People often ask what I do during the summer. Usually I try to catch up on my reading. Here are some reviews:

Stephen E. Ambrose - To America
Gustavo Arellano - Taco USA
Paul Bacon - Bad Cop
A.J. Baime - Go Like Hell
Mark Barrowcliffe - The Elfish Gene
Cece Bell - El Deafo
W. Kamau Bell - The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
Peter L. Bergen - Manhunt
Jeremy Bernstein - Plutonium
David Bianculli - Dangerously Funny
Mike Birbiglia - Come Sleepwalk with Me
Piers Bizony and Jamie Doran - Starman
Michael Blanding - The Map Thief
Deborah Blum - The Poisoner's Handbook
Stephen R. Bown - A Most Damnable Invention
D.K. Brown - Warrior to Dreadnought
Mike Brown - Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
Bliss Broyard - One Drop
Bill Bryson - I'm a Stranger Here Myself
Matthew Brzezinski - Red Moon Rising
Bryan Burrough - Public Enemies
Helen Bynum - Spitting Blood
Bruce Campbell - If Chins Could Kill
David Carr - The Night of the Gun
Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep
Iris Chang - The Rape of Nanking
Ying-Ying Chang - The Woman Who Could Not Forget
Marilyn Chase - The Barbary Plague
CJ Chivers - The Gun
Tommy Chong - The I Chong
Christopher Clark - The Sleepwalkers
John D. Clark - Ignition!
Ernest Cline - Ready Player One
Peter Clines - Ex-Heroes
Andrew Coe - Chop Suey
Rich Cohen - Sweet and Low
Brian Copeland - Not a Genuine Black Man
David L. Craddock - Dungeon Hacks
Laura Cumming - The Vanishing Velázquez
Daniel Czitrom - New York Exposed
Danny Danziger and John Gillingham - 1215
Dwayne A. Day - Eye in the Sky
Jared Diamond - The Third Chimpanzee
Edward Dolnick - The Clockwork Universe
William Doyle - The French Revolution
Stillman Drake - Galileo
Robert Dudley - The Drunken Monkey
Robert M. Edsel - The Monuments Men
Timothy Egan - Breaking Blue
Timothy Egan - The Immortal Irishman
Timothy Egan - Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher
Timothy Egan - The Worst Hard Time
Dave Eggers - Zeitoun
Barbara Ehrenreich - Bright-Sided
Donnie Eichar - Dead Mountain
John Ellis - Eye-Deep in Hell
Warren Ellis - Gun Machine
Nora Ephron - I Remember Nothing
David M. Ewalt - Of Dice and Men
Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru - League of Denial
Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams - Game of Shadows
Robert W. Farquhar - Fifty Years on the Space Frontier
Robert Ferguson - The Vikings
Laura Fermi - The Story of Atomic Energy
Tina Fey - Bossypants
Jack Finney - Time and Again
Giles Foden - The Last King of Scotland
James French - Firing A Rocket
John Fuller - We Almost Lost Detroit
Richard L Garwin and Georges Charpak - Megawatts and Megatons
Atul Gawande - Being Mortal
Atul Gawande - Complications
Owen Gingerich - The Book Nobody Read
Malcolm Gladwell - David and Goliath
Malcolm Gladwell - What the Dog Saw
Ira Glass - The New Kings of Nonfiction
David Gooding and Frank A.J.L. James - Faraday Rediscovered
Paul Greenberg - American Catch
Paul Greenberg - Four Fish
Elizabeth Greenwood - Playing Dead
Winston Groom - The Aviators
Austin Grossman - Soon I Will Be Invincible
Austin Grossman - You
Allen Guelzo - Gettysburg
Allen Guelzo - Lincoln
Jeff Guinn - The Last Gunfight
Molly Guptill Manning - When Books Went to War
William Gurstelle - Absinthe & Flamethrowers
Chris Hadfield - An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth
Joshua Hammer - The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu
Dashiel Hammett - The Big Knockover
Dashiel Hammett - The Continental Op
Dashiel Hammett - The Dain Curse
Dashiel Hammett - The Glass Key
Dashiel Hammett - The Maltese Falcon
Dashiel Hammett - Nightmare Town
Dashiel Hammett - Red Harvest
Dashiel Hammett - The Thin Man
Tim Harford - The Logic of Life
Tim Harford - The Undercover Economist
Johann Hari - Chasing the Scream
Jonathan Harr - The Lost Painting
Brian Harvey - Russia in Space
Adam Hochschild - King Leopold's Ghost
Adam Hochschild - To End All Wars
Carl Hoffman - Savage Harvest
David Hoffman - The Dead Hand
Dan Hofstadter - The Earth Moves
Nathalia Holt - Rise of the Rocket Girls
Eri Hotta - Japan 1941
Meg Howrey - Blind Sight
Meg Howrey - The Cranes Dance
Meg Howrey - The Wanderers
Kristen Iversen - Full Body Burden
A.J. Jacobs - The Year of Living Biblically
Steven Johnson - The Ghost Map
Paul Josephson - Red Atom
William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer - The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Michael Karpin - The Bomb in the Basement
Scott Kelly - Endurance
Paul Kennedy - Engineers of Victory
Tracy Kidder - The Soul of a New Machine
Ross King - Leonardo and the Last Supper
Alex Kotlowitz - There Are No Children Here
Erik Larson - Dead Wake
Erik Larson - Thunderstruck
Andrew Leatherbarrow - Chernobyl 01:23:40
Jonathan Lethem - Chronic City
Jonathan Lethem - The Disappointment Artist
Jonathan Lethem - Dissident Gardens
Jonathan Lethem - Fortress of Solitude
Jonathan Lethem - A Gambler's Anatomy
Jonathan Lethem - Men and Cartoons
Jonathan Lethem - Motherless Brooklyn
Thomas Levenson - Newton and the Counterfeiter
Bruce C. Levine- The Fall of the House of Dixie
Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner - Freakonomics
Michael Lewis - Liar's Poker
H.P. Lovecraft - The Definitive H.P. Lovecraft
Margaret MacMillan - The War That Ended Peace
Anastacia Marx de Salcedo - Combat-Ready Kitchen
Robert K Massie - Castles of Steel
Richard Matheson - Hell House
David W. Maurer - The Big Con
John McPhee - Assembling California
John McPhee - The Control of Nature
John McPhee - The Curve of Binding Energy
John McPhee - The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed
John McPhee - Heirs of General Practice
John McPhee - La Place de la Concorde Suisse
John McPhee - Looking for a Ship
John McPhee - Oranges
G.J. Meyer - The Borgias
G.J. Meyer - A World Undone
Ben Mezrich - Sex on the Moon
Candice Millard - Destiny of the Republic
Giles Milton - Russian Roulette
Sharon Moalem and Jonathan Price - Survival of the Sickest
Kate Moore - The Radium Girls
Caroline Moorehead - A Train in Winter
Siddhartha Mukherjee - The Emperor of All Maladies
Mike Mullane - Riding Rockets
Dick Mulready - Advanced Engine Design at Pratt & Whitney
Randall Munroe - What If?
Scott Reynolds Nelson - Steel Drivin' Man
Mary Norris - Between You & Me
James E. Oberg - Uncovering Soviet Disasters
John O'Bryan - A History of Weapons
Daniel Okrent - Last Call
Jim Ottaviani & Leland Myrick - Feynman
Richard Overy - The Bombers and the Bombed
Svante Pääbo - Neanderthal Man
Randy Pausch - The Last Lecture
F. David Peat - Einstein's Moon
Simon Pegg - Nerd Do Well
Mark Perry - Grant and Twain
Nathaniel Philbrick - In the Heart of the Sea
Charles P. Pierce - Idiot America
Philip Plait - Bad Astronomy
Terry Pluto - Loose Balls
Michael Pollan - The Omnivore's Dilemma
Francine Prose - Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
Adam Rakunas- Like a Boss
Adam Rakunas- Windswept
Nick Reding - Methland
Marc Reisner - Cadillac Desert
Matthew Restall & Felipe Fernandez-Armesto - The Conquistadors
Richard Rhodes - Arsenals of Folly
Jeffrey T. Richelson - Spying on the Bomb
John S. Rigden - Hydrogen
Mary Roach - Grunt
Mary Roach - My Planet
Mary Roach - Packing for Mars
Mary Roach - Spook
Rob Rogers - Devil's Cape
Mike Royko - One More Time
Salman Rushdie - Joseph Anton
Richard Russo - Straight Man
Kassia St. Clair - The Secret Lives of Color
John Scalzi - The Android's Dream
John Scalzi - The Collapsing Empire
John Scalzi - Redshirts
Eric Schlosser - Command and Control
Eric Schlosser - Fast Food Nation
Julie Schumacher - Dear Committee Members
Scientific American - Lives in Science
David Sedaris - Barrel Fever
David Sedaris - Calypso
David Sedaris - Holidays on Ice
David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty One Day
David Sedaris - When You Are Engulfed in Flames
Shae Serrano - Basketball (and Other Things)
John Shaw - This Land That I Love
Gary Shteyngart - Absurdistan
Gary Shteyngart - Little Failure
Gary Shteyngart - Super Sad True Love Story
Asif Siddiqi - The Soviet Space Race with Apollo
Asif Siddiqi - Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge
Ken Silverstein - The Radioactive Boyscout
Simon Singh - Big Bang
Michael Specter - Denialism
Steve Squyres - Roving Mars
Jeff Stein - A Murder in Wartime
A. Douglas Stone - Einstein and the Quantum
Norman Stone - World War I
John Sweetman - The Dambusters Raid
Chanan Tigay - The Lost Book of Moses
Todd Tucker - Atomic America
Barbara Tuchman - The Guns of August
Tom Vanderbilt - Traffic
Sudhir Venkatesh - Gang Leader for a Day
Hans Christian Von Baeyer - Warmth Disperses and Time Passes
Anya Von Bremzen - Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking
Leon Wagener - One Giant Leap
John Waller - Einstein's Luck
Benjamin Wallace - The Billionaire's Vinegar
Nathan Ward - The Lost Detective
Andy Weir - Artemis
Andy Weir - The Martian
Glen Weldon - The Caped Crusade
Rowland White - Into the Black
Colson Whitehead - Apex Hides the Hurt
Colson Whitehead - The Colossus of New York
Colson Whitehead - The Intuitionist
Colson Whitehead - John Henry Days
Colson Whitehead - The Nickel Boys
Colson Whitehead - The Nobel Hustle
Colson Whitehead - Sag Harbor
Colson Whitehead - Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead - Zone One
Bee Wilson - Consider the Fork
Derek Wilson - Charlemagne
Simon Winchester - The Professor and the Madman
John Wray - Lowboy
Peter Woit - Not Even Wrong
Anatoly Zak - Russia in Space
Robert Zubrin - Energy Victory
Mitchell Zuckoff - Frozen in Time

To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian

by Stephan E. Ambrose (2002)

It's been a long time since I've read a book this bad. Stephan E. Ambrose is one of the most popular history writers in recent times, with biographies of Eisenhower and Nixon to go along with Band of Brothers. This book is enough to make me not want to read any of his other works.

The basic premise is that America is good. I believe in that. But it feels like Ambrose has gone completely over the edge to prove that fact. The tone of this book is "everything that any teacher has taught you about America or Americans being bad is completely wrong." US Grant and Dwight Eisenhower are elevated to demi-gods, and part of me thinks that he defends them so strongly because they've often been the target of other historians (Grant is usually written off as one of our worst presidents ever, and Eisenhower as mediocre at best). The Robber Barons who built the transcontinental railroads weren't crooks (and didn't nearly become as filthy rich as everyone thinks they did). And the American military spread democracy everywhere they went. He continually makes statements about the uniqueness of American freedom, and a little voice in the back of my head kept asking "does he really believe that Canadians are living in chains?"

Simply put, to be a good historian you need to have balance and perspective, and there doesn't seem to be any in this book. Ambrose comes across as a full-tilt patriot. That's fine, but it certainly robs him of a great deal of credibility. I was shocked to read that when he was researching a World War II battle he had to be talked into speaking to the person who was commanding the Germans. He simply did not want to talk to a German soldier. How can he write a real history of the battle if he will only talk to one side?

It's not just the viewpoint that's off, sometimes the writing comes across as something you would expect from an eighth-grade history report, such as "only hatred as intense as the heat at the core of an active volcano could have caused that."

His chapter on racism was insultingly shallow. It was followed by a chapter on the changing roles of women in American society over the 20th century. For this he relied mainly upon the personal experiences of his mother and two wives. After reading through the second chapter, I had the strong suspicion that Ambrose had a such a poor chapter on racism because he had no close friends who were people of color who could actually explain what it was like to be not white (his racism chapter more or less talked about African-Americans, ignoring the experiences of others). One of the first things that Bill Ziegenhorn told me about teaching American history is that it is impossible to tell the story of America without telling the story of race in America. The more I've pondered this statement, the more truth I've found in it. Sadly, I don't think Ambrose really has a gut-level grasp on racism, and this is just another nail in the coffin.

Dorothy Parker once commented, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." I'd say the same for this book.

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America

Gustavo Arellano (2012)

I really wanted to like this book, I'm in its wheel-house. I was overjoyed when a taco truck established business a few blocks from my house. When I last visited San Diego, I got a kick out of the fact that my hotel was next door to the original Rubio's. For crying out loud he opens with the space shuttle delivering Mexican food to the ISS, if that doesn't make me want to read a book, what will? But 20% of the book spoiled the 80% which was very very good.

So let's start off with what was great about this book. Arellano is a gifted writer, his fantasy vs. reality treatment of home-made tortillas is wonderful, observe, "Disregard the romanticism I described at the top of the chapter; making tortillas, historically, was a brutal task. The corn had to be shucked, then left to soak overnight for the process of nixtamalization. From there, women - and, yes, always women - ground the flattened, blanched kernels in a metate. Ever ground corn? Not fun, and women had to get up hours before sunrise just to make enough masa to feed the family for that day." He adds knowledge to style, correctly observing that chocolate and vanilla can be viewed as Mexican food, or at least Mexican flavors, based upon their pre-Columbian roots. He properly explains the explosion of X-berto's restaurants that seemed so odd to me when I lived in San Diego. The super-huge-bigger-than-your-head burrito? That's something that came out of San Francisco. He's done his homework, and carefully tells the stories of the rise and fall of food trends, and the establishment of the large "Mexican" fast-food chains. And he has a chapter on seeing Jesus in tortillas. So where does it fall apart?

It felt as if there was an undertone in this book, one that kept saying "no, take this subject more seriously." I am taking it seriously, I picked up a book on the topic, and I'm giving it my time and attention. The high-end of Mexican food was pushed very strongly. There's nothing wrong with that, but the cart is far in front of the horse. The Mexican food that actually did conquer America is not served in those high-end places. There are large segments of the book where you get the feeling that Arellano is writing about how he wants Mexican food to be viewed and treated in America rather than the way it actually is viewed and treated in America. When he lists his top Mexican food places/dishes in the country, it matches his own personal tastes. That, of course, is his right as an author and a food critic, but his #1 is a hamburger patty served in a burrito in Denver. It's far enough outside of a mainstream view that it adds to my perception that this book is more about how he wants things to be than how they really are.

Bad Cop: New York's Least Likely Police Officer Tells All

Paul Bacon (2009)

This is a case of not living up to some very high expectations. I bought this book because I heard one of Bacon's stories as a podcast. I laughed and laughed. When I picked up a copy, one of the jacket blurbs read "Like a season of 'The Wire' written by David Sedaris," and seeing as I think that Sedaris is one of our best living authors, that sealed the deal. How could a book about police written by a guy named Bacon be anything but funny? Sadly, it didn't live up to the hype.

Part of the appeal is that it's a fish-out-of-water story. Bacon is probably the last person one would expect to be a New York City cop. He's a liberal who never touched a gun until he was at the shooting range in the police academy. The main reason he signed up was that he felt called to some kind of duty after 9/11. Let's face it though, he had no business being a cop. Everyone knew it, including, at some level, Bacon himself. His romance plot line was more or less the same, the "we make a very mis-matched couple" was the only angle working for him, and of course that means that it shouldn't work at all. Even when I was laughing at his stories I was also wincing as both a citizen who believes in civil liberties, and as a taxpayer who wants good value on the money I spend on law enforcement.

In the end, the most interesting thing is the context for the story told on the podcast. No doubt, it is a hilarious tale. But what happened in the few hours prior and the few hours that followed put it in a much different light. What's funny in one light is tragic in another, which more or less sums up Bacon's career as a cop.

Next time I want to read something along the lines of David Sedaris, I'll just hit the archives at the New Yorker for the genuine article.

Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans

A. J. Baime (2009)

When I was a kid, I was messing around in the garage and found a trophy with a car on it. I brought it into the house and asked my mom about it. She explained to me that my dad had won in it in a race. Somehow it's hard to think of my dad as a race car driver, let alone one who actually won at least one race, but that's because our culture has shifted. Now when most people buy cars, they think about cost, safety, fuel efficiency, and perhaps re-sale value. But for a brief time in the 1960s (after the Baby Boomers got their licenses, but before the rise of OPEC) cars were about speed. Racing was big time. Horsepower was cheap, as was gasoline. And even people like my dad could be race car drivers.

When my dad reached a certain level of comfort in his life, he'd fly out to the Indianapolis 500 every year. I had no interest; my brother went once, only once. This is a long way of saying that the generation that followed my father's had much less an interest in race cars and races. But even I know what the 24 hours of Le Mans is, an endurance race that was once seen as being the ultimate race in the world. Back in the early 1960s, it was dominated by Ferrari. As a marketing tool, Ford decided that it would send cars to challenge. In the early years this did not go well for Ford, but Ford had much deeper pockets, so some would argue that in the long run the results were inevitable.

This book is so much more that just an account of the races though. The two main characters are the heads of the respective companies, Enzo Ferrari and Henry Ford II. On the Ford side there are some managers and designers, like Lee Iacocca and Carroll Shelby. And then there are a whole bunch of race car drivers, who sadly seem a little bit like replaceable parts (mainly because they keep dying - race car driving did not have nearly the safety it does today). The author does a great job of telling their stories, rather than focussing on the nuts and bolts of the cars, which could be a book it its own right. I'm sure that there have been millions of arguments about the American approach of using their 7-liter engines to power their vehicles rather than the traditional European 4-liter. Yes, you get far more power, but more weight, which means more thinking has to go into the suspension, and of course, the brakes need to dissipate far more kinetic energy (keeping them from shattering from the sudden spikes in heat was a technical challenge). Sadly, the ending was a little anti-climactic, but one shouldn't let the facts of history detract from a very good retelling. This is a fun book that can be read in an afternoon or two, pick it up.

The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange

by Mark Barrowcliffe (2008)

I had to buy this book, simply due to the title. Spoofing Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" for a book about Dungeons and Dragons clearly revealed some primal nerd humor. Barrowcliffe can write comedy. Take for example, "I hope to provide an answer for anyone who has ever looked at a man and thought 'Why is he such a wanker?' For many boys who grew up in the seventies and eighties, our peer group and education constituted a sort of wanker factory. This is a story of the operation of its most efficient department." Barrowcliffe goes on to describe his teenage years, most of which were spent in a haze of D&D. While the writing itself is excellent, the topic is a bit lacking. He has managed to find something more boring that listening to somebody else's D&D adventure. Hearing about some hero's encounter with a bunch of orcs, meh; hearing about a bunch of teenaged boys playing a game with heroes and orcs, double meh. Barrowcliffe relates how their imaginary characters took on a life of their own, how it actually hurt when their characters "died." However, to everyone else, these were sketches on a piece of paper, two-dimensional imaginary friends. I felt the same way reading about his buddies, sure, they were real to Barrowcliffe, but to me they might as well be some mighty paladin or thief-assassin. Most teenagers don't reveal themselves enough to be three-dimensional, and when you only interact with them through role playing games, not only are they two-dimensional, but they are also cartoons.

This book is a little hard to categorize. It seems like a tragedy written as a comedy. It certainly made me laugh in many places, but far too often I was laughing at, rather than laughing with. As a memoir it misses. I can claim to have been through more nerd factories than this guy, but I have problems identifying myself with him. I think much of this has to do with the fact that he writes from an English perspective, and hence there is the veil of socioeconomic class draped across all of his relationships. While that certainly exists in America, it is much less so. In a book that focuses upon relationships, it's a twist that doesn't do well when translated to this side of the Atlantic.

I tended to play Dungeons-and-Dragons type games with silly rather than serious people. It was fun and I laughed a great deal. But at the end of the day, I should have done something more productive with my time. Looking back, I feel the same way about the time I spent reading this book.

El Deafo

Cece Bell (2014)

Marasco, are you seriously reviewing a comic book aimed at elementary school kids? Yes. Did your kid bring it home from his school library? Ummm, maybe. So what's the deal? I could write a long defense of the graphic novel as an art form and talk about how comic books can work at many levels, entertaining children and adults alike, but let's just cut to the chase, this comic book rocks.

The central character is an school-aged girl who appears to be a rabbit. Stop shaking your head, like I said, this book rocks. The reason the author went with the rabbit theme is that this is autobiographical, and she lost her hearing at the age of four after a bout of meningitis. So, of course, ears are a central part of this story. The little girl enters school, wears a hearing aid, feels different, struggles, has adventures and eventually triumphs. The title comes from her alter-ego, a superhero named El Deafo.

There are many important themes that run through this book, identity, disability, friendship, growing up. And there's a good amount of learning what it is to be deaf and a child. I'm not going to spend a few hundred words telling you how good this is, just buy a copy of this book. Heck, buy two copies and then donate one to your local school's library. Be a superhero. And if the school's library has a no comic books policy, either write a long defense of the graphic novel, or simply point out that this a Newbery Honor winner. Then the school has to take it.

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6'4", African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama's Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian

W. Kamau Bell (2017)

Comedy is personal. What some find funny and insightful, others do not, and while I really like Bell's work, perhaps that's mainly because he and I are on similar wavelengths much of the time. Except where we are not. For example, I was super-thrilled to learn that his parents met at Foothill. Then I learned the details. His mother was an instructor in his father's class. Now that's just wrong seven ways to Sunday, even back in the late-60s/early-70s, that relationship is not okay. Bell also thought the relationship was scandalous, but in his eyes that was based off of how much older his mom was than his dad. I will say that one of the things I like about Bell is that I think he's an open guy, he's willing to listen and learn, and perhaps he'd come around to my view on this (I'm assuming he'd agree that in current times this would not be good, I'm hoping for an at-no-time declaration). This isn't the only time where this pops up. At one point he has a confrontation with a racist white woman at a gas station; to be perfectly honest, I was thinking exactly what that woman said out loud. Sure, we probably came to that statement from completely different places, and I wouldn't have interjected my opinion into some stranger's life, but I can agree with the basics of her statement.

The big drawback I had with this book is that he was preaching to the choir. I think Bell has a great mind, and I want him to talk me through new things that I haven't thought about before. Where he does this, the book works very well for me (for example, I'm going to have to go out and rent Creed, as I'd given up on the Rocky franchise decades ago). Ditto for what it's like to run a television show. But a good chunk of this book is describing back to me what I see out of my own eyes, his silly intersectional subtitle has a little too much overlap with my own personal intersectionalities (and we can add in "live in the Bay Area," although a proper argument could be made that East Bay and the Peninsula are two entirely different worlds). He's writing the book for a certain audience, and I'm not really in that audience. I think I can recognize that and still really enjoy the book. And recommended it to others.

Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden--from 9/11 to Abbottabad

by Peter L. Bergen (2012)

Peter Bergen is one of the few journalists in the West who interviewed Osama bin Laden, and was the only one allowed access to bin Laden's secret compound after the raid by Seal Team Six. He's done his homework and put together a book that clears up many details, but in places it could have used a better editor. That's by no means a fatal complaint, but since this will probably be seen as the go-to book for a while, it is a flaw I wish it did not have. There's some cleaning up to do for the second edition (California Polytechnic State University?)

Bin Laden was a defining figure of our time, you should really go out and read this book. I'm going to list a few of the interesting things I learned... We had the man cornered at Tora Bora, but instead of putting boots on the ground to finish him off, we out-sourced it to local tribes and backed them up with massive bombing. We could have had him three months after 9/11, but instead trusted folks who went back to their home villages every night. Female analysts at the CIA did the best job on bin Laden because "They seem to have an exceptional knack for detail, for seeing patterns and understanding relationships, and they also, quite frankly, spend a great deal less time telling war stories, chatting, and going outside for cigarettes than the boys." That should be carved in stone somewhere. Contrary to popular belief in the United States, there's no evidence that Pakistan knew that bin Laden was living in their country, and we even got the tail to the super-secret stealth helicopter back (most assumed that it was sent to [insert name of random country hostile to America] as soon as possible). Those are some big-picture elements, the story also has an amazing amount of wealth in the details.

At the end of the book Bergen points out that in almost any given year, Americans are far more likely to accidentally drown in their own bathtub than they are to die in a terrorist attack, yet we spent roughly a half-trillion dollars on our intelligence agencies to catch bin Laden. It makes you wonder how much we spend on preventing bathtub deaths. Of course, one can comment that the 9/11 attacks also left a huge hole in our economy, but the counter to that is that the Oklahoma City bombing was barely a blip. What that tells me is that it was our reactions that made the real difference, which is both the point and the Achilles' heel of asymmetric warfare. The terrorists only win if we let them change our way of life.

Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element

Jeremy Bernstein (2007)

This book really should be better than it is. The author is a physics professor, and according to the blurb on the back cover, he was also a "staff writer at the New Yorker for thirty-five years." This gives rise to high expectations, because typically science-for-the-masses books either end up being smoothly-written with bad science, or just make your eyeballs bleed when the professors try to write for Joe Sixpack. One would hope with Bernstein's background we would get the best of both worlds rather than the worst of both worlds.

OK, worst of both worlds is certainly an exaggeration. This book covers an interesting topic in detail, but there certainly were times that I wanted to throw it across the room. For example, Bernstein states that an electron in the Bohr atom could have zero angular momentum. No, it can't. Masses traveling in circular orbits have non-zero angular momentum, in fact, that's one of the failures of the Bohr model as opposed to the proper quantum-mechanical approach. I'd forgive a science writer for this mistake, but I'm amazed that a physics professor would claim this. And while Bernstein spent a long time as a contributor to the New Yorker, his editors must have put in overtime. His writing style is clumsy, with difficulties with transitions. I'm sure that people who have sat through my physics lectures will claim that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but there are far too many digressions, and it seems as if Bernstein is continually promising to cover a topic a little bit later (in other words, just after an anecdote).

I'm also a little unhappy with the focus of this book, which is stated plainly in the title. This is a book about the history of plutonium, rather than about plutonium itself. The author makes the case that plutonium is a fascinating element due to not only its nuclear character, but also due to its oddball chemistry. It has the reputation of being one of the most toxic things in existence. Yet this isn't explored in depth, instead we get the story of the discovery of plutonium. And to lay the groundwork for that, we need the history of nuclear physics in the 1930s, so plutonium itself doesn't make an appearance until about a third of the way into the story.

Normally I'm a big fan of histories, but now we run into yet another problem. Just as science writing has the "bad writing by a scientist vs. bad science by a writer" issue, we've got the additional layer of "bad history by a scientist vs. bad science by a historian." Bernstein wasn't at ground zero, (OK, he did witness an above-ground nuclear test, which is cool) but he knew many people who knew people, and could collect their memories. He also seems to have done a decent amount of homework in the archives. But he's not a trained historian, and in a book that's labeled as a history, often it seems as if there's just a lot of storytalk going on. The pages devoted to Fritz Houtermans come to mind. And there are gaps, for example it is claimed that "[Max von] Laue was the only distinguished scientist I know of who remained in Germany and was an outspoken, and defiant, critic of the Nazis." Surely Max Planck's meeting with Hitler about the effects of anti-Semitism in the sciences should be noted?

As crazy as it may seem, I think the book is strong enough to overcome my many objections. I think it is good despite its many flaws. It added the phrase grosso modo to my vocabulary, and I now know that you can purchase U-235 and Pu-239 directly from the Department of Energy (simply fill out NRC Form 741). Could this book be improved with a strong editor? Without a doubt. Is this book crippled in its current form? No, it's still a good read.

Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"

by David Bianculli (2010)

I should have liked this book much more than I did. I think that David Bianculli is one of the few people saying intelligent things about television, and I laugh and laugh at Smothers Brothers comedy routines (who in their right mind doesn't?). I think the problem I had with this book was that Bianculli got bogged down in the details of the show, after all, it is more about the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour than it is the Smothers Brothers themselves. Not to say that there isn't a biography of the two in this book, just that the focus really was on the television show. Hmmm... Seeing what I said about Bianculli, I should have known better - a TV critic is going to aim at the show, not the people.

So can a book that is mainly about a television show hold its own weight? A lot of that has to do with the show. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was famous not so much for what happened on the air, but for what didn't make the air. They were the Daily Show of the time (a time when most people got 3 or 4 channels, not 100 times that many), and were very controversial. They fought the CBS censors tooth and nail, at the height of the turmoil that was the '60s. They lost. Their TV show was taken off the air, although they later won a large cash settlement. While Bianculli does an excellent job of covering the behind-the-scenes battles for creative freedom, he tends to get distracted a bit too much with what happens in front of the camera (again, duh, he's a TV critic). At some level I don't care about minor cast characters or what musical act showed up on a certain week (unless, of course, it's something along the lines of Pete Seeger; issues around blacklisting fit into the narrative), the fact that somebody was on the show with their single that was #12 that week is just making the book longer than it should be.

The irony here, given the Smother's Brothers struggles, is that this book would have been greatly improved by having a ruthless editor. Check this book out from the library if you have an interest in this segment of popular culture.

Sleepwalk with Me: and Other Painfully True Stories

Mike Birbiglia (2010)

The first time I read this book, I was disappointed. I'm a big Mike Birbiglia fan from his work on public radio, and have enjoyed his comedy specials on television. His book contains mostly recycled material. Why did I pay money for this? I've heard most of this before for free.

But then I read the book a second time. This is alway dangerous for comedy, as you know the punchline for all of the jokes (yes, this was probably true for the first time I read the book, given my complaints in the previous paragraph, but bear with me). Upon second reading, I found myself laughing out loud. Yes, I knew the jokes, but they were funny jokes.

Humor is very subjective. If you already know you like Mike Birbiglia, you've probably been exposed to the material in this book. On the other hand, if he's just a random funny guy you've never heard of, then unless your sense of humor matches up with mine, it's a crapshoot. I think it's worth your time.

Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin

Piers Bizony and Jamie Doran (1998)

This is a mediocre book about a flawed hero. In the West we don't honor Yuri Gagarin nearly enough. Sure, Gagarin didn't control his space capsule. Nor did he "land" in it as was originally claimed. And his height (small capsules) was a big factor in his selection. So what, those were the rules of the game, and he played the game well. Far better than his main competitor, Gherman Titov, who ended up being a much more accomplished cosmonaut; still the youngest person to fly in space, he was the first to make multiple orbits, first to actually pilot a spacecraft, first to take a photo from space, and, of course, first to puke in space. But a combination of not playing politics well, and being held in reserve as a better candidate to fly the more challenging second mission doomed him to being all but nameless in history. So I guess I'm arguing that neither Gagarin nor Titov get enough credit for their accomplishments.

I don't think this is the book to change that story. As a reader I didn't feel that I learned much about Gagarin, except that the slept-around on his wife (not that American astronauts were any better). There are any number of books that tell the story of early Soviet spaceflight better ( Red Moon Rising, anything by Siddiqi). Worse yet, the story of Gagarin's death in a plane crash is clouded by disbelief over an earlier story about the death of a cosmonaut, an episode whose details were sole-sourced by the authors and roundly panned by other space historians. The world deserved Titov, we got Gagarin. We can live with that. Gagarin deserved a better book, we got this one. Not the end of the world by any means, but not a front-rank history in the field.

The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps

by Michael Blanding (2014)

A magazine article turned into a book is not my favorite genre. Sometimes they can work, if the author is able to drill very deep, but in this case he had a limited slice of the main character. Probably the protagonist's lawyer reminded him that he had waived statue of limitations restrictions as part of a plea bargain, and he could face new charges.

Said criminal was E. Forbes Smiley III, a not-so-likable guy who made his living selling rare maps. At some point in his career he decided that it was easy to take razor blades to rare books in academic libraries and, as the title of the book makes clear, to steal maps.

He stole millions of dollars worth of maps, and also destroyed priceless artifacts. And it was easy, and he served almost no prison time. Academic libraries have very valuable objects, and don't protect them very well. When I was a graduate student I used to check out microfilm of The Chicago Defender from the 1930s. I did this to research Negro League baseball (I even won an award). To do this I needed to flash student ID on my way into the school library and then filled out a request form in the basement; the form simply listed what materials I wanted from the archives. At one point they started checking IDs and putting names on forms. Why? Because somebody had walked away with a bunch of their microfilm. Granted, microfilm can be reproduced, so the harm was financial rather than cultural, but it points to how lax things can be. Smiley was a trusted academic-type. He knew some of the collections better than the librarians. He could plunder at will. In some libraries he could cover his tracks simply by also stealing the appropriate card out of the card catalog, thereby erasing knowledge that an item ever existed in their collection.

It's an easy crime. But it's also the destruction of artifacts that can be hundreds of years old. And for money. In 2000, a sports card company called In the Game bought the leg pad of Georges Vezina. Vezina was in the NHL Hall of Fame's first batch of honorees, and the award that goes to the best goaltender of the year is named after him. The pads bought by In the Game were believed to be the only ones he used during his career. The company cut them into tiny pieces affixed them to Vezina trading cards, and 320 of these special cards ended up in randomized packs. So to make a buck, they destroyed something that should have belonged in the hockey Hall of Fame. You can buy the card with little bits of history on eBay. Smiley blew a good chunk of his money on a house remodel (the contractor got stuck with a large unpaid bill) and legal fights with the locals in a rural Maine town that he tried to make over. Not things I would trade centuries-old artifacts for. It's not even like his kid got sick and he needed to pay medical bills, these are embarrassing.

So the the author doesn't get much out of Smiley, who in his own right is a despicable person. Does the book work? Was I informed and/or entertained? Was it worth my time? Yes, but probably only because I'm one of those weirdos who has spent too much time in university archives chasing down the past. But even still, the book at times points out that this isn't even a unique story, that a guy named Gilbert Bland did this a few years previously (some libraries don't learn from their mistakes, or to be more charitable, think that coverups are better than transparency combined with more money invested in better security). In fact, there's a book about it, The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime. Ugh, so there's probably another book very similar to this one floating around. Hopefully I read the right one. I liked this book, but don't imagine there's a large audience for it.

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

by Deborah Blum (2010)

I liked this book, but I didn't love this book. It's hard to really put my finger on what kept this from being truly excellent. Perhaps it is the title, The Poisoner's Handbook, while it does describe many poisons and their drawbacks, the focus of the story is the scientist detectives in New York's medical examiner's office in the 1920s and '30s. The subtitle nails the book, but the title threw me from the start.

Chuck Norris was responsible for every body in the New York City morgue for close to two decades. Dr. Charles Norris, not the guy who got his lunch handed to him by Bruce Lee. In the bad old days the job of coroner was a political plum, and the appointee usually didn't have any kind of medical or scientific qualification. After some much needed reform, Norris became the first qualified person to hold the job in New York City in the modern era. Norris, with the help of Alexander Gettler, established the science behind the detection of poison. Blum takes us through a set of then-famous cases, describing the details of the characters, the poison in question, and how the guilty were brought to justice with science (well, sometimes the guilty walked free, and other times innocents were let off the hook).

In some sense, I guess I don't like the choice of focus in the book. Since this took place during prohibition, the dangers of methanol (and for that matter, other poisons added to industrial alcohol to discourage people) were given a spotlight. This makes some amount of sense as Norris spent a great deal of time and publicity trying to prevent people from drinking the bad stuff (and chastising the government for their additives). To be fair, prohibition probably killed more folks than any other poison in the book (with the possible exception of carbon monoxide), but if there's room for that, then how about another chapter listing the five or ten greatest things this department did that did not involve poisons? The subtitle claims "the Birth of Forensic Medicine," but what did we learn outside of their actions against poisoners? OK, the chapter on radium sort of falls in that category, but I would have liked to have seen more.

It's not that it is bad, it's just that it could have been better with just a small amount of effort.

A Most Damnable Invention: Dynamite, Nitrates, And the Making of the Modern World

Stephen R. Bown (2005)

The case of Fritz Haber's Nobel Prize has always been interesting to me. On one hand, he's responsible for feeding billions of people. His work on the chemistry of fertilizers is one of the factors responsible for current state of agribusiness that sustains the world's population. On the other hand, he is no doubt the father of chemical warfare. While he could justify his military work to himself as the actions of a good German citizen, his own wife took her own life in shame. However, the irony of the controversy of his Nobel Prize has always gone over my head. Nobel, of course, made his money by being the great arms merchant of his time.

This is a nice little book. But while each chapter stands well on its own, it does at times read as if it was a group of loosely-related magazine articles cobbled together. If you've ever wondered why the Confederacy collected urine during the Civil War, it turns out that human waste is a key element in saltpeter, one of the main ingredients in gun powder. The author traces out big developments in explosives through the end of the First World War (and although he does a lot with Fritz Haber, he drops the ball on England's later role in Palestine due to a commitment to another WWI explosives developer). He spends a good amount of time on Alfred Nobel, and of course the Prizes he later funded. In tune with the whole "killing vs. progress" theme, the author notes that many of the great construction projects of the past 100 years would have been impossible (or taken forever) with gunpowder instead of the more powerful modern explosives.

This is a fun read. It could have done with a bit more tightening, but there are no fatal flaws.

Warrior to Dreadnought: Warship Development, 1860-1905

D.K. Brown (1997)

In 1860 the British Navy revolutionized warship design with the HMS Warrior, the world's first iron-hulled (as opposed to ironclad) warship. As wood had reached its limits as a naval material, and as this ship used a steam-driven propeller, Warrior was larger and faster than any ship in the world. When launched, Warrior so outclassed every other ship that she never had to fire a shot in anger. However, the design of Warrior triggered a rapid evolution cycle that made her obsolete within a decade. D.K. Brown's tome on naval design covers the forty-five years following Warrior, a time that saw ship building pass from being overseen by one man who used a few rules of thumb to design teams applying the full rigor of science to their creations. Warships jumped from the age of wood, sails and cannons to the age of turbines, steel and turrets. The book finishes with HMS Dreadnought, like Warrior, a ship so ahead of the curve that it made all other ships ready for the scrap yard.

This book is amazingly well researched, and it is written at a level where most can digest it easily (though not in one sitting!). I have only a few complaints. While Britain certainly was the leader in the field, the book almost exclusively covers the British Navy, with a page or two here and there for America and France. It would have been useful to know what developments were going on in other navies. Secondly, Brown quotes Jacky Fisher, "Strategy should govern the type of ship to be designed. Ship design, as dictated by strategy, should govern tactics. Tactics should govern details of armament." Brown covers the latter parts well (as range of battle increased the "all big gun" design became optimal), but very little strategy is discussed. I'm not looking for Mahan here, but a few pages here and there would have been helpful. Lastly, there are deck plans for neither the Warrior or the Dreadnought, which seems puzzling as quite a few of the other ships detailed in the book get that treatment. It also would have been nice to have a table at the end comparing the statistics/features of Warrior and Dreadnought, to make it clear how far warships had advanced (though to be fair a table would be a little meaningless in the only true measure; the only way even one hundred Warriors could beat one Dreadnought is if the Dreadnought ran out of ammunition, and even then it isn't clear if the Warriors could penetrate Dreadnought's armor with gunnery, although rammings by multiple Warriors may have done the trick). All in all, only minor complaints for a very good book.

All of that being said, it's hard for me to imagine somebody running out and buying a copy. I got mine at a used bookstore in Chicago around 2000, and I had to think a while before paying $35. This is now out of print and used book websites charge a minimum of $150 to $200, and there's one vendor who is hoping somebody will pay $2300. It's a good book, but not a $150 good book. Edit - The law of supply and demand has come into play and folks with copies on their shelves have made them available on the used-book market. The prices for this book have come back down to a reasonable level.

Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

by Mike Brown (2010)

I'm not too sure who this book is meant for. It isn't written at a very technical level, at one point I was considering handing it to my six-year-old son until a closer examination showed the text to be above his reading skills. The story told covers Brown's long search for a planet larger than Pluto, except that he's in the camp that does not believe that Pluto is a planet.

So now we have to talk about what a planet is, something that Brown does well for a good part of his book, but does not complete the story. OK, leaving Pluto aside, we have the big eight that everyone knows about. At certain times in our history, we had more. More? Yes, when we first started discovering asteroids, we saw the big ones first and for the time decided that they were planets. After a while we decided that having a whole bunch of planets all in more or less the same orbit did not make sense, and demoted the "new planets" into asteroids. Brown's opinion is that Pluto is asteroidish, it's what is called a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO), one of many such bodies that share a similar orbit, and hence it to should be demoted. And the highlights of his career are the discoveries of many large KBOs that nicely prove his point. If we have a half-dozen things about the size of Pluto out on the edge of the solar system, is Pluto really a planet?

He spends a good deal of time towards the end of the book discussing the definition of planet. Sure, gravity has to make it spherical, but then what about moons. His claim is that the position of an object should not determine if it is a planet or not. Some moons are bigger than Pluto, but aren't planets because they orbit a planet, this part of the definition drives Brown crazy. But Brown's definition involves sharing your orbit (asteroids and KBOs are not planets because many of them can share the same orbit). The technical term here (and Brown does not use it) is that to be a planet an object must "clear its orbit," meaning that it needs to dominate its orbital region by either capturing the other objects as moons or by ejecting them from the solar system (and if you have ever played with a dynamical N-body simulator, you know that isn't hard for a big object to do to smaller objects). The problem is, you could take an Earth-sized object, which I hope we would all recognize as a planet, and if you put it far enough away from the Sun, it would take so long to orbit that it might not have cleared its orbit yet. Does an object get promoted to planethood when it either captures or ejects its last rival? Clearly position in the system can play a role...

Brown's descriptions of how he went about planet-hunting are good. And putting his newborn into the middle of the book is needed, otherwise you don't understand why he dropped the ball at one point in his journey. He's obviously secure about his part in history, because in his own retelling of the story he often comes across as overly passive in nature. And yet, even with the good points of the book, it is hard to recommend. Let's just say that there aren't many other books that I've reviewed that I've considered handing to my child. That's in the bad sense, not the good sense.

One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life--A Story of Race and Family Secrets

by Bliss Broyard (2007)

Anatole Broyard was for many years the daily book reviewer (and sometimes essayist) for the New York Times. He was also an African-American "passing" for white, a big deal in his times. This aspect of his life was excellently told in a New Yorker profile by Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor who is one of the leading experts on race in American society, who unfortunately is now best known for getting arrested on his own front porch and eventually drinking beer with the arresting officer and President Obama.

One Drop is written by Broyard's daughter, who found out about her true heritage late in her father's terminal illness. She had been "raised white" in Connecticut, sent to exclusive schools, and more or less raised in privilege (at least she at times recognizes that most folks don't own ten-room houses with a swimming pool and a tennis court). From my view, she becomes obsessed with the fact that she's part African-American, and the book covers her search for her roots, detailing her family's journey in America, a light history of civil rights, and her father's biography.

As somebody who has been forced to deal with issues of race for his entire life, I had problems with many of Bliss Broyard's actions and reactions. Two that stuck out in my mind are her disappointment in finding out that she did not have slave ancestors, and that when she found out she had Native American ancestry she just shrugged it off, rather than devouring this with the same aggressiveness as her African-American background. She might not recognize it herself, but she had a very clear idea of what she wanted her identity to be. Given her father's life choices and her mother's attitude to Bliss's cultural identity, it seems as if she really really needed to be part African-American, not Native American, and there needed to be slaves in the family tree.

See what I did there? I took somebody I didn't know, examined some of their writing, and wrote as if I had a deep understanding of their character, motivations and psychology. Sadly, Broyard does this throughout the book.

The is a bad book for a number of reasons. First is the level Bliss Broyard's maturity regarding race. A person like Henry Louis Gates brings a level of gravitas to the topic. Broyard comes across as a lightweight, a person who after years of dealing with and thinking about this, still hasn't moved past the basics. According to Broyard, Gates's article was delayed for a while because she wanted to tell the story herself, but eventually Gates grew tired of her "not being ready yet" and proceeded. Her writings feel like she still isn't ready. On top of this, large sections of the book simply tell historical stories. And that's all they do, a certain person did a certain action on a certain date, there's no imparting of an understanding of the events. This is especially true of the last section of the book, where she deals with her father's life. One is left with the feeling that at the end of the day she understood the what, where, who, when and how of a lot of things, but was left wondering at the why. There's so much good writing about the role of race in American society. Don't waste your time with this, it doesn't pass.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away

Bill Bryson (1999)

Well, this was a disappointment. I've been very impressed with the two other works I've read by Bryson. A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home: A Short History of Private Life are both long treatments of subjects that go into great depth and leave the reader with the feeling that they've actually learned something about the topics at hand. This is book is another beast entirely.

Bryson grew up in the Midwest, moved to England for two decades, and then landed in New England. People who are good at reading the titles of books already got that. But while I was hoping for something similar to his other efforts that I have read, which would feature strong research and good introspection, instead we get a bunch of columns he wrote for a British newspaper, detailing his fish-out-of-water moments.

If you poke through these reviews, you'll find that I am not a big fan of certain genres, the "article in a fancy magazine that got stretched into a book" is one of them, but I'm willing to reject my prejudices if the writing is good enough. In the case of column collections, it boils down to "would I read this person in the newspaper every morning, given the chance?" Mike Royko is a good data point. Simply put, I wouldn't read Bryson's work on a daily basis, so I struggled to complete this work. There's far too much "I'm an old man, get off my lawn"-style complaining, in fact, he starts one column with the sentence "I have finally figured out what is wrong with everything." It's old hat, and disappointing from a writer with his skills. Read one of his other books.

Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age

by Matthew Brzezinski (2007)

There are multiple books with the title "Red Moon Rising." This one deals with one of the biggest changes in humanity, when the Soviets put a satellite into space. It is told more from the side of policy and politics than from technology, which gives it the proper perspective. The nuts and bolts of a beeping satellite don't reveal how it makes the world a different place. Brzezinski spends a great deal of time talking about the people behind the metal, the politics of the Khrushchev Kremlin, the rocket genius Korolev, and the people in the American military tugging back and forth on who would control American rockets.

I've once read that the two greatest figures in the history of space exploration are Hitler and Stalin. The first got around clauses in the Treaty of Versailles prohibiting German long-range artillery (one of their World War I specialties) by promoting the development of ballistic missiles, and the second both helped create the Cold War and brought ICBMs into their infancy. As depressing as that thought may be, there's a good deal of truth to it. Like any other history of early rocketry, this book has a chapter on the V2, to this date the most successful rocket in terms of number of launches (slave labor and a wartime economy contribute greatly to this statistic). We go through the story of the race to capture the German rocket scientists, and discover that the main V2 treasure-trove was actually on territory destined for Soviet control. The Americans were able to swoop in to steal most of the booty, but much was left behind. And the post-war Soviets were very good at stealing German industrial technology. Meanwhile, the Americans let their German scientists spin their wheels, not putting their Nazis to good use.

In the larger strategic picture, what was going on? America coming out of World War II had a strong belief in the value of strategic bombing. As a result we built up huge number of bombers. The Russians were far behind us, but had tricks up their sleeves. They were able to convince some that they were ramping up bomber production, which lead us to build even more bombers (much to the displeasure of Eisenhower, as this busted his budget). As it turns out, the Russians weren't building bombers. America didn't know this because our spy planes could only photograph small sections of the Soviet Union at one time, and more importantly, couldn't fly above Soviet radar. So if they weren't bombers, what were the Soviets doing? Yes, they were building rockets. They knew that they couldn't build enough bombers to fight through US air defenses, so they didn't even try. Instead they build huge liquid-fueled rockets, able to strike anywhere in the world. And even though they shocked the world with Sputnik and were able to gain a short-term lead in missiles, even this was a failure. Why? Because these rockets had a long fueling time, and were so massive they couldn't be launched from anywhere but one or two special launch sites. By the time the Soviet missiles were ready to go, they would have already been nuked by American bombers. The American military was working on the real solution, solid-fuel rockets that could be launched in a few minutes from sites anywhere on the map. Eventually the Soviets had the same capabilities, but it was not with the rockets they used for space. This story is told in the book, but the much more interesting background of politics comes to the forefront.

This book covers the very early chapters of the space race (hence the emphasis on a rising moon), and quits before the race for the moon really develops. It gives good background on all of the players, and explores why the Soviets did what they did, and how they were limited. It also does a very good job of explaining how inter-service rivalries in the US military set back our space efforts. The only drawback to this book is that it covers such a small slice of time. I would have been happy to have seen another 250 pages that covered the rest of the 1960s.

Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34

by Bryan Burrough (2005)

True-crime really isn't my genre. I'd prefer a well-crafted piece by Hammett to what usually amounts to an over-hyped poorly-sourced account of people doing bad things. Burrough's book, however, is different. It's well-researched, and certainly doesn't make heroes out of people who don't deserve it. It does have one big drawback, it's jumpy.

Burrough needs to follow many threads at the same time, and organizes his narrative by date. The one common thread, the newborn FBI, doesn't take centerstage. A whole circus full of criminals do. This makes sense in that if you go into the FBI's records (and other documents, public or private), the focus will be on what is known about the targets, rather than the government agents who were chasing them. So instead for a few pages you read about Bonnie and Clyde, then leap over to John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd or the Barker gang. Sometime it can be rough keeping things straight. I found myself rooting for the FBI not so much because I think that good is better than bad, but because each time a set of criminals was taken off of the streets, it made the rest of the story easier to follow.

And while I do think that good is better than bad, there wasn't a lot of good in this book. Let me rephrase that, it's a good book, but there aren't a lot of good people in it. The criminals are routinely bad, most of them killing on multiple occasions without remorse. The FBI does not shine either. It blew a lot of leads, was upstaged by local law enforcement or other federal agencies on many occasions, didn't have much regard for the Constitution, and apparently outright assassinated several of their targets. The classic Ma Barker as a kingpin (queenpin?), that was made up, the FBI has to cast her as a ringleader after they killed her.

Overall the strengths of this book made up for its weaknesses, but it's not a short book, so if it isn't in your wheelhouse it might not be worth your time. The book was turned into a 2009 movie with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, I can't comment on that.

Spitting Blood: The History of Tuberculosis

by Helen Bynum (1929)

Unlike actual tuberculosis, this book gets better as you approach the end. The first part wasn't to my taste. Like many "history of a disease" books, it winds its way through history, describing seemingly every last Google hit on the mention of TB in the notes of ancient healers. Fine, I get to know what some physician from the 4th century thinks about TB, but without any other context, I lose interest. How close to a modern understanding was the thinking of the day? Did the proposed cure or treatment have any beneficial effect? If so, why? And if you aren't going to go down that route, tell me how and why outbreaks of the disease affected larger aspects of history. It's hard to believe that only the Black Death changed the world.

But a little more than half-way through the book, things pick up. Bynum has access to enough information to more solidly anchor her writing. We get things like statistical data that can tell us about infection rates in different parts of the world, and what we can learn from that. We discover that laws that required mandated-reporting by doctors quickly ran into problems. Since life insurance didn't cover TB, doctors were hesitant to diagnose, as families might not be able to cover their medical bills. Doctors who did report TB to the proper authorities could find themselves short of future patients. Various governments tried different programs, and there are good data to back up Bynum's claims.

Like many other large social concerns from the 19th and early 20th centuries, all kinds of fun ideas about the role of race got mixed in. Bynum handles this very well, which is one of the reasons why I wish she painted with broader strokes in the early part of the book. One of the more chilling passages details portable Nazi x-ray machines that were used to screen for TB in Poland and occupied Soviet Russia. The cure was a bullet; 100,000 were shot.

The book peaks in the last chapter. Humanity had TB on the ropes, our front-line treatments were effective, and TB was facing the fate of Smallpox. But then TB became less sexy. Why go into a medical field if it is going to disappear in a few years? Organizations that had once been devoted to stamping out TB shifted to look at more general problems of the lungs. The victims, at least in the developed world, became restricted into a population that was the hardest to treat; the homeless or those so poor that they did not interact with the medical system. Drug-resistant strains of TB developed as protocols were not followed. In the formerly-colonized regions of the world, money and infrastructure were scare. Instead of disappearing, TB has come back with vigor in the 21st century. It's a scary tale, well told. Overall I'm not sure that the last half of the book can save the first half, but it may be worth picking up from the library if you are already there.

If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor

Bruce Campbell (2001)

I think I've been ahead of my time when it comes to popular culture exactly twice. I was into Rage Against the Machine when they were a garage band back in the early 1990s. And I was a big fan of Sam Raimi when he was just doing campy horror movies. Bruce Campbell was a key cog in the Raimi machine, he helped make things as cheesy as possible. And it turns out he can write a half-way decent autobiography. This book rocks.

Let's be clear, this is not high literature. Imagine having Bruce Campbell show up at your house with a case of beer and a 8mm film projector so he can screen the movies that he and the Raimi brothers made back in Michigan when they were growing up. Sometimes there are sections where he kind of drones on, and that's when you would be politely listening, waiting for him to get back to the Evil Dead stuff. But the good parts are strong, and Bruce comes across as someone you would want to hang out with. There are some awesome tidbits in here, like the assistant editor on Evil Dead was none other than Joel Coen.

Like a lot of Bruce Campbell's work, someone who is not a fan might think it is terrible, or at least in need of an editor who is more willing to cut to the bone. If, on the other hand (the good hand, not the bad hand), you are a fan, then this book is groovy.

The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own.

David Carr (2008)

This is one of those books where the idea is better than the finished product. Carr describes a night where in a drug-induced state he goes after one of his friends, only to be turned back when his friend pulls a gun on him. Years later, the friend claims that Carr himself was the one with the gun. Carr has problems with this story, but a third party provides support that it is in fact Carr's gun. Carr doesn't even remember owning a gun, but that's the problem - your memory doesn't work very well when you are feeding your brain drugs.

Carr's day job is that he is an investigative journalist, so he tackles his drug years with the same techniques he would any of his other stories. He interviews as many of the principles as he can, he looks for a paper trail, and he even hires a PI to track down certain leads. And to some extent, this part of the book works. The aspect of "let's put together the pieces of the puzzle" make for good reading.

I also enjoyed his discussions of the chemistry of the drugs and their effects on the users. Why he was able to put massive amounts of some drugs in his body, and yet still be a high-functioning employee, but why crack basically made his life fall apart. His insights into treatment were also good (although a bit depressing - as a white male he had better access to programs, because statistically he had a better chance of recovery; of course, this means that some minority didn't get into the rehab program, which is only going to increase the gap in results).

I could have done without the pages describing the rest of his life struggles. Sadly, his story as an addict is far more interesting than as a recovered person.

You can sit down an read this book in big chunks. It's a good lazy-day-at-the-beach book, but I wouldn't go out of my way to read it.

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler (1939)

The voice in this novel is that of Phillip Marlowe, Chandler's famous detective. It is misogynistic, anti-semitic, and homophobic, a reflection of the ideals of a "tough guy" when it was written (and sadly, to a lesser extent, to this day). The voice is also extremely descriptive, adept at how words can be well placed in tight writing, and the plot moves along at a pace that makes you question if short attention spans really are a product of the internet age (or, as when I was growing up, a product of television).

The language is infectious. After a few chapters you want to start talking like a hard-boiled detective. It's sort of like talking like a pirate; it's funny, it's enjoyable, and so long and you don't make anybody actually walk a plank, it's harmless. Talk like the stereotype, just don't copy any of the actual behavior.

Yes, there are holes in the plot, and from a 21st-century perspective the hero isn't very likable, but if you can get past that, this is a fun read of a book that helped define a genre.

If you do read this book and like it, then Chandler's 1950 essay The Simple Art of Murder.

The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II

by Iris Chang (1997)

I end Physics 4D with a historical lecture on atomic weapons. When we get to the death totals from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I always side-step the traditional calculus of trying to figure out how many dead Japanese civilians should be weighted against hypothetical dead American soldiers. I think that this equation tells us more about who is arguing about the topic, namely Japanese and Americans, than anything else. A broader view of asking "does ending the war earlier justify using weapons of mass destruction against civilian targets" must include not just American soldiers, but a consideration of all the Asians who were suffering under Japanese rule.

Iris Chang's classic Rape of Nanking serves as a cold reminder of the facts of occupation. Take the death tolls in the two cities that were targeted by America for atomic destruction, the sum is less than the number of civilians killed by the Japanese when they took Nanking, then the capital of China, in 1937. Sure, it took the Japanese six to eight weeks longer, but that is because killing people by beheading, bayonetting and rape is at a much lower tech level than atomic weapons. Quite simply, this was one of the most brutal acts in one of the worst wars the planet has known.

And yet, for many years the general public in the West knew little about Nanking. Some of this was that the Japanese sunk the USS Panay in the same time frame, and news reels of Japanese planes attacking the US Navy's ship stole the headlines (then and later; I can remember watching film of Panay attack in seventh grade history, they certainly didn't teach us about Nanking), but there were Western reporters in the city who sent out accurate reports of the atrocities. When China fell to communism and Japan was seen as an important asset in the Cold War, poor past behavior was swept under the rug. To this day the Japanese history books don't seem to have much to do with reality. Chang's book bubbled Nanking up into the consciousness of the American public, revealing the sins of a past age.

Thankfully, while the book does catalog for the record the many ugly truths of the Japanese occupation, it goes beyond that and also tells stories of courage. In the worst of times there are still heroes willing to risk everything for humanity. The most interesting of these was John Rabe, a devoted Nazi who helped establish a "safety zone" that sheltered roughly 200,000 people. He was convinced that if he brought evidence of atrocities to Hitler that Germany would step in to protect Chinese civilians. Needless to say, once he returned home to Germany and started agitating, he was arrested. He was only freed when his employer, Siemens, lobbied for his release. It makes an ironic counterpoint to the fact that Siemens benefited from slave labor under the Nazi regime. Later, after the war, times were hard for Rabe because of his Nazi past. When word of his troubles reached back to China, a great outpouring of donations of money and food were sent in his direction. You reap what you sow.

This is a very important book. Read it. And then share it with a friend.

The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond the Rape of Nanking- A Memoir

Ying-Ying Chang (2011)

In one line, this is a bad book about an excellent author. Iris Chang wrote The Rape of Nanking, the book that changed the conversation on the Japanese occupation of mainland Asia during World War II. When she committed suicide in her mid-30s, the scholarly community mourned the loss of a powerful young voice. The Woman Who Could Not Forget refers to the view that Iris Chang would not let the world forget about the atrocities that happened sixty years prior to the publication of her book.

Sadly, while reading this biography I felt that The Woman Who Could Not Forget was not Iris, but instead her mother Ying-Ying, the author. In the paperback edition, this book clocks in at well over 450 pages. Much could have been skipped, and would have been by an author who had the proper distance. We really didn't need to hear about Iris's awards from her high school after she published her book, or that a person at a book signing at a random bookstore thought that she should be awarded both a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Peace Prize. And it is tiring to hear again and again that Iris was beautiful, and that she made her parents proud. One of the themes that runs through the later sections of the book is how biased many Japanese are when it comes to interpreting their country's wartime behavior. It is ironic that historical bias is the major flaw of this work. How far does this go? In the end, Iris descended into the madness that would eventually trigger her suicide. She checked into a hotel and thought that the room was bugged, that somebody was transmitting disturbing images onto the television screen, and that she was being watched. Her mother won't discount these ravings, as her daughter was "sensitive," and that meant that if she felt like her room was bugged, we should believe her, no matter how crazy that sounds. (There's also a conspiracy theme running through that section of the narrative, involving Japanese reactions against her book. It did not play well considering I had just read Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton, Rushdie had real concerns about people who were out to get him.)

At the end of the day, I did not feel like I got to know Iris Chang. I learned a great deal about her various accomplishments, and that her parents thought she was beautiful, and they were proud. It's like a college application where the candidate has listed all of their activities, but the admissions committee is still left scratching their heads. Spend your time reading something better (for instance, her daughter's book).

The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco

by Marilyn Chase (2003)

For decades most of the United States knew of the 1906 San Francisco disaster as the 1906 Fire. The earthquake was downplayed and kept out of the public's memory, as the real estate interests didn't want people to associate California with earthquakes. Much in the same way, one never hears about the coming of the bubonic plague in the early 1900s.

Bubonic plague? As in the Black Death? The pandemic that tore its was across Europe in the Dark Ages, wiping out perhaps half of the population? Yes. That bubonic plague. The denial of its occurrence by the moneyed interests in California and the battles that federal physicians fought against the powers that be (or, to be respectful of tense, the powers that were) are the central stories of this book. Since the early outbreaks of plague took place in Chinatown, an inspection of race in Victorian San Francisco also plays a role. My great-grandfather lived in San Francisco prior to the earthquake, so this element was of great interest to me.

Chase's writing is a bit uneven. She does an excellent job describing science, law, race and history. On the other hand, she at times is repetitive (how many time do we need to be dragged through the stages of the plague, as she does with almost every victim?). Story is compelling enough to overcome the writing.

There's are connections that this book should have made, but didn't. Most houses on the East Coast have basements. Yet in California basements are almost unheard of. Why is this? In the 1800s the buildings in San Francisco had basements. The rats loved them. As it became clear to medical science that rats carried the fleas that carried plague, getting rid of basements and replacing them with concrete slabs was the way to go. Why is architecture in the West the way it is? The plague. Also, in a book that quite clearly paints a story of a disease in a despised minority community, would it have been too much to ask for a short chapter at the end comparing and contrasting with the AIDS epidemic eighty years later?

This is a fun book, with a lot of important local history.

The Gun

by C.J. Chivers (2010)

In 1949 the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb. This drastically changed the landscape of the postwar world. Also in 1949 the AK-47 was adopted by the Soviet military; the second event has killed far far many more people than the bomb. While the AK-47 is "The Gun" referenced in the title of the book, the book covers far more than just this particular gun (for that matter, even though there are many AK-47s still out there, it was replaced by the AKM, and later on the AK-74).

There are several chunks that make up this book, each one is excellent in its own right. The first part of the book deals with the history of the machine gun, from its roots at the end of the Civil War (it saw no real combat action) through World War I, where it came into its own. In between people didn't know what to do with this killing machine. The French badly mis-used it in the Franco-Prussian war, which gave ammunition to its detractors. It was very useful in the wars of Colonialism, where a handful of Europeans could hold off thousands of spear-wielding natives. It wasn't until the turn-of-the-century war between Russia and Japan that a decent number of people noticed that the primitive hand-cranked instruments of the 1800s had grown up into a major weapon. Not everyone noticed, of course, demonstrated by the charge-the-guns tactics of early World War I, but the machine gun had come of age.

One of the big races at the end of World War II concerned who would capture the German rocket scientists. The Americans did, and then wasted that advantage, letting the Soviets create a lead in rocket technology while we couldn't quite figure out what to do with our captured Germans. The Soviets also were more attentive to another German development, the assault rifle. The classic rifle used a heavy bullet, and hence could hit a target at fairly long range. However, the heavy bullet gave rise to problems with automatic fire, and hence the roles of the machine gun and rifle did not overlap. Both the Germans and the Soviets realized that most battles took place at distances much shorter than the range of a rifle, and recognized that if a designer was willing to build a rifle with lighter ammunition, every soldier could carry a machine gun into battle. The Germans brought this idea to the battlefield, but it was Mikhail Kalashnikov who put the Soviet spin on the idea. His gun wasn't something that impressed German or American designers, it wasn't high tech. Soviet industry wasn't up to the challenges of high tech. Instead they made a gun that could be mass produced by second-rate factories across the Communist world, and one the because of its forgiving design could work in environments that crippled other guns, and could last almost forever. The Americans came to the table late. We were already in Vietnam before we discovered the need for such a gun. Chivers devotes many pages to the growing pains of the M-16, correctly claiming that it was a prototype that managed to kill many of its users due to its tendency to jam.

The book also looks at the transformative role of the AK-47, how a gun so simple that even a child could maintain it changed warfare. For one thing, it made child armies in Africa possible. It helped eject the Soviets from Afghanistan. And since it was created by economies not responsive to market forces, it was greatly overproduced. Nobody can put a number on how many AK-47s were made across the Communist world, and very few of them are disappearing. This is a book that was put together very well. If you are interested in post-WWII military matters, it is well worth your time.

The I Chong: Meditations from the Joint

by Tommy Chong (2006)

I've never really understood the appeal of doing drugs, that being said, the amount of time and effort our government spends on going after people who smoke weed certainly could be spent on more beneficial efforts (like, I don't know, not cutting education budgets). I bought this book because I've heard Tommy Chong on the radio several times since his trip to the big house, and he's always been very funny. Duh, he's a professional comedian. The question is can he take a few one-liners and build a book out of them? The answer is no. In fact, given what's left of his brain, I doubt he could build a book out of any experience. Not that he doesn't try - there are chapters on his childhood, his arrest experience, his time with Cheech Marin, how much he loves his wife, and yes, his time in jail. But none of them are very good, and the whole is not more than the sum of its parts. Every so often he goes off on conspiracy theories about how the Bush administration wanted to distract people from the war in Iraq, so they arrested him (OK, the theory is more involved than that, conspiracy theories always are, but that's what it boils down to at the end of the day). Kids, don't do drugs, it might seem fun, but it could hurt your brain. This book will hurt your brain, and isn't fun.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

by Christopher Clark (2013)

There are going to be a boatload of World War I books as the 100th anniversary rolls around in 2014. This one looks into the root causes of the war, and when you first pick it up you have to wonder "why was this written, does it top Tuchman's classic The Guns of August, or for that matter, the first segment of Meyer's wonderful A World Undone?" Clark understands this and hits it right away in the opening material. The events that unfolded were amazingly complex, and the primary documents could easily be measured in terms of railroad cars. No one account will ever properly cover all the bases. In addition to this, it is time to view the unfolding of the war not in a Cold War lens, where it was natural to see things in terms of two opposing power blocks, but instead in a multi-polar view, with a terrorist triggering event.

This book is not for the feint-hearted. There's not much of the "the person was sleeping with that person" Tuchman-style history, instead Clark, over 700 pages, carefully takes apart the history of the Balkans (as he points out, it was the Third Balkan War before it was World War I) and all of the various interests and fears of the so-called Great Powers. It is no doubt dense material, and it helps if you have read other WWI accounts so that you know the general background. But that being said, when you are done you know why WWI happened. For each of the main players, you know why they wanted a war rather than peace.

Whenever I do read a history of World War I, I want to break out a Diplomacy board to more carefully understand what is going on. But a big chunk of Sleepwalkers discusses why that is a flawed viewpoint, it assumes unity of action. When you are playing Diplomacy, you are making all of the decisions for your country. Real countries have different parties and personalities pulling on the levers, and people go in and out of power. The army might not be in phase with the state department, which might be in opposition to the prime minister. Multiply by the half-dozen countries involved, and you get a picture of how complicated this was.

Finally, Clark every once in a while brings us forwards, with amazing effect. For example, there is the ultimatum sent by Austria-Hungary to Serbia, that historically has been (correctly) viewed as an insult that had to be refused. After going over it carefully, Clark compares it to a similar document sent by NATO in the run up to the modern Balkan war. Both were meant only to bring a war.

Ignition!: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants

John D. Clark (1972)

This is a fun book. It's got more chemistry than this simple physicist can understand, and it harkens back to some bad-old-days masculinity culture in rockets, but I found it enjoyable nonetheless. John Clark was a long-time chemist who worked during the glory days in the 1950s and 1960s when the chemistry of rocket fuels was being explored. And he likes to tell stories. And he's got plenty. "And if you, gentle reader, have never seen a nervous rocket mechanic, complete with monkey suit, being buzzed by nine thousand demented bats and trying to beat them off with a shovel, there is something missing from your experience."

Modern rockets fall into three main categories. Many, like SpaceX and Soyuz, burn RP-1 (rocket grade kerosene) with liquid oxygen. For upper stages, some will use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (the exhaust is good old-fashioned water). A few will use very toxic fuels such as UDMH. Many of the exotic mixtures detailed by Clark are just straight-out problematic. But they are also fun to read about "...the problems involved in handling pentaborane were still around - and hairy. It was remarkably poisonous, as I have mentioned. And it is hypergolic with the atmosphere, and the fires are brutes to put out. If you spray a burning pool of the stuff with water, the fire goes out eventually - if you're lucky. But then the remaining unburned pentaborane is covered with a layer of solid boron oxide or perhaps boric acid, which protects it from the air. And if that crust is broken (which is certain to happen), the fire starts all over again. Even disposing the leftover pentaborane is a problem, and not one I'll go into here." Clark details many chemical mixtures with interesting party habits. Remember how some exhaust in water? Some had exhaust which was HF, which is one of the nastier acids around. I guess if you are launching an ICBM with a nuclear warhead on top, then we are already at the end of the world. If that's not the case, then I wonder what rocket scientist in their right mind has a rocket spewing out HF.

This is an enjoyable book. I suspect the niche of people that reads this will be small, but if it is in your wheelhouse, it should certainly be on your book case.

Ready Player One: A Novel

Ernest Cline (2011)

This comes across as a bad hybrid of a teen novel and a video game. Teen novel? It hits many of the checkboxes. Teenagers as the protagonists? Check. Cheesy romance sub-plot? Check. Following the recent trend in teen-fic of dystopian settings? Check. Wrap this up in a videogame and toss in about a billion 1980s references, and you get this book.

I didn't really like the main character, and as a result this book felt like a videogame walk-through narrated by a jerk. In theory I should be in the novel's (I guess this is a novel, as in "this book is a bad novel") secondary demographic, people who grew up in the 1980s. But the author consumed slightly different media than I did, so while I recognize what he's talking about, I don't resonate with what he talks about. In a climatic scene Ultraman makes an appearance. I was never a big fan of Ultraman. You want a climax? Destroy your opponent with a wave motion gun. But Star Blazers gets a token mention, there is no Dr. Who, and how can they not visit Wasteland, the grandfather of all post-apocalyptic RPG video games? Really, 1980s nerd street cred with no Dr. Who? I don't think so. No love for this book, sorry. (OK, maybe a little love for making School House Rock a big part of the plot).


by Peter Clines (2010)

How did I find this book? I went to to see if Austin Grossman had followed up on his 2007 comic-book-as-novel Soon I Will be Invincible. After the disappointing answer, I looked at similar books. This one popped up. It went straight to paperback, no hardcover. OK, we knew going in that great literature wasn't going to be an option. On the other hand, it offered the mix of the superhero and zombie genres. Bingo.

I've never quite understood professional wrestling. On the other hand, I can clearly see where they steal from the superhero genre, and recognize that like any other form of entertainment, the plot only takes you so far. In fact, in both professional wrestling and comic books, the plots usually don't take you far at all. It's really the character development that drives things. If it's just a bunch of dudes in tights duking it out, nobody cares. On the other hand, if there are interesting back stories for the people in the silly costumes, then it becomes interesting. Clines does a good job of creating a batch of superheroes and making us want to know more about the people behind the masks. And the plot isn't bad for a zombie apocalypse story.

This isn't War and Peace. But for what it is, it's pretty good. It's not over-the-top silly, but it's a fun ride. Yes, it has the mandatory cyborg. I know it feels like I'm damning this book with faint praise, but ignore that vibe and buy a copy.

Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States

by Andrew Coe (2009)

When you go to a Chinese restaurant, you'll sometimes spend a great deal of time looking at the decor before you actually get to taste the food. That's one of the issues with this book. Coe spends the first hundred pages going over the history of China's resistance to Western colonialism, the trading ports, the separation of the two cultures, and the eventual crumbling of Chinese power. While this would be great in a straight-up history book, at a certain point you just have to think "when are they bringing me my lemon chicken?"

To be fair, the Coe does a very good job on the history of early Sino-Western relations, and on an actual accounting of the story of cuisine in China. The main problem seems to be a paucity of source documents, so were a treated to multiple newspaper articles or diary entries that feature Americans venturing into Chinese restaurants. After a while it gets tiresome. Coe makes a big point out of the "they eat dog" stereotype that has wandered down the ages, but at a certain point the reader should have already understood. No amount of repeating yourself will help the folks who don't get it, and everyone else is bored. Same story for the "look at the silly people's reactions to eating something new." There doesn't seem to be good reason for this, for example, Coe performs a good survey of anti-Asian hostility in 19th century America. He can write history, but it is at if has a strange fetish involving reports of white folks eating Chinese food.

In grad school I lived at different times with people from the countryside of China who cooked traditional meals, and also with very observant Jews. Witnessing what showed up on my dinner table, I always had to wonder, "How can Chinese food be Kosher?" The common image of the Jewish family eating Chinese on Christmas just didn't compute with what I knew about both the ingredients and the dietary laws involved. Coe explains the logical loopholes of "safe treyf," which means that you can do Chinese takeout on Christmas (and any other time you want).

There is a whole section on "Nixon goes to China," which earns its space. The punch-line? Tricky Dick had stuffed Air Force One with "American food," which he ate at any non-televised meal. It was a very different world, people were actually shocked that the President and his wife could wield chopsticks.

This is probably not the book that people expect when they pick it up. It's good, but you have to know what you are getting into.

Sweet and Low: A Family Story

Rich Cohen (2006)

This is an interesting book. As the title suggests, it's a family history of the company that makes Sweet 'n' Low, the artificial sweetener in the little pink package. The author comes from the branch of the family that got disinherited somewhere along the way. Needless to say, he's got an axe or two to grind, and given that there was some serious wrong-doing along the way, it makes for a good tale.

If this was just a case of "look at how my Uncle Marvin screwed up Grandpa Ben's company," it would be shorter and not worth the time. Instead there are many threads the weave their way into the book. A few of the good ones off the top of my head: The Jewish Immigrant Experience in America, The Rise and Fall of Brooklyn, A History of Sweetness, and What Not to Do When the Government Claims Your Product Causes Cancer.

This isn't a classic, but I enjoyed this book when I read it. If you are the type of person who buys many books and consumes them, add it to the fodder pile.

Not a Genuine Black Man: My Life as an Outsider

Brian Copeland (2006)

I regret missing Copeland when he stopped by Foothill College. Given his book, I would have really enjoyed listening to him. His book skips back and forth between his experiences as a black kid in the then white racist stronghold of San Leandro and how his upbringing affected his adult life. As a rule I usually don't read too many memoirs. However, reflections upon navigating the rivers of race in the country make a larger impact on me than most topics typically covered in life stories. What struck me most was that as much as racism played a constant role, Copeland's parents and grandmother were what really shaped his life through their presence or absence. This is a book worth reading, he's put a long time into thinking about identity politics, and writes with both humor and wisdom.

Dungeon Hacks: How NetHack, Angband, and Other Roguelikes Changed the Course of Video Games

David L. Craddock (2015)

I first played Rogue way back in 1985, in a basement computer lab. In 1990 I discovered Nethack on a Unix machine, and died quite often (permadeath is an essential feature in "rougelikes"). Within a few years I was actually able to ascend with a valkyrie, which is the easiest character class for a beginner. In graduate school I was able to win with most of the character classes, and after a long fatherhood-related hiatus, finally won with a tourist, which was the last character class standing in my way. I've flown with NASA and earned a Ph.D. in physics, but sometimes I think that ascending all the classes in Nethack is the nerdiest thing I've done (this is probably a false statement).

I've also played some of the other related games such as Angband and ADOM, so this book is in my wheelhouse. While it was fun reading about the development of these games (and to discover why you run into the ghost of Michael Toy), the level of writing didn't captivate me. Craddock churns out these "history of your favorite computer game" books, and while I'm glad that somebody is capturing what amounts to oral histories, for the most part they read like a collection of longish magazine articles. It might be different if these were actually his favorite games, and he put the time and effort into really developing a full-length book, but one gets the feeling that he's writing this in the few weeks before his publisher wants him to switch over to a Castle Wolfenstein book. There's facts and stories, but I don't see the level of passion or analysis that would take this to the next level. I look at David Ewalt's Of Dice and Men and see a strong book that tells the history of role playing games, especially Dungeons and Dragons. I wish this book had taken the history of Nethack to that level.

It's hard for me to recommend this unless you are a big fan of Nethack. Hopefully that population is larger than I think it is. I've done my part, I've taught the game to my son.

The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece

by Laura Cumming (2016)

Laura Cumming is a good writer, but she isn't a historian. What makes me say those things? I'm not somebody who is really all that interested in art history. You can look over the books I've read, and out of over two hundred, fewer than five cover art or art history. And yet I enjoyed this book and kept turning the pages. It's the story of a shop-owner's discovery of what he thinks is a missing Velázquez painting, and his battles for both the legitimacy and ownership of the art. On top of keeping the narrative running at a good pace, every once in a while you would run into a deft insight, such as the inbreeding in the Spanish royalty of the time meant that you would run into people who would have theirs aunts as nieces. On the other hand, Cumming at times makes statements that aren't supported by evidence, arguing that something must have happened, when I think that she just really wanted the event to happen.

One aspect of this book that kept bothering me was that Cumming kept referring to Velázquez as one of the greatest painters ever. But I'd never heard of him. As I've said before, I'm not somebody who is deeply versed in the arts, but I've been in museums before. As it turns out, Velázquez can be considered as one of the great portait painters, but if you made a top-ten list of greatest painters ever without him, you wouldn't be laughed out of the room.

I can't go into details, because it would be a spoiler of the highest order, but there is a Scooby-Doo ending to this book. You're going to have to find out for yourself. Pick up a copy of this book.

New York Exposed: The Gilded Age Police Scandal that Launched the Progressive Era

by Daniel Czitrom (2016)

There are aspects of this book that are just plain depressing. It covers a crusade against corruption in the NYPD in the 1890s, and it is easy to get the feeling that no matter what reforms we see, the story will be the same across centuries, the NYPD will have serious investigations into its behavior in regular cycles. If you can beyond this, the book still has problems. It tries to tell a story, but doesn't do good job of handling its two main actors, the NYPD and the reformer the Reverend Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst.

Parkhurst was a reformer in the 1890s who, with the help of upstate Republicans fighting Tammany Hall, was able to strike a blow against police corruption. But again, we know that there were cyclical issues with this, even to the present day. Czitrom details this set of battles in great detail, but at a certain point the focus shifts to government investigations rather than Parkhurst's campaign, relegating him to a minor player. The real star here is the NYPD, and perhaps the book would have been better aimed with them clearly in the center.

I found that I got bogged down in this book, and I'm someone who is usually interested in history. Somebody with interest in New York City history, machine politics, or the Progressive Age, or police reform or related topics would find this to be a great resource. I don't think I'd recommend it for the general population.

1215: The Year of Magna Carta

by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham (2003)

If you really want to know about the Magna Carta, check out Jill Lepore's The Rule of History on The New Yorker website. It's an excellent article. This book? My first reaction is that it's just okay. It tries to give the reader an idea of what 13th century Great Britain was like, and uses the Magna Carta as a touchstone. The obvious comparison is Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, which is a masterpiece that details the 14th century. This isn't Tuchman.

That may be unfair. Very few books are Tuchman. One of the ideas that the authors develop that I found fascinating was that this was a non-standard rebellion that gave birth to a non-standard result. The Barons took up arms against King John, and while rising up against the crown was a regular occurence, usually this was to depose the king in favor of another royal family, or for a relative of the ruler who also had a claim to the throne. In the case of John, neither of these came into play, these options were not on the table. Instead, when the Barons rebelled they decided to do it in the name of reform, and hence we got the Magna Carta. Had there been a suitable cousin or brother, history might have been very different. King John's military failures are also an interesting topic. More or less, he's the King of England who lost the French territories. But they point out that this may have been a good thing for England. An empire that covered both the British Isle and had vast territories in what is now modern France would develop very differently than what the world eventually got, an England which eventually distanced itself culturally from France (although the language of the nobility would be French for quite some time) and became a distinct country with its own national character.

Paging through the book after reading it, I have the feeling that the book ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It's kind of like that movie Eurotrip, there are some great highlights such as the robot mime fight, but at the end of the day, the movie is mediocre. That being said, there are many places in the book where I felt like I got a deeper understanding of what the Barons, King John and the people of England were facing both on a day-to-day basis and on a bigger scale. It's not bad for a popular account of history, but I don't think it would hold up when compared to more serious accounts.

Eye in the Sky: The Story of the Corona Spy Satellites

Edited by Dwayne A. Day (1998)

Dwayne Day is kind of like XKCD's Randall Munroe, you look at your life and try to figure out what key decisions you made wrong so that you ended up where you are, and they ended up where they are. Go to The Space Review and read some of Day's stuff, it's all about the intersection of space, history and spying. So when I saw his name on this book, I had to buy it.

This is a history of the Corona, which were the first set of spy satellites launched by the US. Since this was at the very start of the US space program, many of them failed, either due to bad rockets or other reasons. But the US kept at it (more specifically, a close-working group consisting of Lockheed, the Air Force, the CIA and some optics companies kept working at it), and eventually got a working system in space. And that changed the world.

This book is a collection of essays that generated after a 1995 conference held after the declassification of major parts of the Corona program. The people who built the satellites were finally able to talk about what they day. This book suffers from being a collection rather than having one unifying voice and vision, and there are parts where the same story is told from a slightly different view, but overall the work is solid. If read alongside with Matthew Brzezinski's Red Moon Rising you get a very good picture of Eisenhower's struggles to know exactly what was going on in the Soviet Union.

In the end, what makes this book are the small things. Like the very short amount of time that it took to develop the U-2 (amazingly, the U-2 is still classified, I was not allowed to take pictures of the one I stood next to in a NASA hangar). Or the fact that many of the people who were tasked to photograph the early atomic bomb trials were the same who were asked to work on the airborne reconnaissance programs, and were deeply motivated by the first to succeed in the second. Or that the Soviets could get maps of the USA (and a big part of Corona was simply mapping, not just snooping on specific sites) of comparable quality from the USGS. Or that mapping itself was revolutionized by Corona.

This is now an old book, and I wish there was a modern update based upon what has been declassified in the past twenty years. It's also a little scary to think about how much technology has advanced since the early 1960s. Yes, there are some limits set by physics, but given that modern spy satellites cost roughly the same as large US nuclear aircraft carriers, there aren't too many limits set by money.

If this is in one of your fields of interest (like I said before, space, history and spying), it's worthwhile. Otherwise, maybe not.

The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal

Jared Diamond (1992)

Jared Diamond knows a lot about birds, languages, anthropology, biology and evolution. Sadly, he doesn't know physics. He's got a chapter in this book where he claims that we are more or less alone in the galaxy. He rests this on two pieces of evidence: we've never had a documented visit from aliens, and we've never seen their television programs. The first argument is kind of hollow, and he admits to it. One of the reasons why we've never seen aliens is that space is very very big. But we've also never seen their counterpart to The Simpsons. From this and some biology about woodpeckers he claims that we are the only species in the entire galaxy to have developed radio/TV. He never learned that radio waves spread out in a spherical pattern, and hence the energy drops off as 1/r2. So you would need a monster-sized dish to pick up Earth television out at Jupiter's orbit. It's no wonder that we don't get alien TV. Now wait a minute you ask, I know those space probes have very small transmitting signals, how do we detect them? Well, those don't spread out over a sphere like the other signals, those are designed to be broadcast over a very tight beam (that still spreads out fairly quickly in astronomical terms). And these beams need to be pointed directly at the Earth. The odds of an alien beam with enough power being pointed directly at Earth? We've never heard the radio broadcasts of other civilizations because of some very basic physics, not because we are alone in discovering the results of Maxwell's Equations.

This is a very interesting book. He talks about how closely we are related to chimpanzees, evolution's effect on human sexuality, the influence of language on our development, and the book also carries the seeds of his two later tomes (Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse). Diamond is an excellent writer and has very compelling arguments. But after reading his chapter on radio waves, I have to wonder how much of this is good writing and how much of this is fact. If I didn't know much about physics, I would have swallowed his radio chapter hook, line and sinker. This raises huge doubts about the rest of the book for me. Is he just a wonderful writer who talks out of his hat from time to time, or is most of this book backed up by good solid science?

At the end of the day, I'll take this book to be a starting point. He's pulled back the curtain on some interesting topics. I'm not too sure about his scientific credibility outside of his academic field of expertise, but I can certainly read books by people more grounded in the specific topics.

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

by Edward Dolnick (2011)

Where to start? There are so many reasons not to like this book. Ultimately there are two deep flaws in this book. The first is that to my eye, the author does not respect the intelligence of his reader. Yes, he is writing a "science for the masses" book, but a good number of the people who pick it up and read it should feel a bit insulted. For example, after telling us that mathematics is "so difficult for us to learn" he claims that we "balk at algebra... because those inscrutable x's are so off-putting." I'm left to think that either he's talking down to a large portion of his audience, or perhaps, he just isn't as adept as they are.

Dolnick is also overly fond of exageration, is constantly annoying with this, and is sometimes just plain wrong. We are told that Tycho Brahe was rich beyond measure. Well, this certainly was not true as he continually had to go to royalty to get additional patronage. Dolnick's habit of overstating things also leads to contradictions, for example, early in the book he talks about the concept of atheism as being something inconceivable for a person in that time, but later on (correctly) points out that atheist was a common label for people that weren't liked (just as we currently wave the word terrorist around).

The first page of one of the later chapters sums up many of the problems in this book. We are told that " has been a dueling ground. Disputes are guaranteed..." and that "All scientific feuds tend towards the nasty..." Certainly rival scientists or teams of scientists will be struggling with the problems of their era, but to imply that science is a battlefield where the tricks are dirty and things are personal is painting with a very wide brush. One of the more recent paradigm-shifting moments took place in the late 1990s when two teams found that the universe was expanding at an increasing rate. Were they busy sticking knives in each other? No, they even went so far as to lend each other valuable telescope time if the other side needed to make a particularly important measurement. But not only is Dolnick's picture wrong, it is also harmful. I can imagine young people who want to be scientists reading this book, thinking that it is fine to be a jerk, because that's how scientists play the game. Well, you will not last long in science, or any other field for that matter, if you have difficulty treating your colleagues with respect. One of the answers that is often posited to the "why are there so few women in science" question revolves around perception of cut-throat competition dominating over a spirit of collaboration. Dolnick's account here is pushing that stereotype of the relationships between scientists very hard.

And there are a lot of little errors along the way, like using mass and weight interchangeably. For crying out loud, this is a book about Newton, every physics book introduces Newton right around chapter four, and what's one of the first things they do? Point out that mass and force are not the same thing.

Do not waste your time with this book.

The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

by William Doyle (2001)

The Very Short Introduction series can be hit-or-miss. I think this is a miss. I haven't really explored the French Revolution in roughly three decades, so I thought that this would be a good book to bring me up to speed, but honestly, I don't think I have a deeper understanding of the the event than I did when I started. Granted, by its nature it won't cover a lot of territory, but I don't have a better view of the players or the events.

Sadly, I think there were issues due to the fact that the Very Short Introduction series is published by the Oxford University Press. So we get a viewpoint, at least for this book, that to me was tainted by issues of class and an English worldview. The overthrow of royalty and nobility by the common people? A positive view of the French (and perhaps acknowledgement of the American Revolution)? There are plenty of microaggressions, "a grim lesson of what happened if the lower orders were not kept in control," and I was continually worried about bias. And then you get howlers like "Before 1789 there was no such things as a revolutionary."

The good thing about these Very Short Introduction books is that you don't waste too much time on the bad ones. I wouldn't recommend spending any time on this one.

Galileo: A Very Short Introduction

Stillman Drake (2001)

First, Stillman Drake has to be one of the cooler names out there, so kudos to his parents. But I'll admit that I got this one messed up a little bit. I had him confused with Henry Crew. Who the heck is Henry Crew? He was a long-time physics professor at Northwestern University, where I went to grad school. Did I hang out with him? No, he was there during the first part of the 20th century. He did lots of great physics, but he has a special place in my heart because he translated Galileo's Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences. Any student interested in physics should give it a good read. So I was wrong about the author here, Stillman Drake is important because he was the historian of science who was able to reject the flawed notion that experiment played a minor role in Galileo's work.

I think that the Very Short Introduction format works for topics where you have but a passing interest. But if you want to sink your teeth in, then you really do need three hundred pages. That doesn't mean that there aren't some important points that I somehow missed over the years, for example, that Vincenzo Galilei, Galileo's father, was an expert on acoustics who overturned ancient thinking by performing experiments. That's the role we typically give his son. Or, that Two New Sciences was written in the time of Galileo's post-Inquisition house arrest. But Drake doesn't have time to go into the science, or for that matter, Galileo's trial in any depth.

I'm not sure I'll be buying too many more of these Very Short Introduction books, they suffice when the story is a simple one to tell. Anything else, you are left wanting more.

The Drunken Monkey: Why We Drink and Abuse Alcohol

Robert Dudley (2014)

This is a book that has a good kernel of an idea, and an absent editor. The main idea is that alcoholism is like obesity, that at one point in our evolutionary history behavior made sense, but in current society we have access to resources that make the behavior self-destructive. So why do humans have a taste for alcohol? Dudley posits that it goes back to our days as primates, when we ate lots and lots of fruit as the bulk of our diet. In the tropics, where we evolved, fruit would quickly grow rotten after a short time of ripeness. If the sugars in these fruits fermented, then animals with good noses would be able to more easily detect good sources of food. So long as we just get alcohol from slightly fermented fruit, no big deal. If we drink wine or beer, not as good, and if we discover distillation, like we did in the 1600s, then all the wheels go off. Dudley's idea is not bad. But the book has lots of hit and miss. Many passages throughout the book read like slightly different versions of previous passages, and the there are some glaring holes. For example, in a book devoted to the intertwining of evolution and alcohol, there's no mention of the rise of cities, and the subsequent plague of disease. Once humans lived together in large numbers, they fouled their water supplies with their own wastes, leading to diseases such as cholera. The work-around? Alcohol kills the germs that make us sick. If you have poor access to healthy drinking water, then alcohol is a key element of civilization. There are better books out there.

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

by Robert M. Edsel (2009)

I never saw the movie with all of the famous actors. But this book did find its way into my campus mailbox, and I like history, so I gave it a read. As a story, it's only okay. It covers the personalities, their frustrations, their challenges, and ultimately the return by the Western Allies of a whole lot of plundered art. But "we drove up to a large repository abandoned by the Nazis and then cataloged stuff" isn't a great climax. And note that this book only covers northern Europe, similar work in Italy is outside of its scope.

But this is one of those books that raises itself by provoking some very important questions. Certainly it is a crime to destroy another culture's history and artifacts, ISIS and the Taliban have painted themselves in shame in the recent past. But how much blood are you willing to spill in order to preserve art? Do you not bomb a city because of its architecture? If you know that there are trains full of art transiting Europe, do you not bomb rail links that are taking people to concentration camps, in order to protect art? In the short term it may make sense to hold the art of France and Belgium as "more sacred" than that of Germany, after all, they were not the aggressors in this war. But is that stance justified in the long term? Who does art really belong to? Significant parts of the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the central artworks of the book, had belonged to Germany but had to be surrendered as part of the Treaty of Versailles. If Germany took just those pieces back, were they justified (they took the whole thing, of course.)? If a conquering country steals art from a private citizen and then places it in a museum, does humanity really benefit when the art is restored to the "proper owner," to be enjoyed and appreciated by a very small circle of friends? Yes, Nazis are bad, but when Monuments Man Walker Hancock's career is summarized, it is casually mentioned that he was instrumental in the completion of the Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain. So it's fine to glorify people who killed for a racist cause?

All in all, I ended up liking this book. It played to its strengths and didn't needlessly glamorize. It's worth your time.

Breaking Blue

Timothy Egan (1992)

I bought this book on the strength of Egan's Worst Hard Time, which is an excellent book on the Dust Bowl. This previous work also goes back to the 1930s as it looks at the murder of a police officer in the Spokane region. It flips back and forth between the past and the present (or at least the present at the time of writing, the early 1990s) where a sheriff who is also a grad student tries to solve the decades-old killing.

Egan's writing is strong. The story is laid out in a clear manner, and the characters are developed as best as possible given the constraints. This is a very quick read, you can do it in an afternoon. But more than just a "here's what happened next" narrative, this is also an exploration of codes. What is the policeman's code? How does it set them aside from the general population, and how does this damage society at large? What is the code of manhood, let's ask those same questions again. It's also about the traps of time and history. How can you escape your past? Should you be allowed to escape your past?

This book is bleak. It describes hard times. It's not clear to me that there are any winners in this book, everyone is damaged or harmed in some way. The best that many can hope for is release rather than even redemption. This book is far deeper than expected, grab a copy.

The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero

Timothy Egan (2016)

If you love books, you await new offerings the same way some people wait for albums from their favorite bands. Right now I'm very excited about 2016. Mary Roach has a new release in June, Colson Whitehead one in September, and October brings Jonathan Lethem. A few weeks ago Timothy Egan came out with his biography of Thomas Francis Meagher.

I've been a huge Egan fan, going back to The Worst Hard Time. But it was reading this book that finally allowed me to see the thread in Egan's other works; he write about the collapse of civilization, or at least about times and places where humanity, decency and hope have fled. True? The Worst Hard Time dealt with the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, when the top soil blew off in great clouds and people lost everything. Breaking Blue is about a corrupt police department. Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher details the tragic life of Edward Curtis, and as a background, the end of traditional Native life in this country. With this new book, we see this theme again and again.

Thomas Meagher grew up in Irish privilege, which meant that although his family had money, lots of money, he was still Irish in the early 1800s. Egan takes us through the horrors that the English inflicted upon the Irish, up through the Great Famine. This is wrongly named, as the only food that was lost was the potato crop, which was the main food supply for the Irish. While millions went hungry though, wheat, beef and other food was exported. The English would not tamper with the workings of the free market by purchasing the food as famine relief, and the Great Famine was the result. Meagher was one of a number of leaders in a failed rebellion. According to law, he should have been hung, decapitated, and then quartered. Yes, that punishment still existed about 150 years ago, it wasn't abandoned as we entered the modern age. Brutal? Barbaric? Yes, and so is starving a nation.

However, Meagher was instead banished to what we now call Tasmania, setting up an entire chapter on the penal colony system. More inhumanity. He escapes to America, where he eventually leads a unit as a General in the Civil War. Toss in carnage on top of inhumanity. Toss in the New York Draft Riots to add to the feeling of collapse. Finally, he becomes the acting governor of the Montana Territory, where he has to deal with a society run by vigilante justice, where people were executed without things like trials or due process. Including, most likely, Meagher himself.

But Egan can make very difficult topics into page-turners. He's that talented a writer. And even if the Irish can't identify with slaves in the South, or the Native Americans in the West, Egan easily draws the parallels. Meagher was a patriot, a poet, a fighter, an orator and a hero. Egan does well with his topic. If Roach, Whitehead and Lethem can do half as well, 2016 will be a great year for reading.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis

Tim Egan (2012)

Based upon his other works, I wanted to read some more Tim Egan. He delivers with Short Nights. I love his writing style, short, punchy, fact-based sentences. Good insights into the personalities of people who lived a long time ago, without flights into "what if" or hypotheticals. In this book Egan looks at the life and work of Edward Curtis.

Curtis was the premiere photographer in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th Century. This was a guy good enough to be invited to take photos of Teddy Roosevelt's family. Then he got a big idea. The Native Americans, or more specifically, the cultures of tribes of Native Americans were dying out, and somebody needed to document their ways through photos and essays. And, of course, that person should be Curtis himself.

And he was up to the task, even though it ruined his life. He churned out a 20-volume set of amazing books over the span of about three decades. While he was underwritten by no less than JP Morgan, to the tune of roughly $50M in today's dollars, his costs exceeded his income. Under the terms of the original deal Curtis was to draw no salary, and for that matter, he would need to hustle printing costs by arranging for some very-expensive subscriptions from the wealthy and large institutions. At the end of the day it was a financial boondoggle, and Curtis even had to sign over the copyright to the Morgan estate. In the mean time, the work crushed his marriage, and his personal life was a wreck.

But he created something that was both high art and an important cultural/anthropological/historical document. He was correct, a way of life was going away, and he arrived just in time to capture via camera, sound recording, and motion picture the cultures that were quickly being assimilated or in some cases eliminated. Is it flawed? Of course it is, Curtis had an agenda and introduced biases; he lacked the training of a professional anthropologist. But still, it was an amazing work. At one point in my life, I tried to access a different culture from a different time, and I became a minor expert in Negro League Baseball. In fact, in 1998 I was awarded the Robert Peterson Recognition Award by the Negro Leagues Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research. I did most of my work in the mircofilm room of the Northwestern University library. Why do I bring this up? Because the Northwestern Library has one of the few copies of Curtis's work, and they've put it online:

Both Curtis's original work and Egan's treatment of Curtis are worth a long inspection.

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan (2005)

It was hard to read this book without thinking of my grandfather. He was a farmer who lived through the Great Depression, and every time we drove across California he would point out the large stands of trees planted as wind breaks. "The government put them there to save our soil," he would tell me. It wasn't California that needed the saving, it was the Dust Bowl, a region in the Great Plains that had historically been covered with grass which fed the buffalo, and then later cattle. The cowboys faded when the sun set on the West, and farmers took their place. There was a belief that "rain followed the plow," and that land that was substandard because of a dry climate could in fact be cultivated because farming drew down rain from the atmosphere.

This region had the misfortune to time economics and weather in such a way to create a perfect storm. Rainfall was good, well above historical norms, during and immediately after World War I. With Europe in a state of devastation (and for some of the time, with Russian exports of grain blocked due to the war), the prices for American agricultural products went through the roof. Having farmland was like a license to print money, so more farmland was put under the plow. To do this extra work, farmers had to invest in machinery, as they now operated at a scale beyond a man and a horse. With machinery, Egan warns, come mortgages. Eventually the price for American foodstuffs returned to normal prices, and the only way the farmers could keep up with their debts was to plant more. Of course, this flooded the market, depressing prices even more, so this set up another cycle of overplanting. Tremendous tracts of land were put under the plow, destroying the native grassland that kept the soil in place. Then the drought came.

This was a dry part of the land, but normally droughts weren't the end of the world. But as the crops died, the fields were left unprotected, and when the harsh winds blew across the plains, they took the soil with them. The big dust storms carried thousands upon thousands of tons of soil. Plants would die by electrocution. How is that? There was so much particular mass in the windstorms that huge static charges could build, and when they discharged, they could be lethal to both animals and vegetables. Soil takes thousands of years to develop, and due to poor farming decisions, we let a great deal of it blow away. There are many places in the US that have never recovered. In normal times there would have been better support for this disaster, but this was in the middle of the Great Depression (the title of the book is a play on Studs Terkel's Hard Times, a classic oral history of the Great Depression), so there was little help for anyone in our society. The farmers oversupplied wheat and corn, and hence were faced with sale prices that were less than the costs of production. Grain idled in silos as people in the cities (and later countryside) starved.

I've told a ecological story here, about how a region that should have remained grass was turned into farms, and how economics drove the increase in the amount of grass plowed into farmland, which then blew away. Egan tells this from the point of view of the people who lived through it (hence the subtitle of the book). He doesn't skimp on the science end when he goes through the narrative of those who suffered. The work he has produced is excellent.

One things that kept popping into my mind was the some of the staunchest regions of global warming denialism come from the very region of America that is covered in this book. If these people simply knew their own history they would recognize how easy it is for human beings to affect their environments, and that great disasters, both economic and humanitarian, can happen when you ignore science for ideology or a quick buck.

This is an excellent book. Run out and read it.


Dave Eggers (2009)

There's an elephant in the middle of the room. That elephant is that Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the eponymous central character, was arrested for beating his wife a few years after this book was published. According to her, this was a long-time behavior, starting well prior to the events in the book. He later was accused of trying to hire someone to kill her.

It certainly casts some things into a different perspective. He's not the boyscout he is made out to be in the first half of the book. Maybe her family wasn't just a bunch of bigots when they encouraged her to take off her headscarf when Zeitoun wasn't around (she converted to Islam prior to meeting him, to the displeasure of her family). His caring more about abandoned dogs than being with his wife and children in a time of crisis also gets refocussed.

If this book had only consisted of its first half, then Zeitoun's dark side would have made a real change to this narrative. It would flip into "how did a fairly good author get tricked so badly," although to be fair spousal abuse is far more common and much better hidden in our society than we would wish. The second half of the book make Zeitoun's character irrelevant.

Rodney King was a piece of work. There's no way he can be examined and not be judged as an individual who made some very poor life choices. But that doesn't really matter, the discussion there needs to center on the cops who hit him over 50 times. Same with Zeitoun. If guilty of the accusations leveled against him, then he's scum. But no matter terrible a person you are, in our system you are supposed to get certain legal protections. Zeitoun didn't even get a phone call, and instead spent weeks in prison with no contact with the outside world. At one point, when his wife did learn of his predicament, she was told that the location of the courthouse where he was in front of a judge was secret. In the collision of a huge national disaster needing Federal attention and the post-9/11 environment, the system fell apart. Or worse, the part that was designed for citizens got confused with the one we invented for "terrorists." The small consolation, if we can call it that, is that this was applied fairly evenly, and plenty of people got caught up in this net, not just people with Islamic backgrounds.

While Eggers put the pedal to the metal decrying what happened to Zeitoun, I think that it would have been better viewed as part of a bigger problem. When we say that it is justified to hold certain prisoners at Gitmo and not give them legal protections such as those in the Bill of Rights, when we decide that torture is in the realm of actions for those prisoners, when we can put people on airplanes to countries that have "different" standards for the treatment of prisoners, we run the risk of those same actions being applied to anyone who runs afoul of the law. We should be worried about that.

This book could certainly be stronger, but this is a story that needs to be heard.

Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

by Barbara Ehrenreich (2009)

I've a big fan of Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed is a classic in my book. I don't rush out an read everything she does, but when she puts out a book it hits my radar pretty fast. Bright-Sided is well worth reading. It takes on the thesis that a positive attitude is the key to, well, just about everything in American culture.

The opening chapter concerns her struggle with breast cancer. She very quickly got frustrated with the pink ribbons and the "you must cheerfully fight cancer" mumbo-jumbo she was getting. The conventional wisdom in that community is that a healthy spirit will aid in your chances of survival, and negative emotions, "It really sucks that I have cancer," is just loser-talk that will deliver you to the grave. There was one study that showed a correlation, but not only is correlation not causation, but the study could not be duplicated. Can a good attitude boost your immune system? The question is moot, as Ehrenreich points out, cancer is your own cells gone bad, your immune system doesn't come into play.

From a strong start, goes after other fun topics like motivational speakers and self-help gurus (her attacks on the "quantum physics"-branded kooks brought a big smile to my face), those who think that motivational posters are better motivators than things like pay increases or a decent health plan, and the preachers who claim that Jesus wants you to be happy, and therefore he wants you to be rich (she points out that these folks have stripped all the downers out of mainstream Christianity, try looking for a crucifix in one of their churches). "Undermining America" might seem like an over-reach, until you start thinking about the high-flying Wall Streeters who were more into positive-belief cults of personality instead of doing things like looking at the data.

Some parts of this book dragged, tracing the growth of positive thinking through the cultural movements in America wasn't too helpful, and a chapter on the actual usefulness of the placebo effect would have been good. But all-in-all, this is a keeper. The saddest thing about this book was that she had so many easy targets.

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident

by Donnie Eichar (2013)

This book follows a recent trend; take a mystery from the past, investigators from the current time, and mix the author directly into the narrative. Sometimes it works, but to be truthful, as a formula it is getting old. It made sense for somebody interesting like Hunter Thompson to interject themselves into their narratives, but Joe Blow author? I find I just don't care. The mystery du jour is the story of nine Soviet college students who went on an adventure hike in the late 1950s though some snowy wilderness. Then did not come back alive, and when their bodies were discovered, there were some very important questions. Why did they leave a perfectly good tent in snowstorm conditions? Why were they not wearing boots and other appropriate clothing? Why was their tent sliced open with a knife? And why were some of their clothes slightly radioactive?

This would have made a good magazine article. Instead, it gets padded out to book length. Built around the key event are details of their journey, the body recovery efforts, and the author's various trips to modern-day Russia. Added on to the end are the author's proposed explanation (not to be a spoiler, but he invokes some physics which should be testable, or for that matter, been observed by the people who spent months in the same location looking for the bodies - let's just say I'm not buying it) and worse yet, a "possible reconstruction" of the events of the night in question, in other words, make believe of what might have happened.

The question that many Russians asked the author is "Why do you care what happened to a bunch of Russian kids fifty years ago, don't you have unsolved mysteries in your own country?" I found myself asking the "Why do you care" question also. There is far too much fluff and conjecture in this book. There are better reading options for your free time.

Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I

John Ellis (1977)

One of the great things about being a reader is that people will lend or give you books that they believe will interest you. And if you write long documents like this one that detail your tastes and prejudices, sometimes the books they hand you are a good match. If you scan through this page, you will find that I spend a good deal of time reading about World War I, so this book ended up on my desk. It's a very different World War I book than the others I've read. For the most part I've explored the war from the top down, looking at how the alliances developed, how things got locked in, and how hard it was for the Generals to shift their thinking. This is a view from the trenches, literally. It talks about what it was like to live on the front lines, in fact, it goes a step back from that, it actually details things like how trenches were laid out, what weather and terrain did to them, and what men brought to them.

There were many interesting things I learned. From "All Quiet on the Western Front" I remember the troops cycling out for rest, but this is done in detail in this book. Units did not spent a majority of their time on the front lines, mainly because they quickly lost effectiveness. This size of the average soldier surprised me, I'm 5'7" and would be on the tall end, which probably attests to one-hundred years' worth of improved nutrition. That statistic makes the 70 pounds worth of equipment they carried in their attacks even crazier.

This book came across mainly as a study of the British experience in France, with a little bit about the French, and every once and a while the Germans and Americans showed up. More time for all of the armies, or at least the Germans, would have made this a stronger effort.

This book is a worthwhile counterbalance to the half-dozen or so other books I've read on the Great War, simply because its scope is so different. It's worth the read if you can find it.

Gun Machine

Warren Ellis (2013)

I read this book, sitting by the pool, on a summer afternoon. That seems about right. This is not deep literature. It's a fun detective story. While the two main protagonists are interesting, the rest of the cast of characters are cardboard, the plot is driven by two large coincidences, and there's a Checkov's gun that really should have been a gun.

Look, this isn't a bad book. It's entertaining for what it is. But if you want to do more with your brain than read words that would have made yet another TV cop show, well, there's plenty of fish in the sea.

I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections

by Nora Ephron (2010)

Nora Ephron was an amazingly talented author. That being said, I will state two things. The first is that this is not her best work. Second, the intended audience matters. Simply put, I'm not in her demographic. If I were twenty years older and a woman, I think this book would talk to me in a way that it simply fails to given the details of my life. The parts I found most engaging were the ones where she was talking about her youth as a journalist. Even though that covered experiences I have limited insight into, the sexism that working women faced in her field when she joined it, I still had a window. I'm not there yet for the troubles faced by the aged, and how Ephron's perspective on her life's events has changed with time.

I guess I'll put this on the bookshelf for twenty years and see if has improved as I've aged.

Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and The People Who Play It

David M. Ewalt (2013)

The title is funny, but it isn't as funny as Barrowcliffe's The Elfish Gene, also in the genre. On the other hand, it is a better book. Both talk about personal journeys involving Dungeons and Dragons, but Ewalt's book goes through adulthood, and also tells the story of the game itself.

First, the negatives. Certain sections of the book feel padded, like his first-person descriptions of strategic wargames and LARPs. Those aren't his cups of tea, and spending chunks of the book where he discusses why they just don't float his boat seem like a waste of time. But hey, the publishers needed him to get to a page count, right? Also, he weaves in narratives from his adventures. Reading somebody else's characters going though an adventure is normally one of the worst forms of writing there is; at times he pulls this off, but at other points it really drags. Also, there are some passages where the author tries to get too cute. For example, one of the PR dings that hit D&D was a movie called Mazes and Monsters, starring Tom Hanks. Ewalt writes that "it cemented an idea that fantasy role-playing was the road to perdition." Yes, Hanks later starred in a film called Road to Perdition. Finally, there were points where I felt that Ewalt didn't do his homework. In the parade of lawsuits, how do you miss the whole Cthulu episode? And when Ewalt designs an adventure around a crashed spaceship, he credits Star Trek as an inspiration, but misses Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, which is one of the most famous modules ever published.

OK, with that out of the way, this is actually a fairly good book, if you have gamer DNA. Some of the history is fascinating. Classic war games, where you move little chits on the hex board, were invented by the German military, and became popular in certain professional circles after their triumphs in the Franco-Prussian War. The idea that war games were appropriate for the children's market was explored by H.G. Wells, a confirmed patriot. And who invented the most popular war game of them all, Risk? The French (La Conquete du Monde). The first role-playing game was developed by a physics student (I know, shocking), and then the rise and fall of TSR games is gone over with a fine-toothed comb. The TSR stuff brought back some strong memories for me. No, I wasn't there in Wisconsin in the 1970s as they figured out the game, but at one point in my life I had a large stack of early Dragon Magazines (which my mom threw out when I was in college; thanks mom). Dragon was TSR's house organ, by reading them, especially those from the first few years, you could almost read the minds of TSR. One of the things not mentioned was the Dragon had April Fools' issues, and I'd swear they introduced the lawyer character class, which makes sense now that I know how much suing went on in the early days. On the bottom of page 109 in a footnote they mention a game called "Metamorphosis Alpha," which probably doesn't even deserve a footnote in a gaming history. But I owned a copy of that game! And Dragon Magazine even answered a letter to the editor I had concerning a question about Metamorphosis Alpha. The world felt smaller then.

The history of TSR was good, although not surprising. Some of the gamers didn't get along, there were power struggles and lawsuits. More worrisome is that none were businesspeople, and many stupid money decisions were made (at one point they considered buying a railroad, which might make sense in Monopoly, but not in the real world). Eventually they were taken out when their market went to video games and Magic: The Gathering (Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, and was then bought by Hasbro). Ultimately the story I got was that the TSR people were big kids, and somebody took their toys away.

But this book is more than just the rules and the dice, he delves deep into the personal aspects of gaming. What do you do with another person who does not work and play well with others? Do you kick them out of your group? "Dismissing someone from a D&D group because they're too socially awkward seemed like hypocrisy at best, a rejection of everything we are supposed to to stand for at worst. High sacrilege." While Ewalt discusses "Arrogant Nerd syndrome," the words autism spectrum never come up. I haven't really decided whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

I have decided that this book is a good thing. No, it's not perfect, but it is well worth your time.

League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth

by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru (2013)

I used to watch a lot of NFL football. I would see the 10AM game on Sunday, roll into the 1PM contest, then if I had time, would watch the night game, followed, of course, by Monday Night Football the next day. This was changed by an injury in the mid-1990s. No, I wasn't hurt, but there was a scary collision in a Detroit Lions game, and I can't remember if the player ended up paralyzed or not. What I remember is thinking that what I was seeing on my television was merely a degree of injury, and that if I didn't feel comfortable with somebody never walking again as a price of my entertainment, what about the fact that in just about every game I'd ever seen, somebody hurt his knee? Why was it acceptable for somebody to get a minor crippling as a side-effect of my Sunday viewing pastime, but tragic if the injury was to the spine rather than just the knee? I stopped watching football.

If the authors of League of Denial are to be believed, then the problem is far worse than I had imagined. They posit that brain damage is a major career risk for NFL players. Their book follows the medical journey that started when a pathologist kept Hall-of-Famer Mike Websters's brain for further study. This, and a handful of other brains, convinced many in the medical community that the NFL has a serious problem. The book also covers the NFL's laughable backlash (appointing a joint doctor as the head of the NFL's concussion panel sums up the problem - they weren't interested in the medical issues, they were protecting their product). What I found interesting is that the NFL could have mounted a much stronger defense, that the brains being investigated represented a small sample size, and came from a biased population, NFL players who had both died young and had their brains flagged for future study due to neurological issues that had presented themselves. From a science standpoint, the researchers were not doing gold-standard work.

Seeing as Mark Fainaru-Wada was co-author of the industry-shattering Game of Shadows, it was disappointing that at no point did he draw a straight line between the morality of steroids in baseball and concussions in football. In both cases the league officials ignored the long-term health of their employees in order to protect their pocketbooks. A baseball player who wanted to stay clean, but felt pressured to dope in order to compete against dirty players who weren't being punished is in the same category as a football player who, fearing for his job, goes back into a football game after being knocked out. That's a powerful paintbrush, but the authors never picked it up, and instead went for a comparison with the tobacco industry's decades-long coverup. There's a difference between destroying the lives of your employees and destroying the lives of your customers, but it was missed.

Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports

Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams (2006)

Note Concerning Bias - My photography was used in this book, so caveat emptor

This book is about Barry Bonds. Sure, this is a complicated story with many other actors, but this wouldn't have become a best seller if it was mainly about the likes of Victor Conte and Marion Jones. All in all, I think it was rather sympathetic towards Barry. Yes, he's a big jerk, but the authors point out that he's a product of his environment - affluent black kid raised in white neighborhood with a sometimes-there-sometimes-not alcoholic racism-scarred father. And for all of Bonds's jerkiness, when Bill Romanowski is one of the other characters in the book, everyone else goes down a notch. Barry has never kicked an opponent in head nor blinded a teammate with a sucker punch.

Personality aside, the book also makes the point that Bonds was clean until McGwire and Sosa made their runs at Maris. Baseball has always had a "cheat to win" attitude, and it is understandable why someone as talented as Bonds would feel like he had to juice in order to compete. The Powers that run the game weren't putting the breaks on steroid abuse, so in some twisted way, some might feel they are forced to use.

The authors note that Bonds's bitterness about the attention given to McGwire and Sosa (clearly inferior to Bonds on a non-chemical level playing field) was compounded by the fact that the Giants just barely missed the playoffs the year before Bonds started using. They should have been more clear about a key point - Bonds wants a ring more than anything else. The Giants missed the playoffs by the slimmest of margins, losing out to the Cubs. Barry wasn't juicing that year, but believed that Sosa and his 66 homers were chemically aided. If so, again, cheat to win.

That's one of several places where it is clear that neither of the writers has an addict's knowledge of the game of baseball. Things like this popped up from time to time. It's claimed that Bonds wanted to re-negotiate his contract. Not so, there hasn't been a case of this in baseball in decades. What he wanted to do was open talks on his next contract, a very different thing, and a distinction a baseball writer would have made. Details like this are glaring from the baseball fan point of view, but overall are a small detraction from the big picture. Still, I'm hoping that someday a true baseball historian will write a definitive book on steroids and baseball.

One interesting question also goes unanswered. This book was written by the San Francisco Chronicle reporters who broke the story. They used leaked grand jury testimony at one point, and the timing was interesting. One day the scoop was Giambi using steroids, the next day it was Bonds claiming that he never knowingly used steroids. Using that timing of the stories, people assumed that the cat was out of the bag - players use steroids, and that Bonds was just a big liar. If the stories were put out in the other order, Bonds denies and then Giambi admits, then Bonds would simply be another forgotten voice of denial in the run-up to the bombshell of an MVP saying that he cheated. Did they run the stories in this order to sell more newspapers, or did their source leak the information in this order to put Bonds in a bad light?

Outside of a few annoying slips, this was a well researched and easy to read book. Sports fans should pick up a copy.

Fifty Years on the Space Frontier: Halo Orbits, Comets, Asteroids, and More

Robert W. Farquhar (2011)

Before I read this book, I knew Robert Farquhar as the genius who could solve celestial mechanics problems like no one else; he was in a league of his own. Look over to the right and inspect the trajectory on the cover, that's the ISEE-3/ICE mission profile, famous enough that it was in the physics textbook I learned from in college. Sadly, I didn't get much insight into Farquhar's genius, nor did I learn much more about gravitational tricks. Instead, I walked away thinking that Farquhar was a jerk.

I understand that it is frowned upon to speak ill of the dead, but this book is filled with "I was right, they were wrong," cases where he went over the head of his bosses, and statements like "I deliberately hatched a plan to present my alternative strategy in the most contemptuous and disrespectful way possible." Like I said, a jerk. Yes, in a memoir you tell your own story, but Farquhar comes across as being supremely self-centered, to the point of selecting mission dates to celebrate family anniversaries and his lucky number 12. He puts a high weight on "firsts" rather than science. And in general comes across as somebody who was lucky he was a genius, because he would have been fired due to insubordination had he been simply adequate. Also, he trots out the old "they violated my First Amendment rights" trope when his bosses acted to curtail his public disagreements with policy. A friend of mine once posited an experiment; go work at McDonald's, and instead of asking if people want fries with their burger, ask if people have accepted Jesus as their personal savior. After a warning or two, you will be fired. And no court in the land will listen to you claiming that either your freedom of speech or freedom of religion has been violated.

This book is published by Outskirt Press, which is a vanity press. That means that the author couldn't get a commercial publishing house to print his book. Perhaps one could make the argument that this is a niche field, and interest would be weak. Yet Dick Mulready got his memoir published, in this case by The Society of Automotive Engineers. Farquhar was a high-profile member of any number of industry groups, yet didn't get the same treatment that Mulready did. I'm guessing that Mulready simply had better relationships with his colleagues.

Don't buy this book. If you go on in science or engineering, it's unfortunately way too easy to hear people brag about how great they are. You don't have to pay money for it.

The Vikings: A History

Robert Ferguson (2009)

At one point in this book, Muslim catapults are being mustered to drive the Vikings out of Seville. While I knew that the Moors laid claim to the Iberian peninsula for centuries, and that the Vikings made it into the Mediterranean, I didn't realize that at one point they battled over Spain. A large bulk of this book focuses on the immediate aftermath of Charlemagne, and that's an interesting period in European history I knew nothing about. England? It's small kingdoms like Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. A very different world.

Of course, this isn't a book on post-Charlemagne, it's a book about Vikings. They conquered large areas of Great Britain, travelled down the river networks of Eastern Europe (the term slaves comes from Slavs, a people routinely captured and sold into bondage by the Vikings), they sailed to Iceland, Greenland and America. In 885 there was something called "the Great Siege of Paris." This book cover it all in great detail. Probably too great. Many times I got lost in the trees and wondered about the forest. Ferguson was better when he could pull the camera back and look at larger themes. The conversion from the Old Gods to Christianity in Iceland is a prime example, instead of this battle followed by that battle, he looked at the how a society quickly and cleanly rebooted its religion, something that is almost unheard of outside of conquest. The entire chapter is a great piece of writing.

The book is a solid from many angles. For example, why do we believe in the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages? Because when a person was asked to classify Viking artifacts for a museum in 1819, he found that they separated into those three broad categories, and we've been stuck with them ever since. I especially liked the linguistics. We've already covered slaves from Slavs, and the middle of our week, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday celebrate the gods Tiw, Woden (Odin), Thor and Frige. But there's also the right side of a ship, now known as starboard, which comes from styrbord, which means the steering side of the ship (they had a steering oar there, rather than a rudder). One of the historical figures I've always wondered about was Ethelred the Unready. That's not a moniker you want following you through the ages. It turns out it's a play on his name; Ethelred means "nobel counsel," but at some point somebody corrupted this to Unraed, which means "no counsel." From there Unraed mutated into Unready. Want a name that's awesome? The Vikings were pretty good at that. Ivar the Boneless headed the Great Heathen Army. I don't think I'd want to mess with either.

This book can get bogged down in the details sometimes. Most treatments that try to be complete in any topic suffer from this. But it offers many different viewpoints and gives a good understanding of the broad themes. It's worth your time.

The Story of Atomic Energy

Laura Fermi (1961)

First, this is a children's book. OK, now that we've dealt with that, why did you read it? Because it came recommended from a student I trust. A while it is a children's book, it's at a far higher level what I see aimed at my kid. In fact, he's getting my copy. The other reason I read the book is because who wrote it.

Laura Fermi was Enrico Fermi's wife. She was at ground zero for many events of this book (well, not the literal ground zero, but you get the idea). For those where she wasn't in the room or didn't hear about it later on in the evening, she knew the right people to talk to when writing this book. An understanding of who she is greatly enriches the book. How can you read her section on how Hitler forced the Jewish elite out of the universities and Europe itself without reflecting upon the fact that it was her Jewish heritage that prompted Fermi to abandon Fascist Italy? When she writes about children knowing the holes in the fence at Los Alamos, you know that was her kids. Very powerful indeed.

And then there's some light-hearted stuff. She talks about the joker at Los Alamos who got into trouble for sending letters in code and Chinese. That's Feynman, she'll telling his stories two decades before he wrote Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!. Also, there are many times in the book where you sit down and scratch your head at a figure, and then are force to do a Fermi problem. Is it reasonable that a cafeteria used 60 tons of food a meal? Well, if that cafeteria was for 60,000 people (hard to believe, I know), then 60 tones is 120,000 pounds, or two pounds of food per person, which seems a little high, but isn't crazy.

The last parts of the book, where she details the promise of the Atomic Age, comes across as both charmingly hopeful and blissfully unaware. It was the early 1960s, no, we do not have atomic locomotives or airplanes. If you don't mind getting caught reading a children's book, read this one.


Tina Fey (2011)

Humor is personal. What one person finds funny, many others will not. Tina Fey has never been in my sweet-spot. I got a season or two into 30 Rock, then quit, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a good idea, but it ran out of gas very quickly, and SNL is SNL, there are gems, but two-thirds of any episode is forgettable. I read this book anyway, even knowing that I find other writers much more funny.

Remember what I said about personal? At one point she's working in Evanston, Illinois. She describes a homeless person, and I recognized him from my time in Evanston (I don't think Fey and I overlapped). This struck me as a little odd, because what this means is that the homeless person was, for lack of a better word, notorious. And at that point in her career, as more people probably knew him than knew her, he was more famous than she was. At then I had a second realization. While she is now more famous that he is, given the number of people who have read her book, he's more famous than I am. Not that being more notorious than a particular homeless person in Evanston is one of my life goals, but there's something interesting there.

I that that's fair to say about most things in her book. I liked the feminism, the honesty (or at least what passed for honesty) around her own life struggles, and of course, the narrative surrounding the whole Sarah Palin episode (and I'm glad I'm not the only one who found the writing for Palin's guest appearance to be awkward). Like I've said, Fey isn't exactly my cup of tea, but I enjoyed this book in any case. It's probably worth your time.

Time and Again

by Jack Finney (1970)

This book is interesting in a meta sense. Published in 1970, and the central premise is that time-travel is possible, and the author takes the reader into the New York of the 1880s. But the book itself is now a time capsule. As it opens, the hero, a commercial artist, is making a sketch by hand for a customer. Now, of course, it would be digital. His workplace features a typing pool, a telephone switchboard, and "boys will be boys" sexual harassment. In the current day the jarring out-of-placeness makes a nice counter-play the similar theme in the "look at the old days" motif. One of the themes is that "old New York" exists if you look hard enough, and one example is the Dakota Apartments, built in 1884. In 1970 one could believe that it was undiscovered or forgotten. But John Lennon started living there in 1973, and was gunned down right in front in 1980, the idea that the Dakota isn't a known landmark just doesn't fly today.

There's a half-decent plot that moves the story along, and the resolution to the mystery is satisfying, even if the book itself isn't plot driven. The story also pre-dates the popularization of the Butterfly Effect, so even though a modern reader wouldn't believe that all this mucking about in the past had no effect, a reader can allow for some license by the author. That being said, a major plot element is resolved directly by going back in time, and none of the paradoxes are explored. This isn't a book for science fiction nerds, so I'm willing to give it a pass.

Also of its time, it's strongly from the viewpoint of a white, middle-class, Protestant male. There is a lot of "the good old days were better" going on. When one of the few people of color is noted in the past, it's observed that they were probably born a slave. So the message isn't "if you are a woman, or a minority, or an immigrant, switching times is a terrible idea," it is "look how enlightened the times were." After a certain point you have to simply put this aside and understand who the book was intended for. This book is solidly written, and would be a good choice for poolside reading on a summer day.

The Last King of Scotland

by Giles Foden (1998)

Do you ever feel stupid? For example, have you ever read a book, assuming that it's non-fiction, and then figure out that it was make-believe all along? I think you can see where this one is going. So, what tipped me off? Was it that the author, Giles Foden, has a different name than the protagonist telling the story, Dr. Nicholas Garrigan? Well, that was right in front of me, but I didn't notice. Was is that if this was non-fiction it would have a cheesy sub-title like "The Last King of Scotland: A Doctor's Tale of Love and Genocide in Amin's Uganda?" That would have been a tip-off. No, what made me question my assumption that this was non-fiction was something much more simple than that, I didn't find the narrative believable.

Perhaps that's intentional on the part of the author. Maybe the entire point is that "First World" people can be naive, and that passive people can get caught up in absolute horrors. On the other hand, I just had to shake my head at a main character who thought that trying to seduce the wife of the British Ambassador was a good idea. In that case, maybe we should just replace words like naive and passive with stupid.

So, how do I go back and judge this as fiction? I'm not sure. I've already said I didn't view the narrative as being believable, but that's because I didn't do my suspension of disbelief at the get-go. Was this book enjoyable? Well, I stayed up way too late reading it several nights in a row. Would I recommend it? Good question. I think I'd tell people to go for King Leopold's Ghost instead. If you want a horror story in Africa, go for the classic.

Firing A Rocket: Stories of the Development of the Rocket Engines for the Saturn Launch Vehicles and the Lunar Module as Viewed from the Trenches

James French (2015)

I think the internet poked me in the direction of this book because I bought Ignition. It's written in the same locker-room tone, and covers some of the same time period, when we were first figuring out how to get people to the Moon. It forces one to remember that the timelines are much further stretched that we perceive, yes, the Saturn rocket was a beast of the late-60s, but for them to be a reality, the engines that powered them needed to be developed in the late-50s and early-60s. One of the things that appealed to me about this book is that French managed to shift from the kerosene-oxygen boosters to the hydrogen-oxygen upper-stage engines to the hypergolics used for the lunar lander. Three very different engines took us to the Moon and back, and he played a part in all of them.

Unlike Ignition!, this was self-published, and I suspect the "let me tell you my cool stories" narration is as much a feature of lacking an editor as it is a carefully thought-out choice on the part of the publication industry. It's a fun read for those with interest in the topic, but it shouldn't be confused for a more serious study. It's almost free, it's worth the read.

We Almost Lost Detroit

John Fuller (1976)

This short book covers the meltdown of the Fermi Breeder Reactor which was built just outside of Detroit. The checkered history of breeder plants is covered in depth and the book does an excellent job of looking at the red tape surrounding the construction of the Fermi reactor. The actual science in the book is a bit skimpy, and given the magnitude of the accident, very little space is given to the details of the meltdown.

While the author does follow the progress of various studies and reports on the risks of radioactivity, he doesn't give nearly enough attention to the Supreme Court decision that was involved in allowing a technically-unproven atomic power plant just outside of what was then America's fourth-largest city and the heart of its industrial prowess.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that it was written in the years before the Three Mile Island incident. It projected a future that never happened - hundreds of nuclear power plants dotting the American landscape, and the concern that surrounded that scenario. And of course, the author suggests that money instead be plowed into fusion research, which will work in just twenty years...

Megawatts and Megatons: The Future of Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons

Richard L Garwin and Georges Charpak (2002)

This is a very good book. It was written by actual scientists rather than science writers; usually you get the choice of either slightly muddled science (when science writers tackle things) or horribly muddled writing (when publishers allow scientists to talk to the general audience), but in this case we have clearly-explained science pitched at roughly the college level. The authors not only are scientists, but have both served in capacities where they have had contact with politicians. If part of your job is explaining science to politicians, then you will become a very clear science writer. The bonus here is that they also have a great insight to the politics involved in the field.

One rule of thumb when reading books about nuclear weapons is to see how they treat the concept of boosted-fission. Many books will trot out the A-bomb and the H-bomb and not mention that fission with some bonus neutrons is a very common design. This book passes with flying colors. In fact, it's one of the few "science for the people" type books I've read with a notepad in hand, jotting down facts that I could use in future classes.

So what's in the roughly 400 pages? Plenty. They spend a good amount of time explaining the nuts and bolts of chain reactions, how nuclear weapons work (in detail) and how we squeeze electricity out of atoms. But at its heart this is not a book about technology (although the groundwork chapters, what I've just described, do a great job of that). It's a book about policy. More or less the human race is going to have to solve two major problems in the coming century. How are we going to avoid wiping ourselves off the globe given the number of warheads we've got in our hands, and, if we do survive, how are we going to fuel our lightbulbs? There's been such a large amount of myths and fears around anything nuclear that the authors recognize that for people in democracies to properly decide what course to take, all the pros and cons need to be addressed.

The pros and cons of weapons are fairly straightforward. Not to give away the ending, but they want to drastically reduce the number of warheads (not a bad idea) and eventually either get rid of nukes entirely or have them under the control of some international organization (and it would be nice if it rained bacon cheeseburgers, but that's not going to happen either). The pros and cons of nuclear power generation are much more subtle. To properly address this you need to understand the effects of radiation. While I don't agree with all of their health physics, I think that overall their treatment is very readable. Then there is the question of what technology do you use to generate the power, and what do you do with the wastes (throw away old plutonium like the US, or recycle it like France - There's a lot of French stuff in here, after all, France does supply 80% of its power via nukes... The book was originally in French).

They make many good points along the way. Things that make you think, "Aha, of course, now that's obvious," even though you might not think of it unless they showed you the way. Things like countries with coal tend not to go nuclear, but those without (France, Japan) have very strong nuclear industries. Or that while we are worried about how many deaths a year a nuclear power plant might cause through radiation, we don't count up the deaths of coal miners (or for that matter, the release of radiation from burning coal, which contains small amounts of radioactivity). It was published well before gas hit $3 a gallon, I wish the oil situation had a bit more coverage.

I was at Brookhaven National Lab during the great tritium scandal. More or less a fine scientific instrument was lost because the general population didn't understand that the lab had leaked less radiation than you can find in an emergency exit sign. It was a classic example of how democracy doesn't work when people aren't properly informed. If people bother reading books like this, it will help.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande (2014)

I read this book a few years ago. I thought it was good, but for whatever reason never sat down to collect my thoughts on it. This winter my father had surgery, and ended up spending over a week under heavy sedation, with a feeding tube for nourishment and a machine breathing for him. For the better part of three decades he had told me that he only wanted to live if he had a life worth living, and that he never wanted to be in a hospital connected to a bunch of machines. What made that week so hard for me was that while mentally I knew that this was a small time period that would act as a bridge to a much better future, emotionally I saw this as one of my father's versions of Hell; he would rather be dead than live like this.

But not enough people have those conversations with their family members. I knew, for better or worse, my father's thoughts and desires on end-of-life decisions. One of Gawande's main messages in this book is that modern medicine can extend life with great effort, and also if you are willing to define life in a more restricted sense than an able-bodied twenty-year-old might define it. At what point do you stop asking for what medicine can provide? And who in your family will make those decisions if you can't convey them? It's an incredibly important talk to have. Gawande takes us through this process using his own father's case as an example, it's incredibly powerful.

Along the way we get other great insights. There's no reason why nursing homes, where we as a society currently house our elderly who aren't independent, have to be the way they are. What we have today is, like most things, an accident of history. He takes us through the work of several reformers. And given the number of people now living deep into old age, why aren't there more specialists looking out for their medical care? A quick examination of the feet can tell a doctor all kinds of things about the health of an older person, but I can't remember the last time a doctor ever looked at mine (to be fair, I haven't quite aged into that demographic yet).

This is a very important book. Buy it and read it now, rather than later.

Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science

Atul Gawande (2002)

Let me lead off by saying that I love Gawande's writing. Every week then The New Yorker shows up in my mailbox I scan the table of contents for a select group of authors. David Sedaris. Malcolm Gladwell. Maybe Jonathan Lethem has a chunk of whatever is next as a except. Gawande is in that list of people that will require me to make time right away to read.

So I've established that Gawande is an excellent writer, and the topic, the uncertainties involved in medicine, is riveting. So why is this book just okay? I think it's because I felt like I've read it before. I knew about physicians and back pain. I knew about the young woman with the red leg. I knew about the doctors who were committing malpractice, and that they were allowed to do bad things for years before their colleagues dropped the hammer. Perhaps too much of this book had shown up in other forms in The New Yorker and other media. A quick check at verifies this suspicion.

So suppose that you haven't been exposed to Gawande, then how should one approach this book? With wide open arms. He talks through many interesting topics, and should be required reading for anyone who wants to go into the medical field. And also for those of us who spend way too much time with physicians. If I'm going to point to Gawande as an author I look forward to reading, then I should be pointing people in his direction. Go buy this book.

The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus

by Owen Gingerich (2004)

Ironically, I almost didn't read this book. At the start Gingerich comes across as arrogant, and his mission to account for every first and second edition copy of Copernicus's De revolutionibus seemed like one of those stupid academic tricks. How much money would be spent by various funding agencies to fulfill one man's obsession?

I'm glad I kept reading, while some of my opinions of Gingerich didn't shift much, this is a nice little book in its own right. Even the weird little side trips are great. For example, logarithms are how to multiply when all you can do is add. But people could kind of do this before logs. How? They knew some trig tricks. Suppose you want to know a times b. You can use

Cos(a) Cos (b) = 1/2 [Cos(a+b) + Cos(a-b)]

Then what? Take a and b and divide by whatever you need to get those numbers between -1 and 1. So 237 and 563 become 0.237 and 0.563. Cos(a) = 0.237 so a = 1.331520 and b = 0.972785. From here we find Cos(a+b) which is -.669480 and then Cos(a-b) and average the two to get 0.133431. We divided each a and b by 1000, so we need to multiple twice by 1000, to get 133,341. Which is the product of 237 and 563. People knew how to do this a quarter-century before logarithms. This might seem like extra work, but for somebody who was agile with trig tables (I know, you've used calculators all your life, you don't know what a trig table is), this was a quicker way to multiply large numbers. While you would need a trig table that went twelve digits deep, imagine multiplying two six digit numbers by hand and then compare it to this method.

And I learned the nuts-and-bolts of Ptolemy and Copernicus better. Ptolemy didn't build epicycles on epicycles, and had figured out equants so planets moved at different speeds in their orbits. Copernicus's system is far more complicated than it is normally presented.

So, back to the book that nobody read. A colleague of Gingerich claimed that nobody read Copernicus's famous book when it first came out. Gingerich ran across a copy, and found that it was richly annotated, and wondered if he could verify or refute the claim by doing a survey of remaining copies, looking for how well annotated they were. This lead to several decades of hunting down copies in libraries, institutions and private hands across the world. At one point he recognizes that he's generated a large enough sample size to settle the original question, but continued on because there were interesting little mysteries and discoveries popping up. And his index became so strong that it acted as a tool against rare book theft. One nice surprise? I expected that Stanford would own a copy, but there's also a copy of the first edition in private hands in Los Altos, or at least there was when I got hired at Foothill.

This ended up being a fun read. It's worth your time.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Malcolm Gladwell (2013)

I was draw to this book for many reasons. The first is that it's Malcolm Gladwell, who is a very gifted writer. The second is the David and Goliath theme, which was my favorite Bible story growing up, for obvious reasons. I once even made a sling as a child, but that ended badly when I nailed Grandma in the forehead on Christmas morning. Though as an adult and a cynic, I'm part of the small crowd that believes that 2 Samuel 21:19 casts some doubt on who really killed Goliath. Finally the book's first real chapter details a Redwood City youth basketball team that won by unorthodox methods. I've coached youth basketball in Redwood City, and while I've never run into the coach in the story, I've no doubt coached against some of the people so upset by him.

I thought the book was uneven at best. There's a main thread that points out that some people who have lived through serious childhood trauma or disability have become very successful as adults. This isn't a surprise, the philosopher Johnny Cash ruminated over this topic in his treatise "A Boy Named Sue." Gladwell churns through far too many pages, bringing in things like the bombing of London during World War II, and even though he keeps suggesting that significant challenges in youth created great skills for certain individuals, he finally cops to the obvious; no, you would not wish these struggles on your kids. Survivor bias is real, don't ignore the kids who had ruined lives because they couldn't overcome similar issues.

The parts that covered "is too much of a good thing a bad thing" were better. There were two case studies that stood out for me, effects of class size on student learning, and California's Three Strikes law. Gladwell does a good job poking holes in the idea that tiny class sizes must be good, but does not credit teachers as professionals who can adjust. Three Strikes ended up costing California a lot of money to jail people who are statistically unlikely to commit crimes due to their age. That money is not being spent on things like properly funding higher education, and for all the "family values" talk, why aren't people wondering more about how removing large chunks of a community hastens the ruin of that community.

As I've noted before, all of his New Yorker articles can be found at, so pick and choose for the good pieces, and don't pay cash.

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures

by Malcolm Gladwell (2009)

When I was a few articles into this book, and that's what the book is, a collection of New Yorker articles, my gut response was that I was glad that I had downloaded this from the library. I don't mean that in a good sense, what I mean here was that I was happy that I had not spent any money on it, as I would have been just as well-off reading random articles from the New Yorker. The book seemed as if it was simply an attempt to make more money while his other, more famous books were hot. What the Dog Saw is structured so that the first section covers "interesting" people, the second theories, and the third what he calls personality. By the time I got through all three sections, I was happy I had downloaded the book, period.

The interesting people section is the weakest of the three, and it is a shame that Gladwell leads off with it. With the exception of the article on the inventor of the birth control pill, most of the people didn't pass the "who cares" test, and for that matter, the birth control chapter was interesting not so much due to the inventor, but because of what the intersection of cultural anthropology and the biology of reproduction are telling us (in other words, this could have been re-written and snuck into the theories section). Gladwell hit stride with a series of articles detailing Enron (the facts were right in the open, you just needed to look at IRS filings rather than SEC paperwork, as the tax folks don't believe in creative accounting), homelessness (how power laws work) and how observation doesn't tell you want you really want to know. This part of the book tails off, but is still solid. The last third of the book does a better job of raising questions than answering them, but I enjoyed the articles on late-bloomers, criminal profiling and Pit Bulls.

This is a hit-and-miss affair. The good news is that all of his New Yorker articles can be read at, so you don't have to shell out the money for bad articles.

The New Kings of Nonfiction

Edited by Ira Glass (2007)

I bought this book because I'm a big fan of Ira Glass's "This American Life," and this popped up first in a search of his name at Amazon. Like the title suggests, this is a collection of short non-fiction works; kings is appropriate because they've selected mainly male writers. Some of these have been in circulation for a while. I read Pollan's piece on cattle and McManus's classic on poker previously. That's not a knock, just a mention that a person who takes the time to read will probably have seen a few of these. While the level of writing is top-notch across the book, I found that this suffers from the problem faced by most broad anthologies, in order to appeal to a wide audience, the topics are varied to the point that there will be large sections of the book that you don't find interesting. In my case this included the personal reflections, or those focused mainly on the personal relationships of individuals. Surprisingly, I also put the book down several times when I was reading the piece on the history of World War II, something I normally enjoy.

On the other hand, there were some real home runs in this collection. Interestingly enough, upon reflection I recognize that all of the ones I really like center upon the theme of how fear is used as a form of control in society. Hitt's piece on the lawsuit around a toxic waste dump should be required reading for every college student. In it we discover that one of the largest lawsuits in history was built upon nothing by fear of the unknown. Buford's treatment of soccer hooligans and Bowden's of Saddam Hussein show us how quickly civil society can be cowed by violence. And Savage runs a Hunter S. Thompson-like mission on the homophobes running his local Republican Party organization. I'd certainly pay three dollars for each of those four, and that covers the price of the book. Enjoy.

Faraday Rediscovered: Essays on the Life and Work of Michael Faraday, 1791-1867

Edited by David Gooding and Frank A.J.L. James (1989)

Richard Feynman once noted that the "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds." While I'll add my voice to the many complaining about the falsifyability of string theory, this short book on Faraday and his work makes me a bit happy that I turned away from a possible career as a philosopher of science.

This is not meant to be a biography of Faraday. They are up front about that, and if you want a retelling of his life and discoveries there are other books. This is a collection of papers read at a conference. It is tilted strongly towards the philosophy of science. Not that there's anything wrong with that, just look at the works of people like Steven Jay Gould or Phillip Kitcher. But unless the reader is hard-core, this isn't a good introduction to the subject.

If the reader is a scientist, then there might be some frustration with some of the papers (hence the quote from Feynman). One paper presents a possible interpretation of Faraday's religious beliefs that is consistent with his scientific methods. Of course, since Faraday is long dead and didn't leave much writing on the topic, we need to accept that we'll be limited to simply postulating consistent pictures rather than knowing the truth. Another paper asks "what does it mean to have a concept?" While the shades of grey in this question are interesting for a person who studies how science (or cognition) operates, those with a more practical bent might just shrug their shoulders. An essay that describes the author's understanding of Faraday's creativity via her empathy with Faraday happily ends with a short note that her thesis advisor looked for less empathy and more concrete evidence.

If you are thinking about learning more about Faraday or the philosophy of science, this is not the place to start. If you are well-versed in both, this is an uneven book with some very interesting pieces and some rough ones.

American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood

Paul Greenberg (2014)

I really liked Greenberg's other book Four Fish. So I picked this one up too. There are some flaws. The first is the subtitle, "The Fight for Our Local Seafood." Local in this case means "American," as the biggest fight is (and will be) in Alaska. I've visited Alaska, it's not local. You can see a person at the publishing house thinking "local food is trendy, add it to the title." The other problem is that thematically, this is three long high-brow magazine articles stitched together in a book. Well, an argument could be made that Four Fish was four such articles, and that was a good book, but somehow Four Fish held together much better than this effort. With that being said, let's look at the three pieces.

Greenberg starts out in New York Harbor, discussing oysters. Yes, oysters. It turns out that in the old days New York City was famous for its oysters. And once there were three trillion (yes, with a t) living in the waters off New York. Then came the rise of the city, and with it, poop. Lots and lots of human sewage, which made the oysters dangerous to eat. Once they were labelled as a health-hazard in the early 20th century, people no longer took an effort to protect the oyster beds, and the ecosystem collapsed. Since a single oyster filters roughly fifty gallons a day, going from several trillion to almost zero has destroyed the water quality of New York. That's the historical background, and the rest of the chapter discusses efforts to re-introduce the oyster (hopeful, but depressing at the same time), and the future of New York given global climate change and events like Superstorm Sandy. Yes, oyster beds might help, but it feels like the chapter goes far astray. For a book about seafood, the admission that it will be decades for these oyster beds to be food sources is a sign of a weak chapter.

There's improvement with a discussion of shrimp. It used to be that shrimp was a special event in this country. Now you can go down to the restaurant and get all-you-can-eat shrimp (I once did 100 and was still hungry). This is because of massive shrimp farms in Asia, and like most aquaculture, farmed fish can be done well or it can be done poorly. Greenberg makes the claim that it is done poorly, and is wrecking the environment in places like Vietnam. He makes the point that it could be done well, but would only feed Vietnam, and not fill the maw of the great American appetite. He does a lot of arm-waving about how the Vietnamese should be able to keep their environment, and also keep their food, rather than destroying the first to export the second. A part of me thinks that he is fighting what he sees as Colonialism with more Colonialism. Those silly natives, destroying their natural resources to increase their GDP, they aren't capable of making decisions like this, somebody (namely, some Americans), should step in and tell them that they shouldn't make choices about their own economy.

His argument in the shrimp chapter gets even sillier when we get to the Alaskan salmon chapter, which is by far the best in the book. The crux of his book is that while 91% of the seafood Americans eat is imported (think farm-raised shrimp and tilapia from Asia), we manage to export a third of the seafood caught in American waters to other countries. Sadly, most of what we are exporting is the high-end stuff, Alaskan salmon. He rails that we need to correct this. I guess it is the Americans rather than the Asians who aren't smart enough to manage their fish economy? (Hmmm, a sector of the American economy has seen its lower end decimated by cheap imports, but stays afloat by exporting high-end products, like we've never seen this before?) This chapter also speaks of the dangers of pit-mining Alaskan mineral resources and destroying the last great aquatic source of protein we have left. He makes the very cogent argument that if we can have a strategic grain reserve as a matter of national security, we should make laws that protect our salmon grounds, which is another strategic source of food.

One more interesting thing. He doesn't like tilapia in this book. He compares it to chicken, in that it is fairly tasteless, and does not have the omega-3 fatty acids that make fish a great part of your diet. It has a huge market share in America, because it is both cheap (farm-raised overseas) and does not invoke they typical fish fears in the American kitchen (will it smell up my house, will I know how to cook it). This is a switch from Four Fish, where he recognized tilapia as the best industrial choice for farmed fish, and seemed rather positive about the species.

My reaction to this book was interesting. From a literary point of view, I found it to be a disappointment. But after reading it I did something I didn't do after finishing Four Fish, I went out to the supermarket and bought some fish. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon. I believe the his thesis is correct, that we are letting go too much of our best fish, and that we as consumers should do something about it.

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

by Paul Greenberg (2010)

The four fish turn out to be salmon, bass, cod and tuna. The author picked these four fish because he found that no matter where he went, these were what showed up in the fish section. As a long-time weekend fisherman, he knew that local variety used to rule, and wondered why these four fish had come to dominate the market. I'm glad he indulged his curiosity, as each chapter had much to say about the current state of aquaculture.

Salmon leads, as it was the first to be farmed in large quantities. Salmon was once plentiful, but now wild Atlantic salmon is almost done. On the other hand, we do have farmed salmon. Is this good or is this bad? The balance seems to point to bad. Due to the way the food pyramid works (those pesky Laws of Thermodynamics) we end up having to catch several pounds of wild fish (lesser fish, not salmon) in order to grow a pound of salmon. Not a good situation. Greenberg repeats several times in the book that we eat four land animals (cows, pigs, sheep, goats) and four birds (chicken, turkey, goose, duck) but never gets around to pointing out that all of these are herbivores, that we as a society never use carnivores as our base stock. But we do with fish. It's a simple observation, but he misses it. He spends a good amount of time on salmon, and at the end of the day, you recognize that you should be eating the wild Pacific kind (hmmm, wild and pacific?).

Bass are next on the list, and according to Greenberg they were domesticated because they were a good "cash crop," that is, they fetched a high price at market. Here Greenberg points out that a good candidate to domesticate does things like breed easily, isn't adverse to being crowded, and doesn't freak out when humans are near. Bass do none of those things, and in fact, the fish we have picked to farm were picked for commercial reasons rather that their suitability in terms of domestication. One word - tilapia. There's a fish that an engineer would pick; easy to breed, herbivore, can be grown in a factory.

The next is cod, which used to supply calories to a good chunk of Europe, but is now almost gone. Cod used to be fishsticks (now it's pollack), like many of our old food fish, we've driven them to the brink of extinction. To be honest, this chapter, like cod itself, is a little boring. Tuna round out book. We are currently wiping out the last of the big breeding tuna (and selecting for "small fish" genes assuming we don't eliminate them), and worse, are fishnapping the younger ones to raise in farms. This is especially bad because those ones don't get a chance to reproduce and replenish the fish supply, and also because tuna convert fish pounds into flesh at a horrid twenty-to-one ratio. But you just need tuna for sushi, right? Well, not really, tuna wasn't a sushi fish until after World War II.

This is a very strong book. Fish are a good choice for protein; since they don't spend energy fighting gravity or maintaining a body temperature, their food calories go into building their bodies (except for warm-blooded tuna, which is one reason why farm-raising them is such a bad idea). Yet we need to protect our long-term needs from our short-term greed. Greenberg points out that there is already a model for this in the ocean - we as a planet have sworn off whale hunting. Perhaps the oceans are not doomed.

Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud

Elizabeth Greenwood (2016)

It's been a long time since I've read a book this bad. That's a strong statement, how do I back it up? This work is about the mechanics of faking your own death. There's not a lot of nuts-and-bolts research, each chapter focuses on a key player, but scanning my notes on these characters I see words like liar, corrupt, and "just plain nuts". Yes, you need to meet some interesting people when delving into this topic, but I have very little reason to believe her sources. If you base your book so much on a handful of experts, make sure they are credible experts. I think my brain got hurt when I read the chapter on Michael Jackson's "fake" death. Why even include a chapter like that? The folks who are chasing that down are wearing many, many layers of tin-foil hats.

I also wasn't pleased by the writing style. Greenwood keeps injecting herself into the narrative, claiming that she is interested in the topic because of her large student debt and her boredom with her own life. But I got the impression that she really wanted to live out the "sitting on a beach, living a life of luxury" fantasy far more that just escaping her debt. Guess what? We'd all like to do that beach thing. That's why the lottery exists. Every once in a while she'd step back and recognize her privilige, but in general it's hard to feel sorry her, or sympathize with her.

There were a few things I learned. If you are going to fake your death, everyone tries a drowning, to explain away the whole "no body recovered" thing. Turns out that insurance companies are smart, this is a huge red flag for them. Along with people who are insured for far more that they are actually worth. Or for that matter, have gotten or increased policies in the past two years. And taking your money with you, at least in large amounts, is difficult. And yes, it's hard to get a job that pays above the table. The life after death part is hard. Actually just faking a death turns out to be fairly cheap and easy, Greenwood does it in the Phillipines. That chapter would have made a good magazine article. I wish I had read that instead.

The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight

by Winston Groom (2013)

This is not a good book. It poses as a history/biography, but lacks the detachment needed to be successful in those genres. There's far too much hero-worship in these pages. These were great men, no doubt, but this account seems far over-the-top. As the protagonists were long dead by the time the book was written, it is also second-sourced, and to top things off, there's far too much Lindbergh-apologist claptrap.

What do I mean by that last statement? There are several passages painting the Nazis as not-so-bad, so long as you can ignore the Holocaust. When FDR made decisions that made the fliers unhappy, Groom paints him as a autocrat. Why did the political Left hate the Nazis? Because the Left was communist. It is pointed out several times that even after Lindbergh changed his mind on isolationism, many Jews still didn't forgive him (I wonder why). And when Lindbergh is having problems finding a position, Groom posts Henry Ford as the hero on a white horse. Gee, isn't it wonderful that a major Anti-Semite is there to help out Lindbergh?

These men were complex, and their feats were amazing. This book is neither.

Soon I Will be Invincible

Austin Grossman (2007)

This is wonderful. It's the book most physics grad students have spinning in their heads, a novel based upon a superhero world. A cyborg woman and an evil genius are the main characters. Clearly the author spent far too much of his youth reading comic books. If you did too, you'll be like me and simply plow through this book in a few hours, laughing all the way. Remember The Tick? More or less we're talking about the same thing, with shades of grey rather than non-stop over-the-top.

There are some complaints. Yes, it was written by a grad student, but Grossman is literature, not science. When the reader is taken through Doctor Impossible's graduate career, he talks about spending hours upon hours in libraries and archives, looking for the one last magical piece to the puzzle. That's what you do if you are studying in the humanities, a scientist would be putting in long hours in the lab. And Doctor Impossible's plan to take over the world involves changing the orbit of the Earth via gravitational tom-foolery with the Moon. He needs to search through Baron Ether's old works to figure out the math. A half-way decent 4A student with an Excel spreadsheet could figure out the math. If you are writing for nerds (and who else would Grossman's audience be?), get the science straight.

Books I really like either get very long or very short reviews. This falls into the second category.


Austin Grossman (2013)

This came out in 2013, I didn't read it until 2015. It's probably a good thing. Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible is a great book, and if this book is judged against it, it comes up short. But how does it stand on its own?

This is a book about an English major who rejoins his childhood nerd friends in a gaming software company. Well, most of his friends, the true genius behind the company, the one who wrote the key chunks of software, died prior to the time of the novel. There's a fatal flaw buried in that software, which now somehow runs the world (or at least Wall Street). The main character traces clues for the problem by playing through a decade's worth of video games, each featuring the four key roles (wizard, barbarian, underdressed woman and skinny dude with knife). Needless to say, it's inviting to read the four as avatars for the main characters, including the missing one, but I'm not sure how well that maps.

Writing books about video games is hard, Cline's Ready Player One is a good example of a try that comes up short. On one hand video games are often more complex than films, but layering narratives on top of them is hard, outside of working with narrowly-targeted audiences. Grossman's effort isn't bad, but at the same time I think there are better uses of reading time. Don't buy it on the strength of Grossman's other book.

Gettysburg: The Last Invasion

Allen Guelzo (2013)

I've been to what I think are the three most important battlefields in America: Concord, Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor. Concord is where the militia turned back King George's troops and started the War of Independence. That's a win. Pearl Harbor was a loss. You can spin it by claiming that the carriers were out at sea and battleships were obsolete, but there's no way to see it as anything but a disaster for America. A visit to the Missouri after the the Arizona is almost required to put you in a better state of mind. Gettysburg is a win, if you can accept Americans killing Americans as a win. Certainly if the Army of Northern Virginia had won, then perhaps history would have been very different. But let's not go down that path, "What if the South had won the war?" is one of the overdone and less-appealing threads in alternate histories. At the end of the day, the Army of the Potomac caught some good luck, didn't break, and overcame some poor leadership, and we are here as a country because of it.

I didn't understand my problem with this book until the very last chapter. Here Guelzo dissects the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln's words speak for themselves. They may be the most powerful ten sentences in the history of oration. Blockquote them and let them stand. Instead Guelzo goes through the Address line by line. Yes, this allows for detailed analysis, but the forest is lost for the trees. The same happens throughout the book. Yes, this is a military history, and descriptions of unit action have their place, but at points I just glazed over with the myriad of details. Painting with a slightly larger brush would have given a stronger picture. Guelzo does well when he moves to the bigger picture. For example, the difference between the role of cavalry in European and American militaries, and why this made a difference in the development of the war. Guelzo also dispels some common myths, such as the importance of Little Round Top and the amount of blame that should fall upon the shoulders of various Confederate generals.

This book has its flaws, but they are minor and can be ignored. Combined with Levine's The Fall of the House of Dixie one gets a very good view of the Civil War. I'm not big on that war, but I'd recommend this book in any case.

Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction

Allen C. Guelzo (2009)

It turns out that the Oxford University Press has a series of "Very Short Introductions," which seems self-explanatory. How short? This one clocks in at 128 pages of text. I thought that the Guelzo's book on Gettysburg was good, but could have been better had it shed some detail. So a smaller playground was inviting.

To narrow the scope, we don't get a lot of biography here, it is pointed out that there are more biographies of Honest Abe than there are any other native English speaker (though it is also noted that Lincoln himself kept no diary, which has vexed his many biographers). Instead, the concentration is on his political development, and some general themes. Guelzo first plots out the world scene in the early 1800s, showing that the United States was the only true republic (monarchies were restored in Europe after 1848, South America's democracies crumbled quickly). This helps to frame the ideas of the Gettysburg Address, and why the Civil War was so important. Could a republic survive a foundational dispute like slavery?

There's also the politics of the early United States. The followers of Jefferson believed that the ideal American was a farmer who had a small plot (a bit of linguistics; the term "poor white trash" dates back in our society to at least the early 1800s, it was used by a contemporary to describe Lincoln's father, Thomas). This countered against the industrial/city faction who were happy to "produce" by means like factories or finance. This played out in policy, the first group being against things like centralized banks and tax-supported public infrastructure (some issues don't change much). Lincoln was squarely in the camp of public infrastructure, as he wrote many bills as part of the Illinois State Legislature to build canals and such. Politically this made him a Whig.

The chapter on slavery doesn't arise until almost halfway through the book, which is troubling as it was the central issue for the half-century leading up to Lincoln's election (for that matter, race has always been central in American society). The issue of expanding slavery into the new territories under America's control imploded the Whig party (I liked the wording "breakaway Mexican province of Texas," although speaking those words aloud will get you into bar fights). Lincoln, like most most anti-slavery Whigs, ended up in the new Republican party. For Lincoln this meant a senate race against Stephen Douglas, and the latter in a terrible miscalculation agreed to a series of debate. At the end of the day Lincoln's electoral tallies foundered on apportionment (the whole one person - one vote, or back in those days, one white man - one vote idea was often mangled, as it is today), but we are left with Lincoln-Douglas debates.

In a few years Lincoln wins the White House, many of the slave states rise up in rebellion and Guelzo takes us through the nuts and bolts of the Civil War. He does a good job of describing the many tensions, from the need to retain the border slave states to the problems that Lincoln had with many of the pro-slavery (or at least anti-anti-slavery) officers in command of the Union Army. The war unfolds, we get the Emancipation Proclamation, and of course the Gettysburg Address (this time it is treated they way I wish he had in his Gettysburg book, standing on its own with minimal analysis).

If you are looking for a hefty tome of Lincoln's life and times, this is the wrong place to look. If you want a short account to understand how his policies fit into the flow of the 19th century and how they altered what freedom and democracy mean in this country and the world, then it is worth your time.

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West

by Jeff Guinn (2011)

And how it changed the American West? I don't think I got that part of the book. OK, let's not judge a book by its cover, or in this case how well it speaks to its subtitle. Going in I admit it was hard for me to think that this episode from the Old West merited a full book, maybe the dreaded magazine article perhaps, but there's lots of stuff here.

Guinn give an extensive history of the Earp clan, and the differences in personalities and characters of the important brothers. He also gives us a good look at the social forces that were in play in frontier Arizona, why the ranchers would have alliances with rustlers against the forces of law, and how the different political factions arrayed themselves inside the town of Tombstone.

A careful retelling of the events leading up to the shoot-out are given, along with the fallout. Guinn is a fast-paced writer, and I found the reading to be fun and enjoyable. I don't know that you are going to get great insights into history that will profoundly change the way you view the world, but this is a good book for the beach on a summer's day.

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II

Molly Guptill Manning (2014)

This book opens with the Nazis burning books. In a free society, books have a right to exist. Even really bad books. Like this one.

This is terrible. It tells the story of how the military provided books to its soldiers in World War II. It does a decent job on the books part, but the World War II stuff is terrible. One of the threads that runs through the book is that ideas were central to the struggle. And certainly the war was a conflict between world views, white hats vs. black hats. But this trumps actual military history repeatedly in the book. The author makes the point that Germany had excellent propaganda, but then claims that the propaganda is the main reason for the Fall of France. Yes, the Germans had great propaganda, but they had even better tanks, infantry, air support and, well, everything when it came to France. Yet in the author's mind better French propaganda could have made the Maginot Line a good idea. When discussing radio propaganda, it's offered that "If American could be weakened as efficiently as France, Germany would be able to trounce the nation with very little struggle." Never mind that it would require the largest nautical invasion in history, nope, very little struggle.

This continues through the book, consider the death of Hitler and the aftermath, "Despite the collapse of of its leadership... Germany's soldiers continued fighting." Hitler's suicide was April 30. On the 29th, the day before, German forces in Italy capitulated. On May 2, Berlin fell to the Soviets. On May 4, the German military in Western Europe formally surrendered. By May 8, it was all done, official documents were signed ending hostilities. When Hitler took his own life, it was all over quickly.

The book's strength is its coverage of a program that sent used books to troops, and when that ended up just being a way for people to recycle their unwanted tomes, a new one that provided paperbacks. This actually changed the industry. In 1939 only 200,000 paperbacks were sold in the US. In 1943, forty million were sold. Why the shift? Paper rationing played a big part of it. But it wasn't until 1959 that paperbacks outsold hardbacks.

But even this coverage was painful at times. We read lines like, "They faced a morale crisis of serious proportions, and there was only one surefire way of dealing with it: books." Yes, this was an important program, but there actually was an important war going on. In free societies, we don't burn books, but there are certainly ones we should ignore.

Absinthe & Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously

William Gurstelle (2009)

At the time of writing, this page has somewhere between 150 and 200 book reviews. This book might be the worst on the page. This is supposed to be a guidebook to dangerous experiments, and five pages in the author states that solid rocket motors ran the Saturn V rocket. Sorry, that was a three-stage liquid-engine rocket, RP-1 and liquid oxygen on the first stage, and liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen on the upper stages. On the same page, a reference to the "dark side of the moon" rather than the far side. If the guy is talking out of his hat this early, why should I trust any of the safety warnings or technical aspects of his writing? He clearly isn't doing his homework. I'll quote a full paragraph from a section titled The Physics of Speed, "Kinetic energy is an interesting quantity, the mathematical function that describes the result of bringing a moving body to complete and sudden stop. It is a second-order function, meaning it increases proportionally to the square of something, in this case, the body's speed. A vehicle traveling at 20 mph has four times the energy of one traveling at 10mph. A vehicle traveling at 40mph has eight times as much." So this guy fails Physics 4A. I put zero faith in this work.

Worse yet, he's tied his risk-taking instructions into a self-help philosophy that posits that people should be less meek and should live more dangerously. There's some pop psychology, and notes about how successful businesspeople took big risks. Risk and reward are well understood in economics, you aren't going to make big bucks if you don't take risks, but at the same time, the other side isn't discussed at all, plenty of people take risks and fail miserably, that's why they are called risks.

There's a chapter on smoking. There's no upside to smoking, people. He dances around this for a few paragraphs, finally positing that smoking once in a while is OK because, more or less, it can make you look cool. My experience is that in this world there are non-smokers and smokers, and the first group will think you look stupid when you try to smoke your occasional cigarette, and the second will think you are a poseur. He misses again on the whole perception of cool thing when he talks about whips. "Everyone, from cowboys to blues singers, loves the sound of a whip crack." I can think of at least one population that has very different perceptions around whips; it includes most blues singers, not the Blue Brothers, who were the context for his quote.

Finally, he references Hunter Thompson several times in the book. While I think using drugs is stupid, you can't hold up Thompson as an icon and not address what helped establish his fame and notoriety. One could point out that unlike most things in the book, drug use is illegal. Or compare it to speeding, which is legal in certain well-established situations, and talk about countries where you might experiment. Or put drug use out there as an example of unacceptable risks. But to avoid the topic at all, well, that seems timid, and that's exactly against the thesis of the book.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything

by Col. Chris Hadfield (2013)

For the bulk of this book, Hadfield managed to do the impossible, make astronaut life boring. He makes good points, that astronauts work in an environment where every little thing can kill them, so they need to be over-prepared, resilient, easy to work with, blah blah blah. It's a good counterpoint to the "Right Stuff" astronauts as good-old-boys narrative, but it doesn't make for enjoyable reading. Which is a little hard to believe, because this is the same dude who did the David Bowie video in outer space. He doesn't spend too much time covering that either. And at times the science was sketchy, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the ISS is looking for evidence of dark matter, it isn't collecting it. I have to go with Mary Roach's conclusion, if you read one astronaut book, read Mike Mullane's Riding Rockets.

But he moved me at the end. The book closes with his return from space, and his retirement from NASA. About leaving the ISS he states "I didn't feel let down now that our mission was almost over. I felt that I'd had an experience that no one could ever take away from me - fleeting, yes, but it would be a part of me forever, so I was entirely ready to leave." That was exactly how I felt when I stepped off of SOFIA, I'd remember this for the rest of my life, I'm OK with it being done. Additionally, "If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you're setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time. Personally, I'd rather feel good most of the time, so to me everything counts..." That's far more insightful than be patient, work hard and play nice. While much of his advice talks about what he had to do to get to where he got, this tells you what he learned.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts

Joshua Hammer (2016)

This book fits into a category that I typically don't like - books developed out of magazine articles. But to its credit, this is near the top of that genre. Typical of such efforts, we get a set of blended threads. There's a cultural/intellectual history of Timbuktu, a biography of a curator, a political narrative of the rise of terrorism in the region (along with profiles of the key players), and, or course, the central story, of how irreplaceable artifacts were smuggled out when culture-destroying forces descended upon the scene.

Hammer manages to do an excellent job of putting together all of the pieces in a way that is cogent and easy to follow. I didn't feel that the librarians were all that interesting. The principal character seemed more interested in collecting more volumes than anything else, an index of the collection was only generated when the bulk of the holdings needed to be moved; further, the dangerous work was left to worker-bees. But I learned a tremendous amount about historical African literacy, a narrative not taught for the most part in our schools. In Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me,he struggles with the concept of "Who was the Tolstoy of the Zulus?," a question posed by Saul Bellow. Coates eventually arrives at Ralph Wiley's conclusion: "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus... Unless you find profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership." As much as I find truth in this statement, it underplays the rich literary history of Africa. The other strong thread in this book is how badly the West bungled the rise of extremist forces. Here's a hint, buying the release of hostages only funds terrorist groups to kidnap more hostages.

I am forced to think about the Elgin Marbles at this point. These manuscripts are still vulnerable, both to terrorism and the effects of not being stored in the proper environmentally-controlled buildings. Perhaps they should be sent to somewhere safer? I'm not sure where I land on this, but I do recognize that there's a difference between plundering the treasure from the natives, and asking for help when needed.

At the end of the day, it's not the story in this book which is important. It's the contents of all of the books that were rescued. Yet I'm reminded of Bradbury's quotation: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." Sure, we saved thousands of books from one of the many flowerings of Islamic intellectualism. Books that express a very different vision of Islam than the one that is straw-manned by many in the West and unfortunately believed by some extremists. But unless we as a planet read the books (and read all great works, like Tolstoy), then for all intents and purposes, we've already lost them.

The Big Knockover: Selected Stories and Short Novels

by Dashiell Hammett (1989)

I liked The Continental Op so much that I rushed out and bought this book. It's a collection of detective stories starring the Op, along with the semi-autobiographical Tulip. Amazingly, I think this is an even better work than Continental Op, I had to stop to mark a line or two of text every few pages. For example, this description from Corkscrew: "A town, it was called, but village would have been flattery: fifteen or eighteen shabby buildings slumped along an irregular street, with tumble-down shacks leaning against them, squatting close to them and trying to sneak away from them."

There are some typical hard-boiled stories in here: Fly Paper, The Scorched Face and The Gatewood Caper. They are solid, but I can see them not making the cut for The Continental Op collection. Then you have a pair of exotics, King Business, where the quote "... as if steering millionaire descendants of Scotch kings through Balkan plots were an old story to me, merely part of the day's work," sums up the crazy plot, and Corkscrew, which is almost a Western.

Hammett certainly speaks with the sexism and racism of his time, but that makes Dead Yellow Women, where the Op goes into Chinatown, an interesting look into how immigrant Chinese were viewed in mainstream American culture. The Gutting on Couffignal is a heist written large, and the Big Knockover takes crime to the next level. $106,000 Blood Money pairs up with Knockover, and had he strung together another story of two, would have been thrown together as a weak novel.

Tulip is out of place. It was a novel-in-progress when Hammett died, but I didn't get much insight into him. I got far more out of his reflection in the Op. From Couffignal, we get a scene where he refuses a bribe: "... I like being a detective, like the work. And liking work makes you want to do it as well as you can. Otherwise there'd be no sense to it. That's the fix I'm in. I don't know anything else, don't enjoy anything else, don't want to know or enjoy anything else. You can't weigh that against any sum of money. Money is good stuff. I haven't anything against it. But in the past eighteen years I've been getting my fun out of chasing crooks and tackling puzzles, my satisfaction out of catching crooks and solving riddles. It's the only kind of sport I know anything about, and I can't imagine a pleasanter future than twenty-some years more of it." I think that anyone who has truly thrown themselves into their jobs can understand this. Read this passage from King Business, "The only thing I ever pray to God for is a chance to some day to squat down behind a machine gun with a lynching party in front of me." Part of the Dashiell Hammett legend is that when he was a Pinkerton he was offered $5000 to kill labor unionizer Frank Little, and when he refused, Little was instead lynched by a Copper Baron's mob. While actual evidence for this is sparse, it has become part of Hammett lore. The book closes with $106,000 Blood Money, where the Op resolves a crisis with a Dark Knight Batman sense of justice, but also feels the burden of his actions. In explaining the final events to his boss, he recounts "'It happened that way... I played the cards so we would get the benefit of the breaks - but it just happened that way... I'm going to take a couple of weeks off,' I said from the door, I felt tired, washed out."

Probably you should read The Continental Op as a proper introduction, but make sure you read this one too.

The Continental Op

by Dashiell Hammett (1974)

This is a collection of Hammett's Continental Operator stories, his hard-boiled detective that has been lost in the shadow of Sam Spade. The Continental Op is a tough guy with street smarts, and a not-so-defensible moral compass. Don't be fooled by the date next to the byline, most of these short stories were published in 1924 or 1925. That means that they've got the misogyny and racism you would expect from the genre and the times. You know it's from a different era when the detectives are looking at "clews."

Hammett thrives in the format, his book-length efforts were choppy, these are much better. There's enough meat to develop a story (and the Op), without running into limitations involved with pulp fiction magazines. Besides plot and character, the writing style also shines through, with short, punchy sentences that you could believe would come out of the mouth of the narrating detective.

I was ready to give all kinds of bonus points for local flavor when we had bootleggers working out of Half Moon Bay (or as it was known at the time, Halfmoon Bay), and then, out of the blue, the Op took the villain to the Redwood City jail, down the street from my house (no, I've never been inside).

Once you start getting into the book, some of the twists and turns are a little predictable, and the characters can be derivative. That's a risk you run when you are dealing with a writer who set the archetype. This is a strong introduction to Hammett's writing. Start here and then read Red Harvest, The Glass Key and finish up with The Maltese Falcon.

The Dain Curse

by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

When I read Red Harvest, one of my impressions was that for the time the racism and sexism weren't that bad. I can't say the same for Hammett's other book-length treatment of his famous Continental Operator. Beyond that, this book doesn't hold together as well either. It was clearly stitched together from different pulp stories, with one narrative thread that tried to keep it together. In some parts the writing is very good. He even takes pot-shots at writing itself, "...spring the puzzle. Don't be literary with me, building up to climaxes and the like. I'm too crude for that - it'd only give me a bellyache. Just spread it out for me," but overall Hammett needs to push and pull in too many different directions to make things work. While the Continental Op is a good hard-boiled character, I felt very little sympathy or interest in the others in the plot, they were essentially one-dimensional. All of the women come across as deeply damaged. Again, that might be as much a function of the entire book being a connected set of smaller stories, but if I'm going to read something that is novel-length, the people inside should be novel-depth. This book gets some slight bonus points for being set in the Bay Area, but of course that's just a local prejudice. I'd recommend much of Hammett's oeuvre over this book, so it can comfortably be left on the library shelf.

The Glass Key

by Dashiell Hammett (1931)

Of all of Hammett's novels, I think that this is the darkest. There is a murder at the center of the narrative, but the main character isn't a classic detective, instead he is a professional gambler who is a political fixer in his day job. So right from the get-go you have a more cynical view on society, where the police are in the pocket of more powerful forces, as are the newspapers and many other important institutions of a working system. While things do play out in classic mystery style, it's not clear that good will win, or even that good winning is an essential goal. While this was written in installments for the pulp press, it flows very well, the starts-and-stops from month to month are not terribly jarring. While none of the characters are sympathetic, somehow the overall tone of the work makes it so that the reader (or at least this reader) doesn't care if none of them are likable. It was written in the heart of the Great Depression, and brings with it some of the grimness of its time. This is a fairly good read, if you enjoy the genre, you should pick this one up.

The Maltese Falcon

by Dashiell Hammett (1930)

When I watched Rogue One it was with the knowledge that all of the characters were doomed. And even though I've never seen the film version of The Maltese Falcon, the movie is a big enough part of our shared American culture that I know the ending. This didn't prevent me from enjoying one of the classics of pulp detective fiction.

Yes, the main character is Sam Spade, the archetype for all other hard-boiled detectives (although my preference is Hammett's Continental Operator). There are murders, mysterious women, and some classic hard-boiled writing: "Beginning day had reduced night to a thin smokiness when Spade sat up. At his side Brigid O'Shaughnessy's soft breathing had the regularity of utter sleep. Spade was quiet leaving bed and bedroom and shutting the bedroom-door. He dressed in the bathroom. Then he examined the sleeping girl's clothes, took out a flat brass key from the pocket of her coat, and went out." Yes, there's racism and misogyny, that comes as part of the package. This is Hammett at the top of his game, in one of the classics of the age. read it an enjoy.

Nightmare Town: Stories

by Dashiell Hammett (2000)

I've read a few pulp writers to completion, or at least near-completion. Getting all of their stuff in one place is sometimes a struggle. For H.P. Lovecraft at least we had a collected works volume. Most of Philip K. Dick's novels could be found in used book stores in the old days, and now with the internet it's even easier. At one point in the 1990s Dick's short stories were published across multiple volumes. I'm now chasing down Dashiell Hammett. Like the other two, he was a pioneer in his genre, so the lesser-quality works sometimes read as almost parodies. And we need to remember that these stories are now almost one-hundred years old, they speak to the prejudices of their times.

This is a collection of his miscellaneous short stories. It's uneven. It doesn't have the polished quality of his Continental Op tomes, and more that a couple stories take the cop-out of having the perpetrator explain to the detective what they did rather than the more complex tale where the detective has to piece together the criminal's actions.

Nightmare Town, the story that the book is named after, is classic Hammett. It's strongly written and has that despair of corruption that runs through the best of his works. The book closes with Hammett's first attempt at the Thin Man, with no Nick or Nora, but it's incomplete, it was never finished. Instead Hammett rebooted with the novel we now know today. I was left with a sinking feeling a few pages from the end of the book, realizing that I was going to get no pay-off from this version of the story.

As there is very little of the Continental Op, we do see other sides of Hammett's writing. A few stories are written from the perspective of a woman character, and we get some more Sam Spade. I especially enjoyed the tale of a crime writer who found a woman cat burglar in his apartment. But at the end of the day this collection is bits and pieces. Hammett's best work is elsewhere. Read it if it's the only thing that's left and you really want more.

Red Harvest

by Dashiell Hammett (1929)

I thought that this was leaps and bounds better than Chandler's The Big Sleep. Yes, both are hard-boiled detective stories, but this felt far grittier. Yes, there's misogyny and racism in this one too, but much less, and somehow it fits into the narrative of a world gone sideways. It makes me recall reading Shane when I was a child, there's a continual escalation of violence that corrupts everything in a torrent of blood.

It's been said that this novel was an influence on or inspiration of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, which was remade in the West as A Fistful of Dollars. Certainly there are some key elements present, an outsider disrupting a town taken over by criminal elements, who plays each side against the other. But I don't recall either of those films exhibiting the cynicism in Hammett's work. Given a time machine and the option to reset, I think that the Mifune and Eastwood characters would do it again, not so the unnamed main character in this book. The genre is called noir for a reason.

Like Chandler, Hammett's writing is infectious, and fun to read. The dialog is enjoyable, the plot moves along at a good clip, and there is plenty of action. Pulp fiction and hard-boiled stories have drifted outside of the mainstream. This one is worth picking up for the read. It's strong enough that it more or less forced me to read everything else he wrote in book form.

The Thin Man

by Dashiell Hammett (1934)

Every generation has its own list of cultural artifacts that gets ignored by the next. True classics get to jump those lists. Just as I'm bewildered that so few people ten years younger than me have seen The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, people older than me have a set of films that they hold sacred. This is a long-winded way for me to say I got The Thin Man a detective story by Hammett that was turned into an adventure comedy by Hollywood with The Third Man, a classic Orson Wells post-war drama. I kept waiting for the narrative to shift to Europe, until I finally understood that I had confused the two.

So with that behind us, how does this book stack up? Women are not represented well, as is the case in most of Hammett's stories. The ex-detective has a wealthy wife (which is the reason that he can hold the mystery at arm's length, he no longer needs to be a tough guy for a living), but the other women are portrayed negatively. To be fair, the same can be said for many of the men. The story has a reasonable number of twists and turns, but as soon as the big reveal is shown, there can only be one logical suspect for the murderer. Despite the fact that Hollywood liked this one, I'd place it below Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and even The Glass Key in my line up.

The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World

Tim Harford (2008)

A few years back Tim Harford wrote "Undercover Economist," and had the misfortune of competing against Freakonomics. In my eyes Harford's work was the better of the two, because it started with a solid base and built up, rather than just looked at oddball cases viewed from the framework of economics. Harford is back with a book built around game theory, and like Undercover Economist, he does a good job of setting the stage and then taking us through the consequences. Annoyingly, however, throughout the book there seems to be a drumbeat of "let me name-drop Freakonomics," as if he's trying to link this book with his more-successful competition, even to the point of discussing exactly how much money Levitt and Dubner earned. Let it go Tim, let it go.

The book is fairly powerful when it does hit its stride. Thankfully Harford spares us the example of the Prisoner's Dilemma, and manages to distill game theory for use in the rest of the book. What I enjoyed most was that he drove a bulldozer through psychology/sociology. There are hundreds of "experiments" where researchers have taken a group of college students, given them some artificial choices, and then extrapolate from that deep "insights" into how people and societies actually work. Harford makes the case that these are poorly designed instruments. The researchers are taking people, putting them into extremely unnatural situations, and claiming that they are learning about how things really work. A better experiment would be couched in a "real world" setting, and that when economists have tried this they've found that people with experience reach optimal solutions, and newcomers to the problem might flounder a bit before also learning the system. To get experiments that actually have applicability to reality, they have to approximate reality, and part of reality is that beginners make mistakes.

While I think this is a good book that tackles interesting topics, it does have the feel of a book that was rushed to market. Harford seems to wish to bask in Freakonomics' afterglow, so the rational economic thing to do would be to get it onto the bookshelves as soon as possible. I think it could have used a bit more time in the oven, because there are some internal problems that should be worked out, or at least better addressed. For example, in his chapter about the game-theory approach to marriage, Harford states that it makes sense for African-American women to go after a college education. Given the number of African-American men in prison, it is argued that African-American women often have to "marry-down," and that you'll get a far better husband if you yourself are college-educated. Or, if due to the numbers game you never get married, as an African-American woman you are simply better off having a college degree. But then in the chapter about "rational racism" Harford argues that due to society's perceptions, African-Americans with college degrees are lumped with those without, and hence it makes no sense to invest time and money into an education if it doesn't distinguish you from those who didn't. This could use a bit of clarification. What does game theory tell an African-American woman about going to school? While it's certainly possible that competing messages are being sent, it would be nice if Harford put this on the table and then told us how a good economist would test what was really going on.

In the end, although there are some flaws, this is a book well worth reading. Harford covers topics as diverse as poker, divorce, ghettos and executive pay, but manages to hold it together in a coherent structure. Hopefully this one won't get bowled over by the next Freakonomics.

The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor--and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!

Tim Harford (2005)

It's tempting to believe that Tim Harford did a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Those Freakonomics people sold this many copies, if I can write a book and sell X%, then it is worth my time to do so. It's not so, these two books both came out in 2005. While The Undercover Economist didn't make as big a splash as Freakonomics, I think it is a better book. Freakonomics takes the approach of "here's something very unusual, let's see if we can apply economic theory to understand the why things are the way they are." While Harford does introduce many of his topics with quirky real-world situations, I feel he does a much better job of presenting the core issues, models and tools of economics. Instead of getting a grab-bag, the readers get a decent survey of what they'll need to approach most economics problems.

Every once in a while Harford pulls a howler. When he talks about the externalities of pollution, he blames cholera on "bad air," bad science that's been discredited for over a hundred years. While his economics is sound, you wonder how well he researched some of his examples. That being said, his section on organic foods is a nice counterpoint to Omnivore's Dilemma, and his take on coffee appeals all of us who roll our eyes at coffee snobs. And I rather enjoyed thinking of Japan as a magic machine out in the Pacific that turns Iowa corn into cars.

I could go on and make points about hundreds of aspects of this book. But I'd rather have you go out and read it yourself. It's written in an easy-to-read style, has interesting content, and actually teaches a lot of good economics. Harford claims you can't buy a good used car, but you can buy a perfectly used copy of his book.

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

by Johann Hari (2015)

This is an important but imperfect book. Hari, who has a checkered past as a journalist, has put together a long look at the War on Drugs. He has some history, looks at people in different roles in the drug war (it is hard not to see them all as victims) and looks forward to possible solutions based upon things being tried across the world.

Large chucks of this book don't work for me. His ideas on why certain people get addicted to drugs seem simplistic to me (although they are less simplistic than other reasons that many accept). His history is also shallow. He tries to make his case studies do too much.

All of that being said, this book shifted some of my thinking on a political topic, and seeing as most people in their late-40s don't change their minds about anything, that's saying something. He talks quite a bit about the role of race and the War on Drugs, but quite frankly, he might not have said enough. He thinks through many of the economic implications of the drug trade. And finally, he shows that in some places at some times, we've had solutions that are far superior to what we've been trying all along (although "lock them up" isn't a solution that is hard to beat).

There are times when the analysis is very good; the comparison between marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington is a good case in point. In Colorado the argument was that weed is less harmful than alcohol. This was a key weapon for one of the backers, he could challenge certain powerful politicians who had connections to the beer industry that he would take a toke for every swallow of beer they took, and he would be in better shape than they would. In Washington the argument wasn't that weed was "not bad," but that the consequences of the War on Drugs, the prisons filled with drug offenders, the cops chasing drug criminals rather than rapists, the creation of a market that could only be supplied by criminals, those were things to be eliminated. The distinction between arguments is important because in Colorado legalization will stop at weed. In Washington, all drugs, or at least many more drugs than weed, can eventually be brought into the clear. That's very important and Hari does a great job of pulling that out. I wish the rest of the book was written at this level.

The "should we legalize everything" thinking was well-explored in Hari's work, and probably the most important piece. I'm not sure I'd go all the way, but I'm far more in that direction than I was previously. Will there be more addicts? Probably. Will society suffer less? Possibly. It depends on what we'll spend money upon instead of policing and incarceration.

I doubt you will agree with everything written in this book. I certainly didn't. But important questions are raised, and we really need to have conversations. Our current approaches are racist and don't make any economic sense.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece

Jonathan Harr (2005)

I picked up this book because Harr's "A Civil Action" is probably the best legal narrative I've ever read. Sadly, this effort disappoints. Reading the acknowledgments at the end of the book, I wasn't surprised to find that this was a magazine article stretched to book length. There is a good story here, but not enough to fill a book.

The book is split into two main parts. In the first we follow a pair of Italian Art History graduate students. It takes us 140 pages to learn that they make one great discovery in a the archive of a family that has seen better times, and that they run into many other dead ends. The hard part for me was the casting of these grad students as hero figures. They were historians who weren't interested in modern scientific tools, and after spending three days in an archive, one decides that she's getting too pale from lack of sun and yearns for a tan so that she can better flirt. I'm sorry, but if three straight days of research is too much for you, stand aside for a real grad student. There were also details of personal lives that added nothing to the tale.

The second part of the book has real meat. An art restorer at the National Gallery of Ireland is asked to do his magic on a painting owned by the local Jesuits. He quickly convinces himself that it is a lost Caravaggio. He eventually puts the pieces together, although he almost destroys the actual painting.

The book doesn't really pick up until the painting is discovered, it feels as if Harr added the grad student section so that he could have a strong female character to flesh out a drier "museum worker hits jackpot" narrative (this would explain why her love life plays in). This could have been half as long and just as good.

Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier?

Brian Harvey (2001)

This is a frustrating book. It starts off with the tale of Leonid Kizim and Vladimir Solovyov. In 1986 they launched on a Soyuz and became the first crew to board the brand-new Mir space station. They spent two months there, getting things all set up. They then boarded their Soyuz and spent a day in space, travelling to Salyut 7, the Soviet spacestation that was being replaced by Mir. They spent four weeks there, took a spacewalk, and then went back to Mir for a few weeks. They spent a total of 125 in space, split between two space stations. That's an amazing achievement. At the time, America was out of the space business, as Challenger had exploded shortly after lift-off. But this was only three short years before 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, for all intents and purposes, taking the Soviet Union with it.

The book was published in 2001, so when it was written the Russian space program was near its nadir. The glory times of Soviet space exploration were well behind, and Russia was struggling to make good on its commitments to the ISS. Soyuz, and more importantly, Proton, had yet to be discovered by the West as cheap, reliable (reliable-ish) rides to orbit. The picture painted is bleak.

We get a good picture of life on a crumbling Mir, and I think I'd spend good money on a book-length treatment. That's a strength. And there's also a good telling of the transition from supporting Mir to getting the embryonic ISS into the sky. And there are some good stories, the Russians made money from selling their spy satellite photos on the open market. When the US Air Force had a funeral parade for Jimmy Dolittle in Washington DC in 1993, they used Russian imagery to plan the route. American spy could have made those maps, but of course they were aimed elsewhere.

Sometimes the facts presented are a bit misleading. Yes, more Americans flew on Mir than Russians. But most of those Americans were parts of large shuttle crews that visited for a week, whereas some Russians spent hundreds of days (Valery Polyakov logged 438 days, due to the Soviet Union collapsing while he was in space). In some places things are just wrong. In describing the RD-180 engine that powers Lockheed-Martin's Atlas V rocket we are told that " was generating more thrust than the space shuttle with its huge solid rocket boosets and main engines combined." A quick visit to Wikipedia shows that an RD-180 provides 860,000 lbs of thrust at sea level. The shuttle itself had a cluster of three SSME that provided 1,180,000 lbs of thrust at liftoff, and they were designed to be sustainers, firing all the way to orbit, unlike the RD-180 which is optimized for thrust rather than overall efficiency. If you want thrust, each shuttle solid rocket booster clocked in at 2,800,000 lbs. It's not that Harvey didn't check his numbers that bothers me, it's that anyone who knows about rockets should have known that his claim was nuts. The shuttle system was a heavy-lifter, in a class far above Atlas V. This mistake is buried deep into the book, had it occurred earlier, I would have stopped reading.

All in all, this is a mixed bag. There's a lot of interesting history presented, but I find myself unwilling to believe the technical details without further confirmation. You don't want to say that about a book. It isn't even the best book called Russia in Space, buy Anatoly Zak's book instead.

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

Adam Hochschild (1998)

Yes, this is a book you should read. It's a story of colonialism, how the King of Belgium, Leopold II, who ruled a country half the size of West Virginia, carved out a private empire in Africa, and exploited it to the point of killing perhaps 10 million natives.

The question "why Congo?" is raised in the context of colonial sins. Look at any chunk of territory that has or had natural resources. Wars are fought, people are conquered and exploited, and terrible things happen so that members of an elite can enjoy an opulent lifestyle. Yes, there were atrocities in what was then known as the Congo Free State, but what about the British using famine as a weapon in India (or for that matter, Ireland)? What about the expulsion of the Sioux upon discovery of gold in the Black Hills (to say nothing of the rest of the continent)? What about the Vikings, the Huns, the Romans... Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature has long, depressing sections of man's inhumanity to man going all the way back to when we were simple tribes of hunter-gatherers. Yes, the exploitation of the Congo was brutal, but it was also noticed, which sadly makes it notable.

Reading about King Leopold's life reminded me much of his contemporary and relative Kaiser Wilhelm II. Most of the European royalty of the time shared blood, Wilhelm was Queen Victoria's eldest grandchild, the Queen was the cousin of Leopold's Grandfather. Marriages were arranged, and Leopold's parents' was a loveless union. This extended through to Leopold, if he wanted to speak to his father, he needed to arrange an appointment. Leopold's own marriage was similar (and he would do the same for his daughters, marrying them off to higher royalty in order to raise the family status). In fact, Queen Victoria doubted that the relationship had been consummated, and had to give "marital advice" to the couple. The Kaiser's similar unhappy childhood has been the source of much armchair psychology, a lot of ink has been spilled blaming the slaughter that was World War I on his mental/emotional makeup. But whereas Wilhelm was in many way incompetent, Leopold was not. He was smart, calculating, manipulative and ruthless. Military deaths in World War I clock in an at estimated 10 million which matches estimates of the Congo, and it would be unfair to simply put that at the feet of the Kaiser, as there were madmen sitting all around the table. The Kaiser and his fellow leaders needed barbed wire, machine guns, and all of the other horrors of trench warfare to achieve this. Leopold simply used the exploitive form of commerce known as colonialism. Money can be as destructive as guns.

The book spends far too much time on Henry Stanley (of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" fame), going deep into his biography. He's important, because he's the first European (he lied about being an American) who navigated the Congo River. A series of waterfalls prevented sailors from exploring from the coast, and hence Africa's great waterway went unclaimed by the Colonial powers until late in the day. Once Leopold understood what he could grab, then it was a war on two fronts. In Africa he used the same tricks the Conquistadors used in the Americas, brutal application of superior technology against tribes that could be played off against each other. Politically more importantly, Leopold also understood how to game recognition out of the other major players. By employing what we would today recognize as lobbyists, he got the US to recognize his territorial claims. This was easy, he painted the Congo as a place where African-Americans could emigrate, and the Southern power structure that was coming out of Reconstruction was sold. Leopold got France to sign on by flirting with England, and then offering France the right of first refusal (if the Belgians were no longer interested in Congo, they would first have to offer to sell to France ahead of any other colonial power). And he could always play the "better this goes to tiny Belgium than some more powerful country," evoking fears that a country's rivals would play their hands. At the end of the day, Leopold (not Belgium) ended up owning a territory that was larger than England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined.

Halfway through the book we hit rubber. Rubber was the miracle product of its day. Tires upgraded wheels to a ride in comfort. It rainproofed garments. It served as insulation in those new-fangled electrical wires and devices. And the Congo was sitting on the motherlode. But rubber is very hard to harvest. Leopold's men did what exploiters have done since the dawn of time, they used forced labor. They would got into villages, take hostages, and send the stronger members of the community into the jungle with quotas. If not enough rubber was collected, then hands were chopped off. This penalty was not new to the region, but the Europeans perfected it. As bullets were expensive to import, they weren't to be wasted on hunting. If you spent a bullet, you were expected to retrieve a hand as proof of a kill. Villages starved because they had to gather rubber rather than food. People simply dropped from exhaustion. These two exacerbated the spread of disease. Terrible things happened because rubber was so valuable.

Edmund Morel worked for a British shipping company. They supplied the ships that travelled from Congo to Belgium and back. Morel made a simple observation: The ships coming in were full of rubber. The ships going out carried guns and ammunition. He quickly recognized what was going on. The guns were being sent to Africa not to trade for the raw supply of rubber, but to extract it via violent means. The bulk of the second half of the book details Morel's crusade against Leopold, how gigantic crimes were brought to light. But Leopold had the last laugh. He solved his problem by painting Belgium into a corner and then selling the Congo to his own country at an exorbitant price. Of course, it wasn't the taxpayers of Belgium who had to foot the bill, the money would be extracted from the Congo. That's the way colonialism works.

So what are we to make of all of this? The bad guy gets away, and goes to sleep every night on a huge pile of money. A World War's worth of people are mutilated and slaughtered. And even though these crimes are brought to light, there is no reconciliation or reparation. Sounds like an unhappy ending. Except that there was outrage in response to the outrages, people responded to what was a new set of words, "crime against humanity." That's why it's important. And just as important is the chapter on the mechanism of forgetting, how archives are burned, and secrets are kept under lock and key.

Hochschild could probably trim fifty pages out of this book to get a leaner, sleeker version. So what. This is a classic that must be read.

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

by Adam Hochschild (2011)

Probably because my wife teaches All Quiet on the Western Front, I've read far too many histories of World War I. Some are good, some are forgettable, but after a while you have the feeling that you've read the book before. Archduke Ferdinand, violation of Belgium, race to Paris, trench warfare, Gallipoli blah blah blah. Yes, when you read many history books covering the same topic, this is going to happen, but it is nice to know that there is something new under the sun.

Hochschild's work features many perspectives not covered in the other popular treatments. For example, at the start of the war the British had a severe lack of quality optics. Their glass factories could not produce the binoculars that the army needed. Who stepped into the gap? The world's best crafters of optics, the Germans. Yes, the Germans were selling the British Army binoculars for use on the Western Front. What did they want in return? Rubber, which was available from Great Britain's colonies, and needed to keep German industry producing goods.

While it does a strong job on the war itself, that's not the main thrust of the tome. The heart of the book covers the lives and actions of the anti-war movement in Great Britain. To do this he takes necessary steps into the Boer War, the leading family of Woman's Suffrage in Great Britain, the great Bertrand Russell, Rudyard Kipling and even follows the footsteps of some conscious objectors on the Western Front.

I could go on and on about how great this book is, but let's cut things short and send you out to the bookstore. This is right up there with The Guns of August, essential reading.

Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art

Carl Hoffman (2014)

As a small child my mother once heard me singing "Michael Row the Boat Ashore." She told me that she could never hear that song without thinking of Michael Rockerfeller. So I asked her who that was, and she told me that he was a person who was eaten by cannibals. Thanks mom, that was completely appropriate knowledge for your little kid.

Michael Rockerfeller was the son of Nelson Rockerfeller, then Governor of New York (at a time when New York was the equivalent of California) and of course the Rockerfellers were one of the most powerful families on the planet. He went to visit "primitive" tribes in order to collect art. These tribes, depending on what your source is, either still practiced head hunting or had just recently given it up. And whether or not they still collected trophies, they still engaged in brutal, vengeful warfare. Rockerfeller's boat had run into trouble, and unlike his companion, he decided to swim for shore. He was never seen by westerners again.

Hoffman visits the natives decades later. His goal is to find out what happened to Michael Rockerfeller, or more to the point, to get the natives to admit to killing Rockerfeller, as Hoffman has uncovered plenty of evidence in archives that indicates that the local colonial powers knew that something unpleasant had happened, even down to the names of the guilty.

Hoffman doesn't get very far. He suffers the same conceit that Rockerfeller did (though he later on recognizes it), that a person strolling into a culture from the outside, who doesn't even know the rudiments of the language, will be accepted and treated as an equal. At times there are shocking cultural gaps. Hoffman is amazed that details of a lie could be maintainted so well over the generations. Well, he's dealing with a pre-writing culture. How well did the Illiad get preserved over many more generations of oral history?

There's no aha! moment in this book, although there is a decent amount of conjecture. Hoffman may have a strong background in journalism, but he really needed a better footing in anthropology. There are better uses of your time.

The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy

by David Hoffman (2010)

One of the more disappointing books I've read in a while was Richard Rhodes' Arsenals of Folly, which claimed to be a history of the arms race, but ended up being a history of Reagan and Gorbachev, and why they failed at Reykjavik. This book is what that book should have been.

OK, it's half of what that book should have been, because it only details the Soviet side of the picture. But what a picture! There were all kinds of crazy things going on. The US put cruise missiles in Western Europe. Those missiles would spend all of eight minutes in the air before they turned Moscow into a mushroom cloud. Eight minutes is not a lot of time to think, and given the state of Soviet-Era electronics, everybody worried about false warnings. The solution? Set up an automatic revenge system. The leadership could press a button, and unlike the US, that button would not launch their warheads. Instead a system would be activated that could launch the missiles if Moscow had in fact been destroyed. And as anyone who has ever watched Dr. Strangelove knows, the Russians had a Doomsday Device and didn't tell anyone.

But it wasn't just the atomics. The Soviets also had their dipped their fingers into biological and chemical weapons. OK, they didn't dip their fingers, they were in past their elbows. Even though these activities were against treaties they had signed, they just assumed that the Americans were cheating (we weren't) and went ahead and developed these technologies anyway. As Reagan once said, "Trust but verify."

This book covers not only the height of Soviet power, but also the decline and collapse. Of course Reykjavik gets a section, it's amazing how close they came to scrapping the stockpiles, and also Gorbachev's captivity at the hands of some rogue officers. The post-Soviet part of the story also held up, with the US going in and "rescuing" fissile material from all kinds of places.

If you are into histories of the Cold War, this one is worth your time.

The Earth Moves: Galileo and the Roman Inquisition

by Dan Hofstadter (2010)

This is a truly bad book. It isn't often that I consider putting a book down and never finishing it, but this one came close. It's easy to spot that Hofstadter is not somebody with a strong science background, take for example, "We learn in grade school that light is a wave phenomenon moving at a speed of 3 x 1010 meters per second in empty space." It is a bad sign that he's managed to increase the speed of light by a factor of 100, and no one editing the book caught the mistake. So what is this writer's strength? Well, he teaches both literature and art history. And as a result we get some detours into things like Dante and the history of painting the interior of domes. Sure, they pad the length of the book, but they subtract rather than add to the story at hand.

Let's take a look at a passage from the domes section, "There is, in this tacit admission of the need, under any vast frescoed ceiling, to circulate in order to align oneself with multiple focal axes, a Baroque parallel with Galilean relativism, though of course it concerns optics, not celestial mechanics. Yet if Galileo's astronomical contribution consisted in turning the Copernican theory into an actual model, capable of verification, the Baroque church-dome was not a rival model; if it had been, it would have resembled a gigantic armillary sphere in stone. It was, rather, a metaphor, something of a pious distraction, and as the century progressed, the decorative skills it enlisted were unabashedly derived from those used for the stage... [Frescoed domes] are marvels of engineering, design, and virtuoso painting, and they represent the Church's liveliest response - if only an implicit one - to the threat of Copernicus and Galileo." Yikes. Far too much of the book is like that. Big words strung together, trying very hard to make connections between the events that unfolded in the Galileo Affair and art and literature. And making little sense. Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium only when he was on his deathbed, and we all know what happened to Galileo. Somehow I don't think those two believed that frescoed domes were the Church's "liveliest response" to their actions, I think that they worried about the example of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for heresy.

One of Galileo's great strengths is that he broke with the tradition of writing in Latin and instead published his books in Italian. This gave the common man access to his arguments (or at least those who could read). Hofstadter takes this model and turns it on its head. He dresses up the story of Galileo in fancy academic-speak, when Joe Lunchbox would be much better served with a more straightforward description. Towards the end of the book, he discusses torture as Galileo faced the threat of physical coercion. Avoid torture, read a better book on Galileo.

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars

Nathalia Holt (2016)

I'm not sure how to classify this book, outside of the fact that I liked it. A strong aspect is it gives a lot of hidden history. I've read some accounts of early JPL and the start of the space race, and this gives a nice retelling. The transition away from military work to science is nicely handled. But of course the biggest hidden history is that of the women who did the computing at JPL, literally doing the math that established our nation's space program. On the other hand, the book's focus on the careers of a handful of women didn't sit well with me. Yes, I want heroes to be recognized. But by picking this group of women, was a representative story told? Part of me wants a short section that stated that the women in this book were atypical, and that most in the program followed a certain career arc. But would I be asking for the same in a book that simply covered JPL? "The (mostly) men in this book are atypical, they were smarter than their peers, or better at pushing boundaries. The life of a more standard engineer/scientist at JPL looked like..." No, I doubt I'd ask for that, so why do I want it out of this book? Because, fairly or unfairly, I expect it to speak for an entire gender that was employed at JPL during a certain time in our society's history. Is the correct ask? Should I want a book like this, or should I simply be more happy with a story that highlights many inspiring women, and the work they did to advance science and technology?

That's a lot of hand-wringing, so just go back to the first sentence. I liked this book. Every once in a while the science is wrong, but I'm willing to put that mostly to the side as this is a book about people instead of science. Not only should you read it, but I think I should also stick a copy on my son's book stack. And maybe I should donate a copy to my wife's middle-school science classroom.

Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy

Eri Hotta (2013)

December 7, 1941 ticks like a doomsday clock through this book. You keep looking at the timeline, knowing that the principals are headed for disaster. This work asks a very important question, why did Japan plunge itself into a war it knew it could not win?

And it knew it couldn't win. It had 1/20th the industrial capacity of the United States. In August of 1941, the Total War Research Institute, a Japanese think tank, ran scenarios against the research and concluded that Japan would necessarily lose. And the top leadership knew this.

So let's set in place some historical context. Japan had gotten itself into the dreaded "Land War in Asia." Hotta compares this to Napoleon's invasion of Russia. In both cases the invading army sacked their opponent's capital, but could not force capitulation. The war in China was putting a huge stress on Japan's economy. By 1940 the fanciest restaurants in Tokyo were serving imported rice, and even this was diluted by potatoes. If you understand the role rice plays in Japanese culture, you'll recognize how dire things had become. Doubling down on a bad bet, Japan invaded South French Indochina, triggering a petroleum embargo by the United States, which at that point supplied Japan with 93% of its oil. Here things start to read like Germany's glide path into World War I. Germany was fearful of a powerful growing Russia, and felt that a war sooner was preferable to a war later. Once the oil embargo was in place, Japan was on limited time, it would soon run out of the lifeblood of any modern economy. Putting off the fight would only make the odds even worse.

So Japan headed towards a war it could not win. This was compounded by a military that saw a strong rivalry between army and navy. The army didn't want to lose face by accepting a political compromise in China, which is what America was demanding in negotiations. So the Army was not giving breathing room to its diplomats. At the same time, the navy felt that it needed to justify its large budgets by claiming that it could fight America, and would have suffered loss of face if it had admitted that the war was not winnable, even though all the leadership believed that. So nobody was willing to say no as the situation counted down to December 7th.

And ultimately that's what it came down to, lack of true leadership. When the loss of Saipan was announced in Japan on July 18, 1944, the Tojo cabinet resigned; in an unrelated event, two days later Hitler was almost assassinated. Hotta notes that Germany without Hitler would have made very different choices, but Japan without Tojo went thirteen more months, saw two more prime ministers, the complete destruction via airpower of most of Japan's urban centers, and two nuclear bombs before it finally changed course. There was no leadership, only momentum.

Hotta does an excellent job of painting this picture, and does it in a way where she does not come across as an apologist. For the most part she is historically accurate about Japan's actions in Mainland Asia, even acknowledging atrocities at Nanking. This can not be said in general about Japanese writers, but then again Hotta has a lot of things that make her different than the typical cohort of Japanese war historians: she's a woman, her education was both in Japan and the West, and she's young enough (my age exactly) to be more than a generation removed from the war. This is a good, if frustrating book. But we should always be frustrated about stupidity, especially when it leads to killing and suffering on such a massive scale. It's worth your read.

Blind Sight: A Novel

Meg Howrey (2011)

Colson Whitehead's first book, The Intuitionist was an amazing debut. One of the things that impressed me the most was that for his first novel Whitehead had a woman as his protagonist. Meg Howrey picked Luke, a teenage boy, for her protagonist in her first book, and while I wouldn't put her in the same class as Whitehead, I will still read every single book she writes. She develops strong characters, her writing flows, and she plots out interesting stories.

Luke was raised in a family of only women, and he has connected with a father he only met once as a newborn. The father is a famous movie star, and the two spend the bulk of the novel exploring the dimensions of their relationship. As a narrative device, Luke is also writing his college essays, so Howrey also reveals the characters through those. As in The Wanderers, there is an unresolved ending. However, this time it is due to a last-minute twist rather than something that has been building, and as a result it's a bit harder to put down the book without unhappiness. Nevertheless, this is well worth the read.

The Cranes Dance

by Meg Howrey (2012)

I bought this book because I really liked Howrey's science fiction work. Interestingly enough, I liked this story about ballerinas even better than the one about astronauts. The first thing that pops into mind is that if you did a quick count of the authors on this reading list, only about 15% are women. And seeing as most of what I read is nonfiction, maybe the takeaway message is that I should read more literature by women.

The protagonist is Kate Crane, a solid ballerina who was overshadowed by her younger sister Gwen, who spends the book offstage due to a mental breakdown. We follow Kate as she makes her way through a ballet season, and reflects on how things got where they are. In the meantime, we get a pretty good look at the inside of the ballet world. Howry was a dancer before she was a writer, so I tend to believe the nuts and bolts of this story.

The characters are interesting, the plot advances without too much plodding, the writing is solid. Go out and buy this book.

The Wanderers

by Meg Howrey (2017)

I discovered this awesome book because I follow Mary Roach's twitter feed. First, we must address the obvious comparison, was it as good as The Martian? Yes, but in a different way. In some sense, it's its complement. The Martian set up puzzles in front of the protagonist who deftly solved them, and as a nerd I kept thinking "yes, that's exactly the right answer." This book also discusses a near-future Mars mission, but the book is deeply character-driven, and a key element of the plot is left unresolved. If you've read enough science fiction, you start to suspect a certain well-used trope early on in the book; when it is revealed you aren't surprised, but then it is left hanging.

Interestingly enough, I got to listen to astronaut Scott Kelly and then meet him backstage when I was reading this book. He has spent over 500 days in space, including an almost year-long mission to the International Space Station. Whereas The Martian stresses that space is hard because of technological challenges, there's the whole realm of being human. Kelly talked about learning of the shooting of his twin brother's wife while in orbit (she's former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, she survived being shot in the head, six other people died in the attack). Afterwards, backstage, his daughter talked about her upcoming birthday present, a trip on a zero-gravity airplane flight. A major theme of the book was the separation of the astronauts from their families, while I don't know anything about Captain Kelly's relationship with his child, it's easy to imagine that a zero-gravity flight is a way for him to get her to understand a part of his life. The separation in the book isn't just the astronauts (and token cosmonaut) from their families, but also from each other; the title refers to the root-meaning of the word planet, these characters are planets, floating off in space, each a world to their own.

The action is slow-moving in this story, in fact, one could claim that there's almost no action at all. This is a complaint that many have with Colson Whitehead's works, and he's awesome. And I'll note that this is one of those books I stayed up well past bedtime to read, it's a page-turner. This book works for me, and I highly recommend it.

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats

by Kristen Iversen (2012)

I went into this book prepared to dislike it. There are plenty of fear-mongering books out there on the topic of radiation, and to be frank, people who grew up like Iversen have plenty to fear.

This book is well-balanced and is quite fair. There are some technical details that are off (such as "gun design" plutonium atomic bombs not working because they are "inefficient") and there are situations where the description hasn't been quite thought through well enough (the scientists for one side in a court case being unanimous in their opinion, of course they were, they weren't a cross-section of views, they were selected by a lawyer to tell a consistent story), but overall, Iversen is able to see multiple sides of the issues. She grew up near the plant, had friends come down with cancer, but also worked in the plant, and understands that the plant both protected America and pumped billions into the local economy

At one point in the book there's a throwaway line about protest billboards going up along the highway. It was a little jarring because I remembered that I actually knew the artist who did those. He taught my college photography class. This was back in the days of real film, and we did things using a technology that is just plain irrelevant today (and there were many people who poured chemicals down the sink, even though you shouldn't). It struck me that this is a good lens for the Rocky Flats situation. Things were done differently in the old days. We can and do things better today. Iversen plays this hand as well. The book starts with both of her parents smoking. It's pointed out that nobody wore seat belts back in the day. It was a different era, and people operated under the rules of the day. Moving forwards, we should be monitoring the health of the local population, and making measurements of the environment, but what's in the past is already done.

Another thing that Iversen understands very well is the effect of culture. Rocky Flats is a story of a place where accidents happened and were covered up under the blanket of national security. There was a lot of ignorance and shortcuts, it was the way things worked there. Rocky Flats was a DOE operation, and I worked at two different DOE labs when I was a graduate student. At one they played fast and loose with safety (I remember that one pair of students were sent home for the day "to think about their actions" when they were caught eating off of the same surface they had recently used to prepare arsenic samples). The other lab had safety as a top priority. There were "pre-fire" alarms that would send out the fire marshal if the infrared detector saw heat, but had not detected smoke. People adjusted to expectations. There are good DOE labs that protect their workers and the local civilians, but those are environments where that direction has become part of the identity of the lab.

I've spent a lot of time on the Rocky Flats aspect of the story, folded in is the story of how her family fell apart under her father's alcoholoism. She wanted to cover the things that scared her most as a child. This is a good book. Read it.

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

by A.J. Jacobs (2007)

Most of the time when I read a book and it isn't what was advertised I'm not very happy. In this case I was more than satisfied. In some sense, The Year of Living Biblically is exactly what it says it is, an account of one man's attempt to try to live his life by all of the rules of the Bible. This is pitched as a comedy, if you poke around the Bible you'll find all kinds of crazy laws, and the thought of a person in modern society trying to obey them all invokes some mad-cap capers. OK, there's an element to that in the book, but I'm thankful that this aspect isn't the main focus. To the author's credit he looked at all of these laws and asked why they were the way they were, and how they affected his life both in the mundane sense and spiritually. This book works because instead of simply using the setup as fodder for jokes, the author approaches the topic with an open mind and tries to learn lessons from those more involved in religion than he is. Heck, he even visits one of those Creationist science museums. This book was a nice surprise. Pick up a copy.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Steven Johnson (2006)

In the end, I think that Ghost Map is a case of "good idea, poor execution." There's a great story to be told; an outbreak of a terrible disease is tracked and solved by a pair of scientific detectives. But there are a few things that soured me on this work, and they were objectionable enough that in my eyes the book can't overcome them. Like some other historians, Johnson decides that he can simply make up facts when history can't provide them. He puts thoughts into people's heads at logical times and he gives families names when the records don't exist. While he's fairly upfront about this, it still strikes me as something that historians should not be doing. Secondly, he has a long discussion about which "Ghost Map" is the proper map, and calls out other sources for not properly doing homework, or for not using the correct maps, and yet his book only includes the map as an afterthought. You would think that in a book named "The Ghost Map" you would spend the resources to draw out a few of the various versions.

The book overall has a feel of a padded magazine article. Some of his digressions from the main topic work - the background of cholera being a disease that rose with cities, and how the adoption of mutation that enabled humans to tolerate alcohol is a direct consequence of city life being one of them. But many of his digressions fall flat on their face, or at best seem forced. He rambled on and on about biohazards in the post-9/11 world. It filled pages, but is seems as if that was its only goal. The flaws win out over good spots, buy another book.

Red Atom: Russia's Nuclear Power Program from Stalin to Today

by Paul Josephson (1999)

I read this book when it first came out (last century), and I liked it at the time. So when I saw a used copy cheap, I decided to pick it up. It wasn't as good as I had remembered. It suffers from being written at a time when all of this was new to the West, and I think that Josephson wanted to be sure that every last detail and every last name was remembered, because there weren't a lot of sources available to the general reader. So what should be an overview of the big picture sometimes gets bogged down in minutiae. This book would have been better off with 40 fewer pages and 50% of the minor characters.

A big thrust that is important is the Soviet perception of atomic works. It was technology, just like any other technology. I respect my toaster, but I never get it confused with a nuclear power plant. In Josephson's telling, parts for nuclear power plants simply rolled off the assembly line as if they were tractor parts, and the people who built and ran the plants didn't receive too much more training (or in some cases, any more training) than a typical construction worker or office worker. And the systems in place for detection of radioactivity were woefully inadequate.

One of the selling points the first time around is that it gave an account of the disaster at Chernobyl. But that's been eclipsed by many others, in fact, I'd recommend Leatherbarrow's book for this.

Even Russia lovers and nuclear people will have a hard time with this book. It covers far too much (it has a section on food irradiation) and too many people (far too many mini-biographies that all start to blend together). It's not that it's outright bad, it's just hard to get through.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope

by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer (2009)

If you read through these reviews, you will learn that one of my least favorite genres is that of the magazine article stretched into the book. Most of the time they fail because the subject just isn't deep enough to sustain the length of the new medium. Kamkwamba's effort takes this one step further, it is the TED Talk stretched into a book.

This kid did something very neat. He built a windmill, and using a physics book out of the library he built an electrical generator. And yes, that's worth a TED Talk because he did this in rural Africa without access to a decent education or access to good raw materials.

So what do you do when your TED Talk needs to expand into nearly 300 pages? Well, you talk about myths your grandparents taught you. And how your mother met your father. And your childhood, which is more or less all you have since you are barely out of your teens. Kamkwamba discusses living through a famine, and having to drop out of school. But as I went through this section what it did most for me way play up his immaturity. He can describe what it was like to not eat, and to watch the more wealthy kids go to classes while he could not, but compare those experiences to what his parents could write, having to watch your children go without food, and not being able to finance their educations, probably dooming another generation to the cycle of poverty. Taking a short story and grafting another piece onto it doesn't work if the secondary is told from the wrong viewpoint, it just plays up the general weaknesses.

Another annoying aspect is that Kamkwamba doesn't seem to have anything beyond a rudimentary knowledge of the physics he was using. He kept looking for generators in scrap yards in order to run his windmill. If he had a better understanding of things, he would have expanded his search to electric motors, since the difference between a motor and a generator is only the direction of intent (do you take electrical power and turn it into motion, if so you call it a motor, go in the other direction with the same object, it is a generator). He's quite proud of the fact the he was able to convert his electrical power from low-voltage into a high-voltage source that a friend could use to charge her cell phone. I read this and shook my head. He's taking a low-voltage source and using a step-up transformer so that he can plug in a step-down transformer. Why not just charge the phone directly (with perhaps a small modification to voltage)? Not only did he not have a firm basis in electricity when he built his systems, it appears as if he didn't take the trouble to learn much about it since then.

This guy's life is inspiring, but not book-length inspiring.

The Bomb in the Basement: How Israel Went Nuclear and What That Means for the World

by Michael Karpin (2006)

This book does many things well, but it leaves some obvious stones unturned. Karpin's strengths are history and politics. He weaves together the story of the people who surrounded David Ben-Gurion and helped to establish the nation of Israel. He then traces the actions of the various Israeli governments as they react to the world events that unfolded around them, and how they carefully danced their way to a nuclear deterrent.

One needs to be careful when reading any histories, but especially so when reading histories concerning the Middle East. That being said, it is interesting to look back in history to see a picture that is very different than the one we see today. In the current setup, America is Israel's strongest ally. When Israel was going through the baby steps of developing a nuclear capability, this was not the case. Karpin paints a landscape of the world during the Eisenhower administration, with a US foreign policy courting the Arab block. Egypt's Nasser was seen as a key, and the US did not want Egypt to fall under the Soviet sphere (think Domino Theory). France and England had different ideas, and Israel cooperated with them over the Suez Canal. France's struggles in Algeria also pushed them towards Israel, and it was in fact the French who gave the Israelis the necessary tools and skills to develop the bomb. Karpin does a strong job of detailing the personalities and alliances that made this possible. From there the next stage concerns how Israel courted the leadership of the United States and eventually got to the point where American would not ask difficult questions, and would stand by Israel's side. For somebody who has a beginner's grasp of the relevant history, this is fascinating.

There's also some discussion of Israel's posturing of its weapon. The bomb in the basement refers to the fact that it is seen as a weapon of last resort, a defensive weapon, as opposed to most other countries who have held out at least the possibility of first-strike use. They have the bomb, but won't say they have the bomb. And that in itself is saying something.

Karpin's efforts are weaker when he is not talking about heads of state or head of programs. His description of how atomic weapons work leaves something to be desired, and he doesn't go into many technical details. The later may be due to issues around secrecy and censorship. In many places in his book, he has the words "according to foreign sources," as is required by the Israeli military censors who vetted the book, a requirement of Israeli law for any work detailing Israeli defense matters.

Karpin's work is a good introduction to a complex field. Well worth the read if the topic interests you.

Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery

Scott Kelly (2017)

Adding this to works by Chris Hadfield and Mike Mullane, I guess I like astronaut books. Scott Kelly is one of a pair of twin astronauts, and he spent a year on the ISS. It's his brother who is married to the congresswoman who was shot. This is a very good book. Unlike most astronauts, Scott Kelly didn't set out from a very young age to go to space. His resume includes things like "barely passed high school" and "had to repeat the first year of college." His math skills entering his 20s were far below what you would expect from an astronaut, but he put his mind to his career, and didn't give up. This book alternates, with some chapters covering his autobiography, and some detailing his year in space. At times this is a little confusing, especially when he details his previous flights.

Kelly comes across as a real human being. Most astronauts seemingly wear capes and are bullet-proof, but he talks about his lack of academic motivation in his first two decades, and his broken marriage. There are also insights on working with others, both in space and in getting ready for space. This is a part of every astronaut's narrative, but I felt that in this case there was an authenticity that sometimes isn't always there for others.

His transition from being an unmotivated, distracted student to an overachiever is one of the main thrusts of the book. At one point he talks about turning the corner academically, and taking pride in knowing how to study and learn. He claims that had his college offered the major, he would have become a physicist. In fact, "I've sometimes thought if I were ever to become a college professor, I would want to teach first-year physics or calculus. Those foundation classes are make-or-break for students, and I think it would be rewarding to give young people the keys to learning hard things that I had figured out for myself." Damn, the astronaut wants my job.

I got to meet Scott Kelly a few years ago. He was with one of his daughters, and they were talking about her upcoming flight on the "vomit comet" so she could experience weightlessness. It was important to Kelly, that he be able to share this aspect of his lived experience with his daughter. This was just something that had randomly come up in conversation, and I felt that it was very touching, it would have been a little bit after his year in space, and it would be one way to reconnect with a family member after a very long separation.

Astronaut biographies are a niche genre, but this is one of the good ones.

The astronaut said that I had a cool jacket.

Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War

by Paul Kennedy (2013)

When I was reading this book, I kept thinking "How am I going to avoid damning this with faint praise?" In the end I decided this wasn't going to be a problem, as there doesn't seem much space for praise at all.

To start, the book is poorly titled. Picking it up off a bookshelf, one would gather from the title that this book is about engineers and how their projects turned the tide in World War II. The author does a good job of setting up the problems faced by the Allies in five different aspects of the war, and then walks the reader through the solutions. But in almost all of the cases there are many parts to the puzzle, and many of those different parts have little to do with improved technology. For the most part, instead we get management solutions. That's all fine and good, but the book is not titled "Managing Victory."

So the publisher and author agreed upon a poor name for the book, must we judge it by its cover, should not we instead see how well it stands on the merits of its contents? Sadly, it doesn't hold up very well. The topics we read about are complex, have many pieces, and the author bounces between fine details and broad strategic statements. He makes the case that the war was won because the environment created by mid-level managers on the side of the allies, and seems to ignore the role of the leaders higher up. In a long chapter devoted to the war in the Pacific, Yamamoto gets less than a paragraph.

Worse still, for an author who is thinking big, there are some things he gets just plain wrong. He claims that Japan should have attempted an invasion of Hawaii. This is nuts. Japan could not have transported troops across the Pacific and landed an invasion force, they did not have the ships or landing craft. What makes this especially galling is that one of the five main chapters in the book covers the difficulties of successfully putting troops on the beach. It's a complete disconnect.

There are some interesting stories and tidbits in this book. But I'm not sure I'd trust some of the larger conclusions, and certainly wouldn't recommend it to others.

The Soul of a New Machine

Tracy Kidder (1981)

The Soul of a New Machine has achieved cult status. Perhaps due to too high expectations, I was disappointed. While it was awarded a Pulitzer when it was published, I don't think it has aged well. The book concerns a team at Data General and their push to create a new chunk of hardware, but in a part of the world where everyone knows someone in the computer industry, is there anything here you didn't already know? This is too familiar to be of more than passing interest (in fact, at one point a character pops up and I recognized the name - he used to come over to my house to play poker with my father). On top of the "I've already heard this before" problem, I also felt that the tale was incomplete. It had the feel of a journalist who arranged his schedule for a project of a certain length, and then when the team's calendar slipped, the writer couldn't cover the latter part of the story. When the computer finally was built, its place in history isn't well covered. Did it have the effect on the industry that management promised? Was it blown out of the water by a competitor? How did it affect the corporate structure of Data General? Again, it felt like the author rushed to finish. As for the cult status, I'm sure if a good journalist sat down and tackled what it is like to be in physics grad school, I'd sit down and say "Wow, she nailed it! The tone, mood, and descriptions here are perfect!" And to me it would be a great book. As for the rest of the population, they probably wouldn't care. Quite frankly, a decades-later retrospective would probably be more interesting than the main text. If you are part of the industry, this is probably a great read (and if you were putting together hardware in the late 70s, it's amazing), on the other hand, for everyone else it's a deeper version of a story you've heard before, but not different enough to be worthy of its reputation.

Leonardo and the Last Supper

by Ross King (2012)

I really wanted to like this book, but in the end had to admit that it would have been a much better effort if it had half as many pages. The scope should be narrow, in fact, limited to its actual title. To some extent, it is. It does not serve as a general biography of Leonardo (although there's a pretty good amount of information), nor does it cover at any real depth any of Leonardo's other work outside of his never-completed giant bronze horse (and this work was included because it loomed in the background of Leonardo's time in Milan).

That being said, there was far too much material on side-topics. Yes, it is important to understand the world Leonardo lived in, especially since his patron at the time was right in the middle of Italian politics, but far too much of the book dealt with the drama of the Sforza dynasty in Milan and the various military campaigns that took place during the painting of the Last Supper. A paragraph or two every chapter would have been far less distracting, and would have gotten then job done. This also goes for things like Leonardo's sketched flying machines, his taste in clothing, and his overall level of mathematical skill (note to author, it is ironic that you mock Leonardo's addition, but then turn around and claim that a tetrahedron is a pyramid and an octahedron is a diamond - this is another danger of too many side-topics, it is easy to stray into an area where the author is out of his depth, and then writes something silly).

Most of what is written about the painting itself, both the actual task of creating the art, and the analysis of the actual image, is good. While I felt that I had a better understanding of the Last Supper, the actual amount of content is more at the level of a strong magazine article than it is a book. Worse still, some of the analysis provided goes towards debunking plot elements from The Da Vinci Code. Granted, that work of fiction has sold an crazy amount of copies and spawned two blockbuster movies, but spending pages refuting fiction does not raise the level of this book in my eyes. Decent histories of the space program do not devote time to dealing with the "moon landings are a hoax" crowd.

The final verdict is that there is an interesting short book buried somewhere in here. The bad news is that you need to filter out the military/political history of Milan under Ludovico Sforza and a dozen other sub-threads that subtract from the narrative as a whole, and it is probably not worth your effort.

There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America

Alex Kotlowitz (1991)

I moved to Chicago in the summer of 1994. I lived in a not-so-nice neighborhood, if I left anything outside of my house, it would disappear, and routinely even things inside my house would disappear (one roommate lost a bicycle every year for four years running). During summer months, when people were out on the streets, I could hear gunfire every night. But I had no confusion that I was living in a bad neighborhood. In Chicago in the 1990s (and before and after), that meant talking about the CHA public housing projects. In August of 1994, Yummy Sandifer, an 11-year-old gang member, shot a 14-year-old girl. His fellow gang members, feeling the heat, executed him. The two who did the deed were 14 and 16. A few months later Eric Morse was dropped from a 14-story window of a CHA building. He was 5. His killers, aged 10 and 11, did this because Eric refused to steal candy for them. The State of Illinois reacted by lowering the prison age to 10. In Chicago, children were doing horrific things.

Alex Kotlowitz spent two years following two boys growing up in the projects, and titled the book after something their mother said, "There are no children here." To say that the story is bleak is an understatement. The mother talks about someday having a child that graduates from high school. To put this in perspective, she has eight children. The four oldest all have criminal records, starting in their early teens. The one relative who does graduate from high school is a mother of four at graduation. Everything is crazy, including the discovery of hundreds of new appliances in the basement of their CHA building, while nothing in their apartment actually works (the new appliances have to be junked due to water damage from improper storage).

Kotlowitz's pre-dates many derivative works in this genre, and is a standout. In an afterword he also details his investigative style, how he could properly write about things when he was not there and the witnesses were mainly children. He also admits to giving the family money, most in small quantities, but a larger amount when one person needs bail. On the other hand, his actions as a writer caused the family to lose their federal benefits for a period, so perhaps all is fair, but he does admit to crossing some journalistic lines.

Like the movie Hoop Dreams (Kotlowitz is a friend of one of the creators of that classic), you are left wondering twenty years later how things turned out. Sadly, for the most part, not very well. The two boys have been in and out of prison in their adult lives. On the other hand, as I was leaving Chicago the process of dismantling the worst aspects of the CHA had begun. Now there are no more high rises filled with the misery detailed in the book. This is not to say that all the problems have been solved, or even many of the problems, but at least some of the big ones have been addressed.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Erik Larson (2015)

I was at a conference in Dallas a few years back and I took a few minutes to wander through the hotel's sculpture garden. I was shocked to find a propeller from the Lusitania. Yes, a big chunk of the ocean liner sunk by a U-boat way back in 1915. Wait a minute, you think, was the Lusitania really sunk in 1915, after all, it was the reason the the United States entered World War I, and that didn't happen until 1917. Well, the version of history most people are taught plays a little fast-and-loose with the timeline of events. The mighty ocean liner was sunk in 1915, but it was Germany's adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare, plus a promise to Mexico of the recovery of Texas and the American Southwest if Mexico would join Germany in case of war, that pushed the US into the fray in 1917.

So is this a book about the sinking of the Lusitania and the global politics that surrounded that event? No. Even though I'm not a big fan of the topic and structure of the book, the thrust is right there in the subtitle, it's a description of the ship's last crossing, or, more to the point, the minutiae of a handful of owning-class who left accounts of their experiences (yes, there were plenty of non upper-crust people on the ship; they got lead coffins rather than the embalming granted to "First Class" passengers). I found myself thinking again and again "I don't care about this person," and I also knew that since I was reading their story, they probably survived. And since politics played such a small role, I really didn't need to know about Woodrow Wilson's love life (although since so much time was spent on it, Larson could have at least pointed out that Wilson's new wife would later act as de facto President when he was crippled by a stroke, she wasn't just a pretty face).

It's unfair to reject this book because I would have written a different one, but a book that spent more time on the ethics of submarine warfare, the naval technologies of the day, and the politics that drove the strategies in play would have been more to my taste. That's not what this book is, but Larson did a good job of bringing his characters back to life. If you like this kind of history, it's a good read.


by Erik Larson (2006)

I read this book a few weeks after completing Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic, which followed the lives of President Garfield, the lunatic who assassinated him, and Alexander Graham Bell. This book, written four years prior, has a somewhat similar structure. It covers a notorious murder in London in the first decade of the 1900s, and the rise of Marconi, the inventor of the radio. Larson is an excellent writer, but the story he tackles is small in comparison to Millard's.

The first question should be the relationship between the murder and Marconi. It is a slim one. The prime suspect flees England, and is uncoved by a ship's captain. This is near the dawn of radio, and Marconi's invention is the only way the captain can commuicate with the investigators at Scotland Yard. It feels like a stretch, the pairing of these two stories.

The more interesting of the two is Marconi's development of radio. He did not have a scientific background (although, in fairness, the physicists of the day were clearly going down the wrong path), and tinkered and experimented his way to success without any deep understanding of what he was doing. This was a very early version of the technology, and all that could be transmitted was Morse code, rather than voice. Larson repeatedly slams scientific and business people for not understanding the long-term uses of radio, but in its form at the time it was a niche product. Marconi spent fortunes to build a system that could broadcast across the Atlantic, but there were already plenty of underwater telegraphic cables that could transmit Morse code with better efficiency. Until transformational improvements to the technology were made, the main place where radio was useful was in ship-to-shore communication, where of course there were no telegraph cables.

This isn't a bad book, you can read it in an afternoon. On the other hand, I wouldn't shuffle it to the top of your reading stack.

Chernobyl 01:23:40: The Incredible True Story of the World's Worst Nuclear Disaster

Andrew Leatherbarrow (2016)

I found that I liked this book. In fact, I liked it a lot. I'm forced to wonder if I'm grading on reduced expectations. Let me explain. Leatherbarrow isn't a historian, journalist or science writer. He's just a guy who made a hobby of learning a lot about the Chernobyl. Using the crown-sourcing abilities of the internet, he was able to get somebody to edit his work, and at least some science eyeballs on it (I found no screamers, which is more that I can say of some books that come out of the more traditional publishing route), and this self-published work made it into the mainstream.

So what are its strengths? Well, the science holds up pretty well. The book itself is not overly technical, but it does get the nuts-and-bolts right when he goes in that direction. There's an account of not just what happened during the night in question, but also a good history of the response, the largest peacetime operation by a military, as he correctly points out. There's a good deal of humanity, something that is missed in some other treatments.

Where does it work less well? We get an account of Leatherbarrow's visit to the site, and to the abandoned city that supported it. This helps to pad out the book, but tends to wander. I don't need to know about his night time adventure hike in Kiev, nor his experiences at the shooting range. For somebody who is not a professional writer, it's a pretty good complaint that reading his accounts of his own personal narrative isn't as strong as his writing on the heart of the book.

After reading this, I felt like I had a better grasp on a topic that I've been teaching for over a decade. That's a pretty solid recommendation. As for people with hobbies on the internet, there's a wide range, and this one seems near the top.

Chronic City: A Novel

Jonathan Lethem (2009)

My feelings towards this book are complicated. I needed a while to think before I wrote this review. At the end of the day, this really felt like the final tome of the Harry Potter series. What do I mean by that? Well, since no editor can tell J.K. Rowling what to do, we ended up with a book where it seemed like half the pages involved people whining in tents. Yes, Achilles also sulked in his tent, but that was one of the main points of the Iliad, whereas in Harry Potter it was just annoying. Jonathan Lethem is not J.K. Rowling. Nobody is. But he's a heavyweight, he's had a New York Times best seller, a National Book Critics Circle Award, of course a MacArthur, and he's now holding the professorship vacated by David Foster Wallace. So I suspect not too many editors make big changes, which is how we got this book. Replace "whining in tents" with "smoking weed in New York apartments," and there you go.

The front cover has a press blurb, "The Fortress of Solitude was a great novel. Chronic City... is even better." So I picked this book up with high expectations, as Fortress is one of my favorite books. It took me a while to get into it. In fact, I put it down for about a month. The two leads aren't that compelling. In Motherless Brooklyn is it near-impossible not to root for Lionel Essrog, and in Fortress Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude are deep characters where the reader has made a solid investment. Chase Insteadman, yes, that's really the lead, and Perkus Tooth don't have that gravitas. They aren't your friends, they're just people you hang out and share weed with. It's not that the characters, their development and their challenges aren't good, it's just that Letham has given us so much more in the past.

And make no mistake, it's still Lethem. About every third page you just have to stop and re-read a paragraph or set of lines for their beauty. "Often all language seems this way: a monstrous compendium of embedded histories I'm helpless to understand. I employ it the way a dog drives a car, without grasping how the car came to exist or what makes a combustion engine possible. That is, of course, if dogs drove cars. They don't. Yet I go around forming sentences." On top of the pleasure of how Lethem strings words together, there's also all kinds of imaginative twists and turns in the plot, and, in the final twenty or so pages, a big reveal. And when you think back at the clues that were dropped all along, it wasn't a big reveal at all. Lethem is one of those authors who is still willing to reward good readers.

If this book didn't have the words "Jonathan Lethem" on the cover, well, the editor would probably have trimmed this down into a shorter, better book. On the other hand, if I didn't go into this with Lethem expectations, I'd probably be a lot more forgiving of its flaws. Comparing it to Fortress or Motherless is a bit like holding Ran up to Seven Samurai or Yojimbo. Of course it won't measure up, but so what, it's still a solid work by an outstanding artist.

The Disappointment Artist: Essays

Jonathan Lethem (2005)

Lethem is one of the top authors of the 21st century. Or at least for his fiction he is, how do his essays stack up? He certainly is somebody who puts a lot of time and thought into things. OK, maybe obsessing is a better term. In one essay he talks about seeing Star Wars 21 times, followed up by 2001 21 times. When his interests line up with mine, I think those are fun in-depth pieces. He knows far more than I do about Marvel comics in the 1970s, and perhaps more than anyone on Philip K. Dick. And yes, he gained much of that comic book knowledge as a teenager, but that's the best time to take on that genre. And somehow the piece on a particular subway station worked.

On the other hand, the film stuff fell short. I could probably watch Star Wars 21 times, but I didn't get fixation on The Searchers, nor Cassavetes.

That being said, the pair of essays about his family gave strong insight into his auto-biographical works, Dissident Gardens and The Fortress of Solitude. I'm happy I read these after the fiction rather than before though. Honestly, at the end of the day, unless you are a fan of his other works, this is probably one you can skip.

Dissident Gardens

Jonathan Lethem (2013)

I've been flirting with this book for a while, I just didn't know it. The book opens with a woman getting kicked out of the American Communist Party. Wait a minute, this sounds familiar. Oh yes, I heard the author interviewed on NPR before the book came out, he was talking about how he based one of the characters after his grandmother. The next section has a young woman leaving a New York City party, ditching some of the people with her, and taking a young man on the subway. I've read the exact words before. Oh, now I remember, this was published as a short story in the New Yorker a while back.

Lethem is a great writer, but I think he overreached on this one. He spins a tale across three generations, and develops seven major characters (eight, if you count Greater New York City, which seems to be a character in most of his works). This is a long slog. At times it strays into the absurd, as if to relieve the work of producing such a complicated story. A quick list of these events includes too much time spent on a plot to bring a "revolutionary" baseball team to New York (we all know they got the Mets), a disturbing sex scene involving cousins (one dressed as Lincoln) and one of the character's descent into dementia featuring Archie Bunker. While I have my issues with this book, I will give Lethem props for writing strong women characters.

Everyone in the book is broken. But unlike Motherless Brooklyn, there's no Lionel Essrog to root for. Instead you end up having different levels of dislike or disinterest in the characters. Lethem has better works, read those first.

The Fortress of Solitude

Jonathan Letham (2003)

Simply put, The Fortress of Solitude is the best book I have read in a long long time. Letham is amazing, I'd often find myself repeating a page several times, simply for the pleasure of reading again a section of particularly well-constructed paragraphs. Midway through the book he shifts from third person to first person, and it works.

Like many of his books, New York City (well, Brooklyn) is front and center, as are mothers, by their absence. Write what you know. This is undoubtably autobiographical, except for the parts you are forced to doubt, like the ring that gives the main characters super powers. It follows the life arc of Letham's stand-in and several characters from the neighborhood, from youth to their mid-thirties, as they survive their childhoods and suffer in the resulting adulthoods.

In many ways this book reminded me of Gary Shteyngart's Little Failure. Both are autobiographical, both take place in New York, both feature outsiders. The fictional Letham, Dylan Abdus, goes to Stuyvestant High School, as does the real-life Shteyngart (in reality, Letham went to Music & Art). They also paint very similar pictures of college. Of course, Shteyngart is reality, and was also published a decade after Fortress.

If you read one work of fiction this year, make it this book.

A Gambler's Anatomy: A Novel

by Jonathan Lethem (2016)

This was a disappointment. Were my expectations too high? 2016 was a year when many of my favorite authors had new works. Egan's work was good, and both Roach and Whitehead knocked it out of the park. So the table was set for one of my favorite authors of the 21st century.

This book clocks in shorter than his recent novels. I felt like I read a decent fraction of it when The New Yorker published an except. As he's one of their favorites, they also did that for Dissident Gardens, but that was a monster tome. The main character in this one, hides behind a mask, as do some of the others. This is literal for a good part of the book, as his face has been carved up by surgery. It's a little hard to see at what Lethem is getting at, as that's such a transparent symbol. It's balanced by extensive use of backgammon, which is completely opaque to me, and I assume this is true for the vast majority of the readership.

It's certainly a Lethem book. It's set in a place where he's lived (Berkeley this time) and there is an absent mother. But outside of a few sections that describe the surgery, where the protagonist's face is removed to extract a cancer, there aren't any passages where I lingered on the page, reading and re-reading beautifully constructed sentences and paragraphs. The coda felt tacked-on, and felt out of character with what we had seen for the balance of the book.

At the end of the day, this is lives with Chronic City, yes it's Lethem, but it's not top-drawer Lethem.

Men and Cartoons: Stories

Jonathan Lethem (2005)

Prior to reading this, my last two Lethem experiences were Dissident Gardens, which tracked many characters over its 384 pages, and Chronic City which clocked in at 480 pages. Lest you think I simply don't like his longer works, I loved Fortress of Solitude at a whopping 528 pages. But I was ready for something on the briefer side. Hence a dip into his short stories.

Simply put, they aren't as good. Being short stories, you don't get the character development you get in a novel. But that should be expected. What wasn't is the lack of "I want to read that paragraph again" feeling one so often gets when reading Lethem. Yes, there's a great line where he invokes Brando in "Apocalypse on the Bounty," but there's a certain beauty that I've come to expect from him that wasn't there.

The very last story was a treat though. He plays a role in it, interviewing a crab that was a TV star (yeah, Letham's imagination can go in weird ways sometimes). But Lethem-as-interviewer keeps being surprised that the actual interactions and relationships between the actors didn't match up to what they were on the TV screen. In theory, people understand that actors are different than the characters they portray. What am I to take from this? That the characters in his semi-autobiographical books shouldn't be nearly as identified with him as I have presumed? I'm not sure.

Jonathan Lethem is a great novelist. His essays are uneven. I think I'm going to claim the same is true for his short stories. Some are hits, some are misses. I'd say a fan will wish for more, but that's a statement about quality over quantity.

Motherless Brooklyn

Jonathan Lethem (1999)

Catch-22 was one of my favorite books growing up. It lead me to read the rest of Joseph Heller's oeuvre, which is unfortunate. No, Something Happened isn't worth your time. Reading Motherless Brooklyn left me with a sinking feeling. It is such a good book, fun, well-paced, with some of the most interesting characters I've run across in a very long time, am I being suckered into reading the rest of Lethem's writing, hoping to find a book as good as this one?

This book in wonderful. The main character, Lionel Essrog, is a detective with Tourette's Syndrome. OK, detective is perhaps too strong a word, at least at the start of the novel. The title of the book refers to Essrog and three other orphans who were mentored by the head of the agency who is killed at the start of the story (well, close enough to the start that I don't feel like it's a spoiler alert). He makes it his mission to unravel the mystery of who killed his mentor. And in its own right this is a good tale. But damn, that's not what makes this book.

Lethem's voice as Essrog is amazing. It's not often I read a piece of fiction and like the protagonist. Sure, I'll think that the character development is good, or that the author did a good job of making the hero three-dimensional, but it's rare that I just plain genuinely like central figure. I actively rooted for Lionel. This book is a very fun ride, which reminded me at times of Jim Jarmusch's movie Ghost Dog. Don't check it out from the library or steal it on the internet, go out and buy a copy of this book. You won't be sorry.

Post-script: I've come to view this book at Lego Batman. What do you mean by that, David? Well, for years I wanted Lethem to come out with a sequel, but given that we are nearly two-decades past-due, that's not going to happen. I'm at peace with that now. My son wants a Lego Batman sequel. I think that Lego Batman was one of the greatest movies ever made. Or at least I'll put the first 20 minute of that film up against anything you are willing to offer. But a sequel wouldn't work because Lego Batman told its story; Lego Batman can only be fully realized by his relationships. He's better as part of a team, he needs the enemy that makes him wake up in the morning to hone his craft. Sure, you could make another movie starring Lego Batman, but it would be plot-driven, as you've developed Lego Batman's character in the original into the place where it needed to go. Yes, I'd love to see the return of Lionel Essrog, but is there another Lionel Essrog story, as opposed to another story with Essrog in it? Like I said, I'm at peace.

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist

by Thomas Levenson (2009)

This book certainly gives another side of Newton. Yes it covers the basics, Sir Isaac's discoveries of calculus, mechanics, gravitation and optics (including the needle in the eye story), but also focuses on what Newton did after he hung up his spikes in the scientific sphere. Running the Royal Mint is an interesting story.

Often economics isn't interesting, or more accurately, isn't presented in an interesting fashion. Most people roll their eyes and start drooling when devaluation of currency is covered, but Levenson does as good a job tackling the ins-and-outs of how money works as he does discussing physics. The problem that England and Newton faced was well explained.

Sadly, Newton's foil isn't that imposing. The counterfeiter in question isn't up to task of facing down one of the smartest men in history. Worse yet, Newton as a detective is oversold. It's not like Newton threw down great Sherlock Holmes deductions or busted out 1600's CSI, he simply took advantage of a legal system that didn't enjoy the protections we take for granted with the Bill of Rights. Detective work in this case came down to keeping people in jail for a long time, threats of death sentences, and extensive use of jailhouse informants.

"How Newton solved the currency crisis" would make a better book, but it would have lacked the drama that this book promises. The Newton parts are strong, but the genius vs. mastermind criminal hype is oversold. If you want great physicists and trials, read about Galileo. This book is worth buying, even if you should skip a section or two.

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South

by Bruce C. Levine (2013)

The Confederate battle flag, otherwise known as the Stars and Bars, has fifteen stars on it. But the Confederate States of America could persuade only thirteen states to leave the Union. Kentucky and Missouri were the two border slave states that the Confederacy somehow counted in its tally (Maryland and Delaware were the other two slave states that remained loyal). I didn't realize this until I read this book. The Civil War has always been a weak spot in my knowledge of history, and this book did a great deal to fill in gaps.

The subtitle is the key as to why I was able to get through this book, The Civil War and the Social Revolution. Most accounts are retellings of battles between armies and difficulties Lincoln had with generals that weren't the same caliber as the South's Robert E. Lee. Those get repetitive, and in the back-and-forth sometimes it is hard to form a story arc. Levine takes another approach, labeling this war as the Second American Revolution, and traces the downfall of slavery (and therefore the Powers That Were in the South).

In doing so, Levine paints an interesting picture. First we see how the South rested upon the backs of slaves, how its economic power was derived from bondage, but just as importantly, how the way of living of the landed gentry (and also many of the poorer whites) was defined in relation to slavery. As time moves forwards, and the nation expands, the future role of slavery becomes the issue that tears the nation apart, climaxing at the election of Lincoln, which causes South Carolina to lead the bulk of the South out of the Union.

But the South was not monolithic. The political power, no doubt, was cut from the same cloth. For the most part they were all planters, meaning men rich enough to live on plantations with dozens, if not hundreds of slaves. But most whites in the South did not own slaves. Most thought that the war would end quickly, but when it did not, cracks started to appear along economic lines. Behind the facade of States' Rights, the soldiers of the Confederacy understood that they were fighting to preserve slavery, and if you did not own slaves, you had less to fight for. This became more apparent when you got a letter from home from your wife, complaining that while she struggled to grow crops to feed your family, the plantation down the road was using its hundreds of slaves to grow cotton to fatten the planter's wallet. And it became even worse when a draft was instituted, a draft that exempted owners of plantations greater than 20 slaves.

The book does follow some battles, but descriptions are usually less than a page or so in length, and serve mainly as signposts for the progress of the war (the Fall of Atlanta meant that Lincoln's re-election was no longer in doubt). At the start of the war, Lincoln's aim was to preserve the Union as best as possible, and as a result he took no actions towards ending slavery (especially since his decrees would have no effect in the Confederacy, and could drive Kentucky and Missouri into claiming the stars already on the enemy's flag). As time wore on, however, it became clear that the Confederates would not rejoin the Union peacefully, and that having slaves was an important part of their military structure. A series of measures, and ultimately the Emancipation Proclamation, followed by the enlistment of freed African-Americans, slowly but surely stripped the South of its slaves. Levine argues many of these actions merely confirmed facts on the ground.

In the end, if one totalled up all the African-Americans who served in the Union military, one would get a number larger than the size of any single army fielded by the Confederacy during the war. When both Charleston (the capital of South Carolina, where the Confederacy was born) and Richmond (the capital of the Confederacy) fell, the first troops in were African-American elements of the Union Army. Towards the end of the war, some in the Confederacy were willing to admit slaves into their army, with the condition of freedom upon victory. This failed for two reasons. One is that many Southern whites would have refused to serve in the same army, and the second is that the slaves knew that the only reason that the offer was on the table was that the South was about to lose the war. If they served and the South won, they would get their freedom, but their families would not. If they refused, they would all be freed when the North won.

Had there been no Civil War, slavery could have wheezed its way well into the 20th century. Instead, the upheaval of society and the military conquest of the South ended the institution in 1865. Towards the end of the war, even the most die-hard Southerner knew that slavery was done. Yet, as a person in the book noted, there are many shades of freedom. Turning to Ireland, the English dominated the Irish economically, and as a result, freedom did not mean equality, or respite from exploitation. In the last few pages Levine notes that the lives of former slaves peaked during Reconstruction, and then came Jim Crow laws and other injustices that were not fully addressed until a century after the Civil War. Hopefully there is a second volume in the works that will trace these stories.

This is an excellent book, and needs to be read.

Freakonomics [Revised and Expanded]: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2006)

I liked this book a lot. They make a big deal about how Levitt "doesn't think like an economist," but to be honest, what he's really doing is applying critical thinking to "real world" problems rather than stereotypical dry economics problems. If he didn't profess to have problems with calculus, I'd claim that he's simply a physicist who was somehow trained in the wrong field.

This book bounces from topic to topic, using math and logic to examine questions such as "is professional sumo is rigged?" (it is), "is drug dealing is a high-paying job?" (like athletics, you only make good money if you are at the very top) and many others. The fact that they've asked some really interesting questions is as important as their solutions.

Every once in a while they tend to get high-handed. They claim that they are the first to explore abortion's affect on the crime rate. They back this up by searching old newspaper articles about causes of changes in the crime rate, but that isn't exactly an exhaustive search. When I was an undergraduate in the early 1990s, the role of abortion on future crime rates was always a topic raised in ethics classes. I got the feeling that at times they may have been lazy in looking at how others have previously examined their topics.

In any case, this is a fun book that can be read in a weekend. Pick up a copy.

Liar's Poker

by Michael Lewis (1989)

I wanted to read this before I tackled The Big Short, Lewis's account of the recent financial melt-down, as Liar's Poker is seen as a prequel by many. Lewis worked at Salomon Brothers at the start of his career, before transitioning to life as a journalist. Liar's Poker is his account of the fall of the company that brought bond trading into the fast lane.

If what he writes is true, then it should come as no real surprise that Wall Street collapsed. We always hear about physicists that go off to financial careers (I know more than a few), but according to Lewis the place is a drunken jockocracy (Howard Cosell made up that word, not me. Not that any one knows who Howard Cosell is these days). The financial companies would recruit at top schools, and select for "alpha" behavior. Sure, they would hire some nerds, but more or less that's because the frat boys on steroids needed somebody to bully. Math played a role in the business, but a very small role.

Mix into this the problem that the person handling accounts isn't really working for the investors, but the companies. In some sense this is always true, you are being directly paid by your employers, not your customers, but since the company often made institutional investments, often the bad choices would be pushed off on investors, who would then be left holding the bag. When compensation was calculated, it didn't matter how many happy customers you had, it mattered how much money you made the company, and while in theory there's a correlation, the employees often just viewed the customers as potential victims.

Compensation was also interesting. All throughout the book I was amazed at how small the numbers were. Not only in the over all transactions, but the money going to the folks all along the food chain. This was Wall Street in a simpler age.

The book does a good job of placing three stories side-by-side. You have Lewis's entry into Salomon Brothers (as an art history major he got in through a side-door), Salomon Brothers' earlier rise due to its pioneering efforts in the mortgage-backed bonds market (you kind of have to keep shaking your head, knowing the future), and the downfall of Salomon Brothers as a victim of corporate raiders (with the insight that they should have been at the front of that wave too, but for the inherent infighting due to the eat-or-be-eaten attitude you get when you let the alphas run loose).

A very good book that can be read on the beach, go out and get a copy.

The Definitive H.P. Lovecraft: 67 Tales of Horror in One Volume

by H.P. Lovecraft (2009)

It's a bit hard to judge a massive collection like this. There are nearly 1100 pages, and when your author was a pulp writer, a good number of those pages are simply going to be trash. Certainly there's a lot of good writing in here, Lovecraft was a giant in the field of horror. Still, there are many stories that just ramble on for page after page. The poor handling of chapters in the electronic version makes this especially troublesome.

The collection also suffers from a lack of organizing principle. Or at least, I can't find a good one. If all of the short stories were in one section, all of the novels somewhere else, that would have made things easier. Or perhaps all of the Cthulhu material in one section, all of the dreamworld mythos somewhere else. Instead you just jump around from one piece to the next, in roughly alphabetical order. A few hours of thought by the editors would have greatly improved this aspect.

The publication date is a little misleading, as Lovecraft has been dead for roughly three-quarters of a century. His xenophobia, sexism and racism, all products of his era and background, are on full display in many of these stories. Some also feel dated by the fact that as a pioneer in the genre, his less-polished pieces come across as poor parodies when read nearly a century after their initial debut. That being said, his better stories do hold up as classics.

It is best to not toss out the baby with the bath water. I can remember back twenty five years to a period where I would scour second-hand book stores, looking for paperback collections of his work, a novel here, a collection of short stories there. To have access to the main body of his work all in one place, just a mouse click away, is a good thing. But be ruthless and skip through the book, much of it is not worth your time.

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914

by Margaret MacMillan (2014)

In the years leading up to and including 2014, we are going to see a freight-train's worth of World War I books. This is the conflict that defined the real start to the 20th century, and laid the framework for World War II and hence also the Cold War. MacMillan's treatment of the events leading up to the Great War came with high praise, it made many critic's lists, so I had high expectations.

This is not a bad book. In fact, it is pretty good. Does it live up to the hype? I don't think so. To be fair, I've read far too much World War I, but when I went through the book it didn't compare well to the very best of its competition. When it was covering the naval race between Great Britain and Germany, it wasn't Massie's Dreadnought. It didn't cover the personalities as well as Tuchman's Proud Tower. Nor did it hit the politics at the level of Clark's Sleepwalkers. Is this damning? Those are classics. But if you are adept in the field, you've read them, and MacMillan's book isn't quite there.

There were also two things that ran through the book that got annoying to the point that I considered inventing drinking games as a response. MacMillan continually pointed out that what was seen as a defensive adjustment by the country that made it could be interpreted as an offensive gesture by the country's opponents. That horse was beaten well past the grave. Secondly, MacMillan kept making comparisons to today's world. The up-and-coming Germany was like today's China, the Kaiser's attitudes towards Slavic people matched some right-wing US views on Mexicans. In a charitable view, MacMillan is helping the reader understand the events of the past by invoking today, but it really does have the feel of "you need to understand history if you don't want to repeat it, let me connect the dots for you." I'm an intelligent, well-educated adult, I don't need this spoon-fed to me.

The final verdict? If you are well-versed in the topic, this doesn't add much. If you are new to the topic, it is worth the read.

Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat

Anastacia Marx de Salcedo (2015)

This turned out to be a really good book. There are parts where it drags, Marx's writing on history and politics isn't great (wow, did I just write that?), and I got bored with her description of personalities, but damn, when Marx gets down to brass-tacks science she shines. It's tempting to compare her with Mary Roach, after all, this book overlaps with things like Gulp and Grunt, but outside of a few sections, Marx doesn't attempt the humor that is Roach's bread and butter.

The introduction is strong, Marx talks about being a slow-food, heritage foodie. She didn't want her kids to eat industrialized cafeteria food at school, so she made their lunches by hand. Well, assembled, she hand-made lunches that contained processed food. She started reading the labels more carefully, discovering that Annie's mac and cheese, a supposed "good for your kids" option, had the same ingredients and nutritional makeup as the dreaded Kraft's mac and cheese. Then she compared her lunches to the cafeteria, and saw that the cafeteria was much better. The food was less processed (and hence had fewer ingredients), was cooked in large batches so was less energy intensive, and since it was made from large sacks and cans of ingredients as opposed to four or five individualized servings, was much better at not generating waste. And was far more competitive on cost. This lead Marx to take a closer look at the industrial food chain, and here we find the involvement of the military.

There's a lot of classic Eisenhower Military-Industrial Complex here, the military wants vendors who can deliver on large contracts, and as a way of greasing the wheels, the technology that is developed on taxpayer money is then turned around to serve the commercial market. Think powerbars. Those were totally developed to feed soldiers, their development was heavily financed and influenced by the Pentagon, and now we civilians chow down on them at an amazing rate. The part in the book where this is described went longer than I'd prefer, and I don't think I'm an anti-policy person, I think it was just a little dry. It's a simply story to tell, describe it and then move on. Yes, it completely distorts the free market, but nobody who has even the most simple understanding of the agriculture bills in this country thinks that food and the free market have anything to do with each other. And perhaps this isn't a bad thing. Towards the end of the book it's noted that of the first two million men to be screened for the military in World War II, nearly half of them were rejected due to the effects of malnutrition. Granted, that's coming off of the Great Depression, but even in the "there's nothing but junk food" vision of current America, our big problems are obesity related, not malnutrition related. That points to a triumph of our food system.

Marx goes through a quick history of food, where she plays a little Roach (thankfully skewering the gendered versions of the abandonment of hunting and gathering in favor of agriculture). From there we go through the history of ancient warfare, but honestly, the treatment is light, and when we eventually hit specifics of the US Army, things bog down in the details. However, the history of chocolate, and how Milton S. Hershey's substitution of cheap local milk for some of the more expensive cacao revolutionized the industry, is another story entirely.

Two topics, the development of meat and bread, really shine. In the old days meat was meat, meaning that you took some animal, chopped it up, and fed it to soliders or civilians. How often do you eat meat like that anymore? Once we had to ship cow parts overseas (and 29 million cows were slaughtered for American service people in WWII), we discovered that cows are shaped kind of funny, and don't pack well. So instead of butchering near the end of the supply chain, we now butcher at the start, and send out select cuts of meat, or ground up product. This gave rise to things like industrially produced hot dogs. Speaking of rising, traditional bread is kind of a pain. A baker spends a lot of time mixing the ingredients, waiting for the bread to rise, baking, and then the bread is only good for a day or two. Science has really changed bread. We can get a much shorter rising time by pumping up the amount of yeast. This short-circuits some of the food chemistry, so we add in more gluten (which may or may not be causing all kinds of health problems in the industrialized world. Finally, we add microbial enzymes to give the bread a shelf-life of two weeks; the bread-makers (I hesitate to label the modern version of these people as proper bakers) love this last part, as microbial enzymes are "natural" they don't need special labelling on the final product, in fact, modern breads have far fewer "chemicals" that mass-produced breads had a generation or two ago.

Outside of the actual food, in the span of a few pages Marx also points out how different our landscape is due to the military. Containerized shipping, which has lowered transport costs by 90%, was greatly advanced by military adoption, and then you get things like microwave ovens, dishwashers, plastic utensils and the like. Even without the direct food aspects, the military has had a huge footprint. Bizarre if true, we were able to jumpstart aluminum foil production because the military needed to surplus 150,000 airplanes after WWII, creating a glut of cheap aluminum.

And finally, can I just say that I love the cover art? This book is pretty good. It's not Mary Roach good, but that's a fairly high standard. It's well worth your read. And I'll be on the lookout for her next book too.

Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea

Robert K. Massie (2003)

Way back in 1991 Massie came out with his masterpiece Dreadnought, which covered how Germany and Great Britain became naval rivals, and how their two navies prepared for World War I. The book left off right as the war started, but a tome on the naval aspects of the Great War was promised. Years passed. Finally in 2003 Massie's follow-up was published.

Was it worth the wait? It's hard to judge this book only on its own merits. The reader always wants to go back to compare it to Dreadnought, and Castles just doesn't live up to the previous work. In Dreadnought Massie had a lot of personalities to play with, and a war account is going to be much drier. In fact, whereas getting to know all the sides of historical figures involved in politics makes the history that much more interesting, I found that knowing who-was-sleeping-with-whom was distracting in this case - "OK, but did it help him blow up more ships?" Prince Louis is an interesting character, but a few paragraphs rather than a chapter would have been better.

Still, Massie does deliver. Nearly 800 pages, with a good amount devoted to the small handful of important naval actions. The story is for the most part well told, and I had a hard time putting the book down. While I was at first dismayed to roughly 75 pages devoted to Gallipoli, I was amazed at how close things were down there. There's always the story about how the British could have walked up and claimed large chunks of the future battle field on the first day, but this is the first time I'd read about how low on ammunition the forts guarding the narrows were, and that the admiral on scene gave up because he had lost 3 of his 12 capital ships.

While that was fascinating, it was also frustrating. At Gallipoli a major turning point was lost because the admiral was protecting ships that were obsolete and were scheduled to be scrapped the next year in any case. In retrospect, the ships were truly disposable, and should have been treated as such (one might object that the same could not be said for the crews, but that's ignoring the daily slaughter that was WWI). The admiral could not make this sacrifice because navy officers have a deep-seated understanding of the concept of the value of the existence of a fleet. In nearly 800 pages covering the naval history of World War I, I did not read the words "Fleet in Being" once. That was the major use of the German High Seas Fleet. While the history was great, the discussions of strategy came up short. Could it have hurt Massie to review "Mahan for Dummies" at some point during the dozen years it took him to create the book? In a similar vein, he doesn't mention once that it was Germany's great chemical industry that allowed them to create munitions and fertilizer despite the British blockade.

This is a very good book, but it felt like with a little more breadth this could have gone to the next level.

Hell House

Richard Matheson (1971)

Many Biblical scholars agree that the story of the Flood in the Book of Genesis is descended from from a similar tale from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh may or may not be from an even earlier legend. In literature, there is the concept of "Ur-texts," which are the basis for later work. So why the lesson on what comes from where? Because it is hard for me to read Hell House without thinking of it as Ur-Stephen King. So many of the themes and stylings of King can be found in this earlier work. Matheson also wrote the short story "I Am Legend," which is an ur-text for the zombie genre, even though his posits vampires as his bad guys.

Ur-texts are often viewed as primitive or crude versions of the more polished later work. And this is true in several aspects when comparing Matheson to King. King's haunted-house story, The Shining, adds in details like "Indian Burial Ground." Matheson's doesn't quite have all of the pieces. It's also more crude in the literal sense. The level of sexual violence against women in Hell House is high. Niether of the women characters are three-dimensional (to be fair, the men aren't much better).

Topping all of this off is that one of the main characters is a physicist, and there's some not-so-great physics in here. He's mixing ideas of Faraday cages and the screening effects of lead. Yes, when you start with the concept of a haunted house there needs to be some suspension of disbelief, but if you are going to science some stuff up, do it right. Sure, this will bug no one else, but it bugged me.

From a story-telling point of view, Matheson keeps the plot moving, and reveals details as needed. He does a good job of building the suspense, but overall I just kept thinking "yeah, but I could be reading a better book by Stephen King right now."

While I think this is interesting simply because it spawned what followed, the amount of misogyny in the book lands it on my "not recommended" list.

The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man

by David W. Maurer (1940)

I'll admit that I don't know what to do with this book. I'm a huge fan of the movie The Sting, which centered around a swindle. This book lays out the classic con games, and gives histories of how they evolved, who were some of the major players (there really was a Gondorff), some of the supporting elements, and the lingo of the time. It's interesting, but far too long-winded. The book could easily be half or even a third as long, and I'm not sure how much I'd miss what was left on the cutting-room floor by a more competent editor.

On the other hand, the details are part of the charm. Some of the more complicated con games do need careful explanation. And the names of the characters are also worth a read. Noting that the book described events from the first three decades of the 20th century, all of these people are long dead: The Big Alabama Kid, Slobbering Bob, The High Ass Kid, Little Bert, Lonestar Jimmy, The Indiana Wonder, and Limehouse Chappie.

Glorifying criminals is never a great thing, but somehow big time grifters are a breed apart. Their victims are people who are both greedy and have a large amount of money to lose. A modern-day scammer can cast wide nets (think Nigerian princes), and hence can take advantage of anyone. To be hustled in the big con, you needed to have a large enough backroll to support the renting of rooms and the payment of a large cast of characters. This was no small operation, and hence had to target a certain class of marks.

So, I'm back where I started. I think I'm in this book's demographic, but it had a hard time holding my attention. If you see it for a few dollars, or can check it our from the library, it's worth a look. But since you might put it down very soon, don't invest too much.

Assembling California

John McPhee (1993)

John McPhee is a great writer. But a lot of his work is decades old, and some of it doesn't hold up very well. So one approach to take is to only read the McPhee books where the content won't age. This task is made easier by the fact the McPhee wrote a great deal about geography, and that changes, well, on geographic timescales. OK, it may be true that geology changes on timescales of millions and billions of years, but our understanding of geology can change very quickly; a big chunk of this book was written just after science accepted plate tectonics, and was still sorting out how different things worked. I wonder how much I can still believe, for example, the Rockies are like the Himalayas, created when a subcontinent whacked into a continent. OK, where's our India? In the book it is Alaska, which then slid sideways northwards to its current position. Except that at few minutes of Google-fu can't find modern references to that theory, so perhaps it no longer is believed. McPhee writes "I am following a science as it lurches forward from error to discovery and back to error. In my effort to describe some of the early discoveries of plate tectonics, I must also be preserving some of the early mistakes."

So perhaps we should toss aside some of the more speculative ideas about geography, should we toss aside this book? Not at all. Sure, sometimes geologist get things wrong, but that's the nature of the beast. McPhee's writing gives us strong insights, including that military intelligence prefers scientists who were trained in geology rather than physics or chemistry, the geologists are used to working with very incomplete information. That's where we have to view the outdated geological ideas, they were the most compelling stories with the evidence they had available.

This book is strongest when it connects with shorter timescales of history. For example, during the Civil War California stood on the left side of the continent, an outpost for the Union. And it funneled in five or six million dollars of cold hard gold a month to New York banks, which helped to keep the northern economy afloat. Or that in order to smelt the two hundred thousand tons of copper mined in Cyprus since antiquity (and Cyprus means copper, nobody knows which was named first) fifty-eight thousand square miles of forest had to be burned, on an island that is only thirty-six hundred square miles. In other words, over the years the mining industry has in effect burned down the island and replanted it sixteen times.

And of course the writing is top-notch. It takes a McPhee to observe of California geography that "Yuba City is the county seat of Sutter County, Marysville is the county seat of Yuba County, Auburn is the county seat of Placer County, Placerville is the county seat of El Dorado County, and El Dorado is the county seat of nowhere." Or that "to the conventional wisdom that one ought never to build on a floodplain, California has responded with its capital city."

Some McPhee stands the test of time. This book is in that pile.

The Control of Nature

John McPhee (1989)

I really like John McPhee, but an issue I have with much of his writing is that it is dated. So one way of avoiding this problem is to pick books where his topics aren't transitory. The Control of Nature is a good example. This book is a collection of three long pieces, each with the same overall theme, man's struggle against, you guessed it, nature.

The first essay concerns the Mississippi river. Rivers are alive. They wander across the landscape on long timescales. The lower chunk of the Mississippi, think most of Louisiana, flows past Baton Rouge and New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico. A huge number of petrochemical plants make use of the river in this stretch. The bad news is that this branch of the river is no longer natural, the Mississippi should have leaped its banks and sent its water into another path to the Gulf (a pre-existing river gets there in a more energy-efficient way, and nature is all about that). But when the US government recognized this in the 1950s, they didn't want to sacrifice Baton Rouge, New Orleans or any of the associated infrastructure. Instead, they had the Army Corps of Engineers keep doing what it had been already doing for roughly a century, continue to build structures to control the river. It's been reported for decades that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure observable from space. This isn't true, and besides, the controls on the Mississippi are longer and wider than the Great Wall. What's great about McPhee is that he respects his readers. When making the point that eventually nature will win, he points out that the proper comparison is not with the Great Wall, but instead the Maginot Line, and assumes that is a reference he does not need to explain. There are some sections where he talks about New Orleans's relationship to the water, its social structure in terms of neighborhood, and how the poor parts of town will be in big trouble if anything bad happens. He was a good decade-and-a-half ahead of the curve.

The second piece concerns man's battle against volcanoes, specifically one in Iceland that was fought with firehoses and also Hawaii's responses. Here you get an odd mix of characters, from a student of Niels Bohr who was one of the first to sit down and do the math of the thermodynamics of lava, to Pliny the Elder (who proclaimed "Fortune favors the bold!" as he sailed his ship closer to Vesuvius). The other parts of this book are constant in location (the Mississippi River, Los Angeles), and while both Iceland and Hawaii have volcanoes as a commonality, the shift in locale is a litte distracting.

Finally we have Los Angeles, or more specifically, the mountains about LA. Due to California's wonderful geology (it's not my fault), these mountains are rising faster than just about any other on the planet. But a cycle of wildfires that strip the vegetation and torrential rainstorms turbocharges erosion, causing massive landslides. Los Angeles has a complex system involving basins, controlled rivers, and other options to control the destructive flows of earth to the ocean. Wait a minute, you object, I've never heard of this, and I've lived in California my entire life. McPhee slyly admits part way in that he purposely didn't attach dates to his tales of events. The big disasters happen on a timescale long enough that they pass out of human memory. Sure, that side of the mountain slid down and wreaked havoc on the community below, but that was thirty years ago, and in California most people moved to their current houses well after that. The people in the know, geologists, county officials, zoning experts, they all know about this and help maintain the safeguards, but this is a battle the flies completely under the radar for most of the public.

All of these stories are good, although each has a seven-to-ten page segment that should have been trimmed out by a more grumpy editor. This is good writing, and not a bad introduction to McPhee.

The Curve of Binding Energy: A Journey into the Awesome and Alarming World of Theodore B. Taylor

by John McPhee (1974)

This is an old book, it was written in 1974. McPhee is an amazing writer, so even a thirty-five-year-old effort is worth the time. In some places it hasn't aged well - certain secrets are no longer classified and you wish there was an updated version with extensive footnotes. On the other hand, it speaks of the US nuclear energy in the early-mid seventies, right on the cusp of Three Mile Island. The projections made in the book are fascinating, undone both by our nation's turning away from growth in the nuclear segment of the power market combined with better conservation technology demanded by the various oil upheavals of the day.

But I digress. The topic of the book is the life and inventions of Ted Taylor, a physicist who was sent to the weapons lab at Los Alamos because, in so many words, he couldn't pass his grad school exams at Berkeley. He was quite good at his new job. He designed the Super Oralloy Bomb (SOB), which was the largest pure-fission weapon ever made. He was also involved in nuclear rocket design. Not bad for a guy who could not pass his departmental qualifiers in grad school. One of the main drawbacks of the book is that when it was written much of the details were classified, so Taylor would start discussing a project, and then pull back. It's hard to write a book when most of the juicy stories cannot be told.

The other thread that runs through the book is how easy it would be to build a bomb. There's one segment where Taylor runs through the construction steps, assuming barely-competent terrorists, and puts together a good-enough bomb (they keep talking about a bomb that would knock down the World Trade Center, while I assume that this is because the towers were brand-new when the book was being written, it is chilling). Along these lines they spend a great deal of space discussing how easy it would be to get plutonium. Back in those days the security wasn't very good, with nuclear materials being held in commercial facilities guarded by a security guard named Gus and his dog. Buying into the optimistic projections at the time, McPhee noted that soon more plutonium would be in the hands of the power companies (as a by product of power plants) than governments, and that somebody really ought to be keeping an eye on the plutonium. In fact, when the Chinese first exploded an atomic bomb, we assumed that they had stolen the fissile material from us (we've had a habit of underestimating the Chinese in this field, of course they made their own materials). When an inventory of fissile material was made, problems with inventory control were found. Sounds like the USA in the later '60s and early '70s looked like the post-Soviet proliferation problem - plenty of boom stuff, not enough safeguards.

This is a good read, but leaves you wanting more. An updated version would be very satisfying...

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed

by John McPhee (1973)

I was oddly unimpressed by this book. While I usually like John McPhee's writing, this one felt flat. I hard a hard time keeping the minor characters straight, or for that matter, even caring what was going to happen next. In some sense, this is understandable, you know that they are doomed to failure.

The "Deltoid Pumpkin Seed" is the shape of an aircraft that was spat out by a computer in the late 1960s. Viewed from the top it looked like a delta, from the side, well, the name is descriptive. The computer was trying to optimize a design for a hybrid of a dirigible (don't call it a blimp!) and a conventional airplane. Since dirigibles generate lift from the volume they enclose, the optimal shape is a sphere; for an airplane it would be an airfoil. For the given set of parameters fed into the computer, it delivered the deltoid pumpkin seed as the perfect compromise. But if you look up in the sky today you know they failed, and the best you can hope for is an interesting story along the way.

McPhee does incorporate a lot of good history into this work. For example, the Hindenburg disaster accounted for all of the deaths in the history of commercial dirigible flight. On the other hand, of the 97 people on board, only 35 actually died. Yet it was so spectacular it killed the industry. Many of the folks in the book come from the branch of the navy that used dirigibles (think Moffett Field), so there's a lot of "we should have never walked away from the technology" whining. Again, we are almost four decades into the future, knowing what happened sort of kills the story.

Like many of McPhee's books, this is a niche work. There are better choices.

Heirs of General Practice

John McPhee (1984)

Like most John McPhee, this is now a time capsule that describes something out of a different America. The theme of the book is the family doctor. In the old days (think early 1900s), one or two doctors would serve an entire community, and understand their patients not just as individuals, but would see where relationships and commonalities would impact health. With the increase of science in medicine, there was the rise of specialization, and by the 1960s the family doctor was bordering on extinction. But that decade saw the beginning of the pendulum swing away from science as the savior. Yes, we had gone to the Moon, but most of our problems still remained (because most of our problems are economic, at heart). Some elements of our population wanted a return to previous ways of life. This book covers the practices of a few family doctors in rural Maine in the 1970s.

The first thing to note is that rural setting. It's hard to have a family practice in an environment where families are dispersed. I grew up three thousand miles away from one set of grandparents, two hundred miles away from the other, and had cousins in Texas and New Jersey. One doctor won't see all of us. Though to be fair, my dad, my brother and I all share the same cardiologists; Marasco hearts are broken in complicated ways and having one set of eyes watching all over us makes me understand the appeal of the family practice. But I don't share any of my other doctors with my relatives.

So this really does call back to an earlier time, when you were born, grew up, and died more or less in the same place. Along with all of your relatives. That just doesn't happen anymore. And the economics of the field have also greatly shifted. As it's McPhee, the writing is excellent, but it's not about the current world. How much that matters is up to the reader.

La Place de la Concorde Suisse

John McPhee (1984)

I really like John McPhee, but as other reviews on this page show, they often have problems with currency. His books are now 30 to 50 years old, and are showing their age. This book, on the other hand, does not have that problem.

That might seem a bit surprising. It's about an army in Europe and was written during a more active phase of the Cold War. There are numerous references to Russian tanks. Now that big chunks of Eastern Europe have been rolled into the EU, shouldn't this book be viewed more as a historical document?

The answer is no. Switzerland hasn't changed. I was born in Switzerland, and had I stayed, as a male citizen, I would have been a part of their army. This means that at the age of 18 I would have been conscripted for several months of basic training, and then every year until 30 I'd have to serve a few weeks in the reserves. In addition, I'd get an automatic weapon to keep in my house. That hasn't changed a bit, service in the Swiss Army is timeless, an expectation of citizenship (women are not conscripted, but can volunteer). Every time they re-examine their policy, the Swiss always embrace this aspect of their culture.

Yes, the Swiss, with the clocks and the chocolate. While we think of a strict policy of neutrality when we think of the Swiss, historically the Swiss were a military power, selling their soldiers to the highest bidder (the vestiges of this can be seen in the Vatican, where the Pope is protected by the Swiss Guard). Importantly, these have been militia, conscripted from the citizenry, and they routinely took apart the knighthood of the nobility. While there isn't a market for mercenary armies anymore (at least not in Europe), the Swiss military is as tough as it has ever been.

That being said, a few things have been dialed back. McPhee described a Switzerland where every bridge and tunnel was rigged with explosives so that the Swiss could keep them from falling into the hands of anyone who invaded. In more recent times, the level of these preparations has been reduced. Still, there is enough space hollowed out of the Alps to shelter every last citizen in Switzerland. While neutrality means that the Swiss will never attack another country, woe be to the army that decides to mess with the Swiss.

A big appeal for me is that reading this book gave me insight into what life would look like if I lived in an alternate reality where I never left Switzerland (no, I did not have a goatee, and I was no more evil than I am now). For others, this might just be a picture of a country with a particular attitude towards its military.

Looking for a Ship

John McPhee (1990)

I've got a big stack of McPhee books by my bed. At some point I decided to double-down and dropped a small pile of money on used McPhee paperbacks (something that drives me crazy: reading books highlighted by stupid people, why the heck did they highlight this or that specific passage?) McPhee is an amazing writer, and has been a mainstay at The New Yorker for decades. Much like David Sedaris, his name in the table of contents of a new issue will brighten my week. And also like Sedaris, his book-length efforts are uneven.

With Sedaris, at least, you have a rough idea of what the arc looks like. There's the early career, where he was a mean alcoholic and a bitter writer. He had a nice mid-career peak where he mined his childhood and his family for his best work, and now seems to be on a lower plateau where his European life just isn't as interesting or funny as what came before (but good enough to keep reading and hoping, except for that really stupid animal book). McPhee's output is harder to characterize. So much of it is stuck in time. It does not age well. I'm at the point now that when I'm done with a book I'll toss it into one of two piles, dated or non-dated. To be honest this is a lens that I'm perhaps unfairly applying to all his writing, but it does seem to fit. The stuff that is still relevant today is excellent, but much of his writing feels like I'm reading from an uninteresting time capsule. Part of the problem is that he often writes about topics that are in crisis, and a few decades later you shrug your shoulders and say "Well, I know how that turned out, there are no dirigibles plying the airways, and nuclear power stations do not dot the landscape." I think that many of his classic works would be great re-issues if they simply had forty-page followups about why what didn't happen didn't happen.

This is a long book about a cargo ship making a voyage to South America. But it's also about a member of the crew and his struggle to get a job (hence the title of the book). It was written while the American shipping industry was collapsing, and the folks who worked on merchant ships often had to wait nearly a year to get a job (the union policies around this are one of the more fascinating aspects of the book). Ultimately I have to toss it into the "did not age well" pile. McPhee spends too much time going into the personalities on the ship, and retelling their sea tales. Forty fewer pages of repetitive profiles and forty more pages of why container ships are under "foreign" flags would have strengthened this enormously. I felt like I had gotten to know a crew, when I could have more profitably gained a better understanding of an industry. McPhee's writing often approaches the topic by concentrating on the individuals, but it does not work here. There's plenty of great McPhee, don't start with this one.


John McPhee (1967)

This is one of McPhee's earliest books, and while the seeds of his future greatness are there, it doesn't hold together very well. It's shorter than most of his work, and it doesn't flow well as well as a story.

We get some botany, some history, some industry, and some biography, but not of it is overwhelmingly interesting. In fact, it reads more like a bunch of facts about oranges thrown together in one place more than anything else. Yes, in some sense that's what a non-fiction book is, a bunch of facts about a topic, but there isn't a strong narrative arc that helps hold this together.

There's some complaining about how hard it is to find real fresh-squeezed OJ in Florida, as at the time most of the industry had gone over to concentrate, but like much of McPhee, this serves more as a historical document than anything. There is some foretelling towards the end of the book when McPhee notes that the industry had changed when it went over to concentrate. There was a time when every orange was important (or at least they were shooting for the quality of individual oranges, they rejected about 40% of the crop). But since orages didn't need to look pretty when they were going to be pulped, concentrated, and then frozen, what the growers switched to as a metric was in essence a measure of sugar content in their crop. Fast forward to these days and you'll find that many (including myself) don't drink orange juice because it is seen as sugar water. I will eat oranges though - like most things found in juice form, the original source is much healthier than the eventual product. Don't waste time with this product either, there's much better John McPhee out there.

The Borgias: The Hidden History

G.J. Meyer (2013)

Memory is an interesting thing. This book sat on my unread pile for a very long time. When I eventually picked it up for reading, my brain had a picture of me buying it for a dollar at a library sale, a guilty pleasure. Guilty, no doubt, because everyone knows that the Borgias were classic "pornocracy Popes" and this book would be full of scandal. Imagine my surprise when after reading the book I discovered on Amazon that I had actually ordered it at full price, no doubt because I had enjoyed Meyer's work on World War I.

That little introduction nicely dovetails with the contents of the book itself. Meyer takes a fresh look at the Borgias, stripping away centuries of propaganda. Most of what we think we know about the Borgias is based upon the writing of their enemies. There are four main characters, Alfons (Pope Callixtus III), Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI), Cesare, and the notorious Lucrezia. The Borgia name itself comes from Borja, the family name linked to their town in their native Spain. The Papacy had just recenty recovered from the Avignon antipopes, and the politics of who sat on the throne were always interesting. This was prior to the ironclad rule of Italian Popes, and in this case two Spaniards were elected as Pope. Not a small bit of the historical backlash against the Borgias was due to Italian nativism.

Meyer does an excellent job of stating what is fact, and also of giving enough context for the reader to understand the events in the larger picture of world events at the time. He did this very well in his World War I book, and repeats the trick here. Whereas I think that a good knowledge of the first world war is important to understanding the world today, the Borgias are certainly more of a niche subject. But they are an interesting subject. It's a good rainy-day book.

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918

G.J. Meyer (2007)

World War One tends to get the short end of the stick. America was only in it for the last bit, and we tend to think that the entire war consisted of trench warfare on the western front. Most American's version of the war goes something along the lines of "some Duke was killed and then the Germans plowed through France until they got stopped, and then for the next something years 100,000 soldiers were killed each day to move the front line about the distance of a postage stamp." If you are lucky, you might hear something about U-boats or poison gas.

This book does a good job of filling in gaps. For example, the whole Austria-Hungary thing. From a few years of playing Diplomacy in my youth I knew about the dual monarchy, but it wasn't until after reading this book that I really had an understanding on the dynamics of that country. Their actions were the direct cause of the war, and yet most have no knowledge of a country that disappeared at the end of the hostilities. Also, this book covers the eastern front in depth, and makes the case that even though Russia pulled out of the war, the part it played kept Germany from pushing through to victory. Detailed in addition are many missed opportunities, and failures in leadership that undercut the typical "static" viewpoint of the war, and makes for a much more interesting story (jokes about the courage of the French military aside, the mutinies of 1917 are fascinating). My one complaint is that the author downplays the threat of u-boats, and doesn't give nearly enough time to England's blockade of Germany.

The format of the book, each chapter of linear chronological history being balanced by a section on background / big picture, worked very well for me. It allowed for Meyer to flesh out a history that has been ignored far too long by the general population, and made this a much stronger book. Meyer is an excellent writer, and even made stories that I've read repeatedly (Gallipoli) new and interesting. Go out and read this book.

Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History

by Ben Mezrich (2011)

The book covers the theft of some moon rocks by a trio of NASA interns. It is terrible.

The science makes you want to tear your hair out. One would think that the author would know that the target audience would be science nerds, but but there's something to annoy nerds every ten or so pages. No, Gemini 4 did not have the first space-walk, the Russians beat us to it. There is a far side of the moon, not a dark side. There is a Martian meteorite that some have claimed suggests past life on Mars, but no scientist would claim it as proof of previous life. A dive of fifty feet will not take fifteen or thirty seconds. Yikes.

Another problem is tone. The author's three main sources are boastful people with rich fantasy lives (one of which spent most of the time stoned out of his mind). The story ends up being told in a much larger voice than it should. No, the main characters did not bust into the high-security vault that stored moon rocks at NASA, they simply stole a safe that contained some samples. There were multiple references to the street value of stolen moon rocks, but either nobody understood supply-and-demand or, (as the story proved) how to properly fence unique merchandise. There aren't enough collectors out there to shell out $40B for moon rocks, sorry. Want an example of the writing here? "Thad has spent enough time on the NASA computers to know how to set up a dummy e-mail account." Does this mean he hacked a NASA mainframe? No, he created a Hotmail account under a phony name. Like most of the feats described in the book, the actual underwhelms what the sources and author want the reader to believe.

The young adults who steal the moon rocks (and to some extent, the author) characterize the theft as nothing worse than a fratboy prank. NASA treated the rocks as objects with no remaining scientific value, as they had been subjected to experiments that contaminated them in one way or another, and stealing "garbage" is no big crime. The $100K (no, not $4B) they were going to collect would help them set up a lab to become better scientists. Obviously none had ever actually purchased scientific instruments. You can't do much NASA-style science with $100k. Later on, one decided to keep a moon rock for himself. This quickly became a sample from each moon landing, and then finally, faced with some spare moon dust, he ate some of the moon. OK, maybe that does fit the fratboy model, but they also managed to lose the notebooks that accounted for the life work of a NASA scientist. The main protagonist, who also acts as the primary source, claims to have no recollection. I'm guessing that the author could not reach the other (more reliable) people involved. Or at least they did not act as sources. What happened to those notebooks is a key to figuring out how big a crime this really was, and the only person talking can't be trusted.

On the other hand, one of the other people caught complained that the police "made me call my parents," so maybe there were no adults in the room.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

by Candice Millard (2010)

This was a book that was fun to read. It's strange to write those words when the topic is the assassination of a US President. It covers three individuals, Garfield, his assassin, and Alexander Graham Bell, gives a good view of each of their stories, and is one of those books that is hard to put down.

Garfield was raised in poverty, but managed to rise to the highest levels via intelligence and hard work. When he was unable to pay for college, he attended his first year by agreeing to act as the school's janitor. For his second year his job description had changed, he was now a professor. He went off to a better school for his last two years, and then returned to his original college, becoming its president by the age of 26. He was a minor general in the Civil War, and then became a compromise candidate for the Republican party. A chunk of the book is devoted to the corruption of the Federal government at the time, and how this affected the politics. Garfield's Vice-President, Chester Arthur, cleaned up a lot of the mess when he became President, the amazing part of this was that he came out of one of the most corrupt corners (unlike Truman, who came out of a similar cesspool in Missouri, Arthur's hands were not clean). These were very different times. The President handed out jobs personally, and spent much of his day meeting members of the public looking for appointments. Having guards around the President was seen as counter to democracy, and didn't become practice until McKinley was shot decades later.

The President's assassin took an interesting defense when on trial. He noted that the wounds he inflicted should not have been fatal, instead it was poor medical treatment that had killed Garfield. This was the conclusion of the autopsy. The bullet lodged in a place where it would do no more harm, but the doctors introduced infection and ended up killing their patient (Lister makes a short appearance in the book, just to establish that the American medical system didn't believe in crazy things like germs). The book spends a long time following the assassin, who was plainly a nut, as opposed to other historical assassins who had real agendas.

There were three things that didn't work for me in this book. The first is purely personal. I know when Garfield was shot. When I was very young, a history-minded relative pointed out that "Garfield was shot on your birthday." I wondered if the cat was doing better. Because I knew the date, I kept performing a "this story will hit a climax in X days" calculation as the book progressed. Most readers will not have this difficulty. Second, Alexander Graham Bell plays far too large a role in the book. Had his invention worked, or, more to the point, had it been used properly, how much would have changed? The President was too greatly compromised by infection at that point to really matter, and his lead doctor wasn't taking advice from anyone. The last issue is the most serious. Granted that Garfield seems to have been an amazing individual, but this book came across as a hagiography. I certainly don't have the background to evaluate, but this book doesn't seem to give a balanced history of Garfield's place in his times. Over all though, these problems don't detract too much from the story.

This book reads fast and is worth your time.

Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Plot for Global Revolution

Giles Milton (2014)

I'm not sure where to go as far as reviewing this book goes. While "this is good for what it was" seems even-handed and fair, to be honest I was underwhelmed. Let's start then, with what the book got right. It reads smoothly, you can churn your way through it, and the stories are interesting. There's some genuine cloak-and-dagger stuff in here. If you don't know much about this history of Russia's Revolution, exit from World War I, and subsequent struggles, you get a decent but not great introduction. If a book filling that description floats your boat, then this is worth picking up and reading; I've been dissatisfied with many of my recent reading selections, so perhaps I'm just setting my bar too high.

So the unhappiness? On my part, I felt that the author had far too much enthusiasm for the his subjects. Well, why shouldn't he, he's devoted a chunk of his life to researching their actions and telling their stories. There should have been a more critical examination. The spies involved were bold to be sure, but reckless may be a better description. At one point late in the book Milton compares one of the agents to the Elizabethan-Era privateers, operating somewhat independently of the state, taking actions and seeding chaos against the enemy. To my eyes that was the model followed by more or less all of the people in the book. At one point most of the network was rolled up due to a failed attempt at coup. A handful of agents to taking out Lenin and Trotsky? I'm sorry, but that is making decisions way above your pay grade. And this recklessness destroyed their effectiveness. The author does not step back and make those judgements, instead he concentrates on how well they escape the inevitable dragnet (and a lot of their Russian conspirators didn't). The same goes for the intrigue around British India. The Empire's army of occupation was depleted (its manpower was on the Western Front), so there was fear that the Russians could trigger an uprising in India. At no point was it discussed that it was well past time for the British to be leaving India in any case. While the spectre of a Jihad rising in what now is Pakistan rolling across India is frightening, how much worse would a post World War I independence/partition have been compared to the actual events after World War II? That's the kind of background a better book would explore. It's not just the actions of these men that are important, but their results and implications. The later are not given their due time.

And finally, there's the title. Russian roulette is a game played by idiots who think they are being brave. How does this apply to the men who went to Russia to spy, were they idiots also? Or did we get the title because James Bond-style spies play roulette and the topic is Russia? A passage in the book reads "In the dangerous game of Russian Roulette, playing an unexpected hand could upset the best laid plans." That doesn't add clarity at all.

Survival of the Sickest: The Surprising Connections Between Disease and Longevity

Sharon Moalem and Jonathan Prince (2007)

First, let me just say that this is a fun book to read. The topics are interesting, and the chapters are short enough that you can complete several in one sitting. The author takes cases of "bad" inherited characteristics and traces their evolutionary causes.

A simple one is the so-called "Asian Flush," where folks like me get bright red after a drink or two. Why? Because many people of Asian descent don't have the genetic mutation needed to efficiently process alcohol. The more interesting question is why do other people have it, but we don't? After all, given the damage alcohol does to people both in the long and short run, wouldn't this mutation have problems surviving in the gene pool (how "beer goggles" play into evolution is yet another question)? The answer comes down to cholera; when we started living in cities we contaminated our drinking supplies. In order to survive we needed a source of clean water - and alcohol provided this. Why didn't Asians acquire this mutation? Because in Asia people were making tea, they boiled water and never needed to rely upon alcohol to survive.

Some of the problems tackled in the book are so rare that they don't seem too meaningful. Others, such as the connection between skin color and cholesterol, need to be much better known. In every case, the authors look at a genetic condition that in theory would be weeded out of the gene pool, and explore why it actually gave the "victims" a temporary advantage. Sure, the high cholesterol will kill you later in life, but when your ancestors were struggling to survive it got them past the age of thirty.

This book covers biology in a way that even a physicist can understand it, yet is complete enough to include writings on recent avenues of discussion such as epigenetics. It's a good book to read next to a swimming pool, but I suspect if I knew more about the topic I'd find more flaws.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

by Kate Moore (2017)

I had know about half of this story. Kind of like Michael Rockerfeller and cannibals, my mother told me of the Radium Girls when I was a small child. I learned that they worked in factories painting glow-in-the-dark paint onto watches, and every time they sharpened the paintbrush with their tongues and lips, they ate a little bit of radioactive poison. And then their faces fell apart. I'm guessing that stories like this were told to people like my mother in art school in order to keep them from establishing bad habits with paints that might have toxic ingredients, but I'm not sure I needed that kind of knowledge when I was a kid.

Yes, their faces fell apart. A quick look at the periodic table of the elements will reveal that radium is directly below calcium, so it is quite happy to live in your bones. And when it decays into radon, a big old alpha particle goes barreling through your tissue, wreaking havoc. More than once in the book a person would lift a victim's jawbone right out of their mouth. And it wouldn't stop there, the radium was spread though people's bodies, and they died horrible, horrible deaths.

Another issue was that most of the victims were teenage women. Child labor laws were different in the day, and no matter how bad radiation is, it's worse for people whose bodies are developing. Disruptions of the DNA in dividing cells is a bonus to the damage caused by the alpha particles. And these youngsters were flippant with their radium. Not that anyone told them the dangers, but older workers probably wouldn't have used the paint as makeup, or as part of silly games.

What I didn't know is that the famous Radium Girls, the ones in New Jersey, were only half of the deal. While there was a great deal of media attention to the New Jersey women, their lawsuit was settled out of court. It was the women from another watch dial factory in Illinois who were able to get a court to act in their favor. Both cases advanced workers' rights and workplace safety in this country.

The only complaint I have about this book is that all of the victims are portrayed as saints. It's important to remember that most of the people in the book are long dead, and that those who died early got royal treatment by the press, and that it was in their financial best interests to be portrayed in a certain way in court documents. I wish that there had been more of a filter on the descriptions that would counter this bias.

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France

by Caroline Moorehead (2011)

The train in the title was the one that took 230 women from France to Birkenau, the women's camp at Auschwitz, 49 returned. These women were members of the French Resistance. Women played an interesting role. Unlike in America, women didn't get the vote after World War I (that would come in 1945, instead, they got medals for bearing children in the double digits). These women weren't fighting the Nazis by blowing up trains, instead they were couriers, writers, spies and smugglers.

The first half of the book dealt with the details of the French Resistance and what these individuals did to put themselves on the German's hit list. With that many women on the train, this means that the author goes into details of lots of people, and sometimes this is a bit overwhelming. More interesting are the discussions around the role of the Resistance in the larger French society. Most members of the police willingly went over and collaborated with the Nazis, and many people from all walks of life were willing to cooperate. The initial Resistance was for the most part made up of members of the French Communist party, and as such was viewed as suspect by the French population at large. This perception didn't shift until the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which had the effect of rehabilitating the Communists in France.

The bulk of the second half of the book takes place in Birkenau and the other camps where the women were eventually sent. Like the first half, one tends to get overwhelmed by the stories of individuals. This is necessary, as it is important that as many of these women's lives are documented for history. The book closes with a quote from one of the survivors, "Looking at me, one would think that I'm alive... I'm not alive. I died in Auschwitz, but no one knows it." She speaks as one of the living. For the dead, we need to know their stories in order to honor their lives. And know their murderers. Names are always named, especially the companies that profited off of their slave labor. Hello Siemens.

One of the few complaints I have about this book is that it is too entrenched in the stories of the women. That may seem a silly objection, after all, that's the entire point of the book, but there were times where it felt like the author didn't go the extra mile to verify statements presented as quasi-facts, and prefaced with words like "it was said that," for example, that at the end of the war France was 84 times poorer than it was in 1914, or that in the winter of 1941 the industrial output of France was maintaining 18 German armored divisions plus another 40 of infantry. For a book as good as this one, the publisher should have had a better fact checker.

When I first started reading this book, I struggled to find a framework that I could identify with. America may someday be horribly attacked during my lifetime, but it is out of the question that we would ever be occupied. How could I get my mind around what it was like to live and survive in Occupied France? It wasn't until the author started to describe what the Nazis did in retribution for killings of their soldiers that I understood the perspective I was looking for, and it didn't make me happy. No, America won't be occupied, that's the role we play. When the author spoke of Nazi frustration around the killing of their soldiers by members of the French Resistance, it made me recall Iraq. No, we didn't kill 100 hostages for each soldier killed, as was the initial German response (though it should be noted that an early German military commander over France, General Otto von Stulpnagel, resigned over this policy, claiming "I no longer can... in all conscience accept responsibility before history"). On the other hand, when I read about the Nazis torturing prisoners, I had to swallow hard and acknowledge that we did the same in Iraq. At the end of the book Moorehead asks about who should be held accountable for their collaboration? Who owns guilt, and to what degree? The French police who hunted down Jews and resisters, and handed them over to the Nazis? What about the French people who drove the trains to the concentration camps? Janitors who cleaned Nazi buildings? Where do you draw the line? In France Papon and Bousquet, men in charge of the police in Vichy France, never went to jail despite their role in sending thousands of Jews to their deaths. This reminded me of Abu Ghraib, where enlisted personel were punished, but higher ups dodged responsibility. We read hard books about hard times so that history doesn't repeat itself, but sometimes it does.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)

If you just want to cut to the chase, run out and buy this book.

OK, the longer version is that this is a deep topic covered by a very talented writer (even if he thinks that data are singular rather than plural). The title is a little misleading, this isn't a biography of cancer, it's a biography of cancer treatment. That's what you get when the author is a doctor who specializes in the disease.

We declared the war on cancer in the early 1970s. The idea was that we would spend going-to-the-moon type money on the problem, and cure the disease by our country's 200th birthday in 1976. This wasn't crazy, there had been strong progress in treatments for certain kinds of cancer in the 1960s. But until very recently, it didn't look like we were winning the war. Mukherjee takes us through the early history of treatment (mainly horribly disfiguring surgery) and into chemo and radiation therapy. The later two could provide short respites, but the cancer almost always came back stronger. New methods were tried, and it was almost always found that combinations of approaches worked better. This meant that treatment became more and more brutal to the patient over the years, as more and more things that killed the cancer (and abused the host) were thrown at the disease. Still, even as late as the 1990s, not much progress had been made. Sure, people were "living longer with cancer," but that was a chimera, we were just discovering it earlier. If you died at 70 due to cancer, in the old days you discovered it at 68 and it killed you two years later. Now you could discover it at 62 and still die at 70. By one measure you lived 8 years after finding your cancer, rather than 2, but you still died at 70. And to be quite frank, the person who didn't know they had the cancer probably enjoyed those six years much more than the person who had cancer hanging over their head.

The good news is that we are finally seeing real movement. This is because the lab science folks and the treatment folks are finally talking to each other. We had been trying to solve the problem without a good understanding of the biology behind the disease, in the words of one voice, we were trying for moon rockets without understanding how internal combustion engines worked. The medicine was tossing darts into the dark, without being informed by the science. To be fair, the science wasn't there yet, but we wasted a tremendous amount of money that perhaps could have been channeled into better investments in the battle against cancer.

One of the most important things I took away from the book is the perspective of prevention vs. treatment/cure. Cancer rates have gone up over the past century. A major reason for this is that people are living longer, and, for a variety of issues, cancer is more likely to hit old people than young. We have more old people because we don't have to deal with things like smallpox, polio, and other diseases that used to take us out before we got old. But take a look at that list. The diseases that we've overcome have mainly been conquered via prevention rather than treatment (AIDS being a prominent counter-example). Once you have a disease, many are hard to shake (rabies is still quite fatal), on the other hand, if you are properly vaccinated, there are a large categories of diseases that are quite preventable. We may never cure certain kinds of cancer, and the treatments for most will probably continue to be brutal. So perhaps a key is to simply do things that prevent cancer. A good amount of the "progress" we've made in the United States is simply that fewer people are getting cancer because we've cut our smoking rates. The good doctor spent a while on that, but didn't go too deeply into diet or exercise. I don't know if that's because the data are still being examined carefully, but it is an interesting omission.

Go read this book. Then buy a copy for all of your friends.

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut

by Mike Mullane (2006)

In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach makes the claim that if you read one astronaut's memoirs, you should read Mullane's. I'm not going to go out and read every other book written by an astronaut to make sure this book really is at the top of the heap, but it's pretty damn enjoyable. Mullane was the first "back seater" astronaut from the military. That means that he flew in two-person jets, not as the pilot, but as the navigator. At the end of the day this resulted in a guy who could tell stories like a fighter pilot, but who is a bit more introspective. This makes for good reading.

One of the things I like about the author is that he describes his own growth. When his batch of astronauts was selected, there was grumbling in the test pilot community because, gasp, scientists were now part of the program. The pilots looked down on them because they hadn't "lived life" like those in the military, which seemed to mean than not only did they not face their deaths in air-to-air combat, but more importantly, hadn't been to enough brothels. A few chapters after revealing this prejudice, Mullane stated that he had two huge obstacles on his first days as an astronaut-in-training: he had to pick his own clothes, and work with women, things he had never done before. Science nerds might not be great at picking our own clothes, and I've seen many suffer real problems around women, but somehow I think that "those science guys haven't experienced life" is a shallow statement made by people who can't dress themselves and can't relate to half of the world's population. Mullane, to his credit, grew up. On the other hand, it would be nice to see somebody address the issue of why we have so many test pilots instead of scientists. In the early man-in-a-can days, we put monkeys in the capsules to test them out. The Soviet Union's space shuttle ran by remote control. If something goes wrong on liftoff or landing, in most cases you are dead (actually, in most cases a smart engineer on the ground built in two backup systems that saved your life). I'm not buying the whole "proven under fire" idea. For moving a robot arm, we would be better off having a PhD who spent most of her grad school life operating a UHV chamber than we would a Navy pilot. Towards the end of the book Mullane notes that many more people have been to the top of Mt. Everest than in space. The other place I've heard that is that many more have been to the top of Mt. Everest than have "wintered over" at the research station at the South Pole. Given the effects of long-term isolation in space, I'd think that we would be better drawing from those scientists than from pilots.

Enough digression on astronaut selection. This is an easy read for a weekend at the beach. Not high brow, but very fun.

Advanced Engine Development at Pratt and Whitney: The Inside Story of Eight Special Projects, 1946-1971

Dick Mulready (2001)

OK, you know you are a nerd if you are reading this book. It covers Dick Mulready's career at Pratt & Whitney, in a time when massive amounts of money were thrown at the aerospace industry for them to get to work building cool things. There's a little bit of frustration here, in that most of these advanced projects chapters ended with "then they cut our funding." Where's my ramjet? Where's my Mach 20 spy-plane? In fact, there's only one engine that Mulready labels as a "money maker," the RL10, the rocket engine that has been the workhorse of the US space effort.

One of the problems with this book is that it is written for a specific crowd. Granted, Joe Lunchbox isn't going to buy this at the corner bookstore, but Mulready expects the reader to understand ramjets and whatnot without any supporting explanation. He's expecting his readers to know the difference between a turbojet and a turboprop, and he limits his audience by writing to only that audience. Still, he can poke fun at this - "Al's solution was elegant. To split the load evenly between the layshafts, the sun gears floated axially between the pinion gears and were aligned by them. He split the sun gears in the center with opposing helical splines on their respective quill shafts... To provide for a potential misalignment of the turbine and fan, the quill shafts had curvic teeth on both ends, which could accept considerable misalignment. Unless you love gears, this must have been a blur; however, it was a handsome package and weighed only 465 pounds, including the lubrication on scavenge system." This sense of humor is threaded throughout the book - "By this time, approximately 230 successful firings had been made in the horizontal test stands. As it runs out, all had been flukes."

The last part of the book is depressing if true. Mulready claims that P&W had spent a decade and a half-billion dollars on developing high pressure rocket engines, only to lose the contract for the space shuttle main engine (SSME) to Rocketdyne for political reasons. According to Mulready, P&W had a mature program, whereas Rocketdyne was wet behind the ears. However, Rocketdyne had just built the engines that took America to the Moon, and P&W was and is mainly a jet engine company. That, combined with some back-room politics, sent the SSME work to Rocketdyne. The space shuttle with supposed to fly in 1975, and eventually took off in 1981. While the SSME was not the only cause of delay, it makes me sad to think that we could have had the space shuttle a few years earlier than we did.

Backing up Mulready's claims is the fact that Rocketdyne had to eventually come to P&W hat-in-hand to ask for help on their turbopumps (you need turbopumps for a high pressure engine). The SSMEs had P&W redesigned turbopumps starting in the 1990s. The P&W engineers were shocked at how bad the tolerances were on the Rocketdyne parts. More or less it was a difference in engineering strategy. Rocketdyne, a rocket company, was designing and building parts to work once. That makes sense in rocketry, as you throw your engines away. Pratt & Whitney, being a jet engine company, designed engines to have a long life, as you don't junk an airplane's engines when the plane lands. The problem is that the space shuttle by definition is reusable - the paradigm used my Rocketdyne simply didn't apply to the shuttle, and this lead to many problems. Rocketdyne's turbopumps had to be rebuilt after every launch, a problem that went away with the P&W product.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to read and enjoy this book, but it might help. I liked it.

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Randall Munroe (2014)

Randall Munroe is the creator of XKCD, perhaps the greatest thing on the internet. It's worth taking physics classes just so that you can laugh more when you read XKCD. After earning his physics degree, Monroe worked for NASA before supporting himself by writing comics. Yes, I wish I had made those life choices, but to be honest, his stick figures are much better than mine.

A while back Munroe started writing "What If" scenarios, using the power of his physics training to look at oddball problems, such as what if you tried to make a Table of the Elements with samples of all of the elements (OK, that's chemistry - for physics try something like what if the Earth slowly started expanding, but kept its current density, how would the changing gravity affect us)?

These are very enjoyable for three reasons. The first is that he picks good questions (at this point people send in all kinds of crazy ideas). The second is that his analysis is strong. Let's face it, due to his background, I'm going to think along the same lines he does. But what clinches this book is his capability of finding good points of comparison. He wants to describe how much energy is involved in a super nova. So he asks what would put more energy into your eye, a super nova observed from the Earth-Sun distance, or an exploding hydrogen bomb, pressed against your face? It's the super nova. By eight orders of magnitude. He tosses things out like that all of the time, and all you can do is sit back and say "damn, that's a great way of looking at that."

The big drawback to this book is that a majority of it is old. There's an essay about what it would be like to print out the updates to Wikipedia (it turns out that you can do it by running six printers at the same time, but you won't be able to afford the ink cartridges). This is ironic, because he discusses what it would take to print out a chunk of the internet, whereas his book is, more or less, a printed-out chunk of the internet. Yes, there is some new material, and he does expand on some old work, but most of his essays are sitting right there on for you to read for free. Much like Malcolm Gladwell's work, one is left wondering why trees had to die to collect together articles that the author has, placed all in one place on the internet.

Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend

Scott Reynolds Nelson (2006)

Like many other short books by academic historians, this has the feel of a magazine article or journal article that has been stretched into a book. Usually these don't work very well as while they have a strong core, the padding to reach the publisher's page target doesn't live up to the idea that served as justification for the book in the first place. Certainly there are sections of Steel Drivin' Man that fit this description, in fact, most of last fifty pages where Nelson traces the roles of the song and iconography in popular culture come to mind. And to be honest, they really stretch, with both Samson and Jack Kirby making appearances.

The first one hundred and twenty pages make the book worthwhile. Nelson decided to write for the general population and writes in the first person as he describes his search for the historical John Henry. He admits to having his key insight while goofing off on the internet, finding a postcard picture of the old Virginia Penitentiary online. In the photo one can see a rail line and a large white building dominating the prison campus. Then Nelson remembered some lyrics - "They took John Henry to the white house/They buried him in the san'/And every locomotive comes roarin' by/Says there lays a steel drivin' man." He connected the dots, John Henry was an inmate sent to labor on a railroad construction project. When he died he was taken back to the prison, and given a convict's burial between the penitentiary and the rail line. He went through the prison records and found a John Henry who was sent out to work on the railroad, and who was never released, leading one to believe he died with a hammer in his hand.

OK, it makes for a good story, and it is well told. Did Nelson prove his case? It depends upon what your standards of evidence are. I'm romantic enough to be convinced. Along the way Nelson expands into his areas of expertise, Reconstruction and Southern Railroads. Unlike his forays later in the book, his writings on these topics really help give a better understanding of the back story. This is fun book that tails off in the end, don't feel bad about putting it down.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

by Mary Norris (2015)

This is one of those "here's what you need to know about grammar" books, this one is written by a copy editor at The New Yorker. She fell in love with the likes of John McPhee, so her tastes are up my alley, and she's got a sense of humor. Some of that can be seen in the "Comma Queen" pun in the subtitle, but better evidence is in her chapter on swearing (yes, on swearing): "Has the casual use of profanity in English reached a high tide? That's a rhetorical question, but I'm going to answer it anyway: Fuck yeah." Yes, that's cheap, but it's funny.

I'll cut to the chase, there aren't that many actual grammar lectures in the book, and my eyes glazed over when she started talking about restrictive, accusatory and all of the other nuts-and-bolts chunks. It's alright though, she's a strong enough writer to carry these segments with the rest of her book. She's got an interesting chapter on pencils. You have to be good to pull that off.

There's also a nice chapter on gendered language; English is a mess that came out of many different sources, but its one advantage is that outside of a small (and currently troublesome) set of pronouns, genders doesn't really exist as an issue. Sticking genders on nouns, why? But she should have made a bigger deal of husband, which is a combination the old Anglo-Saxon hus and bonda, which means "head of house". This only comes up in the hyphen chapter.

Speaking of hyphens, she's got a whole section devoted to one of my favorite books, Moby-Dick. With a hyphen, it's the title. Without, Moby Dick, it's just the big white whale. Why is Moby-Dick so funky? Because the proofs from the printer were so messed up in terms of edits that Melville gave up, only made major edits, and left the rest. I'm glad that his "Oh, Time, Strength, Cash and Patience!" wasn't mangled.

This is a good book on a niche topic, go and read it.

Uncovering Soviet Disasters: Exploring the Limits of Glasnost

by James E. Oberg (1988)

This is an interesting book, even if it is badly dated. It was written just before communism fell, taking the Soviet Union with it. Look, if you want to know more about bad things the Soviet Military did during that era, Hoffman's Dead Hand is a better book. If you want to know about similar misdeeds on the part of the United States, then you can look at Iversen's Full Body Burden or or worse, Schlosser's Command and Control. Or for a real Soviet disaster, Leatherbarrow's Chernobyl 01:23:40. If all of these books are better for the facts, why does Oberg's book have any value at all?

Because this book is an interesting historical document, it is from the era when the Soviet Union was simply closed in terms of information flow. Many of the incidents reported are based upon only one or two iffy sources. But some of them turned out to be real (the 1958 nuclear disaster in the Urals). Oberg is a strong journalist, and I wish he had published a sequel that could tell the real stories now that we have better access to the truth. I don't think this book has much appeal to the general readership, but folks who have an interest in the Cold War or the history of nuclear power might find it interesting.

A History of Weapons: Crossbows, Caltrops, Catapults & Lots of Other Things that Can Seriously Mess You Up

by John O'Bryan (2013)

This is a fairly stupid book. I take that back, it is a really stupid book You might learn something about pre-1900 weapons, or you might not. It seems to have been written for teenaged boys, given the level of profanity and sophomoric humor. The writer's day job involves animated series for cable networks. All of this being said, I liked the book, it made me laugh. Then again, Beavis and Butthead also make me laugh, so I do have to admit a definite low-brow district in my spectrum of comedic entertainment. But how can you not like a book with chapters like "The Baddest Weapon of Antiquity - Archimedes' Brain," or the observation that with the invention of gunpowder, "China was about to bring a gun to a knife fight"? I borrowed this book from the library, no, it is not worth any of your actual money, but it can serve as a guilty pleasure.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

by Daniel Okrent (2010)

Back in graduate school I used to brew my own beer. This always made me laugh a little, as I lived in Evanston, home of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, one of the early forces that helped set the stage for Prohibition. So when I found a new history of Prohibition, I had to buy it. At first I was not pleased.

I changed my mind on this book part way through. Okrent's flaws as a writer are more apparent at the start. His other writing is mainly about baseball, and much of the events and personalities are described in larger-than-life terms. Sports writers often inflate the importance of what they cover, after all, it's part of the entertainment spectrum. They also tend to focus on trivia for no good reason (case in point - the better part of a chapter showing the Joe Kennedy was not a bootlegger). When a historian writes in this style, it leaves a bad taste. I was left wishing that Okrent had a better editor, which is ironic since his day job is being an editor.

However, the topics covered in the book are so relevant that you are forced to deal with whatever unhappiness you may have with Okrent. Relevant, you ask? It isn't illegal to drink anymore. Well, it turns out that the war on booze trickled into almost every aspect of American society, and there are repercussions and reflections that carry through to the current day. Take immigration for example. Recent immigrants from places like Southern and Eastern Europe were more likely to favor alcohol, so to prevent their political rise, our laws were changed. Okrent ignores previous laws against Asian immigration, and points out that we went from very lax immigration codes to ones tied to a quota system based upon the US census, not the current one, but the census of 1890, when the population was a lot more Northern European. Right now in the immigration debate many large cities have decided that it isn't worth the time or money to enforce Federal immigration laws and have been declared "Open Cities." Back in those days Baltimore, New Orleans and San Francisco were considered to be Open in that they didn't bother to enforce the liquor laws. How about taxes? Well, in the old days the government made most of its money off what amounted to alcohol taxes. In order for Prohibition to be put into place, its supporters rammed through a constitutional amendment creating the income tax (a woman's right to vote was an amendment that came about at the same time, was also related, but is not as directly tied). The rich and powerful later on decided to get rid of Prohibition, the argument being that they could eliminate income taxes when the booze tax came back (what happened is that the middle class saw a 20% drop in their income taxes, the rich didn't get much relief). Meanwhile, the government of Canada was seeing a huge chunk of its budget coming from taxes on alcohol that was being smuggled across the border. In effect the American people were supporting the Canadian government, in 1929 the taxes on alcohol being sent to the US were double the amount collect as income tax from Canadians.

The politics behind this was also nuts. Think you see strange political coalitions these days? How about the feminists, the progressives, the xenophobes and the Klan all on the same side? Meanwhile, the Constitution was ignored from 1921 until 1929, in that districts were not shifted to account for the 1920 census. In other words, states did not have the proper representation in Congress, and therefore didn't have their proper weight in the Electoral College. Some of this was based in the racism that went hand-in-hand with the issue; a Kansas congressman stated that he didn't the "transfer [of] a representative of our form of Government from an American state like Iowa to one where so many did not speak the English language." Yes, that quote could also be found in our current politics. When it came to thinking about a repeal, it had to go through state legislatures. At the time, one person - one vote was not the law across the nation, and a few people in the right place could have much more influence that was proper. On the legal side, the courts became so overwhelmed that they introduced something that has stuck with us to this day, the plea bargain.

This book is about so much more than Prohibition. It's long, but it is worth the time.


Jim Ottaviani & Leland Myrick (2011)

Richard Feynman, on top of being a great physicist, is also a combination of a superhero and a cartoon character. So it makes sense that somebody went and made a comic book biography. But why? OK, the Venn diagram of physicists and comic-book-loving nerds has a fairly large intersection, and Feynman does have a small amount of leakage into the general population, but who is the intended population? Is it kids who should be introduced to Feynman's adventures? Perhaps, but there's enough adult content, plus passages of heavy physics explanation, to argue against that. Is it grown ups who need an introduction to Feynman? That crowd should just pick up a copy of Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, which goes into more depth.

If you already know who Feynman is, and have a general knowledge of his written work, you can see where each chapter is lifted. This is a nice project, but I'm not sure how the graphic art adds to the story. This was clearly a labor of love, and I can appreciate it at the level, but I wouldn't recommend it over reading Feynman's actual words.

The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe 1940-1945

by Richard Overy (2014)

This book clocks in at nearly 600 pages, and is incomplete. This is true in two aspects. The first is that this book is the American version of The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 which was published at 800 pages in Europe. This treatment cuts out the German strategic bombing of the Allies. But as I read this book I was always frustrated with the scope. Yes, I understand that the words "Allied Air War Over Europe" are right there in the title, but can we really have an honest discussion about strategic bombing without understanding the history of US military power over Japan? For me, that cripples this book from the start.

There are some interesting questions addressed in the book. The British did area bombing at night, and the Americans preferred daylight bombing (with the belief by many that this would allow more accurate targeting). The British seemed to have no qualms about carpet bombing, and one is forced to draw the conclusion that they calculated that it was easier to kill workers than actually hit factories. Moral or not, that line of thinking is probably correct. The American's daylight efforts did not in fact see a tremendous improvement in hitting the target (percentage of bombs within three kilometers was a metric that popped up a lot). On the other hand, at least the choice of targets by the Americans is defensible. The wanted to wipe out things like fuel infrastructure (contrary to Napoleon's belief that armies march on their stomachs, mechanized warfare depends upon oil) and fighter aircraft. They recognized that winning the skys over Europe was a key to victory, and invested heavily in fighter escorts to win this battle. Sadly, whatever the strategies were, American planes often bombed whatever was underneath them at an opportune time.

One of the other topics that always rears its head is the "strategic bombing failed, and we know this because the industrial output of Germany increased during the war rather than decreased" argument. I have always had a hard time buying this line of reasoning. It is like saying "your kid is taller now than he was a year ago, so the malnutrition did not matter." There are many good reasons why the German economy saw increased production. First, all of the natural resources of Occupied Europe were fed into the maw of the machine. Second, massive amounts of slave labor were employed by the factories. You are going to make more widgets if you have an assembly line working 70-hour weeks at absolute minimal cost. In response to bombing the Germans relocated a great deal of their industry to parts of the country that could not be bombed due to location, and also built factories underground. In order to make their system flexible to losses, they dispersed their industries and built in redundancies. But let's look at how modern well-run factories work. They are localized with as little redundancy as possible (and none of them are operated out of specially-constructed underground bunkers). Even without destroying one factory, the threat of bombers made the German war machine less efficient. How much that goes towards tipping the Allied investment in bombers from "failed" to "succeeded" I don't know, but the issue is far more complex that most treatments allow.

One of the failed hopes of the Allies was that aggressive bombing of civilian populations would make them rise up against their leaders. In Germany, as in most cases, this objective was not met. Why? Because when you take away somebody's house, job, food and other critical aspects of life, you push them towards the state. It's the government that is now responsible for making sure that these people are fed, clothed and housed, and so long as the government is not completely failing in these duties, the people will cling to it.

This is a long and ponderous book. It is probably worthwhile for the small handful of people who have a deep interest, but I suspect that they would rather read the extended European version. And I'd like a version that includes Japan.

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

Svante Pääbo (2014)

This book reminded me of Mike Brown's Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. A front-line scientist makes a discovery that changes his field, and then he writes a book. But for whatever reason I liked Brown's book better.

Perhaps this is because I'm a physicist. When I read Brown's book, everything made sense. There were stretches where Pääbo would get technical, and it felt like "blah blah blah biology blah blah blah DNA blah blah blah I'm a genius." That's my own personal biases coming up, but as far as biology goes, as a scientist I'm a cut above the general public (ok, perhaps a very small cut, but I'm above nonetheless). If I'm zoning out during the technical writing, maybe they needed to clean things up a bit. And to be honest, the "I'm a genius" comment I threw in is a cheap shot. While I got the impression that Pääbo could possibly be hard to work with, he certainly spread around the credit to many deserving people. There was an element of "we did things better than anyone else," but from what I can tell it's a justified sentiment.

In a final comparison with Brown, Pääbo's inclusion of his personal life felt intrusive. Brown had to weave in the birth of his child, otherwise certain parts of his story wouldn't make sense. Pääbo's life details didn't work themselves in as well. While he spent most of his younger life attracted to men, he eventually has an affair with the wife of a collaborator and ends up marrying her. In the end Pääbo and the ex-husband decide that their professional relationship trumps their personal issues, and continue to work together, but the retelling of the events came across as clumsy and awkward (more so than just the affair in its own right).

At the end of the day, I wasn't that enthusiastic about Brown's book. While Pääbo's book suffers in comparison, the story it tells, our relationship with other human-like species, is far more important that whether or not a rock in the sky is a planet or a dwarf planet. Despite its flaws, Neanderthal Man is worth the time. (Does this conflict with my sentiment that I liked the other book better? Perhaps, but it points to a general level of ambivalence concerning both books).

The Last Lecture

by Randy Pausch (2008)

Randy Pausch was a Computer Science professor at Carnegie Mellon who, dying of cancer, gave a very famous farewell lecture that went viral. So they decided to have him write a book about his life, and the lessons he had learned.

I never saw the lecture on the Internet, so my judgements are based upon this book alone. And I'm going to sound like a jerk, but I really didn't like Professor Pausch. There, I said it out loud, I didn't like the dying guy. There was very little humility here, but plenty of sexism. And he makes the point of discussing the picture of Jackie Robinson in his office. Why Jackie Robinson? Because Robinson didn't complain about the racism he endured. Think about that one for a while. Pausch was also really into football, even though many of his students were not. No worry, of course his students would adjust to him " will be easier for you to lean the basics of football than for me to learn a new set of life cliches." This was a guy who did not have a lot of cultural competency.

I would not want to hang out and have a beer with this guy. Nor, despite his technical talents, would I want to be a member of the faculty with him. Quite frankly, if he was at my college, when new faculty members came on board, I'd take them aside and tell them not to listen to anything Professor Pausch said. So no, I'm not going to recommend a book about his life or what he learned. Oh wait David, he died young, maybe he just hadn't reached full maturity yet. He died at 47. I'm going to speak ill of the dead, don't spend time or money on this book.

Einstein's Moon: Bell's Theorem and the Curious Quest for Quantum Reality

F. David Peat (1990)

This book could have been much better. The core topic, Bell's Theorem, is the real-life test of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox, a key idea in modern quantum mechanics. And the few pages that are devoted to Bell's Theorem are top-notch. But there are too many places where you just put down the book and shake your head. On one page in the early goings, Peat has de Broglie following his younger brother into physics (it was his older), postulating wave-particle duality while working on his thesis on French history (he at that point was firmly committed to physics), and then Davisson and Germer providing the first experimental confirmation of de Broglie's theory with their 1927 experiment (they did intentionally test his theory in 1927, but their 1925 accidental results were the first). When Peat gets around to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, he speaks of position and velocity. Yes, in a footnote he explains what he really means is position and momentum, but why not actually treat your readers with respect? The last thirty of so pages where the implications of Bell's Theorem are explored are almost unreadable. They are a mixture of dead-end ideas and others that never were even close to the mainstream. Honestly, the 150+ pages of this book are a pale comparison to N. David Mermin's Physics Today article Is the Moon There When Nobody Looks? Reality and the Quantum Theory, read that instead.

Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey to Becoming a Big Kid

by Simon Pegg (2011)

I haven't been this disappointed in a book in a very long time. A good deal of this is my own fault. I went into this with very high expectations. This is Simon Pegg we are talking about. Shaun of the Dead, Fatboy, Scotty for crying out loud. I even broke my rule about paying more than $9.99 for an ebook. To be fair, I was warned. The title does claim "A Small Boy's Journey to Becoming a Big Kid."

And that's the problem right there. This is an autobiography of what happened to Pegg before he because a movie star. If you are really interested in who he had a crush on when he was 12, or the plays he acted in as a child, or the first time he saw Star Wars, then this book was created with you in mind. On the other hand, if you want clutch details from his many awesome movies, well, you are out of luck. His claim is that as a professional he can't tell those kind of stories. True, he can tell about his first love because he can make up a fake name for her, but there's no way you can do that as an actor - you can't tell a story about what happened on the set of a movie because there's no way you can paper it over with pseudonyms.

Even if you do want the details of his life, it comes across fairly clearly that he didn't want to write the book. And to top it off, it isn't well written either. This was cranked out without much thought to quality.

Ironically, some of the best parts of the book deal with his disappointment with the Star Wars prequels. The fans deserved better. Right back at you Simon. Bruce Campbell, you are still the top of the heap.

Grant and Twain: The Story of an American Friendship

Mark Perry (2004)

I liked this book. Yes, there were flaws, but it was a quick read and it covered topics that I wouldn't have otherwise seen. The author fawns too much upon Grant, who was not our greatest general. Nor were Grant's memoirs the apex of American non-fiction writing, although they did sell more copies than anything in the said genre at the time. And while Huck Finn is in the upper echelons of American fiction, Perry does not have the literary chops to do it justice. That's all right, this book wasn't meant to dissect Twain's writing, it was meant to tell the story of how General Grant and Mark Twain produced to monumental works at roughly the same time, and how Twain was able to publish Grant's tome.

The book starts with the downfall of Grant. After success in the Civil War, and a scandal-ridden Presidency, Grant went to New York, made some bad business decisions (mainly trusting the wrong people), and was promptly bankrupted. His pride wouldn't allow him to accept the full largesse of some wealthy benefactors, so he was in a spot of trouble. This was not new. Grant had failed in business before. Perry takes us through a quick biography of Grant up to the Civil War, but for the most part skips the details of the war and the following presidency. More important is the cancer Grant soon discovered in his mouth, which would doom him.

Meanwhile, we take a similar jaunt through Twain's life. We start with the boy in Missouri, follow him up and down the Mississippi, out to California, and finally to New England where he ends up as the next-door neighbor of Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame.

At this point we hit the meat of the book. Grant is dying, and due to poor choices, he has left his family with no means of support. A magazine publisher contracts him to write four articles on famous battles of the Civil War. Once he hits his stride, he recognizes that writing his memoirs is a viable path forward. Twain swoops in an offers Grant a great contract, and we are off to the races. In the end, the only race that really matters is whether or not Grant will die before he completes his writing, but if Perry is to be believed, it is the writing that keeps Grant alive. There's some stuff about the transition of Huckleberry Finn from a boy's book like Tom Sawyer into a real novel, but again, Perry is wise enough to know that's not where his focus should be.

Is this a book I'd recommend to the general public? Probably not. But if you are somebody who likes to read a lot of history, this is a nice window into two giants of the Gilded Age.

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

Nathaniel Philbrick (2000)

Moby-Dick is one of my favorite books. This book tells the story of the sinking of the Essex by a whale, the basis for the novel. At one time the tale of the Essex was as well known as the Titanic is today. The book starts with a brief sketch of Nantucket (though sadly not in limerick form), which was once one of the richest cities in America, due to its control of the whale oil trade. This sets the table for a better understanding of the later dynamics, establishing the role of class and race-based hierarchies, and the unique culture of Nantucket.

Soon enough we see the Essex set sail under Captain Pollard, who is on his first voyage as a captain. He is weak, and is often unduly influenced by his officers (who of course are looking to soon be captains themselves). The ship quickly runs into trouble, taking damage in a storm, soon after leaving port. On page 80 they start their encounter with the huge whale that attacks and successfully sinks the Essex. The men abandon ship, taking to the ocean in three small whaling boats. The cannibalism starts on page 165. There's a lot of material in between the sinking and the eating.

The men in the three ships decide to not sail for nearby islands because they have, ironically, heard that the natives practice cannibalism. This forces them to sail for the coast of South America, but this is not as simple as it sounds. First they must travel south for many days in order to find a region of the ocean where the wind and the currents will carry them East. Along the way they land on a small island that has almost no fresh water, although it does have many birds. At that point they were already having food and water problems. After re-stocking, all but three leave (these three, amazingly, survive). The boats continue their journey, but it is a journey into starvation. Philbrick references starvation studies conducted during World War II in order to find best practices for saving victims of concentration camps, he does a good job of weaving in this material so the reader has a better understanding of the effects on the human body. Soon men begin to die, and while the first one got a burial at sea, the rest became meals for those who were left. Philbrick points out that overwhelmingly it was the African-American who died first, and posits a number of theories as to the sociology behind that fact. The three ships become separated, and while one is never heard from again, two are actually saved, although with very few survivors.

Philbrick does a great job of laying out the facts, and pushing on background knowledge. He also develops the path to the literary history of the Essex, leading of course to Herman Melville. Go out and buy this book.

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

by Charles P. Pierce (2009)

This book is depressing in two different ways. It's depressing in its content, which examines the current state of anti-intellectualism in our country. It's also depressing because Pierce's writing style gets in the way of what should have been a much better book.

Pierce takes us through some of the more recent battles of science vs. "the gut." Pierce spends a good amount of time discussing the gut, which is what does your thinking when you don't bother with things like evidence or your brain (or when you are listening to talk radio). We get some scary highlights like the Dover Intelligent Design trial (where a local pastor sums things up when he claims "We've been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of our culture"), the Terri Schiavo insanity, and the Creation Museum (hence the dinosaur on the front cover of the book). There are parts of this book that are very well written.

And then there are parts that are not. Pierce spends a great deal of time discussing the role of the "crank" in American political history. This doesn't add much to the book, and makes the first part of it a real slog to read through. Do we really care about the history of Atlantis? While his views on President Madison are interesting, for the most part the historical sections of this book fall flat. The fact-based parts are good, as is the analysis of the current situation (if enough people believe in something, it becomes "truth," which is a different beast than "fact," and politically more important).

Pierce laments the fact that we live in a society where "expert" is the worst label to wear; somehow nobody want to trust an expert, you know, the person with the knowledge, experience and skills to best handle the problem. People prefer their guts to experts. Education can help. The problem is, folks have to read to learn, and many will not make it past the first few chapters of this book. I like this book enough to give it to my friends, but when I do I warn them to start in the middle.

Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax"

by Philip C. Plait (2002)

What to do with this book? Well, the science is solid, the details of the explanations are good, but... I just need to come out and say it. I don't enjoy Phil Plait's writing style. He's jokey, self-depreciating, and if I met him in real life I might even like him, but it just doesn't work for me as far as the written word goes. I understand that he wants to bring good science to everyone, and that perhaps for some this is a disarming style, but for me I want people to take the material seriously, and he's a couple steps away from fart jokes.

That last comment was unfair, he doesn't stray into low humor, but while reading the book I was again and again distracted by the tone. Normally I plow through books, even less-than-stellar ones, but this one I had to keep putting down and picking up later. If you can get past the writing style, then there's plenty of good stuff in here. In fact, he's very complete, he covers just about every astronomy-related myth/misconception I can think of off of the top of my head. Like I said, it's solid. I just wish there was a change in tone.

Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association

by Terry Pluto (1991)

For the most part, books about sports aren't worth the time it takes to read them. Some of this has to do with the overall low quality of sports writers in general, and also with the topic itself. Sports writers are justly accused of overuse of cliche, but most books deal with champion teams, and if you collect a bookshelf of stories about different great teams, the tales aren't going to differ by much, even across leagues or sports.

Terry Pluto's oral history of the ABA has recently been reissued. It is an overlooked classic that avoids many pitfalls of the genre. The ABA is normally white-washed by the NBA, treated as if it never existed. People of my generation could at least point to Dr. J and know that he didn't arrive on the scene from nowhere. As the last ABA player retired decades ago, it is much harder to see the footprints (although several franchises were absorbed into the NBA).

Pluto does an excellent job of laying out the framework, and his use of oral history is a wise decision. He could have gone with the unified voice of a narrator, but often this oversimplifies things. He could have also played the straight role of historian, but some of the events of rise and fall of the ABA are lost to time and are well open to wide interpretation. Instead he found the people who were there and lets them give their own side of the story. And in doing so we are exposed, seemingly first-hand, to the characters who made up the league. And what a cast of characters it was. The sections on the early Indiana Pacers, the mishandling of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar "bidding war," and the adventures of Rick Barry are well worth reading.

At first I was unhappy with the fact that, according to the book, there are many many ABA stars who "got to the NBA after they injured their (insert random body part), and never were the same." It felt as if this was simply an effort of people to re-tell the story. If the evidence is that a very good player in the ABA went to the NBA after the merger, and was simply mediocre, then we can make a judgement about the overall quality of the ABA. However, it is important to remember that the field of sports medicine has made huge jumps since the 1970s, something that we often overlook today. What is now a simple arthroscopic procedure used to cost people careers.

In this century of sports as big business, it's a little hard to believe that the ABA lasted as long as it did, given its problems, but we don't have a mirror book that describes the state of the NBA at the same time (although this is touched upon from time to time, such as when the ABA pulled the master stroke of stealing the best referees out of the NBA).

I first read this book when I lived in Chicago, and I could watch Michael, Scottie and Rodman on the TV every night. And there were nights that I read the book rather than watch the Bulls. It's a fun ride, buy the book. Given the state of the NBA today, it's a better entertainment choice.

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

Michael Pollan (2006)

This, like Fast Food Nation, is a book I didn't want to read until I had kicked the junk-food habit. And that's a shame because it's a damn good book.

Pollan describes four meals, but in my mind I view the book as five different pieces. The first segment deals with corn. I found this to be an amazing hook, as the role of corn cannot be underestimated in the American food chain. The part I found interesting is the economics of corn. Current policy now sets a dollar sign on corn. But instead of setting a minimum price (which is what the government does for labor in the form of the minimum wage), it lets the market set the price and then pays the difference to farmers. So how does this work again? Suppose the government says $2 is the proper price for a unit of corn. If the farmer can only sell his or her corn at $1.25, then the government cuts them a check for 75 cents. What have we reaped from this policy? A tremendous corn glut. Normally when there is an oversupply situation, the price drops and production is cut back. Here the actual price has dropped, but since Uncle Sam is footing the difference, the only logical thing to do for the farmer is to grow more corn. This leads to mountains of cheap corn subsidized by taxpayers. Since corn is artificially cheap, it ends up being turned into many other products - just try to buy something that does not contain High Fructose Corn Syrup. For that matter, try to buy any type of processed food not made from corn - Pollan claims it is pretty much impossible. And science backs him up. Corn breathes in an isotope of oxygen that most plants reject. If you look at the amount of this isotope that is incorporated in your body, it tells you how many of your ingested calories are corn-based. Americans are mainly corn, and your tax dollars make this possible. (I don't remember if Pollan is the one who makes a connection between the jump in American obesity rates and the rise of High Fructose Corn Syrup, it's an argument I have read recently.)

Suppose you decide to get around this buy skipping the processed foods and not eating any corn. Apples and grapes are fine, but most of the meat you might buy at the supermarket is not. Why? Because the subsidized corn is so cheap that a huge chunk of it goes straight to feedlots. Hence section two, the continued evolution of meat. We are now changing the diet of most of the animals we eat. Cows, which were evolved to eat grass, are now fed corn. Why? Because corn is cheap and its high calorie density bulks up cows quickly. So what's so bad about that? Americans can buy burgers at fast-food joints for 99 cents, isn't that good? Pollan, to his credit, recognizes that access to meat as an everyday option for almost any economic class is an amazing thing. On the other hand, there are other prices to pay. By changing what cows eat, we've made their digestive systems more like ours. The nasties that used to live in their guts couldn't survive the high acid environments of our stomachs, and we didn't have to worry as much about food poisoning. Now there are plenty of bad things that will happily live in both the food species and in us. Also, when we move away from grass to the high-density feedlots that corn allows, disease rates shoot through the roof. So your beef is chock-full of antibiotics. Finally, many of the health benefits of eating certain kinds of food might go away. Farm-raised salmon eats corn. Salmon in the wild does not (hard to imagine how it would). It turns out that many of the "good chemicals" in fish aren't coming from corn-fed version.

Both corn and beef on an agribusiness scale have huge external costs. Farmers are selling corn for less that it costs to grow because of the government handouts, but we also need to ask why corn costs so much to grow. A big reason is that oils is a big component in corn. How? Well, fertilizer is a petroleum product. And shipping that lettuce from California to New York uses up some gas too. It turns out that when you add up everything, it takes about ten calories of gasoline to make one calorie of food. (Think about that fact the next time somebody tells you that ethanol will break our dependence on foreign oil.) So this brings us to section three, Organic Foods. Here Pollan blows the lid off of stores like Whole Foods. His claim is that Whole Foods is such a huge buyer that it can't purchase from smaller farms, it has to buy from industrial-sized farms that have branded themselves as organic. Organic does have some benefits - the lower use of pesticides comes to mind. On the other hand, Pollan claims that most of the Organic Foods concept is just feel-good marketing. Take for example free-range chickens. They really don't spend any time outdoors. For the first chunk of their lives the door to their coop is kept closed because outside is deemed to be unhealthy to baby chickens. By the time the door is finally open, their brains are more or less set and they don't have any curiosity for outside. So there's a small door that leads to a tiny strip of grass, but no chickens ever take this route. But the farmer gets to charge a premium because the consumer likes the idea of cage-free. According to Pollan, much of the large-scale Organic Farming is just as non-sustainable as the mainstream.

This brings us to part four, the little farm that could. Here Pollan visits a sustainable farm. What makes this farm so good? The farmer has thought long and hard about how evolution has shaped each animal and plant into a role that can be exploited. Grass is grown, cows eat it. The cows are rotated off the fields, and then chickens are brought in to process what's left. In the winter the cows are taken to sheds and eat hay (in the mainstream cows don't eat hay - they have the government-subsidized corn and besides, hay isn't grown because it's much more profitable to grow either corn or soy). Pigs later are again brought in to process what's left. Yes, this is more expensive, partly because it is more labor-intensive for the farmers. If all farmers did this, then poor people would eat much less meat. But it is sustainable (at least it is on the farm-end of things, I don't see how 100 yuppies all driving their cars 40 miles to the farm is better than one truck driving the produce to a more local supermarket). Pollan asks the farmer "How can this support New York City," and the reply he gets is along the lines of "New York City shouldn't be supported." It's good to see this flaw stated explicitly.

The last part of this book has Pollan hunting a boar and finding his own mushrooms to live the hunter-gatherer experience. While I didn't have much enthusiasm in this aspect of his overall project, Pollan is a such a strong writer that this still captured the full focus of my attention.

While this has been a very long entry (roughly 2.5 times what I normally write for a book I like), I've only skated across the surface of a very deep book. I've written about what was compelling to me, and left many of Pollan's topics unmentioned. Buy this book. It might make you change the way you eat (his discussions on vegetarianism were interesting), it hopefully will change they way you shop (he suggests shopping around the perimeter of the store - the processed foods are on the aisle), it will change the way you look at the business of growing food. You might not agree with everything in it, but you should consume it and digest it.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel

Francine Prose (2014)

I don't read fiction much. When I do, it tends to be a little out of the mainstream. This one has a narrative structure which is portrayed as the piecing together of different memoirs and biographies. This isn't a new trick, after all, that was the structure of Dracula. Only in this case the monster is a lesbian race car driver who works for the Nazis.

Yes, that's a wild premise, but it turns out that the main character is based upon a real-life person, but the author felt more comfortable spinning the story as a work of fiction (as it would give her more freedom to tell a story and explore characters) rather than doing a straight-up biography. This it kind of neat on a meta-level because the "biographer" of the main character in the novel does tend to spin her wheels and create things that probably weren't there.

There is a section where the main character travels to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and I was almost forced to invoke Godwin's Law. The passages detailing the dinner with Hitler were tedious, and I almost stopped reading at that point. Also, while the book's arc follows the real-life events, if you didn't know that you would suspect that the author had painted herself into a corner, and couldn't find a good way to end the story.

This book is well written in places, its structure allows for multiple views of three-dimensional characters, but it flows a little too well (the purported documents dovetail a little too nicely). Depending on how much you like fiction, it might be worth your time.

Like a Boss

Adam Rakunas (2016)

While I enjoyed Andy Weir's Artemis, as I was reading it I kept going back to Adam Rakunas's Windswept, as I thought that while the latter was going to sell far fewer copies than the former, it was a flat out solid work. So when I was done I checked to see if Rakunas had put out anything new. He has, and you should buy it right away.

This book picks up a couple of years after Windswept. The hero is still a badass, and Rakunas has upped his game. This book feels less like an action movie than Windswept, partly because its particular lens on dystopia is the gyrations of power at end-stage capitalism. That's a little harder to blow up. In fact, my one complaint with the book is that the resolution could have been stronger. So it goes, sometimes you can't just wrap up big ideas in a nice bow at the end.

On top of the issues confronted by the scope of the novel, Rakunas just shines as a writer. I find Jonathan Letham to be frustrating, mainly because he's so damn good. Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude are flat out two of my favorite books, while Chronic City and The Gambler's Anatomy don't live up to those standards. But in all of his books there are passages and paragraphs that you just read over several times because the writing is just so damn good. I found myself doing that in Like a Boss. When I really like a book, it either ends up with a very long review or a very short review. This one is short, but I'm going to repeat myself, go out and buy this book.


Adam Rakunas (2015)

I'm an on-again, off-again member of my brother's book club. At one point this was our semi-monthly selection, based mainly upon the fact that the author, Adam Rakunas, was somebody my brother knew in college. Well, none of my old college buddies have ever been nominated for a Phillip K. Dick award, so I guess my brother hung out with a higher class of people than I did.

I liked this book immediately because Rakunas cast his hero as female. I think crossing gender lines with your debut novel is gutsy, and it worked for both Colson Whitehead and Meg Howrey. Whitehead is one of our generation's leading authors, and I see Howrey as an up-and-comer, how does Rakunas fit in? He has crafted interesting characters, a good plot with compelling twists and turns, and has packed the book with action. The last would be my only complaint. At a certain point I felt that I was reading an action-movie novelization, not because the plot dominated the characters (he has a good balance), but because the protagonist takes so much physical punishment I felt that I had to waver on my suspension of disbelief. Still, that's a small complaint, I more than wave it off given the depth of many of the other themes in the book (who doesn't like a dystopian end-game-of-capitalism tale?). It's a great first effort and I'm looking forward to more from the dude who keeps popping up in my brother's Facebook stuff.

This book is a fun, satisfying summer weekend read. It's worth full price, go out and buy it.

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

Nick Reding (2009)

Like most books on drug problems in America, this is a little scary. It looks at a small town in Iowa and over a span of time sees its troubles and apparent rebirth. I think that the scope is one of my issues with this book. I wanted a book that talked about the problems of meth in rural America, instead I got some small town in Iowa. Granted, it was an iconic town, and at the end of the book it seemed like it was in its way up, but the problem was much bigger than this town.

At least we think it was. Was the a meth problem? Or was it just blown out of proportion by the media, and law enforcement that can justify its existence and expansion by fighting a war on drugs. Reding dangles that out there, but doesn't really follow up.

One thing that rubbed me the wrong way in this book was the continued use of the term "illegals" for undocumented Mexican workers. Reding bent over backwards to humanize meth addicts and drug dealers, but doesn't seem to have the same regard for others who are viewed poorly in our society. What makes this even more annoying is that Reding makes such a strong economic argument in his book; the meth problem is a product of economic conditions, restore good jobs, and meth magically goes away. Undocumented workers are also a product of economics, if you can provide a much higher level of living for your family by crossing the border, you do it. For a writer who is pretty good a pulling back the camera to look at the big picture, I was disappointed by this blind spot.

Ultimately there are some big important questions raised in this book. Is society better off if the meth is supplied by large Mexican cartels that corrupt Mexican power structures and hurt the quality of life in Mexico, or do we prefer mom&pop cooks in America that blow up houses in "nice" neighborhoods? What is the role of Big Pharma? Could we stop meth production if we simply gave the drug companies a billion or two to develop cold medicines that couldn't be transformed into the ingredients for meth? There's the seed of an excellent book here, but instead we get a look at a small Iowa city, and the flawed power-players there.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Marc Reisner (1993)

Jeff Cleary gave me this book, a very nice gesture.

I have to say that this is a great read. It covers the history of water and farming in the West, with a wary eye towards the future. We can talk all we want about running out of oil, but when we run out of water we're in big trouble. Run out of water, doesn't that stuff fall from the sky? Sure it does, but to supply the demands of both farmers and city dwellers, we are drilling down and exhausting our aquifers. In fifty to one-hundred years, we will be in true crisis.

When America was expanding into the West, there was a historical weather blip - we got more rain on bad farming land than we should have. This gave rise to some crazy scientific theories - "the rain follows the plow," and also allowed people to settle into regions they had no economic reason to settle. Then politics came into play. People in water-starved regions found ways to beg, borrow or steal other people's water (the book spends a long time on the story of Los Angeles). And then different branches of the Federal government went to war for money to build dams. In fact, most of the dams that were built can not (and never could) be justified economically. (Although the author does point out that it was cheap hydroelectricity that let the US refine massive amounts of aluminum in WWII, a key fact when it came to building airplanes.)

All you need to know about politics is that the US government used to pay farmers in places like Iowa money not to grow food. And they would also spend all kinds of money so that farmers out in the desert could grow food.

You can not understand the history and politics (including current politics) of California and the rest of the West without an good working knowledge of water. You'll find it in this book. The future scares me. We can not support this many people with the water we'll have in another generation.

On a personal note, I was often conflicted while reading this book. On one hand, the way that farmers have been getting handout in terms of cheap water from the government is infuriating. Especially since they continue to get massive amounts of very cheap water even when we city folks are in severe drought conditions. On the other hand, I come from immigrant farmers. I've been to what was once my family farm; twenty acres with access to good cheap water. In 1915 my grandfather was being raised in a house roughly the size of my living room and kitchen put together. No electricity, no plumbing, more or less the definition of dirt poor. But they had the cheap water, and that combined with the miracle we call California soil allowed my family to climb into the middle class. While water subsidies go mainly to megacorporations, I can't raise my fist in anger without first recognizing the benefits that my family has received.

I feel in my heart that every Californian should be required to read The Grapes of Wrath. I'd almost say the same for this book.

The Conquistadors: A Very Short Introduction

Matthew Restall & Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (2012)

I picked up this book because I wanted to know more than my then-current comic-book-level of this history of the Spanish Conquest of the New World. On one hand, there weren't a lot of nuts and bolts in this book. Key battles were mentioned here and there, along with the names of the major players. But that's fine, good history isn't about the whats, it is about the whys.

How could a small handful of men, on the order of a few hundred Europeans, destroy two major empires? "It was a genuinely surprising outcome, for Spain is, in strictly geographical terms, a poor and marginal past of Europe - and at the time Europe was, by global standards, the home continent of a backwards and relatively unproductive civilization." Meanwhile, the Aztecs and Incas rivaled the Chinese in terms of metrics like population density. Was it superior weapons? While steel swords helped, guns had serious limitations. Small pox and other diseases? They played a role, but aren't the main reason. Perhaps the natives thought that the Europeans were gods? No evidence has been found of this, and legends where people "come from over the seas" would probably be limited to coastal regions in any case.

So what's the story then?

Both the Aztec and Incan empires were brand-new at that point, in existence as major powers for less than a hundred years (as was Spain, which had just stitched itself together from several smaller kingdoms and expelled both the Jews and the Muslims; which helps put things into perspective, this culture had been killing and stealing the lands of Jews and Muslims for a while, why treat the natives of the Americas any differently?). Both empires were made up of small central powers that had conquered their neighbors, but hadn't completely integrated them. The Aztecs in particular had cobbled together an empire made up of subdued rivals. When the Spaniards came, they were able to raise up powerful allies and took down the Aztecs from the top of the pyramid. Imagine if people from Mars landed in Virginia in 1869, they wouldn't have needed to bring a whole fleet of flying saucers, they could have just re-ignited the Confederacy and used that defeated army as the bulk of their might. That was how the Aztec Empire fell, it was over in three battles; one where the Spaniards proved their merit to their main ally, one where the capital fell, and a third to conquer a rouge state that wouldn't come under a revised umbrella of power.

A very similar story for the Incas, a ruler had died of small pox, there was a power vacuum that led to a civil war, and the Spaniards walked in and took advantage of it. In the two major nation-states, there were pre-existing centralized cities that were supported by vast agricultural systems. The rural people and minor cities were ruled, some of them helped throw off their previous rulers, and then the Spaniards replaced the old bosses. In regions where this model didn't apply, where the natives hadn't been previously beaten by their neighbors, the Spaniards had a much harder time. The Mayan Empire is a good example, it was more a collection of culturally-similar peoples, and each city-state needed to be beaten on its own. The Mayans lasted a very long time.

The deeper question was why were the Spaniards able to consistently make use of rebellious client states? The authors point to the idea of "micropatriotism," that instead of seeing themselves as natives banded against Spaniards, or even people from the same region who are different from outsiders, each little tribe had enough xenophobia against their neighbors to not form and "us vs. them" climate, and instead welcomed the conquistadors. These were empires that were ripe to fall. They also claim the idea of stranger bias, which is almost the opposite of the micropatriotism. How does this work? The Spaniard's advantage is that they literally had no history with these tribes, so they had no past arguments or bad blood. They could act as arbiters in certain cases, and (ironically, given the results) be more trusted. At the front of every great conquistador army was a host of native warriors, they made up the bulk of the personel. This shouldn't be too surprising, look at the how "modern" colonial empires worked, they had indirect rule of Europeans, standing over the shoulders of native elites, backed up by native muscle, stiffened by elements of European military. It worked Asia and Africa, why would the model be any different in the Americas of the 1500s?

There are some places where the narrative lags, but overall this is a good book. I felt like I got a good grip on the whys of the conquest of the New World.

Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race

Richard Rhodes (2007)

While one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, the title really ought to describe what the book is about. So let's take a look, shall we? The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race, what would one think is in here? Given that it was written by the guy who wrote the go-to books on both the history of the atomic bomb (fission) and the history of the hydrogen bomb (fusion), a brief rundown might go something like this... "The Americans, worried about Nazi efforts, developed the atomic bomb and then dropped in on Japan. A few years passed, and the Soviets followed suit. Both then quickly figured out fusion, moved from bombers to ICBMs, and ended up with each side pointing about 20,000 warheads at the other. England, France and China built a few hundred each, but that's not really a race, now is it?"

That's what a reasonable person might expect. Instead, chapter one is about Chernobyl. There are also chapters on Gorbachev's upbringing, and the rise of the neocons. All of these are interesting things. For one thing, the claim is made that the right wing of the Ford administration (two guys named Cheney and Rumsfeld) was unhappy with the balanced reports coming from the CIA about Soviet weapons and intentions, so they engineered the replacement of the director of the CIA with somebody who would send along more tilted reports. The new guy? George H. W. Bush. Yikes.

In some sense, this is more like a history of the end of the arms race. The topic that is treated with the most detail is a summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev, what was achieved, and what failed. It felt as if Rhodes started with that chapter and all of the earlier chapters were simply to give context on what the situation was, and how Gorby and Reagan's actions were affected by their past personal histories. But the current title will sell more books than "Summit: We Look at All of the Pieces."

This isn't a bad book. I did learn a lot about some key strategic moves in the '70s and '80s. But this was not a history of the arms race. And from somebody with Rhodes's credentials, that's a major disappointment.

Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea

Jeffrey T. Richelson (2007)

This is a thick book. There are nearly 570 pages of text followed by another 130 of footnotes. In some senses this is necessary, as they cover the nuclear history of many countries. The opening chapter deals with the nightmare of the Nazi bomb. It covers the familiar territory of Moe Berg and America's collection of the majority of the German nuclear scientists at the close of the war. Though Hitler never got his hands on nuclear weapons, Stalin quickly brought the USSR to the table. In some sense this is the most exciting part of the book, in that the science of bomb detection is just being discovered. Also, with a cold-war budget, the spooks could spend money for some very interesting techniques. China follows, and it's interesting that the code-word to trigger their first test was basketball related; a good chunk of their atomic scientists gained a love of hoops from their time in America. China's actions pushed both France (who really only wanted fission devices, but felt they had to also do fusion) and the clandestine India. Interestingly enough, the Indians weren't considered to be a member of the nuclear club until the late '90s, despite their 1974 test.

That covers roughly the first 40% of the book. After that it comes down to the shady characters. Israel, South Africa, Taiwan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and North Korea. Of these countries, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea all have the bomb. Israel no doubt has the most advanced program. Pakistan has a decent stockpile to counter India, and North Korea may or may not have a credible package. South Africa gave up their weapons, and Iran is trying to gain their own capabilities.

The focus of this book is on intelligence about other country's weapons programs, but I think that scope is too narrow. The author assumes that the reader has a strong background in the history, and concentrates only upon the spying. There's almost no content on the British bomb (because they were allies, we did not have to spy upon them). Far too often we are told that "The CIA believed XYZ," with no context as to what reality was. It would have been nice to have footnotes along the lines of "The CIA was right, the French had started plutonium production three months previous."

It's far too easy to get bogged down in this book, even with interesting chapters such as the one on the Vela double flash. This would be better if it covered less and was shorter, or if it went whole-hog and was an exhaustive world atomic history and intelligence tome.

Hydrogen: The Essential Element

John S. Rigden (2002)

There's that big Periodic Table of the Elements up in PSEC. My name is on Fermium, but I really wanted hydrogen. After all, it's the only element that physicists really understand. But somebody with a lot more money had dibs on hydrogen, so I'm down at the bottom of the table. That doesn't mean that I don't love a single proton paired with a single electron.

As it turns out, John Rigden has written an entire book on hydrogen, or to be more specific, he's told the story of how looking at hydrogen has peeled back the layers on atomic physics, quantum mechanics, and nuclear physics. I love the format, his 23 chapters each cover an experiment on hydrogen that pushed the barriers of physics. We start with spectra, dance through the Bohr atom and then get into the meatier stuff, eventually getting to Quantum Electrodynamics, which is well beyond anything I'll ever teach.

I can't say enough good things about this book. The only drawback is that at a certain point this feels like the life and times of I.I. Rabi, an important physicist whose top years straddled World War II. That's partially because Rigden's other major work is a biography of Rabi. Granted, Rabi and his team did important physics, but shining the spotlight a little differently may have given more breadth to the story. That being said, we do hit all of the major players such as Bohr, Sommerfeld, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, and Schrodinger, and even extend into today's physics with people like Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman. This book is a lot more fun that solving the differential equations that give you hydrogen, go out and read it.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War

Mary Roach (2016)

I've been looking forward to mid-late 2016. Four of my favorite authors have releases due: Tim Egan, Mary Roach, Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem. The problem is managing expectations. Set them too high, and you are bound to be disappointed. But if you can't get excited about new books, is life even worth living. We're halfway into 2016, and Egan's work was solid, if not Earth-shattering. Mary Roach delivers. The book opens with a chicken gun, which most nerds know is a tool used by the military to launch birds at airplanes to investigate birdstrike, something that can take down a plane. In classic Roach style we get "As a bird to represent all birds, the chicken is an unusual choice, in that it doesn't fly. It does not strike a jet in the manner in which a mallard or a goose strikes a jet - wings outstretched, legs trailing long. It hits it like a flung grocery item."

This book does not cover a James Bond inventory of weapons. She instead decided to look at how technology helps our soldiers both on the battlefield and upon their return. Some of these are on the stupid or silly sides, like stink bombs or shark repellent (what we learn in the second is that sharks usually have no interest in live sailors upon the sea, and given a shipwreck, they'd much rather feast upon already dead bodies). But some of the topics are profound - like genital reconstruction for wounded soldiers, and the military's unfortunate puritanism around sex therapy for people who need specialized advice due to their injuries.

There's plenty of gross, but would it really be a Mary Roach book without maggots, corpses, diarrhea and the like? I went to a book-reading, and the man next to me visibly squirmed when the topic turned to penis injuries, but I had to wonder if he was familiar with the author's oeuvre.

The detour into submarines seems a little out of place with the rest of the book, in that it seems to be more about lifestyle than technology, but I guess there's social science around the effects of no sleep. Yes, I'm concerned about the hours of sleep that submariners get, given that they have a big red button for nuclear missiles. I once worked for 80 hours, and then drove home across Chicago. After Grunt, I think this is a submariner's weekend.

At the end of the day, Roach does a good job of blunting her usual over-the-top humor when dealing with some serious topics, mainly by making fun of herself. You still laugh out loud, but not at things we should observe with a proper level of respect. This is a great book, go out and buy a copy. Heck, go out and buy copies of all of her books.

My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places

Mary Roach (2013)

When I first picked this book up I had a sinking feeling. My initial reaction was "Oh no, this is like Bill Bryson's I'm a Stranger Here Myself," a collection of not-so-good weekly columns by an author I really enjoy. This fear was unfounded. I found myself laughing at almost every piece (well, laughing with, not laughing at). She did what Bryson could not do, she adapted to a shorter format with a more restrictive censor. Some of this comes down to the fact that Bryson really shines in longer works, but so does Roach. The key here is that she's much funnier than he is. This is even taking into account the Reader's Digest factor. This book is a collection of her columns printed in that magazine, one I remember reading at my grandparent's house as a child. This book has the honor of being the first book in my big "summer reading list" that my son actually picked up and read. I'm a little worried about that, because I'm not sure ready for some of her other works (it seems like there's some Bonk in all of them). She had to be funny while writing on topics that would not offend middle-America, and dealing with topics that are on the wild (or weird) side is her bread-and-butter. But again, she pulled it off. My Planet is worth the read.

This isn't the most flattering photo of me, but interviewing Mary Roach was a bucket-list event

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

by Mary Roach (2010)

This is one of those books where I won't spend a lot of time on a review, instead I'll just tell you to run out and buy a copy. The book covers what it takes to get human bodies, evolved to expect things like air and gravity, to survive in outer space. Roach has excellent material to work with, there's all kinds of craziness involved in humans in space - take for example a transcript in the book from the Apollo 10 mission, it's more-or-less a "who cut the cheese" discussion, only worse. Much worse. But on top of that, she writes with clarity and humor. Take for example a short section out of the gravity chapter, "Gravity is why there are suns and planets in the first place. It is practically God. In the beginning, the cosmos was noting but empty space and vast clouds of gases. Eventually the gases cooled to the point where tiny grains coalesced. These grains would have spent eternity moving through space, ignoring each other, had gravitational attraction not brought them together. Gravitation is the lust of the cosmos." Very well said. Finally, she has many wonderful insights. For example, a lot of space food was engineered by veterinarians (an offshoot of sending monkey into space), and while it may have been "efficient," nobody wanted to eat it. Roach suggests that we probably should have gone down a slightly different road, and instead of consulting veterinarians we should have talked to pet food companies. Why? Because their goal is to make food that both tastes good (pets can be very picky) and also takes a long time to digest with very little "residue," important considerations in outer space. Buy this book.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

Mary Roach (2005)

I really like Mary Roach, but this is not her best work. Yes, I laughed at lots of points in the book, but overall this felt empty. Her strength is taking deep, important topics, like death, sex and outer space, and then looking at them with an offbeat hilarious viewpoint. The problem here is that she tackles a subject that is just a little too nutty, even for her. Roach spends the book with the people who go around trying to catch ghosts, people who investigate reincarnation, the "my tape recorder hears dead people" crowd and other people who are crazy enough in their own right. Most of Roach's other topics could fly on PBS, they are interesting in their own right; this belongs on a cable channel with four digits. If the topic itself isn't worth studying, even Roach can't save it. Her previous book dealt with cadavers, this kind of felt like leftovers. You have to love Mary Roach though, because you can write lines like "Read her books on sex, dead bodies, and going to outer space. The one about ghosts is a step down."

That being said, there is one section where I have to give the book some love. It talks about how people are technically killed when they get heart defibrillators implanted. The doctors have to stop a patient's heart (and by some legal definitions, kill them) and then test to see if the implant will shock the person back to life. It's kind of awesome to know that I was killed and brought back to life.

Devil's Cape

by Rob Rogers (2008)

Recently super-hero novels have become a guilty pleasure. Soon I Will be Invincible was a classic, and Ex-Heros delivered, so I moved on to Devil's Cape. Sadly, I think that the author should have read more comics books.

So what does that mean? Devil's Cape falls short, why? It has the classic ingredients, genesis stories for a team of super heros and their opponents, a half-way decent plot, and cheesy super powers. On the other hand, Rogers fails to grasp some key elements to the genre. First of all, you have to have a good super villain. His structure has a mastermind pulling the strings of organized crime, with a team of low-level super-powered bad guys acting as muscle. His mastermind is good, but let's face it, in this role you really need an evil genius. As far as the toughs go, Rogers breaks an ironclad rule of comic books: the powers of the bad guys need to have some interesting relationship to the powers of the good guys. Instead it feels like the author just read a bunch of comics, picked out powers he thought were cool, and assigned them to the different characters in the book. Better authors understand that egos drive both the heros and villains, and that those groups derive their egos from their powers. Having powers that clash or complement in different ways brings much more to the table.

Note that like the other two super-hero books referenced above, one of the main characters is a woman who either wears a powered armor suit or is in fact a cyborg. What's up with that cliche?

Comic books (and the novels in the genre) can be fun, and the good ones raise real issues and provoke interesting discussions. And then there's trash. This book isn't trash, but it isn't the top of the heap either. Skip it.

One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko

Mike Royko (1999)

One of the best things about living in Chicago was reading Mike Royko's column every morning. It's always bothered me that the city's reaction to Harry Caray's death in 1998 overshadowed Royko's passing in 1997. Then again, as Royko pointed out, Chicago barely noticed when Nelson Algren died. Hell, I would have never read Algren if it weren't for Royko, I should thank him just for that.

One More Time is a highlight reel of Royko's best columns, and it gives a good spread over the four decades where his writing graced Chicago's newspapers. All of his classics are here. What made his great was his range. He could write well about the larger-than-life (see, for example, his columns written the day after Daley died, or when Harold Washington became Chicago's first black mayor), social outrages (the VA refusing to pay to put a soldier's face back together, a Chicago suburb's reaction to a family with a black baby moving into the neighborhood) all the way to the guy on the next barstool (many many columns). No, he wasn't always right; when claiming that the reason Bob Dole was going to lose to Clinton he pointed to the fact that Dole had matured before television had been developed, and hence couldn't master the medium. In fact, "I can't think of one industry that would hire him to sell its product on the tube." Sigh. I miss Royko, as I'm sitting here imagining what his column on Viagra would have been like.

And for that matter, given decades of writing on the topics of race and Chicago politicians, what he would have written as this country picked Barack Obama to be our President. Royko had a voice that stood head and shoulders above other American writers. Read and enjoy.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir

by Salman Rushdie (2012)

Joseph Anton is a made-up name. It comes from two of Salman Rushdie's favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. Younger people might not know who Salman Rushdie is, but for a while he was perhaps the most famous author on the planet. While his writing is top-notch, his notoriety came from the fact that the Ayatollah Khomeini declared Rushie's novel The Satanic Verses was an insult to Islam, and decreed that Rushdie should be killed. Younger people may also need to be reminded that Khomeini was the Iranian leader who took power after the fall of the Shah, and was quite hostile towards the West. Rushdie had to go in hiding, was forced to use his Joseph Conrad alias, and spent years in internal exile. The danger was real, several people involved in the production of The Satanic Verses were attacked, and one was murdered.

This reads like an extremely long book. Clocking in at over 600 pages, it isn't short, but more than that, it feels like Rushdie felt the need to account for every dinner he had with friends, every harsh criticism, and so forth. There are large sections of the book where it is as if Rushdie needed to let a decade's worth of grudges and thank-yous flow from his pen. His critics often labelled him as both selfish and arrogant, and there are sections of the text where he doesn't do much to change that perception. This is sad because there's a very good book hidden in this memoir. Rushdie is a strong enough writer that no editor will take the kitchen shears to his work, but a focus on the true issues at the heart of this story at the expense of Rushdie's life history and five million name-drops of Susan Sontag would have generated a lean, powerful text.

My book habit got expensive, so now I usually just electronically take books out from the library. When this one was about to expire from my reader, I walked to the library and checked out the dead-tree version. I've never done that for a book before, the book was that compelling. Then again, had we not had the hundreds of extra pages, I wouldn't have hit the expiration deadline.

One of the things he touches upon is that in Great Britain the police controlled every aspect of his life. He contrasted this with his visits to America (which weren't allowed by the British for the first few years) where he could (after a first few trips) walk around as a "free man." One is left to wonder how things would be different if he was an American. It raises interesting questions. One of the things I remember from that time was that the Religious Right was trying very hard to get pornography removed from stores like 7/11 (again, I feel that the young need a history lesson; in the days before the internet a person had to go out and buy pornography from a store). Granted that there were no fire-bombings, but there was a national debate at the time about censorship, and if it was reasonable to ban "offensive" material. Granted that the Ayatollah Khomeini was an earlier version of Osama Bin Laden to the American public, but I don't think the reactions would have been as clear cut as some might think they would have been.

As a side note, I do have a small experience with removing books from the shelves. When my son was younger he checked out a Donald Duck book from the library. It was a reprint of "classic" comic books from the mid-20th century. Donald and his nephews went to Africa, and there were some quite offensive drawings of "natives." On one hand, I could view the book as a historical document, faithfully preserving the attitudes and racism of its day. On the other hand, it had no business being in the children's section. I brought the book to the children's librarian and had a short discussion with her. She agreed that it was not appropriate for kids, and suggested that it instead be transferred to a special collection at Canada College concerning portrayals of stereotypes. In the end, we "protected" young minds from material they did not have the context to properly understand. Adults do not need that protection. The heart of Rushdie's argument is that this belief is the foundation of a free society. I just wish this had been put forth with fewer distractions.

Straight Man: A Novel

Richard Russo (1997)

I'm a grown man, and I stayed up until four in the morning reading this book. Yes, it was that good. Granted, I'm in this book's wheelhouse. It's about a middle-aged college professor who is the chair of his department. A lot of the things I found funny about this book, you'll probably also find funny, but then again, maybe not. Russo was a college professor, and I'd claim that he captures plenty of the absurd aspects of academia well. While I wouldn't go so far to say that I recognize individual characters in his book, I certainly recognize behaviors.

Somehow Russo has convinced me to deeply care for a character whose actions aren't all that sympathetic. I understand why some of the other characters hate him. This is a comedy, a drama, and a decent work of literature all wrapped up in one package. Go out and read this book.

The Secret Lives of Color

Kassia St. Clair (2017)

While I enjoyed this book, there were some howlers in here that made me question the entire edifice. And since there's no unifying theme, just a large number of vignettes about different shades, a book that rests upon a bunch of small interesting facts crumbles under its own weight when you start questioning said facts. For example, it makes sense that the word orange first referred to the fruit. I can believe that history. But Chernobyl was caused when "nuclear rods were lowered into water to cool them." And in her chapter on Silver, we are told that in the mid-1600s the town of Greifswald was almost overrun with werewolves, until silver bullets were implemented. Really? Werewolves? And Plato was a noted mathematician.

On the other hand, some of the trivia are wonderful. While it was William Herschel who discovered infrared light (and the planet Uranus), it was his son John who figured out the chemical process that makes blueprints possible (and blue). Prior to photocopies, this was the best way to rapidly make copies. And that certain red food dyes have been removed from the market because they are made of bugs, and hence are not acceptable to vegetarians. But are Coca-Cola's colors really red and white to honor Peru, where they got their coca leaves and cocaine? The internet claims that the red is due to the fact that Coca-Cola was shipped in red barrels to distinguish it from alcohol, which was taxed, I'd believe that as much as St. Clair's footnoted source. On the other hand, so long as a good story is advertised to be false at the get go, why not tell it? The dingy color Isabelline is said (falsely, according to St. Clair) to be the color of a Duchess who had sworn not to change her undergarments until her husband had successfully taken a city - the siege lastest three years. True or not, that's a good one, but I do want to know what is real and what isn't.

And some of the best things are hidden in the footnotes. Crayola replaced "flesh" with "peach" way back in 1962. If your crayons are racist, you should have gone for the flagship product.

Deep into the book (Taupe) she brushes across details of systems that map colors in 3D (which is the logical way to do it, as we have three types of cones in our eyes). That's information that is actually key, and should have been expanded-on and explored much earlier. The author does do a nice job of tracing how color groups are noted during history (the Greeks had no blue), but this was also not long enough. Instead we get trivia. Some of it is fun, but it is trivia nonetheless.

The Android's Dream

by John Scalzi (2006)

I really liked Scalzi' Red Shirts because it was quirky, smart and fast-moving. This book shares many of the same characteristics. One of the key plot elements is an "electric sheep," so there is an homage to Philip K. Dick right in the title. There's a cult based upon a failed science fiction writer. And the story starts with "Dirk Moeller didn't know if he could fart his way into a major diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out." The plot moves along well, even if it does employ a trope here and there. Ok, sometimes I did need to work extra hard on suspending disbelief, but that's part of reading science fiction, even good science fiction. And I do think that many of the puzzles were resolved nicely. This is just a good, fun, fast read, and it is worth your time and money.

The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency)

John Scalzi (2018)

Sometimes you just want a fun, engaging book to read. John Scalzi always comes through. This is the first book in a series, so I simultaneously had a sinking feeling about what would and would not be resolved by the end of the book, and also rejoiced in knowing that there was more to come.

On top of good plotting, interesting characters, and strong dialog, there are plenty of places to give Scalzi credit in this book. Strong women characters. A future where roles are not gendered, and LGBTQ people are normalized in society. And a future where class is central, and our economic failings remain unsolved - his blog post Being Poor is perhaps my favorite thing he's ever written.

And two of the heroes are physicists. Yes, science is predicting the collapse in the title, and at times the whole "politicians are ignoring global warming for the sake of the profit of corporate interests" angle is a bit transparent, but that's not damning given everything else that works about this book. Go out and read it. And if you are reading this in 2018 when I'm writing this, then sit on the couch and wait for the sequel. If you are from the future, then read both books. Yes, this one (and Scalzi in general) are good enough that I'm telling you to read the second one before it's even been published.

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas

by John Scalzi (2012)

Some books are just plain fun. This is one of them. The title is a reference to the unfortunate characters on classic Star Trek who would show up for once scene and then get killed. The book revolves around a small group of such characters. It turns out that the more experienced Redshirts in this universe have become quite good at not being around when the Captain or other high-ranking officers are looking to form away teams.


Yeah, normally I don't do spoilers in my book reviews, but somehow it seems appropriate for this one. In any case, a batch of rookie Redshirts quickly figure out that they are cannon-fodder, and with the help of a mysterious character, determine that they are living in a TV show. They then go back in time to when the TV show was written and filmed in order to change their timeline.

Scalzi has clearly watched a lot of science fiction, and does an excellent job of poking at the obvious targets. The added codas really work, fleshing out characters when one of the points of the novel is that some characters are defined by the fact that they are one-dimensional. This was a very quick read, and I'll be on the lookout for more books by the author. Buy this one!

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Eric Schlosser (2013)

Yes, this book was written by the same person who did Fast Food Nation. It is a good effort, unfortunately it is two strong efforts that were stitched together in a clumsy fashion. Let's deal with the better portion first.

Schlosser has put together a gripping and detailed account of the history of the US nuclear arsenal, and all of its accidents and safety concerns (well, not all, these number in the thousands; he hits the important highlights). We learn that warheads melt when their B-52s burn on the runways. We find out that contrary to the modern idea that the President has total control over nuclear weapons via the "football," back in the day (the early parts of the Cold War), lots of people in uniform had the authority to launch a nuclear weapon, far more down the ladder than one would believe. And any introduction of safety was fought by the military; the precaution that kept a bomb from exploding when dropped may also keep it from working when it really needs to. This section was revealing and frightening, and it is a wonder that we made it through the Cold War in one piece.

There's also the story of one of the worst incidents on record. No, the Damascus Accident has nothing to do with Syria, it was the site of a missile silo in Arkansas. The ICBM was damaged, and things went downhill from there. While it is an interesting tale, it is easy to get lost in the details, and since the narrative is woven into the rest of the book, at times it is hard to follow. And there's also very little tension. You know that Arkansas isn't a nuclear wasteland, so no matter what happened to the rocket and the silo crew, the warhead didn't detonate. If this had been written on its own, it would have been a book worth reading. Instead it pulls down a closely-related, but better book. Not only is the sum less than the parts, it is much less than the parts.

That being said, this is still worth reading. There are interesting conclusions in this book. First, it is noted that at its peak, the US arsenal had over 70,000 warheads. That means that if one had gone off by accident, the success rate would have been an impressive 99.9985%. But like Elon Musk says about rockets, "passing is 100%." Everyone involved in the program at the time suggests or outright claims we got lucky. Interestingly, if you guess that the Soviets were even worse, then you are wrong. Yes, they has more accidents during production and testing, but their finished product was always controlled from the top (not at the whim of a mid-level officer) and their fail-safes were well thought-out and implemented. They didn't have an accident either, and that's less due to luck than it was in our case.

This is worth a read, but you might want to skip the sections on Damascus.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

Eric Schlosser (2001)

OK, I'll admit that I'm a wuss. I didn't have the courage to read this book until after I had gone on a diet and weaned myself from fast food. Most folks who recommended this book to me in the past said that it would turn my world upside-down, and I wasn't ready for that until after I had sworn off the bacon cheeseburger.

While this book did have some interesting moments, most of the time I found myself shrugging and asking "Well, what did you expect?" I once read that hockey is to Canadians as capitalism is to Americans. Whether the citizen in question likes or dislikes his or her nation's pastime, they have a deep understanding of the rules and traditions. There were many times when the author wrote as if he was expecting outrage on the part of the reader, and yet all I could do is nod my head and comment that this is the way things work when big business is in charge. Of course they are pushing to hire workers who are docile, replaceable and who don't have many other prospects. That's how they keep wages low. No kidding that high prices for commodities aren't passed down to the farmers and ranchers who grow the potatoes and chickens. Again, that's what happens when a few companies bid on indistinguishable products. And yes, politicians aid and abet the process. Big surprise. As Calvin Coolidge once said, the business of America is business.

So where was I mad? I was mad when I found out that the fast food companies can get government money for "training." Of course, very little training occurs as any real skills would make the employee less replaceable, and the fact that a new hire means more training money for the company gives another incentive to have high worker turnover. I was mad when I read about the lax standards in the meatpacking industry, and that amazingly (or given lawsuits, not so amazingly), fast food vendors get a higher-level meat product in terms of health safety than what the typical consumer can buy at the market. That was about it.

At the end of the day, everyone who eats fast food knows at some level or another that it simply isn't good for them. And yes, when you have a few corporations controlling something as important as food, there's going to be large economic fallout. Guess what, nobody is putting a gun to anybody's head and forcing them to eat this stuff. If there was no demand, there would be no supply.

Dear Committee Members: A Novel

Julie Schumacher (2014)

This is a fun book if you are a part of a select audience. The novel is meant for English professors. OK, aren't all novels meant, in some way or another, for English professors? That's a fair question, and the answer for anything above the level of pulp is probably yes, but that's not what I mean. It's for English professors as their world is at the center of the story. The main character in this book is a tenured faculty member in a shrinking English department at what the narrator describes as a second-rate institution (which means that it is really a third-rate institution). It takes the form of a series of letters of recommendation, and since the author of the letters is a stereotypical curmudgeon, plenty of complaining and whining (in other words, character development and plot advancement) happens in those missives.

I enjoyed the book because I am a professor. Satire is always funnier when you can understand why the people around you are laughing. I suspect I would have enjoyed it even more were I an English professor (for that matter, once I remembered plot details of Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener, one of the subplots in this book became much clearer). With an insider's perspective I could also see that he was advocating, making strong points, at times being effective, and as a result the end of the novel wasn't too big a surprise.

So what if the reader isn't a professor, English or whatever, is the book still worthwhile? I think it is, it's short, well constructed, and the humor does not consist entirely of inside jokes, but is instead aimed at a broader audience.

Quite frankly, for a book that could be viewed as by an academic for academics, it's not bitter at all. I'd recommend it.

Lives in Science

Scientific American (1957)

I found this nice little volume in a second-hand bookstore. It consists of biographical pieces published in Scientific American from 1948-1957. It's an interesting time capsule. In the author credits most brag about what they were doing in World War II. All of the pronouns are masculine. Hardy's comment about what might have been had Ramanujan had been "caught and tamed a little in his youth" would not have been printed in these PC times. It's an old enough book that Einstein and the rest of the early 20th-century giants are missing. It's almost as if it is a history of science prior to relativity (not quite true, Fitzgerald is here), quantum mechanics and... well, whatever was being discovered at the same time in the other branches of science.

There's a nice mix here. Some physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. Some of the stories are well-known: Newton, Galileo, Franklin. Others are harder to find on the shelves of most libraries: Hamilton, Henry, Harvey. Some did well in politics (Newton, Franklin) and others did not (Priestly had to flee to America, Lavosisier was guillotined). The fact that these were separate articles makes the book a bit stronger, although some of the authors are clearly better than others. The illustrations are a little funky, they make each of the scientists look like zombies.

This book can be found fairly cheaply on the internet and is easy to read. It's not deep, but it's worth a day or two of reading at the beach.

Barrel Fever: Stories and Essays

by David Sedaris (1994)

I love David Sedaris. Read the following review of "Me Talk Pretty One Day" for details. That being said, Barrel Fever just doesn't cut it. It is two decades old at this point, and doesn't stand up to his work as a more mature writer. The first two-thirds of the book, the stories, for the most part are cruel rather than funny. Today Sedaris openly talks of his alchoholism, and this work comes from that period. It is not hard to imagine Sedaris as a mean drunk. The last third of the book, the essays, give a portal into his future potential as a writer. The longest piece in this book, his description of working as a Santa's elf, acts as the end piece, that essay is what flung him onto the national stage as a writer/humorist.

Yes, this is Sedaris. But it isn't close to his best work. It may be worth reading for either the sake of completeness, or to understand his development as a writer, but on its own merits, it isn't very good.


David Sedaris (2018)

David Sedaris at one time was at the very top of my favorite writers list. But he went through a stage where his work seemed to drift, and the overall quality lagged. I attributed this to focus, when he was writing about his train-wreck family he was biting and funny at the same time. Writing about living in France with his boyfriend was much more uneven. Calypso marks a return to family, and a resurgence for Sedaris.

Let's be clear though, this is a book that is flavored by sadness. Yes, early Sedaris was funny with a good amount of mean-spirited snark, here the edge is gone, or at least there's a different kind of edge. Two of the stars of the book are featured via their absence. His mother, who passed a long time ago, has been the subject of previous essays. His sister Tiffany, lost to suicide, is new. They had not spoken in eight years, and some of the essays around her are painful to read. Not bad painful, as I don't regret reading them, nor would I advise others to avoid them, but they hit some very raw nerves. And then there's Sedaris's father, now in his late-stages. In some respects he's the most interesting, as he presents the most sides. Whereas some of Sedaris's family members have never been much more than cartoon characters (the Rooster), Lou Sedaris comes across as very human.

It's great to see a writer at Sedaris's level return to form. I remember looking down at the percentage-remaining bar on my e-reader, lamenting that I'd only have a certain number of essays left before the end of the book. Go out and read a copy.

Holidays on Ice

David Sedaris (2008)

You kids don't know how good you've got it with iTunes. Back in the old days, if you wanted to get some music, you had to go to a store. And that store might have the music you wanted, or it might not. If you liked a band, they may or may not have all of their albums. If the band was no longer active (if their label was no longer pushing them), then you might only see one or two albums for purchase. So what did you do? You went to flea markets and garage sales, and picked though big boxes of records. But let's remember, this was back in the day when the record companies didn't make their money selling individual songs on the internet, they sold LPs. And if the band you were interested in was no longer active (say, the lead singer died an appropriate music-industry death), then the record companies would often crank out a "new" collection of their music every few years. So you would discover an album you had never heard of before, it had seven songs that you already owned, and two or three that were not previously released (for reasons that became clear after you bought the record, took it home, and listened to it).

If you want to live this experience for yourself in the modern age, pick up a copy of David Sedaris's Holidays on Ice. It's a collection of his holiday-themed work, anchored by his famous piece on working as a Santa's Elf at Macy's. Most of the stuff can be found in his other books. There are a few pieces that cannot be found published elsewhere (no, they aren't strong). Look, I really like David Sedaris, I'm overjoyed every time I open the new issue of the New Yorker and his name is on the list of contributors, but this just isn't his best stuff. Some editor figured out that everyone knows the Elf piece, that books make good Christmas presents, and then put two and two together and created this book. Your time is better spent re-reading Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Me Talk Pretty One Day

David Sedaris (2000)

When you have a small child in your house, you need some source of intellectual stimulation to counterbalance endless readings of the world of Richard Scary (sorry Lowly Worm). Sadly, physics doesn't cut it. If I need to get out a pencil and figure out some equations, that's too much work for down-time. So I have a subscription to the New Yorker, which reminds me that I actually have a college education. That being said, the first thing I do when I get a new issue is scan the table of contents to see if David Sedaris is making an appearance. When you try to pass yourself off as a learned person it's hard to admit that Dave Barry's arsenal of fart jokes makes you laugh, but somehow Sedaris is the thinking man's Barry.

So let me just come out and say it - while Sedaris is not a guilty pleasure, perhaps he should be. He gets away with some juvenile topics because his writing has an excellent sense for set-up and timing. That and he can mine both his family in his early life and living with his boyfriend in France in his later life, both rich sources for material. Me Talk Pretty One Day is divided into two sections, American and French, and the first is decently stronger than the second.

Part one has highlights such as You Can't Kill the Rooster (describing his nutty younger brother), Go Carolina (his adventures as a kid in speech therapy), The Learning Curve (when he taught a writing workshop), and Today's Special (eating at trendy restaurants). The second part features Jesus Shaves (describing Easter in a foreign language), Make That a Double (the absurd role of gendered articles) and Smart Guy (taking an IQ test). The first half's second-tier material (Giant Dreams Midget Abilities, Twelve Moments in the Life of the Artist, Genetic Engineering) also outnumber the second's (I Pledge Allegiance to the Bag, Me Talk Pretty One Day). But heck, even the misses are pretty good. As far as my Dave Barry comparison goes, check out Big Boy.

How good is this? Good enough to read a second time, even though you already know all of the punchlines.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

David Sedaris (2008)

Yes, there are some lines in the book that made me laugh out loud. But a few moments don't save this book, it just didn't live up to the high expectations I've set for Sedaris. He's at his best when he's describing odd characters or his interesting adventures. His family only shows up in a few stories, and I'm sad to ponder the possibility that he's mined his childhood to the point that he's exhausted that vein. He's leaned on family stories for most of his career, and if there are no more we are in trouble. How can Sedaris publish a book that doesn't contain a story about The Rooster?

He's also done a great job of describing the weird adventures he's had as he bounced around in his extended youth. He's now fifty, clean, and lives with his boyfriend in a small village in Normandy for most of the year. While we all have to settle down at some point in our lives, I don't think the village gives Sedaris enough to poke his nose in. He writes about spiders he finds in his home, and hanging out with the convicted child-molester down the lane. I can't help but think that if he still lived in Chicago or New York his current writing would reflect a wilder set of adventures.

The last sixty pages deal with his time in Japan, where he tries to quit smoking. While most of his writing on addiction is good, this settles in with the rest of the book. Far too many pages about sitting in class trying to learn Japanese. I couldn't help but think "why was it so much funnier in his other books when he was trying to learn French?" His work in The New Yorker is still solid, so I don't think his skills as a story-teller are in decline. This collection, however, is a step down.

Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated

by Shea Serrano (2017)

There are books where you read them and think "Hey, this is a good book." Then there are books you like so much you figure out who deserves to get your copy when you are done. Then there are the books that require you to go onto Amazon and purchase copies for multiple friends. This book is in that last category.

I grew up with the mid-80s Warriors. Chris Mullin, Sleepy Floyd, JB Carroll and Larry Smith. Back in those days you could get tickets for just about any Western Conference opponent, and outside of the Celtics and Bulls, anyone from the East. So minus the two mentioned teams, I saw the greats of the mid-80s NBA. When I was in grad school, I had a ticket plan for the Milwaukee Bucks. Yes, during the Jordan Era it was easier to drive to another NBA city to watch basketball than it was to do it in Chicago. So I saw a good sampling of the late-90s NBA. Then came the travesty of the 2001 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, and I've never given the NBA my money again. Sure, I'll watch Curry and Durant on TV late in the playoffs, but to be frank, the NBA lost a customer. (My feelings on the 2001 ECF go down as the #7 best NBA conspiracy according to this author, #8 is the Russell Westbrook is injected with wolverine blood before every game.) In sum, I have a love-hate relationship with the NBA. But this book I just plain love.

Reading the chapter on what would happen if you switched Karl Malone with a bear, I recognized that I vastly underrated Karl Malone. But the whole "switch Malone with a bear" angle is part of the charm of this book. It's a mix of solid basketball analysis, mixed in with some batshit crazy. And that crazy is good, the Taco Bell Consumption vs. Self Loathing graph is worth the price of the book all by itself.

Towards the end, there's a chapter on who you would dunk on, if you could dunk on anybody. One of the rules is that you aren't allowed to dunk on Jesus, but the artwork (and the artwork is truly wonderful in this book) features Dominique Wilkins bringing it down on Jesus. That's not what makes this chapter though. Serrano wants to dunk on Niels Bohr. Why? Because he somehow has something against atomic structure. Hey, I'm no fan of the Bohr model, I think dunking on him is a great idea.

This book is right up there with Loose Balls. Both will make you laugh out loud, and both will give you a strong grounding in the history of the sport. As this book starts in 1980, and the ABA book closes in the aftermath of the NBA-ABA merger, these make a nice doubleheader. I re-read Loose Balls about once every five years (I'm overdue), and it's always a classic. I think the same will be said for this book.

This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems

John Shaw (2013)

When I was younger, during baseball season, I'd go to games every week. To me it was an essential American activity, you enjoy a game, talk to the people around you, and eat food that's bad for you. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Major League Baseball, understanding the role it played in American culture, ramped up the patriotism. One of the changes was a performance of God Bless America during the seventh-inning stretch. I did not like this. I did not like it at all. It was usually a recording of Kate Smith's iconic rendition, which I felt was very martial. I love my country, but my feeling was that this played into the terrorism. Terrorists use the methods they do because they do not have the military power to defeat their opponents, and thus must strike in ways that cause fear in the civilian population, and convince their victims to live differently as a result. Singing another classic seventh-inning stretch song, Roll Out the Barrel is a poke in the eye at terrorism, making a claim to future fun, and it is especially effective when your opponents are fundamentalists who are against alcohol.

This book features two anthems, God Bless America and This Land Is Your Land, and the men who wrote them. I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of either song. In addition to what I've written above about God Bless America, I've always felt that the plea made up of the words of the title is going back to the well. From a historical point of view, God has blessed America again and again and again. This country has seen amazing leadership in times of crisis, has exploited bountiful natural resources, has not had strong enemies on its borders, has had a strong middle class and has as it core values equality and liberty. Truthfully, this is more a complaint against the phrase God Bless America than the song, but my attitude is set. As far as This Land Is Your Land, I've never been able to get past the "New York Island" line. It feels clunky. Who rhymes land with island? And who uses "New York Island" anyway? It's Long Island.

While the two anthems set the theme for the book, the story (in theory) is more about the composers, Irving Berlin and Woody Guthrie. Sadly, it isn't up to the task. Yes, we get life details, but people who are really interested in the two musicians ought to be able to find real biographies of the two. Nor do we get much "compare and constrast" between the two. We get many side discussions, from Teddy Roosevelt to Miriam Anderson. When the book covered Berlin's time at Camp Upton during World War I (where he wrote the musical Yip Yap Yaphank, which seeded God Bless America), I half expected the fact that the boxer Joe Louis was going to make an appearance since he trained there during WWII. Given the book's focus on race in America, and how scattered some of the sections were, this was a connection that was missed. The wide range of material made it feel at times like the author sat down with Google and a big cup of coffee.

While I trust the sections on music (the author is a musician), I wondered about accuracy over the span of the subjects (case in point, it is claimed that Pearl Harbor was the only attack on American territory during WWII, I guess the Phillipines don't count). For whatever it is worth, one of the places I do trust Shaw is his claim that God Bless America was not written as a martial song, that's Smith's interpretation rather Berlin's intent.

This is fun at places, but there are better uses for your time.

Absurdistan: A Novel

Gary Shteyngart(2006)

First, a warning. Sections of this book are just plain vulgar. And thinking harder about the other Shteyngart books I've read, misogyny is not a new feature. Yet somehow I was able to read past that because this novel is aptly titled. It is just plain absurd.

The main character, Misha Vainberg, is a decent avatar for Shteyngart himself, right down to the daddy issues and the botched circumcision upon arrival from Russia to America. And yet, in a move that makes you put down the book and admire the chutzpah, Misha's love object (emphasis on object) is stolen by the nefarious Jerry Shteynfarb, who teaches writing at Hunter College (the real Shteyngart taught at Hunter before moving on to Columbia).

The book spends a little while on character development, and then shifts gears into high satire. Misha flees Russia for Absurdistan, an oil-rich former part of the Soviet Union which is currently under the thrall of Halliburton (this was written at the height of the war in Iraq, and the time setting of the book is early September, 2001). The twists, turns, comedy and irony are Joseph Heller-lite, and Shteyngart even references Heller. Again, chutzpah. But when you read the scene where Misha talks to a parrot to understand the financial wheeling-dealings of Halliburton, or when it is explained that a room with a prostitute is cheaper than a room without a prostitute because in the second case they need to pay for two rooms, one for them, the other for the prostitute, it really does come across in the spirit of Catch-22 (although Yossarian is a rational man in an insane world, Misha is an idiot).

Certain passages are just laugh-out-loud funny, such as Misha's reaction to a bathrobe, "I felt whole and powerful, like the Reichstag must have felt when it was being draped by Christo." Some are more profound, like the concept of Americans trapped in the bodies of foreigners.

There are lots of times when you want to just put the book down and shake your head. There are just as many when you bust out laughing. Despite its flaws, this is a good read.

Little Failure: A Memoir

by Gary Shteyngart (2014)

I don't read a lot of memoirs. On the other hand, I don't read to many romances either, and I read Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, so I guess he's the author that makes me break my own rules. I think I like him mainly because he's funny on NPR, and I keep going back because he's also funny on paper.

Shteyngart tells the story of his journey from Soviet Russia as a small child, his upbringing in America, his college years and his early professional career. There's a lot of wonderful stuff in here, and some familiar stories (my Russian roommates in grad school were also taken in by the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes). The theme of masculinity and power across generations of immigrants is well handled.

I'm not sure what my recommendation is here, as memoirs are personal (duh), and what people get from them is very different than what they get from non-fiction. What I'll say is that the writing is strong, I enjoyed the book, and I hope you do too.

Super Sad True Love Story

by Gary Shteyngart (2011)

A quick look through my reviews will reveal that outside of the zombie and superhero genres, I don't read much fiction. When I read a book like Super Sad True Love Story, I wonder why I don't read more fiction. Yes, fiction is fun because the author gets to invent their own world. Shteyngart has taken fears surrounding American's economic status, the differences between the super-rich and everyone else, the rise of social media, and other trends and projected them into a near-future dystopia that is fascinating to explore. And there's a decent love story with three-dimensional characters thrown in.

One of the more amusing aspects of this book (and it is a comedy, even if it is a dark comedy) is the vocabulary that Shteyngart has invented for his characters. "He's so media" is a complement, and TotalSurrenders are a brand of women's underwear. It's not as overboard as Clockwork Orange (where the author simply used a lot of Russian), but it does evoke the same feel.

My wife's comment: "You decide to read a romance, and pick a book like this?"

At the end of the day, the world does fall apart, which makes the themes surrounding immortality and disposability that much more interesting. Yes, I need to read more literature. If you are in a similar mood, this isn't a bad place to start.

The Soviet Space Race with Apollo

by Asif A. Siddiqi (2003)

This is actually the second volume of a two-volume set on the Soviet space program, so it is a little jarring to read a text that starts with a page number in the high 400s. It is very detailed, but as it was the first book to really probe through the Soviet archives that were closed to the West during the Cold War, that's not a bad thing. Note that the Soviet response to the American moon landing was to deny that they ever had a moon program, so most of these stories were buried deep in the files. It's nice to see them come to light.

This is a good book if you have interest in the field, but it isn't a light summer read. On the other hand, some of the facts are fascinating. For example, the American model landed two men on the moon in a single lunar lander. The Soviets (for good reason) were much more risk-averse when it came to their hardware. So instead of the simple approach, they felt that they needed to send a pair of lunar landers to the moon, one containing a single person, and the other as a back up. They wanted the cosmonaut to be able to know about the status of his lander before he opened the door (some types of damage you want to just hit a "return to orbit" button), so they had a rover with a TV camera attached to it land in the same position as the lunar lander (actually, it would beat the lander to the moon to survey the landing site). Since the distance between the two lunar landers might not be trivial, the rover should also serve as a mini-scooter to transport the cosmonaut from the damaged lander to the backup lander, this requirement drove up the mass of the rovers. Since the rovers acted both as landing scouts and lander inspectors, there needed to be one for each lander. At the end of the day, the Soviets would have needed to send two landers and two rovers to support one cosmonaut landing. Four launches for one man, much worse than the one launch for two astronauts model followed by Apollo. One of the flaws of the book is that Siddiqi concentrates on the details, and sometimes misses analysis. When I see the "solution" to lower-reliability hardware involving four must-do launches, I know that the program is doomed, as this requires four perfect missions. When you are having reliability issues, adding more moving parts is a mistake.

This book is very good for what it is, and makes me want to read volume one. But hopefully a better history with more insight and fewer details will eventually be written.

Sputnik and the Soviet Space Challenge

by Asif A. Siddiqi (2003)

I read this book after Siddiqi's companion volume (reviewed above). It is at the same time exhaustive and missing key parts. Let's hit exhaustive first. It covers the pre-history of Soviet rocketry and the post-WWII "the Americans got all the good German rocket scientist" phases. It then works its way through the glory years of the Soviet space program, discusses their failed moon rocket, and then ends, properly, with the death of Korolev. In the mean time, it seems to hit every crazy Soviet space-plane and super booster rocket ever put on a drawing board. This is part of the narrative, that the Soviet space program wasn't a program at all, but a free-for-all between several different design bureaus, each headed by a unique personality (Siddiqi doesn't state obvious irony, that the Soviet competition of ideas philosophy failed when faced with America's top-down command economy space program). Several times it was stated "the Soviets lost two years because they got sidetracked by XYZ." That's good and fine, but I could have done with fewer details, a complaint I had about Siddiqi's other work in the field. If it's that jam-packed, why do you use the word missing? Because this only covers the manned-space efforts (and womanned-effots), there's very little mention of the Soviet space probes, which form an amazing story in their own right.

Sometimes we do get to see the forest instead of the trees. The Soviet program really didn't build on itself well, and after a while simply became an exercise in beating the US to milestones. While NASA's Mercury and Gemini were building towards Apollo, the Soviets were doing things in an ad hoc manner. In addition, they were doing it on a shoestring. If this book lost 150 pages and pushed forward themes like that rather than listing the names of every pilot in a certain program, it would be much more worth the read. I actually put this book down for a few months, as it was so dense. That's not something you would expect a person like me to say. Minor nitpicks, the typeface is small and the layout is not visually appealing. Also, Siddiqi does not follow the traditional Western conventions, which is a defendable choice, but it's weird seeing Yuriy Gagarin and the Baykonur Cosmodrome.

This book is for die hards, and even they might have issues.

The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor

by Ken Silverstein (2004)

One of the book formats that just doesn't work for me is the "good magazine article stretched into book with lots of filler." I knew that The Radioactive Boy Scout fit this description going in, but the background story was compelling. A kid in the suburbs of Detroit in the 1990s managed to create quite a bit of nuclear waste in his quest to create a breeder reactor.

Sadly, this book doesn't deliver. The core story works, a kid who otherwise doesn't do well in school learns a bunch of chemistry from books and a basement laboratory, and then decides that he'll create a reactor. He manages to build a neutron source (melted down americium from smoke detectors) and obtains large amounts of thorium, and this allows him to contaminate a shack in the back of his mother's back yard. Leaned again this, in great need of support, are side stories concerning a kid who lacks proper guidance, the history of the Boy Scouts and a lot of anti-nuclear fear mongering. You also get the feeling that while the author did a great deal of poking into people's personal lives, he has a just-above-Wikipedia knowledge of the actual science involved.

No, the kid's reactor doesn't really work. Yes, he can produce neutrons, and these probably do transmute some atoms, but no, he doesn't have nearly the mustard he needs for a real reactor. That's kind of how I feel about this book, yeah, on a technical level there's something there, but it isn't generating any real power. While I wouldn't straight out brand this is a bad book, I can't even damn it with faint praise. There are better uses of your time and money.

Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe

Simon Singh (2004)

For whatever reason, the story of astronomy seems to be the cleanest of the various histories of science. That being said, Simon Singh's version is an instant classic. It weighs in at almost 500 pages, but it's one of those that is hard to put down, and when you finish it you wish there was more.

Singh starts with the ancients, and in a very clear manner describes how they knew things like the size of the Earth and the distance to the Sun. He quickly transitions to the well-known Copernicus-Kepler-Galileo drama, but does so in depth and detail. He's one of the few authors who is willing to state that Copernicus was more or less ignored and forgotten for decades. One of the nice things about this topic (and several others in the book) is that he is able to list the pros and cons of various theories in table form, and then show how one gains over the other as new evidence is brought to the table.

Singh then does an excellent job of bringing Einstein to the people, providing the normal thought experiments in language everyone can understand. A history of observational astronomy is given (and later on astronomy outside of the visible wavelengths) and the personalities explored. Then there is the battle between those who believe that the universe was created and those that believe that it always has been.

Singh manages to teach both history and science in this book and does an excellent job of both. More words in this review won't do much, it will just be more of me telling you how good the book is. Singh's work should be at the top of your reading list.

Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives

by Michael Specter (2009)

This book is a little frustrating. Specter is a staff writer at The New Yorker. This is a problem right away in that the chapters read as extended magazine articles, There are many good parts, but it struggles to come together as a whole. The other big problem I had with the book is more than a little ironic. The author talks about people who, in less polite terms, are too stupid to accept some of the benefits of science, and fight some segments of it tooth and nail. Yet when I look at the level of the writing, I feel like the publisher and editors made a choice they often do for any book meant for the popular press with the word science in the title - they dumbed things down for their audience. This writing in this book wouldn't challenge a college-bound high school student.

I was also a little perplexed with his choice of topics. Vioxx, vaccines, organic vs. GMO foods, "health supplements" you buy at the vitamin store, the role of race in medicine and emerging science of synthetic biology. Then I recognized that what he's really worried about is the feelings of ill-will towards science from the political left. It isn't hard to create a caricature of a tie-dyed Berkeley resident who shops at Whole Foods, won't vaccinate their children, and is suspicious of anything that comes out of a lab. This is Specter's target. But what about the right-wing version who doesn't believe in either evolution or global warming? Specter made the point that both Orrin Hatch and Tom Harkin are pulling levers for "alternative medicine" in Congress, but then goes on to concentrate on Harkin's actions. Is it that as a writer for the New Yorker Specter spends much more time with the denialists from the left rather than the right? Perhaps we already have too many books addressing the latter, and not enough the former, but I know which group is more likely to cut funds for science education.

I've spent a decent amount of time telling you that the forest isn't so great, but the trees themselves aren't bad looking. At a chapter-by-chapter level, this isn't a bad book. Sure, the vaccine thing has been done to death (mainly because there are many people not listening), but the race in medicine chapter was excellent, and there are many people in the target audience who should read this book. The problem is, they probably won't believe it.

Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet

Steve Squyres (2005)

Steve Squyres is a damn good writer. That really shouldn't surprise me, people who get to where he is in science, lead for a Mars probe project, do it not with just brilliant minds and good organizational skills, they also need to know how to write. There are scenes in this book, such as repurposing debris from the World Trade Center for parts on the Mars rovers, that I'll remember far better than most other cool science stories, simply due to his storytelling.

With a lesser writer, this would have needed to be a shorter book. Talk a little bit about the previous two NASA Mars failures, build the robots, and talk about roving. But it would have also have been a lesser book. Squyres starts with all of the Mars probes he planned for and proposed that never got past the drawing board. He explained why they didn't get picked, what he learned from the process, and then how he was able to collaborate with others to put together something NASA wanted. That's an important part of being a scientist that is so often not told, the important failures that lead to the eventual success. That part of the book alone is worth the cover price. From there, the story of the assembly of the rovers is told, along with the suspense of will the mission actually launch (if NASA doesn't trust the supersonic parachutes, then they won't waste the money sending the robots to their doom). Only the last part of the book, the actual roving, lags a little bit. This is mainly because this is where the science was happening rather than engineering, and the science takes longer to figure out (and given the date, many of the discoveries weren't properly distilled yet).

With traditional publishing, we'll never see an update. I'd hope with e-books we could eventually get some news; after a dozen years though, I'm not holding my breath. Read the book anyway.

A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War

Jeff Stein (1992)

I went to Washington DC this past summer, and one of the things I visited was the Vietnam Memorial. There were a small handfull of Marascos on that wall, so I Googled Marasco and Vietnam. I was not prepared for what I would find. In 1969 a Green Beret by the name of Robert Marasco executed Thai Khac Chuyen, a suspected North Vietnamese double agent. He and two other Green Berets had taken him out in a boat and put a bullet in his head. This fact isn't disputed, and the action constitutes a war crime. Stein's book covers the events that lead up to the killing, and then the fallout that occurred after the top Green Beret in Vietnam lied to the American general running the war about the details.

In some sense this is not a complicated story, but there are a lot of players, and at times I felt I would have been aided by a scorecard. That being said, Stein does a good job of keeping the narrative moving and laying out the problems in morality. Yes, Marasco and his fellow soldiers committed a war crime, but so did many others in all of the parties in the conflict (or at least all of the military parties). One of the major tensions was that the Army was pushing back on the Green Berets, and the Green Berets felt that the Army was too traditional to understand that the rules that applied in Europe in World War II perhaps should not be the same that applied to this war. I struggled to find words to describe Marasco and his compatriots. He certainly wasn't a hero, nor was he a villain. Victim is certainly not correct. Moral ambiguity and the erosion of norms is central to understanding how the Green Berets ended up doing what they did.

I made the mistake of reading the captions of the photos in the center-section of the book. This spoiled the eventual ending, so I knew the result when I was half-way through. And that it floated all the way up to Nixon. I did not know that the outcome of this episode was the straw that broke Daniel Ellsberg's back, and convinced him to publish the Pentagon Papers. So at least some good came out of this episode. This book is worth your time.

Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian

A. Douglas Stone (2013)

In my "spare time" I help run the local section of the American Association of Physics Teachers. Twice a year we put together meetings, and we always have a guest speaker. A few years back we met at the Exploratorium, and we had a Yale physicist come to give the keynote. Not for his actual research, but because he had written a book on Einstein. And not on relativity, but on quantum mechanics.

One of my goals when I teach modern physics is to have people understand that Einstein was there at the beginning. Between the photoelectric effect and the heat capacity of diamonds, he was the one who pushed physics into accepting Planck's ideas (even if Planck took a decade to believe them). Even his arguments again the completeness of quantum theory in the form of the EPR Paradox are fundamental. Stone's book lays out the history of Einstein's contributions to quantum mechanics in a way that even readers with no mathematical or physics background can understand. The historical development is clear, and the writing is straight-forward. If I were the type of professor who assigned history books as outside reading, this would be at the top of my list for any modern physics class. This is one of those short reviews for a very good book. People should pick up a copy.

World War One: A Short History

by Norman Stone (2007)

Sometimes you can judge a book by its title, or at least in this case, subtitle. Norman Stone's book on World War I is labeled as a short history, and it is, clocking in at fewer than two hundred pages. This just doesn't work. One of the author's grand claims is that this event jumped the world from 1870 to 1940; while I agree with this in part, trying to handle something of this scope in such a short narrative is doomed to fail. Fewer than four pages on Gallipoli? The campaign that cost half a million Allied troops and shook up the British war government? It would be one thing if Stone skimped a bit on detail, but was able to treat the war at a meta-level, pushing certain themes or ideas to the forefront. Instead it just reads like "a bunch of stuff that happened." Worse still, there are some crazy statements made, which demand deeper discussion. For example, "by 1918, only 1 percent of wounded men died." What's the source on that? What's the definition of a wounded man? America was in the war starting in mid 1917, 53400 combat deaths, 204000 wounded. I guess most of those deaths must have been in 1917. There are many good books on World War I. This is not one of them. Don't waste your time or your money.

The Dambusters Raid

John Sweetman (1982)

The Dambusters Raid was an operation against Germany in World War II where British bombers attacked and breached two key dams. This was high profile, I remember as a child being able to buy models of the Lancaster bombers with the special bouncing-bombs that were used to destroy the dams. There was also a popular movie well before my time.

This book covers the details of the mission, from the early stages identifying the strategic value of the dams, through the development of the weapon, to the training of the crews and the actual night of the raid. It goes very deep into the details.

Sadly, I think that's the flaw with this book. The camera should have been pulled back a little bit. Why was this only done for one night in the war? Sure, once the cat is out of the bag, the Germans will defend their dams better, but this could not be done literally overnight. Why not a raid on the following night? Why was this not tried later on when the RAF could get fighter support that would take out the improved defenses around the dams? There wasn't nearly enough discussion around the actual effects of the raid. There was some damage, but it was quickly repaired. People were killed, though many were prisoners of war or "imported" labor, not the goals of bombing. There was a lot of propaganda, which is probably why I could build plastic models forty years after the facts, but I wonder if more actual damage would have been done if the crews and bombers that had been pulled from normal missions for training had instead just been used for bombing.

And then there's the question of the morality of planning to kill large numbers of civilians by drowning them in their sleep. Of course, this was the RAF, which believed in night-time area bombing. While topics like this aren't in the wheelhouse of this book (and are covered in works like The Bombers and the Bombed), a recognition of this would have been good, even if in the form of "remember the context was the bombing of London and the rest of England."

This is a details book, and the details are kind of boring. This could have been a much better book.

The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World's Oldest Bible

Chanan Tigay (2016)

My parents really liked the television show House. I could never get into it. Why not? Because I understood how clocks worked. That theory they are working on twenty minutes into the episode? It's not going to work. Nor the next one. Wait until five minutes are left. That's the one that will solve it. I had a similar reaction to Tigay's hunt for clues for an artifact. In his writing he gets his hopes up (along with those of the reader, in theory), but I kept thinking "nope, way too many pages left." And I kept being right.

So what artifact is the author looking for? Scrolls that held a fake account of the Book of Deuteronomy. Wait a minute, isn't the title "The Lost Book of Moses"? Yes, and while Moses is in Deuteronomy, this refers to Moses Wilhelm Shapira, the con-man who tried to sell the hoax to the British Museum. Tigay succeeds in telling the story of Shapira's rise and fall, but fails in his account of his current-day search for the scrolls which were lost to history after Shapira's death. There's value in re-finding the evidence; given that the story posited actually came true later in the form of the Dead Sea scrolls, if what Biblical scholars of the time thought was a hoax was real, it would change some of our fundamental understandings of the Old Testament.

And so we follow Tigay around the world. He'd get on a plane to another continent grasping for seemingly whatever straw he could. And, because there were too many pages left in the book, come up empty. I read this right about the same time I read The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, and I'd often put down the book and think "for all the thousands of dollars he just wasted on a dead-end clue for a hoax, he could have helped protect actual cultural treasures from destruction." That's overly damning, as you could say the same about all of our coffee bills.

SPOLIER ALERT - When we do get near to the end of the book, Tigay actually does make an important discovery. It's not across the world, it's in a university library a short walk from his office. He finds evidence that confirms what the experts claimed last century, that the scrolls were indeed a hoax. This was such a let-down. Not that the scrolls were fake, that was fairly well established, but that Tigay wasted his time, and I wasted my time as a reader, because he as a journalist was more interested in a grand adventure than just doing some solid homework right on his front doorstep.

While parts of this book are interesting, it reads better and faster if you just skip anything set in the modern day.

Atomic America: How a Deadly Explosion and a Feared Admiral Changed the Course of Nuclear History

by Todd Tucker (2009)

Tucker takes a bunch of different threads and manages to tie them together into a nice clean narrative. Science's mastery of the atom during World War II built the bomb. Needless to say, the military wanted to pick up the ball and run with it afterwards. Of course, they had the weapons, but how each branch wanted to use reactors is an under-told history.

The Air Force wanted atomic-powered planes. And the government plowed an amazing amount of money into this project. The appeal was that an atomic-powered plane could stay aloft for weeks if not months at a time. Just don't ask what happens when it crashes. And of course, having a reactor on the plane is probably bad for the crew, so you have to shield them with lead. No, massive amounts of lead on an airplane probably isn't the best idea, so these things never flew. The Army used small atomic power plants to electrify bases that would have been difficult or impossible if you had to deliver fuel oil to them. Before ICBMs made airplanes obsolete as a delivery method, it made sense to have a line of early-warning radars in the far north of Canada. An experimental base was dug out of the polar icecap in Greenland, with large tunnels lit and heated by an small nuclear power plant. Power stations like this were another technology that died in the cradle.

The service that did figure out how to bend the atom to their will was the Navy, or more properly, Rickover's territory in the Navy. Tucker covers the so-called "Revolt of the Admirals" and how their proposed super-carrier, the United States, would have worked. It was a "nuclear aircraft carrier" in that it was designed to carry bombers large enough to deliver nuclear warheads. Since at the time the weapons were very heavy, this called for large bombers, and a flight deck with no tower (the wings of the planes were too big for a tower on the deck). Other aircraft carriers would have had to defend carriers of this style. Congress looked at the price tag, and in the post-WWII days of shrinking military budgets, killed the carrier. The higher-ups in the Navy then misplayed their hand politically, and got their heads handed to them. In the vacuum Rickover was able to develop a true atomic Navy, one where battlegroups could operate for years without needing refueling, where submarines could finally live up to their true potential, and where a true second-strike capability could act as a deadly deterrent. At the heart of this was Rickover, who ruled with an iron fist, hand-picking the men who would advance in his nuclear Navy (one of whom was Jimmy Carter, who had already been involved in cleaning up a reactor mishap when Three Mile Island occurred).

In the early days of reactor design there were all kinds of experiments and prototypes, and one of the more misfortunate was SL-1. This was a poorly-designed and badly-operated reactor in the wilds of a military proving ground in Idaho. One night one of the crew pulled the one crucial control rod high enough out of the reactor core to allow the who enchilada to go critical. While many accounts get caught up in the soap-opera elements of the story (a nasty divorce, friction between co-workers, etc.), Tucker does a good job of sticking to the known facts and not inventing stories. He doesn't have to, there's more than enough to drive this book. Worth the read.

The Guns of August

Barbara Tuchman (1962)

This is a classic, I re-read one or twice a decade. Simply put, Tuchman sets the standard for popular history with this work. I'm not a historian, but I've read too much history in my time. In this book she covers the first month of World War I. Actually, she starts a little earlier. The first five chapters set the stage in Germany, France, Britain and Russia. Then there's the shot.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand led to demands upon Serbia by Austria-Hungary. When Serbia would accept only eight of the ten, Austria-Hungary declared war. Russia came to Serbia's aid, and this triggered a pair of alliances, Germany joining in with Austria-Hungary and France with Russia. Turkey was forced into the war by the actions of a bold captain in the German navy. Meanwhile, since Germany wanted to avoid a two-front war at all costs, it violated Belgian neutrality (a fancy way of saying Germany invaded Belgium) in hopes of knocking France out of the war before Russia could mobilize her nearly endless resources of manpower. Germany's actions in Belgium tipped the scales and Britain joined France. OK, that's the description you can find in any textbook. What Tuchman gives is so much more.

After putting down Guns of August, the reader can ponder how things could have been very different. What if the Germans had committed to a last-second waver that would have sent their army east instead of west? What if the British had understood the implications of German warships fleeing to Turkey? What if Germany had stayed the course and kept to overwhelming numerical superiority in the right wing?

The reader also gains insight into the cultures of the combatants, such as the fighting spirit of the French. Set aside your jokes about their collapse in WWII, the French thought that the key to winning this war was an aggressive charge-at-the-enemy style that favored light mobile artillery and uniforms with red pants. Needless to say, this did not work well against heavier artillery and machine guns, but the French quickly learned from their mistakes. Or, as another example, the clockwork planning of the German military staff (especially the rail officers) as contrasted with the Belgians who against all logic throw off Germany's invasion schedule. And contrary to their own legends, the British did not walk upon water on their way to the continent, and did not shine until after the events covered.

While I'm also a fan of Tuchman's more expansive works such as A Distant Mirror and The Proud Tower, those both operate over a much larger scale, with Guns of August she can bring about a much sharper focus. I'd advise a bookshelf full of Tuchman, and this is where you should start.

Reading a book like this makes me want to go back and read more oldies in my library. I think I'll be reaching for some Studs Terkel.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

Tom Vanderbilt (2008)

Sometimes Traffic is good, sometimes traffic is bad. That's my observation of both my commute and this book. Let's examine the subtitle - Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), I think a fairly good job with done with the first part, but was less impressed with the second.

This book covers some great topics. I especially enjoyed reading things like how Los Angeles manages its traffic system via sensors in the road that are networked to the traffic lights via a massive computer system. If anything this was so good it left me asking for more in this direction. A deeper coverage of technical issues like how platoons work in traffic formations would have been good, and I'd love to know how the stupid "push this button for the walk signal" works. Is it like an elevator where if I push more than once it's useless, or if I push it again and again will it actually change the timing? Also good were examinations of how parking lots worked, and the fact that the best research we have on the topic is modeled along the same lines of "how do animals forage for food." By the way, you are best off if you simply park in the first spot you can find, as it turns out we underestimate the time we spend looking for a parking space, and overestimate how long it takes to walk distances. Vanderbilt also does a good job when he needs to fold economics into the equation, such as when he presents the argument that charging a high rent for parking spaces in the downtown regions is a solution for many of our problems.

On the other hand, there's the whole psychological component, which wasn't as good. Certainly sections did shine, such as the connection between traffic safety and level of measured corruption in society. While traffic safety does track a country's GDP, but it tracks corruption more closely, and arguments can be made that both safety and corruption make statements about a population's attitude about to "Rule of Law." But at times it felt like the same ground was being covered again and again - "people are dangerous behind the wheel when they are relaxed and therefore not paying attention, when they feel like they are in a bad situation they devote more resources to the problem, therefore if you want things to truly safer, make people think they are in a dangerous situation." That little chain of logic kept popping up. Also, there were too many cases where behavior was explained by appealing to studies performed on small sample sizes of fratboys. It's one thing to take whole populations and look at correlations, it's another to draw conclusions from a study which may or may not be valid (although to be truthful, Vanderbilt footnoted his work to the gills, an aggressive reader really could look into how good or bad any one of these studies are).

In the end, I think the book's strengths make it worthwhile, especially now that the book is available in paperback. That being said, if you get the urge to skip to the next chapter, I sympathize.

Gang Leader For A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes To The Streets

Sudhir Venkatesh (2008)

As a young man I flew out to Chicago to visit a pair of grad schools. I had been admitted to Northwestern for physics and the University of Chicago for philosophy. I visited Northwestern first, and mentioned that I would be taking the el (subway) to see UoC the next day. This sent the people at Northwestern into a panic, not because they feared that I would got to UoC rather than NU, but because they were convinced that I would be killed walking from the el stop to the UoC campus. So they sat down and figured out how to do this via bus routes that took much longer, but went through nicer parts of Chicago. I chalked this up to a bit of paranoia on the part of the NU crowd. Sure, UoC was in a bad part of town, but was it really that risky? When I got to UoC I was warned not to walk off campus, and one of the profs I visited refused to allow me to walk back to the bus stop, he insisted on driving me there. The message was clear - academics should stay clear of the 'hood.

Gang Leader for a Day is the story of another UCSD grad who landed in Chicago, in this case Sudhir Venkatesh who did graduate work in sociology at UoC. He naively walked into one of the worst ghettos in Chicago with some surveys, and was held captive by a street gang overnight. But in the process he was able to befriend an up-and-coming gang leader, and this lead to an ongoing relationship that gave him access to gang life in the projects.

This book is certainly a page-turner. You can read it straight-through in an evening. The topic is interesting and the writing style is relaxed. But in the end I wanted to reach into the book and smack the author. There are so many times when you want to ask "were you really that stupid?" He didn't think about the legal aspects of what he was doing (would his notes be protected from the police) until he was years into the project. He snitched about people's economic status to the two people who enforced the de facto tax structure in the neighborhood. He did a really good job of living up to the stereotype of the academic with no street-smarts.

And ultimately, as a sociologist, I think he missed the big picture. One of his subjects asked if he would be writing about white people, he at first answered no, since mainly African-Americans lived in the projects he would be writing about them. After a few probing questions, he realized that many aspects of the lives of people who lived in the projects are the results of white policy-makers, so yes, he would be writing about white people. To do his job properly, he needed to see how the projects fit in with the rest of Chicago. And yet time and time again he was amazed and frustrated with the amount of graft and petty power-mongering that were going on in the projects, and would claim "this isn't how things were in my Southern California suburb," and then implied that this behavior was an aspect of ghetto life. As a longtime resident of Chicago (who grew up in a Northern California suburb), it frustrated me that he wasn't able to pull back and recognize that the corruption and powerplays were a Chicago thing, and not just a feature of the poor, black area he was studying. In just about every neighborhood in Chicago, if you want the City to do something, you bribe the right person. Yes, the cost of government is a bit higher, but the pothole in front your house gets repaired fast, and the streets are always cleared of snow quickly (pay no attention to the fact that the Alderman's brother owns the snowplow company). Perhaps that's dealt with in his more academic work, but if it is, I wish it were also treated here.

This isn't a bad book, the stories are actually quite interesting. That being said, I wish that there was a little more introspection and insight on the part of the author in addition to the guts and compassion he displays.

Warmth Disperses and Time Passes: The History of Heat

Hans Christian Von Baeyer (1999)

You don't see too many histories of thermodynamics/statistical mechanics on the bookshelves. Therefore I think this book wins by default. It manages to tell an interesting story, but I found myself a bit frustrated with both the style and missing content in the book. Von Baeyer is writing to a general (non-scientific) audience, so he delves into the personalities. This is fine, however, at times he is very descriptive about events where you wonder what his source is. For example, he talks about the appearance of a man making theoretical discoveries while alone in a cabin on a ship. When I read history, I want facts, not recreations from the imagination of the author based upon fact. Also, Von Baeyer dubs a group of physicists the "Dream Team" and keeps referring to them as such. Yes, his grandfather is one of them. It just seemed a bit over the top.

Thermo/Stat Mech is the art of making general statements when you don't have specific information. Even though you can't track the energy of each molecule in the room, you know what will happen to the velocity distribution when the temperature goes up. Sadly, I think that there were gaps in this book where more information would have been a great help. There is no mention of the Third Law of Thermodynamics. The development of Maxwell's Demon (which was the original title of the book when it was in its first printing) feels like some of it was left on the cutting-room floor. Finally, very little is said about the entropy of information (Von Baeyer later wrote a book devoted to this topic, I wish he would have put some of that writing into this one).

Again, there isn't too much competition for this book. While the author does some things very well (I loved the Boltzmann chapter), I can't quite bring myself to give this a "thumbs up." If you are a student trying to learn about thermo, this book won't give you the magical insight you need (in fact, like most books for the general audience, there's almost no math). In the end, it feels as if there is a bit too much waste heat generated here.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing

by Anya Von Bremzen (2013)

I'll admit that my first reaction was to read the title and channel my inner Yakov Smirnoff, "In Soviet Russia, food eats you." Moving beyond that, my second reaction was that I'm not a foodie. But during grad school I did live with a pair of roommates that had recently moved from post-Soviet-collapse Russia, and issues around food did highlight interesting cultural differences. I remember taking one of them to the supermarket, and it took forever. Why? He had parked his shopping cart in the middle of the store, and then one-at-a-time delivered items from the various shelves to his cart. He had never dealt with enough abundance to know that you should roll your cart up and down the aisles, placing in food as you go. Von Bremzen covers the immigration issue in Chapter 7.

This book takes an interesting approach, it walks its way through the 20th Century one decade at a time, detailing Soviet/Russian cultural history and how it is reflected in the food choices of the day. Given that she wasn't born until the 1960s and that she moved to New York with her mother in the 1970s, this means that much of the story is told as a family history. This immediately resonated because we start by going back to Odessa of the 1900s to visit her Jewish ancestors (Von Bremzen's journey to America part of the wave of Soviet Jewish emigration of the time). A branch of my family fled the pogroms at about that time, and their port of departure was Odessa. We bounce through Lenin, Stalin, the purges, the Great Patriotic War, stagnation, the fall of communism and the rise of petro-capitalism. I'm often not too sure how well the historical details are covered, the author is a food writer, not an academic, but trust that the cultural lens as viewed via her family is true. And some of the food facts are just plain amazing. Ice cream consumption is far higher in Russia than it is almost anywhere else in the world. But up until the 1930s, it was all hand-made. It wasn't until Anastas Mikoyan was sent to the US on an information-gathering trip that the concept of industrially-produced ice cream was brought back to Russia. Anastas's younger brother, Artem, was one of the founders of Mikoyan and Gurevich, the designers of the MiG warplanes.

At one point in grad school one of my roommates posed the question, "Do Americans have a holiday that involves eating like it is Thanksgiving, only closer to now on the calendar?" On the spot I invented the holiday known as Marchgiving, which is a lot like Thanksgiving, only it is in March. Does this make any sense historically? I won't answer that question. But it did make people happy and lead to an further understanding between two cultures. This is a book worth reading.

One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong's Stellar American Journey

by Leon Wagener (2004)

So, I complained about Yuri Gagarin getting a mediocre biography. It turns out that he didn't have it that bad compared to this one on Neil Armstrong. How bad is this book? Well, you aren't supposed to judge a book by its cover, but let's do that here. Take a look to the right and look at the cover image. Then take a close look at this photo. Yes, same photo, now take a very close look at the name tag on the astronaut's chest. Yes, that's noted bad-ass Buzz Aldrin on the cover of Neil Armstrong's biography. Marasco, why didn't you toss this book aside instead of buying it? Because I wasn't playing close attention when I bought it at the library bookstore for a dollar. I wasted a dollar.

To be fair, if you look very close at the cover, you can see Armstrong's reflection in Aldrin's visor. That's apt, as the author never interviewed Armstrong, a famously private individual. Instead, Wagener went through piles of documents and interviewed many people. We get a reflection of Armstrong's life via the media and people who knew him, but not a good view of Armstrong himself.

So the person on the cover isn't the subject of the biography, and the biographer never talked to the subject, what else is wrong? Sadly, the answer is many many things. There's bad science in here, for example Michael Collins stayed in orbit when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon. He needed to "keep Columbia on a perfectly steady course for the 21 hours and 36 minutes Eagle spent on the moon. Then he had to be at the appointed position..." That's orbital mechanics! He just needed to not touch anything and all of that would have worked. The entire book suffers from a political "USA! USA!" perspective. Wagener excuses US excesses like overthrowing democracies in favor of US-friendly dictatorships, and then invokes Boris and Natasha as justification. Yes, there is a cartoon-level of understanding of geopolitics threading through the narrative, "Yet the Russian Bear... seemed to have developed a singular taste for mass suffering. Already orchestrating the next movement was mad 'Uncle Joe' Stalin." When the Soviet N-1 rocket exploded, Wagener claims that very few people outside of US intelligence knew that the space race was over, neglecting, of course, the people working in the Soviet space program. The lack of context for his lens is fairly consistent, Wagener notes that "The winter of 1951 was bitterly cold and frustrating for the unfortunate Americans serving in Korea." Talk to an older Korean about this and they'll likely tell you about their siblings who starved to death that winter. There are errors of terminology, he refers to Armstrong as an ace pilot in the Korean war, but an ace is somebody who shoots down five or more enemy planes, something that Armstrong cannot claim. Did I mention that the science was bad? I did, but there's a lot of it. Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman is labelled as a nuclear physicist, and the space shuttles's reusable solid rocket boosters "fall into the sea and are never used again." It's hard to go more than a few pages in this book without shaking your head at something wrong. Like I said, I wasted a dollar.

The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine

by Benjamin Wallace (2008)

One school of thought in non-fiction writing is that you should start from the end. If you have a good ending the rest of the book will write itself. The author of this book flat out states in the text that anyone who was looking for a great ending will be disappointed in this story.

I bought this book because there was an excellent article in the New Yorker in 2007. The topic of the article is a set of unopened wine bottles that were claimed to have been owned by Thomas Jefferson himself when he lived in France. These had gone untouched for over two hundred years, but had been recently been uncovered. The rest of the article detailed the shady nature of the person who discovered the bottles, the state of forgery in the high-end wine market, and the anger of the very rich people who had bought what was probably counterfeit wine.

This book is an expansion on the article. Interestingly enough, it is by another author - the problem with many "stretched a magazine article into a book" topics is that they occupy such a small niche that they have problems growing beyond ten or twenty pages. The fact that two authors both addressed this shows the depth of interest possible. Wallace fills in the pages with side-journeys through Jefferson's love of wine, the state of scholarly research on Jefferson, the history of British wine collecting, personality conflicts at the major auction houses, mini-biographies of all of the major characters, and how to fake old wine (and how to detect said fakes with science). It's also interesting to note that the villain can also be seen as an anti-hero. Nobody is getting out violins for the ultra-rich who were scammed. The topics are well done, but again, there book ends with a whimper and not a bang.

Even had there been a bang, I'm not sure it would have saved the book. The New Yorker article touches many of the same bases, and does it with the solid punch of an article that can be digested in a matter of minutes rather than hours. Skip the book, spend more time with the New Yorker.

Einstein's Luck: The Truth behind Some of the Greatest Scientific Discoveries

John Waller (2003)

I'm not sure who the proper audience of this book is, although I think the content is solid. The gist of the book is that "that genius scientist you learned about in school was actually human." Waller goes through several cases where scientists stretched their data, made claims about the actual history of discovery, or just plain didn't move science the way that modern pop-science-history claims they did. I think it's good to know that there's a decent amount of sociology in who decides what is settled in science. And I think it's also good to view icons in any field as people who, being people, also have flaws. But there were times when I felt that the choices were interesting, or didn't go far enough. Millikan's oil drop experiment is a good one. But Waller didn't cover an even more interesting reaction, one that Feynman had pointed out many years prior, that Millikan's value for e/m had interesting effects on later (better) values. Or if that line of reasoning is not historically true, why not explore it? And for crying out loud, a whole chapter on Mendel without talking about how his data are statistically impossible?

There is a key passage lurking in the middle of the book, "some of the scientists I have described were deviating not from the path of reason, but from an idealistic notion of good science that is neither realistic or necessarily based on rationality; the flaws sometimes lay in our standard definitions of the scientific method rather than what the scientists actually did." Feynman once claimed that "philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds," while I respectfully disagree with Feynman, it's true that there is very little cross-talk between many in the sciences and philosophers of science, and many (most?) versions of the scientific methods, especially the ones taught in elementary school or middle school, have very little to do with how scientists actually approach problems. One of my favorite examples is our friend the neutrino. When physicists discovered at neutron decays were violating conversation of energy and momentum, Wolfgang Pauli decided to invent a small neutral particle to save the conservation laws. Fermi applied the proper Italian, and the neutrino was born. But nobody saw these for about three decades, so for a generation of physicists we played "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" with neutron decay because the experimental results didn't match theory. This is very poor from the perspective of philosophy of science, but we had good reasons to save our conservation laws ("Save Our Conservation Laws" sounds like a bumper sticker).

This covers a decently large spread of science, with more biology/medicine than I typically see. There are some very important gaps. I'm left in the interesting situation where this book actually has affected how I teach certain topics, but I'm not sure I'd recommend reading it as a whole.

The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett

by Nathan Ward (2015)

This isn't a biography in the classical sense. Ward's description of Hammett's life cuts off at the end of Hammett's writing career, we don't see the decades-long decay phase where nothing meaningful was put to paper. It's an attempt at discovering how Hammett became the writer who defined the hard-boiled detective genre.

Of course, the first place to look is Hammett's actual background as a detective. He was a Pinkerton for years. Ward blows up two of the most famous stories about Hammett's crime-fighting career, that he retired when he found the gold "too early" on the freighter, and didn't get to go to Australia, and that he was offered $5k to kill labor organizer Frank Little during the Anaconda Copper Mine strike in Montana. Little was later lynched. Ward is dubious that Hammett was senior enough in the Pinkertons to even be noticed if he was there as a Pinkerton strikebreaker.

The dismissal of those events doesn't mean that Hammett's Pinkerton experiences weren't central. How could they not be? Perhaps more important that what he actually did (rather than heard), was that as a Pinkerton he had to write daily reports. And these were edited and commented upon. How could they not have shaped his detective stories? Sadly, although the archives of the Pinkertons are now housed in the Library of Congress, Hammett's reports have been lost to the sands of time. This unfortunately is a gap that colors the rest of the book. Ward writes about the Pinkerton agency and famous cases, but it feels at many points like he's papering over missing facts, and filling pages with background to make up for what no one now has access to. Is this an unfair criticism? Perhaps. As a literary historian there are very few sure things, but those of us who read hard-boiled detective stories want the clues to wrap up the cases nicely.

I'm not sure who should read this book. For whatever it's worth, I'd read every last thing by Hammett first. But don't take that as damning advice, I'd say that about many books.

Artemis: A Novel

Andy Weir (2017)

I was a really big fan of The Martian. I loved the book, enjoyed the movie, and looked forward to whatever was coming next. But as good as it was, it had one drawback, that despite the great plotting, I didn't feel like I learned all that much about the characters. Artemis, Weir's second novel, does much better in that aspect. While it still has good science fiction and plenty of puzzles for the protagonist to solve, I also feel like the hero is revealed to me, bit by bit, as the novel progresses. Whereas "A Novel" felt like a poorly-applied subtitle for The Martian, it works here, at least to the expectations of science fiction. And just as Weir nailed the science for being marooned on Mars, he also has done his homework and has put together a perfectly believable Moon colony and a society that sensibly exists there. After the Martian and Artemis, I'm willing to get a copy of whatever Weir writes next; the sci-fi aspects of his writing are strong, and he's no longer relying on just plot to anchor his writing.

OK, everyone should go out an by a copy of Artemis, right? Sure, it's a good book, and a fun read. But if you like Artemis, go out and grab a copy of Adam Rakunas's Windswept. Science fiction with a strong female lead who skips back and forth between different sides of the law? Check. Well-plotted adventure featuring the structure of a planet's society and its relationship to major power plays in capitalism? Check. The things that work in Artemis are also strengths in Windswept, if you like one, you'll like both.

The Martian: A Novel

Andy Weir (2014)

I really liked this book. Of course, I'm in its wheel-house, if Weir can't get a Kerbal-playing, NASA-mission-flying, Physics teacher to enjoy his book, then he's in trouble. Yes, there are some stretches on the science, but if anything, people will nit-pick the science on this book because it's actually pretty close to reality. Outside of one very big chunk of bad science, there are only one or two things that would have gotten him killed in real life. This book is just a plain fun romp across Mars. Weir sets up some problem for the hero to solve, and when he figures it out, you smack your head and say "Of course, that's exactly how he should do it." Awesome.

OK, now that the "Whee! Mars! Awesome!" part is out of the way, what doesn't work here? Well, there isn't a lot of character development. You would think that being stranded on a planet with no outside communication for long stretches would change a person, but no, what we mainly get is how puzzles are being solved. The subtitle for this book is "A Novel," but it feels much more like a walk-through for a "Marooned in Space!" video game. Well, maybe this is more like a Colson Whitehead book, many of which are reviewed below. His works of fiction all carry the subtitle "A Novel," but characters aren't so much developed as they are revealed. No, again, we are trapped on Mars with this guy, but we don't learn that much about him beside the fact that he's got a good sense of humor and has enough skills to stay alive. What do we really know about the Professor on Gilligan's Island? Not much, outside of the fact that he can build anything out of coconuts. I got the same feeling here. Also, novels sometimes have supporting characters who are not cardboard. Not much here, especially when it comes to the women, one of whom is literally reduced to being a babysitter. Is this book really aspiring to be high literature? Probably not, it's science fiction that is aimed (successfully) at becoming a blockbuster movie, but let's at least be honest about that.

When all is said and done, this is worth the read. Because unlike Kerbal Space Program there's an ending and you won't end up wasting too many hours of your life on it.

The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture

Glen Weldon (2016)

My brother recently posited that we were a superhero team, that he was Superman and I was Batman. I cautioned that I was a campy Adam West-style Batman, not one of the more recent psychopaths that has worn the mask. That's an important distinction, as there have been many Batmans, although Weldon does argue for a Bat-cycle. No, not a motorcycle that Batman rides, a predictable evolution of the character that occurs over and over. Every thirty years, the thesis claims, Batman goes from dark to light and then back to dark. The original Batman from Detective Comics morphed into Adam West on television, and then took a sociopathic turn in the seventies, which lead into the Frank Miller eighties. The movie Batman killed people, but then descended back into camp at those movies progressed. When that series died out, the movie studios rested, and then reloaded. Classic Dark Knight returned for the most recent batch. You know how to tell when it's getting dark again? They get rid of Robin.

Weldon probes into the what makes Batman popular. Batman, unlike most super heros, does not have a super power (except, Weldon claims, the superpower of always being right). Some fans claim that this makes him "relatable," that any of us could be Batman, if we simply tried hard enough. Of course, that's not true. We would also have to be billionaires. And incredibly athletic. But what comic book reader doesn't want to be rich and physically powerful? Batman fulfills the proper fantasies. Nerd fantasies.

The Rise of Nerd Culture is a little bit of hyperbole, that's a sidelight, we view Batman through that lens rather than concentrate on the topic, but Weldon does make his points. People have always had hobbies, but they weren't nearly as celebrated as they are now. Between the internet and the availability of time and money for certain segments of the population, we now have sub-populations of our culture than can reach out to each other and blossom in ways that weren't possible when the best thing uniting an interest-group was a small-press monthly mailer.

But let's get back to Batman. Weldon traces his historical arc. He starts as being a ripoff of another superhero, The Shadow. The original version protected wealthy people from robbers. He quickly turned into a detective (and, for the time being, no longer used guns). This was important, because it introduced Robin as a narrative crutch; Batman couldn't be talking to himself all of the time, explaining the mystery to the readers, he needed a foil. The addition of a child sidekick also was a reaction to a cyclical "comics are too violent" backlash that was happening in the late-thirties. Batman as a father-figure is a turn towards a lighter Batman. Enter television.

Yes, now is the time to talk about Adam West. Love it or hate it, and most nerds hated it, the sixties television show defined a large part of Batman's identity in the larger culture. "If they can see us winking, it's dead," was the warning that was made; not even the introduction of Batgirl in the third season could save Batman from the cheesy mess television had put him in. Of course the nerds rebelled. "What have they done to our Batman?

Then came 1970 and comic books' Great Inward Turn, an effort to appeal not to the masses (read kids), but instead to the base (adult nerds). In a reboot of the brand, Robin went off to college and Batman abandoned the Batcave. This is the era that introduced Arkham Asylum and Batman going back to the site of his parents' murder every year. Dark stuff. In the 1980s Marvel sold a whole lot of comic books by adding soap operas to their action adventures, DC followed suit, and Batman became more brooding. But sales were down, so a new Robin was introduced. Sales were still iffy. Then Frank Miller happened. The Dark Knight Returns tells the story of an aging Batman, no longer at his peak, coming out of retirement years after the death of Robin. Grim was in. Yep, they killed Robin again in the mainstream comic. This time fans voted for it in a poll. This is also when the Joker paralyzes Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke. Weldon sums it up, "What these fans saw when they looked at Batman was the object of their childhood love finally legitimized. It was as if Winnie the Pooh had escaped the Hundred-Acre Wood and run amok on the mean streets of New York. Where he brutally mauled Piglet. And ate Christopher Robin's face off... Because that would be real. That would be badass."

I remember 1989, the Summer of Batman. What I didn't know was that the first modern Batman film pushed sales of Batman titles beyond Superman titles, and Batman never gave up the top slot in the DC universe. Nor did I know that it doubled the record for opening weekend sales. Movies are where it's at. The first film, with Jack Nicholson and Mr. Mom, directed by Tim Burton (then of Pee-wee's Big Adventure fame). And Mr. Mom was broke Batman rules, killing where Adam West would *Pow* and *Biff*. Weldon correctly points out that this plays to an action-movie hero rather than a super hero. This was part of a larger trend in the early 1990s, where comic book heros became more violent and brutal. Then there were a series of uneven sequels, each getting more campy, until at one point Robin cried out "Holy Rusted Metal, Batman!" This cycle into cheese ended this first set of Batman movies, and the return to the darker Batman was seen in the most recent trilogy. Yeah, and in a recent edition of the comic, the Joker had his face sliced off. And then did the same for many of Batman's friends. Yikes.

We've gotten this far and not talked about the gay stuff? Weldon spends a little time at the start of the book covering "decent society's" response to comic books, but that's just hysteria, and doesn't look deeper into the character. Yes, there's also some perspective on Adam West-era Batman. Go to Frank Miller, who said "Batman's sexual urges are so drastically sublimated into crime-fighting that there's no room for any other emotional activity. Notice how insipid are the stories where Batman has a girlfriend... It's not because he's gay, but because he's borderline pathological, he's obsessive. He'd be MUCH healthier if he was gay." Grant Morrison also chimes in, and there are other thoughtful observations from people on the creative side. Of course, the nerds for the most part really, really don't like anything pointing in that direction.

I also found this litte bit insightful: "Gradually, writers came to write him, and readers to read him, as a man who was always six steps ahead of everyone else, a hero whose superpower was alway being right, a champion who found no challenge particularly challenging." There's a lot of truth to that. Weldon understands his Batman.

Final analysis? The best Batman was seen in The Lego Movie. Final analysis about this book? It's well worth your read, even if you aren't a nerd. The history is rich, the writing is strong, the knowledge is deep, the nerds aren't an add-on, and you walk away feeling like you have a much better understanding of Batman. Update - I'm doubling down on my Lego comment. Lego Batman was a far superior product to any other Batman movie. It isn't even close.

Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her

by Rowland White (2016)

First we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room, all works concerning the Space Shuttle will be measured against Dennis Jenkin's tome and will be found lacking. With that out of the way, Rowland White's effort is quite good. It follows the careers of a bunch of pilots, many of whom went into the Navy's astronaut program. The Navy had an astronaut program? Yes, and they were even going to have their own space station, the Manned Orbital Laboratory. The MOL never flew, a victim of budget cuts when it became likely that advances in spy satellites made it obsolete. A good number of the Navy astronauts joined NASA as the Apollo program was winding down. They knew that they had to out wait the existing astronauts to earn a seat on the Space Shuttle, which was going through developmental growing pains in the 1970s.

The book starts with the MOL would-be astronauts, and then follows them through the development of the Space Shuttle in the 1970s. The rest of the account concerns the first flight of Columbia, the first Shuttle into space (there is also a good amount of time spent on the glide tests of Enterprise, which was never space-worthy.) The initial flight was different from all other NASA first flights, in that it was tested with people on board, astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen. The Soviet shuttle, Buran, was flown by remote control for its only flight. Many things went wrong. The shock was from the sold rocket boosters was larger than expected by a factor of ten. When told later that the body flap that was a key element to hypersonic flight was deflected by five degrees, Young said that he would have flown the shuttle to a safe altitude and ejected had he known. More importantly, the Shuttle lost some of its heat-resistant tiles. This was dangerous, and in fact the loss of thermal protection doomed Columbia and its seven astronauts in 2003. One of the more interesting aspects was being able to image the orbiter while it was in space, and this meant using spy satellites. At the time they were all controlled via the "Blue Cube" in Sunnyvale. Yes, the same Blue Cube that is now a Foothill facility. After many ground-based telescope attempts, the use of spy satellites confirmed that there was no problem. Of couse, the satellites were top secret, so word from the top simply told NASA people that they should no longer be concerned about the problem.

This is a fun book if you are interested in space exploration, astronauts, test pilots or the Space Shuttle. Otherwise, it should probably just be viewed as a niche book.

Apex Hides the Hurt: A Novel

Colson Whitehead (2006)

This is a short book, the paperback clocking in at 224 pages. In some sense it feels like an extension of his previous work, John Henry Days. In John Henry Days we see an African-American journalist as the main character, and a PR firm as a major player, with race, as always in Colson Whitehead's works, front and center. In Apex Hides the Hurt we have an African-American who is an expert at product-naming who has been called in to settle a dispute in a town that wants to rebrand itself.

The main character goes unnamed, in a book that puts the act of naming on a pedestal. Ah, Colson, you are such a serious writer. He's damaged, he's lost a toe, and his career is in turmoil (not toe-related). The town is also in trouble, with three factions battling out what to rename the town. As in any Whitehead novel, there's a racial angle, the town was originally settled by free slaves (some great writing around this) and was renamed from Freedom to Winthrop, the name of a white manufacturer who brought in a factory and industry. Winthrop's star has faded, and a new job-creator wants to bring a new fresh-sounding attitude to the city. We see the interplay between the different factions, but like many Whitehead books, the plot is minimal, and the characters don't evolve much. This is much more about exploring different people and viewpoints than it is about changing people. Some of this is due to the length of the work, but even in Whitehead's longer books this is a complaint.

There was a personal aspect to this book, the title comes from the main character's career highpoint, the naming of a bandage (not a Band-Aid, which is a trademarked product like Kleenex and Xerox). He dubbed the product Apex, and then used the bandage to cover his injured toe, which festers to the point of decay and eventual amputation (again, with Whitehead you always get caught up on symbols, representations and the other hallmarks of real literature). Back in the 1990s my father was a product manager for a software company, and his team's flagship product was named Apex. I have no idea who named the software (perhaps they too went out to a consultant), but there it is.

I think this is going to go down as one of Whitehead's minor works. It doesn't carry the same heft as his earlier writing, it feels like a coda to his previous corpus. It's still worth the read.

The Colossus of New York

Colson Whitehead (2004)

Colson Whitehead is one of my favorite authors, but this is not my favorite work. Whitehead's strength is revealing characters over the course of a novel. New York City is a character, and while he tries to pull back the cover, it's different for a city than it a functional fictional character.

That being said, this is still Colson Whitehead. He can flat out write. "Gods, here's a tip. To gain converts, recruit atheists, change your name to Snooze Button. A readily accessible divinity, a reach away, a prayer quick to fingertips if not lips. Like the truest gods it gives them what they already had and wins them through alarm... Five more minutes might return you to that dream, the one where you were away and happy. It was good and real and cut off before you got to the best part. Almost there and then beep beep beep. Like the best gods it knows how to parcel out paradise." Most Whitehead books have plot as a subdued element, you don't read his books for the skeletons, but instead for the organs and tissues. Yet the lack of a plot really hampers this effort. I suspect that as a life-long New Yorker, he felt the urge to write a tribute to his city after 9/11. I would have rather had another John Henry Days.

The Intuitionist: A Novel

Colson Whitehead (1998)

It is easy to see why the literate world fell all over itself when Colson Whitehead published his first novel. A strong female lead written by a male author. A quirky world where two factions of elevator inspectors battle it out. And of course race.

I stumbled upon Whitehead late in the game, fascinated that a person who has every award that intelligentsia covet could write a zombie novel. Later on I picked up a copy of his book on playing in the World Series of Poker. I thought that both efforts were strong. But now I wonder what happened to the person who wrote both the Intuitionist and John Henry Days. Yes, he can still craft a world that is just outside of our own, that is somehow alien, but reflects ours in a way that leaves you just short of laughing, because it's funny, but not "funny in that way." Whitehead reminds me a bit of a more constrained Vonnegut, who also had strong early work, but who left you wanting more Player Piano. He also reminds me of David Sedaris, in that while you wonder if his best work is truly behind him, you still keep buying his books, just in case.

The Intuitionist is more than just a great first effort, if in fact Whitehead pulled a Joseph Heller and only gave us one book worth reading, he could more than hang his hat on this. It has strong characters, a good plot, an understanding of power, politics and role of secrets, great writing, and it raises important issues. For crying out loud, he's created a world around competing schools of elevator inspection, and he's made it work. Well worth your time. Go out and read it soon.

John Henry Days: A Novel

Colson Whitehead (2001)

For his second novel Colson Whitehead went after a piece of Americana, John Henry. Oddly enough, this isn't the only book I've read on the topic. While John Henry does make several appearances, the main focus of the book are the events surrounding the unveiling of a new John Henry stamp, based in the towns closest to the birth of the legend. The main character is a writer who has fallen from the serious journalism of his youth to "going for the record," attempting to live on the free-food and reimbursed hotels and travel that come with covering promotional events (like new stamp releases, as the towns have hired a PR maven to boost the local John Henry tourism industry). It's hard to read Whitehead's more recent work about the World Series of Poker without wondering how autobiographical this is.

Whitehead really spreads his wings in this book. He has a multitude of characters, covers different time periods, and for the most part keeps the plot moving (it's revealed early in the book that there will be a mass shooting at the event). And there's the repeating theme of black men dying; John Henry, of course, the father of the main female character, the man killed by the Hell's Angels at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, and the protagonist, J., has some close brushes. This is a book that English majors could really sink their teeth into. What did this object symbolize? How does John Henry's struggle against the Machine mean as journalism moved over to the Internet? And did Whitehead really put a cyclops in his book?

This is a strong addition to Whitehead's canon, and it established him as one of the young writers of our time to watch and treasure. Read the Intuitionist first, and follow with this.

The Nickel Boys: A Novel

Colson Whitehead (2019)

Usually when Colson Whitehead puts out a book, I download it on its first day of availability, and read it straight through. I didn't do it this time around. Underground Railroad was a very heavy book, and I wasn't in a place where I could handle that. Especially since I knew some of the background around the setting (a notorious "reform school" in Florida where abuse was rampant). So it wasn't until several months later that I picked up a copy of Nickel Boys.

This time around we don't have a zombie apocalypse, elevator-repair people, or a dystopian alternate-history Confederacy. Whitehead's world this time around is based in a more concrete reality, and is based upon historical facts. Of course, his touchstone is still race, and while there's a gripping plot, we treated as always by his careful revealing of his characters. There were also echos of Sag Harbor, in that we watched a group of young black men on the cusp of adulthood, and John Henry Days, as Whitehead played with both with time and identity.

Whitehead based this novel off of the events of horrific events that took place at the Dozier School for Boys in Florida. I had read the accounts of those crimes a few years prior, and to be frank, Whitehead actually softens the physical brutality for this novel, perhaps to focus on the mental and emotional tolls instead.

As of 2019, I'm willing to flat out state that Colson Whitehead is America's greatest living author. Or at least he's put out the books that I've enjoyed the most in the 21st century. Nickel Boys is no exception. Go out and buy this book.

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death

by Colson Whitehead (2014)

Colson Whitehead wrote the most intellectual zombie novel ever, so what does he do for a follow-up? He writes about playing in the World Series of Poker. Well, that's some of what he writes about, mainly it's about how he's an alien in the professional/strong amateur poker world, and how he tries to figure out how to last past Day 1 (come to think of it, lasting past Day 1 is a theme in zombie books too).

This, like far too many books, grew out of a magazine article. Grantland had offered to pay his $10k entrance fee in exchange for an article, and this book was spawned in the process. Normally I'm not a big fan of "I can stretch my good 15-20 page article into a 150-200 page book by going down every side-track and rabbit hole, yes, that's the Beef Jerky in the title," but in this case I can forgive it because Whitehead is such a funny writer. Yes, funny. No, given the zombie novel, I did not see that one coming either. Ironic funny, sure. Spit-take funny, who knew?

I found myself laughing out loud every few pages. For example, the Feds had cracked down on internet gaming, which affected his training, "Online poker was like one of those 'learning helmets' in sci-fi movies, where you plop it in your head and download the knowledge of a dead civilization in, like, five minutes. I had to do it the old-fashioned way, with my pants on." There are many passages that manage to be both vulgar and hilarious at the same time, and then you sit back and marvel that Whitehead is a MacArthur "Genius Grant" winner (and toss in a Guggenheim for good measure). Does that explain the situation, or just make it even more funny? I don't know, but I do know you should read this book.

Sag Harbor: A Novel

Colson Whitehead (2009)

Like much of Whitehead's work, the subtitle is "A Novel." This feels only partially true, as it is in part also a memoir of Whitehead's childhood. He's roughly the same age as I am (no, I have not won a MacArthur or a Guggenheim, nor have I been a finalist for a Pulitzer. But has he flown on a NASA mission?). When he mines his childhood, he hits all of my cultural references. His recollection of New Coke hits the mark, "It was inconceivable, like tampering with the laws of nature. Hey, let's try Gravity-Free Tuesdays, buckle-up, motherfuckers."

I kept finding myself falling in and out of rhythm. His tale is from the prospective of an African-heritage teenager, I have little connection. Except that he felt outside of that culture too. He spent his Summers out on Long Island, the result of having two professional parents. I grew up with less wealth, but wait, he worked a minimum-wage job at an ice cream store (this leads to a great section on anthropology from the lens of serving frozen dairy products). This was back in the 1980s, when middle-class teenagers had service jobs in the summer rather than experiences designed to enhance their college applications.

And he owned a black Bauhaus t-shirt. And he's trying to not be a nerd. In one passage he describes that he "hid all the comic books I'd bought since the last purge, in case a girl materialized in my room due to a transporter malfunction." That's marvelous writing, as it shows his desires, but the justification at the end of the sentence shows he is trapped by his core inner nerd. There's even a section on zombie films, which pre-sages his latter novel Zone One. But he does lose some nerd-cred when he tries to mathematically model his afro as a function of time. His math is bad. Granted, I know about as much about afros as I do about high fashion in the 1830s, but I know that the exponential function does not work the way he thinks it does.

The novel suffers from the common complaint of Whitehead's work, that there isn't much of a plot. Instead, it seems like just a bunch of stuff that happened, rather than an arc that builds to a climax, with eventual resolution. But over the summer you get a good view of Whitehead's transition from childhood to adulthood. No, there are no smoking-gun moments, radical character evolution is also not in Whitehead's toolbox, instead he reveals his subjects to us, peeling layers off of onions. But the Ben we see at the end of the novel is older, wiser, but not yet there, you can see that in this opinion: "Over time I have learned that what makes a man is not his ideas or his words, what makes a man is the ability to squeeze out a ferocious stream of lighter fluid from a can and throw a match on it."

It's a novel about a summer that makes good summer reading. No, odds are you didn't grow up like he did, but somehow this book feels universal.

The Underground Railroad: A Novel

Colson Whitehead (2016)

I've spent a good amount of 2016 waiting. I knew that four of my favorite authors, Tim Egan, Mary Roach, Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Letham all had books coming out. There was a time in my life when I knew when my favorite bands were due to drop their new albums, I guess this is what older, educated people do. The Immortal Irishman was a solid offering by Egan, and Grunt was classic Mary Roach. August brought the new Whitehead. How much to I like Whitehead? This is the seventh book of his I'm writing about. As of now, that compares with six by John McPhee and four each by David Sedaris and the aforementioned Egan, Roach and Letham. Yes, Dashiell Hammett clocks in with eight, but he's Dashiell Hammett.

Whitehead can be hard to get around. While things happen in his novels, I wouldn't call them plot-driven, the events are simply skeletons on which to hang his words. To call them character-driven would imply that we see a character evolve. But I'm not sure the the classic Hero's Journey can be well mapped onto much of Whitehead's work. Instead we see aspects of the characters slowly and masterfully revealed.

In some sense this is a throwback to The Intuitionist, in that the lead is an African-heritage woman (there's even some elevator stuff for his readers). But it favors more closely to John Henry Days, in that it features a wide cast of characters, and puts race and American history/culture centerstage.

In this world, Cora, the lead, starts life as a slave on a farm in Georgia. She escapes via the underground railroad, and Whitehead chooses to be literal here, imagining a subway to freedom, to South Carolina, North Carolina and then Indiana. Whitehead imagines an antebellum world where each state reflects a different approach to race relations, although none of the solutions (and some are final solutions) are very positive, or postive at all, for black people. This is certainly a book that can be put next to Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me on the bookshelf in terms of questions about theft and ownership and history and America and right now.

At the end of the day, we've got a well-written book by one of our country's best authors that explores race at a time when it is on the country's front-burner. This is a no-brainer. Read it. Jonathan Letham, you are on the clock.

Zone One: A Novel

by Colson Whitehead (2011)

I'm a sucker for a good zombie story, what card-carrying nerd isn't? But let's be honest here, how often do books in the genre subtitle themselves as "A Novel"? The re-imagining of Austin? Nope, the subtitle there is "The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!" So what is the story here? Well, let's take a step back. If you look at Colson Whitehead's career path, Harvard University, a MacArthur Genius Award, the words "wrote a zombie book" probably aren't the first thing that come to mind. Yes, the author is a serious literary heavyweight. This is more than just pulp zombie chaos.

Sure, we see some of the same themes we see in many other zombie treatments. Commentary on consumerism/capitalism? Yes, which has its roots in the shopping mall of Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead. Same with the role of government when the collapse comes. But we also get a level of introspection that we don't see in the genre, and some interesting questions get asked. In this Zombie Apocalypse, not only do you have your classic "roam for brains" zombie mobs, but a subset of zombies are simply trapped in doing what captivated them during their normal lives (the zombie fanatics will note that this was Romero's explanation of why zombies went to the mall, it was what they did when they were among the living). The tide turns when these zombies wake up. Read your own symbolism into this. The best way to deal with a zombie is the application of brute force; a shotgun blast to the head does quite nicely. While I enjoy the genre, I often feel like the viewers/readers also get the brute force treatment, there's very little in the way of nuance. Whitehead's book is a nice change of pace.

I read this book in a hotel room, waiting for the last launch of the Delta II rocket (well, that's what we thought at the time, they've launched more). Instead of concentrating on a very cool event in the immediate future, I couldn't put the book down. That's how good it was. If you read one zombie book this year, read the novel.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat

by Bee Wilson (2012)

I'm no foodie, but I enjoyed this book. It's a history of how technology has affected both the cooking and eating of food. Some of the insights are basic, such as frying is simply boiling, but in a different medium. Why boil in oil? Because the higher temperature lets you cook faster. There are some interesting stories on the development of various tools, although the missteps are even more curious. Canning was invented around 1810. It was another fifty years before can openers were invented, and even then they were not that good. The kind I use at home, squeeze the handle and rotate the knob, was not invented until the 1980s. Very cool stuff (literally, as there is a chapter on refrigeration).

A part where Wilson does well and makes you want more is where she discusses how our technology has changed us. Most humans now have overbites. Our top front teeth settle in front of our bottom front teeth. Old skulls do not have the same pattern, the teeth were in line, just like our molars. We used to use our teeth differently, but with the introduction of the table knife we cut our food into bite-sized pieces, and did not need to use our front teeth to rip hunks of food. The Chinese, who had bite-sized food well before the West, developed overbites much early according to skeletal records.

While the book mainly concerns Western cooking and eating, Wilson does not ignore the East. While there's the unfortunate trope about people going to the Chinese restaurant and not knowing how to use chopsticks, the rest of her material is pretty good. The figures on disposable wooden chopsticks are a little disturbing. The Japanese throw away 23 billion pair a year, and the Chinese 63 billion. This has caused such a resource crisis that Asia is now importing chopsticks from America.

The main problem I have is that Wilson is obviously out of her depth when it comes to science. For example, she makes the claim that "Recent experiments have shown that the heat intensity from a roasting fire varies by the inverse square of the distance of the meat being roasted." While this is certainly true, it shouldn't shock anyone who knows physics even at a high school level. You have to wonder about who performed these "recent experiments," their expertise seems lacking. Another expert she cites claims that one of the "key discoveries" of Project Gemini was that astronauts didn't like cold potatoes. Well, that's something that could have been discovered on the ground, and the Americans got to the moon rather than the Soviets because they mastered things like orbital rendezvous, a goal of Gemini. Then there is a laughable argument that cooking cannot be truly scientific because there are too many variables (even if you know the exact oven temperature and the exact amount of flour, did you take into account how finely the flour is milled?). Some variables lead to large error bars, some to small. You worry about the former, not the latter, and that's a skill that scientists hone as part of their training. I got the distinct impression that Wilson simply talked to the wrong people when she needed help in science, and I wonder if this carried over to other aspects. If Wilson can't separate the good from bad in the science realm, how do I know she can for anthropology or history?

And the end of the day I decided not to worry to much if Wilson got some things wrong. This is food writing, so to me it is entertainment. If this was about World War I, it would be a different story, but instead I simply had fun.

Charlemagne: A Biography

by Derek Wilson (2006)

Charlemagne is one of those ancient rulers that you know about from a very early age. Like Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar. But I realized that I don't know that much about Charlemagne, except for the old saw that he kept a book under the pillow in the hopes that doing so would help him learn to read. So when I saw this book on the shelf at a used-book sale, I picked it up.

Charles the Great conquered a good section of Europe, but because the traditions of his people distrusted the concentration of power, his kingdom was split by his sons. Very quickly what was once empire splintered. While there was a consolidation of kingdoms, it lasted but one generation. So why do we remember Charlemagne? This is in some part due to the fall of the Roman Empire, which had by this point split into the Western half which contained the former capital of Rome, and the Eastern half, ruled from Constantinople. The both had fallen greatly, the West was broken up into kingdoms like those ruled by Charles, and the East gave us a government that has given us the descriptive word "Byzantine." But at this point lines had been crossed in the East and Empress Irene had risen to power by having her own son killed. Many saw the seat of Roman Emperor unfilled (as a woman currently claimed it), and in order to satisfy some of his own political needs (like not being killed by rivals in Rome), Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor, and more importantly to Leo, his protector. In doing so he elevated the status of Charles from being just a king to heir to the Caesars.

However, as Wilson is quick to point out, that's not a big deal on the world stage. "We need to remind ourselves that the two Christian empires were small fry on the Eurasian landmass. In terms of sheer territorial occupation, they were dwarfed by the Abbasid Caliphate; by the remarkable Khazar Empire, reaching from the Caspian to the Baltic; by the Turks of Siberia and Mongolia and, beyond them, the sprawling domain of the Tang Emperors." Of course, this just points to the fact that our society is Eurocentric. That being said, it does explain the structure of the book. Roughly half is a traditional biography where we learn when somebody is born, what they did, and when they died. The other half is an accounting of how the legend of Charlemagne was built (the Crusades helped), and how his image has filtered down to the current day. He has been see by many as the first ruler of "modern Europe," whatever that means, and as a result his iconography is important. Witness Napoleon demanding to be crowned emperor by the Pope, and then upstaging both the Pope and Charlemagne by taking the crown from the Pope and crowning himself.

There are also some great historical tidbits in this book. The state of the Church at the dawn of the Holy Roman Empire is described as a "pornocracy," although Wilson attributes this to a "later Catholic scholar." Charlemagne was also concerned about errors made by scribes when copying religious texts. So he invoked a reform of calligraphy. Carolingian minuscule, as the new symbols were known, later on became the basis for all modern European alphabets.

So what about putting the book under his pillow? "The Frankish warrior caste regarded literary pursuits as beneath them. However, Charles was taught his letters and grew up with great respect for those who could understand ancient lore and set down new arguments. In later years he greatly regretted than he had not learned to write." Reading yes, writing no.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Simon Winchester (1998)

The main character in the book is not the professor. Outside of a work-your-way-up-the-ladder story in 19th century Great Britain narrative, he's really not that interesting. Yes, the madman is more interesting, but honestly, this is a book about the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED to word people. As such, we have some interesting tidbits (Shakespeare operated without a dictionary, as there wasn't something we would recognize as an English dictionary available; in fact, the phrase "Look something up" didn't enter the language until 1692), but much of the book takes itself far too seriously, and at times it feels like the level of vocabulary is just there to show off. Perhaps this might be user error, I did read this after plowing through a stack of summer-fluff fiction reading, but I definitely felt that the level of vocabulary in this book is kicked up a notch.

There is an old joke where a driver has to change his tire on a bridge. He puts the lugnuts in his hubcap, and then accidentally kicks the hubcap off of the bridge. Coincidentally, the bridge is next to an asylum, and one of the inmates suggests taking a single lugnut off of the remaining wheels, and using those to reattach the offending wheel in order to limp to a mechanic. The punchline is "I might be crazy, but I'm not stupid." That would certainly describe the main character, Dr. Minor, who was certainly crazy (to the point of grievous self-mutilation; which is somehow more disturbing than the actual murder that got him committed), perhaps due to seeing a deserter being branded for cowardice when Minor served as a surgeon in the Civil War. But he was also a top contributor to the OED. The makers of the OED crowd-sourced book (nothing is new in the world), but they had people reading books and sending in words. Minor was their ace-in-the-hole, as he went backwards, he indexed words, so if the OED needed to complete a missing word to make their publishing schedule they went to him (I guess just-in-time manufacturing is also not new). He was a sniper in a world of machine-gunners. While others perhaps sent in more words, he got more kills. But this tale is worth a nice magazine article, it doesn't justify a whole book.

Finally, this is told at an insane level of detail. Did people in the Victorian age keep diaries that let people color in every last shade a century later, or is this simply the case of an author making up things in order to heighten the drama? Ironically, the story had been told once in that fashion, and Winchester busts that myth, but I think that he repeats the sin. This makes decent light summer reading, but I'm not sure I would recommend it to somebody who only had time to read a few select books.

Lowboy: A Novel

John Wray (2009)

I picked this up because I found out that John Wray is in a regular poker game with Jonathan Lethem and Colson Whitehead, and is has the honor of reading Gary Shteyngart's early drafts. I think that those three are some of the great writers of the early 21st century, so why not pick up some Wray?

The drawback of this approach is that if you select him on the basis of his circle, it's hard not to judge him on the basis of his circle. Lowboy is a book about a detective trying to find a mentally-ill teenager. But Lethem handled detectives and mentally-ill characters in Motherless Brooklyn (though to be fair, the effects of the disorders are very different). And teenagers are handled better in Whitehead's Sag Harbor, but Whitehead's work is as much a memoir as it is a work of fiction. Lowboy takes place in the New York City subway system, and a piece in Lethem's The Disappointment Artist does a better job on subways.

OK, so Lowboy doesn't quite measure up to the works of two outstanding authors, how does it stand on its own merits? I was left unimpressed. Through either mental illness or incompetence, no character in the book makes good decisions. I had little investment in any of them. Wray tipped the ending of the book very early, so there wasn't any question of the eventual destination of the plot, although when I finished I thought that Wray struggled with how to end the book. The writing that surrounds the teenager is good, but doesn't feel strong enough to carry the rest of the book. This certainly isn't a bad book, but I think there's better fiction out there.

Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory And the Search for Unity in Physical Law

Peter Woit (2006)

Usually at some point during Physics 4D a student will raise their hand and ask "are we going to cover string theory in this class." My answer is that I oppose teaching religion in science classes. What do I mean by this? In science the default position is to doubt when there is no supporting evidence present. In religion you are allowed to believe, that's the whole point of faith. So what do you do with a field that claims to be science, and yet, after decades of work by some of the most brilliant people out there, has yet to make a single testable claim? I don't think that Karl Popper is the end-all-and-be-all, but some version of falsifiability is important to the definition of what is and what is not science. I'd just as soon push string theory into a corner and point to it and say "that's really cool math," but unlike string theorists, mathematicians don't claim that their product has anything to do with the real world. Hence I think the proper label is religion.

OK, enough of my rant. In any case, Peter Woit does a much better job in his new book. Reader be warned that some parts are not smooth sailing. Granted that quantum field theory was one of the classes that showed me I was going to be an experimental physicist, but I've got a Ph.D. in physics and a few times I had to put down the book and think for a little bit before moving on. Of course, you can always mentally cross out a paragraph or two and replace them with the words "for technical reasons we know/believe that..." without too much disruption in the narrative.

Woit details the progress that was made in high energy physics through the 1970s through the establishment of the Standard Model, and points out that the program has been too successful. What does it mean to be too successful? Well, the experiments match up very well to theory, people don't know where it might be broken. Advances are made when you see something is slightly off and they you push on it. You spin up a new model or a new set of math, figure out an experiment where your stuff would predict something different than the current theory, and then run said experiment. The problem is that string theory hasn't proposed any such experiments that can be performed by modern technology. Or even technology that we could make in the foreseeable future (his listing of the problems of building "bigger" machines is a nice discussion). So we are left with a situation where the theory folk have spent decades without needing to square their results with experiment. Worse, it appears as if string theory is slippery enough that you can make it fit any set of data. Hey, just add another epicycle...

So what does that lead to? Well, I'm making a cartoon of his arguments, but Woit would say that it has resulted in a landscape where theoretical physicists play the role of the Emperor without clothes. Due to the way that careers are shaped (as Deep Throat would say, "Follow the money"), there's no viable alternate field to object to the flaws in string theory. Woit himself left physics and now has a position in the math department at Columbia. Worse still, it appears that theoretical physics has problem even policing itself, as the chapter on the Bogdanov Affair demonstrates.

This is a very important book. If you want to become a theoretical physicist it should be required reading.

Russia in Space: The Past Explained, The Future Explored

Anatoly Zak (2013)

There's a term for the cool videos put out by companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance - rocket porn. I think this book falls under this category. There are plenty of really neat pictures to look at, and most of it is fantasy.

Let me explain. The first chapter of the book deals with the collapse of the Russian space industry in the post-Soviet era. Money was tight, and important parts of the program weren't even in the country anymore; their launch facility is in Kazakstan and their next generation rocket, Zenit, was built in Ukraine. The second chapter covers the sad story of the Russian contribution to the International Space Station, and correctly posits that it is still an embryo, that it never was built out to its full glory, not even close. And the remaining three-quarters of the book are essentially science fiction. There are new-fangled human-rated spacecraft, moon bases, Mars transport systems. None of these will ever happen. Sure, there will be incremental improvements to those great Russian rockets (and let's not forget that Atlas runs on Russian engines), but the rest of this is pie-in-the-sky. We might as well be playing Kerbal.

The Soviets space program did great things, and the Russian people can be very proud of their country's historical achievements in space. And these have been carried forward into American efforts. Can we note for the record that the flight path for SpaceX's return to launch site operations is based upon old Russian plans? Or that the cool Dream Chaser mini-shuttle is based off of and old Soviet design? But I think that the best days of the Russian space program are in the past. To be fair, that might be said of many national-level efforts, once the Cold War ended, money for prestige projects dried up fairly quickly. Yes, there are some awesome things I'm looking forward to in the next few years, but that's due to billionaire-based space programs. I'm less enthusiastic about centrally-commanded government efforts in any country (don't get me started on the SLS).

Note - This is another one of those books that is selling for insane prices on Amazon.

Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil

Robert Zubrin (2007)

The more Zubrin writes, the more you think he is a kook. I'll start by granting him his central thesis - the USA would be much better off if we blended large amounts of ethanol with our gasoline, and the best way to do this is to mandate that all new cars can run on any mixture of fuel (and the technology to do this is both available and cheap). If this was a fifteen-page magazine article that laid out the how-to's, it would be perfect.

Sadly, in book length Zubrin goes off the rails. Large sections of the book are rants against "Islamofascism," and while I don't think that giving Saudi Arabia truckloads of money is a great idea, this has the feel of somebody who has taken an old "Communists are hiding under every bed" fear-mongering tract and simply replaced the old bad guys with some new bad guys. He also takes on global warming, dismissing it almost out of hand. He makes claims like "more CO2 will lead to more trees which will solve the problem." He has great faith in the idea that Nature has self-regulating negative feedback mechanisms, and that when something goes out of balance all we have to do is wait and the problem will take care of itself. Sorry, but one thing we should have learned by now is that Nature is very nonlinear, and that problems don't just go away (for example, the polar ice caps reflect away a great deal of energy; once they start to melt, the Earth absorbs more energy, accelerating the pace of melting - Zubrin's logic would have the melting of the ice caps somehow reversing the path of their demise).

Zubrin also fails to address the effect of his proposals on agriculture. Case in point, he ignores the role of water. He talks about how massive growing on the part of the American farmer would be economically viable, but never mentions the fact that the American government provides a huge subsidy to farmers via cheap water. Now I know that some folks will complain about the cost of gasoline while buying $2 bottled water, but if we crank up the corn machine, this means more water to farmers, which means you will be paying more at the tap. And remember that our current water needs are met by both rainwater and aquifers. We are drilling for water the same way we are drilling for oil. Yes, running out of oil is going to be bad. Running out of water will be worse. Zubrin should at least address this topic, as he doesn't, I can only assume he hasn't thought out this plan as well as he should have (and that he missed the water aspect of this is a little surprising, given all the writing he has done about colonizing Mars).

Do I agree with his conclusion? Yes. But not because of the messenger.

Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II

by Mitchell Zuckoff (2013)

This is a fun adventure book, but it is not without its flaws. It falls within the Arctic Survival genre, where a band of men struggle to escape the great frozen north. It also flashes-forward to the present, where a combination of civilians and Coast Guard attempt to locate the wreckage of one of the planes involved in the affair.

During World War II, warplanes were flown from North America to Great Britain. These were not non-stop, as that was impossible given the technology of the day, and Greenland was a way station. The author spends a great deal of time describing how cold and horrible Greenland is. At one point a plane crashes on its journey, and a search is organized. One of the search planes also goes down. The plot of the book involves rescuing these men. After the plane is located, some of the men are rescued by a Coast Guard plane, but one a return trip to save more lives, this plane also crashes. It is the third plane that the modern-day people are interested in, as it contains the bodies of two of the three remaining missing-in-action members of the Coast Guard.

While this book has all the proper ingredients, a compelling story, tragedies, and somewhat happy endings, Zuckoff is the wrong person to write the book. Simply put, he is too involved to be objective. When the person who was the main driving force behind the effort to recover the airplane runs out of money, Zuckoff turns over a part of his advance on the book. Later on, Zuckoff offers to financially entangle his house to help cover the project (the bank had other ideas). In a book where it is quite clear that the Arctic will kill you for small mistakes (or even just bad luck), it should have been a much bigger deal when it was discovered that the people who the team leader brought in as experts did not know how to use some of the expedition's high-tech equipment. He had just assumed that they knew, and never bothered to ask. Yet this was treated as if it was just a bad turn of events rather than a damning evidence of poor leadership. This lack of distance carries over to Zuckoff's treatment of the men in World War II. Yes, they were heroes, soldiers and sailors who were put in an almost impossible situation, and either survived against all odds or died for their brothers in arms. But that being said, this reads like a hagiography. It makes for more realistic reading if some of those frozen feet were feet of clay.

This is not bad for the genre, but there are better books for your time.