Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larsen; narrated by Scott Brick
When the Lusitania steamed into the waters off Britain in 1915, everyone on board knew the Germans had threatened the ship. But the convergence of politics, military action, timing, and fate made the attack on the ship a startling and gripping event, one that would draw the United States into war–albeit a full two years later. A few thoughts:
Erik Larsen weaves his usual trick here, building the narrative from three primary tracks — the people aboard the ship, the people aboard the U-Boat, and the British government, The resulting network of elements and ideas works very well, creating an intense, moving story.
Larson rather nonchalantly shares the fact that the Lusitania was carrying thousands of rounds of rifle ammunition and some other key munitions components. Apparently, this wasn’t a violation of neutrality. He doesn’t even touch on the common ideas of “conspiracy” that the Lusitania was carrying huge stockpiles of weapons.
The sinking scenes in the book are among the most harrowing sea tales I’ve read. All those Titanic films I’ve seen gave me lots of visual imagery to accompany the tale Larsen tells. Of course, his accounts of what happened are all based on accounts from survivors of the wreck. Amazing.
There’s plenty of blame for the sinking to go around — particularly for the British government, which knew about the u-boat and let the Lusitania sail blithely on anyway. Larsen doesn’t come out and say it, but he strongly implies that certain forces in the Admiralty saw the sinking of the Lusitania as a way to draw the U.S. in to help the British cause. And it turned out to be.
Overall, an excellent book. On par with In the the Garden of the Beast. The audio book was narrated by my favorite golden-voiced reader, the incomparable Scott Brick. He’s the best.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
by Erik Larson
Months and months ago, I started In the Garden of Beasts and while it was good, the slow ramp up to the intense story didn’t quite grip me. I stopped about sixty pages in, just, as it turns out, before it gets really good. Writing about Hitler and Germany in the run-up to World War 2 isn’t easy, I suppose. It’s a subject that’s been covered widely, and with skill. But Larson’s angle–the travails of the inexperienced US Ambassador to Germany during the early 1930s–works well. The story of Ambassador Dodd and his family navigating the icy waters of pre-war Berlin is gripping and frightening, and helps explain old stories in a new light. A few thoughts:
The excellent second story that Larson finds here is the tale of Dodd’s adult daughter, Martha, a divorcee who was briefly the toast of the town and enjoyed liaisons with many men, both foreigners in Berlin and Germans herself. Reading about her shift from admiring to fearing the Nazi regime is strong.
Dodd, we now know, was one of the few people in the American administration who really knew what was what. While his competitors in the Diplomatic corps were focused on lavish parties and status, Dodd saw the evil and senselessness in the Nazi regime from the beginning.
Hitler himself only makes a couple appearances, but they’re stunning. As a haunting figure hulking over the entire story, he shows up once in Martha’s story at a cafe, and in two meetings with Ambassador Dodd. Otherwise, we only learn about him in the larger moments of action described outside of the Dodds’ direct experience.
I haven’t studied the pre-war Nazis very closely, so I was unaware of how fractious their early reign was. Part of the reason so many people dismissed the Nazis early on is that there was so much inner suspicion and in-fighting that outsiders had trouble believing Hitler would stay in power. The sketches of diplomats in Berlin depict people waiting for Hitler to fall so they can deal with a more rational successor.
I was also unaware of the nature of the “Night of Long Knives,” in which Hitler and Goebbels used a supposed coup conspiracy to solidify power by killing, well, most of their adversaries. Larson explains that the official tally of those killed without trial (or even arrest, really) was probably in the hundreds, but the government officially acknowledged 77.
As always, Larson’s book is a winner. The impending doom of the historical fact hangs over the book from the beginning, but the run up is still a bit slow for all that. Worth a read, certainly.
Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper
written and narrated by Geoffrey Gray
Gray starts the tale of famed plane hijacker D.B. Cooper with his own introduction to the tale — a visit from a private-eye friend who wanted to pitch a story. What follows is a three-year odyssey into one of the modern rabbit holes, a chasm of mystery littered with half-baked theories, impostors, and secrets. Gray does a nice job chronicling his own trip into the Cooper mythos, chasing leads, and learning all about the people who might have been the “Robin Hood of the skies.” A few thoughts:
At the beginning of the tale, I was a little irritated by the way Gray inserted himself into the story — it seemed to get in the way of what could have otherwise been a very interesting tale to tell. But as the book wore on, it became clear this was a good choice, since so much about the aftermath of the Cooper case is about the personalities involved in the investigation and theories. Without the centering presence of his own narrative, it would have been hard to digest.
I like Gray’s method of introducing several different leading suspects during the early stages of the book — this helps keep the reader guessing. Otherwise, Gray’s early leading candidate (the subject of his 2007 article) would have made the story too narrow. Alas, in the audio book, it was difficult to keep track of the separate threads without better section titles. The dates all run together in the audio version.
The later part of the book, which focuses on the diverse (and kinda loony) bunch of people who obsess over the case satisfies in a different way than the detailed story of the hijacking itself did. I especially like the part toward the end where people are suddenly unwilling to share ideas with Gray as they worry about being ‘scooped’ from the book they are working on. (In looking at Wikipedia, I see that at least one of them did write their own book, and published it before Gray finished his.)
Overall, an interesting, detailed account of the current state of the D.B. Cooper case.
Image from page 226 of “The Ninth New York heavy artillery. A history of its organization, services in the defenses of Washington, marches, camps, battles, and muster-out … and a complete roster of the regiment” (1899)
This image was right next to the narrative about the company’s activities on November 5th, 1864, which included no reference to a guy dropping a box of bees. The company was on patrol at that time, and would, in a few days, help re-elect Abraham Lincoln: “The momentous presidential election of 1864 came on the 8th of November, just as late as possible, and it is not improbable that the movement of the Ninth was delayed till after the voting was done. Our men gave Lincoln a large vote, as might have been expected.”
The images on this chapter are from Hard Tack and Coffee, 1897, and were used with permission.
Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis; narrated by Dylan Baker
Flash Boys is two books at once. First, it’s a fascinating tale about a few different innovators working in the financial markets. These men spotted an opportunity to create a better wall street, to fix a problem that the market would, hopefully, reward them for. Second, it’s another reminder that the primary motivator on Wall Street is for the people who work on Wall Street to make money, and that the money invested there by the rest of us is just a prop they use to do so. In case you didn’t learn that lesson from The Big Short.
A brief precis: Lewis tells the story of High Frequency Trading (HFT) through a few stories about people fighting to undermine it. Essentially, HFT is a market trading style that uses the inherent latency in the space between the different stock exchanges to make money. Here’s an example of the most basic way this happens: Say you want to buy 100,000 shares of Apple. Your broker goes to the first exchange and finds 10,000 shares on offer, including 100 shares being sold by a HFT. After you buy up the 10,000 shares there, your broker’s pokey computer sends a request to the rest of the stock exchanges looking for the other 90,000 shares. In the 1/3 – 1/2 of a second it takes for your order to move through the market, HFT computers have rushed ahead and bought up all the shares, and are now selling them for a tiny fraction more (say, 1 penny per share). You buy the shares from them, and they’ve just made money off their speed advantage in the market, without adding any value to the exchange. Now multiply that by every trade made on every stock market in the US, and you can see how they’re making billions of dollars, basically by cutting in line where most people don’t know there’s a line to cut in.
A few thoughts:
The first lesson Lewis teaches us in the story of this burgeoning force fighting against High-Frequency Traders is that regulation usually only solved the problem it’s meant to. But it almost always creates new loopholes through which different ways to cheat can be exploited. And since the incentives on Wall Street are so massive, someone will always exploit said loopholes.
The second lesson is a reminder that banks are there to make money, not to serve the good of the market or even of their own clients. The level to which the banks and the exchanges have altered how they do things to make it easier for the HFTs is appalling.
The book has some hope, though, unlike The Big Short, which just feels depressing. The new exchange being created throughout the book (which opened this year) seems like it has the potential to change things as the clients, the investors who’re paying a speed tax to HFTs, notice what’s going on.
Once again, Lewis does a fantastic job telling a complex tale in a gripping way. Dylan Baker’s performance is quite strong, and adds great nuance to the tale. Highly recommended read.
We proposed it in the US after Canada already had it, but in a stroke of efficiency, we dropped the superfluous ‘u’ from Labour.
Because Labor Day has become a major sale day, “some of those who are employed in the retail sector not only work on Labor Day, but work longer hours.” The article also laments that most of those folks aren’t in unions.
It’s also the last day to wear white without looking like a no-class shitheel. So get out those white pants today.
Happy Labor Day to all of you, dear readers. Take some time to relax before the September Hammer of school and work and life slams down. Enjoy it.
As you can tell from the cover and the title, Pauls and Solomon ask “What would happen if there had been zombies on the Titanic?” Then they answer that question. The novel is a straight-forward, well-written adventure tale without much depth, but quite enjoyable anyhow. A few thoughts:
Pauls and Solomon construct a reasonably good premise that gets the zombies onto the ship and resolves well enough. It seems a little on the nose to use Germans, since Nazi zombies are a pretty standard trope, but the age of chemical and biological warfare was upon us, so the timeline for a noxious disease and espionage works well.
I don’t know a lot about the history of E. J. Smith, but it looks like the military experience the authors give him is not part of his actual life. It’s too bad they couldn’t either a) find someone with real military experience to hang the story on or b) concoct a military experience that more closely matches his real life.
The zombies in the story are pretty well described, with lots of gooey gore and a standard mix of slow-zombie traits. The novel doesn’t clearly explain how/whether those killed by zombies reanimate, or if it’s only those infected with the disease who do. The use of disease as a vector worked well and made the story flow smoothly.
The authors do a pretty good job of describing the ship in detail. As a bit of a Titaniac myself, I was worried that my knowledge of the ship’s particulars would get in the way of the tale, but the authors did a great job with this aspect. They work many keystone touches of the Titanic story into the tale, including the flooded mailroom, the telegraph operators, and many others. They hang most of the blame for the incident squarely on J. Bruce Ismay’s shoulders.
My one complaint about this would be that the bow and the stern seemed to be confused at one point, and that the reconstructions I’ve seen about the ship breaking in half (including James Cameron’s movie) make the way that part is described in the book a little hard to believe.
A note on ethics: I’m a bit conflicted about this idea — the adding of zombies into real-world events. It’s worth asking whether there’s any harm in this kind of fictional historical silliness.
All in all, Deck Z tells a pretty conventional zombie story that clearly springs from its premise. The quick narrative and tight writing work well, and the tale fits most of the signposts one would expect in a story about the most famous ship disaster in recent history. While the zombie tale itself isn’t that innovative, it’s definitely worth a read if you, like me, are in the intersection on a venn diagram of Titanic enthusiasts and Zombie enthusiasts.
I don’t usually read high literature. I gravitate toward genre fiction (duh) if left to my own devices, and it’s only through the patient prodding of my literary colleagues and my father in law (who reads tons) that I occasionally pick up a book that will challenge my soul or something. Anyway, The Joke is one of those.
Kundera’s novel turns on a young man’s goofy prank — he has a friend who takes everything too seriously, so he winds her up by saying outrageous things and watching her sputter. Alas, he sends one of his pranks on a post card through the mail. Oh yeah, he lives in Communist Czechoslovakia, so his joke gets him tossed out of college and relegated to the Black Brigade, a work platoon for dissenters and suspicious people. His life spirals downward from there. A few thoughts:
Kundera’s careful crafting of characters works well here, as we receive the story of the joke and its ramifications from many folks, each with their own take on the situation and their own misery.
I can see why this book has not been received kindly by the Party — it reveals the crushing nature of Communism and the attendant political suspicion that comes with it. Other novels taking place in Communist countries travel this path as well (examples: Child 44, The Mao Case, The Skull Mantra, The Coroner’s Lunch). Of particular note was the way “folk music” became emblematic of authentic “people’s” art, and was thus co-opted by the State and altered until it was no longer folk art but propaganda and all the joy drained from it.
I love Kundera’s cranky note about the English lanugage editions of the book (the version I read was the 6th, and promised to be the last as he’d checked it himself, line-by-line).
It was fun to read this book during our travels to Europe — seeing Prague while reading about Prague made for a great trip. (I’ll always remember the pleasant rocking of the night train as I lay in my bunk reading
and listening to the shush of the countryside whisking past the open window, punctuated by the occasional roar of a passing train.)
At its heart, The Joke reminds us that our lives touch our peers intimately, and that simple acts on our part have a huge effect on them.
At one point in the novel, Kundera introduces a painter who loves painting naked ladies. The character, a prisoner in the work camp, paints murals throughout the camp depicting women he’s slept with or imagined, and hides his prurience in elaborate discussions of symbolic embodiment — this woman represents the Czech people, that one the spirit of Communism, and so on. Kundera reveals both the lie in the interpretation, the fact that the prisoner just likes painting naked ladies, and the amusing weirdness with art criticism. I read about this character the day before we visited the Kutna Hora Ossuary, a church where the bones of medieval villagers had been used to craft horrifying (and fascinating) decorations. There were pamphlets about how these sculptures were created to celebrate God and so on. I couldn’t help but wonder if the main sculptor (a priest from the 1870s) was just making excuses because he liked to play with bones.
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America
by Bill Bryson
The Lost Continent is one of Bryson’s earlier (or earliest?) travel books, written in the late 1980s by an American ex-pat who returned from Britain to tour around America for two months, driving on back roads and staying in small towns. The book brims with tight descriptions of small towns, amusing anecdotes of experiences therein, and a sharp wit that sometimes veers too far toward cruel. A few thoughts:
The book gives plenty of space to memoir writing, amusing and honorable recollections of road trips taken by Bryson’s family when he was a child. The nostalgia runs deep in these sections, even as he’s lovingly scathing of his father’s penury and tendency to get lost. These sections feel like a Jean Shepard novel.
Bryson’s descriptions of the locals living in these small towns leans too heavily toward vicious. As much as he likes the hamlets located on deep byways and backwaters, he doesn’t show much kindness or empathy for the people who live there. He’s particularly mean about the obese, a word he uses as an insult throughout, and often follows with an implied or overt stupid. It’s the book’s biggest failing, and something he tempers in his later books.
But he also tells admirable stories about some of the people he encounters, and admires many of the small towns with a zest that makes you as ambiguous about the vast U.S. as he is.
And Bryson turns the scalpel on himself quite willingly, writing in a self-deprecating way that undoes some of the viciousness he points at others.
Having recently read Made in America, I can see many of the interests in Bryson’s travel writing that will later show up in his histories. In particular, the discussion of the Burma Shave signs echoed nicely in that later book.
We read this book while we were driving across the country on our 4357 mile road trip, and it fit quite nicely. If you can ignore the insulting way Bryson writes about some of the people in the towns he encounters, you’ll find this gem of his early writing quite enjoyable. If you haven’t read any of his travel books, though, I recommend In A Sunburned Country and A Walk in the Woods much more highly.
Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States by Bill Bryson
Bryson’s book is a compendium of facts and ideas about the English language as it developed in the United States, as viewed through lenses ground out of topics from every corner of American culture. In some ways, it reads like a cast-off from some previous books, as if he took the bulk of the extra notes from The Mother Tongue and dropped in the historical notes he uncovered in writing his travel books about America.
It’s an enjoyable read, though one best interspersed with other books exploring a variety of topics. If it’s your only book, it may get a bit too list-y for you. A few thoughts:
The section about advertising language was my favorite, as Bryson winnowed from the vault of commercial print in America many fine and amusing turns of phrase.
The book’s military and presidential history is quite thorough – in some ways this will stick with me better than will many of the language bits I picked up.
As with many of his non-travel books, Bryson’s trademark humor was not as strong in the book. He still had a few amusing asides, but I don’t think I ever laughed out loud while reading this one.
I was particularly amused by the early etymological sections that traced many phrases used only in America to British roots, then detailed how the Brits liked to think us uncouth for using them. Snobby Brits.
I was reminded throughout the book of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, which features a long section in America during which the Americans are depicted most viciously and are proud of those attributes given them by the author. In particular, I was reminded of the American habit of eating meat with a knife, the fork being a rather late addition to the American table with the consequence that we hold our forks in our left hands when cutting and then transfer them to the right, something apparently absent from European habits.
Overall, it’s an entertaining book, but a bit too long for continuous reading, and not something you should dive right into if you’ve recently read The Mother Tongue or THAT OTHER BOOK.
Bryson’s book is a compendium of facts and ideas about the English language as it developed in the United States, as viewed through lenses ground out of topics from every corner of American culture.In some ways, it reads like a cast-off from some previous books, as if he took the bulk of the extra notes from The Mother Tongue and dropped in the historical notes he uncovered in writing his travel books about America.
It’s an entertaining read, though one best interspersed with other books exploring a variety of topics.If it’s your only book, it may get a bit too list-y for you.A few thoughts:
·The section about advertising language was my favorite, as Bryson winnowed from the vault of commercial print in America many fine and amusing turns of phrase.
·The book’s military and presidential history is quite thorough – in some ways this will stick with me better than will many of the language bits I picked up.
·As with many of his non-travel books, Bryson’s trademark humor was not as strong in the book.He still had a few amusing asides, but I don’t think I ever laughed out loud while reading this one.
·I was particularly amused by the early etymological sections that traced many phrases used only in America to British roots, then detailed how the Brits liked to think us uncouth for using them.Snobby Brits.
·I was reminded throughout the book of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, which features a long section in America during which the Americans are depicted most viciously and are proud of those attributes given them by the author.In particular, I was reminded of the American habit of eating meat with a knife, the fork being a rather late addition to the American table with the consequence that we hold our forks in our left hands when cutting and then transfer them to the right, something apparently absent from European habits.
Overall, it’s an entertaining book, but a bit too long for continuous reading, and not something you should dive right into if you’ve recently read The Mother Tongue or THAT OTHER BOOK.
Years ago I saw the Discovery channel (or was it SyFy?) movie Super Volcano and added a fear of a massive North American purge in the wake of a Yellowstone eruption to my worry-list. I read Simon Winchester’s Crack at the Edge of the World about the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed San Francisco and learned that there is a large fault–mostly dormant–in southern Illinois that could certainly send an earthquake toward Chicago, where none of our buildings are built with earthquakes in mind.
It’s happened again: Solar flares.
Randall Munroe’s latest What If knocks it out of the park with the most-common of physics questions, “what would happen if the sun suddenly went out?” Among his answers — our children and fighter pilots would be safer. Most of them are funny. But this one is downright terrifying, to my mind:
Reduced risk of solar flares: In 1859, a massive solar flare and geomagnetic storm hit the Earth. Magnetic storms induce electric currents in wires. Unfortunately for us, by 1859 we had wrapped the Earth in telegraph wires. The storm caused powerful currents in those wires, knocking out communications and in some cases causing telegraph equipment to catch fire.
Since 1859, we’ve wrapped the Earth in a lot more wires. If the 1859 storm hit us today, the Department of Homeland Security estimates the economic damage to the US alone would be several trillion dollars—more than every hurricane which has ever hit the US combined. If the Sun went out, this threat would be eliminated.
Improved satellite service: When a communications satellite passes in front of the Sun, the Sun can drown out the satellite’s radio signal, causing an interruption in service. Deactivating the Sun would solve this problem. (“Sunless Earth“)
In case the prospect of a massive electrical surge that destroys everything with wires in it doesn’t frighten you, the photo above was taken by the Hubble space telescope of a distant star where the solar flare was so massive that if it had come from our sun, it would have extinguished life on Earth. But our sun is stable and doesn’t do that, NASA says.
It’s a little disconcerting how close Ronson gets to very scary people in this book. But his point, I think, is that even the very scary people are just people. Them details Ronson’s journey into the late 1990s and early 2000s subculture of conspiracy theorists, people who believe shadowy cabals of the ultra-rich control the world, and make decisions about the world-controlling process at a secret meeting each winter in a hotel and at a second yearly meeting, a satanic ritual in California. A few details:
Ronson does a very good job of making the terrifying people depicted in his book look more like hapless buffoons that terrorists. He also highlights how the people on the extreme left of the system are also bonkers.
I admire both his persistence and his bravery, to visit places and people who have, in some cases, set themselves up against everything he represents or stands for (or is, in the case of the Anti-Semitic KKK).
The blood drinking lizard chapter, about famous crackpot David Icke, is particularly compelling. Ronson follows Icke when he comes to Toronto to speak about the fact that the world’s leaders are actually seven foot tall blood drinking lizards. The local Jewish Anti-defamation League orchestrates a shut-down of his talks before learning that his talk of lizards isn’t code for anti-Semitic thought, but actually a fear of giant lizards.
I love Ronson’s self-deprecating writing style. If nothing else, reading the book is worth it for the nervous self-terror that emerges as he wrestles with tricky situations, like “should I try on the KKK hood or not?” — he does.
The best part is that he does find a secret cabal of ultra-rich movers and shakers who meet twice a year. They DO have policy discussions and have a ceremony in front of a giant owl. The Bilderburg group does, as Ronson lays it out, seem to have a lot of power (at least in terms of their ability to draw together people who will later become important. But it also functions like a rich old person’s frat party.
For much of the book, I couldn’t help but think of So I Married an Axe Murderer and Charlie’s nutty father. So I’ll leave you with that. All in all, Them, is a compelling, striking read with complicated emotional layers and a strong vein of humor.
Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre, narrated by John Lee
Ben Macintyre has a strong sense for storytelling, crafting a tale full of vital details that bring it to life while providing the reader a strong sense of the history involved in his tale. This book, Operation Mincemeat, tells the true story of a secret British operation to dupe the Nazis by dropping a corpse carrying fake secret documents in the water off the coast of Spain in efforts to mislead the German hierarchy. A few quick thoughts:
This book gives a better sense than any I’ve read previously about just how the intelligence service worked in Britain during the war. This reflects, no doubt, on the paucity of reading I have done on the subject. But Macintyre threads the needle by providing just the right amount of information to keep us interested without overwhelming us.
The level of detail and the complicated machinations of both sides in the espionage service was quite thrilling. These tales were made even more exciting by Macintyre’s solid storytelling, making real effort to give us a sense of the people involved in this plan.
That said, the biggest flaw for me was the life stories of the principles. Whenever the book took a detour from the expanding narrative of the plan in order to give us the someone’s background, I found myself grumbling. I’m not sure how Macintyre could have handled these parts differently and I think they belong in the book, but I was still eager to learn how things turned out and found the biographies to be more detailed than I needed.
Narrator John Lee does an excellent job bringing his refined English voice to the tale’s telling. In particular, Lee is very good at pronouncing Italian and Spanish names, something I learned the first time I encountered him during my “reading” of Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling.
Operation Mincemeat is well worth the read, very entertaining and thrilling, but with a solid core of history, both new and familiar.