Books Worth Reading ...


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?
An Hour Before Daylight

Memories of a Rural Boyhood
Jimmy Carter Simon & Schuster
Just as the sub-title says. Jimmy Carter growing up on a rural farm in the 1920's and 30's. In one sense, his childhood is not remarkable at all, and the book could be taken as a nostalgia trip as he accurately portrays the times and place. But he is brutally honest about himself, his family, and those around him as he engages in farmwork, school, sports, hunting and fishing, and most of all the relationships he has, with whites and blacks.

The World as Stage
Bill Bryson HarperLuxe
Yet another survey of Shakespeare's life and work. Although it's not weighty in several senses (240 easy to read pages), it does have a bright and unique viewpoint.
And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since

From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress
Charles B. Rangel with Leon Wynter Thomas Dunne Books
Long-serving Democratic heavyweight from Harlem recounts his life story. Fascinating family background details, frank opinions, and insight into the doings of a professional politician inside and outside Congress. No holds barred, especially when it comes to his own personal failings. All cast in a different light since his recent ethics violations.
Barack Obama

The Story
David Maraniss Simon & Schuster
Very-detailed, exhaustively researched exposition of his family backgrounds, and life up to his acceptance into Harvard Law School What comes across is Obama's cool, detached, "observer" personality and the forces that shaped that. But more interesting are the strange parallels and very odd, tragic characters in the two widely separate family backgrounds he shares. Their lives are the most riveting parts of the book.
"What Do You Care What Other People Think?"

Further Adventures of a Curious Character
Richard P. Feynman as told to Ralph Leighton W. W. Norton and Company
More first-person sketches from the life of the Nobel prize winning physicist. Both his personal and professional lives are covered in plain and plain-spoken language, nothing held back. Everything is funny, or bizarre, or poignant; nothing is colourless. The title has special relevance to the account of how he won and subsequently lost his wife. A large part of the book is also devoted to his famous participation in the inquiry of the Challenger shuttle disaster.
Thirty Years in a Red House

A Memoir of Childhood and Youth in Communist China
Zhu Xiao Di University of Massachusetts Press
What it was like to grow up during the Cultural Revolution and the long, uneven emergence from those hardships and setbacks. There are two parallel strands: the personal experiences of the author and his family, and what's happening in the country in general. Both illuminate and illustrate each other. The author's exceptional command of English (and how he came by that is just one of the book's many interesting tales) ensures that his thoughts and feelings - in retrospect and at the time the events happened - are expressed with precision and honesty.
The Russian Album

Michael Ignatieff Penguin
A recounting of the previous few generations of his family, who attained prominence in Russian military and state affairs. You see a family rise to the heights at the zenith of the Russian empire, and then fall to the depths during the revolution and civil war, and finally scrabble to try to make some sense out of their changed circumstances. A very personal history of people swept up in forces far greater than themselves. The book originally appeared in 1987; this edition includes a very interesting afterword wherein the author manages to visit the remote Ukrainian village that had become the family seat and finds most things have changed, and some things not at all.

a refugee life
Fred Bruemmer Key Porter Books
The well-known author of many books on Canada's Arctic tells his personal life story, from his idyllic childhood as a Baltic German in Latvia, through nightmarish imprisonment in Soviet factory camps, to his work in a northern Ontario gold mine. So many varied events happened to him in his first twenty years as he and his family were swept up in the consequences of the Second World War and aftermath. The events depicted are at once interesting and revolting. His descriptions of the individual and cultural devastion he witnessed transform this period from one of historical themes to personal impacts.
Life Could Be Verse

reflections on love, loss, and what really matters
Kirk Douglas Health Communications, Inc.
Kirk Douglas recounts key points of his life with anecdotes, thoughts, and his own poetry. Like his full-scale autobiography, "The Ragman's Son", this is an honest self-appraisal of his personal failings and successes - but with the perspective of age, more reflective and contented. It's a small book in size and length, with many pictures, on high quality paper that makes it pleasant to handle and read. The layout is top-notch. Well worth the short time required, for Kirk Douglas fans, or those just interested in the highs and lows of one person's tumultuous life.

A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Laura Hillenbrand Random House
Louis Zamperini was an emerging track star when WW2 intervened. He joined the Army Air Force, and ended up in a Japanese POW camp where he was mercilessly persecuted by the "Bird". Laura Hillenbrand is a great story-teller, and Zamperini's story is remarkable enough, including pre- and post-World War II, to make an engrossing subject.
Lester B. Pearson

Andrew Cohen Penguin Canada
A brief, readable look at the life and career of Mike Pearson. Reminds us of what we owe Pearson - the Canada he made in 5 short years is the way we like to think of Canada to this day. Although Cohen does not spare criticism of Pearson's many failings, what remains is the essential good feeling of the man for his friends and associates, and his optimism towards his country.
How the World Was

A California Childhood
Emmanuel Guibert :01 First Second
A nostalgic but bluntly honest look back at one boy's childhood spent in California in the 1930's told in graphic format. Gives a picture far different from the California of today. Alan Cope's reminiscences are a mixture of the everyday and the surprising. Honest assessments of himself and the people in his life. Guibert's drawings are a major asset to the book, enhancing the plain words with imagination.
Slide Rule

The Autobiography of an Engineer
Nevil Shute Vintage
Originally published 1954. Nevil Shute was a writer of best-seller novels ("On the Beach", etc.) from the 1930's to 50's. But for twenty years this was an evening pursuit, as his daytime job was as an aeronautical engineer. This book deals almost entirely with his working life, which he was equally - if not more - passionate about. An engineering autobiography sounds like it would be dull, but it is far from it for two reasons. First, he writes so clearly and easily that the honesty of his thoughts on many subjects comes through. And secondly, Nevil Shute was involved as a principal in two very interesting multi-year projects: the development from scratch of the R100 airship (which crossed the Atlantic to Montreal in 1930 as part of its proof of concept) and the setting up of the Airspeed airplane manufacturing company. There are many very interesting anecdotes, and also lengthy dissertations on the reasons for the fate of his competitors' R101 airship, how to obtain risk capital, and the inevitable conflict between founders of a start-up and the professional managers who come in later. Many relevant lessons for today.
Trafalgar's Lost Hero

Admiral Lord Collingwood and the Defeat of Napoleon
Max Adams John Wiley & Sons
The life and naval career of Cuthbert Collingwood, a close friend of Nelson, and destined to play second fiddle to him despite his own accomplishments at Trafalgar (where he led the attack and then consolidated the victory) and after where he led the Mediterranean fleet, kept Napoleon's fleet in harbour for the most part, and frustrated Napoleon's designs through artful diplomacy with the region's kings, queens, and emperors. Collingwood was an opposite to Nelson in almost every way (he did not seek personal glory and had little personal charm) but did match him in seamanship, tactics, and devotion to his country and service. Because so many of his letters and documents have survived, the book is well sprinkled with Collingwood's own thoughts on high policy and mundane matters. He was hard on his captains, but sympathetic to the ordinary seaman and lower ranks. He spent interminable time away from his beloved family and cabbages. Fortunately he was accompanied at sea for many years by his dog Bounce.
The Jew Who Defeated Hitler

Henry Morgenthau Jr., FDR, and how we won the war
Peter Moreira Prometheus Books
Henry Morgenthau Jr. was US Treasury Secretary for 12 years, including most of the depression and the Second World War. You would think this would guarantee him a prominent place in the histories of the time, but he has receded into obscurity. This book attempts to refurbish his reputation on several counts: his overseeing of the huge increase in aircraft production, his vigorous championing of the Lend-Lease aid to Britain, his key role in the Bretton Woods negotiations that saw the founding of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, his sponsorship of the War Refugee Board, and, most importantly, the financing of America's war expenditures. It's the latter that makes the author's case for the title. And when you look at the figures, the vast amounts of money that needed to be raised, it's not perhaps too much of an exaggeration. We get lots of details on tax plans and bond drives, fights about compulsory savings (Morgenthau was against and won that battle) and strained relations with State and War department officials who were not as single-minded as he was about preparing for, and prosecuting, the war. This tripped him up in the end when he overreached with the Morgenthau Plan to deindustrialize post-war Germany so they could never prosecute a war again. An interesting read, with a few errors in chronology concerning events in WW II.
Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine & Robert Baldwin

John Ralston Saul Penguin Canada
Like "Lester B. Pearson" above, another in the "Extraordinary Canadian" series, this one by series editor John Ralston Saul. Tells the story of two reluctant politicians from the "two solitudes" who forged common ground that shaped the future direction of Canada, both in a political reform sense and more importantly in a philosophical underpinning sense. LaFontaine and Baldwin are little known today. Where are the monuments, what great edifices or works are named for them? And yet they changed the whole future direction of Canada by their unlikely joining in the Reform movement of the 1840's. In the midst of rebellion, riots, and murders, they practiced moderation and restraint, and brought a new, home-grown way of approaching our inherent contradictions. Their personal lives were filled with tragedy;their political lives had triumphs and failures. But their legacy, underappreciated, endures.
The Speechwriter

A Brief Education in Politics
Barton Swaim Simon & Schuster
Barton Swaim is a PhD employed in a library sticking labels on books when he decides he can do a better job of preparing speeches for the local governor than what he sees on TV. Then begins an all-consuming, frustrating ride that eventually tanks when the governor, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, comes a cropper in scandal. Besides the political insider information to be gleaned, and the unflattering portrait painted of a wonky and weird Mark Sanford, we are given a detailed look inside a communications operation. Turns out the minutiae, like writing personalized thank-you notes to any and all supporters, are incredibly important. For a would-be staffer, the lesson to be learnt is to give credit to your boss when it's due, but never your trust, for (successful) politicians by necessity are vain-glorious and are above, or oblivious to, the rules that govern us lesser folk.

How a Vegas dreamer made a killing in Hollywood, one body at a time
Anthony E. Zuiker HarperCollins
Tony Zuiker, the creator of the TV CSI series and spin-offs, writes an intertwined story about his struggle to become a success as a Hollywood writer, and his search to come to grips with the non-relationship he had with his father. I've never watched a complete episode of any of the CSI series. If you are a fan, then you will want to read about the genesis of the series and meet the personalities who helped shape it, on and off the screen. But you don't have to be a fan in order to enjoy the tale of the struggling author and his unlikely route to TV scriptwriter. His father flits in and out of the story like a ghost, which is fitting given the shocking opening to the book.
Born A Crime

Trevor Noah Penguin Random House
Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show, recounts his South African upbringing. He has a unique background, even for South Africa, and he tells his story of being the eternal outsider with passion and insight. Highly recommended.
Anything For A Laugh

Eric Nicol Harbour Publishing
Eric Nicol wrote a humour column for the Vancouver Province for many decades. Here he recounts his life story: growing up in Vancouver as an only child to eccentric parents, his brief wartime service in the RCAF, even briefer attempts to get a doctorate at the Sorbonne in what he thought was his first love - French literature - and his subsequent immersion in the humour business writing his daily column, plays, and books. His autobiography is like one extended column, told with flippancy, off-the-cuff remarks, and often a brutal, cringe-inducing, self-appraisal. The title is both a summation of his life and the price he pays for the path he has chosen.
The Investigator

Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth
Terry Lenzner Blue Rider Press
Terry Lenzner was a key player in many of the most important events on the American scene in the latter half of the 1900's: the civil rights movement, Watergate, the Unabomber investigation, the Clinton impeachment and several others. His role was to investigate and pursue the facts wherever they led until a case could be made - or dropped. There is a lot of detailed background to major events from the perspective of one who was on the inside. One has to admire his approach - the relentless pursuit of truth for its own sake, a commodity that he decries as being increasingly devalued and irrelevant in today's hyper-partisan environment.
Blue On Blue

An Insider's Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops
Charles Campisi with Gordon Dillow Scribner
Charles Campisi was head of the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau for an extended period of time. He relates his career as an NYPD cop with focus on his time at the IAB. Lots of anecdotes from his long service, in depth coverage of many IAB operations, and discussion of methods used. All told in conversational style. A must read if you want to know what police work is really like.
Knowing Mandela

A Personal Portrait
John Carlin Harper Perennial
John Carlin was a journalist who covered Mandela from the time of his release until after he had left the presidency. He met with him many times, and brings the historical backdrop to bear on the perceptions he gained from those encounters. The central question he asks himself is: Which was controlling Mandela's actions - the demands of his public role, or his fundamental character? His answer comes through both an analysis of the large events of the time, and a series of revealing anecdotes, that also explain the nature of his appeal to such diverse groups of people.
The Outsider

Frederick Forsythe Putnam
Interesting anecdotes from the life of the British author of shadowy spy/underworld thrillers. He has led a very interesting life which seems to have been characterized by amazing strokes of luck, both personally and professionally. All told in a very engaging manner.
The Real Doctor Will See You Now

A Physician's First Year
Matt McCarthy Crown Publishers
McCarthy relates his experiences as a first year intern at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. You get it all, the highs and lows of learning how to diagnose illnesses and care for patients, all under the stress of 30 hour shifts. It's a personal journey filled with self-doubt and ironic twists on the slogan "Amazing things are happening here".
12 Years A Slave

Solomon Northup Center Point Large Print
Originally published in 1853 shortly after his rescue, this book gives Solomon Northup's account of his abduction from the North and passage into slavery in Louisiana. Although he is very careful to note throughout that this was just a personal experience, and that slave-owners came in various guises, it is plain there is nothing redemptive about the practice or the time he spent within it. Good descriptions of what life was like inside of slavery, and outside for the master. Also perceptive analyses of its rationale and continuation. The speech may be antique, but the thoughts and ideas, good and bad, do not seem to have aged at all.
By Chance Alone

A remarkable true story of courage and survival at Auschwitz
Max Eisen HarperCollins
Max Eisen is young boy growing up in a small town in Slovakia during the 1930's. His family is swallowed up in the Holocaust. He is the only one to survive. Although chance pays a large part in his survival, he also could not have made it through without his own determination. He gives excellent portraits of his family, town, schooling, and all the colours of daily living in a by-gone era. He gives the same detail of life in the several camps, the prisoners, the SS, the kapos, the casual brutality and the organized killing. He also gives accounts of his post-war life attempting to come to terms with what happened to him, his family, and the larger Jewish community, and his search for a place in the world around him that all too quickly returned to a normality he could not be a part of.
L'arabe du futur 3

Une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient (1985-1987)
Riad Sattouf Allary Éditions
The third volume of Riad's graphic format recounting of his childhood. His school life, relationships with parents, siblings, relatives, and other kids in both Syria, for the most part, and France. It swings from humour to casual brutality, and always with his keen observations on the people and places around him. A different perspective on what is normal.
L'arabe du futur 4

Une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient (1987-1992)
Riad Sattouf Allary Éditions
Volume 4 - things get progressively darker: his self-esteem diminishes, his parents' relationship crumbles, his dealings with peers in Syria and France turn ugly. And yet there are still a few bright spots. The ordinary is portrayed with care, and the extraordinary with passion. Given the climactic tun of events, volume 5 will be a must read.
Speak You Also

A Survivor's Reckoning
Paul Steinberg Metropolitan Books
A reckoning is what it is, an Auschwitz camp survivor trying to come to terms with why he had the good luck to continually pass through incidents that killed so many of his fellows. But it's more than just a "Why me?" He has an unusual background and an atypical camp experience (which I guess is self-evident in that he survived). A slim volume, largely taken up by his reflections on his captors, his own transformation, and the lasting impacts.
Gone to Ground

One woman's extraordinary account of survival in the heart of Nazi Germany
Marie Jalowicz Simon The Clerkenwell Press
Marie Jalowicz grew up as the only child of Jewish parents in Berlin prior to the Second World War. Unlike others when the round-up began, she evaded capture by constantly relocating among a precarious group of distant acquaintances and referrals. Finally, she adopted a friend's identity and achieved a measure of stability. But always there was the threat of discovery and betrayal. Her account is extremely detailed and filled with dozens of striking individuals, always carefully depicted. Besides the drama of her personal story, you are immersed in what it was like to live day by day in the gritty, grindingly poor parts of Berlin during the war.
Mary Seacole

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands
Mary Seacole Ulverscroft
This is a reprint of Mary Seacole's own book from 1857. She was born in Jamaica in the early 1800's, and seems to have been a bit of a serial entrepreneur. She was involved in hotels/eating establishments in Panama, mining ventures in Colombia (both then New Granada), and travelled extensively thoughout the Caribbean. Being in rough, frontier settlements, she acquired practical medical skills, dealing with gunshot wounds, cholera, dysentery. She previously had learned from military surgeons in Jamaica. This served her well when she determined to go to Crimea during the war with Russia. There she established a reputation for hospitality and compassion when she took a break from her hostelling duties to administer to the sick and injured, often under fire. An interesting look at facets of life in the 1800's rarely documented elsewhere, and from an uncommon viewpoint, as she gradually reveals her own self-porttrait.
Ty Cobb

A Terrible Beauty
Charles Leerhsen Simon & Schuster
What can possibly be said about Ty Cobb, baseball's biggest star before Babe Ruth, that hasn't already been written? Well, apparently a lot, when real research is done instead of relying on the exaggerated, embellished, and just plain made-up fiction of previously released "biographies". What emerges is the portrait of a man much more complicated than the popular stereotypes. Passionate, driven, hyper-sensitive to any slight real or imagined. Full of good intentions, generous to friends and strangers, able to shrug off rough handling when he perceived it to be within his rules, but unable to control himself if those same self-made rules of conduct were breached. His personality was the reason for his success (he still holds numerous records unlikely to be broken), and the cause of endless and needless turmoil in his personal and professional life. The author presents us with a balanced, credible portrayal of his background, his boyhood, career, and post-baseball life. He debunked with hard evidence many of the myths too lazily and superficially attached to Ty Cobb.

Dély, Garrigues, Carloni, Regnault Glénat | fayard
Part of the "Ils ont fait l'histoire" series. A graphic novel biography of Georges Clemenceau, most remembered as the redoutable leader of France during the First World War. But the book spends only a few pages on his wartime doings, and instead gives us a measured portrait of his entire life, from his youth in the Vendée region, to his career in municipal politics in Paris, his journalistic forays, and his participation in the national issues of the day as senator and minister. Never afraid to take an unpopular stand (and suffering defeat several times as a result), resisting the extremes of left and right, he embodied good sense and determination. An interesting, if necessarily superficial, look into a large political life.


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?
Dead Run

The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West
Dan Schultz St. Martin's Press
Three men in a stolen water tanker kill a policeman in Colorado in 1998, then seemingly disappear into the surrounding canyons. Determining what happened to them, and understanding the motive behind their actions, would take a decade and still raise further unanswered questions. Mr. Schultz asks all of these questions and constructs some plausible, and not so plausible, answers. It involves the militia movement, anti-government feeling, and conspiracies on both sides, real or imagined. Regardless, the book casts light on a land, a way of life and a people that still have consequences in the news today.
In Those Days

Arctic Crime and Punishment
Ken Harper Inhabit Media
Short accounts of various crimes committed in the Canadian Arctic, from 1576 to the 1960's. Each tale is interesting, bizarre, and ultimately sad. All told in a matter-of-fact style with little embellishment.
The Innocent Killer

A True Story of a Wrongful Conviction and its Astonishing Aftermath
Michael Griesbach ABA Publishing
A man spends 18 years in jail before being exonerated. An investigation seems to imply that the police and prosecution were aware of his innocence at the time, and had their own reasons for wanting to see a conviction. Then the tale takes an even more bizarre and horrible turn. The book is written by a prosecutor from the same district, so he became intimately and personally involved. He does not mince words or hesitate to point the finger of blame for all the lives that were shattered by a very imperfect justice system.
The Bureau And The Mole

The Unmasking of Robert Philip Hansen, the Most Dangerous Double Agent in FBI History
David A. Vise Wheeler Publishing
Hansen spied for the Soviets (and later Russia) while a counter-intelligence agent at the FBI. He turned over the most secret and critical documents imaginable and was responsible for the execution of many agents. It's an ugly book about an ugly character. The scale of the treason is unsurpassed. The book paints a personal background that points to the dysfunctional psychologically-based motivation. One can only hope that improved screening and ongoing testing procedures have removed at least this sort of threat to security.


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?
Keeping Up with the Germans

A History of Anglo-German Encounters
Philip Oltermann Faber and Faber
An eclectic look at how these two peoples have blundered and fumbled together over the past several hundred years. From food to philosophy, sports to politics, and especially comedy, the question is asked: are there any points of intersection where a glimmer of mutual comprehension might appear? A smattering of the chapter titles gives the best indication of the author's light-hearted but still meaty approach: "Theodor Adorno Doesn't Do the Jitterbug with A.J. Ayer"; "Freddie Frinton Teaches the Germans to Laugh"; "Astrid Proll Wishes She Wasn't on Joe Strummer's T-shirt". We also get the author's own personal run-ins with the divide when his family abruptly relocates from Germany to England during his teenage years. His experiences illuminate the themes he has chosen.
Lost Province

Adventures in a Moldovan Family
Stephen Henighan Prospect Books
Canadian grad student learns Romanian on his own, then travels to Moldova shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to teach English. He immerses himself in the life of the family that boards him, and quickly learns that Moldova is not only divided physically but psychologically as a result of Russian colonization. Besides filling in our vacuum of knowledge about Moldova, we get thoughtful observations and opinions about the everyday people he encounters. Also interesting is the epilogue wherein he returns 7 years later and is both surprised by the amount of superficial change that has taken place, and resigned by the depressing sameness of the hardships in daily life and the unresolved cultural divide.
The Fifty-Year Mission

The next 25 years, from The Next Generation to J.J. Abrams
Mark A. Altman & Edward Gross Thomas Dunne Books
Interviews with the writers, actors, producers, set designers, etc. involved in the making of Star Trek television series and cinematic movies. Everything you could possible want to know, ideal for the Star Trek fan. Very candid interviews/


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?
Iron Man

Demon in a Bottle
Michelinie, Layton, Romita Jr. Marvel Worldwide
Iron man battles Hammer in an effort to regain control of his powers and more importantly clear his name. Many worthwhile extras: We get to see the origin of Iron Man. We see him battle his personal demons and come to terms with what being a hero means. An explanation of the controversy over Jarvis's resignation letter. And many little interpolations of the artist and author into notes and labels that are fun to uncover.
Star Trek

The Children of Kings
David Stern Pocket Books
Christopher Pike, Spock, and Philip Boyce must decide who is the enemy and who is the friend as they strive to avert all-out war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. A rare glimpse into the pre-Kirk Enterprise and its crew, particularly Captain Pike and Doctor Boyce. We get to see Spock interact with a different cast of characters. The Orions occupy a central role and much background information about their culture and history is given.
The Gods Themselves

Isaac Asimov Gollancz
The world in the near future uses the Electron Pump in tandem with a para-universe to generate an endless supply of energy. But could such a blessing come with no catch? As the introduction reveals, Asimov does science, aliens, and sex as he never had before. Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards in the early 1970's. And yet, it somehow feels incomplete, as if he intended more, but decided to end it abruptly.
The Suicide Run

Five Tales of the Marine Corps
William Styron Random House
Just what it says, but more on the periphery, not blood and guts fighting. A baleful eye cast on the social aspects of Marine life through the author's own personal lens. Worth it for the character insights, and the inner mental workings and analysis. But can be a bit turgid in places.
Century Trilogy

Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, (Edge of Eternity)
Ken Follett Dutton
2010, 2012, 2014
History of the 20th. century through a cast of characters, large and small, but close to big events. Good, long read.

John Scalzi Tor
A riff on the Star Trek meme of the ill-fated redshirted crew members. Only here it is the "Universal Union", and the expendables gradually become aware of their expendable status and decide to take action. Smart, funny dialogue, and the story evolves into asking larger questions concerning fate, fiction, and reality.

A Drama from the Time of the Incas
Clements Robert Markham, translator Ediciones El Lector
Ollantay is an Incan general of low birth who secretly marries the Inca's daughter and suffers the consequences of this transgression. This play was one of the original Inca dramas that managed to survive and was written down in various editions. The play spans ten years of conflict and serenity, treachery and friendship, ugliness and beauty. It is somewhat akin to a Shakespeare history, even down to the comic relief character. This particular publication is spoiled by the awful and numerous formatting and spelling errors. Somehow, the drama still shines through.
The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick Mariner Books
An alternate history (or is it?) that follows the stories of Japanese, Germans, and Americans in present-day (the book was published in 1962) San Francisco and Colorado following a very different outcome to World War 2. The actual story inches slowly forward; the narrative threads seem at first far removed from each other; and painstaking attention is paid to what seem to be irrelevant and mundane activities. How this all necessarily comes together is what makes the book worth reading. Also to admire and enjoy are the styles of the characters' extended internal dialogues, and how they evolve according to the developing theme.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Philip K. Dick The Library of America
Originally published in 1962, this is the basis of the Bladerunner film. An SFPD bounty-hunter must "retire" six rogue androids in a near future where the world has been recently devasted by a nuclear war. The book examines what it means to be human, what is intelligence, what is empathy, and do any of these concepts have value. Consequently we are left wondering, as does the bounty-hunter, who are the good guys, or even if there are any. The plot moves along at a good clip, with several unexpected twists, but does not trick the reader. However, neither is there a conventional resolution.
The Last of the Just

André Schwarz-Bart Bantam Books
The Levy family contains one Lamed-Vov, or Just Man, each generation from the massacre at York in 1185 down to "The Last of the Just", Ernie Levy at the Holocaust. An extraordinarily powerful book.
Error in Diagnosis

Mason Lucas, M.D. Berkley
Pregnant women all over the United States are falling into comas. Is it bio-terrorism, a new sort of virus, or what? Our hero gets off to a slow and cautious start, then becomes increasingly involved as he has a personal stake. A quick, interesting read with lots of medical grounding. But an absurd and not well-researched Canadian connection that can only make one sputter at the repeated howlers.
The Stars Are Dark

Peter Cheyney Collins
1946 (1943 original)
Plucky British espionage service matches wits and courage with German agents. Vivid portraits of gritty places and the people who move through them in wartime London and Morocco of 1942. Moves at a measured pace with much conversation concerning actions and motives of the ordinary people forced by circumstance to carry out extraordinary acts, all as part of doing their bit for Britain. Maybe one of the most surprising things to a modern reader is the apparent cigarette fetish every character without exception has. No one can talk, eat, ride, watch, or think without handling matches, packets, cases, stubs, lighters. It's a question of whether the Germans or their own incessant smoking will finish them off first.
The Physician

Noah Gordon Barcelona
2012 (1985 original)
Rob Cole in 11th. century Britain has a healer's intuition and knack. He embarks on a perilous journey to Persia in order to study at the feet of the master of the age, Ibn Sina, and become a true physician. An engaging, long story. Cole is not a perfect hero; he has many not so praiseworthy characteristics. And the historical background, although painstakingly portrayed, does not always ring true, with many improbable events. However, the medical minutiae is fascinating, and in spite of his faults we can't help but pull for Rob in his quest.
End of Track

F. Van Wyck Mason Purnell and Sons
This is a Western set during the building of the Union Pacific Railroad. Robert Burton is returning from Mexico to marry his betrothed who is at the railhead, the "End of Track"; but things don't turn out as he expected. There's a full complement of ambushes, narrow escapes, and baddies everywhere he turns. Ignoring the requisite Western elements, there's a surprising amount of interesting historical detail concerning the landscape, dress, and railroad building. This is no whitewashed West. Plenty of despair and gritty reality. People are portrayed with all their warts and social failings. Fate reaches out and deals harsh ends to good and bad alike. When they win, it's not an untarnished victory.
The Cobra

Frederick Forsyth Signet
The Avenger and the Cobra join forces to stop the cocaine trade. Read it for the usual Forsyth suspense tale, with the detailed research, the build-up, the aviation connection, and the ending. While the plot happenings don't always ring true on the plausibility scale, it's always interesting to see what he comes up with. Is there also perhaps a bit of wishful thinking, or an instructive lesson, going on here?
Worldwar: In the Balance

Harry Turtledove Del Rey Books
In the middle of World War II, a reptilian-like race arrives on Earth in a mission to add Tosev 3 to their empire. They had anticipated that humans would be a push-over; however things don't go quite so smoothly for them as it seems humans have progressed more rapidly than expected since their scouting probe last sent intelligence to their home planet. The story is conveyed in about a dozen threads with a large cast of humans and aliens. Of course, these threads sometimes intertwine in interesting ways. Lots of period detail, and real-life characters necessarily start to diverge from their historical roles. The first in a series.
Friday's Child

Georgette Heyer The Book Club
Hot-headed Anthony Sheringham has just had his proposal of marriage rejected and resolved to marry the next woman he meets, when he chances on his childhood friend Hero Wantage who is morosely contemplating a dreary future as a governess. The inevitable happens and they remove to Georgian London where they are married. The book explores their slowly evolving relationship with she worshipping him as the title suggests, but he too self-centered to notice or care. This is a smartly dashed off comedy of manners. Most of the craft in the book, and interest, is in the dialogue exchanged between a bevy of characters, from criminals to lords, but always amusing. And because Georgette Freyer was the acknowledged period expert, the story is laced with convincing detail.
In The Wet

Nevil Shute Permabooks
Originally published in 1953, this is a curious tale with two characters, a broken down Australian drover of the present and an Australian pilot of several decades in the future, connected in a paranormal way by an ex-patriate English priest. The interaction between priest and drover in the Australian outback of 1953 are interesting and the setting seems authentic in its many details. This is the "In The Wet" part. The 1970's characters and story take up the large middle of the book and are far less successful - dull, goody-two-shoes people combined with a dragged out plot in which virtually nothing happens. The book was apparently his vehicle for a warning about the path post-war Britain was on, and a plumping for his solution of giving the "better people" more control.
The Cyberiad

Stanislaw Lem The Seabury Press
Polish science fiction of the 1960s. A series of short stories with the common presence of two "constructors" who compete to outdo each other in their robotic creations. Whether at home or on farway planets, they have bizarre and humourous adventures. This is far from typical science fiction. It is at once absurd, laughable, frustrating, and thought-provoking. A bit of a mystery, with clues sparingly dropped, then no mystery at all. Thousands of made-up words and portmanteaus. When you realize that the original is in Polish, the translation of puns, poetry, terms, and dialogue is a complete tour de force. Beneath it all, there is a goldmine of serious questions being discussed but in an entirely enjoyable way.

Richard Price Bloomsbury
2009 (1992)
Strike supervises a drug crew in the projects of Dempsey, New Jersey. Rocco Klein is a homicide detective obsessed with discovering why Strike's brother, Victor, is taking the rap for a murder that Rocco is convinced Strike committed. The story alternates chapters between Strike and Rocco. We get to know them intimately, their thoughts and the details of their lives as they engage in a torturous dance. A well-drawn cast of supporting characters, and gritty portraits of the city and the overwhelming despair that hangs over it.
Under Enemy Colors

S. Thomas Russell G. P. Putnam's Sons
Charles Hayden is British First Lieutenant who is forced into accepting a posting to the 32 gun frigate HMS Themis under the captaincy of the tyrannical but cowardly Josiah Hart during the war with revolutionary France. Where does the greatest danger lie - with the French, his captain, or even his own mutinous crew? Besides the pure action and adventure, one can appreciate the effort the author has put in to give authentic ship-handling details and dialogue of the era. However, could have stood a little editing to remove repetition and speed things up.
The Outsider

Stephen King Thorndike Press
Idyllic small town setting, brutal murder, citizen-of-the-year type as only suspect with incontrovertible evidence. Only there's an airtight alibi and the shift begins from crime to supernatural. King's ability to portray the seamy side of people and places is once again on display. There is the usual ragtag band of happy warriors for the good side. And yet, although the book is long (and a bit too repetitious) it somehow seems lacking in getting to grips with the evil-doer. The opportunity is present but not really taken advantage of. Still a good, spooky read.
The Last Hurrah

Edwin O'Connor University of Chicago Press
Originally published in 1956, relates the final campaign of longtime Irish-American politician Frank Skeffington as he strives to be re-elected mayor of an unnamed Eastern port city. This is a thinly disguised love letter, or more exactly a eulogy, to what was then (in the 1950's) a quickly disappearing way of conducting politics, with ward bosses, hands-on campaigning, and a whole cast of hangers-on, newspaper and industrial magnates, and eccentric characters. Everyone is writ large. Scenes extend over dozens of pages as each detail of a situation is recorded, whether it be a rally, a radio talk, a wake. But we don't see much of the seamy side, more a focus on the over-powering charm and smarts of Skeffington and he navigates his way, manipulating each group or individual with wit and threat. But there is a portent of the future, with the challenge by a non-entity backed by money and power, conducting a stay-at-home TV campaign. There are a few draw-backs to the book: stilted exposition, the jarring switches between internal viewpoints, and thousands of semi-colons and colons. But on the whole, a valuable record of how things used to be, when the personal touch was everything.


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?
Those Angry Days

Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight over World War II, 1939-1941
Lynne Olson Random House
Interventionists and isolationists battle it out in the newspapers, movies and radio to win the hearts and minds of the American public. The divisions of the time, and the passions that they engendered, are strikingly similar to current-day America. It seems only the names, and the issues du jour, have changed.
Disaster Canada
Janet Looker Lynx Images
Canadian Disasters involving ships, fire, mines, storms, disease, planes, bridges, etc. The loss of life in little-known older disasters is perhaps the most surprising aspect. Very well illustrated.

Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War
Robert K. Massie Ballantine Books
A survey of British-German relations from Queen Victoria's accession to the start of World War I, with an emphasis on the naval rivalry as the principal cause of friction. Each principal actor - royal, statesman, or naval chief - is introduced with interesting personal sketches that set the context for their decisions. One gradually gets the impression of an impending collision that some were blind to, some foresaw, and some even welcomed, but without anyone being able to prevent it.

American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power
Andrew Nagorski Simon & Schuster
A well-researched, yet still popular, history of America's close contact with Hitler and Germany, from just after the First World War to the German declaration of war on the U.S in 1941, told through the personal histories of the American diplomats, journalists, students, military men, and cultural icons who were there. By focussing on one nation's experiences of Hitler's rise to power, we get a concentrated set of emotions and a distilled pool of information that affords a different perspective on what it was like to be there, and how Hitler's rise to power could have happened. And America's involvement was not on the periphery. Inter-war Germany had a fascination with American culture; contacts were close and friendly. There are many compelling personages and anecdotes, from the American woman who saved Hitler's life at the time of the beerhall putsch, to the American officer on exchange who war-gamed the invasion of Czechoslovakia with his German academy mates.
The Magnificent Century

Thomas B. Costain Popular Library
Part of Costain's series on the Plantaganet dynasty of England, this one focuses on the reign of Henry III, the vacillating, spendthrift, quarrelsome son of King John. His reign was long (56 years) but marked by civil war and many misadventures. All the personalities and conflicts of the age are brought to life, and though there is much dramatic extrapolation from the historical records, he has you convinced it is not an unreasonable use of the popular historian's licence. He has quite a lot to say about (and praise for) Simon de Montfort's efforts to limit the arbitrary rule of the king and bring the commoner into some measure of power-sharing.
One Summer: America, 1927

Bill Bryson Random House
A look back at the momentous happenings of 1927: Lindbergh flies the Atlantic, Ruth swats 60 home runs, The Jazz Singer revolutionizes Hollywood, Henry Ford ends production of the Model T, Farnsworth demonstrates television, bankers meet in a secret conclave that unwittingly guarantees economic collapse, and many more. It could have descended into a banal or lurid recitation of events. But there is a base of research combined with a layer of analysis and a soupcon of fresh opinion that makes for an engaging reading. There is much background material to provide context, and the many personalities involved are raised from the page with short sketches.
Ask Not

The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America
Thurston Clarke Henry Holt and Company
Blow by blow (or rather word by word) account of Kennedy's famous inaugural address. The author parses almost each phrase, and traces their origins in previous speeches, books, and Kennedy's life events and outlook. He also recounts the movements and doings of a cast of surrounding characters, family and political, in the months between election day and inauguration day. The speech seems to have lost its lustre over the decades, but you get a sense for how much of a departure from the norm it was at the time. Kennedy blazed the trail for how to use the media to his advantage, and every detail of his presentation was meticulously planned for effect in advance. We also get a warts and all portrayal of his failings and of those around him, which rescues the book from becoming a hagiography.
Where Were You

America Remembers the JFK Assassination
Gus Russo Lyons Press
Interviews with several categories of people about their involvement or reaction to that day in Dallas: newspeople, witnesses, authorities, celebrities. Some interviews are enlightening (eg the shoe salesman who was responsible for Oswald being apprehended is able to tell his story without it being filtered); some are worth very little (most of the celebrities - Tom Hanks being a notable exception for his clarity of ideas and expression).
Living in Nazi Germany

Elaine Halleck, editor Greenhaven Press
Short selections by various authors loosely arranged under the categories of victims, rulers, propaganda, and culture. The individual accounts are interesting, particularly those from the (former) children's viewpoints. The appeal of Hitler comes through, another reminder that no society is immune; it just takes the right set of conditions.
Japan 1941

Countdown to Infamy
Eri Hotta Alfred A. Knopf
An examination of the Japanese decision to go to war against America, Britain, and the Netherlands in 1941, focussing on the top Japanese government leaders and their discussions, but also setting the wider social context and including sidelights such as the Sorge spyring, and the peregrinations of "Soldier U". There is a satisfying amount of detail about what was said among the Japanese leaders at each of the many conferences they held, enough for the reader to form their own opinion about the basis for the decision. Was it based on delusion, ignorance, high-stakes gambling, or was it the only option left to them? Structural problems in the highest government institutions contributed both to the decision being made by a cloistered group where the military had inordinate preponderance, and to the fuzziness about just who had the ultimate responsibility for the making and consequences of the decision. It's nice too that the author doesn't mince words and indicts the repeated failures of many parties to act, from emperor to generals and admirals to cabinet members.
In the kingdom of Ice

The grand and terrible polar voyage of the USS Jeannette
Hampton Sides Random House
In 1879, the USS Jeannette endeavoured to reach the North Pole through the Bering Strait, relying on a warm current to convey them through the ice-pack to a rumoured circumpolar sea. Instead, they became ice-bound for almost 2 years, and over half the crew perished in a desperate attempt to reach civilization in Siberia. This little-known saga of daring, adventure, hardship, and loss is told in an engaging manner, helped by the fact that all the journals and records of the expedition were retrieved, and many personal letters were uncovered in the course of research. The personalities involved are painted in fascinating detail, including the ultra-organized captain George De Long, his ingenious engineer George Melville, and the eccentric publisher of the New York Herald Gordon Bennett, amongst many others.
American Crisis

George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783
William M. Fowler Jr. Walker Publishing Company
After Yorktown, the fighting essentially stopped while the British struggled to come to terms with the realization that a military victory was no longer possible. The Continental Army still required to remain in being to force them to the bargaining table, but it was wracked with dissension over lack of pay and supplies, and Congress's inability to furnish them. Washington had to walk a delicate balance between respecting the civilian authority and yet not appearing to abandon his men. There are many insights into the personalities and issues involved. In particular, we see how Washington had a clear vision of what each sector's responsibilities were, and how it would be setting a dangerous precedent were he to step outside (or even take advantage of) his military role - as many urged him to do - in trying to resolve the interminable wrangling that threatened the gains and purposes of the revolution.
The Roar of the Lion

The Untold Story of Churchill's World War II Speeches
Richard Toye Oxford University Press
Covers Churchill's main speeches to Parliament, over the BBC, and abroad. Gives the context to each speech, the process of how it was composed, how it was received by his audience, and critical reaction. A very readable book with lots of detail. By no means a panegyric; there were many duds among Churchill's productions, not just from the standpoint of delivery but also content that was decidedly off the mark. (It was surprising to see the extent to which ordinary people's reactions were carefully surveyed and analyzed back then.) But what one is left with is a sense of wonder at how he managed to so often find the exact right words that resonated with the momentous events then taking place.
The Residence

Inside The Private World Of The White house
Kate Andersen Brower HarperCollins
Thematic approach to the serving staff of the White House. The topics of race, children, loyalty, silence, and others are discussed through the recollections of the domestic staff: butlers, cooks, maids, plumbers, electricians. Nothing earth-shaking, but lots of little surprises that make for an interesting read. The personal stories of the staff are absorbing. You also get to see how the presidential family viewed the people who served them, and that shines a different, more human light on their characters.
Les 100 visages de la Révolution

Portraits et biographies des principaux acteurs
Max Gallo XO Éditions
An alphabetical listing of 100 people, from peasants to kings, who played a role in the French Revolution. The vast majority are accompanied with a portrait, and each has a paragraph or two. A very attractive book, with interesting portraits on backgrounds of red, with a cast that reveals the tumult of the age. It's amazing how many were lawyers, who met a sudden judicial end at the hands of other lawyers. But it was also a time when the unlikeliest people could gain centre stage for a brief moment, before their turn was cut short.
The Voyage of the Armada

The Spanish Story
David Howarth The Lyons Press
Tells the story of the Spanish Armada from the Spanish perspective - the historical impetus, the construction, the leadership, the battles fought, and its fate. Makes convincing arguments that correct several misimpressions. The Armada was in fact ably led and bravely fought; the English ships were not so very less in number or size; and they did not inflict substantial damage on the Spanish fleet. Rather the source of the Armada's failure was the ambiguous command structure, where all operational decisions had to be cleared through King Philip sequestered in the Escorial in Madrid. The lack of an onsite supreme commander of combined operations was fatal. It didn't help that the supplied cannon shot was so shoddy that it disintegrated upon firing.
The Soviet Ambassador

The Making of the Radical behind Perestroika
Christopher Shulgan McClelland & Stewart
Aleksandr Yakovlev was the Soviet ambassador to Canada from 1973 to 1983. He had already developed a reputation in party circles for being a maverick, and this posting was intended to freeze him out of any further influence. Instead it had the opposite effect. Yakovlev further developed his ideas after exposure to Canadian institutions and officials, and infected an already predisposed Mikhail Gorbachev when he made his Canadian visit. We are given an inside look into the workings of the Politburo and upper Communist party circles. Far from its exterior monolithic appearance, factions continually jockey for position, and alliances are made and unmade. Yakovlev's rural/soldier background is interestingly presented, as are the ways he circumvented External Affairs as ambassador in his successful attempt to go directly to the power sources in the Canadian government. The book suffers from needless repetition, and skewed commentary on the Canadian political scene during the Trudeau era.
Canada's Little War

Fighting for the British Empire in Southern Africa 1899-1902
Carman Miller James Lorimer and Company
Examines Canada's participation in the Boer War - the controversy over whether to get involved, the decision, the recruitment of the several contingents, the soldiers' experiences in South Africa, the public reaction, and the legacy. What seems obscure now, and of little importance, was a very big deal at the time. Many saw it as Canada's entrance on the stage of world affairs and an assertion of its growing importance and autonomy. Everything about it was exaggerated, from the exploits to the celebrations - and riots. And if it was later overshadowed by Canada's experiences in Word War I, there were many lessons to be drawn from the Boer War that pointed to what would happen in the near future. The book is enriched by the many photographs of the personages and memorabilia - but somewhat diminished by the author's peculiar and irritating penchant for expressing everything in threes.
The Fall of New France

How the French lost a North American empire 1754-63
Ronald J. Dale James Lorimer and Company
A small but complete book of the struggle between England and France in North America, with emphasis on the final conflict. Covers all the major campaigns, the strategic and tactical situations, the personalities, and course of the battles. But this is not merely a recitation of political and military events. We see how the war affected the civilian population, and the devastating results it had for the native nations. It also served to motivate and facilitate the rush to revolution 10 years later. Many thoughtfully chosen illustrations from the time. (And who knew there was a second Battle of the Plains of Abraham, bloodier than the first, which the French won, but to little avail?)

The History of a Forgotten Empire
H. G. Rawlinson Asian Educational Services
First published in 1912, this is a slim book containing a survey of everything known (which isn't much) about the easternmost Greek kingdom established in the territory conquered by Alexander the Great. Much has to be inferred from the coins found. Authors of antiquity such as Strabo supply tantalizing details which must be carefully assessed. The Greeks left behind by Alexander in newly established fortresses and border towns made something greater of his possessions than Alexander himself. They prospered and expanded their holdings to places Alexander never could reach. As late as 150 BC, the Bactrian Greeks were very much in charge of Afghanistan and the Punjab, and under Menander even extending into the heart of India in one last flowering of their civilization. Although their influence was large at the time, there were too few to leave a lasting impact and they became absorbed in India at large.
The Savage Shore

Extraordinary stories of survival and tragedy from the early vogaes of discovery
Graham Seal Yale University Press
Painstakingly documented history of Australia's emergence onto the map, from the the first musings of antiquity about a counter-balancing Southern landmass through Indonesian trading contacts to Dutch, French, and British voyages. Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was the extent and frequency of the Dutch contacts - intentional and disastrously accidental - and their failure to exploit their centuries advantage on European rivals. Also noteworthy are the detailed accounts of the shipwrecked sailors merchants and passengers and their usually tragic fates. Not least, the reaction of the Aboriginal inhabitants to these interlopers - usually hostility to the people and complete indifference to the supposedly irrestible trade goods.
1177 B.C.

The Year Civilization Collapsed
Eric H. Cline Princeton University Press
In 1177 B.C., Ramses III defeated the second invasion of the Sea Peoples. But it left Egypt severely weakened, and the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean in ruins and disarray. This brought an end to the first real international order among the Near Eastern empires known as the late Bronze Age. Eric Cline examines the situation leading up to the general collapse and examines reasons for it. This is a book based on archeological and written evidence, from excavations and readings of diplomatic and commercial records from buried archives. But is extremely readable, with much common sense. The conclusions are tenuous, but well-reasoned. Perhaps suffers from too many reformulations of the same ideas and caveats. The textual extracts from the archives are fascinating and unexpectedly very down-to-earth, even the communications between kings.
Clockwork Game

Jane Irwin Fiery Studios
A graphic novel type book detailing the history of the chess-playing automaton exhibited in Europe and America from 1769 to mid 1800's. It was in the form of a box with a seated Turkish mechanical man moving the pieces in response to a human opponent from the audience. A fascinating story. It amazed its onlookers, and the secret was kept for a remarkably long time. It passed through several hands, making for a colourful history. Some small liberties are taken with actual events, but a tremendous amount of research was done to make the portrayal as authentic as possible. A tragic ending.
In The Enemy's House

The secret saga of the FBI agent and the code breaker who caught the Russian spies
Howard Blum Thorndike Press
Spies for the Russians stole the atom bomb plans during the course of World War 2. The discovery of their espionage was the result of luck, persistence, "black bag" operations, brilliance, and the strange alliance of a bluff FBI agent with a reclusive linguist/code breaker. There is an extensive body of materials on all the players involved, both Russian and American, from memoirs to declassified documents, including original cables. The author has used these materials well to give us convincing portraits of the spies, handlers, agents, and code-breakers, as well as provided concrete examples of messages and decodings. All done with a light touch, even though the subject and end results are oppressive and disturbing.


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?
A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance

Imaging Multilingualism
Tomson Highway The University of Alberta Press
An argument in favour of speaking more than one language, coming as a talk delivered in the Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture Series by Canadian Cree author, composer, playwright Tomson Highway, himself being acquainted/conversant in Cree, Dene, Latin, French, English and others. It's a short book, but time enough to make the case that each language is not a one-for-one replacement of each other's terms, but rather encompasses a different underlying world view. (One supporting argument is the contrast between the assumptions brought into our thinking by gender-based languages and animate/inanimate-based languages.) A lot of humour and diverting sidetrips accompany the thesis.
The Riddle Of The Labyrinth

The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
Margalit Fox CCCO An imprint of Harper Collins
The story of the decipherment of Linear B in three acts, each with a different character in the leading role: the digger, Arthur Evans; the detective Alice Kober; and the architect, Michael Ventris. What could be more exciting (well to some people) than the solving of the mystery of the writing of an unknown language depicted on tablets unearthed from the palace on Crete that was the source of the legend of the slaying of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth? The book has a satisfying amount of detail about the nuts and bolts (or rather the signs and syllables) of the solution. What makes it especially valuable and interesting is the bringing to the forefront of the decades-long effort by the little-known American language scholar Alice Kober, whose pain-staking contributions provided the essential key to the later unlocking of the mystery.
The Kingdom of Speech

Tom Wolfe Little, Brown and Company
Tom Wolfe dissects, or rather vivisects, Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky in pursuit of the answer to the questions: what is language, and how did it arise? Then happily provides his own answer. This is a very annoying, self-indulgent book. The attacks are vicious and largely irrelevant, wandering off on whatever takes his fancy. Moreover, the style is grating and tries to be cute but fails. As to the ideas presented, yes, a lot of what he attacks does deserve demolishing. But similarly, what he presents in its stead is flimsy, not supported, and based on his own prejudices. Nevertheless, the book makes you think, and perhaps come to your own conclusions.


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?
The Age of Shakespeare

Frank Kermode Modern Library
A survey of Shakespeare's plays and life and the times that shaped them. We get an eclectic but focussed look at Shakespeare's plays and how they relate to the politics and society of the stages (literally: The Globe, Blackfriars, etc.) of his career. The author usually devotes 3 or 4 pages to each play, and highlights a couple of themes. But he also mentions some lesser-known aspects and makes connections to events of the day. A light but engrossing read.
Printer's Error

Irreverent stories from book history
J. P. Romney and Rebecca Romney Harper Collins
Each chapter focuses on a person who has changed our relationship with printed books: how we read them, buy them, view them. We have Gutenberg - what evidence is there that he did indeed produce the first printed book? Shakespeare - the physical and commercial aspects of the printing of his plays. Benjamin Franklin - how he maneuvered to take over printing contracts from entrenched businessmen and then franchised his operations. And many others. Although most of the stories are familiar in outline, nevertheless little-known details are presented in interesting fashion. Sometimes the attempt to be entertaining detracts from the story and is unnecessary.


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?
Karl Popper

Historicism and Its Poverty
Frederic Raphael Routledge
A slim volume - 59 pages - summarizing (and critiquing in a friendly way) the works and views of Karl Popper. I have no idea of Popper's relevance or standing today, but I found his basic ideas attractive: an open society, reliance on scientific method, progress through a succession of small steps rather than some universal cure-all ideology. Adding to the enjoyment is Raphael's pithy, jargon-free, and thoughtful commentary.


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?
The First Space Race

Launching the World's First Satellites
Matt Bille, Erika Lishok Texas A&M University
Describes the American and Soviet satellite programs in the 1940's and 50's. Most histories of this sort are popular science; this gives technical details for those who want more in-depth knowledge. Also reveals in detail the somewhat unexpected role reversal in the publicity-awareness of the scientists contrasted with the scientific agendas of the politicians and bureaucrats who seemed oblivious to the "race" part of the space race.
George Klein

The Great Inventor
Richard I. Bourgeois-Doyle National Research Council of Canada
The career of one of Canada's great unknown inventors, from his roots as a watchmaker's son to his involvement with the Canadarm. Great information on the development and perfection of airplane floats and skis, the Canadian wartime reactor program, a practical electric wheelchair, and many more. At the same time, we get a parallel history of the National Research Council. Klein's forte was with mechanical gearing systems. The book is spoiled by needless repetition and an incredible number of typos.
Johannes Kepler

and the New Astronomy
James R. Voelkel Oxford University Press
Short bio of the life and works of the discover of the 3 laws of planetary motion. Shows how Kepler was religously motivated to demonstrate God's perfection in the cosmos, and at the same time was impacted by the Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the 30 Years War and the witch trial of his mother. His achievement is the more remarkable because it was almost entirely deduced from Tycho Brahe's observations, without the theoretical explanations later to come from Newton.
Suspended in Language

Niels Bohr's life, discoveries, and the century he shaped
Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis General Tektronics Labs
Niels Bohr's life in graphic format. Not as well known as Einstein, but his influence was huge, both on science and scientists. A useful and accessible introduction to the core ideas of quantum mechanics is painlessly embedded. The attempts to convince a skeptical Einstein (who could substitute as a champion of our own reluctance to accept these counter-intuitive ideas) are particularly interesting. Warning: there are equations! But the whole is presented in comic book style, all 300 pages of it, including endnotes. Perhaps a bit spoiled by numerous diversions and asides that derail the themes. We are left uncertain whether the story is being presented according to time, or topic. But perhaps that is intentional - and fitting.
Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries

Govert Schilling Springer
A chronological unveiling of important discoveries in astronomy, from Galileo's use of the telescope to see mountians on the Moon in 1609 to the discovery of potentially habitable exoplanets in 2007. Each discovery in presented in double page format with background and significance of one page and illustrations (usually photgraphs) on the facong page. A beautiful book with a satisfying amount of detail as to how the discoveries were actually made and how they kept on upsetting our pre-conceived notions. Marred by numerous absurd date errors that are clearly due to careless transcribing and which should have been caught in proof-reading.
The Quantum Story

A History in 40 Moments
Jim Baggott Oxford University Press
Tells the development of the main ideas underlying quantum theory. Scientific personalities, competing ideas, sudden insights, false steps, lucid explanations, footnoted details - it's all there, even a very high-level treatment of the most relevant mathematical underpinnings. This book would satisfy the most-demanding curious layman, and even some scientists looking for context in which to set other more rigouous treatments. However, I found the first three sections (of seven) that discussed the beginnings of quantum theory up to the mid-30's to be the most interesting. Subsequent decades were heavy-going and got more and more esoteric so that I could not finish. Still very much recommended.
Do No Harm

Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery
Henry Marsh Thomas Dunne Books
Case by case recounting of the life of a British brain surgeon. The people he treats, their circumstances, the exacting surgery he performs - all are novel and fascinating. But what makes it a truly great read are the emotional responses of all parties and his ability to express them precisely and without any dissimulation. His dissection of his own reactions and feelings is frank, revealing, and not always to his own credit.
Gravity's Engines

How bubble-blowing back holes rule galaxies, stars, and life in the cosmos
Caleb Scharf Scientific American
An in depth look at back holes, from the first ideas that there might be such objects in the 18th. century through the latest efforts to detect gravity waves emanating from their merger. Each revelation is given an historical context so you understand where the advance came from. And every concept is given an appropriate everyday analogy that makes it easy to get your mind around. The concepts may be beyond our experience and bizarre, but the language used to explain them is familiar. I had no idea so much is known about black holes, or that they have such far-reaching consequences for the way galaxies form and the conditions that made life possible on earth. You can't get a bigger picture of the universe, and our place in it, than this.
The Making of Modern Medicine

Turning Points in the Treatment of Disease
Michael Bliss University of Toronto Press
Personal reflections on the emergence of scientific medicine 1880-1922 through three short vignettes covering the Montreal smallpox epidemic of 1885, the establishment of John Hopkins medical school and hospital, and the discovery of insulin. The individual stories are interesting and based on the author's previously published works, so this is a sort of summing up of the transformation of medicine from a previous focus on diagnosis and care to the hope of actively finding effective treatments through the medium of scientific research. The common thread is the contest between a fatalistic acceptance of disease, and the effort to cure and prolong life, with a conclusion that despite the failings of the former, the latter is not an ultimately achievable goal and therefore lacks lasting comfort.
Hidden Figures

The American dream and the untold story of the black women mathematicians who helped win the space race
Margot Lee Shetterly HarperCollins
The Langley Aeronautical Laboratory recruited women to carry out calculations for engineers. One group of these women starting during WWII were black graduates in science and maths. They were kept segregated in their own workspace for a decade or more, until some began to be seconded into the engineering groups. Eventually a few actually took on engineering degrees and duties. This book documents the general story and probes deeper into the backgrounds and working lives of a few prominent members of the "West Computers". Well worth reading to get a sense of the times, and the obstacles these women faced. The story is told thoroughly put perhaps with a tad too much rephrasing of the same thoughts.
The Art of Medicine

Healing and the limits of technology
Dr. Herbert Ho Ping Kong with Michael Posner ECW Press
Has technology and evidence-based medicine replaced a doctor's one-on-one relationship with his patient? This book makes the case for a bigger role for the doctor's art, with a focus on really seeing, listening, and touching. Many interesting cases presented in Dr. HPK's words and those of his patients. Interspersed are commentaries from a variety of specialists and generalists on the title topic. We also get biographical glimpses into HPK's earliest days and education in Jamaica and Britain, and his career in Montreal and Toronto.
How Doctors Think

Jerome Groopman, M.D. Houghton Mifflin
An excellent, easily readbale, and informative exposition of doctors' thought processes, and what can go right and wrong as they make diagnoses and administer treatments. Dr. Groopman writes comprehensibly and comprehensively. There are many supporting instances and patient cases. Not scholarly in presentation, but the content is well-thought and backed by extensive notes and references. Valuable for doctor and patient alike.
In Pursuit of the Unknown

17 Equations That Changed the World
Ian Stewart Basic Books
A chapter on each of 17 equations, from Pythagoras to the price of financial derivatives. He derives each equation as far as possible in a general interest book, gives the historical context, explains the importance of each, and explores the often surprising applications and consequences.
The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments

George Johnson Alfred A. Knopf
From Galileo to Millikan, 10 experiments that not only changed our conception of the world, but were beautiful in their conception and simplicity. A small book, but enough background on the problem and enough detail on the actual experiment. With useful drawings and not technical.
The Book That Changed America

How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation
Randall Fuller Viking
The Origin of Species crossed the Atlantic quite quickly and found its most receptive home among the transcendentalists of Concord, Massachusetts. This book examines how their thoughts were transformed by it, and how they promoted its ideas among the scientific and philosophical circles in New England and beyond. We get interesting and detailed sketches of various gatherings, public and personal, where the book was discussed in the year 1860. Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcott family, and many others are all portrayed and examined closely. Also Asa Gray the Harvard botanist who became the principal defender, and yet still had doubts about the ultimate implications of the theory. All of this taking place in the lead up to the Civil War, John Brown, and the abolition movement, which became inextricably linked to Darwin's concept about single origins and the struggle for suvival. If the book has any failing, it would be the tendency to wander too far afield and see every event as a struggle in which the participants were somehow influenced by the prevailing thoughts on the Origin.


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?
The Politics of Glory

How Baseball's Hall of Fame Really Works
Bill James Macmillan Publishing Company
Bill James casts his analytical eye on the qualifications for election to Cooperstown. What is a Hall of Famer? Is the election process fair and reasonable? Can we compare players of different positions and eras? This is a very readable book, almost in a conversational style. And the data and arguments it contains are, if not always compelling, at least thought-provoking. It's great to revisit stars of the past and examine their records in depth.
Stole This From A Hockey Card

a philosophy of Hockey, Doug Harvey, Identity & Booze
Chris Robinson Nightwood Editions
We get parallel streams of the author's and Doug Harvey's life. Distant and abusive parents, isolation, anger, escape through hockey and ultimately alcohol. The parallels are seldom exact, but they do reveal parts of both their psyches. A hard book to read, as it reads more like a confession using Harvey as a similarly dysfunctional backdrop. The comparisons often seem a little forced, and even the author at the end seems to crumble under the lack of evidence for Harvey's darker, resentful side. Both reach a sort of peace.


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?
The Southern Gates of Arabia

A Journey in the Hadramaut
Freya Stark Century Publishing Company
Originally published in 1936. Intrepid British lady visits the seldom-seen by Western eyes towns and countryside of South Yemen, more particularly the wadis of the Hadramaut. Read it for her interactions with the local people, from bedouin to sultan; her thoughtful portraits of the land and settlements; her historical backgrounds.


Title Author Publisher/
What's it about? Why read it?

The Boy Who Went to War
Giles Milton Sceptre Books
Follows the service of a young German soldier in the Second World War in Russia, Normandy, and as a POW in the United States. The family is unconvential, and Wolfram himself is immersed in the world of mediaeval religious carvings before being sucked into the maelstrom of war. Good portrayal of what the German civilian homefront was like as well and a detailed account of the mass bombing of the hometown.
Blood, Tears & Folly

In the Darkest Hour of the Second World War
Len Deighton Jonathan Cape
Second World War, 1940-1. Covers all major actions, with political and technological background pieces. An eclectic portrait, with many contrarian opinions and snippets of diaries and documents not often seen in such a survey work. A broad brush picture composed of pointillist details. A fresh perspective to well-hashed topics and very readable.
SEAL Team Six

Memoirs of an elite Navy Seal sniper
Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin Thorndike Press
Account of career in 80s and 90s from SAR tech to SEAL to the elite Team Six. What it takes to endure the training, and how that training played out in Somalia during the "Blackhawk Down" incident. Also revealing depiction of a very tough childhood, and post-military career as a chiropractor.
Damn Few

Making the Modern SEAL Warrior
Rorke Denver and Ellis Henican Hyperion
California kid studies fine arts and then applies to the SEALs. Makes it and after operational service becomes head of SEAL training and stars in "Act of Valor". The SEALs from a leader's perspective. Very honest insights to the training regimen and command issues. Hard to see how those aspects could be written about any better, professionally and personally.
Lost in Shangri-La

Mitchell Zuckoff Harper Collins
"A true story of survival, adventure, and the most incredible rescue mission of World War II." US transport plane crashes in a little-known valley high in the mountains of New Guinea just before war's end. There are 3 survivors, two badly burned, one of which is a WAC (Women's Army Corps).The valley is populated with 100,000 stone age farmers in a constant state of warfare. There is no way out. Repeat, this is a true story.
With Wings Like Eagles

A History of the Battle of Britain
Michael Korda Harper Collins
A readable summary of those months in 1940 when the Luftwaffe struggled with the RAF for air supremacy as a pre-condition to the invasion of Great Britain. Perhaps its best point is not how near-run the actual fighting was (although the descriptions of the air battles are all there), but rather how improbable it was that the British had an adequate air defence system at all, given the opposition and hide-bound thinking about the "bomber will always get through". Dowding's foresight and drive in connection with the establishment of radar, monoplane fighters, and the centralized system of intelligence, command and control comes in for great praise.
The War of the World

History's Age of Hatred
Niall Ferguson Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Books
An iconoclastic examination of the period spanning the two world wars. Surveys of the wars have been done to death, but this is different. Not so much a military history, but an analysis of the social forces at work. Was the First World War an inevitable clash of empires as it has been long portrayed? What aspect did race and ethnicity play? Always a quest for why things happened in the way they did, and not so much what. While the conclusions are not always equally well-founded, they are thought-provoking.
The Trident

The Forging and Reforging of a Navy SEAL Leader
Jason Redman with John R. Bruning HarperCollins
One SEAL's personal account of his service. The complete honesty of the thoughts, a story of personal growth simultaneous with personal challenge.
Navy SEALs

A History of the Early Years
Kevin Dockery A Berkley Book
SEALs before they were SEALs - their origins in the Underwater Demolition Team frogmen of World War II and how the teams came to be formed. Lots of interesting historical information. But the main takeaway is the universal team spirit voiced by all the members, engendered by the rigorous self-selection process.
Navy SEALs

A History Part II: The Vietnam Years
Kevin Dockery from interviews by Bud Brutsman A Berkley Book
As above, interviews with interspersed context. Their own perspectives, without a filter attached.
Gamp VC

The wartime story of maverick submarine commander Anthony Miers
Brian Izzard Haynes Publishing
Actually more than just the story of Miers's Second World War submarine career - a full biography, with much family background, and also extensive coverage of his pre- and post-war service. Not only did Miers win the Victoria Cross, he was forecast to by those who knew him. This gives some insight into the force of his personality and the effect he had on other people throughout his life. There was no fence-sitting when it came to "Crap" Miers, and the reader is allowed to make their own assessment through the detailed recounting of incidents and the unvarnished opinions of those who knew him
The Red Circle

My Life in the Navy Seal Sniper Corps and How I Trained America's Deadliest Marksman
Brandon Webb with John David Mann St. Martin's Press
More than just about SEAL snipers, it's Brandon Webb's recounting of his peripatetic youth and struggle to join the SEALS. He also gives an unvarnished account of his Afghanistan operational tour. Read it for the detail he gives about the SEAL training, and his personal forthrightness and observations.
The Beauty and the Sorrow

An Intimate History of the First World War
Peter Englund Alfred A. Knopf
Follows the wartime lives of about twenty ordinary people, civilians and soldiers, on all sides and fronts. It uses excerpts from their personal diaries and letters, but the greater part is summation and commentary on their circumstances, and setting their experiences in a wider context. The cross-section of people is broad, and what they saw, heard, felt gives one that rare experience after reading a book of thinking "I could have lived then and not felt out of place". One criticism: the selection of people is weighted a little too heavily on the Allied side.
When We Walked Above The Clouds

A Memoir of Vietnam
H. Lee Barnes University of Nebraska Press
After a troubled childhood, Barnes puts his college education on hold by joining the military to earn money, then finds he has a talent and a desire to do the best he can. He volunteers for Vietnam as a member of the Special Forces, and serves a tour in an isolated Montagnard area. He attempts to come to grips with the deaths of four of his teammates and 50 support strikers early in his tour. Along the way, he takes us on operations through the mountainous terrain, and assesses the landscape, the climate, the people, and, most of all, the failings and attributes of his teammates and himself.
Sea of Thunder

Four Commanders and the last great naval campaign 1941-1945
Evan Thomas Thorndike Press
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, October, 1944, and the lead-up to it, hung on the careers and decisions of 4 commanders. A good explanation of the two great mysteries of the battle: why it was possible for Halsey to decide to chase the Japanese decoy carriers, and for Kurita to do an about-face when he was on the verge of destroying an American fleet.
Viper Pilot

A Memoir of Air Combat
Dan Hampton William Morrow
Covers flight training, overseas service, and the two Iraq wars. The author was a member of the "Wild Weasels", a USAF unit whose purpose is to attract and destroy ground-based anti-aircraft installations, a very hazardous occupation to say the least. He provides extremely detailed accounts of half a dozen missions. If you want to know how to avoid a SAM, or cluster bomb a ground target, this is it. His opinions on other subjects are less valuable.
My Stripes Were Earned in Hell

A French resistance fighter's memoir of survival in a Nazi prison camp
Jean-Pierre Renouard Rowman and Littlefield
Lurid title belies the calm descriptions of the horrors the author and others underwent in several camps, ending up with Bergen-Belsen. This short book (122 pages) is a series of short sketches of incidents and people, all told matter-of-factly, and often with unexpected conclusions. His own reactions are honestly stated, and not always flattering to himself. But who can say how they would react in such places until they are actually there?
A Higher Call

Adam Makos with Larry Alexander Berkley Caliber
A German fighter in WW2 does not shoot down a crippled American bomber, but instead escorts it through flak batteries and out to sea. Why? The book explores the backgrounds of the German ace, and to a lesser extent the American pilot and crew, to attempt to answer the question, but never really comes to grips with Franz Stigler's motivation. On this score the book is unsatisfying, but it is redeemed by the detailed descriptions of fighter and bomber operations (including the Me 262 jet), and Franz's personal story, pre- and post-war included.

David McCullough Simon and Schuster
George Washington and the Continental Army oppose William Howe and the British in 1776 from Boston to New York to Trenton. A very readable description of the campaign, concentrating on the American side, and focussing on Washington as commander and the decisions he made - and didn't make. The book is not a paean, as the Americans come in for sharp criticism and the successes of the British receive their merit. But it is a celebration of American "spirit and perseverance".

The Greatest Tank Duels in History
Steven J. Zaloga, Editor Osprey Publishing
An analysis of five tank engagements and the opposing machines. A surprisingly readable examination without sparing the technical details. The conflicts cover Kursk, Normandy, Korea, the Golan Heights, and Desert Storm. The strategic situation is lightly touched on; then we plunge into the various tank models' origins, specifications, and crew training. Finally, the operational details and outcome. Lessons are learned, especially it's not always the "best" tank (defined in terms of armour thickness, gunnery, and mobility) that wins. Other factors can enter such as training, leadership, and numbers.

A German Soldier's Memories of the Defense of Omaha Beach Normandy, June 6, 1944
Hein Severloh H.E.K. Creativ Verlag
Not just "A German Soldier", but perhaps the most famous, or infamous, German soldier of D-Day. Hein Severloh with his machine gun personally killed and wounded upwards of several thousand Americans attempting to land on Omaha beach. His dominating presence was almost accidental, but it turned out to be decisive in crippling the landing on Omaha for a substantial period. This first-person recounting gives his farming background, military experiences prior to D-Day, and then an extremely detailed account of that day. We see how his pivotal role gradually comes to light post-war, and how he deals with this recognition throughout the rest of his life. It is obvious that he has a large personality, is very out-going, and not afraid to speak his mind. But despite this being a tell-all unbaring of his actions and feelings, several obvious questions that jump to mind while reading his story are only lightly touched on, or not mentioned at all.
Where The Hell Have You Been?

Monty, Italy and One Man's Incredible Escape
Tom Carver Short Books
Tom Carver is the son of Richard Carver, step-son of Bernard Montgomery, victor of El Alamein in 1942. There are two interwoven threads to this story. Firstly, Dick Carver's capture in North Africa, his time as a POW in Italy, and his trek south to rejoin Monty after the Italian Armistice. And secondly, Tom Carver's coming to terms with his father's reticence not just to discuss his wartime experiences, but also his withdrawn and remote attitude to his own family and others. Uniting and resolving both these themes are the close, but long-ruptured, connections with the Italian family that sheltered Carver at his most critical time of need. As we are taken along on Tom Carver's voyage of discovery, the answers he is looking for are slowly revealed in one incident after another. On the way, we also get very personal glimpses into Montgomery's divisive character and what drove him.
Long Way Back To The River Kwai

Memories of World War II
Loet Velmans Arcade Publishing
Loet Velmans escaped from Holland as it was being invaded by Nazi Germany, only to be subsequently made a prisoner of war when the Japanese overran the Dutch East Indies. He ended up toiling on the Burma-Thailand railroad in company with tens of thousands of other Allied soldiers and civilians. He witnessed, and suffered, horrors, all of which are carefully detailed without mincing words. He authentically recreates his attitudes of the time - his naivete, his youthful optimism, suspicion of authority, and his ability to mix with all types. Throughout, he puzzles at the origins of the cruelty inflicted by the Japanese, a question he unexpectedly has to deal with post-war when he finds himself engaged in commercial relations with Japan and its business leaders over several decades.
Masters of the Battlefield

Great Commanders from the Classical Age to the Napoleonic Era
Paul K. Davis Oxford University Press
15 military leaders are examined with brief sketches of their lives, the geopolitical environment they lived in, the weapons and tactics of the period, their opponents, a few selected battles, and lastly a summation of the particular qualities that contributed to their "mastery of the battlefield". A good introduction to each career, and perhaps an appreciation of what makes a good general. There are many minor assets that can assist a leader (such as the ability to motivate ones troops and the example of personal courage). But it seems the two necessarily essential qualities are the ability to immediately size up the tactical situation coupled with a corresponding decisiveness of action.
Sun Tzu at Gettysburg

Ancient Military Wisdom in the Modern World
Bevin Alexander W.W. Norton & Company
An examination of 10 battles and campaigns through the perspective of the 2000 year old maxims of the Chinese military writer Sun Tzu. They include Saratoga, Waterloo, the Marne, Inchon, and of course the titular Gettysburg. Those who employed Sun Tzu's principles, and those who flouted them, come in for analysis. It's a different way of looking at these famous battles. And in that sense, it's almost as if the outcome is pre-ordained. Many commanders come in for harsh criticism, particularly Lee, who in addition to Gettysburg is also blamed for failure to take advantage of strategic opportunities in 1862. Sometimes the judgements appear to come too easily and ignore wider issues. But certainly the point is well made and holds even today: those who ignore Sun Tzu's basic truths do so at their peril.
A Spy at the Heart of the Third Reich

The Extraordinary Story of Fritz Kolbe, America's Most Important Spy in World War II
Lucas Delattre Atlantic Monthly Press
Fritz Kolbe was an employee of the German Foreign Ministry from 1925-45. In 1943, he began turning over cable traffic to Allen Dulles of the OSS in Bern, Switzerland. Some of the traffic was militarily very significant (location of V2 rocket factories and other strategic industrial plants, Japanese order of battle throughout the Far East, identification of German agents and operations). More of the traffic gave an insight into German diplomatic efforts with Axis partners and important neutrals (state of relations with Hungary and Rumania, tungsten shipments from Spain, efforts to induce Turkey not to join the Allies). It was an incredible coup for the Allies, and they mistrusted their good fortune for an excessive time. Kolbe also wrote valuable assessments of German morale and key players. At one point, he asked Dulles to have other Allied agents in Berlin contact him, not realizing that he was the only one they had. Despite the long passage of time since the events, the book is very detailed as to the trips made, the risks assumed, the debriefings, the nature of the information passed, and perhaps most interestingly the motives and personality of Fritz Kolbe. Given the quality of the information that landed in the laps of the Allies, the fact that he and his deeds are so little known, in comparison with other WW II spies such as Richard Sorge and Cicero, is surprising.
The Tunnel King

Barbara Hehner HarperTrophyCanada
Wally Floody was a Canadian Spitfire pilot who was shot down over France and ended up in the POW camp Stalag-Luft III. Utilizing his pre-war mining experience, he became one of the primary people helping to plan and build several escape tunnels, including the one featured in the movie "The Great Escape". Fortunately for him, he was removed from the camp before the breakout, as the Germans subsequently shot 50 of the 76 escapers. It's a short but interesting book, with pictures, illustrations, and map. Floody's pre- and post-war experiences are also related. He was technical adviser on the film.
The Unforgiving Minute

A Soldier's Education
Craig M. Mullaney The Penguin Press
Craig Mullaney goes to West Point, gains a Rhodes Scholarship, completes Ranger training, and leads a platoon in Afghanistan. He's a good story-teller with a lot of interesting detail and anecdotes. Everything is extensively analyzed, especially his personal reactions to the challenges and responsibilities he faces. An intense guy, but with a sense of humour.
Hunter Killer

Inside America's Unmanned Air War
Lt. Col. T. Mark McCurley with Kevin Maurer Dutton
USAF pilot volunteers for the the Predator program - an unpopular career move - becomes an expert and achieves his twin goals of participating in combat and commanding a squadron. It really is "inside" the Predator program. Missions are covered in great detail. All aspects are covered: ground operations and maintenance, takeoffs and handover, piloting, surveillance, targeting, shooting, and the after effects. But this is related not in textbook style, rather as personal experience. Many strikes that made headlines are told by one who was there.
LRRP Team Leader

It's a hell of a war that expects a man to lead his team into the jaws of death every day - and bring them back alive.
John Burford Ivy Books
John Burford served with the long-range reconnaissance patrol company of the 101st Airborne in Vietnam in 1968. His book covers his training, missions, and repatriation. In contrast to the lurid sub-title, this is a very matter-of-fact presentation. Goes into great detail about weapons, topography, the enemy, and his teammates and other subjects. Chapter 11 is especially good; it explains his every action on one mission, the micro-deployments of his men, and what the results were of each. One quibble: the device he has used to structure his book as a whole (questions and extended answers during a family visit) may have occurred in some form, but as presented here is not realistic and detracts from the material.
Between Silk and Cyanide

A Codemaker's War 1941-1945
Leo Marks The Free Press
Leo Marks oversaw the production of codes for the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) during the Second World War. He created codes, briefed agents, and navigated the bureaucratic politics of the group charged by Churchill with "setting Europe ablaze". This is probably the most enjoyable book I've read on codes and cryptography. For one thing, we don't normally get the story from the codemaker's side. For another, Marks is a master story-teller with a humourous turn of phrase, and apparently photographic recall. The detail is amazing. In addition we meet many famous agents of the time who have appeared in other accounts - such as "The White Rabbit" and Violet Szabo - but never before seen in this light. 600 never dull pages.
We Flew We Fell We Lived

Stories from RCAF Prisoners of War and Evaders
Philip LaGrandeur Vanwell Punblishing
The personal stories of RCAF flight crew who bailed out over occupied Europe and Germany during World War II. Focussed mainly on prison camp life, but also details of training, operations, escapes, end of war marches, and life after the war. Some were evaders, became associated with the maquis, and after capture ended up in concentraion camps rather than the regular POW system. Read it for the personal stories. The background information is welcome, but a bit repetitious and could have used a good editor. The many illustrations help to put us there, as far as that is possible.
The Great Leader And The Fighter Pilot

The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom
Blaine Harden Viking
Alternating biographies of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Kim dynasty, and No Kum Sok, a MiG pilot in the North Korean armed forces who defected shortly after the Korean war ended. No's background and experiences are very interesting. The quoting of cables between Mao, Stalin, and Kim during the lead-up to the Korean War reveals the machinations and vacillating stances of the communist dictators before the go-ahead was given. Attention is also given to the little-known carpet bombing of North Korean cities, which provided fodder for Kim's anti-American propaganda for decades to come.
Danger Close

My epic journey as a combat helicopter pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan
Amber Smith Atria Books
Amber Smith was one of three daughters of a military family who all joined the armed forces as pilots. She details her experience from training to deployment and return Stateside. We get very specific insight into the qualifications required to become an accomplished combat helicopter pilot and survive the training. She portrays the dynamics of the two man crew, the two helicopter attack unit, and the troop as a whole. Permeating throughout are the special challenges she faced as a rare female combat pilot in a heretofore strictly man's world.
A History of War in 100 Battles

Richard Overy Oxford University Press
Gives brief accounts of land, sea, and air battles spanning history and place. Battle survey books are common. This one aims a little higher than normal by grouping them thematically (leadership, deception, etc.) with introductory essays. The battle themselves are described in 2-4 pages and serve to draw out a particular point related to the theme.
The Castaway's War

One Man's Battle Against Imperial Japan
Stephen Harding Da Capo Press
The story of Hugh Barr Miller, who, after his destroyer was sunk in the Solomon Islands in 1943, recovered from his wounds sufficiently to carry out a one-man campaign against the Japanese forces occupying Arundel Island. His actions were extraordinary, well beyond what was necessary to simply survive in an exceedingly dangerous situation. So much so that it appeared in several magazine accounts, a TV show, and almost a movie with John Wayne. This is a very well-researched book, with notes on even the most obscure points.
The Operator

Firing the shots that killed Osama Bin Laden and my years as a SEAL team warrior
Robert O'Neill Scribner
90% of the book relates his childhood, SEAL training, and deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only the final pages tell the story of the bin Laden mission - which is fitting since it is emphasized over and over by superiors and the team that this mission did not differ very much from what they had done many times before; it just had a bigger audience and larger ramifications. You get an excellent idea of what it takes to be a SEAL (you can't make a SEAL, you have to unlock those qualities you already have within you to be one). And you get a very good picture of the missions, the team members, and behind the scenes details, all written in an easy, but reflective, style.
I Am Soldier

War stories, from the ancient world to the 20th century
editor Robert O'Neill Osprey publishing
40-50 short (3-4 pages each) bios of participants in warfare, from boy soldiers to generals, covering ancient to modern times. Many are based on the soldiers' own journals or writings; others on historical accounts; and a very few on a composite made-up figure. Just interesting accounts of personal experiences of war. No over-arching theme or revelations.

The long-lost memoir of Canada's artillery commander in the Great War
Major-General Sir Edward Morrison, edited by Susan Raby-Dunne Heritage House
Morrison's memoir provides an intimate, detailed, and unvarnished look at Canada's participation in WWI, with especial, but not exclusive, emphasis on the problems and accomplishments associated with the artillery branch. Each battle is covered from preparations to action to aftermath. He is always fiercely proud of the Canadian soldier's fighting abilities, and of the Canadian Corps' tactical independence and unity. Before, it was easy to think of the artillery as some amorphous blob of slaughtering power. Through Morrison, we can see its limitations, but also how a smart plan can greatly reduce casualties in an assault (well, for the attacker at least). And incidentally discover through the brief biographical footnotes that the picture of generals sitting in safe headquarters far behind the lines was not exactly correct, as a great many were killed during the war. Morrison himself details several narrow escapes during his reconnoitring of front-line positions. If I could make one criticism, it is that his picture of the ever gung-ho private soldier is perhaps painted a little too rosily, as seen from his lofty rank.
An Army at Dawn

The War in North Africa, 1942-1943
Rick Atkinson Henry Holt and Company
The first book in a three volume look at the U.S. involvement in the war against Germany in WW2. This one is concerned with Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa in Fall 1942, and the subsequent campaign ending in may 1943 in Tunisia. The focus is on ground operations, primarily American. As the title suggests, the U.S. army is in its beginnings, trying to translate a civilian army into an effective fighting force. Many mistakes of command and tactics are made costing lives. Distrust and arrogance between the English and Americans leads to many botched attacks. The author has the disadvantage of writing long after most surviving participants are long dead, but manages to give a real sense of place and conditions through letters, diaries, and having spent a lot of time walking the ground. He is not stinting in his criticism, but still recognizes where growth has taken place.
Two Generals

Scott Chantler McClelland&Stewart
It's a deceptive title since the book is actually about two lieutenants in the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, who referred to themselves in that tongue-in-cheek way. The principal figure is Law Chantler, the author's grandfather; the other - Jack Chrysler. They join up soon after the start of WWII, and the book follows them through training and the Normandy landing up to the battle of Brunon, July 8, 1944. The HLI suffered close to 50% casualties, but took the town opening the way to Caen. This is a graphic novel, done in a stark style, but obviously loving detail. There are the horrors of war but also a contemplative musing on life and friendship.

Last revised: 2020.01.07                                       Send me a comment                                       home