Cool Reading 2019

A reading journal by Stephen Balbach

In 2019, I read 71 works (19,794 pages).
Favorites of 2019:
The 13th Valley
The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed
Livingstone
To Catch a Thief
In the Shadow of Man
Cuba Libre!
The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster
Reading journals from other years:
2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013,
2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

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River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana's Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon

Buddy Levy (2011)
December 2019
Audio Audible
Excellent reconstruction of one of the most fascinating voyages during the Age of Discovery. In fact, they did not set out to travel the length of the Amazon (a river yet named), but literally got swept away by it. They had no idea such a large river would go for 1000s of miles, assuming it must reach the ocean any moment - but on they went, month after month. It was one long hack and slash with the Indians their survival improbable to the extreme. The book starts out a little slow setting the background but once the river journey starts it's great stuff.
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Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition

Buddy Levy (2019)
December 2019
Audio Audible
Every year it seems like there is at least one major new book about polar exploration. For 2019 it is Labyrinth of Ice about the US Armies' Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, 1881-1884, in an area off the west coast of Greenland. It was famous in its day and remains well known. Buddy Levy first learned about in the 1960s, when it became a sort of passion to read everything he could find - it has the quality of the Titanic story with interesting characters from a variety of social backgrounds and a doomed voyage leaving only a few survivors. There have been a number of good books and memoirs, but Levy's retelling seems comprehensive and state of the art. Even if you have read some other books, or it has been a while, it has a lot of details and Levy's writing is top notch. The first few chapters are a little slow with background material but once they arrive in camp and things start to go wrong, the narrative is perfect right up to the end, everything you might expect and hope for in a doomed polar expedition retelling.
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South: The Endurance Expedition

Ernest Shackleton (1919)
December 2019
Audio Audible
This classic needs little introduction, being among the top three most famous accounts of the golden age of polar exploration (the other two Worst Journey and Scott's journals). Unlike most books about polar misadventures this has a happy ending and remains optimistic throughout. I am impressed by the clarity of the writing, Shackleton is not a poet but has an eye for detail and respect for the reader. It has a symmetry mirroring the circular route. I listened to the audiobook performance by Rupert Degas. A remarkable interpretation where the sum is greater than the parts. There are still actors around able to perform in-period so we can hear the words as they were meant to spoken, not unlike the skills of a Shakespearean actor. Hurrah.
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Life and Fate (BBC Radio Adaptation)

Vasily Grossman (2011)
December 2019
Audio P8
This is the 2011 BBC radio dramatization which is 8 hours long. I wanted to get a sense of this long and difficult novel before committing the time and energy it would demand. The BBC does a good job though there is no question reading it would be the better experience. The players speak in various English accents, not Russian or German, which as an American I found confusing and weird like listening to War and Peace with Italian accented actors. I now have an idea what the novel is about, not just plot but the ironic connections between fascism and communism; the life of fighting on the front against the enemy; against one's own comrades; plus co-operations with the enemy. If it inspires me to take on the novel remains to be seen.
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Napoleon: A Life

Adam Zamoyski (2018)
December 2019
Audio Audible
Like many brilliant people Napoleon is contradictory and complex. Zamoyski does a good job revealing his many sides by stripping away the mythology. A close associate called him purely political which is probably the best way to see him. He was in his lifetime building a myth of himself, that still retains force to this day. He was not a pleasant person except when he chose to put on the charm for effect. He had an elite mind, with a prodigious memory, capacity for work, broad knowledge and needed little sleep.

In the aftermath of the excesses of the Revolution he became a citizen-King, partway in the old and new. The French people rallied behind him and in the early battles established France as an independent people free of Monarch rule. Then he started believing his own mythology, became soft and grandiose and made the fatal mistake of invading Russia, his downfall, and French populist support turned against him. Banished to Elba he made a dramatic return, defeated at Waterloo and exiled to St. Helena to die at age 51 of cancer.

He was probably the most famous person of the 19th century, today less so, but who doesn't know of Napoleon. This lengthy single-volume work glosses the battles and looks more at his personal life and affairs. I think the Roberts biography that is more about the campaigns would be a useful addition as they are so central to his fame, but wow these books are long, he led one of the most active lives I've ever read.
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Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Patrick Radden Keefe (2019)
November 2019
Audio Audible
Keefe has written an excellent way to learn about the Irish Troubles of the 70s-90s, when there was a low-grade war in Northern Ireland resulting in the 'Belfast Syndrome', Bobby Sands, London bombings, hunger strikes and various other now iconic images. The murder mystery at the heart of the narrative keeps it humming while a sort greatest hits parade of people and events of the Troubles-era flickers by. The focus is on the Irish Catholic resistence. I had no idea about the level of violence and atrocities that occurred. I listened to the audiobook narrated by a northern-accented reader and this gives an added dimension, the reading worked out very well on all levels and is highly recommended, some reported speeding to 1.2x helps.
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Stones of Silence: Journeys in the Himalaya

George B. Schaller (1980)
November 2019
Audio NLSB
I'd never heard of Schaller before but wanted to read it because it concern the same 1970s trip Peter Matthiessen was on when he wrote The Snow Leopard. Apparently Schaller was at the time considered the world's premier field biologist. On this trip he was scouting for regions in Pakistan, Nepal and Tibet that governments might set aside for parks. He was searching for large mammals and finding most of the Himalayas had been decimated by hunters and farmers. It was mostly empty except for local stories of the abundance of what once existed. The writing is evocative but episodic, nothing like the quality of Matthiessen. Schaller writes like a mere mortal, cribbing events from his daily journal giving equal space to everything boring or not. But it is readable and occasionally fascinating.
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Cyrano de Bergerac

Edmond Rostand (1897)
November 2019
Audio P8
This is a review of two full-cast audio productions: Caedmon 1965, and LA Theatre Works 2015. Cyrano de Bergerac is an 1897 neo-romantic heroic-comedy by a 29-year-old French playwright, characterized by witty dialogue and the concept of panache. It is based on two real people from the 17th century. Cyrano de Bergerac actually existed sans the big nose, but was indeed a poetic warrior and charmer. Roxane was also a lover of poetry and Chivalric love. The era when the play was released, realism was making inroads and most plays were heavy, dark, somewhat depressing. Into this atmosphere stepped a lighthearted and witty story that made no sacrifice to realism. It was an immediate and stunning success striking a chord with the French people who appreciated the glory of French Chivalry framed in a way that was acceptable (humor) and admirable. It is also a classic love story ensuring enduring appeal.

The 3-record Caedmon production stars Sir Ralph Richardson and was produced by The Theatre Recording Society with a translation by Brian Hooker. It is a faithful translation of the original French text, and therein is the problem - it is hard to follow, at least in audio and for a first-timer to the story. This is not the best introduction, but it is close to the original.

The LA Theatre Works radio play is based on the translation and adaption by Anthony Burgess which was then adapted for radio. This is an excellent introduction, there is no problem following the plot, characters and dialogue. The radio adaptation is about half the length of the Hooker version so a lot has been dropped but all the scenes are there and it retains the same spirit of the original.
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Saint Joan

George Bernard Shaw (1923)
November 2019
Audio P8
Saint Joan dates from the mid 1920s and is still performed. It makes good holiday season theater. I listened to the 1966 Caedmon recording starring Irish actress Siobhán McKenna in her signature role. It's pretty good though strange to hear a French peasant girl talking like a wee lassie. Shaw does a good job showing the power she held over powerful men, something the histories struggle to convey. The charisma and conviction are heady stuff. Elizabeth Holmes and Therenoes comes to mind, an anti-Saint dressed as Steve Jobs. Well this is not a difficult play it is entertaining and very well performed by McKenna and there are dozens of other notable Joans to choose from.
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Murder in the Cathedral

T. S. Eliot (1935)
November 2019
Audio P8
Amazing poetry and performances. On the nature of ambition and opposition to authority. A perfect story for our times. I have access to six recordings of the performance (1938, 1953, 1968, 1976, 1983, 2003) and the version from 1953 with Robert Donat is the best IMO and critically acclaimed. I dipped into the others and they don't have the same gravity or are over-produced, though a wide variety of interpretive performances. The text is quite rich and the play rewards.
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The Zookeepers' War: An Incredible True Story from the Cold War

J. W. Mohnhaupt (2017)
November 2019
Audio Audible
This is being marketed as an "International Bestseller" and maybe it is, but unless you have a deep or personal interest in the Berlin Zoo during the Cold War it may be a lot of trivia about minor characters you will soon forget. Curiously there is little about animals and mostly backgrounds, endless detailed backgrounds, of zoo officials. The book is 90% done and new characters and backgrounds are being introduced. Apparently the Berlin Zoo was an important part of the culture there during the Cold War and this reveals the inside story of the major players and context. It has some fun anecdotal stories, the "Moby Dick" of the Rhine was my favorite which composed about 5 pages.
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The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East

Nicholas Morton (2018)
November 2019
Audio Audible
The Field of Blood is a thesis book as such focuses on certain events and people, it is specialized, but easy to read. Making the case that while we tend to view the Crusader States as doomed follies, they actually came close to succeeding. Why not? Morton says the tide broke at the Battle of Ager Sanguinis in 1119, the high-water mark of Crusader expansion. Reasons for this are "contingent", but generally the Middle East at this time was highly populated with Morton recalling a case where a crusader army stormed a large city, breached the walls and charged inside only to disappear into the warrens never to be seen again. They were too few in number and the Frank's tactical fighting advantage, the heavy horse cavalry charge, was limited to open flat places. Morton also makes some excellent points generally - that the Crusades were not a culture clash between Christianity and Islam as traditionally told, being more complex and interesting with alliances between Christians and Muslims against common enemies and inter-Christian and inter-Muslim fighting. The interchange of customs and ideas. He is also a very good writer, the journey from Anatolia to Egypt on the wings of a goose was really memorable. This is an excellent book for what it is.
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The Accursed Tower: The Fall of Acre and the End of the Crusades

Roger Crowley (2019)
November 2019
Audio Audible
The Siege of Acre in 1291 marked the effective end of the European Crusades, in the Holy Land. It is a sad and pathetic end with the wealthy and powerful running away by ship. Two centuries of empire building come to naught. The truth is, other than this being the moment when the last helicopter takes off from the roof of the embassy, the war was lost long before. As such it's not terribly interesting other than as a colorful siege. Anything by Crowley is worth reading IMO (I've read them all) his descriptions of battle scenes and weaponry are lively. The city itself sounded like a sort of Libertarian dream/hell where anything goes, where people came to make their fortunes or whatever fantasy of the exotic east.
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Shantyboat: A River Way of Life

Harlan Hubbard (1953)
November 2019
Audio NLSB
This bucolic book was published in 1953 and covers the period 1944-1951. Hubbard was a painter (artist) and his newly married wife spent a number of years building a "shantyboat" in Ohio. This term is new to me but hearkens to the frontier days when immigrants drifted down the Ohio on rafts with crude living structures and whatever else dangled haphazard, like a drifting country shack - pots of growing sweet potatoes, coops of chickens, dogs and cats, stoves, live fish wells etc. Hubbard's eye for detail and language elevates this to something special, a timeless classic about a lost world. Gone are the days when the river was mostly uninhabited along the shores except for occasionally farmers seeking news from upriver. When one could drink from the river and eat the bottom feeding carp daily. When the natural world produced a "mess" of wild greens for the taking, dogs could be let loose any old place to roam for the day, and one could pull over and set up a large garden for the summer. It seemed a gentler, kinder and richer place, more in common with Mark Twain's 19th century than the 21st. The descriptions of the natural world abound, and it is a land of plenty, Hubbard does not indulge in environmental complains (as I am doing) except occasionally but very obliquely. It's worth noting he did eat carp and catfish daily, and 3 years into the trip he experience a ruptured appendix (where toxins accumulate) perhaps a coincidence. We (now) know how toxin-laden the fish are, but Hubbard lived to a hale age of 88, so there you go. There is a lot to be said for a slow lifestyle and simple living.
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The 13th Valley

John M. Del Vecchio (1982)
October 2019
Audio Audible
It's easy to appreciate this novel for the anthropological level of detail. The author fought in the war and started writing it in the early 70s, soon after he returned home. It has legitimate chops. It consciously tries to show things as they were and not as they have been portrayed. Something like a hundred pages comprise the first day alone though you don't realize it's only been one day. There is so much incident, time is compressed. Then you realize.. this is going to be a long tour. No wonder they constantly spoke of how many days were left. And this was before the fighting started. Great book.
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Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam

Mark Bowden (2017)
October 2019
Audio Audible
The Battle of Hue, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war, was characterized by intense urban fighting by Marines who were not well trained for urban combat and as a result they improvised tactics and weapons as they went. It was the inspiration for Full Metal Jacket, for example the scene with the sniper who left victims alive in the street as bait actually occurred. Like most everything about Vietnam it was cruel and surreal. It was a civil war inside a civil war, inside a cold war, a war of civil rights and generational conflict. Bowden does an excellent job placing it into broader context politically. His thesis is that the battle led directly to LBJ declaring he would not seek reelection for a second term, and Walter Cronkite's now-famous report the war was not winnable, which for the first time made opposition to the war acceptable. The book is long and I found the first half a slog. Once the battle is fully in motion it's a montage of scenes and people that together enforce the chaos and relentless fighting. This is a good book for understanding the battle and the war.
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The Whales in Lake Tanganyika

Lennart Hagerfors (1989)
October 2019
Audio NLSB
This was well received by critics when it came out in translation in 1989. Lennart Hagerfors is Swedish but grew up in equatorial Africa. The book mirrors Heart of Darkness in many ways and is best approached from that perspective, though it's not a retelling. The New York Times did a review about it. I found it 'literary' without purpose other then to be literary. What Conrad had to say was vital for his times, but there isn't much new by the 1980s. It has a few notable scenes and passages. The narrator is unreliable and has a lax attitude which made the book seem unintentionally comical. Maybe it was intentional, another angular play off Conrad. It took me 3 or 4 tries to really get Heart of Darkness (the climatic scene occurs in the first chapter, the remainder is an echo/demonstration) so possibly this too would reward re-reading. Great title though.
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Snow Country

Yasunari Kawabata (1935)
October 2019
Audio NLSB
Snow Country was one of the three works cited by the Nobel Prize (1968). It is a work of sharp contrasts. An older man and younger woman. She hot and he cold. She rural and he urban. She poor and he rich. Throughout descriptions are contrasting water against trees, etc.. everything seems to be hard up against something else and where they meet attention is placed. I would need to read this many times to appreciate the complexities and subtleties, it left me bewildered yet intrigued.
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Child of the Holocaust: A Jewish Child in Christian Disguise

Jack Kuper (1967)
September 2019
Audio P8
The title suggests a gritty dark story, but it is surprisingly upbeat without much violence. Poland was the epicenter of the Holocaust, perhaps the worst place to be in WWII, but the book has no scenes from the Holocaust. Indeed the war itself barely exists directly except for one scene where he is caught in the cross-fire of a firefight. The tension mostly hangs on Kuper hiding his true identity as he takes up odd jobs in various homes. Kuper's inner struggles with being an outcast and desire to be Christian are well done, contrasted later as he re-enters Jewish community and once again readjusts his identity.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Kuper himself (as an older man) and his sweet nature and kindness enhance the text. It gives a good sense of rural Polish peasant life. Life was simple yet terribly complex. The antisemitism he encounters is to be expected but at the same time many people risked their lives to help, Poland was a tapestry of loyalties, kindness and cruelty.
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The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War

Ben Macintyre (2018)
September 2019
Audio P8
A late Cold War spy story about Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB station chief in London who handed the keys of the kingdom to Thatcher. It is thought Gordievsky did so much damage it was influential in the dissolution of the USSR. This is an honest look at spying, the people are realistic warts and all, sometimes funny and always gripping. Unlike his previous book about the banal killer double-agent Kim Philby (who plays a prominent role in this book), Oleg Gordievsky is a hero playing the long game, someone you can like and admire, which makes the book that much more pleasurable. Macintyre was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, his most prestigious honor to date. Found it comparable to The Billion Dollar Spy in quality and depth.
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The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984

Dorian Lynskey (2019)
September 2019
Audio NLSB
The Ministry of Truth contains a biography of Orwell's life leading up the writing of his last and most famous work (part 1) and a biography of the novel after it was published (part 2).The takeaway while many have co-opted the novel for their own ends, it was and remains a criticism of Stalinism-style socialism. Orwell was himself a socialist but was disillusioned by the Russian version. Since Stanlism is mostly gone, it has become a period piece. Yet.. it remains vital. Orwell was a master of the neologism and quotes. Lynskey is not the most brilliant writer but his subject is so quotable it brings the prose alive like little diamonds sprinkled throughout.
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The Sea Takes No Prisoners: Offshore Voyages in an Open Dinghy

Peter Clutterbuck (2015)
September 2019
Audio P8
Peter Clutterbuck in his late teens in the 1960s took epic-length ocean voyages in a dory which is basically a little sail-boat you see darting around harbors with your butt on the edge of the railing leaning out to keep it from tipping over, the sort of thing people learn to sail on. These are very small tippy boats not designed for voyaging (much less offshore) or sleeping on, but Clutterbuck and friends sailed from England to the Med and Scandinavia dodging storms bigger than force 7 which would have sunk them. I lost the book around page 150 so couldn't finish it but that is most of the story, the remainder was tips for making a trip of your own which I have no plans for. This boat (Wayfarer class) is a death-wish from his descriptions they almost died many times.
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Slave Old Man

Patrick Chamoiseau (2018)
September 2019
Audio NLSB
Slave Old Man is as much lyric poem as prose novel. The translation is not great. But the power it holds. I listened as audiobook, an interpretive performance of a translation. Not great. But.. Lots of lush descriptions of nature, the sense of a closed but limitless world. The climatic scene with the beast is legend. The end-note annotations are a big part feels like a scholarly history and high-art combine.
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Twenty Years A-Growing

Maurice O'Sullivan (1933)
September 2019
Audio P8
A memoir by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin (1904-50) who grew up on the Great Blasket Island and in Dingle, County Kerry, on the western coast of Ireland. The book was written in Irish in 1934 and translated to English the same year. The early parts have a magical quality that is hard to describe but it feels timeless. E.M. Forester said it was Neolithic, though I think more 18th century in character. The use of language and turns of phrase really are unique and invocative of place and time. Traditional Irish culture in popular culture today can seem sort of Disneyland, or hyped up mass entertainment, but this is the real McCoy. Given they had nothing to do with no electricity or communications, they kept entertained by telling stories and dancing, but lots of stories, and so the book is a gift of stories. Not all seem entertaining by today's standards but the fun of telling it comes through. It's hard to imagine this lifestyle today, so much has been lost with it, and the gains not always apparent. Maybe some day Great Blasket Island will be inhabited again but for now it has gone to the birds.
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Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies

Edward O. Wilson (2019)
September 2019
Audio P8
TBR
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Horizon

Barry Lopez (2019)
September 2019
Audio Audible
This is the first book I read by Lopez. It took a while to get used to his style, but I came to like it. Each chapter is a different place he has traveled in the past 50 years. Apparently it repeats some places from previous works, but the writing is all new. The early chapters are also a min-biography of his early life. The writing straddles art and science, the known and the mysterious, there is a great sense of wonder and amazement of the natural world. There is also a current of foreboding, existential dread about the future, even going as far as wondering if living people today will survive out natural lives to old age. Lopez sees a lack of empathy as a core problem. This is a lengthy generous book at times beautiful and profound. It would be easy to criticize because he is among the elite with privileges most of us will never have, but the quality of writing and overall message it is hard to disagree.
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The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed

John Vaillant (2005)
August 2019
Audio Audible
The first third of the book is some of the finest nature writing I have ever read. Now almost 15 years old, this book has lost none of its power or urgency in light of the world's denuded old growth forests.
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The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland's Buried Past and Our Perilous Future

Jon Gertner (2019)
August 2019
Audio NLSB
Greenland is looming large in global consciousness, rapid ice melt is underway and picking up speed. This year, 2019, is tied with the worst year on record 2012. About half the ice is melting run-off such as rivers and the rest from calving icebergs. This is the story of how we came to discover Greenland starting with the earliest recorded settlements, the Vikings, through the heroic age of discovery and into the era of scientific exploration. Some of these stories are well known - Fridtjof Nansen and Rasmussen - others are lesser known, and told in a contiguous narrative it provides an encompassing view. The scientific explorations started after WWII and is when they began to make very deep ice-cores, and instead of traveling by dog-sleds and camping in tents they had helicopters and massive ice bunkers in conjunction with the military. It was discovered air pockets could reveal minute details about past climates and the first graph showing the history of the climate over thousands of years shocked the word. Suddenly Greenland and the people who studied became known and important, prior to this it was considered something of a dead-end career choice. Today the field is perhaps one of the most urgent because we want to know, how soon and how fast? That question is still being worked out, but the phrase "faster than expected" is a safe bet with all things climate related. Eric Rignot says we should expect 5 feet within the next 80 years (from all global sources not just Greenland), but he also says the science will take another 10-20 years to fully work out the upper bounds likely will go higher. We may not know until soon before it happens and the curve keeps getting steeper.
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To the Island of Tides: A Journey to Lindisfarne

Alistair Moffat (2019)
August 2019
Audio Audible
Alistair Moffat is a Scottish author and historian. He worked in television for 20 years and some of his books have been made into TV series. This is a somewhat innovative book with a mix of history, travel and memoir as Moffat walks from the birthplace of St. Cuthbert in Scotland to the 'Holy Island of Lindisfarne' off the coast of north-east England near the Scottish border, where Cuthbert became a bishop. Moffat, who is non-religious and in his 70s, takes short day trips in segments being not far from where he lives on a farm. He pokes around in stream-beds and villages. Along the way he attempts to imagine the world of the 7th century and sees historical continuities in the landscape and built places. He recounts events in Cutherbert's life, and also his own. Mid-way into the book he finally reaches Lindisfarne and gives a good description of what its like there, which Google Maps Street View compliments. Apparently the island is a popular tourist destination for walking about the Abby ruins, eating caloric-heavy restaurant meals and generally reflecting on life.

This is hyper-local in scope, often about Moffat himself, but it succeeds in being an overview of an important and famous Medieval figure who was among the first generation of Anglo-Saxon's to convert to Christianity. The early converts believed that by literally copying they could achieve greater renown with God - the island was in effect a desert (lots of sand, far away from people) and the monks could mimic an aesthetic life, like the desert fathers of Egypt such as St. Anthony. In another example, there is a story of a group of monks who travel, they are 13 in number, the same as Christ and his 12 disciples - they literally incorporated the written gospel into their lives, mirroring it. In a way, tourists today are mirroring Cuthbert by traveling to the island and reflecting on life. Eventually Cutherbert dies and Moffat reflects on his own past and impending death and how Lindisfarne allowed him a greater sense of clarity. This is a calm, reflective book about a remote place whose connections to a deep past are seen through Moffat's imagination.
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Kings of the Yukon: One Summer Paddling Across the Far North

Adam Weymouth (2018)
August 2019
Audio Audible
Kings of the Yukon is by a British author who canoed the length of the Yukon River with a focus on the King salmon (called the Chinook in Canada). It's called the king because of the species of salmon the King is the most desirable, with lots of fat and thus flavor. In the past 20 years or so stocks have greatly fallen due to over-harvesting (mostly commercial) and it is changing lives and traditions. It's selling for $80/lb in my part of the world, if you can find it, too rich for me though I hope to try some before I or they die off. I eat the affordable pink which is apparently considered a trash fish among King eaters who feed the pink to their dogs! The book is well written and evocative of the place, I feel as though I have been there. This is a great way to experience a part of the world most of us will never get to. Life in native communities, their personalities and personal histories, I also found very interesting. The book rewards on multiple levels, deserving of its awards.
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Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II

Adam Makos (2019)
August 2019
Audio P8
Adam Makos' first book A Higher Call is amazing, I've never read anything quite like it. Spearhead uses the same approach however I didn't like it as much. It is tolerable and the battle stories are interesting enough to keep going, but the writing quality is puerile and I had a hard time caring about the characters and events. It could have been better with a developed back story and history, but it's like a chocolate cake with chocolate sauce and chocolate filling. The "reward" of the battle stories is all there is. There are so many battle stories they lack impact. The friendship story at the end is a nice element it leaves a good feeling, but it doesn't entirely make up for the other 95%.
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Life

Keith Richards (2010)
July 2019
Audio P8
It's always interesting to read how someone becomes famous. In Richards case it was a lot of luck and timing, but he was also extremely hard working and dedicated to his craft above all other concerns. Those early years are the most interesting, the gangs of girls throwing panties onto the stage, screaming so loud one couldn't hear the music. So strangely different. Ultimately it was the strength of the songs that propelled, and those songs from the 60s and early 70s are wildly good (I used to listen to Hot Rocks on 8-track endlessly). Not only for the Stones, it was a time of explosive innovation and discovery. Keith says the junk had nothing to do with it but once he went clean in the 80s, the song writing suffered (IMO). The drugs as he describes gave total control over emotions and the ability to express fluidly, not even sleep was needed, but of course it comes at a price and he chose to live. It is a Faustian survival story, but he seems to win the bargain, in this tale we really can have some sympathy for the devil.
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The Challenge

A. B. C. Whipple (1987)
July 2019
Audio NLSB
I have always heard about clipper ships but knew nothing about them, this 1987 book is a fun way to learn more. It focuses on one infamous cruise of The Challenge but is also a history of the clipper heyday in America circa 1843-1855.

What is a clipper? It's a merchant cargo ship meant to go very fast on long ocean voyages. The cost of building a wooden ship is sometimes less than the cost of a single load of cargo, and with profit could pay off the cost of the ship in a few runs from New York to San Francisco. Thus how much profit could be made was determined by how many runs, which was a function of speed. So designers came up with a sleeker hull and lots and lots of sail for which clippers are best known, mountains of sail sometimes 6 layers high. They could go upwards of 15+ miles an hour flying by other ships like they nearly standing still. The first real clipper was built in 1843, and their heyday was for the next decade before they petered out by the 1870s. The period 1845-1855 was when the West began to open with the 1849 gold rush and clippers were central stars in the New York to SF run around the tip of South America.

The problem clippers had was lack of reliable crews because manning that amount of sail and maintaining speed was hard and dangerous, it attracted the most desperate characters. So while the ships were among the most beautiful and stately sailing vessels ever built, and were popular super-stars of the era, the crew and conditions were some of the worst. In the voyage described in this book, 10 crew members died from storm or brutal treatment. They were great ships, but terrible to manage. They were also not built to last, only one or two clippers from the era have survived. More than half of clippers built were lost at sea or wrecked. They were eventually replaced with Down Easter designs and then of course by steam power.
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Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire

Roger Crowley (2015)
July 2019
Audio P8
Conquerors is mainly a history of Portuguese first contact with India and east Africa during the first 30 years or so in the late 1400s and early 1500s. They were the first Europeans to round the Cape of Good Hope and 'discover' India and points further east. I've never read anything about it before and found it totally enthralling, the sense of discovery and adventure. It's hard to like the Portuguese, one keeps wishing they get their comeuppance after so much senseless killing. Since Portugal was the first, it is foundational history to understanding all later European colonization globally. Having read it via audiobook I became confused by too many names and places, reading in the book would have been better. There are some amazing set piece battles which Crowley is very skilled with as usual. This is a very action filled period and one I'd like to read more about.
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Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy

Ian W. Toll (2006)
June 2019
Audio P8
Six Frigates is Ian Toll's first book, published in 2006. It recounts the history of the first US Navy war ships, commissioned to fight Barbary Coast pirates and then to be dismantled once the job was done. Events intervened like the War of 1812 and of course the US Navy was never decommissioned. The ship design was innovative and controversial but turned out be effective and vindicated. This is a long book and contains a lot of scene setting and anecdotal details. If you know nothing about the Barbary or 1812 war you will learn a lot, however it's not a good book for understanding the war. Thus it is a popular account that really shines in the battle descriptions. In a way the book is hobbled by its focus on the six frigates, instead of the war, and the length of time and events covered.
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Livingstone

Tim Jeal (1973)
June 2019
Audio NLSB
When David Livingstone published his first book, the one that made him famous Missionary Travels in Africa (1857) he was in his mid-40s. The book is full of incident and is still a delightful read. People were enthralled by what seemed like a rich country. The book laid the groundwork for what would later become the 'myth of Livingstone'.

When Tim Jeal published Livingstone in 1973 he was still in his 20s and, in his own words, exploded the myth. All prior biographies had been religious hagiographies and the public perceived Livingstone as a saintly gentle missionary. Jeal showed that Livingstone was in reality a failed missionary, having converted a single person (who later lapsed). Livingstone lied about the nature of Africa to further his career - causing the death of future missionaries who were ill-prepared for Africa. And his character flaws tended towards the anti-social - his son hated him so much he changed his last name, his neglected wife turned alcoholism among other horrors, and he treated colleagues with contempt. He lacked empathy.

At the same time Jeal shows Livingstone to be a brilliant mind who possessed super-human physical strength and conviction. He accurately predicted the future of colonial Africa, explored for the first time vast areas, became a hero of Africans to this day. His primary and great idea was to end slavery in Africa, he was a Lincoln figure in aspiration. Great men are often contradicted and Jeal concludes he was a great man. This is a complex and rich story set in an exotic place and time. It is also fun as an adventure story to step back in time and follow Livingstone's journeys, learning African geography, while also gaining an insiders view through Jeal's impeccable research of private diaries and letters. There are many books that retell the myth, this is the first and only serious biography that gives the complete picture.
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Glengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet (1984)
June 2019
Audio NLSB
Glengarry Glen Ross: A Play listened to the script read by a single narrator (non-Dramatized). It won a Pulitzer many consider it important, probably would be better seen on stage with actors. Foul-mouthed real-estate salesmen recount becoming "like family" with customers, while revealing the salesmen true ugly selves back at the office. Based on Mamet's own experiences. Sort of a Kitchen Confidential but less appetizing. It seems dated even for 1984, these are 1950s and 60s concerns about masculinity and the soullessness of modernity. Then again it is sort of timeless.
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The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation

Rich Cohen (2019)
June 2019
Audio Audible
The Last Pirate of New York is a short but well-done true-crime story about Albert Hicks who was active from about 1840 to 1860. Cohen has long been fascinated with legendary crime figures and he discovered that every generation told stories of a prior generation. He followed the chain backwards in time to find the first legendary gangster of New York and he came upon Hicks. He was indeed legendary, for the brutality of his crimes and the stories he told about himself - a real-life boogie man who made a deal with the devil. The Hicks case was widely covered in the press, he was cast in wax by PT Barnum and even appeared in a Twilight Zone episode in the 1950s. The enrichment of this book comes from the quality of Cohen's writing who brings to life another era as told through the macabre story of Albert Hicks. Cohen frames it as nested stories within stories and it feels like unpacking the cancerous innards of some great terrible monster long ago buried and forgotten but still haunting the present. My only concern is Cohen recounts Hicks' life story as told by Hicks himself without much critical filter. Nevertheless the core crime story is unquestionably accurate.
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To Catch a Thief

David Dodge (1952)
June 2019
Audio Audible
To Catch a Thief (1952) is the novel that made David Dodge famous. Or at least, made those four words famous since most of us know it through the Hitchcock film which is considerably different. That is too bad as the novel is so very good. Although a fairly short book the plot grips you, the characters are interesting and the dialogue brisk. There is a recipe: exotic location, pretty young dangerous women in the French bikini, dashing male leads, thrilling plot. It is reminiscent of Ian Fleming's first bond novel Casino Royal .. which btw Fleming started work on about 4 weeks after Thief was published (hmm... caught a thief?). It is more literary and believable than Bond and also more lighthearted but no less engrossing. It is also a sort of travel book of the French Riviera in the early 1950s, one of the coolest places in the world to be at the time. Dodge was living there when a jewel heist occurred the building next to his and he was briefly suspected as being a cat burger, thus the inspiration for the novel.
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The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal.

Evan Ratliff (2019)
May 2019
Audio NLSB
Black hat computer hacker devises a novel scheme to dump the USA with prescription drugs via Internet mail-order and makes 100s or billions of dollars during the American opioid epidemic. Converts the cash to gold bars and diamonds stashed in safe houses in third-world countries where he bribes officials and stays safe from prosecution and extradition. Money corrupts him and he can't get enough and doesn't know how to stop, turning to murder, orgies, gun-running, deals with North Korea meth merchants, Iranians, etc.. operates in the grey area of failed states and international chaos, plans to invade and take over a small country and install himself dictator. US investigators spend years putting the pieces together and eventually capture him in a sting. Archetype of a new type of computer-genius crime boss using novel techniques operating one step ahead of the law. Demonstrates that computer hackers can be as dangerous as narco kingpins. Book calls him a "mastermind" but this reader doesn't see it, criminals are all the same: stupid. He now sits in a Queens, NY jail awaiting sentencing.
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The Odd Couple: A Comedy in Three Acts

Neil Simon (1966)
May 2019
Audio NLSB
Listened via a recorded play from the 1980s. Was curious about the origin since I used to watch the TV reruns. It is about what you would expect. Hard to see it with fresh eyes but obviously would have been very popular when it first came out. The writing is clever, "It took me an hour to figure out what FU means".
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The Hundred Years War: The English in France 1337-1453

Desmond Seward (1978)
May 2019
Audio Audible
There are many large historical events that do not make for good single-volume histories. They are too complex and the book will inevitably either be full of anecdote and/or miss the bigger picture. This short volume first published in 1978 is in that category. There are so many names and places and events given brief coverage one is more bewildered than enlightened. He often nods about this or that famous person or event, with the understanding you already have a deeper background. Seward is English and likely had an excellent English education on this subject. I do know the roots of the 100 Years War go back to land claims by the Normans who first settled Normandy as Vikings and later became English nobles after the Conquest, which is essential to understanding later motivations towards France, but none of this discussed. There is a lack of context, but many descriptions of "evil men" (Seward uses "evil" a lot), he portrays the English as perpetrators and the French as victims (mostly). The 100 Years War is complex and resistant to simple black and white narratives. Maybe it is best approached from the ground up - biographies of Kings, books about specific battles, etc..
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Indiana Jones and the Bridge to Yesterday

Kevin Voss (2019)
May 2019
Audio
Indiana Jones and the Bridge to Yesterday is an original fan-made radio dramatization with an original script. Nearly everything about it is illegal. The use of the character and the music score and sound effects from the movies. All copyright theft. Nevertheless it is free to download and I was curious because so many people were involved from all over the world. There are probably 3 dozen actors (all volunteers) plus artists and technicians. It is a remarkable achievement for underground fan-fiction.

The story itself is more like James Bond than Indiana Jones, specifically Dr. No. Both are set in the Caribbean with a evil master mind on an island threatening to destroy the world involving nukes. Indiana Jones is normally a 1930s-era pulp fiction, but he is brought into post-WWII age of spies and nukes and 'bond girls' and so on. I don't think this will be a threat to the Indiana Jones rights holders, it is neither good enough to be sold as-is nor bad enough to tarnish the image. It is most interesting for what amateurs utilizing the latest technology can accomplish. I cheer them on in this era of Micky Mouse copyright laws.
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The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

Paul Zindel (1964)
May 2019
Audio NLSB
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1964, Pulitzer 1971) has a catchy title. I'd never heard of it. Listened to a single-narrator audiobook reading of the script. Like listening a movie script, dry and perplexing. Should be seen on stage. Then discovered it was actually made into a movie directed by Paul Newman. "Nanny wants some hotsie?!" Much better, awesome really. Joanne Woodward takes an over the top character for the stage and makes her into someone believable, by toning her down for the screen we can better sympathize.
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Origins: How Earth's History Shaped Human History

Lewis Dartnell (2019)
May 2019
Audio Audible
Origins is a fascinating demonstration of the many ways geology (and other earth sciences) has shaped human history. Some of it is well known like the Black Belt in the American South East. But much of it is new, or at least seems new when told as a whole. Civilizations it turns out arose along the fault lines of continental plates because this is where minerals and other resources tend to be most available. The human species arose in the rift valley of East Africa because the unique geography creates a wet-period/dry-period "pump" that sped up evolution and eventually pushed humans out of Africa. It keeps going page after page of perspectives and ideas. Your interest in this might be equal to how interesting you already find the topic of geology and human history. I see the influence of geology everywhere in my home region, the earth is a strong but largely invisible background force on people's lives, it takes some consideration to see its influence, however it is everywhere from the large to the small and when you discover something it's a eureka moment. Origins does a good job at showing many large-scale examples I never knew about (and many I did). Everything seems to come back to plate tectonics, that is what made the earth and the earth is what made us. Well worth the journey across time and place. One should remember that just as demography is not destiny, neither is geology, yet both are powerful background forces that like small waves can push the giant ship of history.
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The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book's Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey

Margaret Leslie Davis (2019)
May 2019
Audio P8
It turns out the Gutenberg was not recognized as the earliest printed book until later in the 19th century, so copies of the bible were around but not given much attention by collectors. It was not even called Gutenberg but named after a French library where one existed, the Mazarin Bible. It slowly gained importance until it was eventually recognized as the ultimate book collecting prize in the 20th century. Since it is rare (48 copies survive out of about 180 printed) the last time one went up for sale in the 1980s was for 10s of millions. Most of them have ended up in institutions. The Gutenberg No. 45 probably had the most colorful history in terms of who owned it, staying in private hands until recently. This is a story of that book, but also the owners. All wealthy, obsessed, and tragic figures. In this age of inequality it's hard to be admiring of rich people buying books like this anymore, but there was a time when private collectors played an important role in preservation and some of those collectors are described in brief capsules. It was also the first Gutenberg to be bombarded with electrons to tease out each page's ink and paper qualities; and the first to be scanned and put on the Internet (in 1998). The story of how the Catholic Church in California sold off No. 45 in the 1980s to raise money in order to expand the private living quarters of the head priest is hilarious. What were they thinking? But then there are a few strange stories around No. 45. It would make for a better film similar to The Red Violin.
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A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams (1947)
May 2019
Audio NLSB
A Streetcar Named Desire is about broken men and women. How they are broken is revealed as the play progresses, but not as one might initially suspect. The transformation of Blanche is a work of magic. At start she is the voice of decorum. Then towards the end she is the exact opposite. One is not sure where or when that point crossed. Sort of a Rashomon moment. Williams is a master of this subtle perceptional shift. Ultimately though I found this to be sad play. It is voyeuristic, scandalous, compressed.
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The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller

Carlo Ginzberg (1976)
May 2019
Audio P8
The Cheese and the Worms is the history of a peasant who was put on trial for heresy. It draws on Inquisition source documents to help reveal something about popular culture which is otherwise obscure to history as few people wrote about about peasant lives. The Cheese and the Worms is probably the most popular book of this genre sometimes called microhistory.

The sixteenth-century Italian miller, Menocchio, arose from the ferment of uneducated peasant culture with sophisticated ideas about the cosmos. Historian Carlo Ginzburg struggles to explain how and where Menocchio obtained ideas similar to high European culture current at the time. Indeed so did the Inquisition, there must be some larger heresy at play, they thought. Unsurprisingly the questions the Inquisition sought to answer (and documented in trial records) are what Ginzberg follows. It is never possible to conclude, but Menocchio himself says his cosmological ideas were self-invented, and this is probably true. There is no evidence of an underground organized heresy, rather an outspoken Uncle Bob sort of figure who doesn't know when to shut up about his peculiar ideas, shunned by his community, abandoned by his family, given every chance to reform - yet he goes on talking heresy! Poor Menocchio, "Oh poor me", he is recorded as saying under torture (apparently the Inquisition recorded every groan and mumble during torture sessions). He knew just enough to be dangerous, probably absorbed through the osmosis of the era and the few books he read, but was an unsophisticate and the system crushed him. As the Bobby Fuller Four might say, he fought the church and the church won. Ginzburg eerily hints in the end that his story was not unusual, there is a long list of people destroyed by the Church, their stories forgotten to history.
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In the Shadow of Man

Jane Goodall (1971)
May 2019
Audio NLSB
It's rare for me to give a book 5 stars so it deserves some justification. Jane Goodall has been around a long time, as she nears the end of her life (85 now) we can begin to evaluate her life as a whole. Her non-profits are global and effective, she is a beloved global super-star whose mere presence instills a sense of peace and harmony at conferences and gatherings that have nothing to do with primates. She travels so much she has not lived more than 3 weeks in any one place since 1985. So returning to her origin story, what this book is, we see her as simple young woman, a secretary with no college degree. This enchanting story of discovery of the chimpanzees and of herself is so romantic and timeless it's for the ages. And it all comes back to this book. Granted she first made public attention around 1965, in newspapers and National Geographic magazine, but her 1971 memoir is (still) hugely influential. She actually wrote it to raise money after National Geographic pulled funding for research. In 2017, 100s of hours of lost color film from the 1960s were re-discovered and director Brett Morgen put together a documentary simply called Jane (music by Philip Glass!) which in combination with the book, which the film is based on, makes for some of the most compelling multi-media I have experienced in a while. Goodall leaves one feeling enriched, her impact is remarkable and inspiring.
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A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture: A Native of Africa

Venture Smith (1798)
April 2019
Audio Librivox
Venture Smith sounds like a 1930s comic hero! In reality Venture was a native of West Africa, born around 1729, who was taken by slave traders as a young boy across the broad waters to a master on Long Island. According to Wikipedia, "Out of almost 12 million African captives who embarked on the Middle Passage to the Americas, only about a dozen left behind first-hand accounts of their experiences," making this one of the earliest slave narratives and early writings by an African-American. Considering how old it is, it reads easily enough though is short on detail. In outline it is similar to Roots with the boy snatched from a jungle village by slave traders, abuse and whippings by a cruel master and his capricious white wife, the selling off and breaking up of slave families, and finally able to buy his freedom and establish himself as an independent farmer. There are many tragedies that go by in a sentence or two. It's not really a book, more like a pamphlet presumably produced under the influence of the abolitionist movement.
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A Tale of Two Cities (BBC Radio 4 Full-Cast Dramatisation)

Charles Dickens (2012)
April 2019
Audio P8
I read and disliked this novel a few years ago. So made a second-try with the magic of a BBC Full-Cast Dramatisation. Normally the BBC can make anything seem pretty good, but there is only so much even they can do with source ingredients. By and large this is a clumsy story that mercifully ends quickly (for Dickens). It still baffles me why it is considered a great novel. If I ever approach this story again it will be through a movie or TV series as generally the worse a novel is the better it adapts to TV.
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I, Claudius (Dramatised)

Robert Graves (2010)
April 2019
Audio P8
A while ago, I tried reading I, Claudius but gave up after the first chapter because the characters were unsympathetic, and I didn't know much about this period of Roman history. On seeing a BBC adaptation I picked it up for a second try. Typically if I dislike a classic book, the BBC adaption is a revelation and redemption. The acting by Derek Jacobi is excellent. The script and production are also well done with small telling audio details that move the story along. At over 5hrs it is an in-depth treatment.

I, Claudius turns out to be very good. It gets better with each chapter. A theme is schadenfreude, the German concept of taking pleasure in the suffering of others. This happens on multiple levels, the characters themselves who gleefully poison, plot and destroy their enemies and public at large. And for the reader, who then enjoys their comeuppance. Only Claudius is immune, because he is a "simpleton" humanitarian and democrat. Which saves him. But even that is not enough to protect him in the end. It is a dark portrait of Roman aristocratic amorality.
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The Royal Road to Romance

Richard Halliburton (1925)
April 2019
Audio P8
The Royal Road to Romance (1925) is the first book by Richard Halliburton, an American travel writer and adventurer who was popular in the 1920s and 30s. It starts out as he graduates from Princeton at age 22 to 'seize the day' and travel around the world on romantic adventures as a tramp. Each chapter highlights some adventure in one country or another (Spain, Egypt, India, etc) usually involving getting by with little money and visiting romantic locations, typically in a risky fashion. For example, he visits Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva where Lord Byron wrote his famous ode to the prisoner there, and Halliburton waits until dusk and swims to the dungeon windows to peer inside. These episodes apparently appealed to the American public and he became an unexpected success. He was a fresh voice of a new generation, the modern generation, in the realm of travel writing. He went on to many other adventures and books and speaking tours. He influenced other writers and journalists including Walter Cronkite and Ernest Hemingway.

Giving it a low star rating as I didn't like him very much and was glad when it ended. His writing is not terribly good, almost cartoonist, a shell of true romanticism. His primary aim seems to be entertainment for the sake of it, like a YouTube star who does dangerous stunts in exchange for ratings. A marketing creation, a personality not a person. He had a ghost writer. This was not a journey of inward discovery or appreciation of nature and diversity, but seeing the world as an amusement park for the white man who sits atop it. This last comment is intentional as while on the one hand he travels as a tramp with little money, he is in reality the son of privilege, a graduate of Princeton who appeals to porters and administrators as a white person, he literally says this without irony, to open the doors he needs to continue on a faux tramp journey.
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The Fifties

David Halberstam (1994)
April 2019
Audio Audible
Halberstam is of my parents generation and the 1950s were when they came of age, graduating high school and college, entering the work force. They were the "Silent Generation" because it is overshadowed by the larger Greatest and Boomer generations. The 50s tend to get short attention compared to the exciting 1940s (WWII) and the 1960s. Nevertheless, Halberstam makes a good case the decade was just as important. This simplistic thesis almost goes without saying (why else write the book?), but shows how dominate the narrative of the 1950s has become as a sort of gentle calm between the storms - rather The Fifties shows it was a time of great change. When it was published I don't believe it received the critical attention it deserved, fittingly for the Silents. It was ahead of its time, during the early 90s at the end of the Cold War, America sought to put that period behind it and move into a new global consensus. But nearly 30 years later interest in the 50s is starting to come around again, this book should see a lot more attention over the next decade or so. It is improved with age.
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Batouala

René Maran (1921)
April 2019
Ebook
Batouala won the Prix Goncourt in 1921, the first time an African did so. It's been hailed as the beginning of African literature in French. It's composed of sketches of life in a West African village in today's Central African Republic. It both confirms and challenges stereotypes of Africans that were common among Europeans from this period. The main character Batoula is a village chief who goes through his daily rituals and rhythms of life. A plot unfolds around a young man who is attempting to have an affair with one of his nine wives - descriptions of sex border on the pornographic but not needlessly (an uncensored version of the novel did not appear until the 1930s). The book is a jazz-age artifact for a Parisian audience, smoky dark exoticism and lyrical improvisation. Anyway, Batoula tries to kill the young man but nature intervenes with the last word. The novel is dense with native vocabulary and seems authentic.

There is a lot going on in this novel. It sparked tremendous debate in the 1920s due to the Preface which is a scathing indictment of French colonialism, long before Things Fall Apart did the same for English literature. It also was a mirror of French attitudes towards the black Africans and by proxy French exotic desires. It inspired many essays and even books in defense of the French civilizing project in Africa and at home. Today it's not considered to be of high literary value, and since France is no longer colonizing Africa (if anything population trajectories have reversed) it's importance has become a matter of historical interest. Nevertheless, the rich African vocabulary, descriptions of flora and fauna, and the lyrical jazz-like improvised prose remain to its credit.
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Into the Heart of Borneo

Redmond O'Hanlon (1985)
April 2019
Audio NLSB
Into the Heart of Borneo is Redmond O'Hanlon's first book that made his name as a travel writer, prior to this he was an academic and TLS book reviewer. He made a number of further trips in the 80s and 90s producing 3 more travel books to the Amazon, Congo and North Atlantic. I read the Amazon account first and found this to be similar in approach. There is a Boswell (O'Hanlon) writing about a curmudgeon Johnson (poet James Fenton) accompanied by a handful of native guides whose main interests are boiled bushmeat and jungle women, colorful bird sightings and descriptions of other flora and fauna. The Borneo book is not nearly as grotesque as the Amazon book, it is more civilized. O'Hanlon is oddly juvenile in the Amazon account, unhinged at times, though he was years older. In Borneo he maintained decorum, perhaps finding a voice.
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In Trouble Again: A Journey Between Orinoco and the Amazon

Redmond O'Hanlon (1986)
March 2019
Audio NLSB
In Trouble Again is on the National Geographic list from where I learned about it. It is of that genre of biting British humor that reminds me of college, Monty Python, Blackadder and similar distant memories from the 70s and 80s. Early on you realize O'Hanlon is obsessed with dicks - other people's and even animal dicks are a continual source of humor; but this ceases after his own is attacked by ticks he contracted from the corpse of a dead wild pig. The trickster tricked (and ticked). It is an example of stomach curdling material typical in the book, yet oddly it all seems to work - jungles are both riotous of and to life. I give him credit for going into dangerous places and partaking in powerful drugs with barely contacted tribes. The book has a sense of place, one can follow along with maps and birding books and anthropology. It's somehow comforting to know where he visited in the remotest corners of Venezuela 30 years ago are largely still intact. The ticks and other things keeping most people away perhaps.
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The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

David Wallace-Wells (2019)
March 2019
Audio Audible
The Uninhabitable Earth is a major new book about the biggest story since the invention of agriculture. There are a lot of good things to say, this is one of the best books on climate change I had read in a long time, it pulls no punches and tells it like it is. The days of debating the science are over, we are now squarely in the storm battling its impacts at an ever increasing speed. Alarm and panic are the correct and sane response. Wells does more than recount the headlines, he places things into perspective, and explores areas rarely discussed outside specialized circles to get a sense of where our culture intellectually and artistically may be headed. This is a book for people who watch climate news daily to find new ideas and perspectives, and also for dilettantes to quickly get up to date. Wallace-Wells does a good job showing how big and complex it is. Climate has been the cause of nearly every mass extinction, it is the mother of all problems. I closed out this book feeling profound grief, as if someone close to me had died. It it essential, vital and disturbing. One can not safely look away because the sooner we come to terms the better. We can create and lead this emerging climate future or be subsumed by it.
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No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War

Hiroo Onoda (1974)
March 2019
Audio P8
No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War is a memoir by a Japanese soldier who held out in the mountains from 1944 to 1974. He lived off bananas and beef rustled from villagers who knew his shadowy presence in the mountains as the devil. The survival story is interesting, but what sets this apart is the psychology of denial that allowed him to believe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that WWII was still going on. The depth of denial was absolute. It didn't matter this his own family arrived with bullhorns, hometown newspapers and even a transistor radio to prove reality. Nope, everything was a conspiracy by the Americans. More disturbing than Dostoevsky, it is the mind of insanity laid bare. Though he does not mention it, he killed several people during his 30 years in hiding. He received no punishment and was hailed a hero but really was a menace who killed without reason, an example how humans can pointlessly deceive themselves to destruction.
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The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World

Paul Morland (2019)
March 2019
Audio Audible
The Human Tide is a fascinating look at how demography impacts history. The central idea is that the UK was the first country to experience a rapid rise in population due to technological and other social innovations that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. As a result the UK exported its population around the globe to colonies and likewise used this same toolset to dominate larger populations. This is called a "first mover advantage". However population rise has a natural cycle, which is still unfolding, over time women choose to have fewer children and the boom begins to bust. And during this period, other regions discover how to use the same toolsets and they go through a similar cycle of boom to bust. But these waves have not occurred simultaneously and the interactions between them is a driver of historical events. So for example Brexit is largely a rebellion by a shrinking native population against a large influx of immigrants from countries experiencing population booms, and the same can be said for the Trump phenomenon whose main emphasis is on a [demographic] wall. Morland also looks at WWI and WWII and wars of the 19th century through the lens of demographic tides occurring at different rates and places. Demography is not destiny in the sense a rising population will cause a war, but without demography the event would be hard to explain - a Nazi Germany with half the population would likely not have attacked Russia; likewise a Russia with a quarter the population would have lost the war. These "human tides" go a long way to understanding historical events. And understanding what causes the tides and their natural cycles is useful to understanding past, present and future. Morland sees most of the world shrinking in size through the 21st century except for sub-Sahara Africa which has the potential to meet or exceed the current population of east Asia and thus will be a great driver of historical events as the human tide rises and falls.
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Cuba Libre!: Che, Fidel, and the Improbable Revolution That Changed World History

Tony Perrottet (2019)
March 2019
Audio Audible
I knew Fidel and Che as Cold War cliche icons but almost nothing about the Cuban Revolution itself. Perrottet sets out to retell that story afresh by putting aside the animosity between the US and Cuba with a straight up "this is what happened" retelling without presuming to know what would transpire in the years after the revolution. The story is way better than I imagined. There is a literary quality to it as Fidel and his group were college educated urbane middle-class romantics, they were reading books by Emile Zola, Edward Gibbon and Cervantes while building tree forts in the jungle. How they went from 20 unlikely guys (and a few women) in the remotest mountains who forgot to bring shaving razors, to conquering the island and the attention of the world is the stuff of legend. It is a wonderfully fun and upbeat story. Communism doesn't even enter the story until after the revolution. There are clear good and bad guys, overcoming improbable odds, fame and fortune, humor and drama set in an exotic land of pristine jungle mountains, mafioso casinos, coffee farmers, feudal landlords, and a cast of colorful people. What a delightful way to learn about Cuba as everything comes back this moment and nothing afterwards can be understood without it.
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The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story

Richard Preston (2002)
March 2019
Audio NLSB
The Demon in the Freezer (2002) is a memorable title by a talented writer, it has been on my to-read list for 17 years. Unfortunately I waited too long as the information it contains is now outdated and incomplete, the people it describes mostly retired or dead, and events have moved on considerably. Nevertheless, one will come away with the visceral understanding that smallpox is the worst disease human beings have ever known. If you didn't already know the Soviets manufactured smallpox by the ton this will be scary, but a much better book on this is The Dead Hand (2011) which won a Pulitzer for good reason - it will change your life in a way this book can only hint at. The other problem is Preston focused on the anthrax attacks of 2001, which took a good decade or more to solve (if it ever was) so he was very early in that investigation and much has since changed. The writing is great but the story is fading. Preston's The Hot Zone (1994) is older but holds up better as it described a discrete event with a clear open and close, it is also a great primer on the Ebola virus.
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Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

Adam Higginbotham (2019)
February 2019
Audio Audible
The Chernobyl accident can only be described with superlatives. The degree of the meltdown, the scale of land impacted, the length of time the radiation will last, the massive cleanup and the largest building in the world made to entomb it. It is also incredibly deep in terms the people impacted over many generations. The engineering and scientific aspects, and the medical and environmental. Gorbachev blames the accident for the dissolution of the USSR, it demoralized a nation and laid bare the man behind the curtain. It is one of the most significant stories of the 20th century, there have been many books about it, but 30 years later the people who were involved are starting to die (of old age or otherwise) and Higginbotham has spent the past 12 years interviewing over 80 key individuals and combing through millions of released documents to tell a complete story in an interesting way. Higginbotham is a old hand at magazine writing, he knows how to tell a journalism-based story that is people-oriented. It never flags at holding interest nor becomes lost in the details, yet is fairly detailed. Because it is so people-oriented with a couple dozen individuals tracked in a weaved pattern, it is worth having a character list (one is provided). Once finished I wanted to turn around and read it again, it would bear that, speaking to its quality and depth. This is the account of Chernobyl I have been waiting for, history gets better with age.
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Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)
February 2019
Audio P8
I hate to give such as well known classic a low star rating. Maybe it's because I read the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation, or listened to it in audio. Or maybe Dostoevsky intentionally set out to make the reader feel the mental sickness/madness of the main character, like an unpleasant fever-dream. The first two chapters were great and promising, but the remaining melodramatic and plodding (a trait shared by some other 1850s and 60s classic novels). The best aspects are Dostoevsky's insights on human nature, but to get those ideas requires ascribing motives, thoughts and ideas to his characters that do not feel authentic; the characters are like projections of Dostoevsky himself thus lacking a believable psychology. I'm glad to have read it because it is so famous, but life is short so I look to the classics for a sure thing and this did not deliver. I read The House of the Dead which was great, so may give Dostoevsky another try later.
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The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Dan Egan (2017)
February 2019
Audio Audible
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is an environmental history, mostly and at its best about invasive species. That subject may sound a little dry, but it's way more interesting than I ever expected. *The Gulf* won the Pulitzer in 2018, Egan's book is in the same league and makes an excellent book-end. The story of the invasives - zebra mussels to Alewife to Asian carp (and thousands more) - is often told in short journalistic pieces. But when the story of a species is told with context from beginning to end, holy cow, it's like science fiction as species battle it out over decades for mastery of the world's largest fresh water basin. It's epic. A species will rise to the top and take over most of the biological resource, then crash and burn as another rises. All the while humans keep introducing more in a hubris attempt to control the uncontrollable. Meanwhile the natives hang on a small isolate pockets, ready to rebound if only humans would stop allowing invasives to return. And the craziest part, an 80' wide canal-lock on the St. Lawrence that allows ocean traffic with infected bilge water could easily be shut down and the cargo transported by train to ships upstream would seal off the lakes from invaders (about 2 ships a day). But for a few 10s of millions of dollars, states spend 10s of billions combating invasives. It's the same insanity of global warming, a precious untouchable industry causes everyone else great harm and cost for lack of political will to change.
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Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea

Kevin Vallely (2017)
February 2019
Audio Audible
This is Kevin Vallely's first book by a small publisher in a niche genre. Based on the number of reviews around the Internet it's not getting a lot of readership. But that is too bad as it's pretty good. It seems to be pioneering a new genre of writing, climate travel writing. Others have traveled and written about climate change as the main subject of the book. But Vallely is on an expedition to row the Northwest passage, climate change is an often-present background force. He notices signs like grizzly bears in polar bear country, or southern beavers where they were never seen before. The locals describe the changes they have seen in their lifetime. This is witnessing climate change as if you were there, it's part of the fabric of life. Integrating that fabric into narratives is challenging, but Vallely has done a successful job balancing where others bludgeon you with it Vallely's technique feels more authentic. Beyond the climate aspect, the story has character and humor and gives a snapshot into what it's like taking a long and dangerous expedition into the Arctic. It's descriptive and holds your interest. My only complaint is that while Vallely notices how human technology is negatively impacting the Arctic, they travel with high tech gear and a custom boat for safety and comfort. They did set out to be the first to "row" (rowboat) the Northwest passage and not Kayak or whatever other mode of transport, it turns out rowboats are a terrible way to get around the Arctic.
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Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures

Nick Pyenson (2018)
January 2019
Audio P8
Nick Pyenson is a paleontologist who studies extinct whales (fossil whale bones). He works for the Smithsonian Institution where they have the world's largest collection of whale bones stored in a nondescript tin-roofed warehouse in the Maryland suburbs of DC. Whales are an exercise in superlatives. Blue whales are the largest animals to ever exist on Earth (bigger than dinosaurs) and they happen to be alive today. Bowhead whales are the oldest mammals some over 200 years old. Porpoises are notoriously smart, probably smarter than chimps making them the next smartest animals on Earth behind humans. It's possible Sperm whales (of Moby-Dick variety) are the smartest of all but so alien and live so deep we can't even understand how smart they might be. On it goes. Pyenson describes various field expeditions to South America, Alaska, Iceland digging up whale bones and even partaking in a whale hunt. Much has already been learned so even the smallest new discoveries seem major. Pyenson is at his best, and worst, talking about himself. The book is not too long and gives a glimpse into the world of whale studies.
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Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves

James Nestor (2014)
January 2019
Audio P8
This is a very good book on a topic I knew nothing about, free diving. It's up there with free climbing for extreme craziness. Nestor is a reporter for Outside but he decides to learn how to do it himself and that brings the book to a new level. He travels around the world to cool places and meets interesting people, recounts some harrowing stories. And shows this "sport" was once common among native people who searched for food in the sea. And there it occurred to me: this is Christopher McDougall's Born to Run. Instead of running in bare feet without shoes, it's deep diving without scuba gear. There is the connection with primitive people, rediscovering an ancient power that exists latent in us all if we give up the technology. It says something that we find these types of activities and books so alluring.
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The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea

Jack E. Davis (2018)
January 2019
Audio Audible
The Gulf is that awkward kind of history, about a large body of water that in the worse form can amount to a collection of trivia and an authors travelogue. But Jack E. Davis (professor of History, U of FL) takes the task seriously and provides something more substantial and unforgettable. There are micro-histories about individual towns and islands, environmental histories of mango forests and fisheries, and biographies of artists and explorers. The Gulf itself is the main character stretching from South Texas to Key West it emerges in distinct form in beautiful prose. The story moves chronologically through time describing the abundance followed by the fall post World War II and the ongoing environmental calamity brought on by unimpeded growth. One only has to view Google Maps in places like Coral Gables to see what hath been wrought, once a lush mango forest teeming with life and now veneered with concrete, chemicals and canals. With that said, this is being called an "environmental book" but that is hard to avoid when writing about a geographic place, the environment is central to any place. It is more than an "environmental book", though that aspect does leave an impression this is a complete and whole work about the Gulf that anyone who has been there will be glad to have read to gain a better understanding of this amazing place.
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Rendezvous with Rama

Arthur C. Clarke (1973)
January 2019
Audio P8
Rendezvous with Rama is Clarke's second most famous book. Unfortunately it does not approach the sci-fi glory that is 2001. It is more run of the mill sci-fi. A projection of Clarke's ego rather than a struggle.
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The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat

Bob Drury (2009)
January 2019
Audio Audible
The Last Stand of Fox Company is a gory blow by blow account of one of the most famous engagements of the Korean War, when a Company of Marines (about 120 men) killed at least 1000-2000 enemies during a -30 degree winter siege at the top of a mountain ridge. It is compelling in the same way a 1940s war movie with stories of heroism, buddies, gore, humor, salty characters etc.. the tropes are all there. The same battle was covered more briefly by Hampton Sides in On Desperate Ground and I wanted to learn more and this book did exactly that. Hampton's book does a better job with context and bigger picture situation, they are both worthwhile. Read Hampton's first and this one for a deeper though no less entertaining take.


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