Cool Reading 2018

A reading journal by Stephen Balbach

In 2018, I read 52 books (20,567 pages).
Favorites of 2018:
Berlin Alexanderplatz
Bitwise: A Life in Code
The Bonanza King
Never Lost Again: >The Google Mapping Revolution
Outland
Peter the Great
Young Stalin
Reading journals from other years:
2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013,
2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 2019

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The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London

Christopher Skaife (2018)
December 2018
Audio Audible
Memoir by the current Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. Having never been there or even knowing ravens hung out there it was all new. Skaife has a bartenders gift for conversation, likely honed over years of dealing with the public, and with VIP guests at the Tower bar. The focus is on the ravens which are interesting enough. His theory about the ravens origins at the Tower is good, but who knows. This is a light and easy read, notable for Skaife's personality and insider access to a popular tourist spot.
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The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty

G. J. Meyer (2010)
December 2018
Audio P8
This is the first book I've read about the Tudors and even though I consider myself somewhat educated, my image of the Tudors has been surprisingly shaped by popular culture. I thought Henry VIII was a larger than life great king whose main problem was too many wives, and that the Elizabethian era a high point in English history. Turns out I've been duped by propaganda as old as the 16th century itself. The Tudors were awful for England and their self-aggrandizement has fooled generations of historians even up to the present. There is now a revisionism occurring in Tudor studies and how far the scales weigh to the other side remains to be seen. Overall, this book describes the Tudors as second-rate rulers, lacking in humanity and compassion, cold-blooded killers and otherwise unpleasant people. Meyer's says England had many stronger and better kings in the Plantagenets but Tudor image-making overshadowed them. G. J. Meyer has been accused of "bias" but that might be true if he took a position in the contemporary debates (eg. if he was pro-Catholic), but a history that re-evaluates the record is historical revisionism, a necessary process of cutting through the propaganda and finding the truth.
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Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America's Forgotten Border

Porter Fox (2018)
December 2018
Audio Audible
Northland is the border with Canada and the second longest border in the world. The author travels by car and boat from Maine to Washington. It is a travelogue, but also includes a fair amount of history which is unfortunate because that part is not very good, like filler. The author Porter Fox is from Maine and a competent writer in the NYC scene, in his 30s. It wasn't really an adventure of serendipitous discovery, more like a self-imposed writing assignment with prearranged itineraries and meet-ups, on the journalistic side. It's a decent book to learn more about the border region. The culture of northern Maine has spread westward to the Great Plains. Some of the most remote and wild parts of the US are along the border - because few go there. Borders are contested lands at the edge, travelers quickly pass through ports on the way to somewhere else, the result is a long ribbon of undisturbed areas between ports. I was particularly impressed by the Boundary Waters area in Minnesota. Once Fox gets to the Dakotas and Montanna, the entire states are included as part of the Northlands, which stretches the concept thin and challenges the very idea of a contiguous Northland.
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Berlin Alexanderplatz

Alfred Doblin (1929)
December 2018
Audio NLSB
I read Berlin Alexanderplatz through a number of mediators: in the new English translation by Hofmann made nearly 100 years after the fact, and as an audiobook. I also watched the 15hr movie from the 1970s which is useful for character, setting and plot details. It was basically all I read/watched/listened for over two weeks. The audiobook made it particularly challenging as the words march robotically without pause for paragraph or section break, the narrator was not kind this way. This made a demanding stream of consciousness novel even more so, though it enhanced the bewildering storm of information effect. I'm glad to be exposed to this kind of novel. The mix of documentary fact and fiction make it seem more real, but it isn't realism, something more vital than a copy of reality. This was a followup to a book I read about Nietzsche, another deep dive into European high modernism. Doblin would have been a teenager in the 1890s when Nietzsche became all the rage, and one can see the influence of Nietzsche, the quest for moral direction in an age without personal moral authority; Doblin sees the role of fate as significant. It's also a great documentary view of 1920s Berlin, a libertine zoo the country watched with fascination and horror.
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I Am Dynamite! A Life of Nietzsche

Sue Prideaux (2018)
November 2018
Audio Audible
Nietzsche is one of my many terra incognita. So I hoped Sue Prideaux new biography would provide some enlightenment. Since everything is brand new to me, it did not disappoint. It covers the life, the philosophy and the art of his work. The philosophy I had to supplement using some other sources (eg. Encyclopedia Britannica) to get a better handle, it's just very complex, but might be simply explained. Briefly, his project sought an answer to the collapse of old morality namely religion ie. "God is dead". His answer is familiar to us all, the ultimate authority is yourself. The basis of Western Liberalism, for better or worse. Most of the book is a straight biography, but one artly told. The beginning was boring, at least for me since I knew nothing about the man. But it gets better as time goes on, though not for Nietzsche. It's easy to understand the fascination about him, he discovered something before anyone else, knew he would become famous before anyone else, then promptly lost his mind. Sort of a classic case of reaching too far too fast. Fascinating ideas, life and book.
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On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War's Greatest Battle

Hampton Sides (2018)
November 2018
Audio Audible
The battle of Chosin Reservoir accounted for about 10% of all casualties in the Korean War, on both sides, yet it only lasted 8 days. Chosin was brutal and legendary for the ferocity of the fighting, cold weather and canyon-like terrain. There have been many books, but Hampton Sides has written the definitive introduction for the general reader. Sides balances pacing, character, research and story. The reading is effortless and hard to put down, it's informative and not of that dubious genre "adrenaline literature", it contains real historical analysis and perspective on the wider war. It shows all sides from McArthur to private and refugees, it's a marvel how much it includes while keeping the narrative going. Highly recommended for a cold winter.
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Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa

Mungo Park (1799)
November 2018
Audio Audible
Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa was published in 1799 and this fact colors everything. Mungo Park was generations ahead of his time, future African explorers like Burton and Livingstone were not even born yet. He was the first famous British explorer of Africa with dozens to follow over the next 80 years or so, while his predecessors were mostly Portuguese from the 15th and 16th who explored North East Africa.

Park was unencumbered by a tradition of African exploration literature, indeed he was one of the first. He wrote in a simple factual style that has more in common with 20th century modernism than the filigreed 19th century. It remains highly readable and entertaining. There is incident and adventure throughout and mercifully little 'geography'. It rightly made Park famous, but also sealed his doom when he pushed his luck for a second trip. Park was selfless in the quest for knowledge, indomitable in the face of adversity, and (occasionally) a humanist - which is more than can be said for many racist colonialists who followed.
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The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors

Dan Jones (2014)
November 2018
Audio P8
This is my first book on this complex and violent period. Jones says the Wars of the Roses were caused by the weak and feckless King Henry VI. The English state required a strong King, and it fell into squabbling factions during Henry's reign. This is entirely reasonable. It misses the larger contextual picture of late middle ages violence historians call the 'Crisis of the Late Middle Ages', but Jones is giving a more narrow retelling which makes for an excellent primer before taking on the many fictions about this period including Shakespeare's Histories, Wolf-Hall etc..

I had difficulty with the names, a noble might be called 3 or 4 different names and there are so many nobles. The solution I found was to read with one eye on various genealogy charts. Eventually the charts become memorized which is ultimately the best way to understand English history, otherwise it is a sea of Henrys, Richards, Edwards etc.. I was disappointed the battles were not covered in more detail, few of them really stand out in my memory, but this is not a military history, mostly political.

This period is seen as a transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and modernity. During periods of change there is typically upheaval and from that emerges greater cooperation afterwards - think about the world pre and post WWII, Germany and Japan merged into Western liberalism. What emerged from the Wars of the Roses was a more united England, in particular Wales, and between north and south England. There was also a merger of the French realms because England left the continent.
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Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell about It

Brian Murphy (2018)
October 2018
Audio P8
A customer review on Amazon by Paul Cassel well sums up the weaknesses of the book. Nevertheless it still has good qualities, the core survival story is cinematic and transporting through time and place. It brings our attention to the huge number of people who died in the 19th and early 20th century crossing the Atlantic. After the ship strikes a burg (how most sink) and assuming you make it onto a "lifeboat" (an open dory) you would likely die of dehydration and exposure within 1-8 days, while watching those around you do the same, slowly going insane drinking seawater or even killing fellow passengers. Typically this would include mothers and fathers and children. It is one of the more terrible human experiences, Adrift really brings it home. I'm a big fan of survival stories and this is a good one but also be prepared to learn about the shipping industry in the mid-19th century, which is interesting in its own right and a lot less painful than being a castaway!
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Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane

Andrew Graham-Dixon (2011)
October 2018
Audio P8
I picked this up on the strength of the reviews, I knew nothing about Caravaggio or his art. A famous name well worth the time to learn more about. The artwork is available on Wikipedia where most of the paintings have individual articles and zoomable HD images. It is asking too much of a publisher to provide quality color art plates inside a biography. The B&W images are sufficient to remind the reader which painting is being discussed but not when seeing a painting for the first time - one can't be too lazy about looking them up in color high resolution to get the full effect. Indeed, prior to the Internet, the Caravaggio experience was limited to expensive art books and trips to museums. Books like this in conjunction with visuals on the Internet make for a greater than sum.
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Dueling Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew

Ronny Cox (2012)
October 2018
Audio Audible
This is a short book by one of the stars of the movie Deliverance (1972) about his time on the set. It's actually quite good lots of stories and background about scenes and people, including about the recently deceased Burt Reynolds. I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Cox which greatly compliments the text - he is a professional actor, of course, but he takes it to a level of narration where it sounds spontaneously delivered with pauses, umms and hmms - as if he sitting around telling stories to the listener. It's a unique audio "deliverance" (sorry) that fits the simple and naturalistic style of the film itself, elevating it to something more than a memoir to a work of art.
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The Origin: A Biographical Novel of Charles Darwin

Irving Stone (1980)
October 2018
Audio P8
I really enjoyed Stone's Agony and Lust for Life. Stone's "biographical novel" style is well suited to a life of action and turmoil, the titles of those two can attest. But Darwin is something else, he was a nice man who lived a nice life. The book is boring. The most interesting part is the writing and publication of Origin when there was a bit of tension. Overall it probably gets the facts accurate at the expense of a compelling story. A narrative non-fiction account would probably do better than Stone's method, at least for Darwin.
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Voyage Through the Antarctic

Richard Adams (1982)
September 2018
Audio P8
Sometime around 1980, Richard Adams took a tourist cruise ship to the Antarctic and then to New Zealand. It's a short book with lots of photographs. Adams is a nature lover so the focus is on the wildlife, mainly birds. They stopped at Scott's hut and Adams shows his age by remarking how the labels on the 80 year old food tins reminded him of his childhood. The highlight of the trip for him was when the ship was surrounded by dozens of breaching whales. They take Zodiac boats to shore and walk among the sea lions and penguins. On the way north they stop at Enderby Island which is still fresh in my memory from the classic Island of the Lost by Joan Druett, the descriptions match well how I recalled it. They stop at another island overrun by yes, rabbits. This might be a good book to take on such a trip, or in lieu of one, the age of it holds up fine and Adams is a gentle character.
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The Man Who Walked Backward: An American Dreamer's Search for Meaning in the Great Depression

Ben Montgomery (2018)
September 2018
Audio Audible
Ben Montgomery wrote a fantastic story about Grandma Gatewood so I looked forward to another folksy American character. The writing is what stands out, creative at times by non-fiction standards. But the writing can't overcome the lack of incident in Wingo's walk. As well, Wingo lacks depth of character. Unlike Grandma Gatewood who faced adversity and rose to triumph over her demons, Wingo was just doing it on a lark and was a smooth-talking well-dressed fame seeker (he talked his way onto the Johnny Carson show). It's an OK book, not bad because of the writing, but overall a somewhat trivial subject. Montgomery fills it out with references to current events happening at the time, but briefly.
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Bitwise: A Life in Code

David Auerbach (2018)
September 2018
Audio Audible
David Auerbach has worked for Microsoft and Google, considering himself among their top 10% programmers. He is a smart guy who has some unusual thinking patterns. He is also a student of the humanities and this book combines the fields in interesting and unusual ways. It's subtle and profound, sometimes funny, I've never read anything quite like it. A book of substance that makes you feel smarter about people and computers for having read it, a real find.

I was particularly struck how the core architecture of computers is mirrored socially and it may not be good. That is to say, computers understand boolean logic, is or is not, 1 or 0. This means computers are very good at categorizing things (and people) into discreet chunks, such as "is something true, or not true". But human culture and language is often much more subtle and rich. Big data and systems (Facebook, etc) tend to flatten that out. Another case of the medium is the message.
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North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail

Scott Jurek (2018)
September 2018
Audio P8
There is something cathartic about long-distance hiking, the complexity of life is reduced to a single problem: putting one foot in front of the other for weeks on end. Some hikers are driven to do it fast, or even the fastest. In 2015, Scott Jurek averaged around 47 miles a day walking/running the Appalachian Trail. One doesn't need to actually run to achieve that mileage, but he did, at least most times. The book is co-authored with his wife Jenny and the chapters interleave as she describes 'crewing' a van between meetup points each night, which sounds easy by comparison but apparently not. As he moves northward, Jurek gives increasingly alarming descriptions of self-imposed physical destruction/torture. Jurek is famous in the running world so he was continually shadowed by fans becoming a moving target for attention, he not only had to run but be "on" for the crowd.

After I finished the book, I was curious to see who else had a AT speed record and was surprised to discover that Jurek's record was beat the next year. And it was beat again in 2017 by a self-supported hiker (not a runner) carrying a backpack with no support van, the most impressive accomplishment IMO. And that record was beat in 2018 by a guy from Eastern Europe (with a van) who beat Jurek by a week averaging nearly 53 miles a day. The community is now saying the 2018 record will stand a long time. The last 4 years have been speedy times on the trail and a book about these years would be good as they were each different yet interconnected, initiated by Jurek's hike who set the goal-post for others to beat.
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Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North (Science Essentials)

Mark C. Serreze (2018)
September 2018
Audio P8
This recounts one scientists journey from the 1990s to present as he comes to believe in man-made global warming, sort of a mix of science and autobiography. I was under the impression it was for a general audience. But Serreze doesn't refrain from heavy climate terminology. It makes for a short book when you can use pithy and precise science vocabulary and don't need to repeat or rephrase before moving on to the next insight. Not to say I didn't pick a few things up here and there, but I couldn't recommend it unless you have the course prerequisites, or are motivated enough to do lookups. I might have even been motivated had the narrative been compelling -- but since we all know how it turns out (global warming is real) the mystery element is essentially missing and character element (Serreze) sometimes seems like he is writing an apology for why he doubted man-made climate change for so long. I think anyone knowledgeable enough on climate science will gain some value, Serreze is working in good faith he is not a denier.
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Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea

Robert K. Massie (2003)
September 2018
Audio Audible
Castles of Steel is a lengthy survey of naval warfare during the Great War. Much of this material is available in specialist history books, Massie makes it accessible for the general reader. The writing is top notch maintaining your attention, for that alone it is worth the time. The subject matter is somewhat obscure and if Massie hadn't written it, I doubt I would have read a book of this length. It gives an impression of being a complete history of the Great War at sea, but there are many battles not mentioned or only in passing. Massie spends an inordinate time on British fleet commander politics, blunders and operations which gives the battles more flavor, but at the cost of fewer voices from the lower deck, other than body counts. The few actions I knew from previous reading were not covered: the Emden's raid on Penang, and SMS Kƶnigsberg in German East Africa. I was delighted to learn about Q-ships which I had never heard about before, a sort of naval version of the dog fight. The battle of Falkland was a vivid retelling, but the image of two ocean passenger liners slugging it out in the Caribbean will never be forgotten. Overall, naval warfare in WWI was limited compared to WWII though it did lay the groundwork for the next war. It was the Brits war to loose and they rightly played it close to the vest not taking much risk. The Germans did the same, but should have been more aggressive as they had nothing to loose in a big attack, and by the time they realized this it was too late.
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Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News

Clint Watts (2018)
August 2018
Audio P8
Messing with the Enemy is by a counter-terrorism expert who after 9/11 began chatting online with Islamic terrorists and the blogging about it (turns out terrorists are egotistical and like to brag and talk). He wrote papers about it and has become sought after by the federal government for his insights and experiences. He was also one of the first to notice the Russian bot campaign before anyone thought Trump might be "Kompromat". The book is more interesting with current events in the later third, concerning Russian techniques of "Active Measures". The Internet has become a powerful way for previously weak nations to exert tremendous influence and control over other countries - technological asymmetry. It would be naive to ignore it as a few extremists or 'fat guys in the basement', it's now standard statecraft. The subtlety and deviousness is both frightening and maddening. The best defense is awareness and knowledge, which Watts assuredly provides. And fighting back - by messing with the enemy.
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Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

John Carreyrou (2018)
August 2018
Audio Audible
Elizabeth Holmes is a vampire, in Carreyrou's telling a bloodsucking monster with little regard for anyone but her own fame and fortune. In this age of inequality it's so rewarding to read about her comeuppance. The system seemed to work - whistleblowers came forward, journalism exposed the lies, regulators intervened and courts and law took over. The story of Holmes is not over yet, she is talented and may not go down so easily.

Although a very interesting and enjoyable story, and will make a compelling movie, giving it three point five stars because: I wish it explored more of her inner psychology, the power she held over old rich men, the feminism angle - she has been called the first post-modern feminist anti-hero. And I wish it delved more broadly into psychopathic CEOs, because this is not a 1-off case. It was rushed to publish before the Holmes story has completed - which is understandable given the upcoming court cases, Carreyrou wants to get the full story out to the public while it's a hot topic. A movie is in the works. A chronological narrative account well told, so far.
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The Coming Storm

Michael Lewis (2018)
August 2018
Audio P8
The Coming Storm is an audiobook-only release narrated by Lewis himself. Like Moneyball it concerns data analysis except in the world of weather forecasting, focusing on a few gifted people over the past 20 years or so. Lewis also discusses AccuWeather's attempt to monopolize government weather data so US taxpayers would have to pay twice: once for the government to create it, and again for accessing it via AccuWeather products. A bill to this effect was narrowly defeated but meanwhile AccuWeather is now basically running NOAA under the Trump administration, comparable to Pruitt running EPA. If the corporate interests get their way, those rich enough to pay fees will have access to the best government forecasts and everyone else will get news of impending hurricanes and tornadoes late - meanwhile hedge funds will have profited from a jump on the news, for which they pay extra. The days of public data created by the government, for and by the people, may soon be ending resulting in more money flowing to the rich and everyone else being adversely impacted.
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Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age

Stephen R. Platt (2018)
August 2018
Audio P8
Imperial Twilight concerns the period 1800-1839 leading up to the Opium War. It's not about the war itself which is covered in a few pages at the end. Rather it seeks to understand how such a bizarre historical episode came to be - while the British were ending slavery and starting the worlds first human rights organization, they were enslaving millions of Chinese to opium which at the time was illegal in China, they were drug lords that Pablo Escobar would understand. It's a multi-generational story centered on Canton, the only Chinese port where Western companies could do trade with the kingdom. There are lessons relevant to today, namely when a few corporate entities are making ungodly amounts of money they will do anything to keep it going, even if means destroying entire countries, or indeed the planet, for short-term profits regardless of human or ethical issues.

The Chinese today see the event as the start of the modern era, when outsiders began meddling in their affairs from which they are still recovering a rightful place as the greatest country in history. Platt undermines that narrative somewhat showing it as mostly a series of unintended consequences and contingencies with both sides at fault. However if there is a bad guy it would be the British for deciding to go to war to maintain a reprehensible trade. This is serious but readable history, Platt has done considerable research on a key period.
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Never Lost Again: The Google Mapping Revolution That Sparked New Industries and Augmented Our Reality

Bill Kilday (2018)
July 2018
Audio Audible
Never Lost Again is an insider account of the invention and triumph of Google Maps/Earth. As a marketing guy Bill Kilday knows how to convey technical information to a non-technical audience, and how to tell a people-oriented story. The story turns out to be somewhat of a winding road, starting with a small company begun by two Texas friends that almost went bankrupt. You get a sense of life in an innovative startup, and what it's like to be swallowed by a whale (Google). Kilday is a likeable character, self-effacing and has a touch for the humorous antidote. Great book on a fascinating topic that really did change the world. The golden quote is by Sergey Brin: "Think bigger". You have to read the book to fully appreciate the audacity of what it means, and consequences. It's a lesson that can a lifetime to appreciate (if ever), but Kilday effectively conveys to the reader what it means and how this simple idea made Google so powerful. It also neatly conveys what it did for millions of Google Map users.
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Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America

Craig Childs (2018)
July 2018
Audio P8
I'm from the East Coast and it's difficult to find many places that invoke the feeling of 15,000 years ago, the forests are second growth and development is everywhere. But out west there are many places where one can easily collapse time and imagine little has changed other than being hotter and drier. The caves and stone dwellings still exist in a mostly intact landscape. This sense of time travel is what Craig Childs conveys as he tours archaeological sites around the Americas North, Central and South, but mainly focused on the United States west and Alaska.

The book has a ghostly poetic quality, we live among the bones of people and animals of a former world. It is deeply informative hardly a page goes by without some new interesting fact or perspective. Humans could have traveled from Alaska to Chile in as little as 2 years the speed of modern kayaks, easily living off the abundance of the "kelp highway" that reaches all the way to Japan. Humans have been in the Americas since at least 15,000 BC but likely longer with some evidence pushing it back to 30,000 BC - some of the oldest artifacts have been found on the US East Coast such as in the Chesapeake Bay.

Childs is of that generation that loves the primitive taking it to the level of spiritualism - he often speaks of ancient memories invoked by a place. Maybe he is right. or he might be a little insane too, in a good way. He ends with a trip to Black Rock desert home of Burning Man the ultimate neo-primitive collective. Only to find he wants to escape into the desert back in time, but not too far back when huge predators still walked about, rather to a sweet spot about 10,000 years ago when humans transitioned from eating Mammoths to deer and rabbits.
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The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle over the Greatest Riches in the American West

Gregory Crouch (2018)
July 2018
Audio Audible
Gregory Crouch writes very good books. Deeply researched, primary source-based, using the lingo of the age, transporting through time, disciplined and compelling. Serious history that is accessible and fun. He's in class with Ron Chernow, though writes on more esoteric topics. Therein is the magic, the discovery of something on the surface seems trivial but underneath is a gold mine. If you ever wanted to feel what it's like to mine for and strike ore, to make a bonanza, this will do it. I'll never forget the description of tunnels glittering with solid silver chunks.

This is a history of the Comstock Lode, the largest mineral discovery in North American history, as told through the life of John Mackay, a New York City slum street urchin who went west with the 49's and rose to become one of the richest people in the world. After his death he faded into obscurity because, as Crouch says, he was uncontroversial and widely admired during his time, a sort of notability killer. Yet, an important figure of the 19th century not unlike Rockefeller. Either way if you read it to learn about Mackay, a rags to riches story, or mining the Comstock there is much to be gained.
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Lonesome Dove

Larry McMurtry (1985)
July 2018
Audio P8
Although published in 1985, Lonesome Dove was conceived and begun in 1972 - it's kin with other big historical revisionism epics of the 70s like Roots. McMurtry asserts he was writing an Inferno in the Western genre, and if one looks beyond the likeable characters (eg. Gus) this is indeed a bleak story of death and suffering, abandon all hope ye who enter. A land where bones lay stacked deep and one reaps what one sows. There are quite a few allusions to Dante though it's not so simple as a retelling. McMurtry didn't write a grand romantic Western epic or wistful remembrance of a former golden age, it's a downright hellish nightmare vision of the West that, if it ever existed, is gladly gone and buried.
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Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon

Robert Kurson (2018)
June 2018
Audio Audible
Two books about Apollo 8 came out recently. The first by Jeffrey Kluger the author of Lost Moon, the basis of the Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13 and IMO one of the finest works on space I've ever read. The other by Robert Kurson the author of Shadow Divers, also one of the most captivating adventure stories I've ever read. What a choice! I went with Kurson.

The book's format is what you would expect. Lots of background on the lives of the three crew members followed by a blow by blow account of the mission. In this case it was about 60% background and %40 mission which seems out of balance. Kurson contrasts the chaos of 1968 with the success of the mission; and to highlight the wives and families of the crew. It is targeting a younger audience: the vocabulary is limited, emphasis on superlatives and gee wiz, short chapters with hanging suspense. Pirate Hunters shared the same. It's a good book but not classic, an easy read to learn why Apollo 8 was so important and the lives of three astronauts.
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Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth

Adam Frank (2018)
June 2018
Audio Audible
Adam Frank is an astrobiologist who makes the case for why we should accept the existence of intelligence life in the universe, and why it matters even if we can't detect it, as of yet. He says that because so many exoplanets have been discovered during recent decades, statistically the observable universe must contain trillions of planets; and even if a fleetingly small percentage developed exocivilizations it would still add up to thousands if not many more. Therefore we should accept Earth is not the only one, and this acceptance changes the perspective on ourselves. It raises questions of civilization mortality because, if there are so many, why don't we see them? Clearly because they must die. And this raises questions of why, and therein science fact and fiction part ways. The specifics can never be known, but some things are universal, such as planetary atmospheres, chemistry, population growth dynamics. Thus for example, Frank says, global warming is a byproduct of any advanced civilization that harnesses energy and represents one trap that can cause exocivilizations to cease. He developed a simulation and ran it for millions of planets and found, depressingly, most of them die. Climate change killed the aliens, and it might kill us too, new simulation suggests.
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Energy: A Human History

Richard Rhodes (2018)
June 2018
Audio Audible
Richard Rhodes is a member of the Atomic Heritage Foundation and wrote the definitive account of the making of the atomic bomb. So it is no surprise that he sees the future shining brightly for nuclear energy, if the planet is to survive. He likewise castigates anti-nuclear as akin to being a Nazi (actually drawing that parallel). He is a "wizard" in the "Wizard and Prophet" dichotomy (see The Wizard and the Prophet), but apparently is either not self-aware of it, or simply pushing an agenda. As such the book is weak in its larger message, preaching to the choir.
The other aspect of the book is a history of energy transitions, this takes up the bulk. It quickly runs from one invention to the next giving Wikipedia-like vignettes. Personally I find this sort of encyclopedic regurgitation unsatisfying, though it is redeemed by Rhodes' sentence-building skills and occasional poetic analogies. I was hoping for something more.
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Farthest North

Fridtjof Nansen (1897)
June 2018
Audio Audible
Farthest North is considered a classic, being on National Geographic's list at #11. Nevertheless I do not rate it very highly, it is a long frustrating slog. Not much happens until about 70% of the way through, they ride comfortably in the Fram borne along by the ice actually gaining weight from eating too much food. The crew do not come alive as personalities, only the dogs hold much interest. As noted in the review by thorold (Aug 21 2012) the book is a PR piece meant to smooth over the rough spots and show how right Nansen was, to silence the critics.

Finally Nansen leaves the ship and travels over the ice on a dog sled the narrative picks up pace. There are some interesting scenes of tribulation and survival but offset by Nansen who does not see an animal he can't stop to kill or injure in graphic heart-breaking detail. There is nothing wrong with killing for food but I've never read such detailed animal cruelty.

Nansen's writing is based on diaries and he tends to rely on cliche. In the translation, he often speaks with the impersonal pronoun "one", ie. "One often sees oneself etc.." an overly formal style that grates. The book itself contains many incredible pictures and maps. Nansen's return to Norway is satisfying if not melodramatic (the pipe drops from his mouth, "Is that you, Nansen?")

This is still an important book, for anyone serious about polar literature it's near the top of the list. Perhaps a new translation, abridgement and annotations could make it a little more appealing.
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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Stephen Greenblatt (2011)
May 2018
Audio P8
I love books about classic books that are otherwise difficult, a guide is welcome. Despite the subtitle chosen by the publisher, I don't think Greenblatt is saying this one book by Lucretius created the modern world, but he is saying it was influential to some degree and he succeeded in showing that. Lucretius provided a model, atomism, for understanding the physical world that was in the end correct, at least more so than the alternative of faith.

Critics say Greenblatt is anti-religious and falls into the trap created by Italian Humanists who depict the "middle" ages (a term they invented) as being "dark" (a concept they created); that these intellectual models were part of a propaganda campaign to restore the glory of Rome, one that lives on in the modern imagination for various reasons. In short, anyone who uses the term or concept of a "Dark Ages" is not a serious historian rather a populist. These are valid criticisms.. and yet. This is still a good book, as a history of On the Nature of Things, of Italian "book hunters" and some Humanists brought back to life.
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Ready Player One

Ernest Cline (2011)
May 2018
Audio P8
It's true. Ready Player One contains derivative ideas, style and content - "stacks" of worlds upon worlds. Pop-culture eats itself, and this is one mighty beast gobbling up 1980s artifacts at every turn. The kitchen sink approach is at least as old as Dante's Inferno, an encyclopedia of Renaissance references wrapped in a fantasy-world quest. But unlike Inferno, the moral of Player One -- unfortunately it asserts one -- is don't become overly absorbed in imaginary worlds. Unless you are Cline and Spielberg who make a fine living at it. The ending would have been better without the patronizing finger wagging, why the 4 stars.

Technologist Kevin Kelley said the Wil Wheaton audiobook reading surpassed the book itself or the movie, his recommendation is why I listened to it. This sometimes happens where an audio reading can enhanced the original through some magical chemistry that is hard to duplicate. I believe that is the case here, it was really a whole lot of fun. Not to overthink it, this was purely escapist entertainment that delivers.
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The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

Steve Brusatte (2018)
May 2018
Audio Audible
Excellent history for a general reader by a practicing dinosaur paleontologist. There's a lot of information but presented in a narrative non-fiction technique making it easy to follow, and Brusatte is an entertaining and likeable guide.

From ch.8 about birds, birds are dinosaurs, not an evolutionary lineage or dino-light version, actual dinosaurs. Lightweight hollow bones, super-efficient lungs, high intelligence, high metabolism, fast movement - everything we associate with a bird is the same as a dinosaur, because they are dinosaurs. Feathers and wings developed in dinosaurs as with peacocks for display and protection - the smaller animals found they could get lift from early wings in an evolutionary accident - flight was not intentional but when it occurred happen-chance, it quickly took off in many directions.

Dinosaurs lasted nearly 200 million years, a stretch of time so vast as to challenge the imagination. Brusatte does a good job giving the highlights - mass extinctions, evolutionary success stories. The shifting geography of the continents as they drifted apart played into why and how dinosaurs evolved due to climatic changes brought on by long-term volcanic and weather patterns. Time can drive great change. Dinosaurs were not an evolutionary dead-end they are still living. Their demise from the top spot was a random event, but they could return to dominance again should "intelligent" mammals leave the world to the birds.
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The Centurions

Jean Larteguy (1960)
May 2018
Audio Audible
Excellent anti-war novel that continues to be read and studied by professional warfighters. There isn't much combat, it's not really a war novel but a novel about war; at least a third takes place in France on home-leave. It's about the various aspects a soldier deals with in the modern era post-WWII. The hazy loyalties, contradictions. In hindsight all the lessons of Vietnam are here, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan. It's very French and some of the character-types are hard to grasp 60-years on but the essence is there, some things are universal.
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The White Darkness: A Solitary Journey Across Antarctica

David Grann (2018)
April 2018
Audio Audible
"The White Darkness" was first published in the February 2018 issue of The New Yorker followed by a 2h15m audio version on Audible, and Doubleday is releasing a 144 page hardcover in October 2018, with pictures. Such is the landscape of media.

David Grann gives a lot in a short space, most writers would have made this story four times as long. The economy of words is a compliment. Although also a writer of books, he is at his best in long-form magazine articles; four articles from the Sherlock anthology have been made into feature-length movies. "White Darkness" is another small masterpiece, a riff on classic exploration literature echoing the subject of the story out of place and time.
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Roots

Alex Haley (1976)
April 2018
Audio P8
Roots is a great novel regardless of the hoax genealogy. I assumed it was fiction anyway. It doesn't take away from an archetypal story of millions of black Americans. Haley can tell a powerful story while at the same time revealing history. For example having recently read The Internal Enemy, a history of slavery in Virginia from the 1770s to 1830s, the place and times come alive in personal color through Roots. Haley correctly emphasizes white fear of the "internal enemy". Indeed Roots is comparable to Schindler's List how it introduced and educated generations of Americans to a hard topic; and serves as a corrective to romanticized white literature about the antebellum south.
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Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu

Bernard B. Fall (1966)
April 2018
Audio P8
Hell in a Very Small Place (1966) was the definitive book on the battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954) up until the release of The Last Valley in 2004. It still might be, I have not read the later to determine. Fall's book is mostly the chronicle of a "cage fight" with two tough cats thrown into a closed space and watching them destroy one another. I admit to being somewhat lost much of the time for lack of decent maps (I read the audiobook version). There is a lot of detail that would reward a second or third reading. As a battle it's interesting in the same way the Western Front was in WWI. Except in the back woods of Vietnam. And units that included ex-Nazi mercenaries, sub-Saharan Africans, Moroccan and Algerians, French elite paratroopers, Laos tribesmen, Chinese and of course many Vietnamese. Actions included massive air drops, mountain artillery, underground mines, human waves, daredevil feats of heroism. I'd like to revisit sometime but with a better understanding of the Indochina war.
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The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832

Alan Taylor (2013)
April 2018
Audio Audible
American slavery is commonly profiled in the 1850-1860 period, near its end. Taylor in this account gives a different history of slavery in the Tidewater of Virginia and Maryland from the Revolutionary War to 1832. - as such it doesn't end with a satisfying day of freedom. Or does it? Leading up to the War of 1812 and in its aftermath, American slaves fled to British war ships who then resettled them in places like Bermuda and Nova Scotia to become free citizens. Entire plantations of slaves stole way in the night and rowed in canoes out to the warships in the Chesapeake. The slaves in turn provided valuable guides and sources of military information. Slaves even returned to their plantations - at the head of armed British raiding parties - to rescue family members. The micro-stories Taylor discovered in old letters and court documents are dramatic enough for novel or movie material.

The main thesis is that the slave owning states were in constant fear of a slave uprising; it directly affected the outcome of the War of 1812 as they refused to send enough troops north to fight the British for fear of the "Internal Enemy" at home, a phrase commonly used at the time. This idea of the "Internal Enemy" in some ways lingers on to this day and it's fascinating to see where it began - the convoluted rationalizations of the Founding Fathers who fought for the Liberty from Britain to enslave others. This led to a kind of paranoia that the great sin that would one day came back to haunt them. And it did.
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The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure

Carl Hoffman (2018)
March 2018
Audio Audible
The developed (western) world has a fascination with primitive cultures. Tattoos, piercings, yoga, tiedye, Burning Man, etc.. we idolize the primitive in a sterile constrained technological and overcrowded society. The 1960s was when this started to become commoditized. Hippies traveled to the far corners, seeking enlightenment from the ancient, or simply an escape into the wilderness. Most returned, some sent expensive artifacts home, and some stayed forever. This is the story of two central figures, one a Swiss national and self-styled wild-man, Bruno Manser, the other an American art dealer, Michael Palmieri. They both lived remarkable adventure-filled lives at the intersection between cultures, and at the tip of the spear. More than an adventure story, though, Hoffman's narrative examines what it really means to value the primitive.
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Outland: The Novelization

Alan Dean Foster (1981)
March 2018
Book paperback
Outland is a classic of science-fiction film but not generally well known, probably because it didn't spawn a franchise. It was a peer with other great films of the late 70s and early 80s like Blade Runner, Alien, Star Wars. Having enjoyed Foster's novelization of Alien, I found a yellow-paged mass-market paperback printed in 1982 and breezed through it in no time. This is a thinking-persons science-fiction. There are no aliens, no magical technology, very believable if gritty near future, not a ton of stupid action. It's best remembered for the depictions of uncontrolled decompression in the vacuum of space causing the body to explode - this turns out to be myth, still it made for some gruesomely memorable scenes.
Overall I found the novel as good or better than the movie. Sean Connery wasn't the right cast. The story is based on High Noon and it involves a man of no great potential rising unexpectedly to overcome forces larger than himself. But Connery is not that kind of actor, he arrives already a great man by association (James Bond!), of course he will prevail. The novel in this regard is more successful. Overall, really great classic science-fiction that is worth reading as well as watching, particularly for more recent fans of Moon.
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Grant

Ron Chernow (2017)
March 2018
Audio Audible
Grant is a biographer's dream. An improbable war hero, a beaten underdog who rose against the odds, a likeable person, slayer of slavery. So it's no surprise there are an embarrassment of Grant biography riches: a Pulitzer Prize winner, another Pulitzer nominee and at least 5 other high quality award-winning top-shelf biographies still in print, not to mention Grant's own memoir some consider the best of the Civil War. Given the competition, a way to distinguish from the crowd is to write one longer than the rest, Chernow's specialty. For those who have read the earlier biographies, they might wonder what more is to be found in this 1000 page behemoth. I couldn't really say, this is my first Grant bio, but I don't feel the need to read another soon.

I knew little about Grant and so everything is new. Chernow's descriptions of the Civil War in the West helped solidify that complex theater, as well as the Overland campaign, a single running battle of attrition. I was amazed how close the South came to re-enacting slavery after the war, and how crucial Grant was to stopping it. Also the amount of violence that continued for years afterwards, I'd like to learn more. Grant was certainly the most important person of the era, after Lincoln.

This is a fine book, very readable. Chernow is sympathetic to his subject and reader.
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The Stones of the Abbey

Fernand Pouillon (1964)
March 2018
Book paperback
Les Pierres Sauvages (The Stones of the Abbey) is by French architect Fernand Pouillon. He wrote the novel while in jail, in 1964, making it a modern specimen of the ancient genre of prison literature popularized by Boethius pondering lady fortune. Pouillon was known for constructing large cheap housing complexes, and was jailed on charges related to his work as a building contractor. He also restored some castles, and while in prison it was an inward imaginative turn to the Medieval that led to this curious novel about the construction of a 12th century Abbey in Provence (based on a real Abbey and people). Somewhat reminiscent of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco is blurbed on the front cover, it's more contemplative and realistic.

While not a page turner, there is no mystery driving it forward, there are settings and descriptions that offer insight into the period, and the process of building a large stone Abbey. The bottleneck to building a stone structure is the laborious nature of cutting and transporting the stone itself, each block being a major piece of work whose production is limited by the number of workers, mules to carry it and distance from quarry. The novel is told in diary format by the master builder (the contractor) who has to deal with management issues - getting supplies, motivating monks to work, resolving disputes, health and food. The nature of the writing and vocabulary demands slow reading, monkish even, one has the impression of stepping back into another era. The book has a classic feel and will be just as interesting in 100 years time, though its audience will likely remain limited to those with an academic interest in the Middle Ages.
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Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport, the Most Audacious Hostage Rescue Mission in History

Saul David (2015)
March 2018
Audio Audible
Operation Thunderbolt is about the famous "Raid on Entebbe" in 1976. The book is a 'disaster procedural'. Like a crime procedural it moves forward in time, hour by hour. Like a 1970s disaster movie (eg. Towering Inferno) we learn about the passengers and hijackers as they evolve into distinct and sympathetic characters. Thus the structure makes for a compelling and entertaining account. It's core strength is describing how the Israeli government responded in the moment offering interesting insights. The author makes a case for it being the first modern counter-terrorist operation. Overall this was an entertaining but serious thriller that was hugely important in Israeli history, and the history of terrorism. As a result of the success of Thunderbolt, nations pivoted from negotiating with terrorists to using force, for better or worse.
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The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World

Charles C. Mann (2018)
February 2018
Audio Audible
The Wizard and the Prophet is about two men with competing visions for the future. The first is a Wizard. He sees the solution in ever more technology (think GMOs and nuclear power). The other is a Prophet. He sees the problems of humanity arising from too much technology with the solution to work closer with nature (think organic farming and wind farms). These two visions define our world with real consequences of decisions made by people, companies and states.

The division began to emerge in the late 1940s with the publication of William Vought's Road to Survival. It is credited as the first modern environmental book and, prior to Silent Spring which it heavily influenced, was the most important book of its type. The Wizard in Mann's book is the father of the Green Revolution, Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug. He was chosen by Mann as an archetypal Wizard and there are some connections with Vought.

The book is a history of these two men and their work, and seeks to answer the question: which vision is right? Mann says he has long been a Wizard but with global warming and other natural limits looming he isn't so sure anymore. He wrote the book to work it out. There is a lot of thinking and consideration though he never comes firmly down on either side. The lasting value is the concept of Wizard and Prophet, but also a worthwhile history of Vought and Borlaugh. They are not household names but maybe should be better known. As a former Wizard myself, who later became a Prophet, the book questions assumptions and left me adrift. As someone who reads the Reddit forums Futurism and Environmentalism on occasion, it couldn't be a more perfect "Ah hah!" on the fundamental division over competing (and seemingly contradictory) views of the path forward.
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Peter the Great: His Life and World

Robert K. Massie (1980)
February 2018
Audio Audible
Peter the Great: His Life and World is a remarkable synthesis. I can't imagine a better book on the subject for the general reader(*). It is both informative and enjoyable, wry with humor, par excellence pacing, quality quotes, and a variety of subject. Massie builds a rich tapestry that transports the reader into the period. Lavish descriptions of the every-day like what it's like to ride in a coach, the foods they ate, the clothes they worse, home interiors, are speckled throughout like a spice that bring a dish alive. It was published in 1980, when the USA was emerging from a funk into the electric energy of the 80s and the spirit and mood of that time is mirrored in the book's subject of the emergence of Russia from the Medieval to Modern, when women saw greater freedoms, secularism was on the rise, and technology was challenging ideology. All history books are a product of the milieu in which they are written and this is no exception, to its credit.

The main subjects of the book, almost mini-books onto themselves, are Peter's Great Embassy which Massies calls one of the great events of his life and takes the reader on a journey around the capital cities of Europe at the turn of the 18th century. Next is the Great North War (1700-1721), with major battles including Narva (1700) and Poltava (1709), the later being a positive change in the fortunes and history of Russia. Sweden's Charles XII is an interesting character and his coverage shadows Peter during this period, there is almost a complete biography of Charles. His famous ride across Europe, the debacle in Turkey, etc.. Then there is the incident involving Peter's son, with material enough for a TV soap it was a drama played out for all of Europe to watch. The ending is brutal and speaks volumes to the character of Peter and the times. Finally there is the consolidation of the Russian institutions in his later years and some minor conflicts with Persia and Turks. One can see patterns of conflict between neighboring powers that exist to this day in Russia.

(*) general reader - Some reviewers have criticized it as popular history. This is a mistake. Everyone is a general reader, at some point, we only become specialists after a great teacher excites us to learn more. Books such as this are important and not easy to make, works of art onto themselves.
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From Russia with Love

Ian Fleming (1963)
January 2018
Audio P8
Memorable set pieces include the tunnel underneath Istanbul with the submarine periscope. The Gypsy encampment and cat-fight. The character of Rosa Klebb is the best of the novel but she disappears half-way (the film brings her back at the end). Fleming spent nearly a third of the book developing Red Grant but he never stands out - a cut of the knife and dead no return. The novel was published in newspaper serial format and it shows, the glue holding the sections together is episodic. The 63' movie went overboard on the soft-porn and chase scenes, of course.
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The Thirty-Nine Steps

John Buchan (1915)
January 2018
Audio P8
The Thirty-Nine Steps is on many "best of" reading lists plus movie versions it lives on forever. Really though it's an artifact of 1914, when paranoia about German spies ran high and citizens found themselves thrust into the open and on the run, so to speak, in the trenches of France. It was the perfect book for the moment as people strove to understand how the great calamity came about - invasion of England by German spies. Add in the latest technology of airplanes and secret codes etc.. it's like a 1915 version of what James Bond did for the Cold War. An important and influential book in the thriller/mystery genre it was one of the first "man on the run" thrillers which are so common now. As a story it's not aging so well but remains readable and condensed enough for a single day or two. Plus the movies are online for free.
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Beasts, Men and Gods

Ferdinand Ossendowski (1922)
January 2018
Audio P8
Cinematic super-hero and Western-pulp combine with Eastern mysticism made for a best-seller in 1923. Not sure I believe most of it, but as an archetype of events, it's believable. Anything is possible. I couldn't get past the American Western pulp-fiction tropes which makes it seem insincere. And some obvious BS like the Lama who cuts a man open and lives. At least it doesn't lack adventure. One contemporary reviewer called it "ingenuous" which is a tricky word depending on the meaning it could be a compliment (obs: honorable) or a pejorative (lacking craft or subtlety), perhaps some of both.
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A Tramp Abroad

Mark Twain (1880)
January 2018
Audio Audible
When Twain visited Germany in 1879 he was suffering writers block. His great work Huckleberry Finn was stuck mid-stream and he was too. What better way to shake the cobwebs off then a trip to Europe. Twain struggled through the writing of A Tramp Abroad and it shows in the sort of uneven quality and changing direction. Nevertheless it contains some excellent material. The first part about Heidelberg is the best - Twain didn't actually float a raft down the river and wreck (like what happened to Finn), this was made-up, but the descriptions of scenery and place makes it easy to follow on Google Maps and gain a sense of the place. The second best is in Switzerland as he recounts some climbs of renown up to the time, one gets a good sense of climbing culture and life in 19th Century. This is my first travel book by Twain I'd read more.
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The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassionā€”Surprising Observations of a Hidden World

Peter Wohlleben (2016)
January 2018
Audio Audible
If you liked Trees you'll like Animals. It's basis is in scientific research which is much better presented in Carl Safina's wonderful Beyond Words, but this is still worth reading for the additional anecdotes and quality of writing and of course Wohlleben's character and humor. This is the fourth book on animal intelligence I've read recently and these two, Wohlleben and Safina, are the best IMO for a general reader. If you've already read Safina or some other book, this is still worthwhile it doesn't repeat the same stories, it's more personal and contemplative.
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Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror

Victor Sebestyen (2017)
January 2018
Audio Audible
Lenin is an excellent up to date modern bio. It's accessible but also based in archival research with new information. This is my first reading on Lenin. It seems appropriately divorced from the Soviet mythology. It gives a picture of Lenin as driven by a single-minded focus (destroy the Empire), intelligent in an OCD way with details, but also deeply flawed by lack of humanity and proportion, a half-baked character whose biggest crime was to allow Stalin to gain power before his death. His success in the revolution was ultimately the result of incompetence of the opposition more than any superior skills. His strength was flexibility in the moment able to quickly change course at a precise moment of weakness in the state.
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Young Stalin

Simon Sebag Montefiore (2007)
January 2018
Audio Audible
Young Stalin reveals not only Stalin's life prior to the Revolution but the milieu of Georgia where he and so many in the Soviet leadership originated. A small number of highly effective Georgians managed to gain control of the vast Russian Empire, much of it is due to Stalin's single-minded drive and criminally large ego. The descriptions of early life in Georgia are fascinating but at some point I became lost in a tangle of incident, place and name as Stalin went underground for 12 years before the revolution. However the constant run-ins with the law, imprisonment and escapes, bank robberies, women (and more women), political intrigue, safe houses, disguises, conspiracies, etc .. leaves the strong impression of a wild life. It would make a great novel(s) or TV series. It really highlights how important the period leading up to the Revolution was in determining the USSR, and how the personalities of two men - Stalin and Lenin - made it such a ruthless and homicidal state.
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