Johnston returned from the grave.
The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin
Steven Lee Myers (2015)
There are so many books about Putin it's hard to know where to begin. Most of them are pushing a political agenda, usually by his critics. Myers biography is being hailed as the most complete and neutral to date. That is not to say he goes to the opposite extreme and white washes Putin, Myers can be critical of his actions both implicitly and explicitly, but it never feels like a polemic. Myers gives credit when warranted, Putin is a complex figure who has remade himself numerous times over the years for better and worse. Russia is a closed society, culturally and otherwise, public figures often lead closed lives unlike in the west. So a book like this is very revealing and interesting.
The first half of the narrative concerns his rise to the Presidency and the second half the years 2000 to 2015. The first half can test your patience as so often with biographies the early years are not as interesting but it becomes much more interesting after 2000 and the Moscow Apartment bombings. As a personality Putin emerges as a "bronze man", a Russian saying concerning someone who has himself cast in bronze (a self-important statue) but is fragile and easily broken. Putin puts on an air of non-nonchalance and steely confidence in public, but he has a thin skin ego and rages in private at his enemies who he punishes with the full might of his powers. There have been countless assassinations. He and his circle operate not outside the law, but as the law itself. For example, Putin re-wrote the Constitution to allow him to stay in power through at least 2024 - without any legal or political opposition. Putin is paranoid seeing conspiracy and threat all around. This is typical of Russian politicians who fear yet another invasion from an over-crowded west (and east) seeking "living space". Meanwhile it is Putin himself who is invading and appropriating territory (Crimea).
Putin and Russia are today the same thing, he acts on his own volition without recourse to anyone. We no longer speak of "Russia" but of "Putin", Putin is Russia and without him there is no Russia. Putin's strengths and weaknesses, his fears and foibles - that is Russia not because all Russian's are like Putin, but all Russians have been subsumed by one man. With Crimea and Ukraine, Putin is entering a new and dangerous era. In the end it is the Russian people who willingly went along. Until they take control and responsibility as individuals, Russia will remain a place of dictatorship, fear and violence.
Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth's Last Dinosaur
Carl Safina (2007)
Voyage of the Turtle is a nature/travel book about an endangered species. Scientist Carl Safina travels around the world visiting sites and people - interspersed with natural history and painful figures about 95% loss etc.. told in Safina's magical writing style that elevates the reader and subject. He doesn't bludgeon with guilt trips but leaves the facts gently on the table. Of the three Safina books I've read (Beyond Words and Song for the Blue Ocean) this is the lesser work. The first two were transformative, changing how I see the world in a fundamental way - the first in regards to ocean conservation, the second animal intelligence. Turtle touches on these same themes as it runs through Safina's works like a current, but it's not a big picture book. I listened to the audiobook read by David Drummond and that was unfortunate as his narration is formulaic and not right for Safina. And there are parts with statistics that didn't translate well to audio, but would have been easy to absorb on the printed page. Nevertheless, story and character are the bulk of the book which audio handles well.
The Winds of War is friendly American middle-brow literature. Middle brow meaning it is genre low-brow with pretensions to high brow, for example some occasional tough subjects such as Western neglect of European Jews makes it feel important, but doesn't challenge or confront (Edit: gets better in the second volume). The characters are interesting in an episodic soap-opera way (the low brow) it keeps you reading to find out what happens to the Henry family - 3 weeks after finishing I am still thinking about them. It adapted to an 18-hour TV drama naturally. The analysis of the war is the most interesting. There are various POVs and perspectives that, while not original, when put into context of living through the events in real time makes the war seem immediate and the future unknown. Wouk's treatment of Stalin, Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt are stereotypical (Edit: for good reason). Overall this was enjoyable and insightful. There are other ways to learn about WWII, such as reading real history books, but if you already know some it is a fun divergence. And historical fiction leaves an impression of depth that real history often glosses.