Cool Reading 2006

A reading journal by Stephen Balbach

Reading journals from other years: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

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The Damnation of Theron Ware, or Illumination

Harold Frederic, 1896
Hardcover, Univ of Nebraska, 1985
December 2006

Illumination (1896) has been an underground classic among serious writers and readers since its publication. Although it sold well in its day, it was largely lost to mainstream attention for most of the 20th century. Only in the 1980s did it first start appearing in school settings with the first critical edition by Nebraska Press (and Penguin Press editions around the same time). It has been called an "American classic" by more than one critic and writer.

First, an explanation of the odd title. Frederic intended the title to be simply "Illumination", which it was indeed published as in England, but due to some mis-communication at his (soon to be bankrupt) American publishers - a working draft had the internal working name of "damnation" - it was mistakingly published as "The Damnation of Theron Ware". Later publishers in the 1930s then combined the two into the full title "The Damnation of Theron Ware, Or, Illumination".

This is an important novel and can be critically approached from a number of perspectives. Probably most important and timeless (c.f. Richard Dawkins "The God Delusion" (2006)) is Theron Ware's "Illumination" about truth in religion. Is the value of religion based on the belief in a real God, or just a belief in a god that may not even exist - the existence of which doesn't matter - the value in religion comes from _pretending_ to believe. It is unclear in the end if Sister Soulsby, Forbes and others truly believe, or just pretend to believe, and if it even matters.

The narrative technique of writing from Theron's perspective, hearing in the first person about his own "Illumination" and personal growth (a positive healthy thing it seems to him) - which is then re-played at the end of the novel from other peoples perspective, is very powerful and well crafted. It really makes the reader examine times in their own lives when they thought they were on the right and true path. It has a certain Rashomon theme of subjectivity and what is the truth of events from multiple perspectives.

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Enlightening The World: Encyclopedie, the book that changed the course of history


Philipp Blom, 2004
Hardcover
December 2006

Philipp Blom is a delightful writer and this is a fascinating and highly entertaining history of the great French Encyclopedie which was a collaborative project that took about 25 years to write in the mid-1700s. Despite the title, this is really a book about people, with the Encyclopedie as a thread to tie the stories together. I have very little background in 18th C European/French history Blom makes it entirely accessible for novice and expert alike (although I suspect many of the stories here are well worn, but new to me, and well told). Probably the greatest compliment is I want to learn more about those involved, probably starting with a biography of Rousseau. This account easily sits besides Simon Winchester's "The Meaning of Everything" and Henry Hitchings "Defining the World". As another reviewer mentioned, anyone with an interest in Wikipedia will find it fascinating.

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The Hundred Years' War


Anne Curry, 2002
First, softcover
December 2006

Very short book on a very large and complex subject. Part of a series called "Essential Histories" all of which follow the same layout and format, commissioned by Osprey Publishing to academic authors. Graphics are excellent. The content quality of this series varies widely, this volume by Anne Curry is generally regarded as one of the better ones. For a 4 or 5 hour overview it is very good. I wish she had provided more historical contextual insight, as to why events were important - but she can not be faulted for sticking to the facts.

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The Echo Maker


Richard Powers, 2006
First hardcover
December 2006

Brilliant novel with a lot of thematic and subtle layers. The plot is good, in particular how the many strands come together, but there is more here than plot or character development. The excellent essay by Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood in 'The New York Review of Books' entitled "In the Heart of the Heartland" (available online, see Google or the Wikipedia entry for 'The Echo Maker') is the magic crystal ball to understanding this novel (hint: it's structured on The Wizard of Oz). Atwood calls it Powers best novel to date, and it deserves to win the National Book Award, spill a lot of PhD ink and become a classic of American literature, so she says.

Beyond the 'Wizard of Oz' connections, this is a novel about living in a virtual reality (the land of Oz) - a sort of 'The Matrix'-like theme of how do we know what is real. This may seem sci-fi, but when you consider something like %50 of all Americans are on some sort of mood or behavior modifying drugs, that we live in electronic bubbles of communication, and other "virtualizations". Except unlike Oz when Dorthy wakes up and returns home, there is no home to return too, just a facsimile of one.

Another subtle but constant theme is the characters move in an East-West axis while nature moves in a north-south axis (the birds, the seasons). The intersection of these axis is the scene of Marc's accident, and the location of where the nature-destroying building complex is to be built. The further west one goes, the more into the land of Oz one travels, such as at "Carhenge" where nature and man are fliped around entirely.

I personally found this a very rewarding novel as I have traveled I-80, been to Grand Junction and can visualize and remember the place, people and geography. In fact, I have traveled through Grand Junction both along a east-west axis on I-80, and a north-south axis when going from South Dakota to Kansas right down the muddle of the plains. It really is the center of everything, and the middle of no where (the geopgraphic center of the lower 48 is about a quarter days drive due south of Kearny in northern Kansas). Thanks for the trip Richard but I'm sure glad to be home.

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Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster


Svetlana Alexievich, 1997
2005 hardcover Dalkey Archive Press
December 2006

Occasionally I'll read first-hand accounts about human catastrophes in the modern world, such as Sudan or Rwanda or Katrina, because it offers a window into what I as a middle class American normally would never see or experience, hopefully making me a better and wiser person without becoming numb or a "dark tourist". Books are more subtle and rich than film and more rewarding in the end.

As an oral history of Chernobyl this is a frightening experience (the term "experience" emphasized). Chernobyl has been largely hushed up and kept quiet, the scope of it is worse than most know or understand (occasionally we hear a few hundred or thousand people died and certain cancers are slightly up, don't believe it, much worse). Only about %5 of the nuclear material escaped so it was a minor accident on the scale of things. There is a %50 chance of another meltdown happening elsewhere in the world over the next 40 years (sourced in book). Had Chernobyl been a full meltdown much of Europe would be dieing off as we speak. 16 more Chernobyl-type reactors are still in operation (14 in Russia). As Alexievich says in her epitaph: "These people had already seen what for everyone else is still unknown. I felt like I was recording the future."

The disaster of Chernobyl is still going today, it never ended, it is like AIDS - it just keeps getting worse, there is no cure for radiation which lasts 100s of 1000s of years. The radiated material is finding its way outside of the "Zone" and spreading slowly around the world. Down the rivers into the seas, blown on dust, carried out by hand by bandits in the form of trucks and TV's and scrap metal sold to Asian scrap metal firms which build the goods we buy, grown in food and sold on the world market. I put this book down thinking two things: where can I buy a gieger counter and where can I buy iodine.

Alexievic is a fascinating person her books published around the world in over 19 languages; translated authors don't get big billing in the USA but she is a world-class author and pretty well known in Europe. The Stalinst-Soviet style government of Belorussia (her home country) is not sympathetic to independent journalists (they end up dead). She has a fairly detailed personal website http://alexievich.info/ (click on English).

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West with the Night


Beryl Markham, 1942
Hardcover 1987 "Illustrated Edition"
November 2006

Lifetime memoirs by British-born Kenyan author Beryl Markham (1902-86) about her frontier life growing up in colonial Kenya. An intimate portrait of a romantic, fragile and ephemeral time in Africa. Although Markham was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west, she is best known today as the author of this book because of its amazing writing. Hemingway (who knew Markham fairly well) said "she can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers." National Geographic Magazine rated it #8 in its "Top-100 Adventure Books". Many of the real-life characters seen in the movie "Out of Africa" are discussed here, including how the character played by Robert Redford dies, and how Markham almost died with him.

A recent "tell all" book came out in 1993 "The Lives of Beryl Markham" by Errol Trzebinski - it contends "West with the Night" was ghost written by her third husband, who was a Hollywood ghost writer. It also says Markham was sexually promiscuous and slept with many/most of the males mentioned in the book. Maybe. Maybe not. It's easy to get caught up in the drama and stories of the Kenyan colonialists. The reality is sometimes less attractive then the romantic mythology.

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The Discovery of the Amazon

Gaspar de Carvajal, edited by Jose Toribio Medina and H.C. Heaton, 1542 and 1895 and 1934
1934 Hardcover
November 2006

This book is a number of different works by different authors written and translated at different times. At the core is a primary source 1542 "Account" by Friar Gaspar de Carvajal about the first voyage down the Amazon River by Captain Francisco de Orellana in 1542, of which Gaspar de Carvajal was a member of the voyage. Gaspar's "Account" remained unpublished and obscure until 1895 when Chilean historian Jose Toribio Medina published a modern Spanish translation, along with a book-length Introduction and dozens of other primary source documents about the voyage. This combined work was then translated into English in 1934, along with some additional material, which is the book being reviewed here under the full title: "The Discovery of the Amazon: According to the Account of Friar Gaspar de Carvajal and other documents. As published by Jose Toribio Medina. Translated from the Spanish by Bertram T. Lee. Edited by H.C. Heaton."

My copy is the 1934 hardcover by the American Geographic Society ("Special Publication No. 17") and is a large weighty old musty tomb that looks like it belongs on the shelf of a governmental library. The "Account" by Gaspar is amazing, this is the first primary source document of 16th C Spanish exploration I have read. It is no literary masterpiece but that adds to its authenticity. There is a considerable amount of adventure, privation, death and exotic encounters.

The "Account" was the basis for the 1973 German classic film "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and it also contains the first mention of "Amazonian warriors", an all-female martial society (whose existence remains a mystery). It is also a fascinating look at how populated the "New World" was before European diseases wiped out %95 of the population in the 16th and 17th century - Gaspar recounts stretches of the river lasting for 100s of miles which were densely populated as far inland as could be seen. Even to this day such population levels do not exist and recent archaeological evidence seems to support this (see "1491" by Chalres C. Mann).

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The Stranger


Albert Camus, 1942
Hardcover, Everyman's Library
November 2006

Camus' third book and probably most famous - sadly on every high school reading list - is an ambiguous, paradoxical and open to endless interpretation novel - a perfect garden for literary trainees to play in a sandbox with no sharp corners and lots of possibility. Camus, a native Algerian, was just finishing his Philosophy degree in Nazi occupied Paris when it was published, an historical axis in place and time. Beneath the possibly derivative plot (see "Native Son" below) is an existentialist view on life, called "Absurdism", which had roots in the Enlightenment 16th century - truth is relative, believe what you can experience, God doesn't exist, life has no meaning. The kind of happy stuff we label "modern literature".

The novel reminded me a lot of Richard Wright's "Native Son" (1940), unsurprisingly both Wright and Camus were minority authors -- replace the story of Bigger and racism, with Meursalt and Absurdism. Both are young men who operate outside the normal social conventions (or so it appears), both run into trouble with the law, both are put on trial and condemned to die for murder, both have a cell-room confrontation with a priest, both a final epitaph. The 1940's were an "absurdest" time in the world. "Strangely", George W. Bush, the U.S. President known for his anti-intellectualism, was seen reading this book in 2006.

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Rome's Gothic Wars: From the Third Century to Alaric


Michael Kulikowski,2006
Hardcover, first (dated "2007")
November 2006

This is a short book and easy to read but is packed with eye openers, it is valuable both for a hobbiest like myself and the professional. I recently read Peter Heather's "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (2005), as well as other survey accounts of the Goths including Gibbon and Bury (and of course the History Channel "Barbarians") - Kulikowski's writing style is great, it's difficult to tire of such an incredible story, everyone tells it a little differently adding new ideas and perspectives.

More than a survey, Kulikowski makes a bold (and convincing) case about the origins of the Goths and what motivated them (or not) to cross the Danube in 376. In addition we learn about the latest approach to barbarian ethnicity (called "ethnogenesis") which is applicable to all the ancient peoples and important to understand in the face of so much racist and nationalistic scholarship out there; an excellent historiography of Gothic studies which reveals some interesting connections to modern educational institutions; a general overview of the barbarians and the Roman Empire; a "Further Reading" where we get the authors recommendations on the best books available for specific topics; a list of key names with short descriptions (about 150 names).

This is the first in a series which is described in the opening matter: "This series is composed of introductory-level texts that provide an essential foundation for the study of important wars and conflicts of classical antiquity. Each volume provides a synopsis of the main events and key characters, the consequences of the conflict, and its reception over time. An important feature is the critical overview of the textual and archaeological sources for the conflict, which is designed to teach both historiography and the methods that historians use to reconstruct events of the past."

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1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus


Charles C. Mann, 2005
Hardcover, first
November 2006

The past 40+ years have seen scientific revolutions in many fields including demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, genetics, image analysis, palynology, molecular biology, soil science, and others. As new evidence has accumulated, long-standing views about the pre-Columbian world have come under increasing pressure. Although there is no consensus, and Mann acknowledges controversies, the general trend among scientists is that 1a) the population levels were probably higher than traditionally believed among scientists (known as "high counters"), 1b) humans probably arrived in the Americas earlier than thought over the course of multiple waves (not a single land bridge crossing window) 2) The level of cultural advancement and settlement range was higher and broader than previously imagined and 3) the New World was largely not a wilderness but an environment controlled by humans (mostly with fire). These three main focuses (origins/population, culture, environment) form the basis for three parts of the book.

This is a good survey of the state of things circa 2005. Given the pace of change it will need to be re-written in a decade or so. I'd been hearing snippets of these theories over the past 20 years and was never attached to the "old views" (who is?), so over-turning them is not a great upset and often a revelation. The details of specific cultures and places were mostly new to me and highly educational. The biography is excellent if not extensive (everything from 16th unpublished documents to Fodors Travel Guide to Mexico), but about a dozen of the most important works are discussed in the first Notes page.

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Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-century World


John Robert McNeill, 2000
Hardcover, first
November 2006

Sub-titled "An Environmental History of the 20th Century", this is a sober and objective survey of environmental changes over the past 100 years. I was concerned this would be an emotional appeal or judgmental polemic from the left - but not the case, it is academic and professional history from an environmental perspective (the environment, not the "environmental movement"). It's encyclopedic in scope and style..

I would not call this an "entertaining" read (although some of the facts really fire the synapses), but it is deeply rewarding as a broad survey of a very large and complex problem. The chapters and sub-sections are arranged in a logical outline making it possible to read the chapters in any order..

The main idea of the title "something new under the sun" is that humans have so fundamentally changed the environment that things really are very different now than they have ever been historically. To regard our current conditions of energy availability, access to water, unending economic growth - as enduring and normal appears to be an interesting gamble given the facts..

Some interesting trivia: humans did not become the dominate primate until about 8,000 BC with the rise of agriculture (baboons outnumbered humans before then). About one-fifth of all humans that ever lived did so in the 20th century. In sheer energy terms, if all modern technology and energy sources were not available, the average American would need about 70 human slaves to maintain the current standard of living (each American "directs" 70 energy-slave equivalents). Each year, humans move more earth and soil than glaciers, wind erosion, mountain building (plate tectonic uplift), and volcanoes combined. Probably the single most damaging biological organism in earths history was the human primate Thomas Midgley Jr from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania born in 1889. He invented Freon (which destroys the Ozone layer), and also leaded gasoline, which has polluted most of the worlds soil lasting thousands of years (all of us carry elevated lead levels because of it and will continue to do so for centuries to come, leading to birth defects, lowered IQs, etc..). Midgley contracted Polio at age 51 and invented a system or ropes and pulleys to move his crippled body off the bed - he became tangled and was strangled to death in 1944 by his own invention, before learning how damaging his inventions were.

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Things Fall Apart


Chinua Achebe, 1958
Hardcover, Everyman's Library 2001
November 2001

'Things Fall Apart' has been described as Africa's "best-loved novel", read widely not only in Nigeria, where it was written in 1958, but across the entire African continent; it is studied and taught in Europe and North America where 100s of papers and dozens of major studies have been written; it is said that in Australia or India it is the only African novel that most people know about. It has been called the "archetypal modern African novel written in English". [See Kwame Anthony Appiah's excellent "Introduction" in the Everyman's Library edition.]

The novel is about an African tribe along the Niger River that experiences British colonialism around the turn of the 20th century. The first 2/3's of this short novel establish the customs and day to day life focused on one man and his family named Okonkwo. Into this arrive "white men" (British) who begin to change things, until eventually "things fall apart" leading to Okonkwo's death. The novel is not a "black and white" story of heroes and villains, of romantic old-world customs destroyed by modernity - rather the old customs have good and bad points, the British have good and bad points - even the hero of the novel, Okonkwo, is fairly unlikeable in many respects. The subtle balance between the good and negative gives the novel a great deal of believability, re-readability and instruction.

Although we learn a lot about the specifics of the Ibo-speaking people along the Niger (historically accurate as Achebbe was born into that culture) the novel transcends the tribe, even Africa. It provides a realistic window into what it is like for tribal people who are being globalized - from Native Americans in the age of Columbus, to present-day Amazonians. This first-hand subjective experience of the novel transcends the many lengthy tombs of history and anthropological studies of colonization.

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Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms


Charles Hudson, 1997
First, hardcover, signed by author
November 2006

I probably first read or heard about de Soto in high school, but until recently he was just a name, one of dozens of Spanish Conquistadors. Then in 2002 while traveling through the Tampa, FL area I came across a National Park commemoration where he first landed on a 4,000 mile 3-year trek through North America. Being there in person my imagination was fired and I've been fascinated by de Soto's journey ever since. I can still smell the salt air, hear the surf and see the Spanish horsemen moving through the shadows of the red mangrove forest. In terms of discovery and epic adventure de Soto is easily equal to Lewis and Clark - perhaps more so.

This is the single best book available about de Soto, representing 20 years of research and incorporating the latest in archaeological evidence. The route is historically a subject of great controversy as each state has commemorative trails and sites that occasionally change with new scholarship, and thus upset town leaders and merchants who depend on tourism.

The books is a masterpiece incorporating details from many layers to create a highly textured and easily imagined vision of the Spainards and Indians. Hudson is an anthropologist and takes a multi-disiplinary approach which creates a much richer work than a straight historical narrative. One could spend a lot of time immersing in the details of the route and it is most interesting since it took place on American soil, and one can easily physcially re-trace and visit the locations today - even my fathers back yard in Columbia SC may be along the route!

Also recommend these reviews of the book which are very good: here and here.

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The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time


Jonathan Weiner,1994
Hardcover, first
September 2006

I asked someone what one book by (or about) Darwin would they recommend, and this is it. It explains Darwin's ideas very clearly through the example of the finche's, plus the most recent findings and discoveries about evolution, things even Darwin did not imagine how powerful and widespread evolution is. This book is so well written - on the level of literary masterpiece - it is on many school circulars. It will change the way you see nature as "infinitely more fluid, shifting, alive. It will seem like a different planet.." Indeed.

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Commentaries: Books I-II


Pope Pius II, 1464
Hardcover, The I Tatti Renaissance Library, 2003
October 2006

The is the only autobiography ever written by a reigning Pope (r.1458-1464), it is very entertaining and well written. It offers a window on a Renaissance man and his life and world written in his own words. This recent 2003 Harvard University translation is modern and easy to read, with the original Latin text on each facing page. It is mostly about current political events of the day ( a time of great conflict and strife) and memorable scenes from his life, written with great artistic skill by a master of rhetoric.

Some of the more memorable scenes including his trip to Scotland where he stays the night in a hay-loft with two Scottish women.. the incredible set-piece when he is elected Pope, the drama of which is nothing short of some of the best I've read in a while, his entire life leading up to this scene : "All sat in their seats, pale and silent, thunderstruck, as if in a trance. For some time no one spoke, no one opened his lips, no one moved any part of his body except his eyes, which kept darting about." And the travel from Rome northward to meet with the Holy Roman Emperor to discuss what to do about the Turks and the recent Fall of Constantinople - in particular some of the accounts of lords and the tortures and sexual abuses they committed were really very shocking - a window on the world as it was.

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Admiral of the Ocean Aea: A Life of Christopher Columbus

Samuel Eliot Morison, 1942
Hardcover, first
October 2006

"Admiral of the Ocean Sea", Samuel Morison's 1942 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Christopher Columbus, is still considered by many to be the best there is.

Morison spent 2 years on a sailboat re-tracing Columbus' voyages bringing a first hand immediacy and perspective that gives it unusual authority on all technical aspects of sailing and navigation. In addition Morison was a Harvard history professor whose research of the written record is impeccable. Even before Columbus died in the early 16th century, there have been countless controversies and debates about many aspects of his life and voyages. Into this maelstrom of legend, myth and folklore - like the discover he writes about - Morison brings order, calm and reliable passage through one of the most fascinating and mythological figures of World History.

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Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery the U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842


Nathaniel Philbrick, 2003
First, hardcover
October 2006

This 1830's American naval exploration of the Pacific and Antarctica could have been as famous as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but it is largely unknown today because it was surrounded in controversy by its unlikeable captain Wilkes (a real-life model for evil captains like Moby Dicks Ahab and Queeg in The Caine Mutiny). Philbrick tells the story of the expedition through the colored lens of the captains unlikeable character and thus while I found it interesting, it was never heroic and often pathetic to spend time with him and the often equally unlikeable crew. Yet at the same time he and the expedition accomplished a lot and delivered the goods - the contradictions are enough to make your stomach turn.

My personal impression is that the American generation of Wilkes and his crew were not heroic - the sons and grandsons of the great Revolutionary War generation, they were driven by idealism and optimism to change the world, but they were also self-centered and self-serving, not unlike the contradictions of the "me" generation Baby Boomers post WWII. The in-fighting and insecurities of everyone involved, on the expedition and back in Washington, reflected a mood of a young, insecure nation. Had this expedition gone differently it might have inspired a romantic interest in expanding America not only across the West but far beyond into the Pacific and the western coast of Canada. Instead the ExEx "slid into obscurity."

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The Invisible Man

H.G. Wells, 1897
The Heritage Press, 1967, hardcover w/ slipcase + Audibook version
October 2006

H.G. Wells was a prolific Victorian English author who is best remembered today by four novels written in a three year period early in his career: "The Time Machine" (1895), "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (1896), "The Invisible Man" (1897) and "War of the Worlds" (1898). He was writing "The Invisible Man" at the same time he was working on "War of the Worlds" which came out just a few months later. According to one commentator, a common characteristic of all four novels, and the secret of their success, is their graphic violence contrasted with the innocence of their settings.

Wells was not the first to write of invisibility, other works from the 19th century include Gui de Maupassant's "Le Horla" and American novelist Fitz-James O'Brien "What Was It?". However it was Well's who created the mythological character that is immediately recognizable to anyone who has never even read the book. The invisible man, Griffith, is partly a mad scientist in the tradition of Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll dabbling in the mysterious arts, and partly a warning about the dangers and fears of science to an innocent public which was seeing dramatic change brought on by scientific advances.

The first part of the novel is fairly light-hearted with the invisible man seemingly a sad victim of his fate trying to hide his true nature and scorned by society, and even dogs. But then he begins to commit petty crimes, even gleefully taunting those around him - and then he designs to go on a "reign of terror" - similar to Frankenstein who was born innocent, but taught by those around him who saw only the fearsome and loathsome, he lives up to his reputation and becomes the evil which others "see" (or don't). His creation of invisibility is an innocent act, but it is man reaction and use of that invention that leads to evil.

"The Invisible Man" can also be contrasted with the English 'Invasion Literature' genre that was popular at the time ("War of the Worlds" is invasion literature canon). Similar to "Dracula" (1897) which played on the fears of a foreign invasion of the "dark" Eastern Europeans, "The Invisible Man" was a "Stranger" (the title of the first chapter), invading the otherwise peaceful confines of a quiet and normal English village.

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The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos


Joel Primack and Nacy Abrams, 2006
Hardcover, first
October 2006

This is a visionary book that sets out to change the world by changing how we see our place in the universe, by changing peoples attitudes about the metaphors and stories we use to describe the universe and mans place in it. Instead of seeing ourselves in entrenched Newtonian existential terms (a small rock circling a small star in an average galaxy in a nearly infinite scale universe where nothing that humans do matters in the big picture like a lone plankton floating in the ocean), the authors re-position earth and humans to a central importance, supported by the latest science findings. Incredibly, they make a convincing case, and along the way educate the reader about the latest scientific findings in cosmology.

The idea of mans centrality to the universe has been the norm for most of history - the medieval model, Egyptian cosmology, etc.. all saw man and earth at the center of the universe - the first third of the book discusses this. It was with Newtonian physics that our place in the center was over-turned. But incredibly in the past 10-15 years its become apparent we really are at the center - depending on your perspective, as discussed in the middle portion of the book - 1)We are made of the rarest material in the universe (visible matter) 2) We live in the center of a "Cosmic Sphere of Time" (every point in the universe is physically in the middle because there is no middle of the universe) 3) We live in a mid-point of time - most nearby galaxy's are middle age 4) We live in the middle of all possible sizes - there are 14 orders of magnitude difference between the smallest and largest, we are in the middle 5) We live at the mid-point in the age of our planet. 6) We live at a turning point for our species when population and environmental questions are raising serious questions about sustainability.

The last third of the book becomes more subjective about going forward into the future how we can change our attitude about the universe to be more optimistic and meaningful: "The choice of attitude is not a casual one.. cosmology is not a game it has the power to overturn fundamental institutions of society.. Once we made this mental shift and opened our eyes to the view from the center of the universe.. it evoked the opposite emotions from the existential stance-not despair but hope, not resignation but excitement. These may be arbitrary emotions, but they lead to non-arbitrary actions."

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Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting


T.R. Pearson, 2006
First, hardcover
October 2006

It's hard to image now, but when Thor Heyerdahl's set out "Kon-Tiki" in 1948, most people said he was crazy and was sure to die - so when he lived to tell about it, becoming a world-wide celebrity, it set off a raft of imitators in the 1950s and 60s, which Pearson calls the "Golden Age" of rafting.

The subject of the book, William Willis (b. 1897) was a working-class German immigrant blessed with physical stamina and mechanical know-how from a lifetime of working odd-jobs at sea and land, he was a man of extreme habits and strong personality - for example he lived on a bizarre diet (for the 1950s) of home-grown organic raw vegetables and grains. A greybeard in his 60s, he decided to test himself and follow Heyerdahl's example in a balsa raft, setting adrift from Peru westward, he went entirely alone. His successful expedition, global press attention and books which followed made him a household name for a brief time, but today he is largely forgotten and unknown.

The book discusses not only Willis' five separate raft trips over a 15 year period or so - Willis was well into his 70s by the end - it is a survey of other rafting expeditions from the "Golden Era" including Kon-Tiki, Tahiti Nui (I,II and III), Lehi (I,II,III,IV), and Alain Bombard. Each is a fascinating mini-account told by an accomplished novelist.

Pearson's portrayal of Willis is often unsympathetic - perhaps rightly so and for the same reasons critics in the 1950s and 60s were. Unlike Heyerdahl who set out for a scientific reason and greater purpose, Willis did it for no reason other than to see if he could personally do it. Willis often made major mistakes such as taking contaminated water, not taking a spare set of sails, not correcting a dangerous medical condition - Willis knew better and understood his risk but seemed to undermine himself for the thrill of the adventure.

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Walking North with Keats

Carol Kyros Walker, 1992
First, hardcover
September 2006

Three books in one. Book one is a roughly 50-page literary history of John Keats surrounding his 40 day tour to Scotland, where he contracted TB and died of it a few years later at a young age. Book two is a roughly 100-page photo art book in which Carol Walker re-traces his footsteps taking beautiful shots along the way with relevant quotes beneath the pictures. Book 3 are Keat's actual travel notes - they are letter form and were never intended for publication but are presented in heavily footnoted format.

This is the third Carol Walker book I've read and they are all of similar quality and scope. I think this is the 2nd best (Dorothy Wordsworth being the best) - very enjoyable series (and very affordable).

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Travels through France and Italy


Tobias Smollett, 1766
1979 Folio Society hardcover + 1999 Oxford World's Classics pb.
September 2006

Cantankerous, spleen-filled, sickly 42-year old Scottish novelist travels with his Jamaican wife through France and Italy on the Grand Tour circuit. Complains and gripes about everything for two years straight. Fascinating portrait of the man, the time and place. Despite the pessimistic and negative tone (traits one normally wants to avoid in a travel companion) it is perversely entertaining.

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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Lew Wallace, 1880
1908 hardcover Sears Roebuck "Wallace Memorial Edition" (1M copies), 560-pages
September 2006

Most people probably don't know the 1959 Hollywood classic film starring Charlton Heston was based on a 19th novel by a retired American Civil War general. It was one of the best selling novels in American history, but by 1959 had been largely forgotten. While the novel is never listed as "great literature", it does have a compelling plot and story. Even if you have seen the movie(s) it is worth reading as there are substantive differences and sub-plots that never made it to the screen. I also found sections, even entire chapters, that could be quickly skimmed over as they were Wallace's polemics that have nothing to do with the novel or plot. Like in the movie, the chariot race is a highlight. The movie is consistently ranked as one of the best and most important films in American history, a recent 4-DVD edition came out in 2005 - if your serious about the movie, you can't go wrong with reading the novel.

My copy is the Sears Roebuck "Wallace Memorial Edition", printed in 1908 it was, and remains, the single largest print run of any book in American history at 1 million "limited edition" - there are so many that in the 21st century it can still be purchased on the used market for less than $3 a copy ($5 with shipping). I'm not sure why anyone would buy a new paperback when classic quality hardcovers are available for so cheap.

I have updated the Wikipedia article with additional background and historical context about the novel.

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The Three Musketeers


Alexandre Dumas, 1844
Hardcover trans. Richard Pevear 2006, 670-pages
September 2006

An "endless adventure" breathlessly moving from one scene to the next: sword-fighting, court espionage, sex scandals, poisonings, assassinations, undying love and so on.

Les Trois Mousquetaires was translated into three English versions by 1846. One of these, by William Barrow, is still in print and fairly faithful to the original, available in the Oxford World's Classics 1999 edition. However all of the explicit and many of the implicit references to sexuality had been removed to conform to 19th century English standards, thus making the scenes between d'Aragnan and Milady, for example, confusing and strange. The most recent and new standard English translation is by award-winning translator Richard Pevear (2006). Pevear says in his translation notes that most of the modern translations available today are "textbook examples of bad translation practices" which "give their readers an extremely distorted notion of Dumas's writing."

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The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals


Michael Pollan, 2006
First hardcover, 413-pages
September 2006

This is a fantastic book. Most of it I already knew fundamentally and was not new, yet his writing style, his ability to use images to capture the essence of an idea, to communicate ideas, is really brilliant. It's also really funny in parts. Some of it is based on his now-famous NYT article "Power Steer", but here we get even more detail. The story of corn is covered in more detail in Richard Manning's Against the Grain (see previous entry below). He talks about Polyface Farm, which is where I already get my food from, so that was really cool to learn in detail about the chickens and beef I eat, and the Salatin family (they are like rock stars now - how weird, they are just farmers) - it makes me want to be a farmer. _________________________________________________________________________

Breaking Away: Coleridge in Scotland


Carol Kyros Walker, 2002
Hardcover, 192-pages
August 2006

This is a sequel to Walker's "Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland" (below). It covers what happened to Coleridge after he separated from the Wordsworth's on the third week. You would need to read "Recollections" before reading this they are go hand in hand.

Everything about these books is a true pleasure and obvious labor of love. Not only is Carol Walker a skilled photographer, literary historian and writer, but a hiker and thorough researcher. These books are of real and lasting scholarly merit, but they are also truly enjoyable, and also make excellent coffee table pieces! What more could you want, every book should be like this, it's one of my favorites, comparable to the Norton Annotated series (Huck Finn, Xmas Carol, etc..).

Most of the book is photos but the first 25 pages is a great literary history of Coleridge and Worsdworth, and their relationship and falling out, and how that played into their trip to Scotland. It is entirely human and understandable and gets to the core of the matter of what is friendship.

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Typee

Herman Melville, 1846
Hardcover 1930, 360-pages
August 2006

Herman Mellville's first book. A "true account" of 4 months held captive by a Polynesian tribe known as the Typee on a South Pacific island. It was his most popular and well known book throughout the 19th century and his lifetime - critics would judge his future works as "downhill". It is now seen as just the beginning of a career that climaxed with Moby. The book is a genre-original, it created the South Pacific Romance, nothing like it had ever been seen before and would influence many. It was pronounced in the 1930's as probably being fiction so it did not have the impact it would have otherwise but still some of if must have been true? I want to believe.

I found the grammer stilted and the vocabularly cumbersome yet it still flowed poetically one can predict what will be said in spirit just before it is said, a strange yet magical connection between author and reader across 170-years that trancends words. It is easy to see why this was so popular - sunshine, tropical beaches, naked natives, no work all play - the spirit of the California beach bum surfer can be found in Melville.

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A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler


Jason Roberts, 2006
Hardback first, 358-pages
August 2006

A "creative non-fiction" popular biography of James Holam (1786-1837), an English navel officer during the Napoleonic Wars who lost his eyesight and went on to travel (solo) around much of the world at a time when global traveling was a new endevour. He wrote a number of best-selling books and was famous in his time but has since been lost to obscurity -- his life story has been resurected from scant sources by Roberts into a highly sympathetic and loving biography.

This can be a life changing book, it shows how to turn what was considered a disability so severe that he could only be a street begger into a strength and asset that brought him more fame and experience than he probably would have had otherwise, all the while achieving his life ambitions. It also shows what it is like to be blind and how aware of the world blind people are and can be through echo-location clicking.

Couple quibbles. The author Jason Roberts had very few sources to draw on so there are large gaps in the level of detail of Holman's life narrative. It's hard to tell what is authentic Holman and what is Roberts interpretation of Holman, in particular when it comes to Holman's motivations and thoughts. A very enthusiastic and sympathetic biography, there is little critical discussion, in fact Roberts seem to take offense to contemporary critics of Holman without examining it through appropriate historical context (such as Locke's then-popular notions that knowledge is gained through sensory input, etc..). Given the lack of primary sources and corresponding lite number of notes and references it is more akin to a feel-good human-interest magazine feature story. The audience is a popular one, Roberts largely avoids using numbers, such as dates (which I found cumbersome to keep track of chronology), and no numbers marking footnotes. No discussion of the English Grand Tour tradition, which is what Holman did on his first trip to Europe - we are led to believe it was just a random trip - even climbing Mt Vesuvius was a standard Grand Tour destination, Holman basically did what everyone else was doing, which by the 1820s was considered blase. No discussion of colonialism and the role travelers played in creating colonial tropes that are still popular to this day; or the sense of national duty English gentleman travelers/explorers had as a part of English colonialism. There is a lot of scholarly material on English travel literature of this period that would have been useful to put Holman into historical context. This is not a definitive biography, or even a critical one, it is a well told story for a popular audience that will hopefully draw more literary critical attention to this fascinating person.

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Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A. D. 1803


Dorothy Wordsworth, 1874
1997 hardcover by Carol Kyros Walker, 218-pages
August 2006

"Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, A. D. 1803" (1874) is travel literature by Dorothy Wordsworth about a six-week, 663-mile journey through the Scottish Highlands starting on August 15th 1803 with her brother William Wordsworth and mutual friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all important authors in the burgeoning Romanticism movement. The trip itinerary was in part a literary pilgrimage to the places associated with Romantic Scottish figures Robert Burns, Ossian, William Wallace and contemporary Sir Walter Scott. She wrote Recollections for family and friends and never saw it published in her lifetime. Some have called it "undoubtedly her masterpiece", and one of the best Scottish travel literature accounts during a period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries which saw 100s of such examples. It is often compared as a Romantic counterpart to the Enlightenment-era "A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland" (1775) by Samuel Johnson written about 27 years earlier.

The edition I read is by Carol Kyros Walker (1997) of Yale University Press who re-traced Dorothy's path through Scotland taking 100's of beautiful B&W pictures along the way, including a detailed map - reading this edition was very much a multi-media experience with the base text by Dorothy, the map, the pictures and the footnotes - it's hard to imagine a better way to read an old travel book. One of the interesting themes of the book is the "picturesque" which was an aesthetic style in vogue at the time, a way of looking at the landscape first described by William Gilpin. The concept of picturesque is often difficult to understand and describe, I recommend reading the Wikipedia article on the topic before reading this book, to see and understand how and why she describes things the way she does - in the end the reader will have a primary source appreciation of what picturesque means. Indeed it was the picturesque that inspired touristic tendencies in Scotland during that period.

Update August 2006. I wrote a Wikipedia entry for the book which recieved a "Good Article" nomination and was featured on the English Wikipedia front page "What's New" section.

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Journeys of a German in England in 1782

Karl Philipp Moritz, 1783
1965 translation by Reginald Nettel, 191-pages
August 2006

The author is a very likeable young German who is in love with all things English and travels to England for the first time on a solo 8-week walkabout. His optimism and enthusiasm is infectious. We get to see England in the time of Samuel Johnson as he travels around looking at the sites. The mannerism and mood of the people comes across -- history books don't convey such direct experience, much less in such an entertaining manner. Sadly this translation is the only reliable one and it was last printed in 1965, but copies are available on the used market. Well worth the journey!

Update August 2006. I wrote a Wikipedia entry for the book.

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Travel Writing 1700-1830: An Anthology (Oxford World's Classics)


Elizabeth Bohls and Ian Duncan (editors), 2006
First paperback, 496-pages
August 2006

This is an anthology composed of 77 excerpts from travel writings by English authors in the 18th century. It is organized into sections or categories geographically (South Pacific, Europe, etc..). Each excerpt/author is preceded with a pithy historical background, as is each section, and there is a general Preface. The selections are rounded from the well known Captain Cook to little known private letters of women travelers to slave narratives to exploration accounts.

Overall this is like having a well-read instructor introduce you to the best and most well known travel writing, and most interesting sections from each text. Many of these accounts I have heard of before but never would have the time to read in full, but in excerpt form I discovered about 20 that were so good I would like to continue on and read the books in full. The editors notes are very learned (if not too pithy) and give excellent context and background to each text and category - it is certainly possible to study history through travel narratives, and have a great time doing it!

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Spring on an Arctic Island

Katharine Scherman, 1956
First hardcover, 323-pages
July 2006

The year is 1954. Katharine Scherman, her husband and a number of other scientists / amateur scientists from the US Northeast paid their own way for a six-week trip to the remote island of Baylot in the Canadian arctic where they live with an Inuit community. Unlike much literature of the Arctic, this is not a story of exploration, physical hardship or overcoming impossible odds - it is a happy and relaxed trip where nothing particularly noteworthy happens - they tramp around with Eskimo's in a care-free existence, take trips around the island via dog sled, observe birds and wild-life, listen to Inuit stories and myths, become like family with the natives. Katharine's writing is very vivid and easy to visualize, one becomes "lost in the book", living the day to day life with the Inuit, experiencing the joy of a spring on an Arctic island. It has qualities similar to the classic "Kabloona" by Gontran de Poncins written about 10 years earlier.

I happened to pick this up at a book fair for a dollar, published in 1956 it appears to be the only edition. Judging from the number of copies available on the used market and cheap price and large publisher (Little, Brown) it was probably a popular book in its day (it had TWO separate lengthy advertisement-like reviews with pictures in the New York Times within 3 weeks of each other - someone had connections), but has since slipped into obscurity like so many books do; but this book deserves to be read today, it is a historical document of what things were like after the age of heroic explorers, when travel to the north was possible in relative safety, but before the north became the mass tourism destination it is today. It contains a map (on the inside end-boards) and a dozen or so B&W pictures.

Even though this was written before the US environmental movement really started, and way before global warming was even known, she comments on how local people said the Arctic appeared to be getting warmer each year, and concerns about what would happen if the permafrost were to warm. She is also tuned into the difficulties of the Inuit clashing with modern culture.

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A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland

Samuel Johnson, 1775
Folio Socity 1990 "Journals of the Western Isles" hardcover w/ slipcase, includes Boswell's account also, 126-pages
July 2006

A charming and fascinating account of traveling through Scotland when it was still "primitive" (in parts) - this is what Johnson went to see, but he laments they came "too late" .. Scotland was already changing quickly. But they did find some of the "Old Scotland"

It is not only a travel narrative but intermixed with social criticism on issues of education in Scotland, religion and other issues of the day related to the progress of the country.

Parts that are memorable include the monastic ruins at Iona, the trip through the Isle of Skye along the tops of ridges with no roads, the story of the imprisoned Scotsman given salted beef and an empty glass and left to die, the one story stone huts, and 2-story stone "houses", the caves along the coasts.

Even though it is a short book I would like to create an abridged version that removes the social commentary (now largely outdated) and sticks to the travel and site seeing only which is the highlite of the book.

Update: I wrote a Wikipeda article about the book.

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Moby Dick



Herman Melville, 1851
Norton Critical Edition 2002, 427-pages + Audibook narrated by William Hootkins (2005), 25 hours unabridged
July 2006

This a challenging read. Here is the strategy I followed that made it a lot easier. 1) As background reading "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex" (2000) recounts the real-life story that inspired Melville to write "Moby Dick", and gives a good background on Nantucket and the whaling industry. It provides needed historical context that was common knowledge to 19th century readers. It was after reading this that I was inspired to read "Moby Dick". 2) The 2005 audiobook version narrated by William Hootkins (25 hours unabridged) - Hootkins should win an Oscar for his performance. I'm an audiobook junkie but this is one of if not the best audiobook performance I've heard, his reading is perfect for the book. I never would have picked up the amount of humor, satire and sheer emotion without his professional interpretive skills, every character sounds different. 3) Read along the audiobook version with the Norton Critical Edition (2002), which contains plentiful explanatory footnotes and other material such as contemporary reviews, pictures, maps, criticisms, etc..

The novel is written in the Romanticsm tradition (cf. Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, "Les Miserables") and the language is full of symbolism and subtle layers of meaning. Yet, strangely, Melville turned this emotional, poetic style to a near documentary treatment of what is otherwise a fairly dry subject in minute detail. It's like writing poetry about the details of the nuclear power industry from backhoes to graphite rods to cooling ponds. Yet somehow it worked, the immersion is so complete, the details so real and "true of the thing" that the main storyline becomes all that much more credible and powerful. The story its self is not that complex or even original (it's based on a Shakespeare tragedy) but the symbolic depth of the language, truthfulness of the details, and mythological power of the characters (Moby Dick and Ahab in particular) combine to make it a canonical work.

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In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex


Nathaniel Philbrick, 2000
First, 320-pages + Audiobook 8hrs
July 2006

The story of the sinking of the Nantucket Island whale ship Essex in 1821, and its genesis for the novel Moby Dick, has been popularly known through the personal memoir of the first mate published one year after the event. However in the 1980's a new account surfaced in someones attic, the story re-told from someone else who had been there. Nathaniel Philbrick spent a number of years researching what actually happened based on the latest evidence and has put together a highly readable popular historical narrative. Not only a detailed account of a survival at sea, there is considerable depth on the history of Nantucket Island, the whaling industry, whales, and biographies of a number of people on-board the ship. Philbrick does not glorify or mythologize the men of the Essex like Herman Melville, rather he remains factual and indeed says at the end it was not a tale of survival but a human tragedy probably avoidable except for some mistaken choices.

I listened to the audio version and found it to be of the first rate - compelling, easy to listen to for hours at end, easy to follow. The book translates very well to audio and the narrator is one of the best.

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A Field Guide to Sprawl


Dolores Hayden, 2004
Hardcover 2006, 119-pages
July 2006

Small coffee-table format picture book. There is a 10-page introduction, which is excellent, then 51 vocabulary terms. Each vocab term is 2 pages - one page is an aerial example picture, the facing page is text describing the term. The terms are mostly pejorative (slang) and are critical of certain types of development. This is not "new" stuff many of these terms and criticisms go back to the 1940s. While some of the terms are obvious (strip malls, McMansions) much of it is not obvious and opens a whole new way of seeing why certain things are laid out the way they are. More so, it helps to predict how future development will happen based on current development patterns. Fascinating, brings order to chaos.

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The Woman in White

Wilkie Collins, 1859
Audio, 4hrs
July 2006

This edition is a 4-hour BBC radio abridgment (2001). Full cast, sound effects, etc.. very elaborate. "The Woman in White" was one of the most popular novels of the 19th century, it has even been called the most popular. It is often considered the first mystery novel, and it certainly seems very much like an Agatha Cristi novel (mystery novels are extremely popular in England to this day, this is the genesis). The plot takes many twists and turns with lots of "sensational" revelations. By the end of the story all the strands have come together and are fully explained. Entertaining and popular but also literary groundbreaking.

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The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis & the Fate of Humanity


James Lovelock, 2006
First hardcover USA, 159-pages
July 2006

This is my first Lovelock book. I firmly believe in the dangers of climate change. On the downside I found it to be eccentric, lose with facts, not well researched for other points of view (or intentionally ignoring them), preachy and somewhat insular. His arguments pro-nuclear sound good but he never mentions some of the strong counter-arguments (ie. we would need a new Yucca mountain every year if the entire world was powered by nuclear, and no, burying nuclear waste in Lovelocks backyard to heat his home is not a viable option for a bunch of reasons - and an array of other counter-arguments). His argument that organic food can not feed the world is incorrect (all of China was organic until not long ago, many studies show this, the world doesn't need American style industry-ag to feed itself). His core message is sound: we are in more trouble and urgent action is needed. Also the idea that the world is healthier cold, and heat is a sign of stress, is interesting. His distaste for wind power because it destroys the countryside? The desire to return to 1840 when things were a garden of eden? There were many times I cringed "but.. but.." - at the same time there were some brilliant ideas and insights. It's a short enough book that I can recommend it to anyone concerned about climate change, readable in a day.

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The Sand Pebbles

Richard McKenna, 1963
1984 Naval Institue Press hardcover, 597-pages
July 2006

"The Sand Pebbles" was written by Richard McKenna, a career Navy sailor of no particular high rank, he was a mechanic. He was born to poor parents in 1913, a member of the "Greatest Generation", and fought in WWII in his late 20s. Before WWII he served a few years as a navy "river rat" on the Yangtze River in China where he gathered first-hand experience and stories for this novel about a US "gun boat" on the Yangtze during China's 1925-27 revolution. In the 1950s he retired from the Navy and then graduated with a university literary degree and wrote this his single novel, before dieing in 1964. In some ways McKenna's life mirrors the fictional life of the hero of "The Caine Mutiny" who wanted to retire from the Navy and write the great american novel.

The Sand Pebbles is foremost very entertaining and a "man's man" kind of romance - lots of brawling, drinking, whoring, loving and working with big heavy machinery and guns. But it is more than just entertainment, it is a historically accurate portrayal of life in China during the Gun Boat era before China had become unified as a nation. It is a commentary on race and cultural relations between "invincible" white-men and their "coolie" servants; between lowly working-class sailors and respectable missionary citizens. It is a hero's journey of self-discovery and growth. Of China's emergence as a distinct nation. But more than anything it is reliably authentic: one really has the feeling of what it must have been life to serve on a Gun Boat in China in the 1920's.

There was a famous 1964 movie adaption starring Steve McQueen.

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The Long Tail


Chris Anderson, 2006
First hardcover, 226-pages
July 2006

I'm hesitant to say anything negative about the book because I started and wrote a good portion of the Wikipedia article "Long Tail" and Chris sent me a courtesy copy of the book when I asked him for one (Chris and I never collaborated on Wikipedia, and he never wrote any of the article, I just always aimed for a Neutral Point of View, encompassing all perspectives, and being fair). He even mentions the Wikipedia article on page 73! I will certainly treasure this copy as something special.

The Long Tail is paradoxical. The economics of the Internet favors niches, yet also favors large aggregators, small numbers of large companies such as Google or Amazon or Ebay at the head of the niche aggregation curve where most business is done. The Long Tail opens new opportunities for niche aggregation, but niche aggregation requires high volume, it works for the few large players in the head of the tail. The first one to successfully capture a long tail opportunity is winner take all. This is a constraining factor of the technology that creates a few large dominate players, just as broadcast TV with a limited number of channels was a constraining factor that created the three big networks NBC,CBS,ABC.

If the number of niches are unlimited on the Inernet, what is the constraining factor that creates a few large players like Amazon and Ebay?

Information and goods on the Internet are in effectively unlimited supply (roughly speaking). Economics is defined by what is scarce. So if in the online world information and products are not scarce.. what is, what is the online economy based on? The long tail is a result, an end product, of consumer attention: eyeballs. Consumers attention is the scarce commodity, when products and information (and information about products) are in unlimited supply, the constraining factor is peoples time and attention - the long tail graph is an artifact of where consumer attention is focused at any given moment. See Richard Lanham's "The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information" (2006) for IMO an excellent recent book on this subject that delves further into an "economics of attention" (BTW the bibliography of The Long Tail is short mostly websites and magazine articles).

Overall the long tail is probably useful to finding the inefficiencies from the old models of scarcity adapted to the new internet models of abundance - shame on any reader who does not come up with at least one new way to become the next Internet billionaire. Probably the greatest legacy of this book will be to introduce "power laws" into mainstream vocabulary in the form of the proper noun "Long Tail" (capitalized), and power law thinking can lead to powerful results (see Google's search algorithm for one).

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Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture


Douglas Coupland, 1991
First edition (paper, there was no hardback first ed), 179-pages
July 2006

This is the book that popularized the term "Generation X" and first put a label on my generation. It focuses on the themes of information overload, declining standards of living, and many other traits such as non-family oriented, travel oriented, other-country oriented. Another trait is fragmentation, it is difficult to generalize about GenX so the characters and scenes in the book represent one subgroup of many possibilities. Reading it for the first time 15 years after it was published (almost a generation later) he got many things spot on where culture was headed.

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Hungry Planet: What the World Eats


Peter Menzel, 2005
First, hardcover. Material World Books, 287-pages
July 2006

Thirty families in twenty-four countries spread a weeks worth of food on a table and pose for a picture, followed by a few pages about the family and their shopping and eating habits, sort of like a National Geographic article with one article (chapter) per family. It includes very specific shopping lists of every food item, family recipes and pictures of the family in their daily lives, usually involved with cooking or shopping. The authors of the book are Californian organic eaters so they are sensitive to the health aspects, in particular noting fast food purchases and per-country obesity rates.

Fascinating. I read this over the course of about 30-days, with each of my supper time's, so I became engrossed in it. It was disturbing to see so much processed and pre-packaged food in the world today, even in Mongolia. It was fascinating to see healthy and vibrant people living on a diet that I would not consider healthy. It was fascinating to consider my diet was probably healthier than any in the book (almost entirely fresh fruit, vegetables and organic meats), that such basics are so difficult to achieve in the world. Although the USA has the highest over-weight per-capita, many countries are not far behind. Book is full of interesting perspectives of the current state of the world and food on a personal and understandable level. My favorite family is from Bhutan, they eat rice three meals a day almost no meat and few veggies or fruit, this diet just proves how basic or food needs to be to survive, even thrive.

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The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life

Francis Parkman, 1847
1946 hardcover. Doubleday and Company, illus. Thomas Hart Benton, 328-pages
July 2006

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The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor

cover image
Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1955/1970/1986
First hardback, 106-pages
July 2006

Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's re-telling of a ship-wrecked sailor's trials alone on a raft at sea for ten days without food or water. It was originally published in as a series of newspaper articles in 1955, turned into a book in 1970, and translated into English by Randolf Hogan in 1986. It is written in the first person from the perspective of the sailor and was actually signed by him, Marquez's name was not associated with the story until 1970 when it was first published as a book. It's an interesting survival tale with an interesting back-story in Marquez's career - the story's publication inadvertently revealed corruption in the Columbia Navy which embarrassed the dictator government which forced Marquez to take a job in Europe which opened new opportunities for him. The story is a natural "Robinsonade" and so appeals to that genre, all the more so because it is real, and involves a Nobel laureate.

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


Roald Dahl, 1964
Hardback 2001, 162-pages
July 2006

I knew the story from the 1971 Gene Wilder film "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" and assumed the book was 19th century - so was surprised to see it is recent and also essentially just a childrens book (readable in 2 hours) - I was a deprived kid (must have been watching too much "TeeVee"). Lots of fun, funny, would be best read aloud with the many verbal puns.

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Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition

Henry David Thoreau, 1854
Hardback 2004, 325-pages
June 2006

TBR

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The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information


Richard A. Lanham, 2006
First hardback, 276-pages
June 2006

Lanham has been a university professor for about 40-years, Yale-educated, English lit and rhetoric. He came of age pre-computer revolution, when writing meant manual type-writers and white-out and transcription. This series of connected essays are his ideas about what the digital revolution means for the future of books, universities and what he calls "the economics of attention" - how the world operates when information is plentiful and the scarce resource are "eyeballs" (attention). We are flooded with high-quality art, news, books, movies, data of every type - it is not an "information economy" because information is as plentiful as air - the scarce resource is peoples attention. In that environment, style (the wrapping paper, the ornamentation, packaging, literary style, etc..) becomes more important than substance - style is the substance (think for example all the crazy cultural things that come out of Japan - all style, no substance). He also discusses how we interact with things: we look "at" them, or we look "through" them - ie. we enjoy them for what they are, or we analyze them. We read a novel/movie on a literary level and dissect how it was created or and historical context, or we "get lost in the book" and enjoy it for what it is. These two forces are in a constant tug of war with every object we own - cars for example, utilitarian or style (or some combo usually). In the end Lanham concludes it is the liberal arts that will save the day for they are the ones who are trained to filter (critics) and create design and style (the new substance). He also provides the most detailed and lucid explanation I've seen on why paper books have not been replaced by the digital medium.

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The Caine Mutiny

Herman Wouk 1951
First hardback 1951, 498-pages
June 2006

This is really an amazing book. It is much better than the movie (which everyone has seen and is excellent) however two things from the movie spoiled it for me: Bogarts depiction of Queeg, and the dramatic trial scene when Queeg cracks - in both cases the movie is better - but minor gripes. The book is wonderful on many levels. The whole love affair is a novel within a novel. Lots of literary themes going on. Symbolically the "greatest generation" (characterized by its need for rules and structure) is growing up, taking over from the "lost generation" (depicted in the the first captain, characterized by tough pragmatism and doing whatever it takes to get the job done). This is a cautionary tale for an entire new generation who came of age in WWII - both the good side (heroism) and the bad side (fascism) - Caine and Able. Wouk really taped into the zeitgeist of 1950s America post-WWII. It is also historically fascinating as one of the most accurate depictions of life on board a US Navy vessel in WWII. Deserves to be in the canon of 20th lit - but since it was so popular (NYT best-seller list for almost 3 years) it may take a while to be "respectable".

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Among Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge and Her Remarkable Expedition to Easter Island


Jo Anne Van Tilburg 2003
First hardback, 247-pages
June 2006

I first heard about this in the bibliography of Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond raved about it. It is the life story of a wealthy Victorian-era English Quaker woman who pioneered research of Easter Island - in those days wealthy people did research trips as much as for entertainment, financing their own ways. Her life turns out to be very interesting and Tilburg does an excellent job, she was almost completely unknown before this book. I learned a lot about Easter Island ethnography, as well as the ethnography of 19th century English Quaker families, and the changes they went through in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tilburg's greatest gift is to show historical connections and continuity in a romantic manner. Memorable, incredibly well researched (60+ pages of end-notes), personal and honest.

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Tales

Washington Irving c. 1820
Hardback, Borders Classics 2004, 176-pages
June 2006

Collection of short stories by Irving. Includes:

Rip Van Winkle: Very short story. Based on German stories, so not really original, but it is set in America and was one of the first popular stories by an American author. Some interesting insights on pre and post Revolutionary War viewpoints.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: By far the best story he wrote. Very enjoyable, good paceing, good mixture of humour and suspense. The movies (Disney 1949 and Tim Burton 2005) don't do it justice. Disney is better than the Burton, which translated it into a cheesy teen-horror flick with the latest CGI and an evil step-mother (although Burtons magical style is worth seeing alone, looks like "Adams Family").
The Mutability of Literature: Interesting story about an old library in which old books speak lamenting how they are never read. Touches on issues very relevant today about "information overload" and ideas versus objects. Fascinating given its age how relevant it is today.
The Spectre Bridegroom: Great story with a really good twist. Didn't see it coming, really makes your flesh crawl. I won't forget this story.
Wolfert Webber: A pirate story. The description of the Inn and the mysterious pirate with his chest are classic, certainly known by Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island it is very similar.

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Gulliver's Travels


Jonathan Swift 1726/1735
Everyman hardback 1991, 318-pages + Oxford World Classics paperback w/intro and endnotes, 2005
June 2006

I found this to be a difficult read. It is a satire of travel literature (the preeminent form of literature in the early 18th century, like the novel is today) which recounts impossibly fantastic stories in a matter-of-fact manner that are uncomfortably obviously untrue (like many of the travel stories it is satirizing). It takes a dark and negative view of human nature that is disturbing, and is a fundamentally pessimistic book told in a witty and humorous way. Probably among the sickest of children-literature if it is read as such, but it has created a mythology that is a part of western culture. As protest literature it is way ahead of its time about colonialism and the idea of European might makes right. As satire it is one of the best. Some of the concepts can be found in later literature: the Yahoo's are like the wild-humans on "Planet of the Apes". Many of the fantasy ideas are very rich indeed. Overall - glad to be done with it! But if your going to read/write satire, it should be as biting and uncomfortable as this.

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Clan of the Cave Bear


Jean M. Auel 1980
harback, first 1980, 498-pages
June 2006

Quest For Fire was always one of my favorite movies so Clan has been a natural lifetime must-read. I'm a bit disappointed - the plot is a sexual-revolution womens-lib fairy-tale which distracts from the magic, one is always on-guard, is this allegory or science? The last half of the book is just boring as she stretches a thin plot (see below). But in the first half a certain magic does exist and although science now says Humans and Neandrathals probably never mated, it's still interesting to see "cave lifestyle" brought to life, in particual the religious side - Jean did an excellent job of making the spirits come alive and how much a part of daily life spirits probably were, not just in the absrtract (not too disimilair to someone who believes strongly in astrology). Glad to have read it, no desire to read the next 5 or 6 in the series.

Spoiler. From an amateur literary criticism POV, the plot had a lot of connections to The Jungle Book and Robinson Crusoe, both 18th and 19th century colonialization mythologies. Indeed the central plot is a direct rip of Muglies Tales from Jungle Book, right down to the council held to decide the "man-cubs" fate, and the evil snake who waits for the pack leader to die before trying to kill the man-cub. The "robisonade" tale of her surviving on her own and eventually conquering the natives, even pro-creating a new species, has been re-imagined as the story of Homo Sapians conquering Neandrathals. Thus for all its scientific trappings, this is fundamentally Romanticism - for all its nods to womens lib, it is pre-modern colonialization mythology.

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Angela's Ashes


Frank McCourt 1996
Audiobook 15hrs
June 2006

I'm not sure why I "read" it, but it's pretty damn good, certainly deserving of the Pulitzer. My inner-voice now sounds like a Irishman and I'm cooking fried bread for "dinner" (lunch) and I have a better appreciation for Catholic Irish (in particular poor Catholic Irish). Also a better appreciation for modernity and what poverty is like: lice, fleas, rats, TB, "consumption", yellow fever, sleeping in your clothes, eating nothing but bread and butter as a staple, etc.. Frank's father you wanted to yell at the whole time. Frank's mother was an angel. I assume this is all true, it's hard to imagine making it up. This is the real Ireland and the real Irish and explains a lot, another Native Son. The authors voice and narrative are amazing, better than reading.

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Downhill All The Way: Walking with Donkeys on the Stevenon Trail


Hillary Macaskill and Molly Wood, 2006
First, hardback, 154-pages
June 2006

This is a cute book by two middle-aged English ladies (and various friends) who hike the Stevenson trail in France (see Travels by RLS below) with a donkey. I wanted to read it to get a first-hand account of what the trail is like today. It's really very funny, in that understated British humour sort of way. It's not particularly deep or insightful - there is no journey into the abyss with only yourself starring back - no great personal insights on life (although a few on donkeys) - it's a light-hearted, light-stepped fun and easy read, another piece of the myth created by Stevenson. Thanks ladies I enjoyed the trip.

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20,000 Leagues Under The Sea


Jules Verne 1870
Restored and Annotated by Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter, 1993, 388-pages
June 2006

This is a great book. No, this is an incredibly awesome book! This edition was published in 1993, and is a completely new translation that restores %25 of the original (from the French) and fixes 100s of errors from the original English translation (which has become canon) , plus extensive and fascinating footnotes. This book deserves to be in the same league as Dracula and Frankenstein, it transcends the genre boundries of scifi or boys-lit. It's influence has been extensive. I found myself drawing it out, savoring each chapter and putting it down even though I wanted to read more, making it last 5 days instead of 3. This edition by Miller and Walter is really half of why it's so good, not only is the translation superb, the footnotes are a new realm to themselves.

Update: Watched the Disney 1952 film. Takes a much darker approach, Nemo is a crazed killer! Sad, so much more complexity. Also the sub is a nuke, not electric. 4/5'ths of the adventures are cut. Special effects are unforgettable.

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Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change


Elizabeth Kolbert 2006
First hardback 194-pages, +Audiobook 5hrs
May 2006

Kolbert is a science reporter for the New York Times. She wrote a series of human interest + science articles about the work various scientists around the world are doing to study global warming. This is the book version. It is, for me, nothing new except some arcane specifics about work particular scientists are working on. The message is clear: we're in trouble. For some reason it didn't translate well to audiobook, it lost much of its power in spoken word. If you've never read a book on global warming, or are curious about what scientists are doing and how they know what they know, this is a great start. The real meat of the matter is in the last 4 or 5 chapters or so.

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Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America


Paul Schneider 2006
Hardback, first, 318-pages
May 2006

Amazing story of 400 Spanish explorers who walked into the bush of southern Florida in the 1520s and disappeared - eight years later four survivors showed up on the west coast of central Mexico, dressed as natives and carrying nothing but a few hundred indians worshiping them as powerful shamans. In the intervening 8 years it was one incredible adventure after the next, mostly dire tales of starvation, violence and exotic peoples. They were the first to enter North America and cross it. An otherwise little known story today, it was a classic best-seller in the 16th century, retold here with the latest scholarly findings. There are few comparable stories in the history of exploration, North America was an entirely unknown continent.It reminds me of Africa with one new and bizzarre and deadly tribe after the next.

As with Arctic Grail (the story of 19th century British explorations to the Arctic), it is those who adapt to the native culture and ways that survive, and those who remain loyal to thier supposed Western cultural and material advantages that die. The lessons of "Guns, Germs and Steel" are all over this story. In the end the survivors found the keys to their success in dealing with the natives.

Update July 2006: Watched the 1993 movie Cabeza de Vaca which loosely picks up the story from the time they land on the beach till they are found by Spanish soldiers. Focuses heavily on mysticism and magic (druggy-like scenes and music). Scenery and costumes are "Quest for Fire" awesome. Parts are just like I imagined from the book. But for whatever reason it's not a "great" film, but worth seeing if you've read the book.

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Planet of the Apes

Pierre Boulle 1963
Hardcover, 1963 bookclub edition, trans by Xian Fielding, 191-pages
May 2006

The movie (first one) has always been one of my favorites. The novel is a lot like the movie (imagine that). I would say the ending of the movie was better (they are both twist endings) - more twisted - the novel adds a bit of un-needed complication with the frame tale. Anyway, I'll never forget seeing the movie for the first time a youngster and when the ending suddenly dawned on me. Even reading the novel the twist ending gave me a shout of delight all over again. I'll have to read Logan's Run next, another dystopia classic that shaped my world view for better or worse in the 1970's.

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Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of


David Carlyon 2001
First hardback, 416-pages
May 2006

Fascinating trip with of the most well-known and interesting Americans of the 19th century. Anyone alive during the period 1850-1870 would have heard of Dan Rice, he was the Johnny Carson of his time as notable as Lincoln. Rice ran for President in 1878. This is a quality biography well researched and reliable. Its listed at 500+ pages but the text portion is 416, with a picture about every 3rd page. I think the fact that he was an in-person spontaneous crowd entertainer of magnetic charisma, before audio/visual and scripts; it's difficult to really grasp what made him so great without seeing him in person. Reading his dialog transcripts are flat, painfully so, you had to have been there in person. I wish Carlyon had taken more artistic efforts to convey what a circus was like, what Dan was like, more time is spent on controversy and conflict with his professional peers than what actually made him so appealing. There are occasional hints of what sound like fascinating episodes in his life that never get developed. It often feels like Carlyon spent months pouring over newspaper microfiche collections, following Dan's life through the newspaper controversies (which may very well be the only way) - but as Carlyon says, Rice knew that controversy sells! One of the strengths of the book is its examination of the changing zeitgeist of America in the 19th century - this is important to understand why an entertainer is a star one decade, and yesterdays news the next, even though nothing had changed - as Dan said one day to the crowd: "What did I do wrong?", Carlyon, through the story of Rice, does a good job of conveying the changing character and nature of America between the 1840s and 1880s. This is also vital work for any student of Mark Twain or fan of Huckleberry Finn.

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The Arabian Nights


Husain Haddawy (trans) 1992
Hardback Everyman's Library, 428-pages
May 2006

This is the original "Arabian Nights", a collection of stories from Persia from the 7th century to the 13th century. Haddawy's translation is considered the modern definitive, going back to the original sources and removing the stories that are not original added in the 17th and later centuries (such as Ali Babba the thief and Sinbad the Sailor). There is a lot of sex and violence but also incredible stories of love, redemption and heroic quest. On par with the Decameron, perhaps better. Very enjoyable, the world was a magical place where the supranatural and extraordinary affairs merge with every day life. Leaves a strong impression of place and time, it is easy to see how this has influenced generations and the strong cultural myths it created, truely one of the greats of World Literature.

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Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization


Richard Manning 2004
First hardback 211-pages
April 2006

Richard Manning exposes the dark side of farming: ADM and the factory monocrop culture seem to predominate, but interestingly the same problems have existed since the dawn of agribusiness 10k years ago. I decided to read this book after reading his essay "The oil we eat" (2004, The Atlantic, see also "Coolreading I (2004)") which is outstanding. This is an excellet book as well, the problem is he hits on so many different ideas but he never fully expands on them - but the ideas are worthwhile. For me, he is preaching to the choir and most of the stuff here is not new, but I suspect for most people it's a point of view that would be subversive. Manning doesn't offer new solutions other than the same old: organic, slow food, buy local, diversify away from the mono-foods of wheat/corn/rice/soy. I think the one thing that stuck with me was the image of the collaboration between farmer, industry and government to sell whatever food is in surplus - in America that is maninly corn so we find corn products in everything - and that food is not seen as "food" but a commodity, no different than coal or even money its self - a denatured commodity disconneted from the relationship between grower and eater, and the resultant abuses that occur to the food and environment.

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Travels With Charley: In Search of America

John Steinbeck 1962
First hardback Bookclub edition 246-pages
April 2006

Steinbeck named the book as a nod to RLS's Travels with a Donkey (see below) which was one of his favorite books, and mine as well; plus I love to drive solo across country getting lost and write about it, and that's exactly what Steinbeck did with his dog Charley circumnavigating the USA from Main to Seattle to Texas to New York, so it was a double pleasure - I read it in one day. Steinbeck emphasized that a factual travel account is never possible - even if the same events happen to the different people they will remember or write or see it in different ways, so travel literature is a very personal unique experience, not an encyclopedic account. A great road trip book, very funny in parts.

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Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone


Martin Dugard 2003
Audio unabridged 11 hrs + First hardback 315-pages
April 2006

This is my first "19th C African Explorer" book and what better way to start it off than with the story behind the phrase "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" - it is the story of how Stanley and Livingstone came to meet in the African Congo; of the competitive history behind British and American explorations of Africa; the competitive newspapers in America and England that drove the stories into popular imagination; the competitive nature of nations and the start of the rush for Africa in the later 19th century. Stanley was an adventurer/reporter who pioneered the journalist+expolorer "reports from the field". Martin Dugard has a similar background. Overall this is an energetic, fascinating account of a whole host of characters from diverse backgrounds who came together on the fateful day in the middle of the Congo when Stanly walked up to the only white man in thousands of miles whom he had been searching for months and said "Dr Livingston, I presume?", entering into popular mythology forever.

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The New Arabian Nights


Robert Louis Stevenson
Project Gutenberg + Sony Librie, 558 KB ascii
April 2006

A collection of short stories written by Stevenson before he became famous, published in various magazines in the late 1870s, including his first published fiction. Composed of two "books", the first book is a series of nested inter-related stories of diverse topics - thus the allusion to the "Arabian Knights" whose stories were also nested. Overall I found them to be "ok", mostly stories of upstanding Victorian gentleman who find themselves involved in unseemly scenarios such as murder, theft - all within the backdrop of the "anonymous city" (see Balzac). Forerunner to Jekyll and Hyde.

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Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer


James L. Swanson 2006
Audio abridged, narrated by Richard Thomas, 9hrs
April 2006

The account of John Wilkes Booth assassination of Lincoln and the subsequent 12-day manhunt through Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia. This is one of those "reads like a novel" books, in part because the author did so much fantastic research (it is his lifetime "magnificant obession"), did such a great job writing it, but also because the actual events are just so incredible. The book is being made into a movie starring Harrison Ford for release in 2007 (filming started March 2006).

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Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood


Martin Booth 2005
First, hardback, 337-pages
April 2006

I'd never heard of English author Martin Booth before. He wrote this personal memoir, recounting 3 years of his childhood age 7 to 10 in Hong Kong in the early 1950s, written just before he recently died of brain cancer. He dedicated the book to his own children, as a way to pass on the story of his life to them. It reads like a novel - one incredible adventure after the next of a boy of 7 let loose on the streets of Hong Kong in the wild years after WWII. It also details the breakdown of the marriage of his mother and father. This is a real treasure trove, a look at the world through the new eyes of a child, but guided by the wise perspective of an older author. I feel like I have traveled and lived in Hong Kong - the sites, sounds, smells - the culture, food, weather, animals, people - all brilliantly alive and real. I also have a better sense of the Chinese and what it means to be Chinese, and a desire to learn more. I only wish Martin had written a memoir of his entire life!

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Robert Louis Stevenson and His World

David Daiches 1973
Hardback exlib, 112-pages
April 2006

Excellent short biography by well-known Stevenson scholar David Daiches (1912-2005) - I think much of the text is from his 1947 "Robert Louis Stevenson". Not only is it well written, respectful and sympathetic (no muddying the waters with banal controversies), it has about 100 pictures (which bring it to life), and some really good insights - like watching a documentary.

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The Jungle Books


Rudyard Kipling 1894-1895
Audio narration by Madhav Sharma (4hrs) + Gutenberg text
April 2006

This is one of the best narrators I've heard and is perfect for the subject, it's like an old wise Indian guru telling the stories for the first time, truly a gifted story teller. The set here includes most of the Mowgli stories from Kipling's "The Jungle Book" (1894) and "The Second Jungle Book" (1895). The stories included are: "Mowgli's Brother", "Kaa's Hunting", "Tiger! Tiger!", "Letting in the Jungle", "A King's Ankus" and "Red Dog" - plus the poem "The Law Of The Jungle" (which shows up in the middle of the "Mowgli's Brother" story). Most are abridged, some more than others, however the abridgments are fairly well done - I read along with the unabridged text (gutenberg.org) and could fill in the missing sections - in some cases I think the abridgments actually improved the story. I'm not usually one for abridgment but this is an exception, you can always read the full text, the narration here leaves the imprint that makes it come alive.

It really felt like reading a proto-Tolkien with wars between the animals (races), special languages, histories and myths. Certainly Tolkien read Kipling as a child and was influenced by it, as have been many others. The scene with the elephants being recruited to destroy the village is right out Tolkiens Ents destroying Saruman and the King's Ankus is certainly The Ring that both rules and destroys men.

Update. December 2006. Completed reading the rest of The Jungle Books, Border's hardcover edition. These are non-Mowgli stories, but most have "talking animals" as central characters - not limited to India. Some better than others but some very memorable and leave a lasting impression. Wish I had read when younger!

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Across America on an Emigrant Train


Jim Murphy
First hardback 137-pages
April 2006

This is an easy and fun history book (young adult) that blends excerpts from Robert Louis Stevenson's "Amateur Emigrant" and "Across the Plains" (see below) with Jim Murphy's prose and descriptions. I was expecting a kids book but far from it - while not academic or even pretentiously so, it's on par with a PBS episode of "American Experience" and reminds me of how fun history can be. The historical photo's are excellent, numerous and tightly connected to the text. Highly recommended for anyone interested in RLS, American history and the immigrant experience of the late 19th century. Jim Murphy has written about a dozen books like this including some Newbury award winners, hope to read some more, the language and prose is easy and leaves a strong impression of time and place, very enjoyable.

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Peter Pan


James Matthew Barrie 1911
Project Gutenberg 1.0 + Sony Librie, 152 KB ascii
March 2006

Everyone knows Peter Pan, but who still reads the 1911 novel? Very enjoyable, funny and sweet. Barrie was a school chum of Robert Louis Stevenson and the depictions of Captain Hook and his ship the Jolly Roger are clear nods to Treasure Island (even the Sea Cook is mentioned in passing). Good story, often funny, works on multiple levels for children and adults. Who wants to grow up?

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The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century


Ross E. Dunn 1986
First, hardback 319-pages
March 2006

Ibn Battuta was a 14th century Moroccan Islamic scholar who spent about 30 years traveling throughout the Islamic world and beyond. It is one of the great travel accounts of history easily comparable with Marco Polo. This book is a scholarly gloss of his account designed for the non-specialist - there are many complications to his itinerary and a lot of historical background which are illuminated and explained. Each chapter covers a particular region he traveled, with the first part of the chapter providing the historical background of the region, with the second half recounting Battuta's travels and experiences therein. Thus, not only does one get an overview of Battuta's travels, but a fairly good 14th century "world history". It is probably the most intimate and personal medieval story I have read giving interesting details about daily living that bring the era and people to life, while also providing a macro historical view of the time. The only thing better would be to read the actual book - but I think this contextual account and the primary source are both just as vital to understanding.

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Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary


Henry Hitchings 2005
Hardback first 259-pages
March 2006

Defining the World does for Dr. Johnson's 18th century dictionary what Simon Winchester did in The Meaning of Everything for the Oxford English Dictionary. A popular, readable and enjoyable history. Hitchen's doesn't have the "spark" of Winchester's prose, he's only 30 and it's his first book, but he is well versed in his subject-he has a recent PhD on it in fact-the book is very well written. Most memorable for me were the descriptions of life in London in the middle to late 18th century and its many floppy characters. As befitting a book about a dictionary, there is substantial discussion of words and definitions and the many permutations-a seemingly dry subject but in the hands of Hitchings under the guidance of Johnson's raw material is really very funny and interesting. Unlike the OED, the Dictionary doesn't have a dramatic creation story, other than Johnson's colorful character which is as much mythology as reality. If for no other reason than I keep running into "Doctor Johnson" and his dictionary everywhere I turn, this book provided enjoyable context on what it's all about. As my studies will in the future focus on the 18th century, Dr Johnson has become an indespensible piece of culture to know about.

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A Time Of Gifts

Patrick Leigh Fermor 1977
Hardback 1999 "Folio Society" 292-pages
March 2006

Written in 1977 about his experience walking from Holland to Constantinople in 1933. Considered a classic of travel literature. Fermor combines the wild "recklessness" of his youth with the encyclopedic knowledge of old age into this artistic work. Come prepared with an Encyclopedia Brittanica 1911 edition and the Oxford English Dictionary, this is an advanced-level course in European culture told through a rough and tumble travel adventure of Europe between the wars. Mingle with Counts, Barons and Dukes in Tutonic castles; gypies and harlots; drifters and smugglers; farmers and peasants. Fermor is the height of European 19th culture on the brink of its destruction and reminds us what we have lost. He also reminds of us the gentle giving nature of the people that gave him food, lodging and help along his journey as a young man, it was a time of gifts. I'll have to return to this when I am much older and can appreciate the lifetime of knowledge contained within.

The copy is a 1999 "Folio Society" reprint, the quality of which is outstanding with gilted cover, thick acid-free paper, new original drawings, slip-case, and appears to be a facsimile. While I prefer first-editions (or same time-frame), FS does an outstanding job.

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The Discovery of Global Warming


Spencer Weart 2003
Paperback 206-pages
March 2006

This is a decent history of the Global Warming theory, from the 1880s to about 2001. The theory entered mainstream knowledge in the 1970s, and mainstream concern in the 1980s. By the IPPC report of 2001 it is now beyond any reasonable doubt and is really no longer a science issue but a social question, what do we do. There will always be science debate and refinement, in particular how it will impact on a regional basis.

One of the scarriest things this book hit home was not the fact the world is getting warmer, but how unstable the climate is -- there could be a sudden and dramatic shift in a very short time (decades or less) -- we don't know what that shift would be or how it would impact, but the risk is there.

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The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill


Mark Bittner 2004
First hardback 277-pages
March 2006

A remarkable story which I read with my lapdog "Mitzy" on my lap bringing closer understanding to the intelligence, communications and consciousness of animals. It is also the story the authors voyage of self-discovery. A real gem of a book, uplifting and positive. After the prior three lengthy and depressing books this was the chaser I needed.

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Night Draws Near


Anthony Shadid 2005
First hardback 398-pages
March 2006

Shadid is a reporter for the Washington Post and is half Arab, half American (he easily passes for a native Arab). He was stationed in Iraq from before the war to the elections in 2005. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for his reporting. Because he is Arab and speaks the language he is able to easily interview people in all stations and positions of life in Iraq and provide a unique introspection of the Iraqi people. Shadid is there in person as the major events happen, interviewing people, watching as the zeitgeist mood of the country changes over time with each major event in the war, occupation and resistance.

What we learn from the book is that America is clueless about Iraq. We also learn the Iraqis are mostly clueless themselves. There are countless factions pushing and pulling in all directions, both internally and externally, with each car bombing a game to guess who might have done it and why. Iraqis are fiercely independent people, they operate according to tribal law and blood feuds (the politics of revenge), who see America as a provocative threat to their identity, and Saddam as the source of all their problems. We learn that Iraq has been a living hell since the early 1980s when the Iran/Iraq war killed more than WWI/WWII combined (on a per-capita basis) leaving a culture of death and crime in its wake. That long-repressed religious forces have fused with nationalistic pride to form militaristic religious armies. Of external Islamic movements twisting Iraq to their purposes. Of tribal conflict, sectarian conflicts, inter and intra-family conflicts.

I found this an emotionally difficult but required book. It is as close to a history of Iraq post-invasion as there can be right now, it is all first-hand accounts from Iraqis themselves, written by a reporter sympathetic and understanding of Iraqi culture. Once you get into the mind of Iraqi culture you realize how little the outside world understand this highly complex and volitile "country". At the very end of the last page of the Bibliography, stuffed with Middle East books, is one book that stands out but speaks volumes: Native Son (see previous review below in 2005). If you understand Native Son, you are a long way to understanding Iraq, "there's a little Bigger in us all."

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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed


Jared Diamond 2004
2005 hardback 525-pages
February 2006

It's really multiple books in one; a history of 5 or 6 ancient civilizations; a history of 3 or 4 modern civilizations; a "state of the world" (circa 2003) on what the (12) major issues are facing the world in the next 50 years; an overview of the mining, timber and marine fishery industries (history, problems, solutions, future); a fascinating narrative of life in modern Montana; a highly focused and up to date annotated bibliography (best bibliography I've seen). All tied together with the common theme that people today are little different than people of yesterday and the lessons of the past are applicable to our future, specifically focused on environmental issues and the fate of human societies. That's it, not a complicated book, no grand theories like in GGS, it's a better book - the lessons are timeless and nothing new, just presented in the language and framework of the problems of our time. Diamond is a wise sage with unique life experiences whose insights are a treasure.

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Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains


Mark Bowen 2005
First, hardback 395-pages
February 2006

This is the first book on global warming I have read, its hard to imagine and more thrilling way to learn. It's also hard to classify, being about 5 books in one - the story of the career of scientist Lonnie Thompson, the history of the discovery of global warming, a mountaineering book, anthropoligical study of the rise and fall of civilizations due to climate, and a history of the political debates.

Lonnie Thompson is my hero, a soft-spoken calm scientist from the hills of West VA working in obscurity for 20+ years beneath the radar (from his peers doing the big core drills at the poles), on exotic mountain glaciers at 20k feet for weeks on end setting altitude endurance records. Innovating new equipment and techniques. Building life-long teams of dedicated mountaineering-scientests who are driven to find the evidence the world is in trouble. Epic stuff. The combination of the science, mountaineering, adventures, high-stakes political atmosphere, all combine into a heady story that is impossible to put down.

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Over the Edge of the World


Laurence Bergreen 2003
Hardback first edition 414-pages
February 2006

History that reads like a novel. Fascinating account of Magellan's 1520s first circumnavigation of the world. Widely considered the greatest voyage of the Age of Discovery. Left with 5 ships and 260 men, arrived 3 years later with 1 ship and 18 men. Beset from the start by corrupt officials, rotting supplies, feuding crew, mutinous captains, scurvy, starvation, blank charts, unreliable instruments, storms, tiny boats, deadly natives, disease -- fear of sailing off the edge of the earth -- a captain hell-bent on personal glory at the exspense of the mission -- all the while changing how humans see the world -- there are few comparable stories of human exploration.

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The Amateur Emigrant / Across the Plains


Robert Louis Stevenson 1895
Project Gutenberg 1.0 + Sony Librie, about 200 KB ascii
February 2006

First leg of Stevensons journey from Scottland to meet and marry Fanny in CA, it recounts his time on board a ship in the steerage compartment (lower-class). Stevenson described the crowded weeks in steerage with the poor and sick, as well as stowaways, and his initial reactions to New York City where he spent a few days. Filled with sharp-eyed observations, it brilliantly conveys Stevenson's perceptions of America and Americans. It also provides a very detailed and enjoyable account of what it was like to travel to America as an emigrant in the 19th century, during a time of mass migrations to the New World. Details such as the bedding arrangements, daily food rations, relationships with the crew, with other grade ticket holders, passengers of other nationalities, entertainment, children - all provide a rich and colorful tapestry of life on-board the ship.

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The Silverado Squatters


Robert Louis Stevenson 1883
Project Gutenberg 1.0 + Sony Librie, 187 KB ascii
February 2006

Stevenson's unconventional honeymoon with his new wife Fanny in a "love shack" in an abandoned mine in the mountains of Napa Valley CA. Provides some interesting views of California during the late 19th century. Stevenson uses the first telephone of his life. He meets a number of wine growers in Napa Valley, an enterprise he deemed "experimental", with growers sometimes even mis-labeling the bottles as originating from Spain in order to sell their product to skeptical Americans. He visits the oldest wine grower in the valley Jacob Schram, who had been "experimenting" for 18 years at his Schramsberg Winery, and had recently expanded the wine cellar in his backyard. Stevenson also visited a petrified forest owned by an old Norwegian ex-sailor who had stumbled upon it while clearing farmland.what the petrified forest was remained for everyone a source of curiosity. Stevenson also details his encounters with a local Jewish merchant, whom he compares to a character in a Charles Dickens novel (probably Fagin from Oliver Twist), and portrays as happy-go-lucky but always scheming to earn a dollar. Like Dickens in American Notes (1842), Stevenson found the American habit of spitting on the floor hard to get used too.

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An Inland Voyage


Robert Louis Stevenson 1878
Project Gutenberg 1.0 + Sony Librie, 215 KB ascii
February 2006

Stevenson and a friend travel along the French canals and rivers in canoes for "leisure". Outdoor travel for leisure was unusual for the time and they were often mistaken for traveling salesman, but the novelty of their canoes would occasion entire villages to come out and wave along the river banks. Very well written, Stevenson was a true Romantic. Like many of his works, this one is fairly unique, nothing else he wrote since is quite like it in style or tone. It paints a delightful atmosphere of Europe in a more innocent time with its quirky inn keepers, traveling entertainers and puppeteers, old men who had never left their villages, ramshackle military units parading around with drums and swords, gypsy families who lived on canal barges.

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Chasing Spring


Bruce Stutz 2006
First hardback 236-pages
February 2006

Bruce Stutz is a 56 year old Jewish naturalist writer from Brooklyn who after a heart-valve surgery decides to drive across the USA following the progress of Spring, moving generally from south to north (map of route included). I was drawn to this because I have driven across the USA on solo trips with no particular itinerary just exploring and was interested in traveling with a like-minded soul and seeing it from another perspective. Some of the highlites of the trip include small town mardi gras celebrations in Louisiana, the Punxsutawney Phil groundhog day, a tour of the now-defunct Biosphere and its lone remaining tour-guide/guard, hiking the deserts of AZ, the sandhills of Nebraska underneath which lies the largest aquafier of water in North America, difficult climbing in the mountains near Denver, birding on the salt flats, mushroom picking in the OR Cascade Mountains with Asian pickers (a fascinating and new phenomenon to me), flying into the ANWAR in Alaska with bush pilots.

Throughout Stutz emphasis es the nature of change not only of the season into Spring, but of the changing weather and climate of the planet and how this is effecting the natural world visably today. Never preachy, it is a gentle and beautiful road-trip in a gas-guzzling 1983 Chevy, appropriately nick-named "Moby Dick" for its large "whale" of a size, white color, and for anyone who has read the novel, a metaphor for the elements of life that are out of our control. A book well worth reading for anyone interested in travel, nature, a changing world and the promise of Spring around the corner on a winters evening.

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Travels with a Donkey in the CÚvennes


Robert Louis Stevenson 1879
Project Gutenburg 1.0 + Sony Librie, 208 KB ascii
February 2006

One of the forerunners of the modern outdoor travel narratives. Stevenson traveled 12-days and 120 miles through the south-central Cevennes mountain range in France in 1879. The region is still do this day one of the poorest in France, and in 1703, it was the scene of a bloody Protestent rebellion against the Catholic church (also the same region that the Cathars were active during the bloody Albigensian Crusade). This appealed to Stevenson in part because the geography of similar to his native Scotland, rocky treeless mountains covered in heather, and the history of a minority Protestent uprising against an oppresive majority lay over the land and people. Stevenson was sickly most of his life and craved adventure. He also needed to make money and this was his second book, before he became the well-known author with "Treasure Island". Provides some interesting details of an early "sleeping bag", large and heavy enough to require a donky to carry.

Update: March 2006. Created an annotated version see The Annotated 'Travels with a Donkey in the CÚvennes'. Very cool and rewarding experience to research Stevenson's references, much more sophisticated and enjoyable work on second reading than it appeared at first.

Update:April 2006. Listened to a (lightly abridged) audio version narrated by Billy Hartman, 2001, who has a wonderful Scots accent which brings alive the rythem and sounds of Stevenson's writings, adding a whole new dimension, plus some cool 19th century music between sections. I picked up a few things I missed by reading, it's interesting how both spoken work and text can convey different meanings even when they are the exact same words.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray


Oscar Wilde 1891
Project Gutenburg v1.0 + Sony Libre, 312 KB ascii
February 2006

First book read on a Sony Libre. The experience has both advantages and disadvantages over a book. It seems easier/faster to read since page turning can be done with a slight press of the thumb using the same hand that holds the Libre, which has no weight or bulk and can be read anywhere from any angle or lighting (4 AAA batteries last for 7,000 page turns). It's also nice to have 17,000 Gutenburg texts on-hand at a moments notice. Downside is no physical book, which has more character and charm and tactile feedback - however after 20 years of reading material online anyway, nothing new there, and there are always real books to read that are not online. Hard to markup and take notes and flip back to passages via the Libre, but easy to do so with the text file on a computer.

Having seen the classic 1945 B&W film I was expecting a similar plot but it is significantly different. Throughout are some stunning insights on human nature, the nature of relationships - potentially "dangerous" insights. While the unique "ageing picture" device gets a lot of attention, I think the real value of this work is the self-referencial way Wilde shows the corruption of innocence through a young mans exposure to literature (Joris-Karl Huysmans's "Against the Grain"), all the while the novel itsself contains very dangerous corrupting ideas for the reader. Not a novel to take too seriously (or not).

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To Kill a Mockingbird


Harper Lee 1960
Hardback 1999 (40th anniversary) 323-pages
January 2006

I could have read it in 2 days but the chapters are so delicious I had to slow down and let them sink in and spread it out over about 8 days, like sipping a drink you dont want to end. Voted best novel of the 20th century by a poll of American librarians. Pulitzer Prize.

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The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians


Peter Heather 2005
First USA hardback 459-pages
January 2006

Peter Heather (Oxford) is a leading expert on barbarians (he's written 3 books about Goths and Huns), and is under contract (for some of these books) by a leading European-wide institution. The book is subtitled "Rome and the Barbarians", and thus unsuprisingly, in his final analysis Rome fell because it was overwhelmed by external barbarians, and not (entirely) because of internal reasons, which is usually the more common explanation (Christianity, civic pride, economic and cultural stagnation, etc..) - and further, the barbarians invaded the Empire because they were in effect blowback from 400 years of Imperial aggression ("By virtue of its unbounded aggression, Roman imperialism was ultimately responsible for its own destruction"). Rome in effect created the barbarian menace, who were forced into more politically organized and dangerous super-groups. In a post-911 world this sounds suspiciously like an aggressive "American Empire" suffering blowback from modern day "Islamic fundamentalist", a popular view in some circles. Although Heather draws some parallels with the history of the British Empire, in any case it certainly has a topical feel to it.

Whatever the possible modernisms (a minor gripe given the good points and probably unavoidable in any history book), this is an excellent book that I highly recommend for its riveting narrative, asking the key questions (and providing answers, even if educated guesses), dispelling old notions, illuminating a lot of new information about the barbarians and the Huns in particular, and providing a structured story from start to finish that is unforgettable. Heather reminds me of Runciman in his classic political narrative style. I've read 4 other narratives of this period and they all leave more questions than answers about a very complicated series of events to the point it just seems like one random contingency after the next, as un-interesting as the trajectory of a pin-ball game; but "Like a late Roman emperor, Heather is determined to impose order on a fabric that is always threatening to fragment and collapse into confusion; unlike most late Roman emperors, he succeeds triumphantly."

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A Short History of Myth


Karen Armstrong 2005
First hardback 149-pages
January 2006

Short book that provides a survey overview of the different stages of myth from Palaeolithic (hunters) -> Neolithic (farmers) -> Early Civilizations (4000-800 BC) -> Axial Age (800-200 BC) -> Post-Axial (200-1500 AD) -> Great Western Transformation (1500-2000 AD). Within each period the myths we live by are relevant to the way we interact with the world, such that in Neolithic the gods were of the earth and life came from the earth while in the Early Civilizations the gods were more like judges who imposed law and order. She says that as of 1500 AD myth had died replaced by scientific revolution, but myth is still important and lives-on today in the form of the novel, litereature and movies, mythical stories that are relevant to everyday life. Of course this final conclusion may be influenced that this book is the first in a series by the publisher to retell popular old myths, this serving as a sort of introduction. I've never read about myths (beyond college) and hope to read in more detail from other authors in the future.

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The Sea and the Jungle

HM Tomlinson 1912
Hardback 1928 Everyman edition 371-pages
January 2006

A travel narrative classic about the first English "tramp steamer" to traverse upstream the Amazon river nearly 2000 miles. Great insights on life, the jungle, the early days of Amazon pioneer settlements. Some of the personal insights are powerfully true, themes of civilized man versus the wild man, mans exploitation of the environment and each other. Written with a very cheeky humerous style parts are absolutely hillarious (fishing with dynamite is a highlite). Parts are very atmospheric such as the story of the old man in the gin bar (see excerpt here). Wonderful sense of place and time, natural lore and human emotion, well worth the journey.

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They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky


Benson, Alephonsion & Benjamin w/ Judy Bernstein 2005
First hardback 311-pages
January 2006

This made me cry. Twice. Powerful. It is the true account, told in their own words, of three orphaned brothers, "Lost Boys" from the Sudanese civil war (over 2 million dead) who were eventually resettled in America. After they became orphaned at around ages of 5 during at attack on their jungle village, for 14 years they wondered around southern Sudan, miracously escaping one close death after the next from thirst, starvation, wild animals, exhaustion, disease, injury and of course constant civil war - all the while searching, finding, loosing each other, finally to be resettled in America. Through it all they retained respect and dignity. This is a major wide-eye opener of how people are living, right now today. Incredible and heart wrenching.

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Great Expectations


Charles Dickens 1861
Norton Critical + Audiobook (Frederick Davidson), 358-pages + 19 hours
January 2006

Until about 1940 or so this was one of Dicken's more obscure works, not that popular in its time, but has since come under the critical spotlight (thanks in large part to some papers written by George Orwell and others), to the point today it ranks as one of his most well know, probably in large part to the attention paid it in academic settings. I found the first 1/3 of the novel to be excellent in the same way David Copperfield where Dickens talent for showing the world from the perspective of a child shines. As Pip gets older and enters into manhood the story begins to drag, finally all the plot elements come together in the final 1/6th of the novel, making the majority of the story often, well, boring; the climatic scenes are just not that climatic (but never predictable and often surprising). The ending was also not happy, as I would have expected it (the original ending anyway), but appropriate and refreshingly non-"Hollywood" (of course).

I particularly enjoyed the river journey which was vividly clear, the light of the stars on the water being broken by the paddle of the oars. The opening scene of Magwitch ("witch" being the operative word) in the graveyard. The character Jaggers the lawyer, who reminds me of a lawyer I know. There are some very poetic and lyric passages, I hope to re-read again to think more about the poetic choice of words. I also enjoyed the food descriptions throughout, gave a real sense of what people ate in Victorian England (lots of milk, rum, eggs, bacon and biscuits).

Dicken's brother died just as he started writing the story and while it certainly deserves credit (many very intelligent people say its his best work, and he was the best author of the 19th century, making this the..).. I found it overall just somewhat dark and depressing and boring, except in parts which were outstanding. An oppresive darkness broken by flashes of brilliance pretty much sums it up, at least on first reading.

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King Kong

Edgar Wallace, Merian Cooper, novelized by Delos W. Lovelace 1932
Hardback 1976 185-pages
January 2006

King Kong was initially concieved as a screenplay by Wallace and Cooper. Lovelace novelized the screenplay and released it before the movie came out. It's a fast read non-stop action (like a movie). There is nothing particularly deep about the writing since it's just a written version of the movie (indeed it reveals how shallow movies can be compared to literature, but this comes after just finishing a Wharton novel by comparison, McDonalds vs fine French cuisine). The language is 1930s wise guy with lines like "look here" and "tough egg" and "shove off" peppered throughout (and not in a nostalgic way, the "genuine article"). King Kong is of course part of the "Lost World" genre started by King Solomons Mines (see 2005 Cool Reading), but is most influened by Edgar Burroughs The Land that Time Forgot (see 2005 Cool Reading) and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.

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The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton 1920
Hardback 1920 first(?) 365-pages
January 2006

1920 novel by Edith Wharton which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. The novel takes place among New York City's upper class during the 1870s, before the advent of electric lights, telephones or motor vehicles; when there was a small cluster of aristocratic "old revolutionary stock" families that ruled New Yorks social life; when "being things" was better than "doing things" - ones occupation or abilities were secondary to heredity and family connections, when reputation and outward appearances came at the exclusion of everything and everyone else. When gentleman were lawyers and ladies were ladies and the "clever people" did everything else. When 5th Avenue was deserted by nightfall and it was possible to follow the comings and goings of society by watching who went to which household along it. The plot is a love story, but is also well regarded for its accurate portrayal of how the upper class of America at one time lived, for which it won the Pulitzer (The Magnificent Ambersons (1918) by Booth Tarkington won a Pulitzer for almost the same reason just a few years earlier, except set in the Midwest). Wharton, born in 1862 and aged 58 at the time of publication, herself lived in this rarefied social world, only to see it change dramatically by the end of WWI, when she looked backed and reminisced about a bygone "age of innocence".

Wharton was good friends with Teddy Roosevelt (see below).

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The River of Doubt


Candice Millard 2005
Hardback first 353-pages
January 2006

A timely tale of Americas great naturalist, Theodore Roosevelt, journey into the Amazon rain forest, a modern metaphor for the alienation of the American environmental movement in its darkest hour since Roosevelt created the first national parks.

Well written, well researched, interesting, entertaining, page turner. Millards use of direct quotes in re-telling the story is superb. The drama and Freudian symbolism was in parts over-emphasised for the sake of the story with little mention about the fun and enjoyment of the trip. Most of the hardships were the result of poor planning, so its not so much a great adventure in overcoming nature, as a lesson in what not to do, sheer luck and overcoming internal blinders. Beyond the great book by Millard, I leave with two gifts from this journey: The incredible person of Rondon the Brazilian national hero who I plan to read more about, and the classic book "The Sea and the Jungle" referenced throughout the book.

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