book suggestions

A former student emailed me asking for suggestions on some history books to read, so I thought I’d share with you what I shared with her.  If you end up reading any of these books, please comment here, email me, or send me a Facebook messages with your thoughts on the book(s).

The best – hands down best, no kidding – history-related book I have EVER read came out not too long ago.  It’s called Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly & the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson.  It happens that one of my favorite movies (ever) is “Lawrence of Arabia,” and the author deconstructs the movie as well as the reality of TE Lawrence.  Just a fantastic book, no kidding, plus it really opens the mind to why the Middle East is the way it is now.

Another really good book is Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion & the Armies of Rome, by Stephen Dando-Collins.  He’s written a bunch of books in this series and they’re all OK, but this one is the best of the bunch.  The cool thing is that they read more like novels/stories than history books – maybe I appreciate them because that’s the way I like to teach!

Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner, is a cool book that takes a serious world-spanning look at how the effort to acquire just one of life’s minor luxuries helped shape the world as we know it.  Fascinating.  This book was recommended to me (along with another book that wasn’t quite as good) by a 17-year-old home-schooled girl, and I’m glad I listened to her on this one.

If you’re interested in Cold War-era stuff, look at The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc, by Lewis Siegelbaum.  You wouldn’t think a book about crappy cars made in Bulgaria or Hungary would be that interesting, but when you look at them in their geopolitical context, pretty cool stuff.  Another good CW book is Red Moon Rising: Sputnik & the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age, by Matthew Brzezinski.  It’s a little more … dense & academic … than most of the other stuff I’ve listed here, but I’m obsessed with sci-fi, so I always liked this book because it combines history and space.

OK last suggestion, and this one might be a little off the wall: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman. It’s a graphic novel filled with mice, cats & pigs, but it’s a really powerful book about how an American man learns to cope with his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor.  My copy is 2 volumes, but I think it’s available as one complete book now.

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summer book exchange #6: Wolf Hall

I love telling the story of Henry VIII discarding his first two wives. It’s salacious and full of intrigue, two of the best aspects of any story. Plus lots of dirty stuff.

Having said that, I’ve never been much of a fan of historical fiction. Maybe “not a fan” is too strong – “not able to get into” is maybe more accurate, because it snaps me out of the story when the author takes …liberties… with the material.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (2009)

photoI’ll say this right off the top – Mantel is a fantastic writer and her style is engaging and smooth. Even if I hadn’t known anything about Henry, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell going into this book, it wouldn’t have mattered, because Mantel brings them all to life quite effectively.

It’s clear that the book is researched in depth; Mantel doesn’t screw up the little stuff and she just flat out gets the details correct. That goes a long way towards suspending belief long enough to enjoy the story – even though I knew how it was going to end.

(Well – sort of. This is book 1 of a trilogy. I know how book 3 will end.)

The cool thing about this book is that it doesn’t focus on King Henry and his new (second) bride, Anne Boleyn. This book is all about the people in the background, the people dealing with Henry’s tumultuous decision.

There’s a bit of projection of modern values backwards onto historical figures, but I suppose that can’t be helped. In reality, the only truly sympathetic character in the story of Henry VIII was Thomas More, and they chopped his head off. Mantel has to create a hero or the story isn’t compelling. Cromwell becomes that compelling figure at the center of the narrative, and we’re drawn into his rise from humble beginnings to the lofty heights of court.

I probably won’t delve into the sequels because this isn’t the kind of genre I get into, but this was a very good book.

summer book exchange list

I’ll update this list (hopefully I’ll remember to do it) with all the books that I’ve read this summer.

(Italics means I’ve received it, but haven’t read it yet.)

  1. The Dogs Don’t Bark in Brooklyn Any More, by Eric R Nolan
  2. World of Warcraft: Arthas: Rise of the Lich King, by Christie Golden
  3. Among Others, by Jo Walton
  4. The Children’s Story, by James Clavell
  5. Killing Mr. Griffin, by Lois Duncan
  6. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
  7. How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran
  8. The Name of This Book Is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch
  9. Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914, by Malcolm Brown & Shirley Seaton
  10. The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror, by Christopher Moore

Exchanged books sent (or planned to be sent):

  1. Jennifer Government, by Max Barry
  2. Christine, by Stephen King
  3. The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days, by Ian Frazier
  4. Marc Antony’s Heroes, by Stephen Dando-Collins
  5. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

10 books that stuck

I said STUCK lol

I don’t usually participate in/repost Facebook things like this, but you know I loves me some books, so the “10 books that have stuck with you” thing, that one I can get into.  Knowing me, though, you should realize that I’m going to give you way more information about them than you really wanted.

Here they are in no particular order.

1.  Idoru by William Gibson.  When I started reading, if you told me my favorite sci-fi book in the whole world would be centered around a nerdy teenage girl and a rock star’s romance with a computer hologram, I’d have probably thought you were crazy – and told you so. Here we are, though, and there it is. I think one of the reasons I’ve been so disappointed with Gibson’s last few books is that they’re not Idoru and I desperately want them to be.  (I recently re-read Neuromancer and boy, is that a good book, but this one’s still better!)

2.  Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler.

Wait, what?

Yeah.  The meme is “books that stuck with you” not “your favorite books.”  MK is a book you can never quite forget no matter how desperately you wish you could.  It’s equal measures haunting and hilarious, but the thing that gets you is that a lot of his sentiments (from the 1920s, mind you) translate so easily – and fully – into modern times. You hear people say things nearly exactly like things that Hitler wrote in this book.  It’s kind of upsetting, really.

3.  The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.  I used to assign this book to my US history classes until the crying about “how are we supposed to do all this reading” got too much to bear semester after semester.  If you ever read this, stop reading it when the main character (Jurgis) starts going to the political rallies/meetings.  It’s boring socialist propaganda after that and truthfully, the story has ended by then anyway.  If half the shit that happens to the protagonist in this book ever happened to anybody in real life, it’s a miracle anybody survived the early 20th century.

4.  The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien.  The original excellent adventure.

5.  Yukon Ho! by Bill Watterson.  This was the first Calvin & Hobbes book I ever got – and I still have my original copy from 1989.

6.  Chess for Beginners by IA Horowitz.  My father (with whom I had a complicated, contentious and often unpleasant relationship) gave me this book when I was about 11 or 12 years old.  Playing chess with my father is among the few really positive memories I have about him, and it always meant a lot to me that he gave me this book.

7.  The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days by Ian Frazier.  The only other book that ever made me laugh as hard as this one was Death Rat! by Mike Nelson – and this one’s way funnier.

8.  Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.  This book, I’m pretty sure, is what sparked my love of dystopian science fiction.  It’s also one of the books I think about when I get into one of my “words mean things” rants – the way Bradbury turns the word fireman on its head is pretty powerful.

9.  On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony. This initial volume in the Incarnations of Immortality series is pretty thought-provoking – the idea that Death is a job just like any other job, and what happens when Death goes on strike.  I’ve always felt it was the best in the 7-book series.

10.  Proficient Motorcycling by David Hough.  It’s a little cliche to say such-and-such book is the Bible of such-and-such discipline, but this one really is.  Every time I pick it up, I learn something new that helps keep me safe on the road.

There you have it, 10 books that stuck with me. If you’re tagged, let’s hear it 🙂

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tom clancy dead at age 66

539945Tom Clancy is dead. He was 66. While few articles are speculating as to the cause of death, Clancy was well known to be a heavy smoker; that no doubt contributed to his early demise.

I never met the man, but his books meant a whole lot to me. As I say to my students, I have to tell you this story to tell you that story.

You see, I’m a child of the Cold War. I wasn’t just a child during the Cold War, I was a child IN the Cold War.

In 1976, the US Air Force saw fit to station my father in Germany, at an air base called Sembach. We joined him there a year later (going to see Star Wars was the last big thing I did in the States before we left – thanks, Uncle Brian & Aunt Julie!).

This means that my father was attached to the 601st Tactical Air Control Wing, part of the 17th Air Force. I was too young then to grasp whatever it was he did, but I knew one thing – we lived near a base where they had OV-10s, and as a fourth grader, I was absolutely captivated by those slow, ugly bastards. I used to sit on the hill behind my elementary school and watch them take off and land, over and over. We lived in a little town called Otterberg in an apartment above a nice German family.

GermanyAfter Sembach, we lived near Hahn AFB for a short time. I traded the turboprop OV-10s for on-their-way-out F-4Es – still one of the coolest-looking fighters the USAF ever flew. I’m not sure which unit my father was part of, but it was either the 10th, 313th or 496th Tactical Fighter Group. Much to my ultimate dismay, we moved to another base before Hahn got its F-16s in 1979.

From Hahn, we took kind of a weird turn, as my father was sent to Neubrücke Kaserne, a tiny-ass Army installation not far from the border between Germany and Luxembourg. This was the first time since we left the States that we lived on base, in a shitty Army apartment building.

When we lived at Neubrücke, I lost all connection with what it was my father did for the USAF. “What’d you do at work today?” I’d ask. “Nothin’,” he’d say.

Every. Day.

The weird thing about Neubrücke – beyond its very small size – was the buildings.  Nearly every major building had a hallway that clearly went underground, but was blocked off by a locked gate.  Sometimes I could see equipment stacked up on the other side of the gates, but usually it was just kind of ghostly.  I learned later that, in the event of war, our little installation would quickly be converted to either a fallout shelter or a hospital, whichever was needed more. It was stocked to do either – or both.

I remember being excited one day when my father brought something home from work. It was a printout – you remember those big, roll-fed dot-matrix printers? They fed this wide paper that was striped with a pale green for readability. He showed me the printout. I thought I was finally going to get some insight into what he did all day, every day in that mountain he worked inside. Instead, what I saw was the printout of a text-based computerized Star Trek game – he’d finally beaten the Klingons, and was so proud of his accomplishment that he brought it home to show me.  (Imagine Zork, but with the Enterprise.)

A fucking computer game. Who’d’a thunk it.  Star Trek to boot.

It was several years later when I finally figured out that’s when he started his career in intelligence work, but that’s neither here nor there.

After Neubrücke, we moved to SHAPE HQ in Mons, Belgium. We lived in a tiny hamlet called Harmignies. Our bus driver and his backup were always armed. It seemed perfectly normal to us – after all, we’d been living on or near military bases nearly our whole lives at that point. I didn’t even blanche when I saw some knucklehead racing to get into an NBC suit, an Uzi or 2 certainly wouldn’t have phased me.

Sorry, I’m digressing.

The whole time we lived in Germany, we were never more than 100 miles from Frankfurt, which means we were never more than about 150 miles from Fulda, which means we were within just a few minutes’ flight time of the Fulda Gap.

“What’s the Fulda Gap?” I hear you cry.

The Fulda Gap is where NATO fully expected two entire Soviet tank armies to invade when the Cold War got hot. The air bases we lived at were forward support for US tanks (3rd Armored Division) and infantry (8th Mechanized Division) that were in place specifically to plug the Fulda Gap when World War 3 started.

Yeah. Lay that on a 10-year-old and see how he does with it.

By the time I was 14 years old – in 1984 – I had regular nightmares about exactly what a tactical nuclear weapon would do to me. I knew more about fighter planes and main battle tanks than any 9th grader should, and all of it scared the living shit out of me.

In one of his rare instances of paternal insight, my father realized that he could do something to help his oldest son. He came home from work one day and sat me down at the kitchen table. Very dramatically, he put his briefcase on the table and snapped open the latches.

“I’m going to give you something,” he said. “You can’t take it out of the house, and you can’t ever tell anybody you have it.” He looked at me with an intensity I’d never seen before. “Nobody. Ever.”

No pressure, right?

To this day, I don’t know if he was being melodramatic or if he could have really gotten in trouble, but he’d never shown that level of trust in me before, so I was nearly apoplectic trying to figure out what was going on.

soviet military powerHe opened his briefcase and brought out a crimson-red book. It was 8.5 x 11 and the title – “SOVIET MILITARY POWER” – was all that was on the cover, along with a tiny “1983” at the bottom.

“This is for you,” he said, “So you can understand what we’re up against. You know what we have and how we’ll use it if we need to, so I want you to see what the threat really is.”

I probably didn’t come out of my room except to eat or go to school for three days after that. I was so afraid of somebody finding this book that I hid it between the mattress and box spring of my bed.

(Yeah, I know. I should have been hiding Playboys there, but you already knew I was a nerd, so is this a big surprise?)

The book broke down in meticulous detail the stats, specs and capabilities of every piece of Soviet hardware, even fessing up when US/NATO intelligence knew very little (or nothing) about a weapons platform. It went on to detail how many of this or that were stationed where, even making some attempts to predict what Soviet strategies would be if a war started.

My father was right – having that book helped. A lot. The nightmares didn’t disappear, but they did lessen in frequency and intensity. The dreams lost their persecutory atmosphere as well, the idea that the Soviets were coming after ME.

I found out several years later that later volumes of this series (they put one out every year) weren’t classified – but they were hard to get. My father was able to nab a copy each year, at first due to his position working for the SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander, Europe – a guy called General Bernard Rogers at the time) and later through his job on the bottom floor of the Pentagon. I filled out my collection – 1989 & 1990, the last 2 years of them, of course – at a library sale in the late 1990s.

Less than a year after giving me that first one, he brought home a book from work. It was an advance copy of the first work of fiction ever published by the Naval Institute Press. He read it in a couple of days and gave it to me – “You’re going to love this book,” he said.

The advance copy’s cover used a similar stark typeface to the Soviet Military Power reports, and it read, simply: The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy.

He was right – I loved that book. As soon as it was commercially available, I got my own copy, the first hardback book I ever spent my own money on.

Clancy’s next novel, Red Storm Rising, was even better. I later learned it was actually the first book he wrote, but “Red October” was the first he got published. If you read Red Storm first, you can see a lot of the sub chase sequences from Red October in them.

Red Storm Rising was epic in scope – World War 3 on land, at sea and in the air. It had some clunky characters (the clueless Air Force weather man in Iceland comes to mind), but the plot was solid and it was a fantastic read. I’ve read my copy so many times that it’s falling apart.

Clancy went the James Bond route after that, developing the character Jack Ryan (the hero of Red October) on and on until Ryan actually becomes the president of the United States. Patriot Games, The Cardinal in the Kremlin, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears – all solid spy books.

What attracted me to Clancy’s writing was its military precision. He described the technology with loving detail; his description of stealth fighters in Red Storm will give you chills. He seemed to know as much (if not more) about military hardware as I did, and I always felt like he was writing those books just for me, that scared kid who grew up in Europe just a short drive from the Fulda Gap.  You could tell he totally geeked out on the hardware, and I just ate it up.

After those books, though, I kind of lost interest in Clancy’s work. Without Remorse was OK. I found the climax of Debt of Honor (published 1994) to be completely implausible – what kind of crazy person would commandeer an airliner and crash it into a building? Debt also made me uncomfortable because it rode a wave of Japan-bashing that was sweeping the US at the time, and I’ve always had a fascination with Japan, its people and their culture.

Executive Orders was also an OK book, as was SSN, but neither was great. Clancy seemed to get some of his zing back when he brought back John Clark, a character from Clear and Present Danger and Without Remorse, and put him in charge of the book’s eponymous Rainbox Six counter-terrorist group.

I read The Bear and the Dragon and Red Rabbit, but that was pretty much it for me. I felt like Clancy lost what had made him great – the techno-spy-thriller aspects of his writing weren’t shining through like they did in his first few books. I never read his last solo book, The Teeth of the Tiger, because I couldn’t get into Jack Ryan’s son picking up his father’s mantle. This probably had something to do with the fact that, by 2003, my own father and I were quite distant from each other – we never had much of a relationship after 2001, and frankly, not much of one before that, either.

I wasn’t interested in reading any of the books Clancy co-wrote with other authors. I’m not a fan of co-written fiction books, so I just didn’t bother.

Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October will always hold a special place in my heart because they helped me be less afraid of nuclear war. I saw in these books the intense ways in which the commanders of US & Soviet forces wanted to avoid throwing nukes – even when it seemed like the only possible option for victory.

One of Red October‘s main characters, the Captain Marko Ramius, astutely realizes his new submarine is – as we now call them – a WMD, purpose-built to sneak up on the USSR’s enemy and launch a devastating attack. He takes it upon himself to even the playing field and drastically reduce the possibility of nuclear war.

That always meant a lot to me.

i, robot (the movie) and i, robot (the book)

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This comparative review contains spoilers of both the book and the movie. It’s not really a review, in the strictest sense; it’s more of a comparison of the book and the movie.

I, Robot, starring Will Smith, was released in 2004. I, Robot, written by Isaac Asimov, was published in 1950; it isn’t a traditional novel, but rather a collection of nine short stories that tie together with common themes and even characters. They share more than just the title, but it can be difficult to unravel Asimov’s contributions to the screenplay written by Jeff Vintar & Akiva Goldsman.

Before we get to the reviews, let’s look at the Three Laws of Robotics, as created by Asimov.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It’s important to remember that these laws are hierarchical – the First overrides the Second & Third, the Second overrides the Third.

I’m an unashamed Will Smith fan and I, Robot is one of his better summer sci-fi blockbusters. There’s plenty of action, but there’s also a good bit of character development, inner conflict and humor.

Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith, duh) is on the homicide detail & coming off – well, either a vacation, sick leave or a suspension, it’s not entirely clear which. He’s old fashioned & loves outdated technology, including his “vintage 2004” Converse sneakers. He’s also openly robophobic; better still, he’s racist against robots and immediately suspects them of … something. Anything. He even chases down a robot he suspects of purse-snatching.

Naturally, when the opportunity for him to blame a murder on a robot appears, he does exactly that, and this is what drives the plot. As a result, he encounters Dr. Susan Calvin, who works for US Robotics (USR) and tries to make robots “more human.” The film & book versions of Dr. Calvin are very similar – cold and intellectual.

The first crossover with Asimov’s intertwining collection of short stories happens early in the film. The robot (we later learn his name is Sonny) suspected of murder is wounded by Spooner, and he goes to a robot construction facility to repair himself. Spooner & Calvin are faced with a room of 1,001 robots – 1,000 NS-5s and Sonny. In “Little Lost Robot,” Calvin and another USR employee, Peter Bogert, find themselves faced with 63 seemingly identical “Nestor” (NS-2) robots; one of them, however, was given the order to “get lost” by another human & has done his best to do exactly that. Calvin & Bogert interview the robots over & over, finally ferreting out the “lost” robot. In the movie, Calvin quips that it would take 3 weeks to interview all 1,001 robots in order to find the one they’re looking for.

This is the only actual event-based crossover between the book and the movie.

Spooner & Calvin eventually discover that Alfred Lanning created Sonny differently; Sonny has the ability to ignore and even counter the Three Laws. It’s clear relatively early in the movie that Sonny killed Dr. Lanning; what is not clear, however, is why.

While “Lost Little Robot” contains the only event that translates directly into the movie, there are several concepts carried over from the short stories into the film.

In “Reason,” Asimov explores the idea that robots, given enough time and even some faulty logic, can develop their own thought processes and, through a logical (though mistaken) process extending past that, develop ideas that run counter to their original programming. As far as the movie is concerned, this appears in both Sonny and VIKI, the “robot” (see below) that controls the USR facility.

The contribution of “Liar!” to the movie is pretty simple – the idea that a robot can lie. Sonny lies – perhaps not maliciously, but enough to hide his motivations and even some of his actions. In the short story, the robot in question is actually telepathic and messes with Dr. Calvin’s mind, which is kind of fun and kind of sad at the same time.

“Escape!” introduces the concept that a robot doesn’t have to look like a traditional robot. When we think of robots, we think of humanoid robots like C-3P0, Gort, Asimo, Data, Ash, Twiki, Bender, the various Terminators, Robbie, Maximilan, and Cylons as well as non-humanoid robots like ED-209, R2-D2, Rosie, WALL-E & Eve, Number 5, and Dr. Theopolis.

Perhaps Dr. Theopolis – from the horrible TV series “Buck Rogers” that starred the effervescent Erin Gray – comes the closest to the “robot” in Escape!; it is simply a thinking machine called “The Brain” that latches onto an idea, runs with it, and seemingly surpasses its programming – or at least the intentions of its programmers.  In the movie, VIKI takes the role of “The Brain.”

Finally, in “The Evitable Conflict,” we reach the key idea from the book that moves across to and drives the movie. In the movie, VIKI embodies the plot of “The Evitable Conflict” by reasoning out that the biggest danger to the safety of humanity is, in fact, humanity itself; she therefore determines that the robots must protect humanity by preventing the humans from harming each other. In this manner, she is embodying the essence of “The Evitable Conflict,” interpreting the First Law in such a way that the robots – VIKI as the thinking machine & the NS-5s as her “army” – act to protect humanity from itself.

Of course, the bottom line there, and perhaps the message that the movie is driving home, is that man refuses to subordinate his freedom to his safety and will continue to endanger himself in the name of liberty despite the best intentions of anybody – or anything.

I will say that I dearly love I, Robot (the book) and greatly enjoy I, Robot (the movie) – but aside from some ideas & one specific event, one is not a detailed reflection of the other.